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Man's life offers little to hint at explosion of violence

By Fredrick Kunkle and Josh White
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, January 25, 2010; B01

APPOMATTOX, VA. -- Christopher B. Speight lived in two starkly different worlds.

Court papers indicate that he was quietly preparing for a violent siege. He stockpiled firearms, hand grenades, pipe bombs, ammunition, body armor and paramilitary gear such as night-vision goggles and Vietnam-era Claymore mine components. He spent hours firing semiautomatic rifles on a 200-yard range behind his place on Snapps Mill Road. He cached food, provisions and sleeping bags. He booby-trapped the house and the woods around it with explosives.

Outwardly, however, Speight showed few signs that anything was terribly wrong. He never married and kept mostly to himself, but he was usually cheerful and calm around other people. He was quick to lend a hand and proved to be a reliable security guard at businesses for Old Dominion Security. With co-workers who drew him out, he spoke of his faith and attendance at a Jehovah's Witness Kingdom Hall in Rustburg, his reluctance to settle down with any woman and a passion for firearms that began when he was a boy.

His mother's death in 2006 from brain cancer had plunged him into despair for a time, but it also made him closer to his sister and her husband, who returned from Georgia last year to live with him. To many who knew him, he seemed like an ordinary person whose troubles appeared no worse than anyone else's.

The enormous divide between the man people thought they knew and the one who saw dark plots on all sides was never obvious until Tuesday. Sometime before noon, authorities say, Speight exploded in violence, killing eight people with a high-powered rifle, firing shots when a sheriff's deputy and EMT arrived at the home after a body was reported there, and shooting a Virginia State Police helicopter from the sky. The 19-hour rampage came to a close after a damp, all-night standoff in the woods near his home when Speight, unarmed and wearing a bulletproof vest, peacefully surrendered to police.

The dead included the people in his life who were closest to him: his sister, Lauralee Dobyns Sipe, 37; her husband, Dwayne S. Sipe, 38, who went by his middle name, Shannon, with close friends and family members; and his sister's 15-year-old daughter, Morgan Leigh Dobyns, and 4-year-old son, Joshua T. Sipe. Authorities say Speight also killed four acquaintances: Ronald "Bo" Scruggs II, 16, and Emily A. Quarles, 15, both friends of Morgan's; and Jonathan L. and Karen Quarles, both 43, Emily's parents.

Four victims were found inside Speight's house, and three others as if shot while sitting in a car or immediately outside it. Law enforcement sources said Jonathan Quarles had been able to reach the road, despite being shot in the torso, and lay face down, fighting for life, when passersby found him.

Speight, who has been charged with murder, is in custody without bail at the Blue Ridge Regional Jail Authority in Lynchburg. On Friday, investigators filed court documents cataloguing firearms, explosives and other items seized from Speight's home, including a Colt AR-15 assault rifle, a BFI Bushmaster assault rifle, two Chinese-made Norinco semiautomatic rifles and other military arms.

Soul mates

People are trying to make sense of a killing rampage that defies understanding. The people Speight is charged with murdering were trying to help him, yet he thought they would bring him harm. He'd gone his whole life proud of avoiding violence to resolve disputes.

Speight's uncle, Thomas Giglio, 61, of South Boston, Va., said no one in the family ever hinted that tensions were brewing inside the neatly kept, two-story brown house behind the split rail fence. Giglio said Lauralee was looking out for her elder brother's best interests, and Sipe, a Navy veteran and successful entrepreneur, treated him like his brother. Giglio said Speight, who suffered from a serious learning disability and bouts of severe depression tied to his mother's death, seemed to be getting on with his life just fine.

"I looked at Chris and Dwayne and I thought, 'This is really great. He's got a soul mate,' " Giglio said. "Those were the people who loved Christopher, who helped Christopher, who protected Christopher, who looked after him. I don't know how it got twisted."

In dozens of interviews with co-workers, friends, associates and members of law enforcement, a darker portrait has emerged of Speight as a deeply troubled man whose demons were kept so firmly in check that people who had known him for years now feel as if they might not have known him at all.

Only in the past six months did he seem as if he were brooding, said David Anderson, 54, who owns the Sunshine Market No. II in Lynchburg, where Speight worked as a security guard. Speight, who had once told another co-worker that he feared the government could someday take his property, fretted that his sister and brother-in-law were trying to cut him out of his inheritance and dispossess him of the property that Speight and his sister had gotten from their mother, Anderson and others said.

