The stabbing death of a local man allegedly at the hands of a UVA student has forever linked two families, two communities, and two separate worlds.
It's like a wedding that both sides think is a bad idea. The past week, the Charlottesville Circuit Court was divided into "defendant" and "victim" sides of the court, with each side of the aisle avoiding eye contact with the other.
In one of several dramatic moments, defendant Andrew Alston took the stand November 9 and– voice breaking– claimed he'd pulled a knife on Walker Sisk in self-defense and that Sisk had taken from it him and lunged.
Twenty stab wounds later, Sisk lay dying on the 14th Street sidewalk, and Alston's knife disappeared.
The trial began November 3, almost a year after volunteer firefighter Sisk, 22, left home on a Friday night to relax with friends.
Third-year UVA student Alston, then 21, from Lower Gwynedd Township, Pennsylvania, also headed out with friends and his visiting older brother. During the course of a booze-fueled evening, November 8, 2003, the paths of these two young men intersected briefly– with tragic, life-altering consequences.
In court, Alston– charged with second-degree murder– sat sandwiched between his two Alexandria defense attorneys. His parents, Robert and Karen Alston, sat two rows back on the defendant's side, accompanied by a couple of supporters.
On the prosecution side of the courtroom, Howard and Barbara Sisk occupied the front row, perhaps to be closer to the proceedings, perhaps to avoid awkward eye contact with the Alstons.
The town v. gown lines were drawn– the Sisk side usually packed with family, friends, and plenty of uniformed firefighters. The Alston side was more sparsely attended, filled mostly with representatives of the media.
Lead defense attorney John Zwerling is no stranger to high-profile trials. His clients include the so-called "Virginia Paintball Terrorists," Lorena Bobbitt, and Countess Valentina Djelebova Artsrunik.
This trial's first dramatic moments came on Day Two, November 4. During testimony from the victim's friend and fellow firefighter, Jimmy Schwab, about how Walker Sisk died, Howard Sisk sprang up and said, "I'm out of here."
Schwab recounted that he and Sisk had been out drinking and were leaving Orbit Billiards after 1:30am November 8 when a member of Alston's party whom Schwab dubbed "the mouthy one" started a verbal confrontation.
Even when Alston's brother, Kenny, came over and somehow caused Sisk to fall, Schwab said, he wasn't worried. When defense attorney John Zwerling asked why, Schwab answered, "Walker wasn't a fighter." That was a contention the defense would later try to disprove.
Schwab also noted that he never saw a knife.
The victim's mother, Barbara, slipped out of the courtroom before the testimony of Dr. Marcella Fierro, Virginia's chief medical examiner, who performed the autopsy and detailed for the jury the 20 stab wounds Sisk sustained.
Fierro numbered the wounds– not in chronological order– and was about to describe wound number six when observers heard the sound of whimpering. It was the defendant sobbing at the picture of the five stab wounds the prosecution contended he put in Sisk's shoulder.
Judge Edward Hogshire rushed the jury out of the courtroom, and Alston was absent for the remainder of Fierro's testimony.
Of the 20 wounds, most were superficial, Fierro testified. However, one– "the one that caused death"– plunged three inches in to penetrate Sisk's heart.
The prosecution produced photos of a gash on Alston's right hand, and Assistant Commonwealth's Attorney Jon Zug asked Fierro if Alston's wound could have be defensive.
"It could be, but that's less common," said Fierro. "It slips because of blood on the hand," Fierro testified. "It doesn't have to strike bone. All you have to have is a moist hand."
Fierro placed the victim's blood alcohol level at around .19 to .21– more than double the legal limit of .08.
Next up: former Alston girlfriend Karen Graham– in her second trial appearance involving her ex-beau. In November 2003, she testified that Alston had punched her at a party that September.
In that trial, although Judge Robert Downer called it "classic domestic violence," he acquitted Alston of assault and battery charges because he wasn't convinced beyond a reasonable doubt.
