John Stanley Gavis III and his sister Julia were away from home the night their 14-year-old brother took a shotgun and murdered their parents and another brother in the family's chalet-style farmhouse set back off an unpaved road here in central Virginia.
That was 5 1/2 years ago. John, the oldest child in the family, was in Louisiana then, embarking on a career as a deep-sea diver. Julie was in college in Richmond. Their father, a tough-minded, church-going retired Marine Corps captain, had moved to the country to give his eight children enough room to grow up, and their lives were proceeding just as he would have wished.
All that changed with "the shootings"--as the Gavis murders are referred to here among their country neighbors. One by one, the children scattered, in some cases separated by tensions that spilled into lawsuits over the division of the family's 350 acres of farm and timberland. Some, now married and living on their own, seemed to hope that the sale of the farm--up for auction this weekend--would close the book on the family tragedy.
But now the family name is again linked with a gruesome crime that has sent shudders through this rural community. John, 28, and Julia, 24, the last of the Gavises to live in the ill-fated house, are in jail, accused of digging up their father's body from its unmarked grave on the property. According to police, the two dug six feet into the earth, hacked through a thin layer of metal lining the top of the coffin, extracted the teeth from the jaw and took them to a Richmond jeweler, apparently in hopes of finding a microchip in the gold crowns that supposedly contained the number to a Swiss bank account.
Along with the reports of grave-tampering--confirmed when Spotsylvania investigators exhumed the body, identified it and reburied it Sept. 9--authorities say they have been told that the two Gavis children had been acting in increasingly bizarre ways, claiming to hear voices--their mother's in particular--and to be threatened by the same demons that possessed their brother five and a half years ago.
John and Julie Gavis' attorney, Steven D. Benjamin of Richmond, declined to comment on the case and the family's troubles. Members of the family have declined all interviews.
Always, when people here talk about the Gavises, they rehash the events of March 28, 1978, when Chris Gavis woke up at 1:30 a.m., took two shotguns and proceeded to shoot five members of his family, killing his father John Stanley Gavis Jr., his mother Edith and brother Mark, 17, and wounding two other brothers. Chris, who called the rescue squad himself, was found "not innocent" of the murders seven months later and was sent to state hospitals for psychiatric treatment.
"I thought nothing else bad would happen to that family after the shootings," said one local farmer who, like others who knew the family, didn't want to give his name. "Everything that has happened to that family happened after the shootings," said a schoolmate of Julie Gavis. "To tell you the truth, they were all good people."
John and Julie Gavis have not entered a plea to the charges of "disinterring a dead human body" and have chosen to stay in jail pending a preliminary hearing set for Oct. 13. On Thursday, they made their second appearance in court, accompanied by Benjamin, and acted serene, even jocular, when District Court Judge Joseph L. Savage asked them how they liked jail.
"It's nice there," said John Gavis, smiling.
"They're nice people," added his sister, who was wearing a blue T-shirt bearing a Key West logo.
Their relaxed manner was in stark contrast to the reports of their behavior collected in the last few weeks by Capt. Albert Stewart in the Spotsylvania Sheriff's Department. According to Stewart, the Gavises told people they were haunted by demons and they intended to burn down their family house before it could be sold. John was to survive the fire by immersing himself in a water-filled freezer in the basement, while Julia would die and would be resurrected to marry Jesus Christ.
When the two were arrested, Stewart said John was wearing two layers of underwear, a sweatsuit, wool socks, ski boots and bread bags over his feet and appeared wet, as if he had emerged from water. The clothing, John Gavis told officers, was to keep the "demons" away.
A search of the house revealed a collection of crosses and Bibles, Stewart said. Last year, John Gavis, who returned from Louisiana claiming to be a minister in the "church of Yshauasha," went before the County Board of Supervisors for a permit to hold a 10-day "worldwide peace concert" that he said would attract a million people, including Pope John Paul II, and told a friend he had gone to Rome to invite the pope.
According to friends of the family, a tendency to hyperbole had always been a Gavis trait. "They had an exaggerated concept of themselves," said one friend, who recalled stories of fantastic salaries and job offers.
After the murder, when people here were trying to explain how something so horrible could have befallen a seemingly normal family, there was speculation the father, who had a part-time job as a mail carrier in addition to running his farm, had been a martinet who put too much pressure on his children. He ran a sawmill on the place and, according to one neighbor, paid his children 5 cents an hour.
But what the retired Marine captain expected of his children was, many here say, no different than what local farmers expected from theirs. "He loved every one of those children," said one neighbor, who remembered John Gavis Jr. driving his sons to and from athletic events and piling the family into a limousine to drive each Sunday to Catholic mass in nearby Fredericksburg. "He thought the sun rose and set on each one of them."
He also imparted an attachment to the stone and wood house that he rebuilt himself after a fire engulfed the first house one Christmas Eve about 10 years ago. "That house was home base and, by God, whatever else happened, they had that," said one friend, describing John and Julie's reluctance to move.
The family unity, held together during happier days by a mother described by all as a "remarkable" woman, has since dissolved. One son, Michael, drove off one day to buy ice cream and hasn't been seen since. The eldest sister, Edith, moved out of the house when she married, taking her youngest brother Richard, who was 13 when he was wounded by his brother and is now said to be in the Air Force. Peter, the other brother wounded in the shooting and later saddled with more than $40,000 in hospital bills, went to court to cut his brother Chris out of the inheritance. By last winter, Peter also had moved out.
Several neighbors said Chris Gavis returned to Spotsylvania with a wife and a number of dogs last winter and told people he was enlisting in the Army. Police say family members reported he is in Germany, but the Army last week was unable to confirm that.
As their brothers and sister drifted off, John and Julie, who had both been away and come back, settled in. According to friends, the two kept mostly to themselves, particularly in recent months. The farm was let go, its field tangled in weeds and the machinery left in disuse.
Concern about the farm and for John and Julie's increasing seclusion prompted a civil suit, filed by their sister, to force partition and sale of the property. In a hearing held last December, the eldest sister said she took the action "because, the truth of the matter is, I don't like seeing (the place) destroyed like it is being done."
Some who knew the family blame drugs for its continuing troubles, but that was disputed by some of the childrens' own friends who had been to parties at the house in recent years. Police say they found marijuana paraphernalia at the house but no other evidence of drug use.
The events leading to John and Julie Gavis' arrests began Aug. 31 when, according to affidavits filed here, the two arrived at a Richmond jewelry store. In the course of a four-hour visit, they told store owner Elizabeth Koumanian about their parents' murder and said they had dug up their father's body two days before to recover the bank account number.
The jeweler examined the gold crowns and found no evidence of any number or microchip, according to the statements. At the Gavises' request, the gold--valued at about $12--was melted and stamped into two round pendants, which the couple put on chains around their necks. Koumanian, disturbed by what she had heard, went to a local library where she found newspaper clippings about the murder in Spotsylvania and reported the couple's visit to Stewart, who immediately inspected the grave and discovered the sod had been recently disturbed.
Friends of the Gavis family are still trying to absorb the latest twist in the family's history. Three farmers, gathered around their pickups on Rte. 656 last week, shook their heads at the stream of curiosity seekers that had come by to look at the Gavis place. "There must have been seven hundred by here," said one.
"Well, you know, I was thinking of riding by myself the other day," said another, "but I reckoned I'd get a little skittish."