Murder on Swann Street: The Robert Wone Stabbing
Tuesday, June 2, 2009; 1:00 PM
Washington Post staff writer Paul Duggan was online Tuesday, June 2, at 1 p.m. ET to discuss an unsolved killing and alleged coverup in the guest room of an elegant home in the heart of Washington's gay community. The bizarre murder of a young Ivy League lawyer named Robert Wone is still grist for gossip and conjecture on the city's gay blogosphere and has vexed police and prosecutors since the 911 call just before midnight Aug. 2, 2006.
Paul Duggan: Hi ... Paul Duggan of The Washington Post here, welcoming any questions about the Swann Street murder narrative running yesterday and today on Washingtonpost.com. ... Ask away.
Washington, D.C.: Thanks for your reporting on this case. I can only imagine how frustrating it is to report on an event with so many unanswered questions, but I thought you told the story well and fairly.
One thing I don't understand is the motive behind the alleged murder. The prosecution has theories and some evidence, but there doesn't seem to be any reason behind the murder, right? It is a long jump from sexual assault to stabbing.
Paul Duggan: You're right about that -- there's no clear evidence of motive that I know of. One thing people sometimes get confused about, though, is the notion that prosecutors in trial need to prove a motive. They don't. Evidence of motive is great to have, but at all not necessary. They don't have to prove or even suggest WHY someone did something. They only have to prove that the person actually did it. Period.
Delmarva: So how firm is this timeline? By their actions described in the article these three look guilty as can be but I can't reconcile that all this took place (the sexual activity, the death, the cover-up, the call to 911) took place in that amount of time.
How firm are Wone's activities prior to arriving at the house around 10:30? Is it possible that Wone got there earlier or that he went there, possibly for sexual activity, left and went back to work and later returned? Even with that the timeline seems a real stretch.
Paul Duggan: I can't speculate on what might've happened at various times when the whereabouts or activities of one or some or all of the people in the story are unaccounted for. I can only tell you that Wone, the general counsel of Radio Free Asia, went to the night seminar (with a friend, the general counsel of Radio Free Europe), that he called his wife afterward, that RFA colleagues remember him arriving back at the station before 10, that he called Swann Street at 10:22, and that Zaborsky called 911 at 11:49. The tight time frame (even without the BlackBerry issue) is a big part of the stubborn, confounding mystery of this.
Washington, D.C.: The word on the street is that these guys were methamphetamine users and that their partying and S and M activities got out of control that night. Have the police investigated the meth angle? What do they know about the history of drug abuse by there three men? It would seem to explain quite a lot.
Paul Duggan: I can't say. ... But I'll tell you, in all my years of doing this kind of thing, I've never been able to actually locate the person who is in charge of putting out "the word on the street," to ask him how he knows so much. Unless he was hiding in the closet of the guestroom, I'm not sure how he'd know what did or didn't get out of control that night.
D.C.: So a few questions. The articles don't really address how or why they were charged. How, according to the indictments, did they specifically obstruct justice? Also, why did it take two years for them to be charged? I'm not doubting the charges, just the content and the timing.
Paul Duggan: I think the story, at the end of Part 2, is pretty clear on how they allegedly obstructed justice -- by allegedly disposing of evidence and altering the crime scene. One reason it took so long for charges to be filed, I believe, is that it often takes many months to process forensic evidence. When the D.C. police turn something over to an FBI lab, for instance, they typically have to wait their turn, while the lab, slowly but surely, processes stuff from a hundred other cases in a hundred other jurisdictions or whatever. And it this case there is quite a large amount of forensic evidence.
Fredericksburg, Va.: Why is it that no one has been charged when it is very clear that there was no intruder?
Paul Duggan: I'm obviously not privy to the decision making in the U.S. attorney's office, but here's some educated speculation: Prosecutors believe (rightly or wrongly)that they can make a case on obstruction based on the forensic evidence they have, which they say clearly indicates that the men engaged in a cover-up. But they simply don't have what they think is sufficient evidence to prove that one, two or all three of them committed murder. Their mere presence in the house that night isn't enough by itself. Prosecutors can theorize all they want that the housemates are responsible for Wone's death. But in a trial, they'd have to prove it (four important words here) "beyond a reasonable doubt," which isn't as easy as you might think.
Washington, D.C.: Can't the District charge all three with murder and hope one of them cracks? With all the circumstantial evidence I would think they could get a conviction.
Paul Duggan: Generally speaking, when the government charges someone with murder or any crime, the speedy-trial clock starts ticking, meaning the prosecutor better be ready for trial within a certain period, and then comes the trial, and if the evidence isn't there, and the jury acquits, then that's the end of it. The government gets one shot, and that's it. So in this case, until they feel they can prove someone guilty of murder beyond a reasonable doubt, the US attorney and police will keep looking for evidence, and hold off seeking an indictment.
