Video: Virginia Murder Mystery

By MSNBC analyst & former FBI profiler
updated 1/5/2006 5:49:14 PM ET 2006-01-05T22:49:14
COMMENTARY

Dr. Kay Scarpetta, fictional Chief Medical Examiner in Richmond, Virginia, is the heroine of most of author Patricia Cornwell's novels.  Cornwell got many of her original ideas for the crimes depicted in her novels from her early relationship with the FBI's Behavioral Science Unit, literally hanging out with the FBI profilers and picking their collective brain concerning serial killers, mass murderers, and the like.  Basing Scarpetta's character in Richmond was easy for Cornwell.  She knew the city as a resident.  And Richmond is well known for its violent crime.  Murder, however, found a new low mark in Richmond on New Year's day when someone entered a home in a quiet residential section of that city and murdered the four members of the young family that lived there.  No, murder isn't a strong enough word.  The family was brutally, cruelly, pathologically slain, murdered as only a killer like Hannibal Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs could do.  But this savagery was real, so real that seasoned investigators were said to have cried at the crime scene.

As an FBI profiler I had seen horrific crime scenes and found dead bodies myself, but when investigators entered the home of Bryan, age 49, and Kathryn, age 39, Harvey and their two beautiful daughters, Ruby, 4, and Stella, 9, it was a crime scene from hell.

Bryan Harvey was a musician who played with the local Richmond band NrG Krysys.  The band played at a New Year's Eve party at a local Richmond hotel, with Harvey returning from the otherwise uneventful session at about 2:15 a.m. on January 1st.  Harvey knew he and his family were hosting a New Year's Day luncheon for friends the next day, so he probably drove home thinking of his music, his family, and the next day's events.  At about 10:15 a.m. that morning the Harvey's daughter, Stella, returned home from an overnight party with friends.  As the mother of one of Stella's friends indicates, when Kathryn Harvey came to the door to greet Stella and the mother and her daughter, Kathryn Harvey appeared ashen, or perhaps drained of color, and nervous.  Stella went inside and headed down to the Harveys' basement family room.  The woman asked if Harvey was all right, and Harvey replied that she didn't feel well and was perhaps getting sick.  The woman and her daughter left.  Somewhere between 1:46 and 1:56 p.m., firefighters, responding to a 911 call, entered the residence and found all four family members murdered in a brutal fashion that only someone perhaps on drugs or with a terrible and vengeful vendetta against the family could have done. 

The crime scene at the Harvey home must have made investigators think of the equally horrific 2005 murders of the Groene family in rural Idaho.  In that case convicted sex offender Joseph Duncan, previously diagnosed as "suffering" from an antisocial personality disorder and described as a sexual deviant, entered a rural home outside Coeur D'Alene and bound and beat to death a mother, her son, and the mother's boyfriend.  Duncan then kidnapped brother and sister Shasta and Dylan Groene, ages 8 and 9, respectively.  Duncan repeatedly assaulted the two children, eventually murdering Dylan, but Shasta was finally rescued from her trip to hell.  Duncan had surveilled the home, evidently targeting the household to get at the young children.  The three adults were murdered to hide the evidence of his crime.

In the case of the Harvey's, all four were murdered in their home, tied or otherwise bound to chairs in their basement-floor family room.  The throats of all four had been cut and a fire started, likely by the murderer to cover his crime, to destroy physical evidence.  Perhaps the killer had some convoluted hope or belief that the fire would consume all evidence of the murder and mayhem that he had committed, with the only evidence of his crimes remaining caught in the folds of his twisted mind.  This crime would be found out, however, when a family friend arrived at about 1:30 PM, (three hours after Stella arrived home to a shaken and nervous mother), to help with the planned luncheon.  The friend entered the home and was overcome by smoke.  He quickly looked around the kitchen area and then ran from the home to call the fire department.  Like many attempts to cover other crimes with arson, even one so severe as a mass murder, the assailant's efforts failed and the house fire was extinguished with the terrible crime scene preserved.

Just an hour's drive north of Kay Scarpetta's Richmond, the scene of the annihilation of the Harvey family, is the small community of Culpeper, Virginia.  It was there that less than two weeks before the murder of the Harveys that another victim met a similar terrible death.  While talking on the telephone to her father, Sheryl Ann Warner heard a knock on her door and told her dad that the person at the door had car problems and needed help.  (This kind of a plea for help has been a common ruse for assailants to obtain entry into a home.)  In less than 45 minutes sheriff's deputies arrived at the Warner household to find the 37-year-old mother of three shot in the head and hanging from an electrical cord in the basement, where a fire had been set near the victim's body.  That fire was also extinguished and the crime scene preserved.

