Rebecca Hancock Hanslin was elected county prosecutor here 18 months ago by an overwhelming margin. She was the first Republican to be elected in 51 years and the second woman ever to become a commonwealth's attorney in the state of Virginia.
Nine months ago she resigned. Then on May 1 - Law Day - as spring was taking over the hills of this rural county, Rebecca Hanslin locked herself in her bedroom in the house she shared here with her mother and son, placed her 38 caliber pistol against her right temple and pulled the trigger.
Rebecca Hanslin was 34 years old, attractive, intelligent, successful, hard-working, committed, and the mother of an almost 7-year-old boy. On the surface she would have seemed to have had good reasons for living - and for living well.
She left no note when she died. She left only a brief career in which her view of what was right clashed so sharply with the established order of Botetourt County that she resigned as prosecutor, believing she no longer could function effectively as the people's represetative in court.
Her supporters believe she may have been hounded to death by the county's anti-Republican, anti-female, pro-status-quo establishment, which the believe resented her unsuccessful efforts to get three county supervisors indicted for misusing county funds.
Those who disagree describe Rebecca Hanslin as overzealous and lacking in judgment, unwise in her choice of battles and her methods of fighting them. They found her hard to get along with, overly suspicious, and prone to view everything as part of a conspiracy.
The truth, as truths generally are, is probably in between. One thing is true: there are few people in Botetourt County who are impartial about Rebecca Hanslin.
Certainly Rebecca Hanslin's fatewas inextricably entwined with Botetourt County, it's political establishment and its ways. About 22,000 people live in the county's 549 square miles, which lie north of Roanoke on the fringe of the Blue Ridge Mountains.
The Democrats have controlled the county as long as anyone can remember. "You used to be able to count the number of Republicans here on the fingers of one hand," said voter registrar Kay Spingkel, a Republican who was appointed less than two years ago. "Some people were even afraid to admit they were Republicans for fear it would affect their business."
Like many rural Virginia counties, in Botetourt "everybody knows everybody else's business," as several people put it. The power structure is fairly small and inbred. Jobs ars handed down from father to son or nephew or cousin, people go to the same schools, attend the same churches and trade at the same stores.
The establishment, known by some as the "courthouse clique," works in Fincastle, the county seat which is a picturesque town of 310 perched on a hill. The center of town, indeed its primary reason for being, is the courthouse.
Rebecca Hanslin, who was called Becky, came back to Botetourt from Washington after separating from her husband in late 1971. She moved in with her mother, into the farm house the family had owned since 1948, and started practing law, sharing a secretary with another lawyer, harold Eads.
It was a typical small-town law practice. "We took anything that walked in off the street," recalls the secretary, Johnie Corbett, who later became her campaign treasurer and moved to the courthouse when she became commonwealth's attorney. "Traffic timkets, divorces, injury cases, wills, deeds, murders, you name it."
Eads remembered when he first noticed that Becky Hanslin carried a gun. "She was involved in this case in another town. One of the town police officers had been kicked out of the Moose Lodge and set up a roadblock to trap some of the other Moose when they came out drunk. He gave them all speeding tickets or something. Becky was defending some of the Moose and she said she was afraid. I don't know that she ever fired it."
Mrs. Corbett did not find it unusual for her boss to have a gun, particularly after she was elected prosecutor; "She was conscious of the fact that a commonwealth's attorney in Montgomery County (Va.) had his arms blown off by a bomb someone put in his car, and a judge was killed in Louisa County. I don't think it's that unusual for a woman alone to carry a gun. My husband wanted me to and I was just her secretary."
It was not the first time Becky hanslin had a gun. When she was newly graduated from Hollins College and working on Capitol Hill as a secretary for Rep. Richard H. Poff (R-Va.), she lived for about two years in a house in Georgetown with a number of other young women. One of them recalls being told by another roommate that Becky, who was Becky Hancock then, suspected her of doing something to the bullets in her gun so that it would have exploded if it had been fired.
"I didn't even know she had a gun," the roommate recalled. "When I confronted her with this preposterous accusation she refused to believe I hadn't done it."
Jean Herz, the roommate, said she called several other women who had lived in the house to tell them of the death. "None of us could remember being particularly close to her, in fact, we ended up forcing her out of the house."
Eads said that during the 2 1/2 years or so that he shared an office with her, he got to know Becky Hanslin fairly well. She occasionally went to parties with Eads and his wife, sometimes with a date, and often ate lunch with the other members of the bar at their regular table in the Fincastle Ina.
Later she was to complain that after she became commonwealth's attorney the other lawyers did not ask her to lunch anymore. "Nobody gets asked to lunch," Eads said. "You just go."