Logan North, D.C.: Two basic questions:
1. Why was this series published at all at this time? Nothing new has happened in this case in recent weeks, and no trial proceedings are imminent. The articles, notwithstanding their length and luridness, contain little new information. Nearly all the pertinent information was reported by local outlets such as Legal Times and the Washington Blade last year. If this article was worth publishing by the Post, shouldn't it have been published six months ago, when the information was actually timely?
2. If the information was worth publishing, why wasn't it published in the print edition? Aren't the Post's subscribers who pay good money for the print edition entitled to at least a summary of the article's findings? (Of course, that would have required an article that merely recited facts, not the sort of extensive yarn-spinning that characterizes the series.) What message is conveyed about the value of the print edition when such an extensive article is only available in the free online edition?
washingtonpost.com: The Robert Wone Killing Remains 'a Head-Scratcher'
Paul Duggan: It's being published now because, after weeks of reporting and many late nights of writing, it's done now. Yes, the Legal Times, the Blade and others have done a fine job covering incremental developments in the case -- but nowhere (that I'm aware of) has the entire story been laid out, top to bottom, in one coherent narrative, which is what I set out to do. And I'll be venture to say that many thousands of Post readers haven't followed the case in those blogs, as evidently you have. As for new details, yes, in fact, the story does contain a fair amount of them, especially concerning the backgrounds of the three housemates and how they came to be together in that place on that night. Beyond that, I think just having the complex case explained clearly is something new in and of itself to many Post readers. As for why the story isn't in the physical newspaper, that's a question for senior editors here, not me. I'm a mere typist. But I will say, generally, that some stories, to be told right, need A LOT of space, and there is a finite amount of it available in the printed paper. Fortunately in this age we have a boundless digital venue that can accommodate narratives like this one.
Washington, D.C.: I understand that they were charged with obstruction, etc. because they refused to testify at a grand jury inquiry into the matter.
Paul Duggan: No, the obstruction charge has nothing to do with the grand jury. No one can be compelled to give evidence against themselves. The obstruction (and conspiracy and evidence-tampering) charges are related to the alleged cover-up in the townhouse after Wone was stabbed.
Washington, D.C.: Is it proper to use the word "murder" when describing this case? Isn't is technically a homicide until someone has been convicted?
Paul Duggan: Ah, a copy editor!! ... You're absolutely right. Murder is a legal term, the unlawful killing of another with premeditation. We don't know that Wone's "murder" wasn't actually a "manslaughter," and not a murder, do we? That's why newspapers use that awful word "slaying" so much (which absolutely no one uses in ordinary conversation). ... Anyway, I argued (and won) that we should use the term "murder" in a generic sense in the story, to make it more readable. "Slaying mystery" doesn't quite have the ring of "murder mystery."
Washington, D.C.: Did they dust the blackberry for prints? I can't believe they lost that info.
I tried really hard to find that out, and I got no indication whatsoever from the people I spoke with that the police fingerprinted the BlackBerry. It'd be interesting to know if any of the housemates' prints were on it, no? I can't be sure, but it would not surprise me at all if the BlackBerry wasn't fingerprinted.
Arlington, Va.: Who does Robert Wone's wife think killed him?
Paul Duggan: She has alleged in a wrongful death lawsuit that the three housemates were responsible for his killing. Her attorney has made no secret of the fact that he (and she) believe all three were complicit in his death.
Arlington, Va.:That really is a weird story. What are the chances Ward did it acting alone? But that maybe the other two helped clean up the aftermath? Could Ward have done it under the influence of the sleeping pills somehow? You hear stories about people doing all sorts of things in their sleep that they have no idea about having done afterwards, including killing people.
Paul Duggan: You'll have to weigh that yourself.
Washington, D.C.: There is an old film -- Mandarin Express or something -- where all accomplices to a murder each stab the victim once so that they each share accountability, ensuring that nobody sings to the police. 3 roommates, 3 stab wounds. Coincidence?
Paul Duggan: I'll let you ponder that one.
Dupont Circle, D.C.: Where was the basement tenant during all of this? Is there any hint that she might be involved? And what's Michael Price's alibi for that night?
Paul Duggan: The basement tenant, Sarah Morgan, said she had gone out to spend the night with a friend. The Michael Price aspect of the case is almost as tortuous as the story I wrote, but the long and short of it is this: In August 2006, Michael Price was living with a man in Silver Spring. This man provided an alibi for Michael Price, saying he and Price were home in bed together on the night Wone was killed. There's a lot more to it, but that's the gist.
Vienna, Va.: Were any lie detector test given to the three suspects and, if so, what did they reveal?
Ward took a polygraph test, according to some court filings I've read. It's unclear whether the other two took polygraphs (or were asked to), but I don't believe they did. I'm not sure what conclusions the polygraph examiner reached in Ward's test.
