COVER- No option? Possible death pact tied to financial losses
It was a bitterly cold January night when Charles Keiningham went over to check on his friends, Donald and Valerie Slater. He was already worried about the Slaters and he became even more uneasy when he reached the couple's northeastern Albemarle farm. The gate was locked, and no lights were visible in the mansion, set a half mile from the road. There was mail in the mailbox.
Worse, Keiningham recalls thinking, he and his wife would talk to the Slaters nearly every day, but the Keininghams hadn't heard from them in two days. Valerie's son in California had called, concerned when his mother didn't return text messages.
Keiningham arrived at Foxport Farm on Wednesday night, January 21. He called the police at 11:10pm and waited at the locked gate.
"If I break it," he recalls thinking, "Don's going to have my ass."
When Albemarle police Officer Eric Kudro arrived, the two men climbed the rail fence that surrounds the expansive property and started walking to the house.
"It was pitch black," remembers Keiningham. "I thought maybe they'd gone out of town."
The two walked up the driveway, and the officer asked what kind of cars the Slaters drove. Keiningham described Don's Ford truck, and Valerie's Jeep Cherokee.
As the men continued along the driveway, Officer Kudro asked where the house was and waved his flashlight. The beam bounced off a reflector on the Cherokee.
"It didn't dawn on me how strange it was the car was parked in the middle of the field," says Keiningham. "Then I said, 'That's not right.' From 40 or 50 feet away, I could see them sitting the car."
A distraught Keiningham called his wife.
"He said their car is in the field," recalls Erin Keiningham. "He was yelling, 'They've been killed.'"
Her husband was bewildered, and thought maybe his friends had been robbed and slain. But as he tried to take in the scene, another possibility hit him. But why would a seemingly happy and successful couple take their own lives?
In the kitchen of their home, Charles Keiningham is wearing scrubs– he sells surgical devices– and Erin Keiningham is nearly nine months pregnant. They're talking about their friends, Valerie, 59, and Don, 60.
"There isn't anything about this house Don didn't help with," says Erin. "Walking the property, siting the house. When Charles was away for six weeks doing job training, Val and Don were over every week. They emptied my trash, fixed dinner, cleaned the house."
Erin Keiningham remembers the exact date she met Valerie Slater: December 7, 1998. Erin, a hair stylist, cut Valerie's hair, did her nails, and by the following spring, found herself invited to the huge picnic at Foxport Farm that Don and Val threw for all the people who'd worked on their house.
"Right after that, they asked us to come to their house on the Cape at Provincetown," recalls Erin. The Slaters usually were there from July to September, and the Keininghams would eventually visit the Massachusett's resort town several times, as the foursome became best friends, despite a gap of more than 20 years between the two couples' ages.
"Because of the age difference, they looked at us as adopted children," says Charles, 38. And Erin, 32, really was adopted.
"Since I was abandoned, I had always migrated toward older women," explains Erin. "We had a ton of similarities. We'd finish each other's sentences. We'd show up at parties wearing the same outfit– without talking to each other."
As for Don, Charles says he was a real "rags to riches story."
In the mid-1970s, Don was the manager of a Steak & Ale restaurant in Florida, and Val was one of the cocktail waitresses. Don would quickly climb the ranks to become president and CEO of S&A Corporation. Headquartered in Plano, Texas, the company (until closing last year after a bankruptcy filing) also operated the once-mammoth Bennigan's chain and was acquired by billionaire John Kluge.
Although Kluge's Metromedia Co. forced out Don and three other top execs in a 1992 corporate restructuring, he and Kluge agreed on the splendors of Albemarle County.
"They thought the area was magnificent," says Erin. "That's why they came here."
The Slaters purchased 353 acres on Stony Point Road upon arrival in 1996 and set about building their 8,400-square-foot dream house.
While Don worked at S&A, the couple saved half his salary, Erin says. Then Don became something of a day-trader. Erin remembers Val's commenting, "Don made $70,000 today. He's a happy man." And Erin asked, "What the heck is he investing in?"
