Closing in? Foul play now cited in Abshire death
Sixteen months after Justine Swartz Abshire was found dead on a dark and winding country road in Orange County, the apparent victim of a hit and run, newly released state police information seems to support her parents' long-held belief that her death was no accident.
Although Justine, a 27-year-old kindergarten teacher, had reportedly called her husband to pick her up after her car broke down that night, police now say two independent mechanics found nothing wrong with her 2002 Ford Mustang, which started up at the scene of the accident. Even more significant, however: Justine may not have been hit by a car.
While police haven't yet released the full autopsy report, Special Agent Mike Jones of the Virginia State Police now reveals, in contrast to earlier reports that called her death merely mysterious, that Justine was quite possibly a victim of foul play.
Jones says Justine sustained "massive amounts" of blunt trauma sometime before her death and that he doesn't believe she was hit by a car– or at least not while she was upright.
"We don't feel she was standing in the road," says Jones, citing an absence of "strike points," leg injuries that correspond to a car or truck's bumper.
Although Jones wouldn't elaborate on the location of the injuries, he says some of them gave police additional reason to doubt the hit-and-run theory. He also declined to answer whether she could have been struck by a car while she was lying down or otherwise incapacitated. The official cause of her death is still undetermined.
Eric Abshire has said he discovered his wife lying in the middle of Taylorsville Road, about 200-300 yards from her car, then ran to a nearby house to call 911. But Justine's parents say she was afraid of the dark and was so safety conscious that she would not have gotten out of her car to walk alone along a dark, deserted road– particularly if she knew her husband was on the way to help. They also note the temperature was 35 degrees outside, and Justine's coat– as police have also now confirmed– was left in her car, along with her cell phone and purse.
Justine's parents, Steve and Heidi Swartz of Chattanooga, Tennessee, say the newly released information bolsters their belief that their daughter was murdered. And while they say they remain open to any possibilities, they are still unsatisfied with the account they say their former son-in-law gave to them of the night Justine died: that he and Justine argued about his mother's health, that Justine left the house, and that she called him late at night for assistance.
Justine was not feeling well, says her mother; she had already called in sick for the next day at her job at Culpeper's Emerald Hill Elementary School. She also typically went to bed early, they say, so it would have been highly unusual for their daughter, whom they call a "homebody," to be out so late at night. Also troubling to the Swartzes: Abshire's decision to retrieve his wife on his motorcycle, which they said she was fearful of riding.
Abshire, approached outside the Charlottesville District Court Tuesday, March 4, where he appeared as a defendant in a civil case brought by the UVA Credit Union, declined comment. "I spoke to some people," he said, "they told me to have nothing to do with you all."
As the Hook first reported in a June 7, 2007 cover story "Justice for Justine," two months after the accident, the operator of a Greene County storage unit just half a mile from the accident scene discovered a stolen black Ford Expedition parked inside an unlocked unrented unit. According to an employee of the nearby Seminole Auto Sales dealership, Eric Abshire had looked at that Expedition on the car lot 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.
Special Agent Jones says investigators are still waiting for results of certain forensic tests, but he is optimistic the case will eventually be solved.
"Every day we're coming closer and closer to the truth," Jones says.
He and Justine's parents, however, believe there are people who know more about the night Justine died than they've revealed thus far.
"We appeal to people to stand up and do the right thing," says Jones, who says he considers no tip too small. Speaking to anyone who might have information they haven't yet shared, he says, "Don't ever underestimate the importance of what you know."
The Swartzes, who have offered a $50,000 reward for information leading to a conviction in the case, say they too are confident arrests will be made, and they continue to hope anyone who might know something about their daughter's death will come forward.
"Now is the time they need to decide which side of this they want to be on when it goes down," says Steve Swartz.