Fight for justice: Justine Swartz Abshire's family wages war on widower
Since their daughter's mysterious death on a winding country road, the parents of Justine Swartz Abshire have made no secret about who they believe is responsible. But four years after the lifeless body of the 27-year-old school-teacher was discovered following what was initially reported as a hit-and-run accident, there's been no arrest in the case.
That hasn't stopped the woman's parents from suggesting she was more likely beaten to death than hit by a car–- and filing a $5 million civil suit alleging not only that Justine's husband Eric Abshire is a killer but that he didn't act alone.
While Abshire has long maintained his innocence and vowed to help catch his wife's killer or killers, a bankruptcy filing shows that contrary to previous public statements that he wouldn't attempt to financially benefit from his wife's death, Eric Abshire did, in fact, go after some of the estimated $1.3 million in insurance money.
"His version of events is implausible," says Justine's father Steve Swartz, vowing to avenge his daughter's death through any legal means available.
"The battle lines are drawn," says Swartz.
If Eric Abshire has long been the focus of the police investigation–- and the Swartzes suspicion–-the recent lawsuit offers some further insight into what Steve and Heidi Swartz believe actually happened to their daughter. In the suit, they accuse not only Eric, but also his brother, Jesse Abshire, the mother of two of Eric's children, his cousin, and six unnamed co-conspirators.
The four individuals named "remain at the center" of a criminal investigation, the suit alleges, because they conspired with the unnamed individuals that caused the death of Justine Abshire via "unlawful actions."
What were those unlawful actions? The suit doesn't say, and while Eric Abshire, who appears to be representing himself, has not returned a reporter's repeated calls for comment for this story, he has denied culpability in the past, and the attorney for brother Jesse Abshire calls the suit "without merit."
"There are no allegations whatsoever," says Jesse Abshire's attorney, Lloyd Snook, essentially accusing the Swartzes of a fishing expedition.
"They filed the suit hoping that something might come out that they might be able to base their suit on," says Snook.
But according to legal analyst David Heilberg, such vagueness is typical in the early stages of a civil action. He says plaintiffs typically "hold their cards close" early in the litigation process to avoid giving defendants a chance to craft a defense prior to depositions, in which they give sworn statements.
Indeed, on their lawyer's advice, the Swartzes decline to share all their reasons for targeting as many as nine people in addition to the supposedly grieving widower. With painful clarity, however, they do share recollections of the days surrounding daughter's death.
It was the telephone call that every parent dreads. At 3am on the morning of November 3, 2006, the Swartzes were awakened at home in Chattanooga, Tennessee. Their elder daughter, a kindergarten teacher at Culpeper's Emerald Hill Elementary School who was working toward her master's degree at UVA, was dead, the caller told them, hit by a car sometime after midnight.
Even from that first horrifying moment, says Steve Swartz, the story the caller–- Eric Abshire's brother Jesse–- told the parents didn't make sense. How could Justine, a young woman known by friends and family as an early-to-bed homebody who feared the dark, end up alone, in the middle of the night, on a country road?
As the investigation progressed, the questions kept piling up.
According to Eric Abshire, he and Justine had argued over his mother's health on the evening of November 2, and in a fit of rage, Justine took off in her 2002 Ford Mustang. Abshire says he cooled his temper by watching television–- a show he couldn't recall during a 2008 interview–- until he received a terse call from his wife at 1:19am telling him her car had broken down and that she needed him to retrieve her from Taylorsville Road, five miles from home.
"She was trying to prove a point," Abshire said in a 2008 interview with the Hook, explaining why the call was so short.
Phone records first obtained by ABC's Primetime Crime reveal the call lasted just 13 seconds, and Abshire, who did not return the Hook's repeated calls for this article, has maintained in previous interviews that it took him about 10 or 15 minutes to get his shoes and helmet on before he set out on his motorcycle to pick her up. As he drove along Taylorsville Road, he saw something he at first assumed was an animal lying in the road. It was his wife, and he says he didn't know if she was alive or dead as he cradled her body for as long as 18 minutes before running to a nearby house to request a resident there call 911 at 1:57am.
