Elizabeth McLaughlin Walton
"The shining light in the room." That's how Jenny Clark remembers her friend Beth Walton, the 49-year-old mother of three who died along with her children in a murder-suicide that police say appears to have been perpetrated by her older son.
"She was a loving, caring, wonderful spirit, a very devoted mother, a very encouraging and supportive friend," says Clark, who met Walton, a C-ville Weekly ad exec who worked under the name Beth McLaughlin, six years ago when the two women's children attended Charlottesville Catholic School and both families lived in the Forest Lakes neighborhood. The children would play together, Clark recalls, and she and Walton would go on walks and talk over coffee.
Walton's children, 19-year-old Noah, 16-year-old Lily, and 14-year-old Andrew Romando, were also widely loved, as evidenced by the thousands of members who have joined Facebook memorial pages set up in the honor of each, and where friends have posted memories of good times shared.
"Your charisma, positivity, and kindness affected everyone around you, whether you realized it or not," wrote one friend of Lily Romando's, who, like many of the nearly 4,500 members on the "RIP Lily Romando" Facebook page, knew Lily from her summers spent at Camp Alleghany in West Virginia. The teen's creative talents are also frequently cited, particularly her gift for photography.
"She was out all over, taking pictures," recalls Susan Oliveri, who taught Lily photography at Albemarle High School in ninth and tenth grade before Lily transferred to Murray High School to start her junior year. "She was open to learning new things," Oliveri recalls, "but she was also wonderful at assisting other students."
Often Lily's photographic subjects were her family– her mother, brothers, and father, Charlottesville resident Peter Romando, from whom Walton was divorced– and Oliveri says Lily's descriptions of them were always loving and seemed to reflect a normal family dynamic.
"She'd tell funny stories, and sometimes talk about her little brother being a little annoying, but she thought he was adorable," Oliveri recalls Lily saying of Andrew, an eighth grader at Sutherland Middle School, who, according to his obituary, loved lacrosse, outdoor adventures, and spending time with his family. "They were very close," Oliveri says.
This past summer was also a particularly joyful time for Walton, who'd remarried in June.
"She was really, really happy," says Clark.
All happiness was shattered just before midnight on August 28 when, for reasons that remain unclear and may never fully be understood, Noah Philip Romando allegedly shot and killed his mother and his two younger siblings. According to sources, Walton's husband, Don Walton, was not at home because he works out of town during the week.
The 911 call, which was placed from the house at 3880 Stony Point Road, across the street from Stony Point Elementary School, came in at 11:43pm. According to an August 29 affidavit filed in Albemarle County Circuit Court in support of a search warrant, the caller told the operator that people had been shot, then the call abruptly terminated. The communications operator allegedly heard a gunshot before the phone went dead.
When emergency responders arrived minutes later, according to the affidavit, they discovered two deceased females and one deceased male. One male victim, whom police have said was not the shooter and who is therefore believed to have been Andrew, was transported to the hospital and later died of his injuries.
Among evidence collected from the house were five cartridge casings with fragments, a Ruger 10-22 rifle with bullets, one white piece of paper with a red stain, an envelope, a red and black motorola cell phone, and "primer" residue from both Noah Romando and Walton. The warrant indicates that investigators found a handgun by the deceased male, though no handgun was listed on the search inventory.
For the first 36 hours, police remained tightlipped about what had happened inside the tidy one-story, three-bedroom house. But when police announced Noah to be the suspected killer on August 30, his life came under sudden scrutiny.
Among details to emerge was his apparent presence on the Satanic International Network, a website that has been described as "Facebook for Satanists."
A user with the screen name Noah8, and with a profile picture that matches one of Noah Romando's Facebook wall photos, lists his gender as "beast" and describes himself as "a self-styled Satanist."
And yet while the word "satanist" to many suggests evil and darkness, Noah8 offered an open-minded explanation for his presence.
"I am on here to talk to intelligent human beings, which are hard to find these days," he writes. "If there is anyone I cannot stand, it is people that hate on other people's religions and racists. Honestly, there is no f**king point."
Romando's friends rejected the idea that Noah, a longtime member of the Church of the Incarnation Catholic Church and a former Charlottesville Catholic School student, might have been influenced by the site or its users.
