A 20-year-old Fairfax County woman was discovered strangled in her dormitory room at Oberlin College in Ohio Sunday morning, and her boyfriend, a fellow student who apparently tried to hang himself shortly after the body was found, was charged with the woman's murder, police in Ohio said.
Police said a roommate found the body of Grace B. Austin shortly after 10 a.m. when friends telephoned and expressed concern that Austin had not shown up for church services. Police said that a man's necktie, which they believe was used to strangle Austin, was found on the floor near her bed. There were no apparent signs of a struggle, police said.
Within a half hour after police began their investigation of Austin's death, police received a tip that Sean Culmer, 20, who has been identified as Austin's boyfriend, was attempting to hang himself with a belt, in the stairwell of a dormitory 50 yards from Austin's dorm.
Police cut the belt that Culmer had used to hang himself from a rail and rushed him to a local hospital. A hospital spokesman said yesterday that Culmer was in fair condition with head and neck injuries. Police said Culmer, a junior psychology major from New York City, was charged with aggravated murder, the equivalent of first-degree murder.
Austin, whose family lives on Karl Road in Fairfax County, had been a homecoming princess at Fort Hunt High School in 1981, an officer of the student government and an editor of the school newspaper. She was a sophomore studying economics and English. She met Culmer shortly after she arrived at Oberlin and, according to her mother, Theora Austin, had twice brought him home to Fort Hunt.
"He was handsome," Theora Austin said. "He seemed like such a nice boy."
Oberlin Police Chief Robert K. Jones said that Austin and Culmer had been to a party Saturday night and there were no signs that the couple was not getting along.
The following morning, Austin's roommate knocked at Austin's door and after hearing no response went inside, police said. She found Austin's fully clothed body on the bed, and with other women in the dorm made frantic attempts to revive her.
Meanwhile, Culmer was trying to take his own life, police said. He had returned to his dorm several hours before the suicide attempt and was described by his roommate as very upset, police said. Culmer and his roommate had gone walking around campus, but as he walked he became more and more upset, police said the roommate told them.
"Culmer became irrational, kind of hyper, and went back to his dorm," Chief Jones said. "His roommate tried to restrain him, but Culmer seemed determined to take his own life.
"It is a mystery why the strangling happened," Jones said. "All relationships have peaks and valleys, and they apparently were having a strong disagreement."
Austin lived for the last 10 years on a cul-de-sac near Fort Hunt with her family. Her father, the Rev. Clinton Austin, a retired Army colonel, is pastor of Shiloh Baptist Church in Middleburg. Her mother teaches at Walt Whitman Intermediate school in Fairfax.
Theora Austin said yesterday that Grace, the youngest of four children, was a dedicated daughter who called home twice a week and had just been elected to a position in the student government at Oberlin.
Originally interested in pursuing journalism, Austin changed her mind and decided to go into business management, her mother said. She was hoping to study in London next year, her mother said, even though she had mixed feelings about leaving her friends for a year.
"She received the greatest satisfaction from participating and being involved," Theora Austin said of her daughter. "She gave a lot to others . . . That's one of the reasons she chose Oberlin. She loved the ivy-covered campus, but she also thought it was small enough so that she could become involved."
Oberlin, a small, isolated college surrounded by farmland 30 miles from Cleveland seemed to be suited to her daughter, Theora Austin said.
"Oberlin has a great sense of community . . . People are always asking each other if they're all right, how they're doing," said George Bent, a sophomore at Oberlin.
Yesterday, the Oberlin community tightened against queries about Grace Austin's death and the charges against Sean Culmer. Signs hung outside Austin's dorm, the Afrikan Heritage House, asked visitors to stay away. A statement released by the dorm read:
"We have suffered the physical loss of a very dear sister and the emotional devastation of a very dear brother. Our family grieves heavily . . . Both Grace Austin and Sean Culmer are beloved and respected members of this community. They have been much or our joy and are now, surely, all of our sorrow."