The Disappearance of Kortne Stouffer

In my last post, I discussed the strange death of Robert Wone. This time I will be discussing a  different, lesser known case involving a missing person. The Robert Wone case took place in a wealthy neighborhood of Washington D.C, and most of the principles involved were respected professionals with no criminal history. By contrast, this case involves no less then three calls to the police, a very irate drunk woman and her equally irate neighbors, and the person who would normally be the prime suspect has an alibi by being in jail the whole time. So, different atmosphere.

In the summer of 2012, Kortne Stouffer was a 21-year old working as a dog groomer and living with her boyfriend, Bradley Herr,  in an apartment in Palmyra, Pennsylvania. Sometime in the early hours of July 29th, 2012, between the hours of 3:45 am and 7:00 am, Kortne vanished and has not been seen or heard from since.

Kortne’s case interests me for a number of reasons. For one, while its fairly well known in the region of Pennsylvania where it happened, it’s not one of the most frequently discussed cases in true crime circles. Also, several things happened shortly before the disappearance which may or may not be related to it, and there are multiple persons of interest who have no known connections to each other.  Also, Kortne strikes me as an interesting figure–a lively animal-lover who also had some real flaws which came to the forefront the night she vanished This, I think is an important point in and of itself. I’ve had some episodes of my life that I’m not exactly proud of, either, and if I happened to be murdered or abducted during one of them I would kind of like to think that someone would still care.

Kortne had grown up on a farm in the area, and was still close to her parents and siblings. At the time of her disappearance, her parents were divorced but still in frequent contact with on another. She had always been free-spirited, and had a love for all things 1960s–many pictures of her show her dressed in tie-dye and hippie-style headbands. Even those who cared about her most admitted that Kortne had a temper and could be abrasive. During the night of July 28th and early morning of July 29th, Kortne was drinking with friends and had several altercations with neighbors and acquaintances, making it difficult to guess what actually happened to her.

Kortne and Bradley had been renting an apartment in a divided, 2-story duplex since earlier that year. A couple referred to as Janice and Rich were renting the apartment below them, and there was another neighbor, a 45-year old single man named Todd, renting the apartment that shared a wall with Kortne’s.  According to her friends and family, Kortne and Todd had never gotten along after she and Bradley moved in. In fact, the week before she vanished, Kortne had called her mother to claim that he was “videotaping” her. At around 9:00 pm on July 28th, Kortne and Bradley had several friends over for a party when the police showed up, saying there had been a noise complaint from the neighbors (this has been attributed to Janice and Rich). It would probably have ended how this situation usually does, with the young people turning down the music until the cop car pulls out of the driveway, except that the police noticed Bradley with alcohol. At the time, he was on probation for a DUI, and so he was arrested and taken to jail, where he would remain for the next few days. This infuriated Kortne, who blamed the downstairs neighbors for calling the police. At 9:50 pm, she called her mother, who said that Kortne was upset by the incident and worried that Bradley would be going to jail for a long time .

Accounts get a little contradictory around this point. When I first read about this case, I was under the impression that an agitated Kortne had started yelling at the neighbors, and that the other people at the party had suggested going to a bar in nearby Harrisburg in an attempt to diffuse this situation. I was under the impression that Cody Pruett (who will become critical to the case) was among this group. However, the Disappeared episode that covered the story implied that Pruett was not at the party, but that Kortne had called him and arranged to meet him at a nearby gas station. Then the two of them, along with a few other friends, then made the 25 mile trip to Harrisburg. If the latter scenario is the case, then we’ll have to assume that everyone else at the party just left at that point, or at least had parted ways with Kortne before the next major events of the night happened.

Regardless, Kortne ended up at the Harrisburg bar with Pruett and some other friends, including a man named Milton Rodriguez Jr. Pruett was  a 29-year old  friend of both Bradley and Kortne’s, and according to some sources it was no secret that he had a crush on Kortne. While she was there, another conflict erupted, this time between Kortne and a man out with his girlfriend. The only time I have seen or heard this man  called by name was in the Vanished podcast episode, which referred to him as “Arverd”, so I am not certain if the spelling is correct. Kortne and Bradley knew him, and she claimed that he had previously broken into her apartment and stolen money. The fight escalated, and Kortne was kicked out of the bar. She waited outside until the rest of the group came out, then went with Pruett and Rodriguez Jr. to pick up her car at the gas station.

After leaving Harrisburg, Kortne returned to Palmyra, followed by  Cody Pruett and Milton Rodriguez Jr. Pruett dropped Milton off at his home on the way, and then continued with Kortne to her apartment “to make sure she got home okay”. Once they got there, it became clear that Kortne’s problems with her neighbors were not over. At 3:15 am, police received the second call from the apartments, this one from Todd. When they arrived, the verbal argument between Kortne and Todd had almost become physical. The police separated them and told everyone to go back to their respective apartments. They left at around 3:45 am, but at 4:12 am they received the third and last call from the apartments. The neighbors (Janice and Rich this time, as I understand it) claimed that Kortne was yelling at them and banging on walls from her apartment. I have not found documentation as to the exact time that police arrived for the last time, but it seems to have been around 4:30 am.

This time, however, everything was quiet. There was no noise or visible lights coming from either apartment, and the police left. The rest of what we know about that night and morning comes from Cody Pruett’s version of events.

According to Cody Pruett, Kortne had in fact started harassing Janice and Rich once more as reported, but he had managed to calm her. Kortne went to go lie down in one room, and Pruett had gone to sleep in another. He claims not to have heard the police knocking or been aware they had showed up again. He woke up around 7:00 am and left the apartment, believing Kortne was still sleeping in another room. He went to a nearby convenience store to get something to drink (video surveillance supports this) and sent Kortne a text, but she did not respond. He also sent a message to Rodriguez Jr., since Pruett was still driving Rodriguez’s car.