Why did he wait so long to go for help, and why didn't he use the cell phone he admits was in his pocket?
Abshire has maintained he was in shock and not thinking clearly. If that were the only irregularity in his account of that night, his explanation might satisfy the Swartzes. But they say it's far from the only unusual behavior Abshire displayed–- and that his behavior, combined with emerging facts, fueled the Swartzes' suspicion.
There was an absence of any skid marks or broken glass in the road, and the diamond from her engagement was missing. Residents along Taylorsville Road–- including one who lives in a house less than 100 yards from where Justine was found–- said they'd heard nothing to suggest such an accident had just occurred. Moreover, Justine's car, parked less than a quarter of a mile away, showed no sign of engine trouble when police and two separate mechanics examined it. The trunk of the car, normally shut and cluttered with Justine's belongings, according to her family, was found open and "nearly empty." The driver's side door was also open, and the keys were in the ignition.
More troubling, the scene suggested that the victim had left her coat and her purse back in her car when she supposedly set out on foot down the road even though the temperature was around 35 degrees. Abshire's decision to take his motorcycle instead of his car–- it was in storage, he would later say–- to pick up his wife seems odd, too, the parents say, given the night's near-freezing weather. Another troubling detail is the fact that, according to police, he seems to have brought only one helmet.
But perhaps the most significant threat to Eric Abshire's story is what Justine's body revealed. According to a police description of the autopsy report, she suffered 113 blunt trauma injuries–- including 23 to her head. None of the injuries seemed to correspond to the typical injuries sustained by victims of hit and run: horizontal leg injuries known as "strike points" created when a car or truck bumper strikes flesh and bone.
Her parents believe that Justine was killed or mortally wounded somewhere other than Taylorsville Road, and they say Eric wasn't the only one who acted strangely in the time following her death.
Grief or something else?
Having flown in from their then-home in Chattanooga, the Swartzes arrived at Justine and Eric's house–- a one-story cinderblock dwelling on Fredericksburg Road in Greene County–- on the day of Justine's death. Shock and grief were soon coupled with confusion over their son-in-law's behavior.
Eric, they say, was talking with police officers when they arrived around 2:30pm, and they soon learned he'd spent four or five hours away from home, first trying to see his daughters, then driving into Charlottesville for reasons the Swartzes have never fully understood.
Once back at home, Eric briefly greeted his grieving in-laws and then went directly to the bedroom while his cousin, Greene resident Mark Madison, now one of the targets of the lawsuit, took them to the scene of their daughter's death–- the wrong scene. Although Madison told them he had been one of the first to arrive on Taylorsville Road after Justine was found and had stayed there for hours with his cousin Eric as police investigated the scene, Steve Swartz says Madison pointed them to a spot in the road some distance away from the actual location of Justine's body.
"Maybe he was worried we'd see blood," Swartz speculates. Madison did not return a reporter's calls requesting comment.
The Swartzes say that Abshire would remain shut in the bedroom for approximately three hours with friends and family–- Madison included–- while several of Abshire's relatives began thoroughly cleaning the house.
"Someone went to get a vacuum cleaner," says mother Heidi Swartz.
While the impromptu family cleaning crew worked, she says that she, her husband, and their surviving daughter, Lauren, were relegated to eating cold take-out food in the kitchen.
"In hindsight, it's bizarre," says the mother, wondering why Abshire's family excluded them even from conversations. "At the time," she recalls, "we were in such shock, we didn't know what to think."
Now, she thinks she was on the periphery of a conspiracy.
According to Virginia State Police Special Agent Mike Jones, Eric and Justine's house was eventually searched, but not that day. Jones also says Abshire was questioned at the scene before police allowed him to leave. "We were busy trying to verify information he provided us," he says, "with no success."
While the Swartzes say they saw no outward sign of Eric's anguish over the death of his wife that day–- "He was always in control of himself," says Steve Swartz–- they nonetheless tried to comfort him.
