COVER-Justice for Justine: Investigation 'very active' in hit and run
From Charlottesville, the path to Barboursville is picturesque. Along Route 20 North, leading into the small town best known for its ruins and eponymous winery, white split rail fences run for miles beside verdant fields backed by rolling mountains. Secondary roads meander past horses, ponds, and century-old houses. But though the roads can be a driver's delight during the day, they are also narrow, winding, and, in the middle of the night, dark and lonely. Taylorsville Road is such a place.
Taylorsville Road curves west through woods for less than a mile, past a sprinkling of modest houses and trailers in various states of repair, before reaching the Greene County line. On November 3, 2006, sometime close to 1:40am, the body of a young woman was discovered along the Orange County portion of this road, the apparent victim of a hit and run.
Her husband– the closest thing to a witness so far– says her car had broken down and she'd called him to come pick her up. When he arrived, he says, he discovered her body in the road and called 911.
No hit-and-run driver has ever been found, and seven months later, the circumstances of Justine Swartz Abshire's death remain a mystery.
Her devastated parents, however, say they won't rest until they know how their daughter, a 27-year-old kindergarten teacher and newlywed they describe as a "homebody," died alone, away from home, in the middle of the night. Two weeks ago, they increased the reward for information leading to an arrest and conviction in Justine's death from $10,000 to $50,000.
"Somebody knows something," says Justine's father, Steve Swartz. He and Justine's mother, Heidi Swartz, hope the increased reward may elicit new information, but they fear the answer to the unsolved crime may lie with someone their daughter knew well.
In an exclusive discovery, the Hook has learned that police may be interested in an SUV stolen from a Ruckersville car dealership and later recovered from a nearby storage unit.
An investigation stalled
"I about thought he'd pound the door down," says Shirley Stevens, who lives less than 200 yards from where Justine's body was discovered. She's referring to approximately 1:40am on November 3 when a man named Eric Abshire was banging at the door of Stevens' tidy trailer. Stevens' 18-year-old granddaughter, Amber Lamb, woke her grandmother and then answered the door.
"He said something like, 'I think my wife is dead. Call 911,'" Stevens recalls. Stevens says she didn't go outside, but she saw Abshire standing on the deck with his hands in his pockets while Lamb phoned for help. The recording of that call, released to the Hook by Orange County Rescue, contains no background conversation, and Lamb could not be reached for comment. She has since moved away, according to her grandmother, and she has neither phone nor email.
Next door to Stevens, Aubrey Collier, a diabetic, awoke to take his insulin around 2am that night to find blue lights and police officers on the street outside. He called next door and spoke to Lamb, who told him about the incident.
Although he didn't venture too close to the scene of the crime, Collier says Justine's car was parked "200 or 300 yards" away from her body, east down Taylorsville Road, very close to Collier's son's driveway and another house. He could see that Justine's body was lying across the middle of the road, and he wondered why, if she'd been looking for help, she'd have bypassed houses close to her car to trudge along an unpopulated section of a dark road.
"That didn't make sense to me," he says. Nor did the notion that the car that hit her might have thrown her a great distance– and around at least one turn. "It was too far," he says.
Her parents wonder the same things, but they say anyone who knew Justine would also wonder what she'd been doing out so late in the first place.
Justine was born February 6, 1979 in Minneapolis, where the family lived until moving to Memphis when Justine was 11.
"She was the kind of first baby that makes a mother want a houseful," says Heidi Swartz, recalling her daughter's "wild blond hair" and "bubbly giggle." Justine, she says, was a "sweet, sensitive little girl" who always loved animals. After Memphis, the Swartzes moved again– this time to Central Virginia, where Justine attended Albemarle High School for her sophomore year, then finished at Western Albemarle.
The moves, her parents admit, were difficult for Justine.
"Her general nature was to be a little shy and reserved," her mother says, pointing out that sometimes very pretty young girls aren't easily accepted by their peers.
"There was a lot of envy, you might say," adds Mr. Swartz, who works in the telecommunications field. "That was a little bit difficult at times."
Another thing that may have set her apart from her peers: her disinterest in the "fast lane."
When Justine started driving, the family lived on twisting Route 53, but Justine's maturity put her mother's mind at ease. "Most parents worry that their kids are going to go to a party and drink and drive," she says. "I worried about flat tires."
