NEWS- Justice for Justine: Questions linger in hit-and-run death
A week after the Hook discovered a black 1997 Ford Expedition may have played a role in the November 3, 2006 hit-and-run death of Justine Swartz Abshire, questions about her death remain unanswered: in particular, how exactly did Justine die, and what's become of her work-issued life insurance?
As detailed in the Hook's June 7, 2007 cover story, "Justice for Justine: The reward is boosted as new clues surface," the 27-year-old kindergarten teacher was discovered by her husband, Eric Abshire, dead or dying on Taylorsville Road in Barboursville sometime between 1 and 1:40am. Her parents, Chatanooga-based Steve and Heidi Swartz, have publicly expressed their frustration with their son-in-law's refusal to discuss their daughter's death in more detail and to take a lie-detector test. They have offered a $50,000 reward for any information leading to an arrest and conviction in the case.
After Justine's death, Abshire told Mr. Swartz the two had argued over his mother's health and that Justine had left the house and later called him to say her car had broken down, so he left on his motorcycle to pick her up– despite the fact that temperatures that night had dipped into the mid-30s. When he arrived at Taylorsville Road, Abshire told Mr. Swartz, he discovered Justine's body in the road and had a resident of a nearby home call 911.
As the Hook revealed last week, a black 1997 Ford Expedition may play a key role in the investigation. The vehicle, stolen from Seminole Auto Sales at the corner of Routes 29 and 33 in Ruckersville five days before Justine's death, was discovered weeks after her death in an unlocked, unrented unit at Spotswood Self-Storage, a mile from the dealership and one mile from Taylorsville Road where Justine died. Several days before the vehicle was stolen, Eric Abshire spent some time looking at it on the lot. That same day, a salesperson revealed, a key to the vehicle went missing. The vehicle, the Hook has learned, was returned to the dealership and sold before police made the possible connection.
Through his attorney, the Expedition's new owner has declined comment, however a source close to the investigation tells the Hook that police took several samples from the vehicle for testing. The results of any such tests have not been made public.
(The Hook has also learned of its own connection to the case. A maroon Nissan pickup truck, in a sale handled by Abshire's brother, Jesse, was purchased earlier this year by Jeffrey Norford, the man who delivers the Hook. Norford reports that police have informed him that the vehicle was examined by authorities prior to his purchase.)
A kindergarten teacher at Culpeper's Emerald Hill Elementary School, Justine, her parents say, was a "homebody," and they say they can't imagine her driving dark country roads in the middle of the night. She had also called in sick for Friday, November 3– the day she she died– though they don't know if she'd seen the doctor. If she had, her visit would have been covered by the school provided health insurance. That isn't the only benefit given teachers in Culpeper.
Like most other school districts including Albemarle and Charlottesville, Culpeper County School system belongs to the Virginia Retirement System, a plan that guarantees its employees retirement benefits and life insurance. In cases of accidental death, the pay-out is approximately four times the employee's annual salary. According to the 2006-2007 Culpeper salary scale, Justine, who was in her third year teaching in the system, would have made at least $37,000, meaning her beneficiary could be eligible for at least $148,000. Her parents decline to say if they were named, citing the ongoing investigation, and Abshire– who, as her spouse, would be the default beneficiary if Justine hadn't named someone else– has not returned the Hook's calls.
Questions also linger about the way Justine died. There is no doubt she was found in the road, and police have classified her death a homicide, but the results of the autopsy have not been released. Witnesses say her body was discovered several hundred yards from her car and around a turn in the road. One Taylorsville Road resident, Aubrey Collier, says he doesn't believe a vehicle could have thrown her that distance. "It was too far," he said last week.
Most of Eric Abshire's family members the Hook has contacted have declined comment on their relative, who as detailed last week, has had several legal run-ins. However, Abshire's grandmother, Arlene Harlow of Ruckersville, says she doesn't believe her grandson has done anything wrong. She says Eric and his brother, Jesse, are devoted grandsons who call her regularly and who visited their late mother Alice, Arlene's daughter, when she was ill and in the hospital.
"As far as I know," she says of Eric, "he's a good boy."
The online version of this story has been changed to reflect the correct name of Eric's grandmother, Arlene Harlow, which was misstated in the print version.–ed.