On the morning of July 30th, Kortne’s mother went to the apartment to check on her, because the family had been unable to reach her all the following day, even though she and her brother had plans in the afternoon. She found Kortne’s keys and shoes near the door, where she always left them, and her phone was plugged in next to her bed. The TV and air conditioner were both turned on. There was no sign of a disturbance, and no sign of Kortne. Here I have to wonder what exactly her mother’s–and law enforcement’s–definition of “disturbance” was. After all, there had been a raucous party in that same apartment a few hours before Kortne disappeared, and no one would have cleaned it up. It’s probably best if we interpret this as “no obvious signs of a struggle.” Kortne and Bradley both had dogs, who were inside t and had evidently not been let outside in a while. Her car was still in the driveway with its windows down.

 

The Investigation

From quite early in the investigation, police treated the case as an abduction, and I’ll be working based on this theory for the rest of this article. I suppose it is possible that Kortne wandered away from her apartment and met with some kind of accident, but this seems unlikely. Among the individuals investigated were Cody Pruett, Milton Rodriguez Jr., Arverd, and Kortne’s neighbor Todd. Janice and Rich were questioned, but I have not learned that they were investigated heavily. Pruett was described as being very cooperative, and submitted DNA. Searches were conducted in his home, Rodriguez’s home, and the car that Pruett had borrowed from Rodriguez. Nothing suspicious turned up at any point. I have read differing accounts of Todd’s behavior–one source described him as cooperative while another called him “evasive”–but there was nothing in his apartment or car to link him to Kortne’s disappearance, either. More ominously, he had called the landlady who owned the apartments to complain about Kortne’s loudness and conduct. He left a message saying that if the landlady wouldn’t deal with the situation, then he would. This was brought up in the Disappeared episode about the case, but it is unclear to me when exactly that call took place.

As for Arverd, he claimed that he and his girlfriend had left the bar and Harrisburg and spent the night at his parents house, and alibi that was supported by his family. It should be noted that, a few months later, in October of 2012, he was part of a group of men arrested and ultimately convicted of breaking and entering and armed robbery.

At one point, a rumor surfaced that Kortne had been murdered and disposed of in a nearby lake, but two separate searches of the lake revealed nothing and the rumor is now regarded to be bogus.  One private investigator links the case with several other missing or murdered young women with some physical similarities to Kortne, implying they are victims of the same serial killer. These cases cover several states, and while it is possible that Kortne was the victim of some type of serial predator, there is nothing definitive to link her case to the others across such a wide geographic region.

There has been a lot of suspicion on Cody Pruett from the outset, and his name comes up frequently in discussions about the case. There is good reason for this–after all, he was the last known person to see Kortne and he claims to have slept through whatever caused her to disappear that night. There is even a possible motive if he was attracted to her, and was then rejected by her. This definitely warrants investigation and Pruett still remains a person of interest in my book. However, I’m little less suspicious of him than the majority of people who study the case. One theory that gets brought up a lot is that the yelling and floor stamping that prompted the last police call by the neighbors was actually Kortne being attacked by Pruett. It has also been suggested that Pruett was afraid of being arrested if police were called again, and accidentally hurt Kortne trying to keep her quiet. These area great thoughts, and I’m glad they were put out there, but there are things that don’t sit right with me about this theory. First of all, most accounts indicate that Janice and Rich could hear what Kortne was yelling, and that she really was screaming at them and not an attacker. Secondly, if Pruett was involved in what happened to Kortne, he would have had to take her somewhere in Rodriguez’s car. If he talked her into going someplace with him and attacked her there, it seems unlikely she would leave all of her things behind. Why would he then return to the area near the apartment the next morning, when he went to the store? Wouldn’t it be better for him to have driven home and say that he left when Kortne went to bed? His narrative puts him at the apartment the whole night, and it seems like he would be trying to distance himself from it if he was guilty of something. Some people have suggested that he went to the store and sent Kortne text messages to establish an alibi, but this seems more complex than someone in his position would think of at a time like that.

The neighbors are also brought up, especially Todd. I’m skeptical of Rich and/or Janice being involved in the disappearance, because they were the ones that summoned law enforcement in the third and final call of the night. Both levels of the duplex were quiet when police arrived, so there was no remaining reason for the couple to confront Kortne. And I really doubt they did anything prior to that point, because why would anyone commit a crime when they already knew police were coming soon? Todd is a bit more of a conundrum. There seemed to be real hostility between him and Kortne, and according to Kortne’s account to her mother, perhaps something even more sinister on his part. And he did make a blatant threat against her in the phone call to the landlady. Also, when Kortne and Pruett returned, it sounds like Kortne almost immediately started arguing with him, meaning he was likely awake and outside at 3:00 am.

The possibility that Arverd was involved in Kortne’s disappearance also intrigues me. On one hand, it’s an eerie coincidence that he had an angry confrontation with Kortne that evening, and then later that same year he was involved in an incident that apparently involved breaking and entering while armed, apparently with the intent of robbery. Earlier, Kortne had a conversation with her mother in which she accused him of breaking into their apartment, and, as irate as she was at the bar, she almost certainly accused him  directly, too. Now, I think we have reason to think that Kortne could be a bit of a drama queen, which is something I keep in mind with her accusations of Todd videotaping her as well. However, I have to admit that the puzzles pieces fit together a little too neatly to dismiss this theory. There are problems too–Arverd did have an alibi for that night, if a somewhat weak one. His girlfriend who was with him at the bar supports it, as well as his parents. However, it was already late when he encountered Kortne, and were his parents really awake when he returned in what would have been the small hours of the morning? And, keep in mind, if he went to Kortne’s apartment that night, he would have had to make the same 25 mile drive to do so. If he was involved, he had to have believed it was important enough to deal with as soon as possible.