"We said, 'Don't blame yourself,'" Swartz recalls. Mark Madison, the Swartzes recall, was inconsolable–- to the point that they felt Madison shouldn't be driving.
"He was showing the kind of emotion you'd expect, given the circumstances," Swartz says. But Madison nonetheless announced plans that afternoon to leave town, saying he needed to be in Pennsylvania for several days to attend an equipment auction.
Eric's brother Jesse, among the first to arrive at the alleged accident site and who made the call to the Swartzes, never once came to his brother's house while the family was there. "We asked about him," says Steve Swartz, "but we never saw him."
Finally, late in the afternoon, the Swartzes were able to speak with their son-in-law again, this time about funeral arrangements. They settled on Preddy Funeral Home in Gordonsville, but within a day or two, they say, Abshire seemed to want no part in planning nor did he express interest in retrieving or keeping any of Justine's personal effects.
"He stopped wearing his wedding ring," says Heidi Swartz.
Over the next several days, Eric also gave interviews to several local media outlets, promising to hunt for Justine's killer. The hunt never happened. Instead, he later admitted–- in a conversation with Steve Swartz (taped without his knowledge by producers for a 2008 ABC Primetime Crime special)–- that he had sex with another woman just days after his wife's funeral and before her parents had even gone back to Tennessee.
Abshire would later tell ABC that his behavior was generated by intoxication and by profound grief, and he asserted that he'd never been unfaithful to the living Justine. He would also tell ABC that while he had a history of brawling with men, he didn't have any history of violence toward women.
But according to several sources, that's not the case.
Eric Abshire met Justine Swartz in the spring of 1999 when both were working at the Lowe's home improvement store on U.S. 29. Abshire was already the father of two young girls.
Justine–- then studying to become a teacher–- fell as hard for the little girls as she did for their father. But if Justine talked in glowing terms about her future step-daughters, her younger sister Lauren says there was plenty to be concerned about even early on in the relationship.
While staying with her older sister near James Madison University in summer 2000, Lauren recalls arriving home from work to find her older sister hysterical and Justine's cell phone ringing repeatedly. Justine explained that she and Eric were fighting and expressed fear that he might "just show up."
He did eventually arrive at her Harrisonburg apartment, says Lauren, who hid behind a door in a bedroom when Eric allegedly forced his way into the apartment and pinned Justine against a wall.
"I stepped out and told him to leave," says Lauren, who didn't share the story of the assault with the parents but did tell friends.
This wouldn't be the last time a woman would claim to feel the wrath of Eric Abshire. In 2008, the mother of his children, Allison Crawford, filed for a protective order, accusing Abshire of family abuse. Abshire denied the accusation, claiming Crawford had assaulted him. A Greene County judge, however, issued a two-year order against Eric, which expired just last month.
Crawford–- one of the four people named in the lawsuit–- says she had no reason for requesting an extension and defends Abshire against accusations that he had a long history of violence, claiming his temper became unmanageable only after Justine's death. And as for becoming a lawsuit target, Crawford says she's baffled.
"I know that I had nothing to do with this in any way shape or form–- verbally, emotionally, or physically," says Crawford. "I think that the reason my name is included is that I answered all their questions honestly, and my answers were not what people wanted to hear."
Crawford says she was subpoenaed by an investigative grand jury in Orange County–- which remains empaneled–- and says she was improperly contacted by one of the jurors. She says she brought her concerns to Orange County prosecutors, to no avail.
"If they don't care about the objectivity and neutrality of the people they select for they jury," she says, "how do we ensure fairness when we know someone is not neutral? How do we ensure that the system is going to work?"
Orange County Commonwealth's Attorney Diana Wheeler did not return the Hook's calls for comment.
Despite what she sees as flaws in the investigative process, Crawford insists she would like nothing more than to see whoever is responsible for Justine's death brought to justice.
"I want them away, totally gone, whoever that person is," says Crawford.
Crawford also acknowledges her two-child relationship with Abshire overlapped his budding relationship with Justine, but only until she became aware of the woman who would marry her children's father. And she points out that neither she nor Mark Madison has been directly notified about the lawsuit, which has been pending since April in two-hours-away Nottoway County.