Graham testified that after the alleged 12:30am assault after another night of partying, she "felt like crap" that someone she loved had gone to jail.
She told the judge that Alston's parents drove down from Pennsylvania that same day for what she called "damage control." The elder Alston, an attorney, drafted a statement for her to sign recanting her claim that Andrew Alston hit her. Graham signed the statement, and in subsequent emails Graham hinted that she punched herself.
"I wanted everything to be over and Andrew and I to be together, whatever the cost," Graham explained a year ago.
In the current murder trial, Graham's involvement was limited to mentioning that her then-boyfriend frequently carried a pocketknife.
Erica Schaul, who lived beside Alston at 1850 Jefferson Park Avenue, told the court that on the night of the killing she went to his apartment and saw his knife, which she estimated to be about four inches long.
The defense asked if Schaul measured it. "It was big enough that it made me uncomfortable," answered Schaul. "I didn't want to be around it."
Alston's brother, Kenny, and Bill Fegley, a friend from Pennsylvania, drove to Charlottesville November 7. An acquaintance of Alston's, Jeffrey Cabrera, detailed going out with the Pennsylvanians.
Cabrera pegged Fegley as "the mouthy one" who made obnoxious comments throughout the evening, even yelling out the car window on the way to the Corner.
First, the group went to the apartment of Elizabeth Cavness on 14th Street (where Alston would later be arrested after a trail of blood led police to her door).
Next, the party moved to the Biltmore Grill, and then to O'Neill's Pub. By then, Cabrera said, the "very obnoxious" Fegley had two more incidents of mouthing off to strangers, and the brothers were drinking heavily.
Cabrera bought a round at O'Neill's, and when he handed the drink to defendant Andrew Alston, "he dropped it."
At their final stop of the evening, the White Spot, Kenny Alston was so drunk that he couldn't keep the meat from falling out of his burger. "He was really out of it," said Cabrera.
In trying to maneuver Kenny Alston back to Andrew Alston's car, Cabrera became aware of some yelling. "Bill [Fegley] was shouting at someone else," he says.
That would be Sisk and Schwab, who were on the west side of 14th Street.
"Kenny tried to be the peacemaker, and put his hands on Walker, but he was so drunk, he fell down," said Cabrera, who then heard someone say, "He's hitting him," and then Andrew Alston say, "Get off my brother."
As the group reached the corner of 14th and Wertland street, Cabrera saw Alston punch Sisk two times with "very odd punches." Sisk grabbed his stomach, and fell on a wall. "I see Andrew from behind," making a "weird striking motion," Cabrera said.
According to Cabrera, Alston pushed Sisk against a parked car and hit him two more times, but he saw nothing in Alston's hand.
"Walker was not fighting back and was slouched on the ground," said Cabrera. "Andrew has a very stunned look on his face." Cabrera's advice to his new pals: get out of there.
On Day Three of the trial, November 5, police officers described following the trail of blood to find Alston in Cavness' apartment at 222 14th Street. They asked if there had been an altercation there.
While Officer Mark Frazier was standing in the living room, an "extremely intoxicated and very agitated" Kenny Alston burst through the door, knocking over an evidence marker. Frazier placed him under arrest for public intoxication, and while frisking him, found a set of blood-stained keys.
The prosecution contended Kenny Alston had ample opportunity to dispose of the knife used in the attack, and police, despite hours of searching– including the help of volunteer firefighters– never found a knife.
Andrew Alston was found asleep in a back bedroom.
Both brothers were taken to the police station, where Kenny Alston fell out of the chair he had passed out in. At 8am, he was given a blood alcohol test that showed a level of .15.
The Commonwealth entered several blood-stained items: Walker Sisk's plaid shirt, Andrew Alston's black jeans and Doc Martens, as well as the clothing of Kenny Alston and Bill Fegley. Blood was found on Andrew Alston's Jeep Cherokee and on his car keys.
