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Web site grows out of fascination with Robert Wone killing

By Neely Tucker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 17, 2010; C01

Once upon a time, when people became fascinated with criminals or serial killers or sensational murder trials, they hung out at the courthouse all day, then they wrote books about it all.

The Lindbergh kidnapping, "The Crime of the Century," was in 1932, and people are still writing books about it. Truman Capote and "In Cold Blood" in the 1960s. Ann Rule and her tale of Ted Bundy, "The Stranger Beside Me," in the 1980s. Dominick Dunne? Made a career out of this sort of thing with Vanity Fair.

Now it's 2010, and we bring you a Web site called Who Murdered Robert Wone? (http://www.whomurderedrobertwone.com) -- a new-media instant encyclopedia of the ongoing investigation and prosecution (though not on murder charges) of the mysterious slaying of Wone, a Washington lawyer.

It's the slightly obsessive brainchild of Craig Brownstein, 52, vice president for media relations at the Edelman public relations firm; Doug Johnson, 45, a producer at Voice of America; Michael Kremin, 53, a digital-media consultant; and David Greer, 45, a speechwriter at the National Association of Realtors. Struck by the lack of coverage of the case in 2008, they set up the site as a simple blog and watched it balloon into an after-hours project so in-depth they are hiring an intern to help cover the trial.

"Every murder victim should have an indefatigable investigation into their case," Brownstein says. "Some murder cases get a lot of attention, and some don't. This one did not. We understood the magnitude of loss here, a life like Robert's, and were struck by the Rubik's Cube nature of the murder investigation itself. We decided to devote ourselves to bringing as much attention to the case as possible."

Wone, 32, the general counsel for Radio Free Asia, was apparently sexually assaulted and then stabbed to death within 90 minutes of arriving at a gay friend's house in the 1500 block of Swann Street NW near Dupont Circle in 2006. No one has been charged with his murder, but the three housemates who were present that night have been charged with covering up the crime.

With the trial set to begin Monday in D.C. Superior Court, the four friends who run the Web site -- all gay men who happened to live near the crime scene -- are preparing to go gavel-to-gavel with updates and analysis live on the blog and on Twitter, complete with RSS feeds. Posts might include movie scenes that play off a point in the proceedings (previous entries include clips from "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" and "Dr. Strangelove").

This goes on top of the more than 300 blog entries documenting developments in the investigation over the past 17 months, along with biographies of the victim, the defendants and the legal teams and links to nearly all the court documents and other media stories. They've bought ads to promote the site in local newspapers, hung "reward" posters in the neighborhood (urging tipsters to call police) and put up other posters in the U Street corridor with the heading "Trial of a Lifetime."

The site often takes a critical tone -- the defendants, the police and the attorneys are all fair game -- but it strives for journalistic objectivity, never presuming to answer its namesake question. (As with many news sites, the reader comments are a different story.) But it is a jazzy, familiar kind of reportage -- blog entries are often movie titles ("Blood Simple") and other pop-culture references ("Can You Hear Me Now?"). When the trial's start was pushed back by a judge's ruling in December, Brownstein filed an entry titled "Delay of Game," with a secondary headline of "Six Months and Half the Distance to the Goal." The illustration was a picture of a football referee throwing a penalty flag.

The site has drawn nearly a million page views from legal, gay and Capitol Hill sources, the creators say (they don't divulge overall traffic figures), and has hits from around the globe.

It has also drawn mixed reviews.

Brad Weinsheimer, chief of the Superior Court division of the U.S. attorney's office and the man ultimately overseeing the prosecution, likes it. "It's very impressive," he says. "The explanation of court hearings is not just largely accurate, but pretty incisive."

Bernard S. Grimm, one of the three defense attorneys, dismisses it as "salacious and vile and offensive."

(Wone's widow and family declined to comment through their attorney. They have contributed material to the site for memorials dedicated to Wone.)

