COVER- Questions: Despite Tuesdays arrests, in-home murder has town reeling
By 3pm on November 9, it was clear something was terribly wrong at 807 St. Clair Avenue. Numerous police vehicles– including a foreboding “forensics van”– were parked on the street in front of the modest white cottage set approximately 200 feet back from the street that parallels Locust Avenue.
Yellow police tape crossed the driveway, and at least a half dozen officers could be seen on the property and along the road. A few hours later, parents attending a student dance performance at Burnley Moran Elementary School two blocks away nervously discussed the reason for the massive police presence: murder. The news quickly spread through town.
By Saturday morning, the victim’s name had been released. She was Jayne Warren McGowan, a 26-year-old UVA grad who’d moved to Charlottesville three months ago from D.C. to take a job as a development coordinator for a non-profit. Family, friends, and colleagues portray McGowan as a friend to all, a “responsible, cheerful” young woman who did not engage in high-risk activities, had no known enemies, and was excited about a fundraising gala scheduled for Saturday, November 10 that she had spent months planning.
“She was so safety conscious,” says Betsy Philpott, one of Jayne’s Sigma Sigma Sigma sorority sisters.
Who killed Jayne– and why?– fearful residents wondered.
On Tuesday morning, November 13, just four days after colleagues made their grisly discovery, police announced the arrests of 22-year-old William Douglas Gentry Jr. and 18-year-old Michael Stuart Pritchett, cousins who lived together with their grandfather on Caroline Avenue less than a mile away. Robbery was the apparent motive. The woman known as “Jayner” to her close friends seems to have simply been in the wrong place at the wrong time.
If being at home on St. Clair avenue, a street of well-maintained houses backing up to mansions on Locust Avenue can be considered the “wrong place,” is anyone safe in Charlottesville?
“It’s nerve-wracking,” said Kelly Ceppa, who lives four houses away from the house McGowan rented. Immediately following the murder, Ceppa and other St. Clair residents said they’d been more careful about locking doors in the wake of the murder.
A trio going door to door selling ADT alarm systems knocked on the door at a Hook reporter’s Ridge Street area home the evening before the arrests. They said they’d arrived in Charlottesville on Saturday following an “increase in crime” in the 22902 zip code. They told the reporter that they had sold numerous systems, many to citizens citing what happened on St. Clair.
Their scare sales tactic probably works in any city, but has crime in Charlottesville really increased? A series of assaults by a “white t-shirt gang” had downtowners frightened this summer. In July, terror raced through Park Street after a home invasion in the 1100 block in which a couple was robbed and brutalized. No arrest has been made in that case, and Charlottesville Police Chief Tim Longo says it was not related to McGowan’s murder.
Well known UVA prof and urban planner Bill Lucy says even if crime does increase, city dwellers are statistically less likely to die suddenly than their country counterparts because traffic fatalities– far more common on winding country roads– are 2.6 times more likely than homicides.
Homicide by a stranger is even rarer, says Lucy, who believes it’s the randomness of the crime that inspires such fear.
“Those are scariest because they could happen to anyone at any time,” he says.
Longo agrees that random acts of violence– particularly murder– are uncommon.
“We don’t often see scenarios like this,” he says.
Moving back to Charlottesville this summer was a happy occasion for Jayne, who’d graduated from UVA in 2003 and been a member of the Sigma Sigma Sigma sorority. She rented the 500+ square foot cottage on St. Clair, began work at ASG, and reconnected with friends in town while staying in touch with friends farther afield. That, countless people say, was Jayne’s gift.
“She was the friend who pulled all the other friends together,” says Philpott, a sorority sister who lived with Jayne in D.C. from 2003 to 2005. “I always valued friendship, but she taught me to value it even more.”
Drew Lawrence was friends with Jayne as an undergrad, then reconnected with her when she moved back to town.
“‘How are you doing?’ was always the first thing out of her mouth,” he recalls. “That was her mindset with everyone she came into contact with. She never said, ‘I need this.’”
Paige Matthews says her friendship with Jayne began during their second year at UVA, when both served as orientation leaders. When Jayne returned to town, they became nearly inseparable, getting together as many as four times a week, even though Matthews, who has a 15-month-old son, couldn’t go out much.
“She always arranged little dinners, movie nights, etc. at my house so I could participate,” says Matthews. “She never wanted me to have to miss out because of child care, so she brought the fun to me.”
