Jury: He did it. Abshire murder trial

As the jury weighed its decision in the first-degree murder trial of the Greene County dump truck driver accused of killing his wife for a $1.5 million in insurance payout in a crime so shabbily staged that veteran investigators suspected his involvement within hours of her death, the parents of the victim wondered what their daughter, a kindergarten teacher known as a homebody and animal lover, ever saw in Eric Dee Abshire, a man with a history of violence.

Getting to know him
Just arranging a first meeting with their daughter's new boyfriend was difficult back in 1999, soon after Justine and Eric first met. Both were working in the Lowe's home improvement store on U.S. 29, she as a cashier, he as a manager. Justine's parents Steve and Heidi Swartz say their repeated invitations for 1997 Western Albemarle High School graduate daughter to bring Abshire along for a family dinner went unanswered for months. In fact, the invitation was never accepted, and the Swartzes relocated to New York before meeting him.

It was only a visit back to Virginia in January of the next year that they finally met Abshire when he joined Justine for dinner at a restaurant in Harrisonburg, home of James Madison University, where Justine had transferred and was working toward her teaching degree. The Swartzes weren't impressed with the then 26-year-old Abshire, describing him as "not very open, not outgoing," but claim they kept an open mind– even after then 20-year-old Justine told them he was the father of two young girls.

There's no doubt that the pair came from different backgrounds. Justine's father is vice president for a telecommunications firm, and her mother owned an upscale culinary boutique. The Greene native, by contrast, skipped college to join the Marines and then returned to launch a hauling business. While Justine was such a quintessential "good girl" that, friends say, she never drank in high school or college, Eric would admit to picking fights in bars. He's been the subject of a restraining order by a prior domestic partner, and in 2002 was charged with malicious wounding– information Justine's parents would learn only after their daughter's death.

If Steve and Heidi Swartz had early concerns, they weren't the only ones troubled by Justine's choice of men. Holly Boardman, Justine's best friend and roommate at Hollins University, where Justine spent her first two years of college, says Justine changed soon after she met Abshire.

Best friends who'd eschewed all intoxicants and who were affectionately known by college pals as "the 80-year-old couple," the two fell apart after Justine found Eric. Visits slowed, and, to Boardman's shock, Justine even rejected a bouquet of roses brought to celebrate her new Harrisonburg apartment, with the explanation, "Eric doesn't like when you give me gifts."

The friends who'd once gone dancing nearly every weekend and swapped clothes saw each other for the last time at Boardman's 2001 Hollins graduation. They stayed in touch by phone, with Justine sometimes expressing the fantasy that she and Boardman should move to Alaska together.

Like so many plans in Justine's too-short life, it would never happen.

Love shack?
If parents and old friends felt the young woman pulling away, those in Abshire's circle claim just the opposite.

"Always happy, smiling, laughing, always just a great person," testified defense witness Jill Madison, who married Abshire's cousin Mark Madison one week after Justine and Abshire's May 28, 2006 wedding. Soon after meeting Justine in 2005, Madison said, the foursome grew so close, they planned build houses next door to each other.
Eric Abshire's older brother, Jesse, who moved in with Eric and Justine during the couple's engagement, testified that in spite of the cramped quarters in the tiny cinderblock house the trio was sharing, his relationship with his sister-in-law was positive. "She treated me great," he said emphatically.

And Eric himself has long maintained that he loved Justine and "lost everything" the night she died. Courtwatchers hoping to hear Abshire's own account of the fateful night were disappointed, as the defense team chose not to put him on the stand. However, back in August 2008 he sat down with the Hook to recount the evening of November 2, 2006.

Abshire said he'd visited his ailing mother at Martha Jefferson Hospital and then returned home after 7pm, soon after Justine arrived home from the Thursday evening class she took for her UVA master's degree program. After time at home with his wife, he received a call from the hospital alerting him that his mother's condition was worsening, so he drove from the couple's house on Fredericksburg Road to the old Martha Jefferson Hospital in downtown Charlottesville, where he remained until around 11:30pm. 

He didn't head straight home, however, and instead drove his car to a storage unit near Stanardsville on Route 33 in Greene County where he traded it for his motorcycle, which was stored there. Although the prosecution revealed the temperature had dipped to 28 degrees– which, according to a wind chill calculator, means riding at just 35mph would have felt like 11 degrees– Abshire said he needed to unwind. Riding his motorcycle, he explained helped him do that.

