COVER- What happened to Buzzy? A sister wants answers about her brother's death
He was a quiet tenant who paid his rent on time. He smiled and waved to his landlord every day as he left his tiny apartment at the back of Spangler's Farm Supply store on Route 20 just over the Buckingham County line. In fact, so reliable was the daily sight of Marion "Buzzy" Ennis hopping on his beloved red Vespa scooter to ride into Scottsville that when Sam Spangler realized he hadn't seen his tenant– or the scooter– for several days, he quickly became concerned.
So on Tuesday afternoon, May 16, 2006, at least three days after he'd last seen Ennis, Spangler and one of his employees knocked on the door of the apartment Ennis had occupied for nearly seven months. When no one answered, Spangler used his key to open the door and called Ennis' name as he entered.
Instead of an answer, he encountered a nightmare– a nightmare that Ennis's older sister, Mary Nalley, insists is a brutal crime that that has tormented her for the past two years, particularly, she says, because it was never fully investigated.
"My baby brother was murdered," Nalley says. "And nobody did anything about it."
Her hopes now rest on clues about a red Vespa scooter and a newly hired investigator in the Buckingham County sheriff's office. Was Ennis really murdered, and if so, is it too late for justice?
Nalley isn't the only one wondering.
A gruesome scene
On a recent sunny spring morning, Sam Spangler is working behind the counter at Spangler's Farm Supply, the store he's owned for the past 20-odd years. He's tall, slim, with the weathered skin indicating a lifetime of outdoor work. Surrounded by bags of feed and rows of pitchforks, spades, and rakes, he recalls his former tenant, 50-year-old Buzzy Ennis, as a "quiet but friendly" man whom Spangler trusted to keep an eye on the store when it was closed.
Initially, he's reticent to speak about the horror he confronted two springs ago when he entered the apartment looking for Ennis. But on a winding drive out to deliver fertilizer to a nearby Fluvanna County farm, he slowly opens up, speaking softly and deliberately about the gruesome scene he discovered that May afternoon.
"I knew he was dead," says Spangler, describing shocking chaos he can still picture vividly.
The lights in the apartment were on, and the water in the kitchen sink had been left running for days, he says. A pot of spaghetti had been dumped into the drain, clogging it and causing the sink to overflow and fill the efficiency apartment with three inches of water. The heat was stifling.
"It was probably 90 to 100 degrees in there," he says.
The baseboard heaters had been turned up to high, and the oven was also turned on. And then there was Ennis, lying facedown on the floor, his head and shoulders under the kitchen table, his jeans and underwear pulled down around his knees, his exposed skin bloated and mottled with the reddish-purple colors of a corpse.
After stepping inside just long enough to turn off the breakers to prevent electrocution, Spangler called 911, then waited for police to arrive, he says. As he waited, he noticed something odd: the red scooter, which Ennis polished every day and took inside each night, was nowhere to be found.
"He never let that thing out of his sight," says Spangler. He adds that while he shared his observation with police at the scene, "They didn't seem too interested."
Nalley, too, was troubled by the missing Vespa– a $6,000 vehicle– and believed it might be a key to solving the mystery of her brother's death. When investigators failed to find it, she took matters into her own hands, desperately looking for answers.
Ennis's older sister says she sold all of her furniture for $800 to pay for the gas she needed to travel Buckingham County asking questions. She offered a $100 reward for information leading to the recovery of the missing scooter. Her strategy paid off, she says, three weeks after his death, when she showed a picture of the red scooter to a friend of her nephew.
"I can take you to it right now," she says he told her. "And he did."
A new department
At the Buckingham County sheriff's department, tucked underneath the freshly renovated brick County Courthouse, Captain John Dixon says he and new Sheriff Billy Kidd, elected in November 2007, are scrambling to catch up with several open cases from the tenure of Kidd's predecessor, Sheriff Danny Williams. Among those cases is Ennis's– which Dixon admits he hadn't even heard of until the Hook brought it to his attention in late January, weeks after he started his new job.
