More than eight years after Elizabeth Herrington was killed in her Fredericksburg home, police have made an arrest in their oldest cold murder case. They also have put a spotlight on a harsher side of life in this small historic city.
Herrington, a 46-year-old artist who suffered from addiction and depression, was fighting her way onto her feet after a stay in Fredericksburg's homeless shelter. She was living in an apartment complex for people with mental health problems when she was killed Nov. 3, 1994.
Two months ago, Archie Elmore Talley, a cook who also had been in and out of the shelter, was charged with first-degree murder in her death. Talley, 45, has pleaded not guilty. His family says he, too, was victimized the night of Herrington's death, possibly by the people who killed her. They say that strangers attacked him in the same neighborhood because he is gay and black -- and that police did not pursue his complaint for the same reasons.
Police say Talley and Herrington may have crossed paths in the city of 19,000 people within the smaller community of the needy, whom many residents don't see as they vanish in the morning into commuter trains heading north and at night into new subdivisions or the historic clapboard houses downtown. Both of them were seen that night at Merriman's, a downtown restaurant and bar popular with a gay clientele.
But the paths they took there were very different.
Herrington, according to her mother, came from an educated, successful family of artists, lawyers and businesspeople; her mother is a poet and retired teacher of creative writing at Northern Virginia Community College, and Herrington had a master's in studio art from the University of Texas at Austin. She had wrestled with depression and addiction and had been hospitalized several times for problems ranging from a nervous breakdown to a heart attack.
"She was one of those people who you knew had been groomed for a much different kind of life and was trying to recapture that life," said Ellyn Hartzler, who was director of the shelter in the 1990s. Between the shelter and the regional public mental health organization, Herrington had a lot of support and was living alone when she was killed in her apartment in a small, neat complex of supervised housing across from the Rappahannock River.
"She had counselors coming in the morning and at night," said her mother, Neva Herrington, 76, who lives in Alexandria. "I thought she'd never been safer."
Talley's path wound through the courts. He was in and out of the shelter -- and the jail, for drug convictions. Shelter staff members said he was contentious and confrontational but never violent. "He sometimes seemed like he had a chip on his shoulder," Hartzler said.
His aunt Joan Washington said he had jobs for years as a fast-food cook and was working at Friendly's when he was arrested Dec. 23. He was living with his boyfriend in a boxy apartment building where green chipped paint and broken outside lights stand out in a downtown neighborhood that is starting to improve.
Talley told relatives and his attorney that on the night of the Herrington killing, he was attacked by some "white supremacists" who were stalking Merriman's, Washington said. He said he ran a few blocks to the police department and reported the attack, including the fact that he had overheard his assailants saying they had killed someone. He said the police didn't pay much attention.
"They didn't do anything with the skinheads because they were mainly abusing the blacks, so a town like that wouldn't care anyway," Washington said.
Doug Perkins, who has been working on the Herrington case for the city police department since he became a detective in 1996, said he was aware of Talley's contentions. But Perkins said that there is no police report on such an incident and that the officers Talley said he spoke to were not on duty that night. Perkins said he knew nothing about Talley's alleged attackers mentioning a killing.
"Certainly, we would have looked into that," he said.
Talley's attorney, Mark Murphy, said he was appointed to the case only a few weeks ago and hadn't reviewed all the evidence, but he confirmed that Talley told him he was attacked.
Murder is rare in Fredericksburg. In the last decade, there have been 10 homicides, including the unsolved case of another woman who was killed in December 1994, not long after Herrington's death. Another woman has been missing since December 1992 in a case police call suspicious.
Perkins said the case against Talley relies at least partly on forensic evidence -- including a hair from the crime scene that matched a DNA sample taken from Talley in a previous drug case.
The hair was submitted to the state DNA lab right away, but technicians told Fredericksburg police that there was very little data in the four-year-old statewide DNA databank to compare it with. Perkins said the hair was resubmitted in 1997, and a match eventually was made with Talley, making him a suspect.
Murphy has experience with DNA evidence in violent crimes and said that would be a big part of the trial, which is scheduled for July.
Police never have described publicly how Herrington was killed, nor will they say what they believe motivated Talley. "I'll just say I think I know what the motive was," said Perkins, who said he kept working at the cold case because he wanted to bring Herrington's family some resolution.
Although Neva Herrington said she is grateful for Perkins's hard work and hopeful that the right person has been taken off the streets, she said she gains little peace from Talley's arrest. "I have a hard time understanding the vengefulness of some victims' families," she said. "I have no sense of grief being diminished."
Wanting to keep a closer eye on her daughter, Neva Herrington had been planning in the fall of 1994 to move to Fredericksburg. During their last visit, a few weeks before Elizabeth was slain, the two went apartment hunting.