When he got home the second time that night– at around 12:30am according to his estimate– Justine was awake and wanting to talk about his mother's health. A brief argument about his reticence allegedly made Justine's temper flare.

"Well, maybe I need to be alone, too," he reported her saying before she left in her 2002 Ford Mustang.

It wasn't too long, he says, before he received what he said was a brief call from her at 1:19am. Though friends and family describe the 27-year-old Justine as a cautious person with a lifelong fear of the dark, Abshire says she didn't sound afraid– she sounded defiant.

"I'm on 618," he says she told him, referring to the route number for Taylorsville Road. "My car won't start. Come get me."

He spent 10 to 15 minutes to don his shoes and motorcycle jacket, and find his keys and helmet, before heading out. As he drove along Taylorsville Road– about five miles from the house– he saw something in the road. As he stopped his motorcycle near her body, he "picked her up and had her in my lap." He stayed with her like that, he said, for some period of time before knocking on doors to ask someone to call 911, despite the fact his own cell phone was in his jacket pocket– forgetfulness he attributed to the grave stress of the situation.

In court testimony, the 911 caller– then 18-year-old Amber Lamb– recalled Abshire banging on the front door of her grandmother's Taylorsville Road trailer, where she and her boyfriend were staying for the weekend. Lamb woke her grandmother, who answered the door with Lamb by her side. Abshire was there, Lamb testified, wearing jeans and with his hands in the pockets of his leather jacket. The 911 call was clocked at 1:57am, 38 minutes after Justine's alleged distress call to her husband, and, by Abshire's own account, a full 13 to 18 minutes after he'd reached the scene.

The fact that the open-trunked Mustang started right up for authorities didn't help Abshire's story, and the timeline he provided served as some of the prosecution's main evidence against him.

"The defendant is the person who controlled the timeline," said Orange County Commonwealth's Attorney Diana Wheeler in her opening statement. "It's his word that says she came home after class, his word that says she was alive at 1:19. The evidence shows she probably wasn't alive at 1:19."

The Swartzes didn't need a trial to reach the same conclusion.

The phone call five years ago woke Steve and Heidi Swartz up in their Chattanooga home just after 3am. Steve Swartz couldn't initially make sense of what the caller was telling him, but quickly grasped that it was Eric's brother, Jesse, calling with unthinkable news. Justine was dead. Dazed with shock and grief, the Swartzes made travel arrangements, and left for Virginia that morning. The answers they'd get that day, and in days to follow, however, offered little comfort as their son-in-law's story about details of the night, shifted, they say, and his behavior seemed at odds with his status as grieving widower.

In the trial which open with jury selection October 12, Justine's sister Lauren testified that her Abshire's behavior seemed bizarre from the moment she walked in the door.

"He said, go and take whatever you want," said Lauren, who also testified that Abshire remained holed up in the couple's bedroom for hours. When they did go through Justine's belongings the following week, several things appeared to be missing including red luggage that the Swartz parents had given both daughters one Christmas.

"It reminded me of her," Lauren testified of why she was specifically focused on finding the suitcases, "and we needed something to put her stuff in to take back home." Something else, she said, was noticeably missing.

"There was no winter clothing in the house," she said, noting that even a search of the dirty clothes hamper and washer/dryer turned up only a couple of Justine's items, none suitable for the cold weather outside. Prosecutors would suggest that Justine had been preparing to move out.

On the Saturday after Justine's death, the family went to Preddy Funeral Home in Gordonsville to make arrangements. Eric, Lauren later testified, seemed disinterested.

"He had no preferences or wishes about the service or what happened to her body," Lauren recalled on the stand, adding that Eric volunteered to pay for it.

"He said there would be plenty of insurance money," she testified.

(Three years later, Preddy contacted the family and said the funeral bill had never been paid. Lauren, who was the beneficiary on one of Justine's pre-marriage insurance policies, testified that she paid the bill.)


Three days later
Something the Swartzes wouldn't learn about until much later was perhaps the most unusual aspect of Eric's behavior around the time of Justine's death.

"Did you ever have sexual relations with Mr. Abshire?"

Commonwealth's Attorney Wheeler asked witness Amanda Morris this on day seven. The query prompted Abshire's attorney, Charles Weber, to immediately object, and without delay Judge Daniel Bouton sent jurors from the courtroom. Then he allowed prosecutors to elicit Morris' testimony, which included her account of having sex with the now-36-year-old dump truck driver in the month before his wedding and again just three days after his wife's mysterious death, even before her funeral. 