Perhaps more important for media watchers, the effort provides far more extensive news coverage than any provided by newspapers, magazines or television -- all at no cost, by a staff that had no criminal justice experience. Equally important for skeptics: Though the site looks like a polished journalistic enterprise, there's no way to fire anyone for screwing up, and there's no way to call anyone to account for egregious errors or lapses.

"We're committed to being there every day, and news organizations can't make those kind of commitments anymore," Johnson says. "Is it a new kind of reporting? Yeah, I think so."

Kremin, the techie who created the site's layout, says it's a tiny part of a generational shift in crime reporting.

"Papers like The [Washington] Post and the [New York] Times, I have great respect for as being the voice of their communities," he says. "But the Web-centric, digital format is how life-changing stories are going to be told now."

* * *

The subject of fascination for the site's creators took place the night of Aug. 2, 2006, in the $1.2 million, three-story townhouse of Wone's friends.

According to police documents, Wone lived with his wife, Kathy, in Oakton and was heterosexual. Planning to work late downtown that night and return to work early the next day, he arranged to spend the night visiting an old college friend, Joseph Price, a lawyer who lived near Dupont Circle.

Price, 39, who often took a prominent role in gay activist causes, shared the Swann Street home with his partner, Victor Zaborsky, 44, a senior marketing manager with the Milk Processors Education Program. They shared a bedroom on the third floor. According to police, Price also had a "dominant-submissive sexual relationship" with Dylan Ward, 39, a massage therapist, who had a room on the second floor. (Police would later recover from Ward's bedroom racks, shackles, metal and leather collars" and dozens of other outre sex toys, many of which related to "inflicting pain on others for sexual gratification.") The three men described themselves as a "family," according to police.

Wone arrived about 10:30 p.m., according to statements the three men gave police. He had a glass of water in the kitchen with Price and Ward. Then everyone retired for the night -- Price to his room with Zaborsky, Ward to his room on the second floor, and Wone to the guest room, also on the second floor. He took a shower, the housemates said, and went to bed on the room's convertible sofa.

By the time Zaborsky called 911 and paramedics arrived at 11:49, Wone had been stabbed three times in the chest. There were no signs he resisted, although the autopsy showed he was alive at the time he was stabbed. A dental night guard, which he used to keep from grinding his teeth, was found in his mouth, suggesting he was near sleep when attacked. Tiny blood vessels in his eyes had popped, typically a sign of being smothered with a pillow. His own semen was found in his rectum. And, paramedics said, his body was neatly composed on the bed when they found him, hands by his sides, with almost no blood to be found. Price was sitting beside him in his underwear. His first words to paramedics were "I heard a scream," according to police documents.

It was such a disconcerting picture, one paramedic told police, that it made "the hair on the back of [my] neck stand up."

Price, Zaborsky and Ward, none of whom had a criminal record, said an intruder must have done it.

They now face obstruction-of-justice charges for allegedly cleaning up the crime scene before calling 911.

* * *

It was all so strange, yet in such a familiar setting, that the investigation fascinated the four friends who created the Web site, all of whom lived a short walk away from the crime scene. The four also describe themselves as being part of a "gay family," but only in socially reliant, emotionally intimate fashion.

"I didn't know the defendants, but they were my crowd," Greer says. "I could really relate to them. And I felt so deeply for the Wone family. . . . It was just a case that spoke to my life."

Bloggers and online commentators have leapt onto sensational cases before, as in the case of American student Amanda Knox, who was convicted of killing a female roommate in Italy. The case lit up the Internet across Europe, and bloggers took sides, arguing for or against Knox's guilt. Victims' families often create Web sites devoted to the criminal proceedings after the death of a loved one, and historians have long built sites that seek to be a complete history of famous cases.

But the Wone Web site, its creators say, is intended to be something different -- an unbiased compendium of a homicide investigation, in real time, in far more depth than any other journalistic organization can match.

"Ten years ago, five years ago, there wasn't much opportunity for citizen journalists to have an impact," Greer says. "We'd have looked like the crazy guy writing letters to the editor. But this is such a rare opportunity, because the defendants are gay men, and we're gay men. There's a level of understanding we have. There's a real opportunity for us here to do something original."

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