NEWS- Remembering Justine: Vigil honors life of kindergarten teacher

"It will be about who Justine was," says the mother of Justine Swartz Abshire, shown here at her May 2006 wedding dancing with her father, Stephen Swartz."

It's been nearly a year since Stephen and Heidi Swartz were awakened in the middle of the night by a phone call conveying life-shattering news. Their 27-year-old daughter, a Culpeper County kindergarten teacher, had been discovered dead on a dark country road, the apparent victim of a hit and run.

The Swartzes have awoken to the nightmare of the still-unsolved killing of Justine Swartz Abshire every morning since that day, and on November 3, the first anniversary of Justine's death, the Swartz family will hold a vigil in Taylor Park in the town of Orange.

"This is a way for us to begin to come to terms with losing her," says Justine's mother, Heidi Swartz, who along with Justine's father, Stephen, and sister, Lauren Swartz, wants to remember Justine's life in the midst of the ongoing investigation that police say remains "very active."

Heidi Swartz describes the immediate aftermath of Justine's death as "surreal." At the memorial service for Justine soon after her death, her mother says, she found it difficult to focus on remembering and mourning the daughter she couldn't yet believe she'd lost. As the enormity of the loss sank in over following weeks and months, the grief was so acute that thinking about her daughter was like "getting stabbed in the heart."

A year later, she says, "It's still very difficult, but it's a little different now."

Indeed, much has changed since the first months following Justine's death when the Swartzes believed that her death was a random tragedy. The victim's husband, Eric Abshire, told investigators that Justine had called him just after 1am on that Thursday to tell him her car had broken down on Taylorsville Road in Orange County, near the Greene County line, and to ask him to pick her up. When he arrived, he claimed, he found her body in the middle of the road, then ran to a nearby house to call 911. In early news coverage of the event, Abshire promised to push for a solution to the crime and to cooperate with investigators in every way. 

But relentless searching and cooperating didn't happen, the Swartzes say, leading them– five months after they'd announced a $10,000 reward– to boost the reward to $50,000 for information leading to an arrest and conviction. They also went public with their concerns about their former son-in-law, announcing their suspicions in a May 21 press release.

"We've lost confidence in him and are feeling increasingly uncomfortable with his lack of cooperation and our inability to get straight answers from him about that night," said Stephen Swartz.

Among the questions: why Justine had been out so late and without a coat– particularly when she'd told her family earlier that day she wasn't feeling well. Justine was known as a quiet homebody  even when she was feeling well, her parents say, and she usually went to bed early.

The Swartzes also noted inconsistencies in Abshire's account of the night Justine died, including two descriptions of her car's location when he found her and his vague description of an argument the couple had had before Justine left the house.

In June, another strange detail in the case surfaced: a black Ford Expedition had been discovered in a storage unit a little over a mile from where Justine was found. As reported in the Hook's June 7, 2007 cover story, "Justice for Justine," the SUV had been stolen from a nearby dealership days before her death. Shortly before the theft, Eric Abshire had come to the dealership to look at the vehicle, and that day one of the keys to the Expedition disappeared, an employee told the Hook.

Despite their questions about Abshire, the Swartzes say they are willing to consider all leads; they simply wish Abshire would answer their questions. Several weeks ago, Stephen Swartz called Abshire and invited him to the vigil.

"We felt that was the right thing to do," he says. "He was her husband."

In addition to losing his wife and mother in the past year, Abshire is also struggling financially, say sources close to the case. He is due to appear in Charlottesville District Court Tuesday, October 30, to answer a civil suit filed by the University of Virginia Credit Union claiming that he and Palmyra resident Herbert Lee Greene II have defaulted on a $3,100 note.

Abshire did not return the Hook's calls, and Greene appears to have no listed phone number.

As investigators continue to sort through clues and evidence relating to Justine's death, the Swartzes say they remain hopeful the case can be resolved soon.

 At the vigil, they will ask attendees to decorate a quilt square in Justine's memory, and they'll hand out glow sticks and plastic bracelets like the yellow "Live Strong" bracelets popularized by cancer-beating bicyclist Lance Armstrong. The Swartzes' red bracelets read, "Justice for Justine," and the family hopes attendees will wear them until the case is solved.

But the 6:15pm vigil won't be focused solely on a tragic death.

"This isn't drumbeating vigilantism about 'Let's find the criminals,'" says Heidi. "'This is, 'Let's celebrate her life. We haven't had much to celebrate this last year."