"It's hard to solve crimes when you don't know they happened," Dixon says, describing the challenge of taking over a law enforcement office from which many officers suddenly departed following several tumultuous years.
In 2005, as reported in the Hook, two people went public with their allegations about being strip-searched on the side of the road on separate occasions by Buckingham deputies. Although a drug-sniffing dog had indicated a hit, no drugs were found in either case. The Sheriff's office denied the allegations– or claimed that the victims took off their clothes voluntarily. In a third incident in 2005, a woman alleged that a Buckingham deputy had forced her to perform oral sex when he came to serve a warrant on March 23, 2005.
Those controversial matters were followed by pre-election allegations that Sheriff Williams had mishandled confiscated drug money, spent too many County funds with campaign contributors' businesses, and that his deputies had intimidated– even threatened– citizens. Williams– who sued the organization that made the allegations in 2007– was defeated in the election.
Dixon says that turmoil may have taken a toll on case files, some of which seem to be missing information. Others seem to be missing completely. Dixon says he's currently contacting all former deputies and requesting their assistance in locating missing information.
Williams denies the office was left chaotic.
"When I left, everything was good," he says. "We didn't leave anything in shambles."
Dixon says currently he and his fellow deputies are working around the clock to catch up on new and old cases– Ennis's among them.
Sitting in a conference room in the Buckingham Sheriff's office, Dixon holds a slim manilla folder containing material relating to the investigation into Ennis death. Although it's ostensibly a murder investigation, the evidence includes a scant four pages of notes taken by the investigating officer, Forrest Lawhorne. The autopsy report and crime scene photos are missing from the file– Dixon says he requested copies from the state police– but Lawhorne's notes suggest he did develop leads on the scooter.
According to his notes, once Mary Nalley notified him of its location, Lawhorne recovered the scooter– which had been spray-painted black and was partially dismantled– from a house at 1326 West River Road in Fluvanna County, about a mile east of downtown Scottsville. The owner of that house, Thomas Johnson, did not return the Hook's calls.
Lawhorne traced the scooter back through several transactions involving at least two men, both of whom are felons with convictions for drugs, breaking and entering, and grand larceny. Although his notes suggest one of the men had possession of the scooter within three days of the discovery of Ennis's body, Lawhorne's investigation seems to stop there.
No one was ever charged with possession of stolen property, and the scooter still leans against a chainlink fence in the Buckingham County impound lot a mile from the Sheriff's office.
Lawhorne, now an officer for the Fluvanna County Sheriff's Department, did not return the Hook's repeated calls.
Former Buckingham Sheriff's Department Captain Darrell L. Hodges– now the Sheriff of Cumberland County– did return a call and says he headed up the investigation into Ennis's death. He says any suggestion his department didn't take the case seriously is unfounded.
"I knew we didn't have the resources to do the in-depth stuff," he says of the scene. "That's why we called state police in." Hodges says his theory was that Ennis suffered either heart attack or a stroke while preparing his dinner, hence the spaghetti clogging the sink. He says Ennis's pants were too big for him, and he believes that when he fell, his pants slipped down.
He insists if he'd believed there was foul play, he would have tirelessly worked to solve the crime– and he doesn't blame Nalley for wanting answers. If it was his own family member, he says, "I would want it investigated to the infinite possibility."
Nalley, however, doesn't believe officers did all they could. She thinks officers lost interest in the case because her brother was an outsider of sorts– a man who'd struggled with mental illness and drug abuse and who'd spent some time in jail. In spite of his adult difficulties, Nalley says, she shared a powerful bond with him forged in their traumatic early years. That bond, she says, makes his loss "unbearable."
Clinging to each other
"Our family was the definition of dysfunction," says Nalley, the first of five children born to the same mother but different fathers in Baltimore, Maryland.
In the 1950s and 60s– a time when the Ward and June Cleaver family model was considered not only ideal but typical– Nalley, now 54, says her mother's numerous divorces and remarriages were a difficulty that alienated her from her peers and led her to cling to Ennis, younger by just 18 months. Instead of the rivalry that often exists between siblings, Nalley says she became inseparable from her "quiet, sweet and sensitive" brother.
