An eccentric history buff was found guilty Monday of killing three prominent Alexandria residents over the course of a decade — an outcome that solves one of the D.C. suburb’s highest-profile mysteries and will put the serial killer behind bars for the rest of his life.
After deliberating for about 12
Jurors later recommended that he be sentenced in each case to life in prison without the possibility of parole. The judge is expected to formally impose the penalty in January.
Severance had been charged with murder in the February 2014 slaying of music teacher Ruthanne Lodato, the November 2013 shooting of regional transportation planner Ronald Kirby and the December 2003 killing of real estate agent Nancy Dunning. Prosecutors said bitterness over a child custody battle that he lost and a general hatred of Alexandria’s elite motivated him to shoot the victims — all apparently strangers to him — in daylight attacks at their homes.
A sense of unease descended on the city after the more recent killings; a locksmith said at the time that he was deluged with phone calls asking about the installation of peepholes. After Monday’s verdict, some relatives of those slain said they finally felt a sense of relief.
Elizabeth Dunning, Nancy Dunning’s daughter, told jurors that her family “had long ago stopped believing that this day would come.” Severance’s conviction had “already given us more than we ever expected,” she said.
But she urged jurors to consider that she would eventually have to tell her 2- and 6-year-old sons what had happened to their grandmother.
“I want to be able to tell them, ‘The man who killed your grandmother is going to be in prison for the rest of his life. He can’t hurt you,’ ” Dunning said. “Please give me those words to say.”
Alexandria Police Chief Earl L. Cook, speaking at police headquarters, said that with the conviction, “from this individual, our community has nothing else to fear.” Commonwealth’s Attorney Bryan Porter said, “The reign of the Alexandria assassin is over.”
Severance remained quiet throughout Monday’s proceedings — something of a surprise, given his previous outbursts in court. His attorneys said they were considering whether to appeal.
Severance’s father, Stan, issued a statement saying the family “respect[s] the verdict.”
“We want to express our deepest sympathy to the Dunnings, Kirbys and Lodatos for their losses,” the family’s statement read. “There’s no words to express their loss. Our family is a strong family. We will pursue and continue on.”
The verdict and sentence capped an emotional day in which the loved ones of the slain offered tearful descriptions of the pain the crimes had inflicted on them.
Marilyn Kirby, Kirby’s daughter, told jurors she had lost “my hero, best friend.” She said she has thought about how her father will not be there to walk her down the aisle on her wedding day.
Norman Lodato, Lodato’s widower, said he longed “for a day when the pain is not so great, but those days are few and far between.” Lucia Lodato, Lodato’s daughter, said that her sister is expecting a child in a month and that “being a grandma would have been my mom’s life’s greatest role.”
Perhaps most notable, though, were the sentiments of Dunning’s relatives, who described what they had endured for the past 12 years with her murder unsolved. Investigators had long considered Dunning’s husband, former Alexandria sheriff James Dunning, one of their top suspects, though he was never charged with any crime.Patty Moran, Dunning’s sister, said the verdict “will ensure there will once again be peace in our homes and in the city of Alexandria.” He died in 2012.
Elizabeth Dunning, the victim’s daughter, said the outcome was bittersweet. “Our relief today is mixed with anguish that our dad is not here standing beside us, finally feeling the weight of cruel and unfair suspicion being lifted from his shoulders,” she said.
Cook said the law enforcement community was sorry it had not been able to clear James Dunning before his death. “We can’t go back,” Cook said. “We were never able to do that for him, but hopefully we’ll be able to do that for his survivors.”
Porter said he was “happy that we were able to give some solace to the Dunning family and to remove that cloud of suspicion from their father forever.”
“Obviously it’s posthumous,” he said. “It’s too late. It doesn’t change that he had to live the last couple years of his life in an unfortunate situation.”
At the weeks-long trial, jurors learned that Severance — who watched the proceedings from a wheelchair — was a peculiar man who sometimes seemed to battle psychological demons and other times seemed to lead a normal life. The son of a two-star Navy admiral, Severance lived in various places in his youth and enjoyed traveling, history and gaming. He attended three colleges, ultimately graduating with a mechanical engineering degree from the University of Virginia, and was briefly married. In recent years, he would go over to his parents’ house weekly to watch the TV show “Survivor.”
But Severance acted unusually almost throughout his life. Family members said he was vigorously opposed to smoking, even confronting his parents’ guests about it when they came for dinner. When he campaigned for political office in Alexandria in 1996 and 2000, a part of his platform was to encourage “country dancing” in the school system. When he wrote to family members, the missives were often rambling and nonsensical. An expert testified he had a personality disorder with mixed paranoid and schizotypal features.
Winning convictions on every count was hardly guaranteed. Prosecutors gave jurors Severance’s voluminous, sometimes violent writings, some of which seemed to describe his crimes. One, for example, said “Knock. Talk. Enter. Kill. Exit. Murder.” But none of the documents mentioned any of the victims by name.
Prosecutors linked the three killings with ballistics: An expert testified that a particular type of ammunition was used in all three cases, and those crimes were the only ones the expert had ever seen in which that type of ammunition was used. Severance also wrote of a fondness for that ammunition. But investigators did not recover a murder weapon, and defense attorneys said the ammunition was widely available.
Prosecutors had a pivotal eyewitness in the Lodato killing: Janet Dorcas Franko, a home health aide who worked in the Lodato home and who was shot and wounded at the same time Lodato was killed. She identified Severance in court as her attacker, and prosecutors buttressed her testimony with that of a woman who said she had seen him driving in the area at the time and surveillance video of what appeared to be his car.
In the other cases, the evidence was weaker. A plumber claimed to have seen Severance around Kirby’s house at about the time of his death, but he did not tell police that when he was first interviewed. Prosecutors suggested that Severance was the man caught on a surveillance video possibly following Dunning at a Target store shortly before she was killed. But several of Severance’s friends and relatives disputed that the man on the footage was Severance.
After Monday’s hearing ended, the 12 jurors walked briskly from the courthouse to the parking garage, declining to be identified and saying little about how they had reached their decisions. “The verdict stands for itself,” one woman said.
Chris Leibig, an attorney for Severance, said in court that although his client was found guilty of murder, jurors should not view his story as “there was an evil man and you convicted him.” He said Severance was a man “who had a lot of potential and a good family” but never got the mental health treatment he needed.
“Mr. Severance,” he said, “is not a monster.”
Porter said he had considered seeking the death penalty in the case, but the “mental health component” persuaded him not to.
Judge Randy I. Bellows is scheduled to formally impose the life sentence, which is required by law in a capital murder case in which death is off the table, on Jan. 22.
Patricia Sullivan contributed to this report.