She also entertained frequently at the house she rented from the Downing Smith family on St. Clair.
On Homecoming weekend in early October, Matthews says, Jayne had several young women over to her house for dinner. Jayne built a little fire in the fire pit in her backyard, and they roasted marshmallows and had s’mores.
“‘Yay, we’re Girl Scouts!’ she said. All the girls at the house loved that Jayne was bringing us back to our youth,” Matthews says, “and there were a lot of smiles and laughter.”
Matthews and Philpott both cite Jayne’s laugh as one of her best traits.
“She had the cutest little giggle,” says Matthews. “You could silence a restaurant with her giggle.”
Jayne’s father, James McGowan, reached at his home in Manlius, New York on Saturday night, recalled his youngest daughter’s love of outdoor activities such as hiking and walking. But more than any sport or hobby, he said, “Mostly she just loved people.”
The details of what happened inside Jayne McGowan’s house on Thursday remain sketchy, as investigators are reluctant to divulge clues that only a perpetrator would know. She had worked late that day, finishing last-minute details for the gala, a major fund-raising event for her employer, the nonprofit AIDS/HIV Services Group. Then, she headed over to Matthews’ house at the corner of 13th Street and Grady Avenue.
Jayne, Matthews, and two other friends watched the medical comedy Scrubs together and talked. Work had been keeping Jayne so busy the friends hadn’t caught up that week.
“She kept apologizing all week long for being such a crappy friend,” recalls Matthews, laughing as she recalls McGowan’s definition of crappy friend: someone who doesn’t call for three days.
“I haven’t seen you since last weekend,” Matthews recalls Jayne saying. “It’s been way too long!”
Around 10:30pm, Matthews says, Jayne headed home to get some rest and finish prepping for the big weekend.
“If it went well, she’d get a permanent position at ASG, and she was very excited about that,” says Matthews. She couldn’t know that she’d never see Jayne again.
As employees arrived to work at the ASG on Second Street SE on Friday morning, they noticed something was wrong. Jayne, who’d been the first one in and last to leave over the past week, was not at her desk. ASG educator Alicia Townes says she thought it was strange, but figured Jayne was over at the Monticello Event Center, a party space on Monticello avenue, decorating in preparation for the event.
When Jayne’s assistant arrived at 10am asking if anyone had seen or heard from Jayne, concerns mounted. Her colleagues tried calling repeatedly, then, at the behest of board member Ric Barrick, who is also the City spokesman, two of them went to her house to check. From the screened porch on the right side of Jayne’s house, her colleagues could see Jayne sitting on the couch, says Townes, who was not with them when they checked.
“They could see something was wrong,” she says, so they entered through the unlocked door and called 911. Townes says– and Chief Longo confirms– that there were no signs of forced entry.
The police arrived at 2:46pm and declared the house a crime scene. She had been shot in the head, and the police chief would later say, there was more than one wound.
On Friday night, police released the description of McGowan’s car– a 2001 gold Nissan Sentra, which was missing from her driveway.
McGowan’s father gave the first clue that police were pursuing the crime as a robbery turned violent. Confirming the disappearance of his daughter’s Dell laptop computer and any cash that may have been in her purse, he told a Hook reporter on Saturday night, “There’s no question” it was a robbery.
On Sunday, McGowan’s Sentra was discovered in a wooded area off Fairway Avenue– and, perhaps critically– just a few hundred yards from Caroline Avenue, where the eventual arrests were made. [Please note that an editing error resulted in an incorrect car-to-house distance in our print edition; the information has been corrected in this online edition–editor.]
According to Longo, a tip came in late on Monday afternoon that led investigators to Gentry and Pritchett. Over the course of the evening, says Longo, “we developed probable cause” and executed a search warrant at the house on Caroline. Longo says police recovered two handguns that he believes were used in the crime. He declined to detail further evidence or whether police had recovered the laptop computer.
Longo also suggests that police had formulated a motive and adds that there is no evidence to suggest any previous link between McGowan and the two men arrested.
On Tuesday morning, both Pritchett and Gentry, dressed in striped jail jumpsuits, shuffled, via video, into Charlottesville General District Court to hear the four charges levied against each of them: felonious entry, felonious use of gun, robbery, and premeditated murder, a capital charge given the circumstances.
The elder of the two, 22-year-old Gentry, waved to the camera trained on him at Albemarle Charlottesville Regional Jail. That set off a torrent of sobs from the recipient of the wave, a brown-haired woman dressed in jeans and a maroon sweatshirt.
