Day four: An unwitting accomplice?
On a day when colleagues of slain kindergarten teacher Justine Abshire took the stand to describe a talented, highly respected professional who appeared distraught on the last day of her life, it was another witness who shocked the courtroom, as he testified that, unwittingly, on the night of Justine's death he may have helped her widower, former dump truck driver and Greene County resident Eric Abshire, stage a hit and run.
"I got lost," said Cecil Roebuck, whose Charlottesville-based parade float-manufacturing business allegedly took him to the side roads of Greene County late on the night of November 2, 2006, in search of a school bus whose chassis he hoped to use for a float base.
Confused in the dark on the unfamiliar roads, Roebuck testified, he pulled his car into a driveway to turn around when a man approached. Roebuck sought directions back to U.S. 29, he testified, and the man responded with a request of his own.
"My wife's car is almost out of gas," the man allegedly said, asking Roebuck to follow him to a gas station. Roebuck testified that he followed the car along winding roads that Roebuck didn't recognize. But before they reached any fuel, the man allegedly pulled the car onto a shoulder, told Roebuck it had run out of gas, and asked for a ride– not to a gas station, but back to his house.
As extensively reported in the Hook, Abshire has long contended that his wife left their Fredericksburg Road house some time after midnight on the morning of November 3 following an argument, only to call him just after 1am to say that her car had broken down and she needed him to retrieve her.
Roebuck's testimony– that Abshire drove his wife's car there that night– pokes another hole in a story that prosecutors say is full of them. But the defense attempted to poke holes in Roebuck's story, suggesting that the man who could be the prosecution's star witness has motivation to lie.
Roebuck testified he didn't connect his experience that November night with Justine's death until more than two years later, in December 2008, when he read several articles on her death and watched an hour-long ABC Primetime Crime episode that originally aired in July 2008.
"It looked like him," Roebuck said, pointing to Abshire.
He reported his recollection to the Virginia State Police tip line, who, according to law enforcement testimony today, found Roebuck's story credible after verifying the path Roebuck claimed to have taken, the date of his trek, and the location of an old school bus on Fredericksburg Road close to the house that Eric and Justine shared.
The defense, however, suggested that Roebuck was actually after the $50,000 reward offered in the case and was hoping to receive some favorable treatment from prosecutors in two felony fraud charges he was then facing in Albemarle County stemming from a $10,000 debt. (While he eventually entered an Alford plea to reduced misdemeanor counts, Roebuck and his attorney, JIm Summers, both testified that no special treatment was sought or offered in exchange for his tip.)
Also testifying on day three of the prosecution's case was Justine's father, Steve Swartz, who detailed the dire financial straits his daughter faced at the time of her death, with $85,000 in debt, much of it on credit cards, and just a $34,000 salary.
Emotion ran high as several of Justine's colleagues testified about seeing her distraught at Emerald Hill Elementary on November 2, 2006, what turned out to be the last day of her life.
"She looked awful," said reading specialist Jennifer Bryant. "Her eyes were swollen shut, her face was flushed. It looked as if she'd been crying severely."
Bryant was one of four colleagues who testified that sympathetic questioning of their friend's condition led to the same reply: "I have allergies," Justine reportedly told them.
According to both Bryant and to Justine's self-described "best friend," Kathleen Whitley, Justine's odd behavior actually began around the time of her May 28, 2006, wedding to Eric Abshire when Justine distanced herself from the women with whom she'd frequently socialized outside work.
"We didn't talk as much, she didn't return phone calls," recalled Whitley, a fellow Emerald Hill kindergarten teacher.
In addition to reporting that Justine appeared to be upset throughout the day, Whitley testified to stopping by Justine's classroom with a question that morning. The classroom door was locked, she testified, and when she peered through the glass portion of the door, she could see Justine "sitting with her back to the door, talking on her cellphone."
Justine did not respond to Whitley "jiggling" the handle, and later that day, she declined to drive in tandem with Whitley to the UVA graduate class the two women attended at Orange County Elementary School. Instead, Whitley testified, Justine arrived 30 minutes late to class and wore sunglasses inside. After class ended at 7pm, Whitley said, Justine left immediately.
Within hours, she'd be dead.
One detail the jury didn't hear: Bryant's recollection of several shopping trips she and Justine took to Fredericksburg in late 2004 or early 2005, where they visited the Best Buy store where Eric Abshire was working. Abshire, Brantley told the court, seemed less than loving toward his wife.
"He called her stupid and dumb, multiple times," said Brantley, whose testimony on this detail was excluded by Orange County Circuit Court Judge Daniel Bouton because the events occurred nearly two years before her death.
Virginia State Police Special Agent Mike Jones also returned to the stand today, where under cross examination, Abshire's attorney Charles Weber asked about a car that mysteriously burned on Taylorsville Road sometime in the weeks after Justine's death. Through his questioning, Weber was accusing Jones of failing to follow up on tips that might lead to someone other than Abshire.
In his final ruling of the day, Judge Bouton denied the prosecution's request to introduce evidence about an SUV that was reported stolen five days before Justine's death and was discovered in an unlocked storage unit just a mile and a half from her body. Abshire had looked at the SUV on two occasions in October 2006, and during one of his visits, the key went missing. Commonwealth's Attorney Diana Wheeler revealed that when it was recovered on November 11, 2006, just over a week after Justine's death, the SUV had been stripped of its floor mats, running boards, and rear seat. No physical evidence, however, tied it to Eric or Justine.
The trial resumes Tuesday, October 18.Read more on: eric abshire