Justine had a younger sister, Lauren, now 26 and living in Pennsylvania. She says she and Justine– two years and three days apart– were close.
"We would fight, pull hair, steal each other's clothes, mess with each other's rooms," she says. But the spats never lasted long: "I don't think we could ever go longer than half a day being mad before we were on to some new adventure."
If Justine had any social difficulties in high school, they ended when she arrived as a freshman at Hollins College and met her assigned roommate, Holly Boardman.
"We got along perfectly," says Boardman. "We never partied," she says. "We didn't drink anything but Sprite. We never once did drugs." They did, however, love to go dancing. "That," says Boardman, "was our big thing."
The roommates each had a long-distance boyfriend, but at Hollins, a private women's school near Roanoke, the two were inseparable, waking up at the same time, eating every meal together, scheduling their classes so that their free time would coincide, and generally going to bed by 9pm.
"Our nickname was 'the 80-year-old couple,'" laughs Boardman, now an entrepreneur and married mother living in Oregon.
But despite their intense friendship, halfway through their second year at Hollins, Boardman says, Justine decided to transfer to a school with a stronger business program.
"It was one million percent devastating," says Boardman. Though the onetime roommates couldn't see each other every day after Justine left, the pair continued to talk daily and to spend every weekend together for nearly a year while Justine took business prerequisites at Piedmont Virginia Community College.
In January 1999, Boardman and the Swartzes agree, Justine began to change. In the semester before she transferred to James Madison University– the school from which she would graduate in 2002– Justine got a part-time job at Lowe's to help pay her expenses. Also employed by the hardware big-box on 29 North: a manager named Eric Abshire.
"She told me she had met someone shortly after she began dating him," says her mother. The Swartzes were happy to have their daughter back in town and say Justine was often at their Western Albemarle home.
"We did 'Mom dinners' on Sunday night," says Mrs. Swartz. "I'd make 'mom' food: roast chicken and mashed potatos." Both daughters were "free to invite all their friends," says Mrs. Swartz. That included Eric Abshire.
"I continually asked her to bring him over," she recalls, but he never accepted the invitations. Finally, in August 1999, when the parents were preparing to move to New York, Mrs. Swartz pressed Justine to introduce them to Eric, and Justine revealed something she may have feared her parents would frown upon: Eric was the father of two little girls. But if the Swartzes were surprised by the revelation, they insist they were not put off by it.
"We're pretty open minded," says Mr. Swartz. "Ultimately, all we wanted was for her to be happy. If this was the guy who was going to make her happy, we were for it."
In spite of the mother's plea for an introduction, the parents moved without meeting Eric, and although Justine made several trips to see her parents in New York, Eric Abshire was never with her. Finally, in June 2000, when the family was moving again– this time to Florida– Mrs. Swartz arranged to meet Justine and Eric at a restaurant in Harrisonburg. The first impression of Eric Abshire, she says, left something to be desired.
"He was not very open," she says, "not outgoing." Still, "They were very serious," she says, and she was determined to give him a chance.
During the time her parents were living in Florida, Justine– who had changed her major to education and eventually began working as a kindergarten teacher at Culpeper's Emerald Hill Elementary School– visited them several times. Eric joined her only once, and again, did very little talking.
"He was hard to get to know," says Mr. Swartz. "I think that Eric is comfortable with a fixed circle of friends, and he doesn't seem to like to go outside that circle."
As time went on, the Swartzes noticed a change in Justine.
"Once she became part of that circle," says her father, "there seemed to be a change in our communication with her." Once chatty and open, Justine became "more sensitive," they say– particularly when it came to Eric.
"If we questioned the wisdom of something that he or they were thinking about, she'd be defensive," says Mrs. Swartz. "Her life became very compartmentalized. She had her school, her work, her family, and she had him. There wasn't much crossover."
Even though mother and daughter maintained regular phone contact, "She'd never mention his name," says Mrs. Swartz.
Her former roommate also noticed a change. Holly Boardman says she and Justine regularly bought each other presents, even after Justine moved. And so when Justine was settling into a new apartment at James Madison, Boardman visited and brought her flowers. But Justine wouldn't accept them.
"She asked me to bring the roses back," Holly recalls. "She said, 'Eric doesn't like it when you buy me presents.'"
Eventually, Boardman says, Justine stopped responding to her calls and letters. Neither Boardman nor the Swartzes ever heard about Abshire's legal woes.