"I attended Catholic school with him for seven years, went to the same Catholic Church as him, and had the pleasure of serving with him on various church-related councils. The quote you pulled from this 'noah8' character was most definitely him simply searching for 'intelligent' conversations with other human beings," wrote one friend in an unsolicited email to this reporter.
Other friends described him as "goofy" and "always kind," and the presence of more than 700 supporters on the RIP Noah Romando Facebook page suggests he was not like other killers who have made headlines in recent years, according to an author versed in social anxiety, which has been linked to acts of violence.
"As a community, our fundamental concern is how to prevent this type of violence," says Amy Lemley, the Charlottesville-based author of two psychology-based books including Beyond Shyness: How to Conquer Social Anxieties. "Are there parallels with Aurora killer James Holmes, Virginia Tech shooter Seung-Hui Cho, and Columbine's Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris?"
While Lemley stresses she did not know Noah Romando, she says the outpouring of grief and his connection to so many people suggests "he was not outwardly that type of loner."
According to a forensic psychiatrist, Romando's involvement on a Satanic website would not likely be the cause of his murderous actions, even if it did in any way influence his thinking.
"It just suggests someone searching, looking for a place to belong," says J. Anderson Thomson, a University of Virginia-based forensic psychiatrist who consults on murder cases across the country, and who says that the motive in situations in which someone kills his family, then himself, "comes down to basic human emotions."
Another UVA-based expert, Dewey Cornell, a forensic psychologist and leading authority on homicidal youth violence, joins Thomson in cautioning against drawing any conclusions about motivation without significant insight into medical history, family dynamics, and a search for earlier signs of violent tendencies.
"Where there is suicide as well as homicide, it is likely that the person has been suffering for quite some time and sees no other course of action," says Cornell, "which of course suggests a profound impairment in judgment that could be brought on by severe depression or some other mental illness."
In cases where there is no history of mental illness, Cornell points out that some forms of hallucinogenic drugs can also trigger a psychotic reaction. Investigators have not released the results of any autopsy.
"All homicides make sense in some way once you know enough about the person and his or her state of mind," says Cornell. "There is no justification for this kind of terrible crime, but there is some kind of explanation, and we want to understand these crimes so that we can learn how to prevent them."
To that end, police will inevitably conduct interviews with people who knew Noah Romando and came in contact with him soon before his death, and they'll scour computer records for signs of his state of mind. If he left a note, as the piece of paper on the evidence list might suggest, Anderson says that too will offer insight, as will toxicology reports, which are standard in such cases.
Noah Romando's last publicly visible online activity on Facebook occurred just hours before he apparently ended his own life and killed his family. At about 8pm on Tuesday– less than four hours before the 911 call was placed– he updated his profile picture to a black and white image of him, dressed in Adidas athletic shorts and a dark short-sleeved shirt, swinging on what appears to be a playground rope.
After several joking comments about Tarzan, one friend has a playful suggestion that Romando should show off his arms to impress girls.
"Next time wear a tank top so the chicks can see the pistols," the friend writes, prompting a brief and seemingly innocuous reply from Romando: "great idea."
Three hours later, the 911 call was placed.
In the days since the tragedy, the County School system has rushed to provide grief counseling to devastated students and staff, and psychiatrist Thomson says the nature of this crime makes grieving more complicated.
"There's massive grief; four individuals who are gone," says Thomson, noting the complication that the person who committed such a heinous crime is also a person who is loved. "There's enormous fury at the perpetrator, but clearly, the perpetrator was in pain."
At Albemarle High School, where students created a memorial for Lily on Friday, August 31, then released balloons in her honor during that evening's football game, her photography teacher says that watching her students suffer the loss is excruciating.
"It's a loss of innocence," says Oliveri. "We all can't imagine she won't be bouncing in, wanting to show us her pictures. To me, it's been a bad dream that I hoped I'd wake up from."
–story originally posted at 4:38pm on August 30 and rewritten for print publication at 4:54pm on Tuesday, September 4
–prior headlines were "Son suspected: Did Satanism play role in murder-suicide?" and "Son suspected: Answers sought in murder-suicide"
Correction: UVA Dewey Cornell was originally described as a forensic psychiatrist. He is a forensic psychologist.–ed