Freyda Epstein: Fatal homecoming in Madison

Renowned folk singer Freyda Epstein had just flown in to Dulles last Friday night. It was after midnight as she drove down U.S. 29, eager to join old friends, when her path intersected with the violent trajectory of Richard E. Brock, and she became his second victim that evening.

Epstein joined the seminal art-folk group Trapezoid in 1980 as a singer and violinist. "She was one of the most incredibly gifted voices I'd ever heard," says founder Paul Reisler.

"She's one of those people you know if you know anything about folk music," says Anne Williams, host of "Acoustic Sunrise" on WNRN.

Epstein, who lived in Charlottesville in the '80s and '90s before moving to San Francisco, was on her way to Musicalia, a private music festival celebrating its 30th year in White Hall. Friends like Laura Light, Reisler, and Lorraine Duisit were waiting for her there. Instead, around 11am Saturday, they learned of her bizarre and tragic encounter with Brock.

Earlier on May 16, Brock had been at the Greene Acres subdivision home of Penelope R. Pelkey, 38, near Stanardsville. According to Captain Scott Haas of the Greene County Sheriff's Department, Pelkey describes Brock as an acquaintance whom she asked to leave her home after an argument turned physical.

When she barricaded herself in her daughter's room, Brock kicked in the door and stabbed her multiple times with a butcher knife from her kitchen. Pelkey told police Brock stabbed himself and threatened to say she had done it.

Brock, 41, then drove Pelkey to the Sheetz in Madison County in her 1994 Chevrolet Corsica. After more arguing, she escaped from Brock into the Sheetz where she collapsed. He sped off in her car up U.S. 29 north. Minutes later, at approximately 2:35am, he crossed the median and hit Epstein's rental car head on, according to Virginia State Trooper V. A. Velazquez. By the time Velazquez arrived, both Epstein and Brock were dead.

How did Brock end up across the median? "He was definitely going faster than 55," says Velazquez, who also noted that there were no skid marks. Toxicology reports are not in, but police believe alcohol may have been involved.

"He had committed a crime," says Valazquez. "There was no one in pursuit." And, there were no skid marks.

Suicide?

"We'll never know," she says.

The news was particularly hard for area musicians still in shock from the death last year of Guano Boys bassist Dave Grant, who was killed in an excavation accident.

"I spent the weekend cold and soaking wet, in mourning for Freyda," says best friend Light.

Reisler calls Epstein "probably the most musical person I've ever known." Even after seeing her perform hundreds of times, when she sang with Trapezoid member Lorraine Duisit, "I'd practically be moved to tears," says Reisler.

"I have never found anyone that easy to sing with," says Duisit. She, Reisler, and Epstein had toured with John McCutcheon last December, and they'd planned more engagements for this year.

Epstein was the director of the World Harmony Choir in San Francisco, where she also was a certified instructor of the Alexander Technique, a body therapy method.

As much as fellow musicians rave about Epstein's voice "a lustrous, alto voice that could melt butter," according to Jim Magill, director of the Swannanoa Gathering in Asheville they also praise her abilities as a teacher. Her students include McCutcheon, "Prairie Home Companion" mainstays Robin and Linda Williams, and Mike Seeger, according to a Swannanoa biography.

"She'd pulled away from performing the last few years," says Light. "For her, the real joy was getting others to sing."

After leaving Trapezoid in 1988, Epstein performed with Freyda and Acoustic Attatude, and with the group she recorded Live at Cabell Hall in 1993. "Our magazine gave that a high review ten years ago," says Paul Hartman, editor of Dirty Linen magazine, who calls Epstein "one of the top performers in the field."

Epstein was considering moving back to Charlottesville, says Light, and friends gathered to remember her May 21 at the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Church on Rugby Road.

"She was very much loved by Charlottesville," says Duisit. Reflecting on the collision with alleged assailant Brock, she says, "It's bizarre and unfair that their paths crossed."