Black widow? A native son's death rattles Somerset

In the mannered society governing flowing valleys and tree-covered hills of Orange County, phrases such as "blood tells'' and "pretty is as pretty does'' resonate. Gentility is paramount. Breeding is preferred.

There are certain things just not done in this part of the South.

One does not call attention to oneself with common behavior. If bourbon has been consumed, allowances are made. While seated at table with one's husband, one does not rub the thigh of another man at the table. And one most definitely does not fatally poison said husband and then order his body cremated on the same night.

Donna J. Somerville, 51, widow of Hamilton A. Somerville Jr., who was born on this fertile land back-dropped by the Blue Ridge Mountains, is accused of doing all these unseemly things.

Her murder trial is scheduled for June. Though Hamilton Somerville– "Ham'' to his friends– has been dead for more than two years, his life is well remembered. His widow is well disdained.

And so the murder of Ham Somerville is doubly offensive. Not only was he killed, allegedly for his money, but his wife's behavior, beginning about a year before Somerville's death, has been deemed appalling, cheap, and just not right.

Free on $300,000 bail, Donna lives at Mount Athos, a 450-acre hilltop farm once part of President James Madison's Montpelier estate, about 20 miles northeast of Charlottesville.

Donna says little or nothing to her husband's family and his legion of friends. A "No Trespassing" sign has been staked in the red Virginia soil at the entrance to Mount Athos, just behind stone pillars in front of a winding driveway.

Her silence may be understandable. According to court documents, some of the evidence used by a special grand jury to indict Donna Somerville came out of her own mouth.

A church divided

 A media beast feeds steadily on Ham Somerville's death. Donna has become, on glossy magazine pages, "the black widow," a brazen gold-digger who seduced a grieving widower into a quickie marriage and eventually grew tired of him.

A much-published news photograph from last year shows her shackled and dressed in a prison suit of broad black and white stripes, standing outside the tiny circuit court in Orange.

Hamilton Somerville, in the same shiny magazine, became a squire, a gentleman farmer, a millionaire, and a recovering alcoholic killed in his own bed at age 57 in his mansion on a hill.

But the simple, human truth, as black-and-white as his widow's weeds, is that a gentle and vital man with grown daughters, who loved his church as much as he used to love liquor, is dead.

And all because he ingested large amounts of the drugs morphine, codeine, and oxycodone, according to the coroner's report.

In the community and at Christ Episcopal Church in Gordonsville, where the Somervilles worshipped, people who knew them continue to suffer. Neighbor has turned against neighbor; worshippers have stopped speaking to each other.

"No one can talk about it,'' says parishioner Dorsey Comer. "It's broken our church up. Everyone is just silently grieving.''

Those chasms, some say, cannot be bridged until Donna Somerville is judged in court.

Ham's new wife

 Part of the murder's intrigue is steeped in the land itself; Mount Athos has a certain kind of history revered by Virginians.

It once belonged to Montpelier, the family plantation of the fourth president of the United States. Originally covering more than 4,000 acres, Montpelier changed hands several times before its last private owner, Marion duPont Scott, bequeathed it to the National Trust for Historic Preservation in 1983.

She was briefly married to Ham Somerville's uncle Thomas. In the divorce settlement, he got Mount Athos, which later was given to Hamilton Somerville Sr., Ham's father, as a wedding present.

The duPonts and the Somervilles remain entwined by blood and land, like many families here whose descendants pride themselves on roots spanning 400 years.

Conduct here is noted and judged– especially the conduct of outsiders.

It was hard not to notice the arrival of registered nurse Donna Scott in the summer of 1990. She was a Yankee, for one thing, and no one seemed to know her in the tight-knit enclave of Somerset, where two-lane roads ramble past fenced horse farms with gorgeous homes set a mile back.

Ham Somerville hired her from a local hospice to care for his first wife, Sidney, who was dying of breast cancer.

Donna Scott, 39, tended Sidney Somerville at Mount Athos. Her duties included administering morphine to ease Sidney's pain. When Sidney died three months later, Ham hired Donna to care for his mother, Henrietta, who was also dying of cancer.

Henrietta died four months later. Seven months after that, Ham married Donna in a civil ceremony– her fourth trip down the aisle.

There were, of course, whispers and gossip. Sidney had been dead for less than a year.

But Donna, Ham's friends thought, seemed to be a good influence on her new husband. She persuaded him to quit drinking. They became pillars of Christ Church. Both were members of the vestry. He was church treasurer; she was the Sunday school superintendent and sometimes served communion. They were inseparable.

"When you saw one, you saw the other,'' says Tony Garnett, a local farm worker.

If they weren't in church or working the farm, they were lunching at the picnic table inside the Somerset Center Store at what passes for an intersection here. From the wooden porch, you can see Mount Athos on a snow-covered rise, flanked by leafless trees of winter.

Every morning started the same for Ham. He woke early and sat on the porch drinking coffee and smoking, Garnett said.

He fed and tended 50 head of Black Angus cattle, then got in his Suburban and headed to the Somerset store for a coffee refill. There, he'd hook up with Garnett, whose father had worked at Montpelier for nearly 60 years and knew Ham's father.

Garnett was a boy when he first met Ham, who was nearly 20 years older. Over the years, they became close.

"People said I was the son he never had,'' Garnett says.

About a year before Ham's death, Tony Garnett grew increasingly appalled. He considered driving up there and just telling Ham to his face. But he couldn't.

"He was my friend,'' Garnett said.

Garnett had watched Donna caressing the leg of another man, under the picnic table, as she, Ham and others ate lunch, he said. So had Garnett's girlfriend, Sarah Rogers, who works at the store.