There’s a tangential theory that Arverd was not directly involved, but that someone else in the same circle of acquaintances as Kortne, Bradley, and Arverd may have been. The idea is that word of Bradley’s arrest had gotten around, and someone thought that the apartment would be easy pickings for money (and possibly drugs) with him gone. To me this is a little vague, but not implausible. In the Disappeared episode, Kortne’s parents express that they had concerns about some of Kortne’s friends, and thought she was getting involved with a somewhat rough crowd. In  Arverd’s case, his later behavior seems to support this. So I have to take into consideration that Bradley’s arrest triggered some kind of chain reaction of which Kortne’s disappearance was an unintended result.

It’s also possible that Kortne was abducted by someone she knew who has not been mentioned–or by someone she didn’t know. This is entirely possible–maybe she had acquired a stalker at some point, or stepped outside and interrupted some kind of illegal activity in the area around her apartment. However, there’s not really a lot of evidence pointing in this direction. The place where Kortne and her neighbors lived are often described as “apartments”, but more detailed descriptions make it out to be a duplex divided into three parts with Janice and Rich occupying the lower floor of one half, Kortne occupying the upper floor, and Todd living on the upper and lower floors of the remaining third. This was not, as I understand it, a large apartment complex with a big parking lot and several other people living nearby. I’m far from an expert in these matters, but if you’re a serial predator looking for a victim or someone looking to make drug deals, I can point you to several better locations. So I tend towards the theory that what happened to Kortne was in some way directed at specifically at her or her living place.

 

Conclusions (such as they are).

I’m not committed to this idea, but I think a lot of issues with this story–the lack of evidence in the apartment itself, the fact that no one heard anything out of a woman who had done almost  nothing but make noise for the past few hours–are resolved if Kortne stepped outside her apartment on her own, and whatever happened to her happened after that. Kortne may have quieted down by the time Cody Pruett went to sleep, but she could still have been too restless to stay in her bed and so stepped outside. It’s possible she heard someone on the stairs outside her door and went to investigate (I’m not 100% certain, but descriptions make me think there was an exterior door leading to a flight of stairs and then another door to the actual rooms of the apartment). She could have let the dogs outside, encountered someone, and put the dogs back inside to talk to them. If Todd was outside again, she could have spotted him and been ready for round two of the Neighbor Wars. However it happened, I think that Kortne left her apartment with the intention of being outside for only a short period of time. At this point, she encountered the person or persons who abducted and presumably murdered her. One thing I am almost entirely undecided on is if all this happened in the brief interval before the police returned at 4:30 am, or during the longer interval between 4:30 and 7:00 am (although odds favor the latter). I really hope this case will be solved in the near future, and I don’t think it’s a total long shot that it will be. There are plenty of cases that I highly doubt will be solved, and I still intend to write about them if they interest me, but I would not put this one in that category yet. It will be six years this summer, and it seems likely that there are people who know exactly what happened that night still living around Palmyra. I’ll be watching for any developments, and report them if they happen.

Meanwhile, I would love to hear anyone else’s thoughts!

–L.R.

 

 

 

 

References

https://crimewatchdaily.com/2016/04/25/woman-21-vanishes-from-apartment-after-3-police-visits-in-one-night/

http://crimefeed.com/2016/02/what-could-have-happened-to-21-year-old-kortne-stouffer/

http://bringkortnehome.com/ A website maintained by the family, which includes a lot of details about Kortne’s life and the case.

http://www.thevanishedpodcast.com/episodes/2017/3/24/episode-70-kortne-stouffer An excellent, succinct podcast episode covering the case

https://www.reddit.com/r/UnresolvedMysteries/comments/7o19cv/the_disappearance_of_kortne_stouffer/

Investigation Discovery’s Disappeared: Season 8, Episode 4 “Spirited Away” This episode was extremely helpful in filling in some of the information gaps, especially with regards to which of Kortne’s neighbors were doing what.

Unsolved Mysteries: Robert Wone

Since I’m planning on incorporating my true crime obsession into my social media presence, I wanted to start out with one of my favorite (in the most tasteful possible sense of the word) cases: the 2006 murder of Robert Wone. Technically, it should be “the unexplained death of Robert Wone” but most of my sources flat-out call it a murder. Still, I feel obligated to say that it cannot be definitively, legally, be considered a homicide. I spend an unhealthy amount of time mulling over unsolved mysteries, and this one of the ones I mull over the most often.

First, a caveat. The most suspicious individuals in this case (in my opinion), are three men in a polygamous relationship. At least two of the men were involved in some fairly heavy BDSM, and one of them had a room full of esoteric sexual novelties. This has had the unfortunate effect of making the investigation needlessly lurid at best and outright homophobic at worst, so I want to be clear that the sole reason I find the words and actions of these men suspicious is because a man was murdered in their house and their subsequent claims did not match the available evidence.

The short synopsis: On August 2, 2006,  32 year old lawyer named Robert Wone (by all accounts a very nice, responsible, civic-minded guy) was stabbed to death while spending the night at the home of his college friend, Joseph Price and Price’s two live-in companions, Dylan Ward and Victor Zaborsky. All three residents of the house claimed that Wone had been attacked by an intruder who entered and then fled. However, the evidence that was collected called this theory into question and cast suspicion on the residents themselves. Ultimately, all three men were indicted for destroying evidence and obstructing justice, but nothing could be proven. A wrongful death suit was brought against the men by Wone’s widow, which was ultimately settled for an undisclosed sum. No one was ever convicted of the murder and the case remains unsolved.

