Charles Severance, the bearded and bizarrely dressed onetime political candidate whom detectives have long suspected of killing some of Alexandria’s most well-known and well-liked residents, is now charged in three slayings.
But a day after those charges were filed, family members and friends of the victims and the accused have the same question that has haunted them for months:
What motivated the crimes?
“There’s a lot of circumstantial evidence, which could end up making a case. What causes me anxiety is why,” said Eugene Robert Giammittorio Sr., whose sister, Ruthanne Lodato, is among those Severance is charged with killing.
Severance, 53, was indicted Monday in the February slaying of Lodato, a music teacher; the November shooting of Ronald Kirby, a regional transportation planner; and the 2003 killing of Nancy Dunning, a real estate agent. All were shot at midday in their homes in well-to-do neighborhoods that are within two miles of one another. All were prominent figures in Alexandria, and all were relatively close in age: Lodato was 59, Dunning was 56 and Kirby was 69.
Police and prosecutors declined to say what evidence they have linking Severance to the slayings, although they asserted that they believe he alone is responsible. In previous interviews, family members of the victims have said their loved ones had only tenuous connections even to one another: Giammittorio, for example, is a retired Alexandria General District Court judge and said he knew Dunning’s husband, the late Alexandria Sheriff James Dunning, and his wife professionally and through political events.
But none of the victims’ family members have said they could recall any links to Severance.
They have pursued investigations themselves. Giammittorio said he asked court staffers to pull his old case files to see if he had presided over a case in which Severance was involved. The murder charges are not Severance’s first foray into the court system: He went through a bitter child-custody dispute, and in 2005, he was convicted of carrying a concealed weapon in Rockingham County, Va. His rambling writings on a Web site seem to indicate a general disagreement with law enforcement.
But Giammittorio said he could locate no record — nor recall any case — in which Severance appeared before him.
“The people who checked it said they could not find anything with his name on it and my name on it,” Giammittorio said.
Alexandria Commonwealth’s Attorney Bryan Porter said in a statement Monday that he will not seek the death penalty for Severance, who is charged with capital murder in two of the slayings. Giammittorio said he, personally, is far more concerned with learning details of the case than with a possible sentence.
“As long as he’s kept somewhere — whether he’s dead or in prison — I don’t care,” Giammittorio said.
Giammittorio said he was “glad of it” when he heard the news of Severance’s indictment, in no small part because of how long it apparently had been in the works. Severance has been in police custody since March, when he was arrested in Wheeling, W.Va. on a fugitive-from-justice warrant that bore no connection to the Alexandria crimes. Alexandria’s mayor called Severance a “person of interest” in the slayings at the time.
“I was starting to wonder what they were up to,” Giammittorio said.
The initial warrant stemmed from an unrelated weapons charge from Loudoun County, and authorities there said Tuesday that for now, they are still pursuing their case; a trial is set to begin Oct. 27.
As of late Tuesday, an initial court appearance had not been scheduled in Alexandria. Police and prosecutors there declined to release new information.
An unusual and politically minded man, Severance mounted unsuccessful mayoral and congressional campaigns in Virginia in 1996 and 2000. In a voters guide, he listed his job as “Expert witness, principal investigator, mentaldisorder.com.”
Severance dressed oddly — he frequently wore a tricorn hat — and he showed flashes of menacing behavior. Fay Fulfer, who lived across the street from Severance in Cumberland, Md., in the early 2000s, said, “Something about him just didn’t click for me.” She said she found his home, where he ran a small hostel, “creepy.”
But Fulfer said she would let her kids play in Severance’s back yard, where Severance often bathed in a clawfoot tub wearing nothing but tiny shorts.
Ed Ungvarsky, Severance’s attorney, declined to comment.
Efforts to reach Severance’s family members were unsuccessful. Steve Katz, who knows Severance from a Northern Virginia board-game group, said he was “anxious” for the trial to begin so he could see what evidence police have.
“Unless he somehow knew the victims, I find it hard to believe he committed any of the murders,” Katz said. “I just don’t see a motive.”
There might not be one. Alexandria Police Chief Earl L. Cook said at a news conference Monday that he could not “get into the mentality of Mr. Severance” and thus did not know whether he targeted the victims. Giammittorio said he has wondered if there is an explanation for why his sister was chosen or if the killer “didn’t need a reason that you and I can make sense of.”
“I can’t decide which I want the answer to be,” Giammittorio said, “because either way, it’s scary.”
Peter Hermann contributed to this report.