"He called and came over," Morris explained.

A tall brunette, Morris was then employed at Wet Seal, a boutique offering "cute teen clothing" in Fashion Square Mall and was then known as Amanda Leathers. She testified she was dating Abshire's close friend and dump-truck business partner, and that the tryst with Abshire was a factor in the end of her relationship.

"He was a little upset," Morris said of Abshire, testifying that while she could tell he had been drinking when he arrived at her house, "he wasn't drunk." Supporting previous testimony from her then-boyrfriend, Lee Green, Morris also recalled being present at Abshire's house on the day of Justine's death when Abshire revealed that he possessed naked photos of a female acquaintance. Morris testified that he ripped up the photos "so people wouldn't find out and make it look bad on him."

Prosecutors had hoped to use Morris' account to portray Abshire as something other than a loving and grieving husband, but Judge Bouton nixed the idea.

Plenty of other witnesses would be allowed to help the prosecution make its case.

The missing blood
With no physical evidence connecting Abshire to the crime, the prosecution took six full days and more than 50 witnesses to present the painstaking circumstantial evidence they mustered to convince a jury that Abshire was responsible.

Among the dozens to testify for the prosecution: investigators, who spoke of Abshire's changing story in the days, weeks, and months following Justine's death; insurance agents with evidence that Abshire not only knew about the more than a million dollars he'd receive if Justine died in an accident, but also attempted to collect some of it; and two medical examiners who testified that Justine's death wasn't caused by getting struck by a car as she stood on the road, but that she may have been beaten, strangled, and only then run over after death.

"These findings are what you find in manual strangulation," testified Dr. Todd Luckasevik, a former Fairfax County medical examiner who conducted the autopsy and detailed deep-tissue bruising in the neck muscles coupled with hemorrhages in one eye and lip– strangling hallmarks.

Further, Luckasevik explained to the jury, as he showed graphic images, the massive injuries included 113 that were obvious to the naked eye in addition to numerous severe internal injuries including lacerated and bruised lungs, broken ribs, a shattered pelvis and a lacerated spleen and liver.

Several of the wounds, however, failed to bleed, suggesting that they occurred after death, Luckasevic testified, noting a near-lack of blood at the scene and saying he found less than half the blood he would have expected pooled in her chest and abdominal cavities. A second pathologist noted that the average female body contains five liters of blood and said that less than one liter was recovered from Justine.

Prosecutors contended that the missing blood was evidence Justine was killed elsewhere and then brought to Taylorsville Road, where Abshire staged a hit and run.

But if the prosecution's medical examiners were convinced of murder, the defense presented contrary testimony from Dr. Jonathan L. Arden, a former New York City medical examiner who's been a paid legal consultant since 2003.

"My opinion is that she was standing at the time she was struck by a vehicle," said Arden, emphasizing the fracture in Justine's femur as evidence of getting hit by a vehicle and claiming none of the injuries appeared consistent with being run over while already prone. 

Instead, he testified, the myriad injuries were likely sustained nearly simultaneously as a car struck her in the pelvis and leg region and sent her hurtling through the air.

While he agreed with the prosecution's assertion that a neck injury contributed to death, he disagreed with the state's assessment of how it happened.

"I don't believe strangulation played any role in her death," said Arden, who contended that a broken neck– not immediately apparent to a coroner without a specialized exam– led to sudden death and explains why her injuries failed to bleed. Arden never addressed an apparent lack of embedded gravel or similar debris in any of her surface wounds. Or the missing blood.

On cross examination, Assistant Commonwealth's Attorney Rick Moore focused on Arden's $400 an hour fee.

"How many hours did you put in on this case?" asked Moore. When Arden claimed ignorance of the amount he'd worked or the amount he'd be paid, Moore lasered in.

"Did you intentionally not bring the records so you can't tell the jury how much you've been paid?" demanded Moore, before suggesting that between Arden's hourly fees and his $4,000 per day trial fee, he'd earn a minimum of $7,400 for his efforts.

While downplaying strangulation, Arden was not asked and did not mention anything about the burst blood vessels in Justine's eye and lip, or the contusions on her tongue, all of which the prosecution's medical examiner cited as results of pressure being applied to the neck.


Not the 'marrying type'
Eric Abshire's proclivity for other women and his behavior on the days around his wife's death was a subject of testimony as a friend and former business partner who took the stand to recall serving as Abshire's "alibi" when Abshire was with other woman.