Born when her mother was only 15 years old, Nalley says, she and Ennis were primarily raised by their grandmother after their mother remarried and had three more children. "He was my immediate family," she says, describing the "maternal role" she played for her younger brother. "Our mom came and went out of our lives," she says.
In 1973, 18-year-old Buzzy joined the Navy and around the same time fathered a son. Fatherhood was a role he cherished, she says, and, hoping to provide his child with the kind of life he never had– one with two doting parents– he left the military to get married in April 1974. He and his wife had three more children in the next four years, but after the birth of the fourth child, his wife left him. A bitter divorce and the separation from his children, Nalley says, precipitated a mental breakdown from which Ennis never recovered, according to his sister.
After he was diagnosed with schizophrenia in 1980 at age 25, Ennis required hospitalization over the next several years, Nalley says. Throughout that devastating time, their childhood bond was renewed and strengthened, especially after she took in his oldest son, Chris, now 35, who was just one year younger than her own son.
In 1984, Nalley took the two boys and followed her mother, who had remarried again, from Baltimore to Schuyler. Soon after, she says, Buzzy, whose condition had stabilized, joined his mother, sister, and son in Virginia, working odd jobs to make ends meet and eventually renting an apartment close to Charlottesville.
Despite his illness, he was eager to help Nalley, doing odd jobs around her house, running her errands, and working to stay involved in his children's lives, although his contact with them was limited to supervised visits.
"He always had a smile, a hug, kind words," Nalley says.
Ennis's gentle, trusting nature was an asset in building relationships, she says– but it also proved to be his downfall.
In the mid-1990s, Nalley says, she heard that her brother was allowing crack users to stay in his Crozet-area apartment. It wasn't long before she heard that he'd also started using the drug.
"I didn't believe it for the longest time," she says, insisting that her brother had never abused substances before. But when Nalley, herself going through a divorce, moved in with Ennis, "It didn't take me long to find out it was true. He was hanging out with some really bad people," she says.
Desperate to protect her vulnerable brother, Nalley says, she "ran off all those crackheads." But the drug had already gripped him. The siblings who had never fought suddenly were butting heads– Nalley desperate to pull her brother back from the edge of addiction. After they argued one night over his drug use, Ennis left the house. Two days later, she learned he'd been arrested for an incident outside a convenience store.
"I blame the drugs," she says.
Ennis was convicted of malicious wounding in Albemarle Circuit Court in fall of 2000 and sent to the Marion Correctional Treatment Center– a facility for the mentally ill– where he spent nearly five years.
Released in 2005– a year after his mother's death– Ennis was determined to remain drug-free and was eager, Nalley says, to regain his independence. He found the efficiency apartment behind Spangler's, which he rented for $300 a month, and, using his inheritance, he purchased a new red Vespa scooter. He reconnected with his eight children– four more were born in the 1980s and '90s during two subsequent relationships– and found part-time work doing landscaping to supplement his disability income. Nalley believed her brother, despite his illness and past incarceration, was on his way to a happier life.
She was wrong.
A sister's grief
The last time Nalley saw her brother was the Friday night before he died. That evening, May 12, 2006, around 6pm, she drove from her job in Charlottesville to Buzzy's apartment, as she often did, to sit with him, chat, make sure he was doing well, she says.
That night, however, she could see something was wrong.
"He was acting very strange," she says. "He told me I needed to go home, that I picked a bad time to come because he was expecting company." Not welcome company.
"He said he'd probably be going to jail because 'they' said he owed them money, but he said he didn't owe anybody money," Nalley recalls. Concerned, but pressured by her brother to leave, she headed home around 7:45pm.
She wasn't the only one who noticed something odd about Ennis that day.