Twice– in June 1998, and July 2002–Abshire was charged with misdemeanor assault and battery in Charlottesville. Both times, the alleged victims were male, and the charges were dropped. But a malicious wounding charge from July 2002 was certified to a grand jury before it was eventually dropped after the victim moved away and left no forwarding address.
In addition to numerous driving violations from nearly every county in this area, Abshire was charged and found guilty of trespassing on Kroger property in January 1998, and of resisting arrest in that same incident.
Last year, two nights after Halloween, the phone rang in Steve and Heidi Swartz's home in Chattanooga. The couple awakened quickly, disoriented by the 3am disturbance. Mr. Swartz answered the phone, and the nightmare of November 3, 2006 began.
"Mr. Swartz, I'm afraid I have some bad news," said the caller, Jesse Abshire, Eric's brother. "Justine's gone."
Swartz could hear noise in the background.
"What do you mean, 'She's gone'?" Swartz asked him desperately. "Be specific!"
"She's dead," Jesse Abshire told Swartz.
"The devastation," says Swartz of such an event, "drops on you like a steel beam out of the sky."
As he struggled to absorb the news of his daughter's death, Swartz asked to speak with Eric. Jesse said his brother couldn't come to the phone and described him as "hysterical." Swartz asked Jesse to have Eric call him when he was able.
The stunned parents got up and dressed and, "trying to hold it together," began making arrangements to return to Central Virginia.
Sometime before dawn, Eric Abshire finally did call them, having returned to the small cinderblock house he shared with Justine at 5553 Fredericksburg Road, approximately five miles from Taylorsville Road.
Swartz recalls that conversation: "I asked, 'What exactly happened?'" Eric admitted he and Justine had argued earlier that night about Eric's mother's health, Swartz says, recalling the conversation. When Eric told Justine he didn't want to talk about his mother, and that he preferred to be left alone, Justine said, "Well, I'll leave you alone," took her car keys, and walked out of the house without a coat.
Swartz says Abshire hasn't told him what time that argument happened and hasn't been any more specific about the nature of the fight– or why Justine would be so upset over her mother-in-law's health.
Abshire told Swartz that around 1am he got a call from Justine on her cell phone telling him she'd had car trouble and that she needed him to come get her. Although the temperature at 1am that night had dropped to just 35 degrees, and even though he had a car, he set out on his motorcycle to find his wife.
When Abshire got to Taylorsville Road, Swartz says Eric told him, he discovered Justine's body in the road. Abshire told Swartz that he didn't know for sure at first if she was dead, but he thought she was.
"He said he sat down in the road and held her for some period of time before, at some point, realizing he needed to call for help," Swartz recalls. Abshire said he then went to a house nearby and banged on the door.
Swartz asked why– if Justine had been able to call Abshire from her cell phone, and if they had the same cell phone provider– Abshire didn't use his own cell to call for help immediately.
Abshire's answer: "He said he was so panicked that he didn't think to use his cellphone, and he didn't see hers," says Swartz.
Over the days, weeks, and months following Justine's death, Swartz says, he tried to get Abshire to be more specific about the argument, about the timing, and about his decision to go pick up Justine on a motorcycle she'd frequently expressed her fear of riding.
"It was not like her to go off in the middle of nowhere," says Swartz. "If they'd had an argument, and it was of sufficient intensity, I can imagine her leaving." But he says she wouldn't drive around aimlessly and end up on a road Abshire told him she'd only been on once before: "She would go to a friend's house or to a hotel," he says.
The Swartzes haven't been able to answer other questions: why did Justine, who had taken a self-defense class and was "very safety conscious," leave her trunk open and her purse and keys in the car before walking down the road? Why didn't she put up flares? Adding to the Swartzes' doubts: Justine was not feeling well and although she had attended her night class at UVA, where she was working on her master's degree, she had already called in sick to work at the elementary school for the next day. Her parents later learned she had taken cold medicine, which her mother says made her drowsy.
The state police were the first law enforcement agency to respond to the 911 call, and they have handled the investigation since then. Special Agent Mike Jones declines comment on all details of the case, saying only that the investigation is "very active." In early April, the Swartzes asked Abshire if he would take a lie detector test, "to put our minds at ease," says Mr. Swartz. Abshire refused, claiming a lawyer advised him against it. The Swartzes haven't talked to him since.