"We didn't know what to do,'' she said. "We couldn't believe it.''

They also watched her park her car in the tiny lot outside, then get into the cars of other men, slouching down as they drove away, both said.

If Donna was having affairs, why be so blatant? There are nearby cities such as Charlottesville, where cheating wives have a better chance of going unnoticed.

"It was like she just didn't care,'' Rogers said.

Soon, Somerset was buzzing. But Ham never said a word to his friend.

"All of a sudden, they weren't together all the time,'' Garnett says. "You could tell something was bothering him, but he wouldn't say nothing.''

How Ham died

On the last night of his life, Ham Somerville said he didn't feel well and went to bed early. Donna brought him soup, she later told deputies.

He hadn't felt well for more than a month. He was unnaturally exhausted, he told friends; some days he could barely get out of bed.

One day, on the farm with Garnett, Ham wondered if he'd had a stroke in his sleep. "He was really tired,'' Garnett says. "He said he felt like he'd been drugged.''

But he didn't see a doctor. "Donna said she checked his blood pressure and it was fine,'' Rogers says.

At Sunday church, after a vestry meeting, Ham chatted with Dorsey Comer, who'd known him for 18 years.

"I asked how he was,'' Comer recounts. "He said, `Dorsey, you know, I'm not feeling very well. I'm just so tired and I don't know why.'"

Two days later, Donna called 911. Her husband had stopped breathing, she said.

The procession of sheriff's cars and rescue squad trucks snaking up the Mount Athos driveway lit up the hill. Down at the Somerset store, people stared.

Garnett and Rogers drove to the house and pulled around to the back. Jeff Carpenter, a farm hand temporarily living in the guest cottage, sat outside.

Garnett asked what was going on. "The old man done croaked," Carpenter replied. Donna was in the house with authorities. So was Lance Clore, another local man who'd been working, and sometimes staying, at Mount Athos.

Garnett pointed his car back down the hill.

Except for the funeral, "I never did go back up there,'' he said. "I knew deep in my heart that she had killed him, and I didn't want to be around her.''

It took about 15 months for investigators to announce they'd reached the same conclusion. On Valentine's Day 2002, Donna Somerville was indicted on one count of first-degree murder.

She was sole heir to Ham's $15 million estate. Modest trusts had already been established for his grown daughters.

Phone messages left for Donna Somerville by the Associated Press were not returned. Prosecutors, investigators, and Donna Somerville's attorneys declined comment on the criminal case. So did lawyers representing the estate and his daughters, who have filed a wrongful death suit against Donna Somerville.

Orange County sheriff's deputies, aided by a state police investigator, interviewed more than 80 people connected to Ham and Donna. According to court documents, much of the state's evidence comes from the sworn statements of deputies who responded to Donna's 911 call and from wiretaps placed on telephones belonging to Donna and Lance Clore.

Sgt. James Fenwick says that when he arrived at Mount Athos, he followed Donna's voice to the second-floor bedroom. Ham was on the bed, still alive.

Donna told Fenwick she tried to administer CPR but "was unable to do anything because of her husband's physical size.''

After serving Ham's dinner, Donna said, she'd gone downstairs. When she returned, he was "blue in the face.''

Paramedics worked for 45 minutes, administering CPR and inserting an intubation tube. Deputy Shane Nelson said Donna "pleaded several times for the rescue workers to stop,'' saying her father "had gone through this and they didn't save him.''

Nelson and Fenwick said Donna insisted she wanted her husband cremated that night, saying it was what Ham wanted. But Virginia law prohibits cremation until a death certificate is issued.

At the urging of one Somerville daughter, the Commonwealth's Attorney ordered an autopsy. The results: death by drug poisoning.


The investigation

A piece of carpet was cut from the bedroom floor where Ham had vomited in front of deputies. It tested positive for morphine, codeine, and oxycodone, according to the state forensic lab.

Also seized from the property, according to court documents, were cocaine; marijuana; prescription painkillers; Klonopin, a sedating drug usually prescribed for anxiety disorders; herpes suppression medication; and a snippet of plastic straw containing cocaine residue. The warrants do not specify whether all of the items came from the big house, or whether some came from the guest cottage.

Months later, authorities charged Carpenter with felony possession of cocaine. He is now listed as a material witness in the murder case.

As the days tick by leading to Donna Somerville's murder trial, a semblance of normality has returned here. Life in the Somerset store goes on, though Donna does not come in anymore.

"For awhile, nobody trusted anybody,'' Rogers says. "It's disrupted everything. It's just a little country town.''

Donna no longer attends Christ Church, where some worshippers balked at taking communion wine from the hands of a woman suspected of killing her husband, Comer said.

She still shops at Faulconer's hardware over in Orange, where people know her and what she is accused of doing, and don't say a word to her about it.

"She's innocent until proven guilty,'' says Conway Faulconer, who helps run the family store. "These are people with lives we're talking about.''

There are certain things just not done here. Abandoning civility is one of them.



The Orange County Courthouse will be the site of Donna Somerville's June trial.

"It's broken our church up," says parishioner Dorsey Comer of Christ Episcopal Church. "Everyone is just silently grieving.''

Donna Somerville, free on bail, still lives at Mt. Athos.

Amid lush horse farms, the Center Store is what passes for "downtown" Somerset.

Donna Somerville at her indictment on first degree murder charges last year.



An Orange County deputy says Donna "pleaded several times for the rescue workers to stop'' and then insisted her husband be cremated that night– but Virginia law prohibits cremation until a death certificate is issued.


Friends say they watched Donna caressing the leg of another man, under a table at the Somerset Center Store, as she, Ham, and others ate lunch.