We can’t look away when bad things happen to rich people. Crime that afflicts the affluent always commands front pages, gobbles up airtime and goes viral on social media.
All week long, Washington’s news has been dominated by two awful crimes in upscale neighborhoods: the unsolved killings of wealthy Washington couple Savvas and Amy Savopoulos, their 10-year-old son and one of their housekeepers, and the bloody Mother’s Day slaying of Rockville, Md., hotel developer Richard “Dick” Vilardo and his retired accountant wife, Julianne “Jody” Vilardo.
Over the weekend, police arrested a 31-year-old neighbor of the Vilardos, Scott Tomaszewski. The guy was on an Alaskan cruise with his parents when he was charged with the brutal stabbing deaths. He allegedly confessed to the slayings instead of going whale-watching.
No wonder we’ve been riveted. The Vilardos were amazingly accomplished people whose deaths stunned their family and friends.
The same was true of the Savopouloses, who were active donors to social and political causes and who left behind two teenage daughters. Savvas, 46, was president and chief executive of American Iron Works, which helped build Verizon Center and CityCenterDC.
Who killed them, set their house ablaze and stole their blue Porsche? We want to know just as badly as the police.
This obsession may be unseemly, but it is not new. It’s always been part of American culture. In the 19th century, the country was gripped by the saga of Lizzie Borden, who was tried and acquitted of hacking apart her well-to-do parents. Four decades later, H.L. Mencken dubbed the 1932 kidnapping and killing of the Lindbergh baby and the subsequent trial and first-degree murder conviction of Bruno Hauptmann “the biggest story since the Resurrection.”
Remember our fascination with JonBenet Ramsey, the 6-year-old who was strangled in her beautiful Boulder, Colo., home in 1996? The case is still unsolved and still impossible to resist reading about two decades later.
Meanwhile, thousands of regular, everyday people are killed in burglaries, in house fires and by family members. And the rest of the country rarely gives two hoots. The race and class of victims undoubtedly play a role in this. And there’s something sad about that.
We shouldn’t place more value on a life if the victim was pretty or wealthy or white. A mansion fire shouldn’t be treated as more tragic than a rowhouse blaze. And a dead socialite should not be treated as more important than a dead prostitute. This isn’t #RichLivesMatter.
But our curiosity always gets the best of us when tragedy goes upscale. Our insatiable desire to know more is about us, the regular people. It’s about the “I’ll just have the ice water” diners, the bus-riding brown-baggers, the people who drive the cloth-seat car model. It’s about the people who vacation at Six Flags, rather than the Four Seasons, the people who think, “if only.”
If only we weren’t always scraping by and worrying about money. If only we won the lottery, we’d be happy. If only we were rich, our problems would go away.
If only . . .
But when bad things happen to rich people, it challenges that thinking. Even wealth cannot always protect people from the worst blows that life can deliver. And giving in to envy and covetousness is not the path to safety, security and happiness.
But we already knew that, right?
To read previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/dvorak.