Prosecutors: Severance killed 3 to get revenge on city's elite

FAIRFAX, Va. (AP) — A Virginia man accused of killing three Alexandria residents over the span of a decade wanted revenge against what he perceived as the city's elite after losing a child custody case, prosecutors said Thursday.

Opening statements and testimony began in the trial of Charles Severance, 55, of Ashburn.

He is accused of shooting three prominent Alexandria residents in their homes: Nancy Dunning, wife of then-Sheriff James Dunning, in 2003; transportation planner Ron Kirby in 2013; and music teacher Ruthanne Lodato last year.

Severance, a former Alexandria resident with a history of erratic behavior, has pleaded not guilty. The defense says the government case lacks direct evidence and that Severance merely looks suspicious because he is mentally ill.

"The Commonwealth has jumped to conclusions," defense attorney Joseph King told jurors. "The evidence is there's a dearth of evidence. No DNA evidence. No fingerprint evidence."

Prosecutor David Lord outlined striking circumstantial evidence, noting that all three victims lived within a mile of each other in the same neighborhood, not far from where Severance himself once lived.

Lord said all three victims were felled with .22-caliber, long rifle, plain lead, Remington brand ammunition. Severance's writings glorify this ammunition, and he convinced a one-time girlfriend to buy boxes of it. He had also convinced that girlfriend to buy two .22-caliber mini-revolvers that later went missing, along with the ammunition. Severance himself could not buy guns because of a previous felony conviction.

Severance's own writings provide some of the strongest evidence, Lord said. He wrote a poem he called "Parable of the Knocker" that Lord called a description of Severance's mode of operation: "Knock and the door will open. Knock. Talk. Enter. Kill. Exit. Murder. Wisdom."

In another passage, he wrote "Received no satisfaction after revenge killing."

The writings, Lord said, show that Severance harbored "a hatred against those he considered to be the elite of Alexandria."

Witnesses saw Severance in Lodato's neighborhood days before the killing and on the morning of the killing, even though Severance had no reason to be there, Lord said.

Dorcas Franko, a caregiver in the Lodato home, was shot that day but survived, and she was one of the first witnesses to testify Thursday. In court she looked directly at Severance and said he "looks like the guy" who shot her. Her identification came after the judge ordered Severance, who generally stares straight ahead, to turn and face Franko so she could get a good look at him.

During cross-examination, she was even more definitive, telling defense attorney Megan Thomas she had no doubt that Severance was her attacker.

"His eyes tell me something," she said. A previous witness also focused on Severance's eyes in making her identification, saying he had a "vacant stare" that unnerved her and caused her to remember him when she saw him in Lodato's neighborhood in the days before her shooting.

Franko told jurors she had been tending to Lodato's mother when she heard the doorbell ring, and Lodato went to answer the door.

"I heard a noise and a scream," Franko said, fighting back tears. She said she ran to the door to see what had happened and collided with the attacker.

"I bumped into him. I fell down," she said. "I hear 'boom.' I feel pain, so I start screaming very hard."

Franko cried as she described the effect the shooting has had on her.

"It is so scary, what I went through, I don't want to be reminded of what's going on," she said. "It's so sad what happened to people I care for. I just want to be away."

The trial is expected to last six weeks. It was moved from Alexandria to Fairfax because of pretrial publicity and because of widespread fear the killings generated in that community.

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