The long synopsis (where things get much, much stranger): Robert Wone had known Joseph Price from when they were in school together at the College of William and Mary, and by all accounts the two were close friends all the way through law school and beyond. Robert married a woman named Katherine Yu; Price entered into a relationship with a man named Victor Zaborsky, and later into a polygamous relationship with Zaborsky and a man named Dylan Ward. While Price was known to be romantically involved with both Zaborsky and Ward, I have never found anything to specify the relationship between Zaborsky and Ward. At the time of the stabbing incident, Price was a partner at a D.C law firm and Zaborsky was a 40-year old marketing executive. Dylan Ward was working as a fundraiser and had been through a varied academic career, holding degrees in foreign relations, culinary arts, and children’s literature. In the summer of 2006, he was also working on obtaining a masseuse license.

By August, 2006, Robert Wone had started a new job at Radio Free Asia in Washington D.C, close to the rowhouse shared by the three men. In late July, Robert decided he wanted to stay late at his workplace on August 2nd, to attend a law seminar and to meet the night crew. Rather than commute to his home in Fairfax County, Virginia, Robert arranged to spend the night in the guestroom at Prince’s house. At the time, a friend of the three men named Sarah Morgan was also renting the basement of the rowhouse, but she is reported to have spent the night at a friend’s.  The rowhouse had three stories and a basement, and the guest room where Wone was staying was on the second floor. Ward’s bedroom was also on the second floor, while Price and Zaborsky shared the master bedroom on the top floor. The only people known to have keys were the four residents, Joseph Price’s brother Michael (who also lived in DC), and a maid service.

As planned, Robert went to work, attended the seminar, and met the night crew at Radio Free Asia before taking a cab to Price’s house. He arrived, at earliest, at 10:32 pm (the timeline becomes tight in this case, so that’s why I’m trying to be precise). At some point between 11 and 11:30 pm, a neighbor heard a scream (later, the men’s defense attorneys would argue that it could have been later than 11:30). At 11:49 pm, Victor Zaborsky called 911 and reported that an unknown person had entered the house and stabbed someone. There is a transcript of the 911 call on the “Who Murdered Robert Wone?”  website below as well as a recording on Youtube (Robert Wone 911 Call). Zaborsky remained on the line with emergency services for five minutes until EMTs arrived. When the medics entered the home, they found Wone lying on the fold out couch in the guest room, dead from three stab wounds in his chest and abdomen. Next to the bed was a knife lying on a blood-stained towel. The three men who lived in the house were reported as quiet and seemingly calm. Zaborsky does not sound calm on the phone, but I think this can be taken to mean he simply wasn’t talking by this point.

Each of the residents was questioned separately by the police and all gave essentially consistent testimony. More disturbingly, none of them seemed especially concerned about Wone.

So, essentially,  a lot happened between 10:32 and 11:49 pm. The rest of this article will attempt to fill the gaps.

According to Price, Zaborsky, and Ward, Wone arrived shortly after 10:30 pm. Zaborsky was already upstairs in the master bedroom watching TV. Wone, Price, and Ward had a brief conversation in the kitchen. At some point, Price saw something–a spider or insect- on the back patio light that caused him to go outside and investigate. He later said it was possible he didn’t lock the door when he went back inside.

Shortly after this, each of the men got ready to turn in for the night. Price went up to the third floor and spent a few minutes watching TV with Zaborsky before turning off the light. Ward went to his room, took a sleeping pill, read for a few minutes, and then went to sleep. He said that he heard Wone taking a shower in the second floor bathroom. The time was now around 11 pm.

Price and Zaborsky claimed to have heard the back door chime, indicating someone was entering the house. They assumed that it was Sarah Morgan, thinking she had decided to stay the night at the rowhouse after all. Then, a few minutes later, they heard a “low scream”, raced downstairs, and found Wone bleeding from stab wounds.  At this point Zaborsky screamed, and this is believed to have been the scream heard by neighbors, The commotion woke Dylan Ward, who came out of his room to see what was happening.

Here we reach one of the thornier points in the narrative. Different sources have given contradictory information as to exactly where Wone was found. He was on the bed in the guest room when the medics arrived, but one account given to a first responder claimed that they had found him by the back door to the patio and then put him on the guest room bed. A variant on this story has them finding Wone “on the patio” implying that he was outside the house. Most later versions of the narrative have them finding him on the bed in the guest room. This is problematic for a lot of reasons, particularly because it adds some doubt as to where exactly the attack occurred.. Since the scenario with Wone being found in the bedroom seems to dominate most recent accounts of the story, I’ll be working based on that one, but that the men would change their story on this one point puzzles me.

So, the account continues, the Price and Zaborsky heard a scream, came downstairs, find Wone stabbed on the bed, and call 911. Dylan Ward was awakened by the commotion in the hallway outside his room. At some point between hearing the muffled scream from the guest room and calling emergency services, the men said they had heard the back door chime again, indicating someone leaving the house.

In the aftermath of Wone’s death, another lawyer friend of his assisted his widow, Katherine, when police were questioning her. According to this man, Price contacted him the next day to ask what the police wanted to know. The three house residents all got lawyers and stopped discussing the case.

From the beginning, the police were suspicious of the story. For one thing, there was no evidence of an intruder in the house, and if there had been, the intruder’s behavior was nonsensical. He or she would have had to have gotten over the tall fence that surrounded the property, found the unlocked back door, walked in undeterred by the chime, walked past the most valuable items in the house, gone up to the second floor and past Ward’s bedroom door, and entered the guest room and stabbed Wone to death as he lay on the fold out couch.

During the investigation, an autopsy was conducted on Robert Wone’s body and many pieces of evidence were taken from the house. I will summarize the highlights of what was discovered below.