If a lawyer advised Abshire against a lie detector, perhaps that same attorney has advised him not to give any more interviews.
The Hook left him repeated messages on his cell phone– which has a voice mail recording identifying the phone as his– but none of the calls were returned.
His last statement to the press may have been the one broadcast May 21 when an NBC 29 reporter reached him.
"I can tell you what happened up until the point she left the house," Abshire said in the recorded audio-only interview. "After that, you know, it's... I have no knowledge of anything once she left the house."
NBC29 also asked Abshire if there was "any reason to believe you may have killed her?"
"No, not at all," he replied, "and I don't appreciate the accusations or questions, ma'am."
There was nothing exceptional about the black 1997 Ford Expedition for sale at Seminole Auto Sales in Ruckersville– at least not until it was taken from the lot in the wee hours of October 29, 2006, five days before Justine Abshire died.
The dealership reported it stolen later that morning, and didn't hear about the car again for about two weeks, when, sometime in the week before Thanksgiving, it was discovered in a closed but unlocked bay at nearby Spotswood Self-Storage on Toms Road.
"When you're in the self-storage business, you get all sorts of surprises," says Roland Pittman, owner of the storage business now called Ruckersville Storage.
Pittman says he was patrolling the facility in November, opening unrented units to "see if they needed cleaning." When he pulled up one door of an unrented unit that should have been empty, he saw the Expedition and called the police.
Pittman says the vehicle appeared to be undamaged, and the key was not inside. "Someone had just stolen it and used it for a joyride," he believed. "They had to get rid of it and that was a good place to put it."
The scant 70 miles added between the theft and the car's return suggest it wasn't much of a joyride.
By that time, the investigation into Justine's mysterious death had begun, and there were a few curious details about this particular vehicle.
First, the fenced but unmanned storage unit where it was discovered is just over a mile from where Justine was found. But there was something even more surprising than the location.
Someone had spent some time looking at this particular SUV on the dealership lot "a few days to a week before it was stolen," says salesperson Mike Marks. Marks says the eager auto shopper was Eric Abshire, who had an acquaintance working for Seminole Auto at that time.
And Marks recalls another detail from that day.
"One of the keys got lost," says Marks. "It just so happened that the day the key disappeared was the day Eric Abshire was up here looking."
Hard to know
Family and friends say Abshire was difficult to get to know, but they readily concede that Justine truly stood by her man. Justine and Eric broke up several times briefly, say the Swartzes, but each time they reconciled.
Younger sister Lauren says Justine was impressed with his work ethic at Lowe's, and that she felt he was a "strong" person. And while some people are put off by dating someone with children, Lauren says, Abshire's two daughters were a plus for Justine.
"I think those two girls with Eric reminded her of us with our dad," says Lauren, recalling conversations she had with her big sister about her step-children and Justine's hope that she and Abshire would have children of their own.
Justine and Abshire dated for more than seven years before they married on May 28, 2006. Yet her parents say even the joy of planning a wedding didn't bring them closer to their son-in-law. In fact, they say, their concerns escalated before the wedding.
In early December 2005, when Justine told her parents she was engaged, her mother thought the couple would wed in summer 2006 because, as a teacher, Justine would have summer free for the wedding and honeymoon. Instead, Justine told her parents Eric insisted the wedding should be in May.
At first, her mother says, Justine was absorbed in the details of planning, but as the date grew closer, her interest waned.
"About four or six weeks before the wedding, there was a huge shift in her attitude," says Mrs. Swartz. "She wasn't getting things done" In fact, Mr. Swartz adds, two weeks before the wedding Justine hadn't ordered a cake, hadn't picked up her dress, and hadn't even finished sending out invitations.
Her behavior so concerned her parents that they made an unannounced trip to Barboursville to assure her that if she was having second thoughts, she shouldn't worry about the complication of canceling the wedding or the money already spent. They called to let her know they were coming when they were already on the way.
"She was very angry with us," says her mother, who was particularly bothered by the fact that Abshire was "nowhere to be found," despite the fact that the Swartzes' visit lasted the entire weekend.
"It seemed to me that as a young couple in love, if he thought that her family was interfering," Mrs. Swartz says, "he would have been at her side saying, 'We're really committed.'"
"I had the feeling that when we went up there, she was angry with us for showing up because it was interfering with something else that may have been going on," says Mr. Swartz.