"I just told her I was with you last night," Abshire would tell dump truck business associate and Amanda Morris' former boyfriend Lee Green, according to Green's testimony. Green was among the friends Abshire called hours after he reported finding his wife's body on Taylorsville Road, and according to his testimony, the widower's behavior seemed unusual for a grieving man.

"He showed me naked pictures of a girl," said Green. "He said, 'They might not want to see these today,'" Green said, explaining that "they" referred to Justine's parents who were en route to Abshire's house and wouldn't appreciate naked images of a former girlfriend.

Abshire, Green added, was never "the marrying type," and Green professed surprise when Abshire married Justine in May 2006, less than six months before her death.
Other testimony that came from State Police Special Agent Mike Jones, the lead investigator of the case, who asserted why Abshire's stories stirred police suspicion.

Among the details that Jones cited: the time Abshire arrived home the night Justine died, a stop at Arby's for dinner that Abshire said on different occasions occurred before or after he visited his ailing mother. Jones also testified that Abshire couldn't remember which roads he traveled after he traded his car for his motorcycle at the Ruckersville storage unit.

Jones also mentioned being concerned by Abshire's nickname for his wife.

"He called her 'Thing,'" Jones said.

According to another investigator, a shoe, two gold earrings, and a cell phone were among the items found along Taylorsville Road near Justine's lifeless body. And while investigators measured fabric "drag marks" stretching a dozen feet along the road leading to her body, several other things were missing.

"I've never seen a hit and run where the body was dragged so far with no brake or skid marks," testified former Orange County Sheriff's Deputy Joseph S. Hogsten, who was among the first investigators on the scene and who noticed something even more sinister: the utter absence of vehicle debris.

"In any vehicle crash," Hogsten testified of the more than 100 crashes he's investigated involving cars, pedestrians or animals, "always, the debris is located at the point of impact."

Another witness further shocked the courtroom, as he testified that, unwittingly, on the night of Justine's death he may have helped 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 that night 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.

"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, but before they reached 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.

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, 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.

Roebuck's testimony– that Abshire drove his wife's car to the scene– 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 prosecution's star witness has a motivation to lie: the $50,000 reward for information offered by the parents. The defense says Roebuck was also hoping to receive 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 dire financial straits his daughter faced as the couple's credit-holder. At the time of her death, she had $85,000 in debt, much of it on credit cards, and just a $34,000 salary.

Her final day
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."

According to both Bryant and to Justine's best friend at Emerald Hill, Kathleen Whitley, Justine's odd behavior actually began around the time of her May 28, 2006, wedding when Justine distanced herself from the women with whom she'd frequently socialized.
"We didn't talk as much, she didn't return phone calls," recalled Whitley, a fellow kindergarten teacher.

In addition to reporting that Justine appeared upset that last day, Whitley testified to stopping by Justine's classroom that morning when the classroom door was locked. She said she peered through the glass window to could see Justine "sitting with her back to the door, talking on her cellphone."

While Justine did not respond to Whitley "jiggling" the handle, and later that day declined the tandem drive the two would normally take to the UVA master's degree class the two women attended at Orange County Elementary. Instead, Whitley testified, Justine arrived 30 minutes late to class and, indoors, wore sunglasses. Class ended at 7pm, Whitley testified, and 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 then working. Brantley told the court that Abshire seemed less than loving.

"He called her stupid and dumb, multiple times," said Brantley, whose testimony on this detail was excluded by Judge Bouton because the events occurred nearly two years before her death.

Virginia State Police Special Agent Mike Jones would return to the stand, where under cross examination, defense 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. As it turned out, the blonde hairs embedded in the vehicle were about an inch long, evidence pointing more to a deer than to Justine.
 
Another mysterious vehicle never made it into evidence as Judge Bouton denied the prosecution's request to introduce information about an SUV that was reported stolen five days before Justine's death and later 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. It had been thoroughly cleaned, then sold to Lee Green, Abshire's best friend. When tested the following January, no physical evidence tied it to Eric or Justine.

'I may have made a mistake'
Speaking in a soft– at times shaking– voice, Eric Abshire's high school sweetheart, Allison Crawford, testifying unwillingly, told the court that on the night of Justine's death, Abshire, with whom Crawford has two daughters, revealed he still had feelings for her.

"He asked if there was any chance for our relationship," Crawford recalled of a late-night phone conversation she had with Abshire– one of more than 40 phone calls between the two on November 2, 2006, the last day of Justine Swartz Abshire's life. Crawford also testified that Abshire, whom she met at age 12 and began dating as a junior in high school in 1991, expressed regret that night that he'd married Justine.

