Overwhelming and powerful evidence proves that a South Carolina man abducted and killed three girls here in the mid-1990s, authorities announced today, ending a frustrating criminal investigation and bringing some peace to a community that had lived in fear of a serial killer.
The families of Sofia Silva, 16, and Kristin Lisk, 15, and her sister Kati, 12, looked on tearfully as members of a task force assembled to find the killer described how analysis showed that hair from Richard Marc Evonitz matched hairs found on the bodies of all three girls, and how blue acrylic fibers from a pair of "furry" handcuffs he owned were gathered from the three. Perhaps the most damning evidence -- a palm print and fingerprints matching Kristin Lisk's from the inside of the trunk of Evonitz's car -- was described by one forensic scientist as a "miracle" because it was found five years after the abduction.
Spotsylvania County Sheriff Ronald Knight cried as he announced the incredible break in the case and the end of the exhaustive search for the man who committed "the most horrible of crimes." The kidnappings of three girls in broad daylight changed his community forever, Knight said. Now, he said, he hopes residents can take comfort in knowing that Evonitz, who killed himself in June, is no longer a threat.
"We have experienced these crimes, and they overwhelmed our community with a sense of grief, fear and uncertainty, much of which still lingers today," Knight said. Turning to the girls' families, he added: "You have suffered an unspeakable and senseless tragedy, which we know has greatly affected you and everyone near to you. The entire community shares your pain."
The Silvas and Lisks thanked investigators, friends and neighbors, who at first helped search for the missing girls and then offered sympathy, and strangers who have sent cards and offered prayers. They offered thanks and praise to the person who led police to Evonitz: a 15-year-old South Carolina girl who was abducted and raped repeatedly by Evonitz in June but managed to escape.
The families said the pain will continue but there is some comfort in knowing that the man who killed the girls is dead.
"Our family feels he is facing a much . . . harsher punishment than he ever would have on Earth," said Sofia's sister, Pam Silva.
Ron Lisk, the father of Kristin and Kati, warned that even though Evonitz is gone, other predators remain. "Patti and I were robbed of our children. And all of you in our community were robbed of your trust in our fellow man," he said. "Please hang on tight to your children. Tell them you love them every day. Treasure each moment with them. Give them a hug every day."
Knight said police were still investigating whether Evonitz committed other crimes, but added, "There is no information which links Evonitz specifically to any other unsolved murders in Virginia or elsewhere."
Sofia Silva was last seen Sept. 9, 1996, when she took her homework and a can of soda to the front stoop. She disappeared that afternoon with no sign of a struggle. Her body was found five weeks later in a shallow pond in King George County, Va.
Seven months later, on May 1, 1997, Ron Lisk came home to find his daughters missing and Kristin's book bag on the front lawn. A massive search turned up no sign of the sisters until five days later, when their bodies were found 40 miles away in the South Anna River.
For five years, the task force has chased more than 12,000 tips. More than 10,000 examinations were performed on evidence, including human and animal hairs, fibers and tire treads, Knight said. DNA gathered from the crime scene was compared with 1.2 million samples in law enforcement databases. Evidence was compared with clues from 45,000 other unsolved cases.
In the end, as police and criminologists had predicted when they began, it was a slip-up by the killer that led police to his door.
Authorities said Evonitz -- who was twice awarded the Navy Good Conduct Medal during an eight-year service career -- seemed charming and friendly. His wife and ex-wife, his friends and his closest family members never suspected anything was amiss.
Even today, Evonitz's widow stood by him. "He was my husband, he is still my husband, and I love him dearly," Hope Evonitz said.
"That's why these people are so hard to catch," said Maj. Howard Smith, a Spotsylvania investigator who heads the task force. "They blend into the public. They aren't these two-headed monsters. They don't draw suspicion to themselves." Evonitz might never have been a suspect if it wasn't for the South Carolina teenager.
The girl was alone watering plants in front of a friend's Columbia house when Evonitz pulled up in his mother's green Firebird the afternoon of June 24, police said. He pretended to be a magazine salesman but then pointed a gun at the girl and forced her to crawl into a green 50-gallon plastic container in the back of the car.
Evonitz took the girl to an apartment he shared with his wife, who was at Walt Disney World. He handcuffed her with fuzzy blue cuffs he had purchased as a sex toy and then reinforced with wire, Smith said. Spotsylvania investigators would later learn that fibers from the cuffs matched those found on Sofia Silva and both Lisk sisters, he said.
South Carolina authorities said that the girl was repeatedly raped and that Evonitz made her call him Daddy. The next morning, the teenager heard Evonitz snoring and managed to free herself. She ran into the parking lot, and two men took her to police.
When South Carolina detectives called the Alexandria-based National Center for Missing and Exploited Children for help, a worker noticed that Evonitz had lived in Spotsylvania at the time of the Lisk and Silva abductions. She called Smith.
"We knew we would get this break. We knew we just needed that phone call," Smith said.
Quickly, the pieces fell into place.
Authorities in South Carolina searching Evonitz's apartment found a 1997 newspaper with an article about the Lisk abductions and written notes that authorities believe describe locations in Virginia where he stalked other girls.
In Spotsylvania, detectives learned that Evonitz took time off work the days Silva and the Lisk sisters were abducted. When Silva was kidnapped, Evonitz's then-wife was on vacation. They had separated by the time the Lisks were abducted.
Knight said there is other evidence linking Evonitz to the killings:
* Fibers from the carpet of a home where Evonitz lived in Fredericksburg matched those found on the bodies of the three girls.
* Fibers found in the trunk of Evonitz's Ford Taurus matched those found on all three girls.
* Fibers from a blanket found during a search of Evonitz's property in South Carolina matched samples found on Silva's and Kati Lisk's bodies.
As Evonitz was on the lam from South Carolina authorities, he called his sister and confessed to more crimes than he could remember. Before providing details, Evonitz killed himself as police in Florida closed in on him, but the task force will continue investigating.
No physical evidence has linked Evonitz to the death of Alicia Showalter Reynolds, a Baltimore student who was slain on Route 29 in Culpeper County in 1996, but evidence is still being examined, officials said. Spotsylvania officials said Evonitz is a suspect in the 1995 rape of a child, and Arlington police are checking whether he committed a series of rapes in the early 1990s.
"We're doing a painstaking reconstruction of Evonitz's life," FBI agent Donald W. Thompson said. "This is not a closed book."
But today's announcement brought enormous relief to the Spotsylvania community, as years of fear gave way to at least a little bit of closure. The killer who haunted their streets finally had a name, and he wasn't coming back.
Steve Burton, who goes to church with the Lisks, said his wife watched the news conference on television at home and came into the room crying, saying that their long ordeal was over.
"There's got to be a great sigh of relief," he said. "It's huge for the community. . . . It's a landmark moment, and hopefully we'll never have another one like it."
Staff writer Josh White contributed to this report.