Eads was as surprised as anyone when Becky Hanslin announced her candidacy for the job E. C. Westerman had had for 20 years. As a Democrat (he is now county party chairman) he did not consider her much of a threat.
Nominated in May, 1975, Mrs. Hanslin generally was considered to have as much chance of wining as a pig has to fly. But she took the race seriously and attended a candidate school to learn basic techniques. After Labor Day she began driving around the county to knock on as many of its farflung doors as she could.
"I could always tell what part of the county she'd visited the day before," Mrs. Sprinkel said. "Because the next day people would be pilling in here to register just so they vote for her. She was really in her element campaigning."
In speeches and a series of paid advertisements in the Fincastle Herald, Becky Hanslin charged her opponent, with being a part-time commonwealth's attorney to the county's detriment. (Virginia permits commonwealth's attorneys to maintain private practices while in office.)
At the same time, she noted, Westerman had hired an assistant, the son of a member of the Board of Supervisors.
Meanwhile, she noted, the job of commonwealth's attorney was becoming more complicated as the county's population increased. The job included advising the local Board of Supervisors as well as prosecuting criminals.
She told voters that Westerman and a supervisor, Louis C. Campbell, owned the building in which Westerman had his office. The county paid $1,000 a year rent for Westerman's suite even though the courthouse contained offices for the commonwealth's attorney. Westerman acknowledged this arrangement in local news stories.
In other campaign themes she called forth the specter of vast increases in crime in tiny Botetourt, saying that crime there had increased three times the national average for the first three months of 1975 and that "there was a new and disturbing availability of heroin and cocaine" in the county.
One half-page ad was headlined: "Why aren't drug pushers prosecued in Botetourt County?"
The entire local bar association, which at the time consisted of eight men (aside form Mrs. Hanslin), responded to her campaign by buying an advertisement supporting Westerman, in which they noted "E.C. Westerman is a man" as well as experienced prosecutor.
By that time it was too late. Attractive, articulatt young Becky Hanslin had caught the voters' imagination. On election day they gave her 3,295 votes to Westerman's 1,946. The local newspaper carried headlines saying, "Woman Beats Veteran," and called it a "smashing upset."
"Becky told me the day she won was the happiest day of her life," Johnie Corbett said.
It wasn't long after they moved in to the new, as yet unused courthouse offices Mrs. Corbett said, that the "little harassments" began. "It was a coldness, just sort of a lack of cooperation. They'd make things hard for her. Here she was a Republican, a woman, who was really working hard at preparing her cases. They didn't like that one bit."
Eads remembers if differently. "She wouldn't ask for something, she'd demand it. For example, she once needed some information from the commissioner of public revenue. It was public information, but instead of just asking for it, she cited the section of the code under which she was entitled to it. That just doesn't sit well, that's not how you do things."
Two months after Mrs. Hanslin took office, she asked for a State Police investigation of the financing of the newly-rebuilt county courthouse, and the story leaked to one of the Roanoke papers. She eventually sought indictments against three supervisors who voted to build the courthouse without first holding a referendum. Virginia law prohibits a county from incurring "long-term indebtedness" without voter approval, but does not prevent officials from using existing funds for construction.
Once the news of the investigation was out, the county supervisors, their families and supporters - a substantial portion of the population - were furious.
"The Republicans never asked her to start that police investigation, I can tell you that," said Mrs. Sprinkel, who was not opposed to it, "I guess she felt pressured into it because of what she'd said during the campaign."
The problem was not that there was not anything to investigate but that no one, including Mrs. Hanslin, suggested at any time that the supervisors had profited personally from the courthouse construction.
"Nothing wrong has been done intentionally, and it's a shame she could not have discussed this with the Board before taking this move," Board Chairman harold Wilhelm was quoted in the Herald. The following week the Board announced it was "shopping for a new legal adviser" to advise them on the pending investigation. The next month they asked for a state audit of the county's books. The audit subsequently chastised them for inaccuracies in revenue estimating procedures but found no overall irregularities.
In June a grand jury refused to indict the three supervisors. The five member grand jury included four men who had served on the previous June's grand jury, and the fifth was a man whose son was due to be reappointed to the county school board by the board of supervisors. This fanned suspicions among those opposed to the "courthouse clique" that juries and grand juries in the county were chosen from a relatively exclusive list of reliably establishment persons.
"The grand jury system in Botetourt County is as white as snow," said circuit Court Clerk George E. Holt Jr., who is responsible for choosing the juries from a list of 60 names provided by the judge. "Who thought about it (avoiding even the appearance of a conflict at the time? Complaints about the grand jury were politically motivated."