Nevertheless, the wedding took place at the Mark Addy Inn in Nellysford, and wedding pictures show the couple smiling, and Justine, in a long white dress and veil, dancing with her father. But the Swartzes say signs of problems in Justine's relationship lingered.
The day after the ceremony, the extended family gathered again to celebrate with a long-planned dinner. The groom, however, didn't attend. "Eric decided to go off and ride motorcycles with his friends and left Justine with us," says Mrs. Swartz. "It struck us as odd."
When Justine and Eric were together that weekend, "you could feel the tension," her mother says. Once Eric had left with his friends, however, "she was like the Justine I knew when she was a child," Mrs. Swartz recalls, "charming, laughing, funny, thoughtful."
A month after the wedding, Justine drove alone to Chattanooga to see her parents. It's a visit her mother now especially cherishes.
"I recognized my daughter again," she says. Justine helped her mother in the cooking boutique she owns, and Mrs. Swartz says, "We had a wonderful time."
That was the last time the Swartzes saw their daughter.
A new life
It's no secret that when a wife dies or disappears under mysterious circumstances, the husband is often the prime suspect, as Scott Peterson and O.J. Simpson attest
But the Swartzes say that while they are bothered by inconsistencies in Abshire's story and by his refusal to discuss the night of Justine's death in more detail, they are open to any possible explanation about what happened to Justine and hope he was not involved.
How is Abshire handling the stress of his wife's death and the investigation? Although many questions about his behavior have been raised, he is a man who has endured not only the death of his wife, but who also recently lost his mother. Alice Abshire died February 27 at the age of 57, according to a Daily Progress obituary.
Despite the Hook's repeated calls to Abshire and to numerous of his friends and family members, none were willing to comment. Several of them, however, left messages and memories of Justine on a memorial website her parents created, justineabshire.com.
"I can hardly put into words how much I miss her and how much I wish she were here," wrote Jill Madison, whose husband, Mark Madison, is Abshire's cousin. "We had so many plans together, from vacations to ganging up on our husbands, to living on adjoining properties, to raising our kids together as one big, happy family," she wrote.
The mother of Abshire's two daughters also chimed in.
"I did not know you, Justine, but my daughters loved you very much," wrote Allison Crawford, who lives in Ruckersville. "They miss you very much and talk about you often. It sounds like you were a very special person, and I am deeply sorry that you are gone."
"I pray you will be comforted in knowing that although her sojourn on earth was all too brief, your daughter made a difference in my granddaughter's life," wrote the grandmother of one of Justine's students.
Similar sentiments were shared at Justine's standing-room-only memorial service on November 7, 2006 at Preddy Funeral Home in Gordonsville.
"You're never in a million years prepared to attend a memorial service for your child," says Mrs. Swartz. Seeing her daugher's tiny students sitting there, "just took my breath away," she recalls, describing Justine as "endlessly patient and endlessly nurturing."
"The real tragedy of her death is that the world needs more people like her," she adds, "not less."
Lauren says Justine's devotion to her students was complete, but that she wasn't above a good laugh either, and the two often traded stories about their jobs.
"They had show and tell day, and the kids were supposed to bring something from home," Lauren recalls. "This one kid, when it came time for show and tell, he went over to brown lunch bags and pulled out a particular one."
It wasn't lunch.
"He had got on the toilet, taken poop out, and brought it to school because he thought it was cool," laughs Lauren, who couldn't provide a story that could compete from her communications job.
"She always had tons of cards and pictures, secret small admirers," says Lauren, who last saw her sister in September. Lauren, then recently engaged, asked Justine to be the matron of honor at her April 2007 wedding, and the two went wedding dress shopping. "It means a lot that we got to have that experience," she says.
Along the berm on Taylorsville Road, a small memorial remembers Justine. Pink and white artificial butterflies and flowers, and an angel wearing a rosary mark the spot where her body was found. A few feet away, taped to a tree, is a reward sign, encased in plastic but still fraying and worn by time.
Her parents, however, say time won't erode their resolve to find Justine's killer.
"Nothing is ever going to be the same in our lives," says her mother. "We've lost our child; kindergarteners lost a great teacher. It's the not knowing...."
"The loss," adds her husband, "goes on and on."
The online version of this story has been corrected to reflect Justine Swartz Abshire's correct birthdate, which was incorrect in the print version.–ed.