No justice: But special grand jury for Justine
While national attention focuses on the Charlottesville disappearance of Metallica concert fan Morgan Harrington, the parents of another young woman are quietly marking the third anniversary of their daughter's death and hoping this will be the last time they pass the date without an arrest.
"We believe police are making progress," says Steve Swartz of the investigation into the death of his daughter, Justine Swartz Abshire, who was found dead or dying on a dark country road in Barboursville on November 3, 2006.
While the death was initially called a hit-and-run, evidence mounted over subsequent months that Justine might not have been hit by a car at all. Although her body showed signs of massive trauma–- more than 100 blunt force injuries–- there was no evidence of the marks or leg injuries typically inflicted when a car bumper strikes flesh and bone.
Her husband, Eric Abshire, who discovered his wife's body, has come under intense scrutiny but has steadfastly maintained his innocence and professed a belief that Justine was struck by a vehicle, even as police and Justine's parents became bolder about alleged inconsistencies in his story.
Last year, ABC's Primetime Crime devoted an hour-long episode to the case in which Abshire expressed grief and frustration over the death of his wife–- and the cloud of suspicion under which he's been living. A month later, he offered similar sentiments in a Hook cover story.
"I don't believe this will ever get solved," he said. "Short of someone jumping up and down and saying, Ã¢â?¬Ë?I did it,' this is a cloud that will be over me for the rest of my life."
Three years after the death, the cloud still lingers as Justine's parents continue to question their son-in-law's behavior. Last year, Abshire was in the news again after the mother of his children won a restraining order barring him from coming within 250 feet of her or the children until October 2010. Abshire maintained his innocence and insisted the woman had assaulted him.
And just last month, father Steve Swartz says, he paid Justine's $2,200 funeral bill at Preddy Funeral Home in Gordonsville. He wonders why Abshire hadn't paid any portion. When the Hook contacted Abshire for this story, his response was brief.
"I told you to never call me again," said Abshire, before hanging up.
Virginia State Police Special Agent Mike Jones declined to comment specifically on the case except to say it remains "active." Indeed, according to sources familiar with the investigation, sometime in the last several months, the Orange County prosecutor's office empaneled a Special Grand Jury.
The proceedings are top secret–- neither police nor prosecutors will comment, and witnesses who leak testimony could face prosecution. But the group, an investigative body of 7 to 11 individuals can hear sworn testimony from subpoenaed witnesses, can question witnesses directly, can even issue further subpoenas.
Most importantly, according to Hook legal analyst David Heilberg, such a body can issue a direct indictment. Heilberg calls a Special Grand Jury "pretty unusual" but potentially useful for "dead-in-the-water cases."
That was the type of case that then Albemarle County Commonwealth's Attorney Jim Camblos was facing in 2005 when he empaneled a Special Grand Jury after the shooting death of a young woman off Commonwealth Drive.
"We had 15 people and 22 versions of what happened," says Camblos. "It looked like no one was going to be punished."
The tactic worked, as the Special Grand Jury indicted Ruckersville resident Christopher Green, later convicted of accidental homicide and a weapons charge.
"It was a wonderful result," says Camblos. "We got the guy who actually did the shooting."
The Swartzes say they hope there will be a break in Justine's case in the near future, but in the meantime, they are working to build their daughter's legacy.
"We want to create a permanent memorial to Justine," says Swartz, who along with Justine's mother, Heidi, and sister, Lauren, are raisng money through a memorial website to build an outdoor classroom at Emerald Hill Elementary School in Culpeper, where Justine taught kindergarten before her death.
"Justine," he says, "would have loved it."