Spangler's employee Steve Costello noticed that Ennis was "acting a little nervous" earlier on Friday, May 12, the last day he was seen alive, particularly with his scooter. "I asked him if he ran out of gas," Costello recalls, "because he was pushing it off the road back behind the house."
Despite Nalley's and Costello's observations, the bizarre circumstances of his death, and the subsequent discovery of the scooter, there was some reason to believe Ennis's death could have been accidental.
The autopsy report failed to determine a cause or manner of death. Conducted by Virginia Chief Medical Examiner Deborah Kay in Richmond and provided to the Hook by Nalley, the report shows Ennis's 5'3", 146-pound body was "moderately decomposed" by the time the autopsy was performed on Wednesday at 9am, about 18 hours after his body was discovered. Aside from some fairly typical signs of aging in his organs, the examination showed no signs of life-threatening disease or injury. Tests for all types of illegal drugs including cocaine were negative.
The local medical examiner, Dr. Randall Bashore, remembers the case well.
"It was one of the more bizarre I've seen," says Bashore, who arrived at Spangler's at 3:45pm on Tuesday, May 16, about an hour and a half after Ennis's body was discovered.
Bashore, who has covered Fluvanna and Buckingham counties for the last 21 years, says the amount of time Ennis had been in the water made determining an exact time of death impossible. His body temperature matched the air and water around it, but based on the amount of decomposition, "I guessed he'd been dead a couple of days," says Bashore, who noted blood from Ennis's nose and mouth at the scene, a detail not mentioned in the autopsy report.
Nalley says two other injuries noted in the autopsy pique her curiosity: a 2" x 1" bruise on Ennis's right wrist, and a larger 3" x 2" bruise on the right side of his back under the shoulder blade. The autopsy report offers no further details about the bruises that would allow estimation of whether they were fresh.
A representative of the State Medical Examiner says the office does not discuss autopsy details, but Bashore concedes such injuries could have occurred immediately prior to death. "A lot of time bruises are not evident," he explains, "but as the body sits, the bruises become more evident."
Bashore says that his forensic examination led him to assume that Ennis had slipped and hit his head, leading to his death– and to the blood in the head area. His assessment of an accidental death may have discouraged police from initiating a murder investigation. Two years later, Bashore concedes that the fact that the autopsy turned up no head trauma is mysterious.
"It's very unsatisfying not to have someone clarify the cause of death on the autopsy," he says.
It's impossible for Mary Nalley to remember her brother without breaking down.
"He was the most lovable, easy-to-get-along-with person you've ever met in your life," she says tearfully, remembering his fondness for old-time rockers like Johnny Cash, his obsessive pride in his red scooter, and his attempts to remain in the lives of his eight children despite his mental illness.
Nalley's not the only one who believes something sinister happened to Ennis that has never been discovered. Spangler says he was stunned by how little investigating police– including State Police, who supervised the investigation of the crime scene– seemed to do.
"They didn't ask me anything," says Spangler, adding that he eventually approached officers outside the apartment to tell them about the missing scooter. In addition, he notes, a black helmet Ennis always wore when riding was also missing.
(State Police Lt. Joe Rader says his office's involvement was limited to documenting the crime scene, and that State Police officers wouldn't have the jurisdiction to conduct interviews.)
Spangler says he still wonders what really happened to Ennis. "I never thought it was an accidental death," he says, adding that all of Ennis's medications were also missing from the apartment.
Around Scottsville, where Ennis spend many days riding his scooter, sitting on benches outside the IGA, or drinking coffee with regulars in the Lovin' Oven, people wonder why Ennis's death didn't warrant a more extensive investigation.
At Donna's Place, a café on Valley Road, customers also note the sudden death and the lack of attention it received.
"Nobody knows nothing," says diesel mechanic Henry Taylor. "It's kind of hush hush, or that's how it seems."
That silence, says Nalley, is the problem.
She hopes that by sharing her frustration and her suffering over the loss of her brother, she may at last get some justice for him and bring herself some peace, even if the pain of his death will last the rest of her life.
"Whoever killed him," she says, "took my heart away."