The last place on the right before the border of Orange County, Foxport Farm carries a Barboursville address. According to the glossy sales brochure produced by Frank Hardy realtors, the Bob Paxton-designed mansion of antique brick and slate roof was equipped with oversized his-and-hers master baths, an exercise room, extensive woodwork, and a dramatic two-level great room.
Their home was where Don presided over investments for himself, family, and friends– and where he may have lost a lot of money.
The thing about older suicides, says UVA psychiatrist Larry Merkel, is they're usually more successful than the teens who say they want to kill themselves as a cry for help.
There's been an increase in double suicides among the elderly in the past 10 to 15 years, says Merkel, particularly in couples in which one or both are physically infirm, something happens to the caretaker, and the couple feel they have no option.
"They are quite determined to do it, and they're highly lethal," he says.
In a case such as the Slaters, a typical reason for men to kill themselves would be the shame of economic loss, says Merkel, and for women, a fear of being alone. Merkel can only advise family and friends to be highly alert.
"These people don't let people know," Merkel says. Erin and Charles Keiningham would attest to that.
"I thought it was strange they would have killed each other," says Charles when he found them in the Cherokee parked near the pond. "I thought they'd been robbed," in part because Valerie was not wearing the five-carat diamond Don had given her for their 20th anniversary.
"I opened the door where Don was sitting and then went around to Val," recounts Charles. "She looked like she was taking a nap."
On the vehicle's console was a photo of the two hugging. He asked Officer Kudro if he was sure his friends were dead. "He said, 'They're pretty cold. They've been here.'"
It didn't immediately sink in why two helium tanks were in the back seat, along with a receipt from a party shop signed by Don.
Valerie was wearing pajamas and a blanket while Don was wearing a Harley Davidson t-shirt and his wedding band, "which he never wore," says Erin. And Don was wearing something else.
"He still had the bag over his head and a surgical mask on," says Charles. "Hers was off and in the back seat."
Charles and Erin Keiningham have been piecing together the painful facts, but what they still find unfathomable is the planning and determination that their friends seem to have put into ending their lives.
On Friday, January 16, Don and Valerie Slater went to dinner and a movie, Marley and Me, a tear-jerking comedy/drama. That same day, Don visited a shop in Seminole Square, the Party Starts Here, to purchase two tanks of helium.
They took care of a couple of legal matters that day, as well. They changed the form of their legal title on Foxport Farm from "tenants by the entirety," which provides that if one dies, the other inherits the whole property, to "tenants in common," in which each owns one half and at death that half goes to the heirs of the owner.
They also updated their wills.
Three days later, Valerie talked to her son in California and sister in Indiana.
"She was happy, giddy," Erin says she learned. She wonders, how Val could have those conversations with family members without any indication that was the last time they'd speak?
That same day, January 19, the couple went to see Mall Cop, a comedy produced by Adam Sandler. "Who goes to see a movie– who goes to see Mall Cop– before they do this?" asks an incredulous Erin.
Police put the time of death between the 19th and the 21st, when Charles and Officer Kudro found the couple in the Jeep Cherokee. The Keininghams received a suicide note in the mail the following day, literally hours after the discovery.
"It said they'd lost all their money, including the money they'd invested for us and other people," says Erin, who's practically memorized the page-long epistle. It talked about how they'd been together for 33 years and how they'd always wanted to go together.
"It said this was the only solution to keep us from getting hurt," she says. "It said they're too old to start over again. It said we're deeply sorry to put you though this, and we'll miss our conversations."
The typed letter was addressed to Charles and signed "Don & Val"– in Don's handwriting, a mysterious move, says Charles.
"Val left nothing," says Erin. "And she sent a card for everything– ev-er-y-thing," says says, enunciating each syllable. "It's just so flipping weird that she left no note."
According to Albemarle Police department, the case officially remains inactive based on the medical examiner's report that it was a double suicide and no investigation into the couple's finances is pending, according to Lieutenant Todd Hopwood.
