Charles Severance was always the kind of peculiar that made people uncomfortable, even afraid. An oddly dressed, lesser-known politico in Alexandria, Severance ranted about the city’s mental health system in public forums and once even threw a punch at the organizer of a mayoral debate.
On Monday — as Severance appeared in a West Virginia courtroom on a fugitive from justice warrant — prosecutors said that the bearded 53-year-old history buff, who often wears a tri-corner hat, might be more than just eccentric. Ohio County prosecutor Scott Smith said that Alexandria authorities are investigating Severance in connection with three slayings of high-profile residents in the city in the past decade and that once Severance learned of that, he tried to seek asylum at the Russian Embassy in the District.
“Mr. Severance is a danger to the public and a flight risk,” Smith said at the hearing.
Severance is not charged in any killing. It is unclear what — if any — evidence investigators have to connect him to the February slaying of music teacher Ruthanne Lodato, the November shooting of regional transportation planner Ronald Kirby or the 2003 killing of real estate agent Nancy Dunning.
But Smith’s assertions — which show how closely Alexandria authorities are focusing on Severance — were enough to persuade a judge to order the defendant held without bond until a hearing Wednesday. Severance’s attorney, Shayne Welling, had argued that even the previous $100,000 bond was high, given that his client faces only a weapons charge from Loudoun County.
Wearing a khaki jacket over an orange jail jumpsuit, Severance said nothing during the roughly 10-minute hearing. Welling said his client plans to fight extradition on the weapons charge, and a judge set a hearing on that issue for March 31.
Alexandria police spokeswoman Crystal Nosal would not say Monday whether investigators had tried to talk with Severance.
“We have no warrant on this man,” she said. “He’s part of the investigation, but I’m not going to get into every individual step of the investigation that our detectives are taking.”
Those who knew Severance recently said that he struck them as little more than a quirky man interested in board games and traveling. Family members of the victims of the three Alexandria shootings have said that they did not know Severance and that they were curious to learn more about him.
“This is definitely a surprise for us,” said Marilyn Kirby, Ron Kirby’s daughter. “All I can say is that we all want closure, and hopefully they find enough evidence and see if this is the assailant who’s responsible and if there’s a connection to all three cases.”
Severance lived in Alexandria in the 1990s and early 2000s and drew attention for his forays into politics and his eccentric behavior, according to neighbors and others who knew him. He seemed to suffer from mental illness, according to court records that show he had seen a psychiatrist and was resistant to taking a prescription for an anti-psychotic drug used to treat schizophrenia.
Irene Cardon, 62, who lived near Severance on Gunston Road more than a decade ago, said she remembered that he would often wear shorts in cold weather.
She said that once, when a fire alarm in the condominium community was malfunctioning and ringing during a thunderstorm, Severance came outside in the rain, without a coat, and smashed it. “Just very matter of factly, not in anger,” Cardon said. “He was just odd.”
Although he seemed to have no chance of winning, Severance mounted mayoral and congressional campaigns in Virginia in 1996 and 2000, listing his occupation in a voter guide as “Expert witness, principal investigator, mentaldisorder.com.”
The Web site — which appears to be written by Severance — is a collection of diatribes about prescription drugs, guns and Severance’s unsuccessful battle for custody of his son. “Imagine yourself, an eccentric psychopath, being diagnosed with schizophrenia and having the opportunity to submit to toxic lifetime maintenance medication every day for the rest of your life,” the author writes.
Ginny Parry, 62, a former co-president of Alexandria’s League of Women Voters, said she recalls Severance wearing dark sunglasses and ranting about mental health issues during televised political debates that she organized. She said Severance once adamantly refused a TV camera operator’s request that he take off the sunglasses.
“I actually felt kind of sorry for him,” Parry said. “He was clearly somebody in need, and he wasn’t getting what he needed from the city, whatever that was. He was really, I think, very angry about the city and its services.”
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.
“He was sort of a gadfly who wanted to be involved in local politics,” Kuckro said. “He didn’t seem like a threatening person, just a little disturbed.”
News accounts from the time say Severance spent 10 days in jail in 1997 on a misdemeanor weapons charge. Court records show he also was involved in a bitter custody dispute with his child’s mother, who said Severance was “verbally abusive” and once accused her of feeding him poisoned brownies. Police once came into the house after an encounter between the two, court records show, and found two rifles, a .38-caliber revolver, a laser sight and two gas masks.
In more recent years, Severance lived in Western Maryland and in Loudoun County. He was a regular at the Game Parlor store in Chantilly, Va., where a man who frequents the establishment said Severance often wore a fur coat as he talked politics and played Settlers of Catan.
“He tended to be on the ultra-conservative side of things,” said the man, who declined to give his name. “He liked to argue politics with people, and he would take an unpopular position just to go into a long debate just to see whatever people would say.”
Severance was arrested several times for assault and indecent exposure 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, Severance’s former attorney in Cumberland, Md., said he still receives postcards from Severance, who seems to travel across the country. The last postcard he got, McKinley said, arrived about five months ago from Buffalo Trace, a 200-year-old bourbon distillery in Kentucky.
“He is a good-hearted guy,” McKinley said. “He did have his idiosyncrasies, but nothing I would consider crazy.”
It is unclear how Severance was supporting himself then and now. McKinley said his former client did not have a job and lived either off disability checks or with money from his family.
Relatives of Severance have declined repeated requests for comment. His attorney also declined to comment after Monday’s hearing.
Alexandria police have said Severance’s name came up during a “routine analysis of crime tips.” Prosecutors in West Virginia wrote in court filings that when he showed up at the Russian Embassy on Wisconsin Avenue on March 7 — dressed in a tri-corner hat and wearing a serape — he had been “advised of the fact that investigators wanted to speak with” him in Alexandria.
Turned away from the embassy, they wrote, Severance left and eventually went to West Virginia. A hotel manager there said he chatted casually with Severance about Revolutionary War-era history and historical sites in the area.
Wheeling police arrested Severance on Thursday as he sat at a computer at the Ohio County Public Library. Wheeling police officials have said that they were acting on a request from the FBI. The warrant accused Severance of being a felon in possession of a firearm.
Smith said in court that there are “two firearms that haven’t been accounted for” in connection with that case and that Severance “was one of the last individuals . . . to have access to them.” After the hearing, he offered a warning about Severance.
“He’s dangerous,” he said. “He’s a danger to the public.”
Peter Hermann, Patrick Svitek, Mary Pat Flaherty, Patricia Sullivan, Dan Morse and Jennifer Jenkins contributed to this report.