After three months of silence, Alexandria police have confirmed that a 53-year-old former resident, a nomadic and eccentric would-be politician named Charles Severance, is the focus of their investigation into three killings that unsettled residents of the low-crime city.
But Police Chief Earl L. Cook also said last week that an arrest is “not imminent” and that Severance is not a suspect in the deaths of Ruthanne Lodato, Ronald Kirby and Nancy Dunning inside their homes, although he is “more that than not that.”
For now, the only charge Severance faces is possession of a handgun by a nonviolent felon in Loudoun County, where he lived with his girlfriend from mid-2011 until March.
The question remains: Is he a killer or a quirky resident who happens to resemble a police sketch of one?
“I’m not sure that there’s any evidence that connects him to Ron’s murder,” said Anne Haynes, Kirby’s widow. “He looks like the picture — that’s what everyone agrees — but then so do other people.”
When Dunning, a real estate agent, was slain in her home in 2003, there were no witnesses. No one saw the person who shot Kirby, a regional transportation planner, last year. But a caregiver in Lodato’s home saw that gunman and later helped police produce the composite sketch of a middle-aged white man with an unruly beard.
Shortly after Lodato’s death in February, police said they believed that the three mysterious daylight shootings were connected. All appear to have involved a small-caliber gun that left a similar bullet pattern, Cook said.
Police released the sketch, and tips flowed in. A bearded co-worker of Kirby’s was interviewed by police. Severance’s defense attorney, Ed Ungvarsky, said in court recently that a Leesburg attorney had a client who had been interviewed based on the sketch. In February, a classical music fan was seized by U.S. Park Police during a concert at the National Academy of Sciences but quickly released. And someone, Cook said, told police that Severance resembled the suspect.
Severance’s girlfriend, Linda Robra, testified Wednesday in the Loudoun gun case that when an Alexandria detective showed her the sketch in March, she observed that the drawing could be many people.
“ ‘Believe me, I know,’ ” she said the officer replied, telling her that the department had received 1,500 tips in the case.
In an interview, Cook said the weapon or weapons have not been found. He would not say what — if any — evidence links Severance to the shootings, although police said he is the “primary focus” of their investigation.
The chief said it was Severance’s own behavior that led police to zero in on him. After he had been contacted by law enforcement, Severance showed up at the Russian Embassy, acting strangely and seeking asylum, officials said. When he was turned away, he left for West Virginia and ended up at a motel in Wheeling.
Robra, a substitute teacher who has also worked as a real estate agent, said in Loudoun County District Court that she had told her boyfriend to leave her house if he would not speak to police. She attributed his reluctance to unpleasant dealings with law enforcement during a custody dispute with an ex-girlfriend. She wanted him to cooperate, she explained, because she didn’t want police inside the Ashburn townhouse they shared. When police did search the home, they found a half-pound of marijuana, according to testimony.
Severance told her that he was going camping, she testified, an activity he enjoyed and she didn’t. He had spent three months living in the woods in 2012, she said.
“I told him to take all of his things and not come back,” she said.
Severance was arrested in Wheeling a few days later and has been in custody ever since. FBI agents searched his car, which was crammed with more than three dozen items, including a gun-cleaning kit, according to court testimony.
Robra told the judge that Severance had bought such a kit and had also suggested that she buy two .22-caliber revolvers because they would fit well in her small hands. He showed her how to load the guns, she said, and he knew where they were kept — one in her closet and one in her home office drawer. Those guns have not been found, Loudoun’s chief prosecutor said.
That evidence was enough to move the weapons case to a grand jury, which will meet in July. Because he was convicted of a felony in the past decade — carrying a concealed weapon in Rockingham County, Va., in 2005 — Severance can not legally have guns. Should he be convicted, he would face a mandatory minimum sentence of two years.
Some Alexandria residents who interacted with Severance during his two runs for mayor in 1996 and 2000 remembered him as strange but harmless; others have said they were frightened by him. An ex-girlfriend described him in a bitter custody battle as “verbally abusive” and once called police during an encounter at their home.
Robra, who met Severance at a swing dance at the Dulles Hilton in 2011, said in court that during their time together, he had never been violent.
Steven Katz, who knows Severance through the Northern Virginia board-game community, said he thinks police have “no genuine forensic evidence.”
“They’re making it look like he’s the only person who could have possibly done it,” Katz said. “My suspicion is that the Alexandria police department . . . desperately wants to believe that he could have done it because they don’t have anything else.” Cook said police are still gathering leads on Severance.
For loved ones of the three victims, it’s a difficult wait.
“Everybody just wants some kind of resolution,” said a Lodato family friend.