What Speight apparently did not understand, however, is that his sister and brother-in-law were not trying to take the 34 acres. To the contrary, his sister was carrying out complicated legal steps to make sure the property would be conveyed to him as intended, along with three other income-producing properties in Tidewater worth almost $490,000, said Henry C. "Hal" Devening, an attorney who handled the family's affairs.

On the Thursday before the shootings, his sister visited Devening's offices, her 4-year-old in tow, to pick up the legal papers that would grant her brother legal ownership of the land.

"The only thing that I can possibly put together is that when he learned that Lauralee was coming in here to me to get documents, that he somehow concluded that the purpose of those documents was to cut him out -- when in fact the opposite was true," Devening said.

Struggles in school

Speight was born in Norfolk in March 1970. His sister was born in Halifax, Va., two years later. Their family lived for a time on a farm in Centerburg, Ohio, and later returned to central Virginia, where he grew up hunting and working on neighbors' farms.

After his parents' divorce in 1977, his father, Peter B. Speight, cut off all contact with his family, Giglio said. Speight was close with his mother, Susan G. Gramelt, who was a teacher in the Appomattox County schools, and with his grandparents, John and Violet Giglio.

Frances Gilliam, who lived above the Speights' apartment in 1988, described them as "close-knit."

"I never saw them arguing or heard them, and we could have heard that," Gilliam said. By then, Speight, who received his first hunting license in Ohio at age 12, already showed a strong interest in collecting and shooting guns, Gilliam said.

Speight struggled in school, owing to what Devening said was a serious learning disability that made reading difficult and led school officials to put him in a special education program. Speight graduated in 1988 from Rustburg High School; he had moved there partway through his senior year after attending Halifax County High School.

After graduation, Speight worked as a busboy and bartender's assistant at Charley's, a restaurant at the River Ridge Mall in Lynchburg. Robert K. Pearson Jr., the restaurant's owner, said Speight impressed him as polite and hardworking.

"He was always 'Yes, sir,' 'Yes, ma'am' to me and my wife," Pearson said. When his staff was trying to figure out how to get rid of some party balloons stuck on the restaurant's 30-foot high ceiling, Speight brought in his BB gun and shot them down, Pearson said. Pearson also supplied a letter of recommendation when Speight applied for his first concealed-weapon permit in 1995.

"I am a dependable, hardworking person, not quick to anger, and find ways to get out of problems without using force or violence," Speight wrote in support of his application to carry a .45-caliber Smith & Wesson semiautomatic.

Speight's license was renewed in 1997, 1999, 2004 and 2009. Background checks turned up no violations, and each renewal required Speight to swear that he had not received mental health treatment in the previous five years.

But friends and co-workers said the death of Speight's mother sent him into a prolonged period of mourning. He moved to Marietta, Ga., to stay with his sister and brother-in-law for about a year and suffered what Devening said were "mental issues" that required treatment. Family members said Speight disappeared for several days until Sipe tracked him down at a motel.

"It appears he did have a breakdown in 2007," one of Sipe's brothers, Bobby New of Manassas, said Sunday. "My brother was close to him and took him under his wing."

A man apart

About the time Speight's mother became ill, Devening met with the family to draw up legal documents that placed the Snapps Mill Road property, along with the three Tidewater properties, into a private family trust for Speight and his sister.

"It was all going to Chris," Devening said.

After returning to Virginia, Speight confided to Anderson that he had experienced "zinging in his ears" and other problems that forced him to consult a psychiatrist, but he told Anderson that he did not receive medication and that the symptoms receded on their own. Resuming work as a security guard, Speight told Anderson and others that he spent a lot of time attending services at the Kingdom Hall.

"He said he had a calling with the church," said Clarence "Scooter" Reynolds, 39, recalling a conversation that began about women. "He just said he wasn't interested in having a relationship with a woman. He was going the church way."

Yet members of the Kingdom Hall seldom saw him and said Speight was never baptized in the faith, Elder Richard Taylor said.

Speight's neighbors also did not see much of him. But most knew at least one thing about Speight: He had firearms, and he liked to shoot. Almost every weekend, the red clay hills and ridges of scrub pine echoed with the sounds of gunfire, often rapid-fire shooting that suggested someone was using a semiautomatic.

"There ain't a whole lot for anyone around here to say," said Velma Johnson, 65, who lived just over the hill from Speight's property. "He just stayed to himself."

White reported from Washington. Staff writer Mary Pat Flaherty and researcher Lucy Shackelford contributed to this report.

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