No autopsy was performed– despite the police request for one. Toxicology results show that Val had a small amount of alcohol, but no helium turned up in either body. "For all intents and purposes," says Hopwood, "the case is closed due to the medical examiner's report."
Last May, when Charles Keiningham changed jobs, he had a retirement account that needed reinvesting. The young couple cashed out their stocks and 401K and gave the money, an amount they decline to specify, to Don to invest. Don wrote them a promissary note dated June 12. They say they don't know how much money Don had invested for the other eight to 10 friends and family– including Don's daughter in Kentucky– and they have no paper trail that shows he ever invested the money they gave him.
"We weren't even concerned about the money part of it," says Erin. "It was so shocking that they would kill themselves over money."
"They assumed we'd rather have the money," says Charles. "They could have sold their home and been fine. We'd much rather have them than the money. It seemed in their minds it was important to pay us back."
About 30,000 Americans kill themselves each year. The older they are, the more likely they are to accomplish the mission. Preliminary numbers for 2008 show that of the 945 suicides in Virginia, eight occurred in Albemarle County, six in Charlottesville.
"There is a substantial population on the verge of suicide at any time, and since a lot of them are non-communicative about their intentions, it's kind of hard to prevent," says sociologist and suicide expert Steven Stack.
For teens, the suicide rate is actually falling, Stack notes, suggesting that increasing use of anti-depressants over the past 10 to 15 years may be a factor.
"For Baby Boomers," says Stack, "the suicide rate is increasing steadily."
Among the factors is a phenomenon known as "anticipated shame" experienced by people about to be exposed for wrongdoing or failure, says Stack. He cites the Greek tragedy, Oedipus, in which Jocasta inadvertently marries her son. "Just before it was exposed, she committed suicide," he says. "It was too embarrassing."
A professor at Wayne State University and author of "Economic Strain and Suicide Risk: A Qualitative Analysis," Stack contends that people who have $5 million and lose it are at greater risk than those who have $500 and lose it.
"In times of economic downturn, a certain group of the very wealthy are at an increased risk of suicide," says Stack "They have further to fall."
And after last fall's stock market freefall, there have been a flurry of reports of suicide linked to financial calamity. C ncrete statistics, such as those compiled by the Centers for Disease Control, lag by about three years. Anecdotes, however, have been coming on strong.
In December, financial advisor Rene-Thierry Magon de la Villehuchet took his life after realizing that about a billion dollars entrusted to him had disappeared in the colossal Ponzi scheme run by Bernie Madoff. In late February, Bruce C. Kramer of Charlotte killed himself after authorities charged him with a Ponzi. And in April, two families were massacred in Maryland, each allegedly by the money-losing father who then took his own life.
"I think there's no doubt the suicide rate will increase," Stack predicts. "We'll see it in the 2008 numbers."
And while economic strain is a common factor, double suicides are quite rare, says Stack. In 1,400 cases of suicide in the Detroit area, for instance, only one was a suicide pact: between and a mother and daughter about to be evicted. "Homicide-suicide," says Stack, "is much more common."
As rare as double suicide is, the way the Slaters appear to have killed themselves, using helium, also is an anomaly. Expert Stack had never heard of suicide by helium.
It's fairly well known that sucking on a helium balloon will momentarily make one's voice sound funny. But a couple of minutes of inhaling the inert gas replaces the oxygen in the body to quickly cause asphyxiation. According to Anna Noller, a forensic epidemiologist in the state medical examiner's office, Virginia had two suicides by helium in 2007, and two in 2006.
Information about the method is easily available on the Internet and detailed by right-to-die proponents such as the Hemlock Society. Helium doesn't turn up in toxicology reports, and if the tanks, tubing and plastic bags are removed, it could appear to be a natural death.
That method could also conceal a murder. Despite the medical examiner's report that the Slaters' deaths were both suicides, the Keininghams wonder: Was Valerie really a willing participant?
Off her meds?
Five months after the deaths, Charles and Erin still wrack their brains looking for signs of trouble and say they're tormented by the note's claim that there was no other option. Don, after all, was always the go-to guy for the younger couple when they had a problem.