From the Autopsy

  • The cause of Wone’s death was the three stab wounds in his chest and torso, some of which had pierced his heart and pancreas. Each of the stab wounds was clean and symmetrical, indicating that he had not been able to struggle. There were also no defensive wounds. The knife marks were not consistent with the knife found by the bed. They were more consistent with a cutlery set found in Dylan Ward’s room, from which a knife was missing.( More on that later). The medical examiner determined that the wounds should have bled more than the small amount of blood found at the scene indicated, and that none of the stab wounds would have been immediately fatal or incapacitating.

 

  • Robert had signs of hemorrhaging around his eyes, a sign that he had been smothered or suffocated, although this would not have been fatal.

 

  • Robert had six needle punctures in his skin on his neck, chest, foot, and hand, and these were believed to have been inflicted before he died. Robert did not have any medical conditions that could have explained this, and the ambulance crew that brought him to the hospital claimed that they did not make any of the puncture marks either. This led to the possibility that Robert had been drugged.

 

  • Except that….toxicology tests showed no sign of alcohol or any common drugs–including most paralytic drugs–in Wone’s system.

 

  • Semen was found in Wone’s anal and genital region. When tested, it proved to be his own. While there was no bruising or other signs of a violent sexual assault, this led many to speculate that one of Dylan Ward’s electrical sex toys could have been used on him.

 

From the Crime Scene

  • The bed and guestroom where Robert was found were remarkably clean. There was a small amount of blood that would have been beneath the body. It was not smeared at all, meaning the that the body had not been moved since the attack (another strike against the patio door story). A chemical reagent was used to test for more blood, and indicated that there might have been bloodstains on the walls and at various other points in the room. Very unfortunately, the test was done incorrectly, meaning that it could have reacted to materials other than blood

 

  • There was a knife from the house’s own kitchen and blood-stained towel next to the bed. As indicated in the autopsy summary above, the knife did not actually match the wounds on Robert’s body. Nor did it show any trace of the fibers from the T-shirt Robert was wearing. It did have blood on it, as well as fibers from the towel. When examined closely, it appeared as if the knife had been dipped in blood and wiped on the towel.

 

  • Several of Robert’s personal items were on a bedside table, including his

Blackberry with two unsent messages time-stamped at 11:05 and 11:07 pm. One was to his wife Kathy, and the other was to a coworker confirming lunch plans. If the times were accurate and the messages were written by Robert, this would mean that his death happened between 11:07 pm and (probably) 11:30 pm.

 

  • Drug-sniffing dogs were brought to the house, but the only drug that was found was some Ecstasy

 

  • Cadaver dogs alerted near the laundry machine in the house and a drain in the backyard, where a hose was running from the house. When questioned,  Price claimed that it had been set up this way due to an unrelated matter. Many people have taken this to mean that bloody garments were placed in the washing machine and that blood was rinsed down the outdoor drain.

My Conclusions

For the most part, I have concluded that the intruder theory is utter baloney. That is not to say that I haven’t gone down some dark alleys of thought to see if it might be possible. And it is possible, just not very probable. It should be noted that a neighbor did report that the day after the murder, there was an indentation in the cover of a child’s sandbox, as though someone had come through the yard and stepped on it. The most likely possibility–for a very weak definition of likely–is that a professional hit man had been hired to kill Wone and followed him to the house or knew he would be there. The point here is that if an intruder did kill Wone, they almost certainly entered the house with the  express intent to do so. I suppose a “robbery gone wrong/mistaken identity angle” makes slightly more sense if Wone really was attacked by the back door as in the initial report.  But if that really did happen, why would the SS3 change the narrative to finding him in the guest bedroom? So I don’t think anything like this happened.

There has been a lot of theorizing about a “fourth man” that may have been present that night–someone who contributed to Robert’s death and then fled the scene, leaving the other three men in the house to handle it from there. The most frequent name that comes up in this theory is Michael Price, Joseph Price’s brother. Michael Price was a phlebotomy student at the time, and he missed his class the night of the murder–the only time he is recorded as having done so. This is, at the very least, an odd coincidence. I have never found documentation as to exactly what hours his class ran, and 11 o’clock at night seems a little late for most college classes. Michael also had a bit of a criminal history and was later found to have broken into the rowhouse and stolen valuables. This is all a little strange to me, and makes a theory that involves Michael Price one worth considering. However, it seems unlikely that all three men would agree to cover for him, and maintain the charade for years. To me, it’s still more logical to link Robert Wone’s death to one or all of the people known to be in the house.

My thoughts about the needle marks and possible drugging can be divided into three broad theories.  One is that the Wone was in fact injected with a drug while at the rowhouse, and the toxicology screening did not test for this particular drug. This is entirely possible–toxicology tests are for specific drugs and they will not pick up what they don’t test for. Many people accept this theory, but I have some problems with it. For one thing, I find it unlikely that the men would have had access to an extremely rare paralytic or date rape drug and not have access to the more common ones that were tested for. Secondly, the puncture marks were in multiple places all over Wone’s body, and if the drug was needed to paralyze him, it seems like there would have been an intense physical struggle even to inject him.

The second possibility is that, despite claims to the contrary, these marks were left over from testing and/or treatment that Wone received from EMTs. Yes, the marks are described as “pre-mortem” but Wone would have been very recently deceased at this point. Also, ambulance crews treat badly injured and ill people every day. It would be surprising it they did remember everything they did to one patient when asked about it later. During some of my research, someone mentioned that multiple needle marks in different regions of the body is consistent with someone searching for a vein, and this fits better with attempts at medical treatment or testing then with drugging a conscious person.

One last theory about the needle marks that I have entertained is that they were inflicted by one of the three men in the rowhouse immediately after Wone’s death using an ordinary pin from the household, in an attempt to see gauge if Wone was actually dead or not. This is a little strange and far-fetched, and I prefer the EMT theory if any theory at all, but lots of things about this case are strange and far-fetched so I shouldn’t discriminate.