Lisa Schiermeirer from the Virginia Division of Forensic Sciences testified that none of Andrew Alston's blood was found on Walker Sisk, and none of Sisk's blood was found on Alston. Who else could have stabbed Sisk– himself? That would be the defense claim.
The prosecution rested its case November 8, and the defense's first witness was the mayor of Skagway, Alaska, where Sisk had spent the summer of 2003.
In an attempt to paint Sisk as a brawler, defense attorney John Zwerling asked Tim Bourcy if Sisk had a reputation for violence. "I have no personal knowledge of that," replied Bourcy, who'd employed Sisk. "The only episode I know was of him breaking the window of a vehicle, which he admitted."
No charges were filed in that incident.
Kenny Alston, 25, testified next about the events of Sisk's death. He detailed a night of drinking with his brother and friends, describing Fegley– whom Schwab and Cabrera called "mouthy" and "obnoxious"– as merely "excited."
As for the White Spot, Kenny Alston had no recollection. He did testify to hearing some yelling, and running to make peace, then getting hit on the head and finding himself of the ground.
He also remembered running to Cavness' apartment and noticing that his brother's hand was bleeding. His next recollection: Waking up handcuffed in a police van. As for how his brother's keys wound up in his pocket, "I'm not sure," he said.
Defense witness John Correa taught Andrew Alston the martial art of aikido for eight weeks during the summer before the incident. Using a model– another instructor wearing a white t-shirt bearing marks that corresponded to the stab wounds on Sisk's body– Correa demonstrated how, if Walker Sisk had pulled a knife, Alston could have made defensive moves such as the "hammerlock" and others that would account for 20 stab wounds.
Howard and Barbara Sisk looked on intently; however, several of their supporters watched the demonstration in apparent disbelief that Alston could have pulled off moves that essentially would have made Walker Sisk stab himself.
Crime scene analyst Larry McCann offered the opinion that the cut on Alston's palm was a defensive wound, and that all the physical evidence was "consistent with self-defense by Andrew Alston."
He also said his company had billed the Alston defense $20,000 for his $300-an-hour expertise.
On November 9, the final day of trial, Alston took the stand. The 5'10", 165-pound defendant described drinking "eight or nine" drinks on the fateful evening.
He claimed that the confrontation on 14th Street started with Sisk yelling, "Hey faggot." When Fegley (once again described as "mouthy") continued the exchange and Sisk crossed the street, "I saw a furious man," said Alston. "I saw Walker take my brother to the ground."
Twice Alston described being ashamed: when he was "too much of a coward" to get the much larger Sisk off his much smaller brother, and when he pulled out a knife, held it out, and said to Sisk, "Stay back, man."
According to Alston, Sisk handily took the knife from him and lunged. "I held onto his hand as hard as I could," said Alston. "I knew if I let go he'd kill me. It happened really quick. I was scared. I hung on until he went down."
Under cross-examination, Alston testified that he didn't know where the knife was and that he never got it back. He also conceded that while he wasn't sober enough to operate a vehicle, he was not "falling down drunk."
After Alston testified that his run through the parking lot and back to Cavness' apartment was in fear that Sisk would come after him, Assistant Commonwealth's Attorney Zug asked if he ever called 911. "Did you make a phone call... and say, 'I have been attacked by a furious, crazy man'?"
"No," replied Alston.
Closing arguments took place the afternoon of November 9, after the Hook's deadline.
And by the time this paper comes out, the jury of eight men and four women may have decided the fate of the first UVA student accused of murder since Jens Soering and Elizabeth Haysom conspired to kill her parents in 1985.
Walker Sisk died on the 200 block of 14th Street. A year later, former UVA student Andrew Alston stands trial for second-degree murder.
PHOTO COURTESY BY JEN FARIELLO
Andrew Robert Alston in a mugshot
PHOTO COURTESY CHARLOTTESVILLE POLICE
Walker Sisk on the way to Skagway, Alaska, in 2003, where he'd met a girl and planned to return the next spring.
PHOTO COURTESY SISK FAMILY