Supported by a friend, the crying woman stood near the bench at the front of the courtroom as Gentry answered questions from the judge. Unlike his friend, cousin, roommate, and fellow capital murder suspect, 18-year-old Pritchett? who stared at the ground while answering questions from the bench? Gentry spent most of his two or three minutes looking into the camera as a packed courtroom looked back.
When the judge asked allegedly income-free Pritchett if he has any assets, he said, ?The only thing I have is things to sell in order to get money, like a motorcycle.?
A jail official told the court that Gentry, by contrast, earns about $300 a week, of which $100 goes to child support.
Substitute judge Jannene L. Shannon ordered the two held without bond and appointed attorney Rhonda Quagliana to defend Pritchett and Lloyd Snook to defend Gentry. Their preliminary hearing will be set on November 29.
Tucked behind the corner of Meade Avenue and High Street is Caroline Avenue, a short stretch of compact dwellings that shares the landscape with well-known businesses such as Jak ‘n Jil restaurant and Charlottesville Glass and Mirror. The house Pritchett and Gentry inhabited with their grandfather, Herbert R. Pritchett, is covered in what appears to be white asbestos shingles.
While some neighbors’ yards are cluttered with old boats and toys, the Pritchetts’ yard is mostly tidy, although it contains at least three cars, two of them covered in plastic tarp.
A faux wooden well and a green metal bird bath provide ornamentation to the yard that also includes metal patio furniture and, outside the stoop, figurines of a Dutch girl kissing a blue-capped Dutch boy.
Inside, the family was “very emotional” said a friend of the elder Pritchett who answered the door when a reporter knocked. A request for an interview was declined.
A cursory check of area court records found no prior charges for Pritchett, but Gentry has a prior conviction for larceny and another for contempt of court in 2003.
A source who works and lives nearby but who asked that her name not be used says she knew both Gentry and the younger Pritchett as the “nicest guys I ever met.? Hearing of the arrests today, she says, “shocked me literally.?
She says she had never seen either drink or take drugs, and that their grandfather fully provided for their material needs. Gentry, who had fathered two children, had been telling friends that he was planning to move to Lovingston with his children and their mother. They were living separately with other family members.
As Tuesday’s post-arrest hearing in Charlottesville General District Court concluded with lawyers appointed for the suspects, the sobbing woman bolted from the courtroom and Gentry called out from the video monitor, ?I love you, baby.? As she fled down the aisle, the woman replied, “Love you, too.”
Pritchett’s mother, Doris Marie Pritchett, was a professional housekeeper who, at one point, worked for Magic Maids. She’d lived at the Caroline avenue house with her father, Herbert, and the boys until her death; Gentry and Pritchett, says the source, were like brothers. She died suddenly last December at age 35.
As for any connection Pritchett and Gentry may have had to Jayne McGowan, the friend says she knows of none, but says the cousins have another friend who she believes lives on St. Clair.
Though the sequence of events leading to the murder may not be fully known until the case goes to trial, neighbors on St. Clair and beyond are relieved the arrest came so quickly.
“We’re feeling better,” says neighbor Ceppa. “Now we’ll find out why.”
McGowan’s close friend Matthews, however, says she feels little comfort.
“At least it gives people an answer, but that’s the most I can say about it. It makes it all the more confusing because it seems even more senseless than it was before. We were desperate to know what happened to her, how did it happen, who did this?” she says. “It hasn’t brought the relief I thought it would.”
Matthews says what does provide relief is spending time with people who also knew and loved Jayne.
“It’s amazing how all her friends have pulled together and are supporting each other. We all feel closer to her by hanging out together,” she says.
And in some way, even Ceppa, who never met Jayne, seems to be feeling the same effect.
It’s upsetting “to think that someone in my neighborhood was in such terrible trouble and I could have no awareness of it,” says Ceppa. “We need to be tighter in our neighborhoods, look out for each other better.”
–With additional reporting by Lisa Provence, Hawes Spencer and Claiborne Thompson
Correction: This story has been corrected to reflect the actual order in which Gentry and the sobbing woman expressed their love.
Jayne celebrates Sigma Sigma Sigma’s bid night at BW3 in 2002. “This shows Jayne in the midst of her laugh,” says Betsy Philpott. “It really shows just how happy she was.” PHOTO COURTESY BETSY PHILPOTT