Warning: Here is where I go full Adults Only). I have always been a bit ambivalent about the sexual assault aspects of this case. One thing that has never been clear is exactly how much semen was collected from Wone–if it was only trace amounts, that would make it more likely that it was unrelated to his death. If it was a large amount, and recent, that makes it harder to dismiss. Most people who study this case read it as having a sexual motive, and this is not without reason. I think some kind of sexual assault is entirely possible, but I can’t help but wonder if maybe we’re all over-focusing on that angle. I’m not a medical expert, and I’m really not an expert in the intricacies of male genitalia, but I wonder if the ejaculation of semen could have been some sort of reflexive response to the suffocation? As an added note, if investigators suspected that one of Dylan Ward’s sex toys had been used on Robert, why not collect it and test if for DNA?

I don’t see any reason to think anyone but Robert Wone himself wrote the unsent Blackberry messages. The data from the Blackberry was erased  before it could be analyzed, but, given that Wone was wearing sleepwear and his mouth guard, I think it more likely that he fell asleep without sending the messages or did not realize they hadn’t been sent. If the men in the house could have manipulated the Blackberry, presumably in order to mess with the timeline, why not adjust the time stamp until even later? Also, would they really have known the details of Robert’s lunch plans? Tangentially related, but I think that Robert being asleep when he was attacked could resolve a lot of the issues with the possible drugging and the lack of defensive wounds. I’m not sure about Robert’s sleeping habits, but, speaking for myself, I am a very deep sleeper who takes a long time to wake up, and even after I do it’s usually a few moments before I can move all my limbs. Not saying I could sleep through three stab wounds, but it’s not outside of all probability to me.

I want to conclude by discussing the behavior of Price, Zaborsky, and Ward. I think at least one of them knows exactly what happened, and I think at least one participated in the assault that led to Robert Wone’s death. However, I want to clear up what isn’t suspicious about their actions. Getting lawyers is absolutely what anyone in their situation should do.  A guy is stabbed to death in your house,  you’re already raising a few eyebrows by having an atypical personal life, and the police are not making a secret of doubting your story–this is exactly what lawyers are for, and Price would have known this. Neither should the fact that the men appeared cold and arrogant to the investigators be taken as an automatic sign of guilt. The adage that people react differently to crises gets repeated a lot in true crime discussions, but it’s still very true.

Even allowing for this, there are things in their behavior I find problematic. Reports are consistent that none of the men expressed concern for Wone, and, with the possible exception of Zaborsky during the 911 call, little evidence of fear that an armed intruder had been in the house. The Trace Evidence podcast covered this case (the link is below), and the host mentioned something which somehow had never occurred to me before but is actually quite significant: the accounts given by the three men have Dylan Ward being awoken by the commotion in the guestroom and coming out to see what was going on. Price and Zaborsky apparently ran right past his room to the guestroom where they found Robert, and there’s no mention of either of them saying something in the spirit of “Hey, Dylan, you’re not also stabbed to death in your room, are you?” If they were operating on the assumption that an intruder was in the house and had attacked Robert, wouldn’t they check on Dylan or call out to him to see if he was okay?

I don’t think Joseph Price wanted to assault or kill Robert, or ever planned to. I think it most likely that whatever happened that night, happened outside his immediate control, or at least he did not plan on doing it in advance. The reason I think this is because the two men had  been close friends for years. Now, I realize that doesn’t necessarily mean anything, and that no one can ever know what even a trusted person will do. However, it is also true that the best predictor of future behavior is past behavior, and in the decade-long friendship between Prince and Wone there was absolutely no indication of the kind of tensions that would lead to a murderous assault. It’s tempting to develop a theory based around two or more of the Swan Street three conspiring in advance to attack Wone, as that would solve some of the problems associated with the rapid timeline. However, the relationship between Wone and Prince and the less-then-perfect “cover-up” lead me away from this idea. If the crime was pre-meditated, it seems reasonable to think that an intelligent and experienced lawyer like Prince would have found more effective ways to divert suspicion from himself.

I should also talk about what is known about Victor Zaborsky’s actions that night. One point that seems to have been agreed upon is that the loud scream heard by neighbor’s was Zaborsky’s, not Robert’s. There is really no reason for  Zaborsky to scream and draw attention to the situation other than that he was genuinely shocked and terrified by something. That something was most likely the stabbing that had just happened in his house. Is it possible that Wone’s death happened without his approval or perhaps even knowledge? I have wonder what someone with more experience than myself in reading behavior would think of Zaborsky’s 911 call. To me, it sounded reasonably genuine (which does not even mean he was telling the whole truth, only that he was really upset). This is worth a whole separate discussion when it comes to assessing reactions to crime. Someone can be emotionally genuine without being truthful about the facts.

So I don’t think Price had a pre-meditated plan to kill Robert, I don’t think Zaborsky wanted the murder to happen, and I really have no idea how Dylan Ward felt about Robert. If any one of the three was not directly involved in the attack, my order of probability would run Zaborsky, Price, Ward.

Below are the two main things from the case for which I have no good explanation.

  • The murder weapon that was likely not the murder weapon. Why would anyone bother planting the kitchen knife in the guestroom? Why not just let the police assume that the intruder brought there own knife and left with it, like most intruders would do? The only way this makes a small amount of sense is if the kitchen knife was being used to deter or slow the search for the actual murder weapon. I still wonder about the missing knife from Ward’s cutlery set. Dylan Ward’s mother presented the missing knife after the indictment, saying it had always been in her possession. But how long had she actually had it?

 

  • If in fact large amounts of blood were cleaned up before the arrival of the EMTs, why would the men bother to clean it up? After all, wounds inflicted by an intruder would bleed the same as wounds inflicted by anyone else, and cleaning the scene would only make it look more suspicious. The only speculation I can offer here is that the men wanted to make sure none of their own blood, DNA, hair, or prints  could be associated with the blood, and had to clean it all up to err on the side of caution.

