A grand jury in Alexandria on Monday indicted an eccentric former political candidate in the slayings of three prominent residents over the past decade, charging the man police had identified months ago as their primary focus.
Charles Severance, 53, is accused in the February slaying of music teacher Ruthanne Lodato, the November shooting of regional transportation planner Ronald Kirby and the 2003 killing of real estate agent Nancy Dunning. He is charged with capital murder in two of the cases, though prosecutors said that, if Severance is convicted, they won’t seek the death penalty.
Alexandria Police Chief Earl L. Cook would not comment on what police think the killer’s motive was, saying he did not want to hinder the prosecution. Authorities have previously said they determined that the same gun may have been used in the three killings, though Cook said Monday that no weapons connected to the crimes have been found.
Cook hinted that Severance probably knew the victims, saying that Alexandria is “a pretty tightknit community — any people who have been here for any length of time tend to know each other.” No one else was involved in the deaths, he said. But he offered little other detail.
“I can’t get into the mentality of Mr. Severance,” he said. “I don’t know personally whether it was targeted or not.”
The charges may bring some comfort, and eventually answers, to a community that has lived with the fear of a serial killer. All three victims were shot at midday in their homes by a killer who left no sign of forced entry. They died within two miles of each other, in a neighborhood where violent crime is rare.
“This is a very emotional crime. This is a personal crime,” Cook told reporters, saying it had been “frustrating and disturbing and terrible” for Dunning’s family in particular to go so long with no answers. “I am confident that the suspect, Charles Severance, is the suspect we have been looking for.”
Outside the Alexandria police department Monday, members of Dunning’s family gathered and said they were grateful for the police work that led to the charges.
“While nothing can bring her back, we hope this indictment is the beginning of a process that will offer our family and the other affected families some small amount of closure,” said daughter Liz Dunning.
Severance is being held in Loudoun County on an unrelated gun charge, and his attorney in that case did not immediately return a call for comment. His family members also did not return calls for comment.
An odd but politically minded man, Severance mounted unsuccessful mayoral and congressional campaigns in Virginia in 1996 and 2000, listing his occupation in a voter guide as “Expert witness, principal investigator, mentaldisorder.com.”
His dress was peculiar — he often wore tricorn hats — and he showed flashes of menacing behavior. Long ago, when a fire alarm in the condominium community where he lived was malfunctioning and ringing during a thunderstorm, Severance came outside in the rain, without a coat, and smashed it, a neighbor said. Rod Kuckro, former president of the Alexandria Federation of Civic Associations, said that Severance “took a swing” at him in 2000 after Kuckro would not let him participate in a debate of major-party candidates.
Severance was arrested several times on assault and indecent exposure counts in Maryland in the 2000s. Most charges were not prosecuted, but he was convicted of a felony charge of carrying a concealed weapon in Rockingham County, Va., in 2005.
G.V. McKinley, an attorney for Severance in earlier cases who continued to receive postcards from him, said he was surprised by the indictment.
“I am still so baffled by it,” he said. “The man I know is just not that way.”
The break in the Alexandria cases came after the sole surviving victim of the shootings, a caregiver who was wounded along with Lodato, helped police create a sketch of the gunman. Tips flooded in after police released the image of a white man with a bushy beard. One of those tips led to Severance.
After police left a card at his girlfriend’s Loudoun home in early March, Severance left, telling her that he was going camping, according to court testimony. He showed up at the Russian Embassy in Washington seeking asylum.
Rebuffed, he found his way to Wheeling, W.Va., where he was arrested at a public library. He was charged with illegally possessing a firearm as a felon and has been held since. Severance’s girlfriend has testified that he encouraged her to purchase two .22-caliber guns and showed her how to use them.
Cook said there was no particular clue that led to the charges but rather “continuous” evidence collection. “I can honestly say all the way up until yesterday our detectives continued to work on this case,” he said.
At one point, detectives searched properties where Severance had stayed. The warrants say police were looking for clothing, guns, computer equipment and anything that might contain DNA.
Each of the victims had deep ties in the community. Lodato, 59, was a well-known music teacher. Kirby, 69, was an often-quoted transit expert who worked as director of transportation planning at the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments.
And Dunning, 56, was so involved in organizing arts festivals and other community events that people called her the “Queen of Del Ray.” Her husband, James H. Dunning, was sheriff of Alexandria when she was killed. He died in 2012.
“Patience was waning,” said Alexandria Mayor William D. Euille. “As a mayor, lifelong resident, I’m pleased to know that folks don’t need to be fearful that Alexandria is not a safe place to visit, to work, to live, to play. It is — these were just totally unique cases, hopefully to never be repeated again.”