The timing and the location of the filing are signs, says legal analyst Heilberg, that the Swartzes are employing some "clever lawyering."
Legal twists and turns
Anyone familiar with Virginia law knows that there is typically a two-year statute of limitations on filing a civil suit. But with careful planning, says Heilberg, would-be plaintiffs can buy themselves additional time. That's what the Swartzes, represented by high-dollar McGuire Woods partner Brian Jackson, appear to have done.
In fact, the Hook recently learned, the Swartzes first filed their lawsuit in Nottoway County in 2008, just before the second anniversary of Justine's death. (In Virginia, civil suits can be filed in any jurisdiction regardless of the location of the alleged tort.)
Jackson declines comment on the pending case, but Heilberg believes they chose a location far away to minimize the likelihood that anyone would discover it. Snook suggests another reason: Nottoway County is short one judge at the moment, he says, which means there is a case backlog that makes scheduling a hearing difficult.
For the Swartzes, who admit they'd rather see the case prosecuted criminally than proceed civilly, buying time may have a certain appeal. They say they'd have preferred a criminal investigation to take its course before their civil filing.
Virginia law gives plaintiffs one year to notify defendants of a suit and allows them to withdraw the suit one time with the option of refiling within six months. Taking advantage of all these rights, the Swartzes refiled the lawsuit on April 1 of this year. Both Eric and Jesse were served in May, according to court documents the Hook obtained; there are months left during which they may choose to serve Crawford, Madison, and any of the unnamed co-conspirators, although Heilberg suggests the longer the time that goes by, the less likely it is that the remaining defendants will be served.
One benefit of a civil suit, Heilberg points out, is that defendants don't have the same Fifth Amendment protection against self-incrimination as they would in criminal prosecutions. During civil depositions, Heilberg says, a plaintiff's attorney has the opportunity to ask questions that a prosecutor wouldn't be able to ask. In other words, while Eric Abshire can't be compelled to testify in his own prosecution (if one should come), he can be compelled to respond to questioning in a civil suit, even if he chooses to plead the Fifth in some of his responses.
Delaying the lawsuit may also have had some practical purposes relating to Eric Abshire's bankruptcy filing: the law prohibits him from filing for bankruptcy again within eight years, which might allow the Swartzes to collect any possible judgment against him. But even if they prevail in their civil claim, his bankruptcy filing suggests it will be difficult if not impossible to collect anything.
In 2008, Eric Abshire bemoaned the toll his wife's death had taken on him, not only emotionally, but also financially. "I've lost everything," he told a reporter. Indeed, his May 2009 bankruptcy filing in federal court indeed reveals a man with nothing left to lose–- other than about $72,000 in debt.
According to the filing, Abshire's annual income had dropped from $12,000 in 2007 to $9,000 in 2008–- the last year for which full records were available. He owed money on a variety of loans as well as back taxes to the IRS, rent money to his grandfather who owns the ill-fated newlywed couple's house, and $9,000 in back child support to Allison Crawford.
With an estimated income of just $1,300 a month and more than $2,400 in monthly expenses, he was operating at a net loss of more than $1,000 each month. And May 2009 was particularly tough for the already beleaguered father.
According to the filing, a motorcycle accident resulted in a $7,200 insurance pay-off that month–- $4,700 of which went to Abshire. But sometime within those two weeks before the May 15 filing, Abshire's home was allegedly burglarized and $3,100 in cash was taken, along with his Playstation video game console, a pistol, and a DVD player.
There's one other puzzling theft that struck Abshire's world. Around the time of his wife's death, there was a stolen black Ford Expedition parked inside an unlocked unrented unit just half a mile from the accident scene where Justine was found. According to an employee of the nearby Seminole Auto Sales dealership, Eric Abshire had examined the Expedition less than a week before the car was stolen on October 29, 2006–- five days before Justine died. The same day Abshire looked at the Expedition, a salesman revealed, a key to the vehicle went missing.