That was a lot of information, and I apologize for the wordiness. I also want to make it clear that I am only offering the known facts about the case and observations for discussion. I am very open to other interpretation and insights. I also invite you to check out the links provided below, and to research the case on your own.

Best of luck in all your endeavors (within legal and ethical limits),

 

–L.R. Gordan

 

 

 

Resources

This website hasn’t been active in a few years, but it has a lot of good information: Who Murdered Robert Wone? Among other resources, it contains a layout of the house.

An in-depth article from the Washington Post, Part One and Part Two

A lot of the physical evidence comes from this document: Affadavit for Dylan Ward’s Arrest

The Trace Evidence podcast covers the case in episode 12 and had a lot of good insights :https://www.trace-evidence.com/episodes/

There are also some good threads devoted to the subject on reddit if you search “Robert Wone.”: https://www.reddit.com/r/UnresolvedMysteries/

A Documentary, a Podcast, and a Dark Confession

First, I want to briefly discuss a surprisingly good documentary (well, more of a docudrama, since it features actors and fictionalized versions of real events). Earlier this year, Netflix released a film called The Most Hated Woman in America, about the life and death of outspoken atheist, Madalyn Murray O’Hair (this was before the Casey Anthony thing).  Although over 20 years old now, the case is one of those so bizarre in a “I couldn’t write this stuff” kind of way that I’m surprised it hasn’t received more media attention. The narrative cuts back and forth between Madalyn and her family after their 1995 abduction and her past as a single mother in 1960s Baltimore, where she became an increasingly abrasive advocate for religious freedom. Melissa Leo does a great job of portraying O’Hair at different ages, and together she and the writers manage to humanize someone who was by almost all accounts a difficult, unpleasant person. Vincent Kartheiser (smarmy Pete Campbell, for those who have watched Mad Men) plays her estranged son and the talented but somewhat underused Juno Temple plays her loyal granddaughter. Then there’s Josh Lucas as bitter former employee turned kidnapper, who projects a kind of menacing charisma and, in the scenes with Leo, creates an almost palpable tension. The narrative strikes the healthiest balance it can between “this woman has enemies? I can’t imagine why” and “okay, that shouldn’t happen to anyone.” I’m tempted to say more about it , but I have other things I want to get to without being too long-winded. So my suggestion is to Google the case to get the basic facts of the story, then watch.

I’ve also added Writing Excuses  to my ever growing podcast list. Each episode is a concise 15 minutes, full of great perspectives on writing. Then the hosts yell at you to get back to work at the end of each. Also, I checked out Last Podcast on the Left. It’s a sophomoric, tasteless comedy podcast about true crime and unexplained events, and when in the right mood, it’s hilarious. It makes me laugh, then feel ashamed.

So, the thing I’m really here to talk ab0ut today is the “dark confession” alluded to above. I’m a writer, and I hate world-building. In fact, world-building can go right over and stand next to cooking on my “it improves my quality of life but I still kind of loathe the process” shelf. I have a theory that some writers start by drawing a map–or perhaps just a tastefully decorated sitting room–and then people it with characters. That’s great, but it’s just not me. I’m more likely to stumble into a character who insists on being written about, sometimes with a filament of plot attached if they’re  being charitable. Then some other characters emerge from the shadows, and oh wait, two of them are fighting, and one of them is hitting the other with a chair. So, um, I guess my setting needs chairs now. I don’t really draw maps, and naming fictional cities, countries, rivers, and mountains makes me want to rip my eyelashes out. Every time I realize that a proper noun is required, I have to spend a good twenty minutes rejecting city/river/coffee shop names, all while my characters are getting impatient for the actual scene to start.

Now, at this point, you should all be asking, “But, L.R., why don’t you just use real world locations? They come with names, maps, and descriptions, no assembly required.” First of all, it is entirely possible that one day I will use a 100% real world setting, when the characters and plot seem to demand it. I think the reason that I’ve been using not-quite-real world settings (a few dimensions down settings?) is due to the fact that A.) I feel weirdly self-conscious about writing about real places, for fear of Doing It Wrong somehow, and B). as much I dislike flushing out my settings, I’m also very picky about them in some ways. I want every aspect of my story to feel like an organic part of a whole, and if my plot and characters can’t be plopped down into a real setting without feeling forced, then I have to come up with one that will fit them.

Now, I could get away with sparse world-building in my first novel, since the majority of the action took place in one city and the plot demanded only vague references to other places. Recently, however, I’ve been working on a project that is clearly going to demand more development in that regard, so I have to confront my distaste. How am I doing that? Here are some methods I am trying.

A. I already have some characters and loose plot points sketched out, so I’ve created a separate document listing every city/region/geographic thing I might need, with a few lines of description. I’m not trying for too much with these descriptions, at least at this stage. I start with something simple like “it’s near the ocean.” Then: “Because of this, it’s heavily dependent on maritime trade.” And then: You know what would totally ruin this place’s week? Some kind of embargo or blockade. This could be a point of conflict.” Then I start trying to think of how some of these things might be relevant to the characters and plot points I already have. The names usually come last, and yeah, I still hate coming up with them, but there are random generators.

B. I shamelessly copy, paste, and recombine real places and events. I did this in The Foreigner,  I’m going to keep doing it, and honestly I suggest everyone do it. This suits me, since I’ve never gravitated to fully invented languages and cultures–I prefer my characters to dress, talk, and be named like real people. So world cultures and history offer a near-endless yard sale of props.

C. Lastly, to come full circle, while I’m trying to keep my writing weaknesses from becoming a full handicap, I’m not going to develop them at the expense of what I really want to accomplish with my story, either. I’m going to write the book I want to read, and I’m only going to develop the setting as much as I need to make the story that needs to be made. I’m going to expand my comfort zone, but not abandon it.