"I may have made a mistake," Abshire allegedly told her less than two hours before he'd report finding the mangled body.

The May 28, 2006, wedding at the Mark Addy Inn near Nellysford was also a topic of testimony, as Justine's father, Steve Swartz, returned to the stand and recalled his new son-in-law's alleged disinterest on the day after the wedding.

"He departed, said he was going to ride motorcycles, and I didn't see him again," testified Swartz, recalling Abshire's absence at three events: a lunch, a dinner, and wedding present-opening. Justine, her father said, spent her second night of married life alone at the Inn.

Missing things and insurance
Some court-watchers may have been surprised by the prosecutor's relatively brief questioning of longtime paramour Allison Crawford. There were no questions, for instance, about an alleged choking incident for which Crawford sought and received a protective order against Abshire, nor did prosecutors press her for details on any ongoing romantic involvement with Abshire after 2001, the year she testified their continuous relationship ended.

Much of another day's testimony centered on cell phone technology and on Abshire's use of his phone from the morning of November 2 through the evening of November 3, a time during which an astounding 397 calls were made to or from his phone.

Insurance claims adjusters also testified about several of the policies of which Abshire was the beneficiary including life insurance and several vehicle policies on his vehicles and Justine's Mustang. Before filing bankruptcy in 2009, he filed one claim and received nearly $330,000, a Prudential claims specialist testified. The money was used to pay off debts including back child support during his bankruptcy.

"Eric initiated the claim," testified Marchel Badger, who works for Erie Insurance, the company that insured Justine's 2002 Ford Mustang. She was describing a November 15, 2006, call– less than two weeks after Justine's death– in which Abshire filed an uninsured motorist claim that would have paid him $100,000.

Uninsured motorist is standard coverage that also protects against unidentified drivers, such as perpetrators of a hit-and-run. Abshire, however, wouldn't be receiving any money from that policy or from another policy on the three vehicles he owned at the time: a 2002 Suzuki motorcycle, a 1993 Acura Integra, and a 1995 Eagle Talon. Investigators for both insurers testified that amid the active police investigation, they denied his claims.

One policy Abshire didn't attempt to collect on: million-dollar uninsured motorist coverage on a dump truck.

"Her credit was better," he told the Hook in August 2008, explaining why he registered the commercial vehicle in Justine's name. October 19 testimony, however, suggested that Justine may not have known she was also insured heavily for the truck her parents have long maintained she wasn't even licensed to drive; and, according to Chesapeake-based insurance agent James Dominesey, Abshire seemed to have a hard time getting Justine to sign the policy.

"He said he was having trouble getting up with her," Dominesey testified, noting that Abshire never mentioned that the person he was having trouble tracking down was the fiancée he was living with.

Eventually, said Dominesey, the policy was faxed back to him. But two subsequent witnesses familiar with the handwriting of Justine and Abshire testified Wednesday and seemed to be positioning the prosecution to show that Abshire forged her signature on the policy when it was taken out in March 2006, just eight months before her death.

Not a 'popularity contest'
"The claim is she was already dead at 1:19," said Weber in his opening argument. "Wait til you hear full testimony before you decide."

One thing Weber did concede: that jurors would likely find Justine a more lovable person than his client, who– according to a hearing on pre-trial motions– allegedly cavorted with at least eight women during the course of the courtship and ill-fated marriage.

"It's not a popularity contest, not a beauty contest," said Weber. "It's whether Mr. Abshire deliberately, premeditatively killed his wife."

In closing arguments on Tuesday, October 26, prosecutors laid out the evidence systematically in an effort to debunk the timeline Eric provided. Using Abshire's cell phone records, prosecutors suggested he was actually near home when he claimed to be at Martha Jefferson Hospital the second time, giving him plenty of time to kill his wife. Wheeler, holding a stack of phone records, directed jurors to pay particular attention to two periods late in the evening and into the following morning, from 10:04pm to 11:23pm and from 12:08am to 1:19am, when a call from Justine's phone came in.

"This is a man who used his phone 157 times that day," said Wheeler, pointing out the "absolutely incredible statement" that he wouldn't realize his cell phone was in pocket when he discovered his fatally injured wife in the road. Further, Wheeler reminded jurors, as a Marine, Abshire has both CPR and First Aid training, yet he made no effort to aid Justine other than to cradle her for as long as 20 minutes as her body lay in the road.
Wheeler reminded jurors of Justine's injuries– 113 blunt trauma injuries visible to the naked eye and numerous additional internal injuries.