"He'd always say, 'The good news is, there are always options,' says Erin.
She recalls a conversation with Val in February 2008. "Val was sitting here, and it felt like she was very closed off. I asked, what's going on with you? Val said she'd decided to stop taking her medication," remembers Erin, who describes Val's depression as seasonal.
"I would call her at all hours of the day, and it would be, Val's taking a nap," continues Erin. "I could see her going into a dark spot. But I thought, we're coming into spring."
Val pulled a muscle in her back that even seven or eight months later, didn't seem to get better. That seemed strange to the Keininghams, given that Val was athletic.
"Don said, 'Oh, she's really depressed; she can't pull a water bottle out of the refrigerator,'" says Charles, who recalls Val making comments that he describes as "passive aggressive" and which another friend called rude. For instance, she told Charles he looks like hell and called Erin to ask her why she let him out of the house looking like that.
"She could be motherly, and it could come out malicious," he says. "I wondered if this was some grand plan to distance us from her, knowing this was going to happen."
Other days, they're convinced Val had no idea Don had lost all their money and had an exit strategy. One other thing the Keininghams knew about their friend: "Val could not keep a secret," says Erin. "I don't think she knew."
Erin noticed that Valerie had changed a lot over the past year. "Don acted completely normal," she says.
But as nice as Don could be around his young friends, his first family saw another side.
Don's former life
The last will and testament that Donald Slater signed three days before he killed himself left his estate to Valerie, and if she died before him, to a revocable trust. He bequeathed a few items of personal property– such as four bronze sculptures by Joseph Bofill and the five-carat anniversary ring– to Jason Periolat, Val's son. All remaining jewelry, his office desk, a grandfather clock, cookbooks, and a watercolor went to Meredith Ottman, Don's daughter in Kentucky, and three glass ships in bottle to his grandson. Periolat and Ottman did not return phone calls from the Hook.
Left out of the bequests is Don's youngest daughter, Julie, who now lives in North Carolina.
"I have intentionally omitted Julie Beth Slater as a beneficiary of my estate because of our estranged relationship," writes Don in the will.
Julie Slater, whose last name is now Coveleski, was not yet born when Don left her mother for Valerie.
"He had an affair and left," says Coveleski. "He made that choice not to see me. Why? That's been the question of my life with my therapy sessions."
As for memories of Don and Val, "I don't have fond memories of either one of them," says Coveleski, 32. "I was younger than 13 the last time I saw Don."
Amy McCormack, Coveleski's and Meredith Ottman's mother, wed Don when they both were 21 and was married to him for seven years.
"We were in high school together in Granby, Connecticut, and graduated in 1966," McCormack says by phone from North Carolina, where she moved to help take care of Coveleski's baby.
Don served in the Navy and and then graduated from Florida State University in three years with a degree in restaurant management, says McCormack. As a manager at the Steak & Ale in Tampa, Don worked "like a dog," McCormack remembers. Also working there in 1976 was a waitress named Valerie.
"He said she had such a potty mouth," recalls McCormack. "The next thing you know, they're getting married."
McCormack says she begged him to stay until Julie was born, but that Don wouldn't even give her a phone number in case she went into labor.
"I was four months pregnant with Julie, and he left to be with Val," she says matter of factly. "That happens." What she can't forgive is his refusal to have anything to do with Julie, a child she says they both wanted and planned.
She and Julie once drove by Foxport Farm and were stunned by its size. "He'd call it 'the farm,' and that doesn't do it justice," says McCormack.
While McCormack says she was struggling to raise two kids, Don was in Dallas with Val and moving up the corporate ladder, acquiring a yacht and a vacation home.
"He was handsome and charismatic," she says. "He was charming. But he was not a good father, and he was a liar and a cheat."
She adds, "At age 45, he was booted from the company. He hasn't worked a day since he was 45, and he died at 60."