 

What about everyone else? Does anyone else struggle with some of these same issues, and if so, how do you deal with it?

True Crime Book Recs

One of the things that people are surprised to learn about me is that I have a near addiction to true crime and unsolved mysteries. I am a constant lurker on the Unresolved Mysteries reddit forum. I watch episodes of Disappeared and BrainScratch on Youtube to unwind in the evening,  or else check in on the crew at Thinking Sideways. (Yes, I know, questionable life choices).

The best true crime is, in my opinion, about something more than the just crime itself. It should use that crime as a way of introducing the reader to another time and place, and to figures as well and vividly rendered as any fictional character. I tend not to be especially interested in serial killers or large-scale, multiple crimes—I’m much more apt to be fascinated by isolated cases where, between one moment and the next, something went very wrong.

Today, I’m sharing a partial list of some of my favorite true crime books. Please feel free to share some of your favorites in the comments, although I expect I don’t have too many crime junkies following this blog.

Midnight in Peking by Paul French This is one of my absolute favorites and the one that first comes to mind when I think of the above criteria. It centers around the murder of a young Englishwoman in Old Peking (or Beijing), shortly before the Japanese invasion of China, and is a fascinating look at a time and place with which most readers are unfamiliar.

Murder in the Stacks by David DeKok  A little known case from 1969, in which a graduate student at Penn State was stabbed to death in the campus library. It’s a terribly overlooked case, and the author does an excellent job of researching the life of the victim and the lives of all the other principle players involved in the case, as the well as the social and political mood of college campuses in the late 1960s. He examines several possibilities, and ends up presenting a plausible suspect and summary of what really happened in the silent stacks  that November afternoon.

Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil by John Berendt. If you can stomach another title with the word “midnight”, you will discover another fun, engrossing, atmospheric read. I almost didn’t include this here for a few reasons. One is that it is questionable whether it qualifies as true crime since it there isn’t really that much crime and it is possible that there is not that much truth, either. Berendt is open about altering the names and descriptions of several individuals that feature in the book, and I’m not the first person to comment on the relative implausibility of an outsider being so readily invited to share so many of Savannah’s secrets. While the narrative is centered around a shooting death in the home of a prominent Savannah antique collector (which may or may not have been self-defense), the real reason for the book’s existence is not so much this event as are the many side stories, full of scandals and colorful characters. Also, this book was a popular bestseller in the 1990s and I figured it had been recommended to death and back by this point. Then I remembered just how enjoyable it was to read, and realized that it needed to be on this list anyway.

Cases that Haunt Us by Mark Olshaker and John E. Douglas, and Law and Disorder by John Douglas and Mark Olshaker. I’m putting these two together because they share the same authors and cover some of the same material, These are fantastic primers on several controversial murder cases, both historical and modern, in which the authors apply their considerable experience and expertise and share their own conclusions. These are definitely more graphic than many of the other books on this list, delving more deeply into forensics and criminal psychology, and should in no way be mistaken for light reading. However, I heartily recommend them to anyone with a serious interest in true crime, so long as they have a reasonably strong stomach.

Shadow on the Mountain by Stephen Singular and Joyce Singular. I’m actually in the process of reading this one, but so far I’m liking it too much not to share. Here, the setting is Aspen, Colorado, and the crime is the murder of the well-connected heiress and philanthropist, Nancy Pfister. The story of Nancy’s life, in which she traveled extensively, rubbed elbows with celebrities, and made more than a few enemies, is incredible enough, and things only get more dramatic after her bludgeoning death turns into a murky legal drama involving three suspects, two of them a married couple.

The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher by Kate Summerscale. It’s been a few years since I read this, and writing about is going to make me want to check it out of the library again. In the year 1860, Jonathan Whicher, one of the earliest English detectives, was tasked with investigating the murder of a young boy and became embroiled in the cloistered lives of a well-to-do Victorian household. It soon becomes apparent to both Whicher and the reader just how implausible it was that young Saville Kent was killed by anyone other than a member of his own family.  His suspicion of Saville’s teenage half-sister brings nothing but disgrace to Whicher and the case is nearly forgotten, until, years later, a killer’s confession shocks the nation.

Dead Mountain by Donnie Eichar…and another “mountain” title. This might be cheating a bit since this book delves more into a mysterious event that in all likelihood involved no crime at all, but I feel this is the best place to mention a book that deserves mentioning. It was written as an attempt to explain the sad and unsettling Dyatlov Pass Incident of 1959, and is by far the most thorough account I have read about it. It’s the story of nine hikers who died in a mysterious accident in the Ural mountains, an event which has attracted conspiracy theorists and fringe researchers ever since. Eichar lays bare the facts, introduces the reader to all the main players in the story, dismisses the more outlandish explanations, and turns it all into a riveting read.

Most of the books by Ann Rule. You can walk into any given used bookstore and find a few shelves full of paperbacks written by her, and the same goes for most public libraries.  Small Sacrifices, Bitter Harvest, A Heart Full of Lies, and In the Still of the Night stand out as particular favorites. Each of her books is devoted to a murder case, but she has also written some compilations in which she explores several different cases. As far as I’m concerned, she’s everything a good crime writer should be. Rule focuses on the facts and is never especially lurid, while demonstrating great empathy and insight towards everyone involved in one of her cases. Best of all, her books are almost always compulsively readable, indistinguishable from the best sort of fiction.  She passed away in the summer of 2015, but still has some great interviews up on Youtube, where she talks about her writing career and always comes across as a very sweet, likable person.

Now just promise me you won’t read anything that claims to prove the identity of Jack the Ripper. Well, you can read it, just don’t take it seriously.