Getting rid of bodies was a topic that frequently came up while they were watching television in York County, Pa., he told investigators. She taught him that you had to stab a corpse before placing it in water; otherwise, it would float. Another time, she informed him that if someone was using nitroglycerin oral spray to treat a heart condition, you could give them more than the recommended dosage and it would look as though they had a heart attack.
The comments didn’t alarm Harris, who told police that his grandmother “was cool to talk to.” But authorities believe that Hayden’s apparent interest in gruesome topics was concealing something more sinister: The murder of her third husband, Thomas Hayden, who vanished in 2011 at the age of 62.
Police arrested Virginia Hayden on Monday, linking her husband’s disappearance to the grisly mystery of a scalp that was found in a plastic bag by the side of the road seven years earlier. The 67-year-old was arraigned the same day on criminal homicide charges and 64 additional counts that include forgery, theft, conspiracy and tampering with public records, PennLive reported. Authorities allege that she received nearly $117,000 in Social Security benefits intended for her husband that were deposited into a joint account, and forged his signature on a deed transfer that allowed her to sell their home after he went missing.
“We can only take us where the facts lead us,” Northern York County Regional Police Chief Mark Bentzel told WHP-TV. “And in this case, they lead us to Virginia.”
Seven years earlier, a man walking down a narrow country road that runs alongside a rushing creek in Dover Township, Pa., had made a nightmarish discovery. A human scalp, with hair that appeared to be tied in a ponytail, had been placed in a plastic, vacuum-sealed FoodSaver bag, the kind usually used for storing leftovers. Also tucked inside was a piece of a bloody bedsheet.
Police sent the gory remains off to the state crime lab, but no DNA match popped up in the universal database, and the trail ran cold. For more than five years, no one had any idea who the scalp belonged to, or how they might have died.
Then, in January 2017, authorities got a phone call.
Kim Via, Thomas Hayden’s daughter, had been unsuccessfully trying to regain contact with her father, whom she had been estranged from since 2005. Each time she tried calling him, the criminal complaint states, her stepmother answered the phone and told her that her father didn’t want to talk to her. Eventually, Via became suspicious, and asked police to do a welfare check.
As authorities began investigating, they quickly realized that Via wasn’t the only one who hadn’t heard from Thomas Hayden in a long time. At the apartment where his daughter thought he was living, they found Virginia Hayden’s granddaughter, who told them that he had never lived there, and she hadn’t seen him in seven years. Further interviews with family and friends revealed that no one could recall seeing or hearing from him since some point in the fall of 2011.
A former next-door neighbor said Thomas had just “up and disappeared,” and that Virginia had explained his absence by saying that he had died after traveling to Mexico for treatment for amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also known as ALS. Similarly, the man who had bought the Haydens’ old condo in Dover Township in 2014 remembered Virginia telling him that her husband was dead.
The former neighbor also offered a sinister possibility: She and her son-in-law had noticed that Virginia had doubled the size of the condo’s patio by having a concrete slab poured in her backyard. Maybe, the two had joked, Thomas was buried underneath it.
Police searched the property with cadaver-detecting dogs, and found nothing, the York Daily Record reported. But they did find other reasons to be suspicious.
When questioned about her husband’s absence in January 2017, Virginia repeated the story about how Thomas had traveled to Mexico to seek medical treatment for ALS, saying that he had been inspired by a commercial he saw on television. She claimed that he had left one night in 2011, and the last time that she heard from him was sometime that year, when he called her from a blocked number. She didn’t know where he was, she said, and had been telling people he was dead because it was less embarrassing than admitting he had left her.
But when investigators reviewed Thomas’s medical records, they found that he had never been diagnosed with ALS. A doctor had been treating him for chronic pain, but after years of routinely going to his appointments, he had abruptly stopped showing up after September 2011. Virginia had called and canceled two of his appointments that were supposed to take place the following month, telling the office that he was no longer living in the area, police wrote in a criminal complaint. In October 2011, not long after his last visit, she bought a .357 caliber handgun.
It wasn’t the only thing about her account that didn’t add up. In interviews with police, she changed her story about whether Thomas had been alone when he left their home, and was unable to explain the discrepancy. Furthermore, the Daily Record reported, officials with the Department of Homeland Security confirmed that neither of the Haydens had ever been to Mexico. If Thomas Hayden had tried to leave, he likely wouldn’t have gotten far. After getting a warrant to search her apartment, police found that Virginia had his driver’s license, passport and Social Security card stashed away in a lockbox.
She also had a FoodSaver vacuum-sealing device. Officials got DNA samples from Hayden’s two brothers, and sent them out for testing. Months later, a crime lab confirmed with overwhelming certainty that the scalp in the plastic bag had belonged to a sibling of theirs.
Police turned their attention to the couple’s condo, which Virginia had sold for $135,000 in November 2014. The deed seemed to indicate that in November 2013, Thomas had sold the house to her for $1. If true, that would have meant that the transaction took place two years after the last time that anyone could remember seeing him.
But a handwriting expert who reviewed Thomas’s signature on the deed transfer concluded that it had been forged — by his wife. The notary listed on the document was her daughter, Connie Pender, who was arrested separately and pleaded guilty to tampering with public records and conspiracy charges, according to the Daily Record.
In July 2017, police pushed Virginia to tell them where her husband was. “Maybe you ought to check the grave of my second husband for him,” she replied. Thomas Hayden had been her third husband: Her first hung himself after they divorced, and her second died of a heart attack, the Daily Record reported. Taking her at her word, officials paid a visit to her second husband’s grave in Maryland, but found no signs of wrongdoing.
As police continued to zero in on her, Virginia Hayden sat for an interview with the Daily Record in December 2017 and insisted that she was innocent. Flatly denying that she killed her husband, she claimed that she had no idea where he was, and that he had been abusive toward her. She declined to provide any further details about the alleged abuse.
“You’ve never been married to a man that scares you so bad that the day he decides to leave, you pray to God he doesn’t come back,” she told the paper. “You pray to God he forgets about you.”
Though Thomas Hayden’s body still hasn’t been found, a doctor who examined his scalp found enough evidence to conclude that the 62-year-old had “died from a violent death at the hands of another individual.” That individual, authorities believe, was his wife.
Hayden, who does not yet have a lawyer, is being held without bail in advance of a May 10 hearing. Confronted with the evidence that her husband had been killed, she reportedly told investigators that she would write “whatever you want me to write” in a confession, but made it clear that she was doing so under duress and only because her daughter and stepdaughter thought she was responsible.
“So be happy,” she said, according to PennLive. “I give in. So leave me alone. So there it is. That’s my confession.”