Preliminary hearing: Night of stabbing detailed

Young men hit the bars on the Corner every weekend. Early on the morning of November 8, two sets of 20-somethings– one town, one gown– crossed paths, and a night of barhopping turned into tragedy, leaving 22-year-old Walker Sisk, a volunteer firefighter from Free Union, to die in a pool of blood on 14th Street.

Although some details differed, two witnesses in Charlottesville General District Court on January 15 agreed on one thing: Murder suspect Andrew Alston initially appeared to be a peacemaker.

Regardless of his initial role, Alston is accused of stabbing Sisk, and that testimony was enough for Judge Robert H. Downer to certify second-degree murder charges against Alston, who was third-year UVA biology student until incarcerated for this community-rocking crime.

As friends of Sisk lined one bench, a man wearing a uniform from the Seminole Trail Fire Department, the station where Sisk volunteered, moved closer to the front to observe the proceedings.

Alston's parents made the drive from Lower Gwynedd, Pennsylvania, where Robert Alston is a lawyer and sits on the Township Board of Supervisors.

This wasn't their first visit to smooth over their son's reputation. They drove down September 7, when Andrew Alston was arrested for allegedly assaulting his former girlfriend. Testimony in that case, which was heard November 21, four days before his 22nd birthday, indicated that the father pressured the former girlfriend to sign a statement recanting the charges. Andrew Alston was acquitted.

This time, Robert Alston sat in the back row in a far corner of the room, while a black-clad Karen Alston stood in front of the courtroom clutching the arm of her shackled son, who's been held without bond since November 8.

Jimmy Schwab was with fellow firefighter Sisk on November 8. The pair had been to a handful of bars drinking Bud Lite, and were leaving Orbit on 14th Street around 1:30am when they encountered the UVA group.

"Somebody," Schwab testified, "yelled out, what the f*** are you looking at?" He described a group of four kids, one taller than the others whom he called "the mouthy one."

He said three of the four met Sisk in the street. "I thought they were trying to soothe things," he said, and he pointed to Alston as one of those seemingly trying to defuse the situation.

The other witness, Jeffrey Cabrera, part of Alston's group, said he'd been worried about "the mouthy one," Bill, getting into a fight all evening.

Cabrera, Bill, Alston, and Alston's brother Kenny had been in O'Neill's Pub, where Andrew Alston dropped a beer out of his hand, and "Bill had been very obnoxious," said Cabrera. They retired to the White Spot for food, but Kenny Alston was so drunk he could barely eat his burger without dropping it, according to Cabrera.

The quartet was headed north to a girl's house on 14th Street, and Cabrera said he was steering Kenny Alston on the west side of 14th when he noticed Andrew and Bill had moved to the east side of the street. He heard profanity-laced yelling between that pair and two men Sisk and Schwab behind him.

Neither witness could say for sure how things escalated, but as Sisk crossed the street at Wertland, Kenny Alston put his arms around him. "He was drunk, and he fell on top of Walker in the road," Cabrera told the court.

As Walker Sisk got up, Cabrera testified, "I saw Andrew kind of hit Walker in the face. It was a weird moment."

Schwab described Alston punching his friend Sisk twice in the torso. By this time, the pair was on the northeast corner of 14th and Wertland Street. "Walker ended up on a wall," said Schwab. "I remember him saying 'ow' at least twice."

Then his friend was quiet and "buckled up," while the defendant continued to land blows on the stricken firefighter. "Walker came down from the wall, hits the car and ends up on the ground face down," Schwab said, adding that Alston was still leaning over the fallen Sisk.

"I hit [Alston] a couple of times, and said, 'Somebody call the police,'" Schwab testified. He rolled Sisk over. "He was blood from neck to waist," he testified.

Cabrera didn't observe Schwab hit Alston, but he did see Alston hit Sisk with what looked like keys in his hand while the firefighter was slumped against the parked car.

"It was a weird motion," Cabrera said.

He also saw Sisk drop to the ground by the car. "He kind of fell sideways," continued Cabrera, who told his buddies to "get the hell out of here. I saw blood on the car."

Cabrera explained that he told his friends to leave because Sisk was clearly hurt, and "I didn't know if they'd hurt Jim or me."

Alston looked "stunned and shocked," according to Cabrera. He didn't see blood on Alston's hands, nor did he see a knife or anyone trying to hide or discard a knife.

When Washington-based defense attorney Barry Boss asked Schwab to estimate how long it took for the police to arrive, Schwab replied, "It seemed like an eternity."

An autopsy report filed at the hearing indicated that Sisk died of 20 separate stab wounds, according to Assistant Commonwealth's Attorney John Zug. The police have not found a weapon.

In a November 13 Daily Progress account, a neighbor said she saw Alston with a five-inch knife between 10 and 11pm the night of the stabbing. And police say a trail of blood from the scene of the killing led them to Alston in an apartment on 14th Street.

As soon as the cross examination of Cabrera ended, Judge Downer certified the case to the grand jury, and rejected defense attorney Scott Goodman's request to set bond.

"There is nothing that came forth from this hearing that will change my position with respect to bond," Downer said.