After the grand jury refused to indict the supervisors, criticism and gossip on both sides escalated publicly and privately.
Becky hanslin found it increasingly difficult to do her job. "She started losing cases hand over fist," Eads said. His view, shared by other ettorneys and observers, was that she "overprepared" her cases, spending as much effort on misdemeanors as felonies, and was given, as local reporter Paul E. Fitzgerald wrote after her resignation," to tedious point-by-point assault" on her opponent's arguments.
"Thye (other defense attorneys) weren't used to having to work to win their cases," Johnie Corbett said, "they were used to this relaxed kind of atmosphere, where things were done in a comfortable sort of way. She felt that every case was important."
Mrs. Hanslin often worked late into the evening at home; her mother recalls hearing her typewriter as late as 1 a.m. She did not have an assistant* having used her opponent's employment of an assistant as a campaign issue she felt it would be wrong to hire one herself. But the work load in Botetourt, which is experiencing an influx of "Roanokers" spilling out from the heavily populated city and county, was tremendous.
There were stories in the local paper about her being "chided" in court by a judge, and she wrote back an angry rebuttal. She told Mrs. Corbett and her mother that one judge interrupted her in court so often that she could hardly finish a sentence. She finally left the courtroom without finishing the case.
In early August she called Del. Ray Robrecht, who had himself been a Republican commonwealth's attorney in a Democrat-dominated courthouse, and told him she was thinking of resigning. Robrecht apparently was the only person she talked to about this possiblity.
"She got upset easily," Robrecht said. 'I said she'd be sorry if she resigned, that if she just stuck it out things would get better, and that if she had any desire to stay in public office it would look bad. I suggested she come over to the house and talk it over, but she never did."
So, on Thursday after several days of absence due to illness, she called Johnie Corbett and asked her call reporters and announce her resignation.
"I have taken all any human being can be expected to take," her statement said. "Being human, I quit. a prosecutor cannot function unless the courts play by the rules I leave in protest, my sole reason for resigning is to protest. Further, I hope that circumstances underlying the June, 1976, grand jury's inability to return indicaments against the Board of Supervisors will soon be made public."
Her resignation, which shocked everyone interviewed for this article, was a sense a kind of Professional suicide. "Becky was fighter," her mother said, 'I didn't want her to run, but I didn't think she'd quit."
Mrs. Sprinkel, the register, said, "I gather she was really dissapointed that the grand jury didn't indict the supervisors. But we didn't hold that against her, nobody really expected them to be indicted. We know the system around here. A number of women who work here in the courthouse told me they were proud to have a woman as commonwealth's attorney. They were real dissapointed when she quit."
She told Johnie Corbett she planned to take it easy for awhile, play with her son and care for her mother, who had recently had an operation for cancer. "She sounded relieved," Mrs. Corbett recalls.
During the following nine months before her death she did not work, although there was talk of her receiving offers from Roanoke law firms, setting up an office is nearby Salem, or going to Boston. She suffered several attacks of the flu, which she could not seem to shake, and continued to smoke heavily.
A group of citizens collected about 1,000 names on a petition asking Gov. Mills E. Godwin to send "impartial investigators" to Botetourt to look into everything from the courthouse financing to Mrs. Hanslin's resignation. They met with the governor in October; in December he wrote that he could find no grounds for investigating.
A few weeks before her death she asked police to see if her phone w as being tapped; the investigation showed it was not, sources said.
They day of her suicide, Mrs. Hanslin and her mother and sister, who were good friends. The guests left at about 4.30 p.m. Shortly after 8 p.m., Mrs. Hancock heard the shot.
"I think is she'd thought about it for just a few more minutes, she'd here today," said Mrs. Corbett. "She could be hurt because she cared so much. She did one hell of a job, but she just couldn't win, those people were never going to answer for anything they'd done. I just think that something hapened to make her angry - you know how sometimes you'll do something when you're angry that you wish you hadn't? And she just went upstairs and blew her brains out."
"She lacked a sense of gamesmanship," Eads said in response to a question. "She'd never compromise, never could accept the idea she might be wrong. Once she got an idea into her head she'd never let go."
Since Becky Hanslin's resignation, construction defects such as roof leaks and cracked plaster have been found in the rebuilt courthouse. Mrs. Sprinkel said she has noticed that juries appear to include a brosder range of citizens. Even before her resignation, the new county executive insisted on changes in the county budgeting procedures, and the state audit confirmed that changes were needed.
In retrospect she was not wrong to have raised questions about the courthouse, county financing or grand juries. But she seems to have gone about it the wrong way, and the frustration she found stumied her.
"She and the Civic League types tend to see every thing as another Watergate," said one attorney. "it just isn't like that down here."