Abshire's attorney Weber used his 90-minute closing argument to counter each of the prosecution's claims.

"The moral of this story is that it's easy to get tunnel vision," he told the jury, suggesting again that investigator's early suspicion of Abshire, based on the lack of debris at the scene and a medical examiner's report that her injuries were inconsistent with her being struck while standing, blinded them to other possibilities.

He again accused the state medical examiner of failing to do a specific procedure aimed at discovering hidden injury to the spinal cord, which would have supported the defense theory that Justine died instantly of a broken neck, which also explained the lack of blood at the scene.

Weber argued that Abshire was at the hospital and that an eyewitness who placed him at Martha Jefferson that night, a cousin who prosecutors suggest was thinking of a different night, should be trusted more than records of which cell phone towers his phone used to connect.

And as for Abshire's unusual behavior at the scene of his wife's death, Weber attributed it to human nature. In stressful situations, he told jurors, "rational people sometimes do irrational things."

At 2:44pm on Tuesday, October 25, the eight women and four men of the jury left to deliberate. The verdict arrived as the Hook was going to press, shortly before 5pm. Guilty of first-degree murder.

***

After this issue was sent to press, we learned that the jury reconvened and within the hour decided to recommend a sentence of life in prison. Abshire is slated to receive the court's formal sentence on January 12.– editor.

This story is a part of the The killing of Justine Swartz Abshire special.

46 comments

Justice for Justine. Amen.

May she rest in peace.

Why is the title of this piece "Jury: He Did It" ? It made me think that the Hook was trying to say that the juror has decided on a verdict, and they conclude that: he did it. Kind of misleading....?

When I see those wedding pictures, it never fails, I wish Justine had never met this monster. May her parents finally have some peace. Their arduous journey to find justice for their daughter is now complete. While, you never really have closure in a case such as this one, may they live out the rest of their days with the comfort of knowing they put this abomination behind bars before he could harm another innocent paramour.

Well done to State Police Special Agent Mike Jones!

"Weber argued that Abshire was at the hospital and that an eyewitness who placed him at Martha Jefferson that night, a cousin who prosecutors suggest was thinking of a different night, should be trusted more than records of which cell phone towers his phone used to connect."

Cell phone towers date and time stamps do not lie, they only log calls/data use. I don't think a report of Justine's call was mentioned in the press. Maybe the trial? Differential GPS logs would be interesting, but I am not sure the powers-that-be want to tip their hands as to the full potential.

My sympathy to the family.

Great reporting Courteney ! Your early interviews set the scene for justice to be done in this case. How lucky we are to have talented journalists at the Hook serving our community.

I hope that this will give some sort of closure to her family. They certainly deserve it.

Cell phone towers don't lie, but they don't always mean what people think. I was involved with a case a few months ago where I had to learn a lot about cell phone tower technology. For example, it is a myth that you can tell where someone is by the cell phone tower data. I may be closer to Tower A, but have a clear line of sight to Tower B, and it will associate me with Tower B rather than Tower A. Or Tower A might be being used to capacity at that moment, and a clean signal is available from Tower C. So while cell phone technology may tend to prove that Eric was in Orange County rather than in Charlottesville (30 miles away, with mountains in between), it wouldn't be as reliable to say that he was in one part of the town of Orange and not in another.

Don't believe all of the CSI stuff.

Kudos to the VSP for their relentless investigation and to the Commonwealth Attorney's Office for having the courage to bring a difficult case and the skill to get a conviction. Courteney Stuart should also be applauded for her great coverage of this story over the last five years.

I am so glad this creep will be in jail and not looking to prey on another innocent victim. The police and prosecutors did a great job with their investigations and presentation of the evidence. Courtney, we are blessed to have such a talented journalist here in Charlottesville. Thank you for telling the story with clarity and attention to detail. I am so sad for Justine's family that this lovely young woman had her life cut short. This verdict is a help to them, I'm sure, but Justine is lost to them just the same. I pray they will be able to find some peace in knowing Abshire is in jail.

"Don't believe all of the CSI stuff."

I'll take your word on your CSI research because I don't own a TV, but since you like acronyms, you might want to check out a new one: GPS!

I'd also like to join @Observer in lauding the phenomenal coverage Courteney Stuart brought to this case for the last five years. Ms. Stuart is a top-notch journalist with a special je ne sais quoi for true crime! She deserves an award for her continued coverage of this case as well as the Glenn Barker case. Thank you, Courteney!