Police conducted forensic tests on the Expedition; the results have never been revealed.
At the time of the bankruptcy filing, Abshire claimed to have just $6 in his checking account and $50 pocket cash. Other than that, he placed the total value of his belongings including furniture, three vehicles, and two cats at approximately $5,500.
Abshire did have one potential large asset he notes in the filing, however: a $150,000 insurance policy Justine held through the National Education Association and for which he was the beneficiary. In fact, the policy was worth $300,000 because Justine had paid an additional $3.75 a month premium for double indemnity in the case of accidental death.
Abshire filed a claim on that policy in December 2008–- six months after giving interviews denying he'd ever profit. Justine's parents point out that he was already past the usual two-year statute of limitations on a civil case, so he may have felt secure that if he received the money, he'd be allowed to keep it.
But the Swartzes–- who took over Justine's estate after Eric failed to meet a variety of deadlines–- had already disputed any insurance claims he might make on any of several insurance policies.
In the end, Justine's family negotiated a settlement with the bankruptcy trustee, according to Steve Swartz. Particularly concerned about Abshire's daughters, whom they know Justine loved, the Swartzes decided to allow Abshire to pay off his debts, including the child support, with a portion of the $300,000. The family kept the remainder, a fact Steve and Heidi say brings them no pleasure.
"We don't care about having the money," says Steve Swartz. "But we are determined to make sure Eric never benefits from Justine's death."
And there may well be much more money at stake. As detailed in previous Hook articles, Abshire could stand to collect as much as $1 million more from uninsured motorist insurance–- most of it from a dump truck that was purchased in Justine's name. But with the civil suit now pending, and the criminal investigation still "very active" according to State Police special agent Jones, it appears unlikely other policies will be paid out in the near future.
A family broken
Four years after Justine's death, Taylorsville Road has undergone significant changes. The shrine that marks the spot where Justine lay is still there, sheltered by trees whose autumn leaves now blanket the ground. Unknown visitors have recently placed tributes to the young blonde teacher: new angel figurines, poems, and flowers. But where once heavy woods lined both sides of the road creating a canopy under which Justine may once have walked in the middle of a dark November night, the north side of the road has been clear-cut sometime in the past two years, leaving dozens of acres barren and desolate even as it opens up a view of the distant Blue Ridge Mountains.
Visiting this site in the past has brought the Swartzes comfort. This year, however, solace eludes them, and even to an outsider the tension between them is palpable in the stony silence, the physical distance they maintain. The marriage of Steve and Heidi Swartz has unraveled in recent months, a painful twist that they say was in no small part due to the unbearable stress of their daughter's death.
Divorce is an all-too-common outcome from the ripping trauma of losing a child, says Cindy Testerman, founder of the Central Virginia chapter of the nonprofit support group Parents of Murdered Children.
Testerman, whose brother, Bobby Ellis, was shot to death by his wife in 2005, says even now, nearly six years later, the pain can be shockingly sharp and can hit unexpectedly.
"What sets murder apart is that someone willfully and deliberately did this," she says. "They made the choice to take your loved one away, and it's not their choice to make."
In an unsolved murder like Justine's, Testerman says, the stress and anguish can be even greater than in cases with quick legal resolution.
"A lot of people get stuck on anger and bitterness and don't move past that," says Testerman, recalling one couple she knows whose daughter was murdered more than 10 years ago and whose killer has never been brought to justice.
"They've lost hope that anybody is going to care what happened to their daughter," she says, adding that even the notion of justice is "bittersweet" for the families of murder victims.
"On the one hand, you want to see the person involved punished," she says. "But the only justice would be to have the loved one back, and that can never happen."
Steve and Heidi Swartz understand that truth all too well as they navigate a new life they would have done anything to avoid. In spite of his grief, Steve Swartz says there is value in legal retribution, and he believes those responsible should know he won't rest until they're punished.
"They have had opportunities to set things straight and haven't done so," he says. "Now justice is going to come, and there's not a damn thing they can do about it."