Like everyone else who knew him, McCormack is stunned by what happened in January. "That was the most shocking thing I ever heard in my life," she says. "And that they both did it. You live in a $5 million house. He could have sold the house and paid everyone."
Did Val know?
No one knows for sure when Don Slater's financial woes began. His best friends had no idea he'd listed the mansion at 5785 Stony Point Road for sale in September 2006 for $12.5 million, according to Erin. And they're not even sure that Valerie knew.
"Val said, 'This guy offered us $10 million in cash, but don't you dare tell Slater–' that's what she always called Don," explains Erin, "'because he'll invest it, and I'll have to move.'"
If Don's financial travails began earlier in the millennium, that could explain his decision to sell the beachfront house in Provincetown– a $1.5 million transaction– five years ago.
In his suicide letter, he wrote that since September 2008, "I've continually guessed wrong and had lost everything," relates Erin. Yet when Charles asked his buddy Don what was happening with their investments when the market began to plummet, Don told him he'd pulled everything and was sitting on it because the market was too risky.
In late April, Foxport Farm finally sold for $4.75 million, and the Keininghams were repaid from the proceeds.
There has been no local obituary for the former CEO of S&A Corporation and his wife. According to Erin, the family wanted it that way. She says she was told by the children to say the couple died in an auto accident if anyone asked.
The wills, dated January 16 and naming Orange County attorney V.R. "Shack" Shackelford III as executor, instruct that no funeral occur and that the bodies should be cremated with the ashes scattered on Foxport Farm. Shackelford, who may have been one of the last to see the couple alive, did not return a reporter's phone calls.
The Slaters didn't have many friends, according to neighbor Hal Young, who sold them their property. He declines, however, to speak of them and condemns an article as a "deplorable" invasion of privacy.
Amy Alson lived beside the Slaters for five years and never met them. She worries about publicizing the misuse of helium, and sensationalizing the deaths. "They seemed to be very private people," says Alson. "It's a huge tragedy."
But their friends say they need to talk and try to understand what happened.
"When people are bothered, they very much need to unburden themselves," says UVA psychiatrist Larry Merkel. "To not talk about it hurts them."
And there's even a benefit to public knowledge of the event, he says. "There could be other people out there in the same situation. If they can see how it affects their loved ones, they may think twice about it."
"I've worked suicides before," says Lieutenant Todd Hopwood with Albemarle police. "The stress that they put on the people they leave behind– that's what affects me as a police officer."
He mentions a teen who killed himself. "He didn't think that I would have to console his mother," says Hopwood.
Erin Keiningham worries that her husband will never be the same after finding the bodies.
"This consumes my life," says Erin. "Every night, I have a dream about them. Valerie, with whom I was extremely close, is wandering around and lost."
For the Keininghams, too much of their friends' deaths just doesn't add up. "There are so many unanswered questions we'll have until we die," says Erin. "I don't know that we'll ever have answers."
The mail had not been picked up the night Charles Keiningham drove over to check on his friends.
PHOTO BY JEN FARIELLO
The gate at Foxport Farm stands half mile from the house, and was locked the night the Slaters were found.
PHOTO BY JEN FARIELLO
Foxport Farm Christmas 2007: Valerie shows baby Stella Keiningham one of their six Christmas trees.
PHOTO COURTESY ERIN KEININGHAM
Best friends Valerie Slater and Erin Keiningham often showed up unintentionally wearing similar outfits, such as at this 2006 Foxport Farm Christmas photo.
PHOTO COURTESY ERIN KEININGHAM
Don Slater and Charles Keiningham both chose crimson for Christmas 2006.
PHOTO COURTESY ERIN KEININGHAM
Val and Don Slater seemed devoted to each other, even after 33 years together.
PHOTO COURTESY ERIN KEININGHAM
The Keininghams oftened vacationed with Val and Don Slater, such as on this trip to Las Vegas in 2003
PHOTO COURTESY ERIN KEININGHAM
Sprawling over 353 acres, Foxport Farm was on the market for two-and-a-half years before finally selling after the deaths for $4.75 million.
FRANK HARDY REALTORS