This battle was well fought, but the war isn't over yet. We have to hope and pray for the same in the murder of Yeardley Love. Plus the fact Morgan Harrington's murderer is still out there somewhere. Seems it's pretty tough being a female in Central Virginia!

Another local cold case - Alicia Showalter Reynolds

http://www.facebook.com/notes/virginia-state-police/vsp-seeks-new-info-i...

Outstanding coverage. I rag on this paper a lot, but this coverage caused a lot of redemption!!

My bad, NancyDrew! I briefly forgot about Alicia.

If a conviction is had in the Love case, this means there's a 50% arrest and conviction rate in these 4 murders alone. That's not real good odds, is it?

I think Abshire was guilty as sin but wonder if the trial judge went too far in letting in certain character evidence about him. What's the legal relevance of how many women he was screwing or out-of-wedlock children he sired?

Concur with JAB, of what an outstanding job Ms. Stuart did all these years on this story. And thanks to The Hook for giving all the space. They still have a memorial tree in Justine's honor at Emerald Hill Elementary School near Culpeper. And thanks to the jurors for your time and efforts.

JoeFriday, that or a number of other things could earn Abshire a new trial.

There is also an unsolved murder of Anne McDaniel--her remains were found 7 miles from Reynold's remains back in the 90's. Anne's parents are now deceased as well leaving just her brother to seek justice for her...

We're so fortunate to have a newspaper that still allows space for content and not just advertising --the fourth estate is alive and well at the Hook --thanks to all who make this possible, the only local paper I read .

I know you can't do it all -but I miss the political coverage of Lindsay Barnes, could you guys hire another reporter, I know this is heresy in this economy and the state of newspapers, but we need YOU to keep us informed .

We can handle the truth --and we CRAVE it .

JoeFriday - kudos is due to Judge Daniel Bouton for running such a tight ship and not admitting evidence/testimony that he thought would potentially open the case to a mistrial. As Courtney reports (above and elsewhere), there were many strange and possible incriminating elements that the jury never heard.

Most people in this community wouldn't know or believe the truth if it snuck up and bit them on the butt. Sad, but true. On a national level for example, who would have thought with the New York city's mayor and his strong anti-gun position that 12 of his own employees would be arrested for gun running? Full auto machine guns I might add.

Pamela Gould does some excellent reporting on the Alica Reynolds case as well as the double homicide of Julie Williams and Lollie Winans--two out-of-state visitors found murdered at their campsite in the Shenandoah National Park. It's worth a read for sure... http://www.fredericksburg.com/News/Web/2007/112007/29/chapter1

@Gasbag You made my day with this statement. It had me laughing out loud: "Most people in this community wouldn't know or believe the truth if it snuck up and bit them on the butt."

With all these names of unsolved murders cases you guys and girls keep bringing up, I have come to the conclusion that I would pack up and move from this area if I was a female.

@Gasbag I failed to mention the Paula Jean Chandler and Kelly Dove unsolved homicides in the Charlottesville area...Courteney did an excellent job covering all the angles in this piece: http://www.readthehook.com/86065/cover-glenn-barker-serial-killer-or-con...

Didn't mean to post that 3 times. Mod, please delete the first two.

Just what we needed, 2 more unsolved murders added to the list. The Swartz family was certainly lucky to see an arrest and conviction take place in their daughter's case. It's a scary thought to see so many murders go unsolved!

My heart goes out to this loving family that has been forced to deal with this nightmare for 5 years. We are delighted that there was justice served for this beautiful young woman who's life was taken away. I will continue my prayers for the family - her Mom, Dad, Sister, Grandma and the rest of her wonderful and supportive family. They have been through a very challenging situation and have always kept their heads held high - never giving up on the truth of what happened.

Wish he would have gotten the death penalty...let's hope he meets lots of Bubbas and shivs during his life sentence.

When I read this particular article I keep wondering about the suitcase and all of her winter clothes. It makes you wonder where those items are today, and why weren't those items searched for? Not to mention the missing SUV parts.

Notice it says "life", not "life without parole". A "life" sentence in VA in no way means "the rest of your natural life". The sorry PUKE will probably be out in 20 years or less. Just hide and watch.