Paul Duggan: Ward took a polygraph test, according to some court filings I've read. It's unclear whether the other two took polygraphs (or were asked to), but I don't believe they did. I'm not sure what conclusions the polygraph examiner reached in Ward's test.
Fairfax, Va.: Has the former involvement of Eric Holder (current Attorney General) created any pressure on the prosecutors and detectives involved to obtain a confession or conviction?
Paul Duggan: I can't say, but I doubt it.
Washington, D.C.: In all of your interviews with law enforcement officials and the prosecution, did you get the impression that homophobia is a driving force behind this investigation? It sounds like during the first interview with Price on the night of the murder that the lead investigator was pushing that theory without having any facts to back it up. It just seems to me that first impressions rooted in homophobia have colored the direction of this case from the get-go.
Paul Duggan: I think when the homicide detectives first encountered these three men, and the nature of the relationships among the three started to become clear, the cops' minds went straight to a possible sex angle to the case. It's obvious from Wagner's questions to Price that the idea of a straight guy spending the night in a house with three gay men was pretty foreign. Did that social/cultural divide amount to homophobia? I suppose you'd have to look into the heart and mind of each individual cop to answer that.
Venice, Fla.: Mr. Duggan, has anyone looked at whether the needle marks could have been the result of an acupuncture-type event? Since the housemate is schooled in massage therapy and has trained in Thailand, it seems plausible that he may have picked up some training in the use of acupuncture to sedate or immobilize someone -- something that would fit in with his fetish lifestyle and also would leave no traces of drugs in the victim's system. Thanks for a great series and for keeping the attention on this case.
Paul Duggan: That's a very interesting question, on the acupuncture, and I know it's been looked into by at least one interested party, in Kathy Wone's wrongful-death lawsuit against the three men. Perhaps it's been a focus of interest on the criminal-investigation side, as well. I don't know.
Washington, D.C.: On a website called alt.com Price used a name, culuket, that someone suggested combined might be a combination of the Spanish word for anus and a short form of the drug (keratine?). Do you know about this?
Paul Duggan: I've heard that before, yes.
Washington, D.C.: The first thought I had when I read your article was that Wone's family should file a wrongful death civil lawsuit, and your answer confirmed that they have. Do you know the current status of the law suit?
Paul Duggan: It's pending. One complication has to do with discovery. Kathy Wone's lawyers, in pursuing the civil case, obviously want access to all the evidence that the police and U.S. attorney's office has gathered in the criminal case. The housemates lawyers in the criminal case have successfully argued that Kathy Wone's lawyers in the civil shouldn't being allowed access to that evidence until the criminal case is resolved. So the civil case is essentially in a pause. Got all that?
Anonymous: The brother of one of the housemates trying to rob the place seems an odd angle -- what more can you tell about that ?
Paul Duggan: You want another 8,000 words? Because that's what it would take to explain that whole tangent. The bottom line: The burglary, allegedly by Michael Price and an accomplice named Phelps Collins, was almost laughably inept, and they were quickly arrested (though the charges eventually were dropped). There was a long effort by the police to link Michael Price to Wone's death, but it ultimately led nowhere.
Washington, D.C.: Have you discovered any explanation for why the burglary charges (of 1509 Swann Street) were dropped against Michael Price and his accomplice? It seemed like a slam dunk case, and you'd think the police would want to keep pressure on the parties involved/their closest relatives ...
Paul Duggan: Good question. There are some followers of the case who think that the government suspects that the burglary was part of an overall cover-up conspiracy, to show that, yes, it was possible for an intruder to get in the house -- and that was why the government didn't pursue it. To this day, prosecutors refer to it as "the alleged burglary." But I can't say for certain why the charges were dropped.
Anonymous: Do the Wone's have any children?
Paul Duggan: No. At the time of his death, the couple had been talking about adopting a baby from China, Kathy Wone said.
Washington, D.C.: Hi Paul -- What was reasoning for scheduling the obstruction trial a year from now? Do prosecutors hope that more evidence will emerge at that trial or do they anticipate discovering more in the interim? What if the defendants are found not guilty of obstruction? Does that all but quash the possibility of indicting one or more of the men for the homicide?
Paul Duggan: The reason is simple. The defense has to wait for some of its own testing to be done. That may take into the fall or early winter. The obstruction trial is expected to take two months. But two of the housemates' lawyers also represent defendants if the Blackwater case, the killings in Iraq. That is locked-in to start in January, and will occupy them well into March. Then they'll need a month to gear up for the trial in the Wone case. Thus the May 2010 trial date.
Paul Duggan: Thanks everyone, for reading and for your questions. We'll try to keep you up to date on developments in the case the months go by, headed toward the schedule trial beginning next May. Have a great rest of the day.
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