Gasbag, it's the same anywhere you go. It just seems like a big deal here because you live here. This is your home turf, so it stands out more. As a female it doesn't matter where you go in this country, the risk is still the same. This is coming from a female, who's lived in various states around the country. Predators are everywhere. Even in broad daylight. I was walking down the street in the financial district of downtown Portland, Oregon on my lunch hour when a guy quickened his pace to catch up to me, and as he walked alongside me - while other people were in front of me and behind me, mind you, in this busy financial downtown district in broad daylight - he propositioned me to come back to his "apartment" with him to "take photographs." Talking quick and low and knowing he was up to no good. The second I turned to him and called him out on what he was doing, boom, he peeled away from me and was gone. Quick approach, quick sell, quick exit. Total skeez who'd obviously tried this on others. And let's see, there was the incident at night back in SoCal where I was walking along Rockfield Boulevard in El Toro, a very busy surface street leading up to a very busy intersection in the heart of El Toro/Laguna Hills, when a late 30-ish to early 40-ish white guy with blond hair and wire rim glasses steps out from the bushes I guess, I don't know, and blocks my path on the sidewalk. Just staring down at me, like, What are you going to do now, little girl? I was NOT in the mood that night, and just stared defiantly up at him, then glanced over to the police helicopter that just happened to be patrolling in the neighborhood across the street, and back over to him, and back to the helicopter, conveying the idea of Seriously? You're going to try this when there's a fricking POLICE HELICOPTER right there? Really? He looked over at the helicopter, then down at me again and stepped out of the way. We never actually spoke one word to each other, it was all communicated silently through looks. And I was on my way.

I have more stories, including in other states. But it's the same wherever you go. There are predators everywhere, always looking for an easy target. It's not just this area. And actually I have yet to experience this sort of thing here in Cville. I realize other females haven't been so lucky, but so far it hasn't happened to me while living here.

You're probably right, boooo!. But it's still a scary thought that we probably have 500+ police officers in a 50 mile radius and so many murders still go unsolved. Adding to the list was the 2 girls murdered in Stauton where they falsely arrested a guy and attempted to prosecute him. A death bed confession finally cleared him and implicated a detective in wrongdoing. And there's probably dozens more in the last 25 to 30 years that we have forgotten about over time.

You're probably right, boooo!. But it's still a scary thought to think so many murders go unsolved in a 50 mile radius when we have 500+ police officers in this 50 mile radius.

Adding to the list is the 2 girls murdered in Stauton, Virginia. They falsely arrested a guy and tried to prosecute him. He could be sitting in prison for life if they had succeeded. Only a death bed confession cleared him finally, while actually implicating a police detective!

booo! is very right there are many unsolved murders and even rapes in this area. Truly, the ones that are caught, are not bright. Even the police and Comm attorneys will all tell you they don't catch the smart ones. (And serial killers are not smart because each time they murder they give more and more information away on themselves.)

Paula Jean Chandler is also linked with Glenn Barker, I'm just sayin'. There was a Harrisonburg murder, Paula and Katie Worskey all within a period of time - Barker had connections to all three and once he was sent to prison for Katie's murder all stopped. For a while.

Deleted by moderator.

It boggles my mind that she was with this thug.

Was it just me or did this whole series have an air air of bias to it the entire time? I thought the press is supposed to be unbiased and just report the facts, not speculate on stuff. Last time I checked, the Hook isn't an OpEd. Sadly, I have a feeling that this will be sent back to the lower courts upon appeal. The judge allowed just too much of the accused's personality in the case. Do I think he did it? Yep. Do I think that the judge overstepped? Yep.

DirtKicker, I agree with you. Abshire will most likely get a new trial.

You might have moved this higher in the online story:

"At 2:44pm on Tuesday, October 25, the eight women and four men of the jury left to deliberate. The verdict arrived as the Hook was going to press, shortly before 5pm. Guilty of first-degree murder."

Also, that lede should have been reorganized into at least three and possibly four sentences. Whew.

We went to school with Justine. She was a really nice person, and it is so tragic that this happened to her. Our hearts go out to her family.

Joe F, Gassbag and Dirt Kicker,

Clearly you were not in attendance at the entire trial. I was, and the "evidence" you suggest might win him a new trial was never presented in court. The jury did not hear the testimony of the women he was "screwing around with" at the time of Justine's murder, and the only reason they would have even known he had children is because they were in court every morning. He is toast!

I am really glad the witnesses were not intimadated by Abshire's ability to be a bully.. He is a hot head and glad he is where he is, why didnt they do the death penalty card?? Now we as taxpayers have to pay for his sorry a$$ to get 3 hots and a cot!