Could an unidentified serial killer, a Virginian modeling himself after Kansas' notorious BTK murderer, Dennis Rader, be operating in the local area?  It would appear that Sheryl Ann Warner may not have known her assailant, someone who was able, nonetheless to gain entry to her home, overpower her, shoot and kill her, and then start a fire to cover his crime-all in less than 45 minutes.  In the case of the murder of the Harvey's, however, this may not have been the case.  From the description of Kathryn Harvey at 10 a.m. that morning, it could be that the assailant was already in the Harvey home, perhaps having followed Bryan Harvey home from his New Year's gig, or even having entered the home in advance or just after his arrival.  Kathryn's appearance, however, would suggest that the assailant was already in the house when Stella arrived, probably holding Bryan and young Ruby as hostages.  One scenario would have the assailant telling Kathryn, "Go to the door and let Stella in, and if you say anything or run, I'll kill your daughter and your husband."  Were this the case, what a terrible choice would have faced Mrs. Harvey.  Should she have fled the residence, grabbing 9-year-old Stella as she fled and screaming for help?  Or, as has been the case in so many similar crimes, was the thought of the threatened murder of her husband and younger daughter so horrific that she became a compliant victim, an action that in hindsight was probably wrong but, unfortunately, sadly understandable.  What would you do in a similar situation - think about it…

In the case of the Harvey's, the home did not appear to have been ransacked and nothing was obviously missing.  Were the killer (or killers) after something of value?  Or were they simply so high on, for example, Methamphetamine, as to allow this unbelievable, cruel and sadistic behavior?  Was the killer angry at one or both of the adult Harveys, so angry that the murder of one or both was needed to calm the killer's anger, with the children murdered simply to do away with any witnesses.  The police have the benefit of the crime scene and the very personal aspect of the crime.  That the victims' were stabbed, perhaps with their throats cut could, for example, perhaps imply that the crimes were committed by someone who knew the Harveys.  A knife is a very up close, personal weapon.  Did the killer bring the weapon to the scene with him or did he use a weapon of opportunity, like a household knife?  How did he hold it, what hand did he hold it in, was there more than one weapon used, were any of the victims sexually assaulted, and was there more than one cause of death for the four - very sterile and academic questions about a very personal, very horrific offense.

Although Joseph Edward Duncan did not know the Groene family when he murdered them, he had a goal--he wanted the two younger children.  That was his motive.  Duncan probably killed the adults and the teenage boy to cover his crime, notwithstanding that he had a past history of violence and sexual torture against others, so they may have been victims of some other dark chamber of his demented mind.  But as for the Harveys, did they know their killer or were they, like the first known victims of Kansas' BTK serial killer, the four members of the Otero family, simply convenient for him to kill, or perhaps was the Harvey family targeted by someone like Joseph Duncan whose real target was the two Harvey children?

In the case of the Harvey family, authorities will look at family, friends, neighbors, business and musical associates, people that they owed money to or that owed them, anyone that they had recently argued with, etc.  They will look at the physical evidence found in the home, identifying the killer's method of entry into the home and trying to find what the killer did that will lead to his indentity.  Criminals usually take something to the crime scene, they leave something at the crime scene, or they take something away from the crime scene.  This can be fingerprints, DNA (should a knife prove to be the murder weapon, the killer may have cut himself and left his blood/DNA at the scene), a weapon, clothing, etc.  Or it could be some trophy of their crime, if a serial killing, or some indication of why he was there and what he wanted, other than the death of the entire Harvey family.  Somewhere in the Richmond community lie the answers to these and the many other questions of a worried community and a police department on a mission.  Somewhere in the mind of a drugged up or otherwise crazed killer lies the mental photographs that he (or they) took at the murder scene, the pictures of the four family members as he cut their individual throats, the crying and pleading of the victims, all to no avail.

A monster walks the streets of Richmond and he has to be caught.  Interestingly enough, an investigator told a neighbor of the Harvey's that they, the neighborhood, did not need to fear that the killer would reappear, little comfort to a community that has experienced such a loss--innocence lost to another example of man's absolute ability to practice an act so inhuman as to defy description.  The police and the profilers, however, have no time for emotion.  Their job is to find this mass murderer and get him or them off the street, and to do it as fast as possible.  Meanwhile Culpeper authorities continue to look for the murderer of good Samaritan Sheryl Ann Warner who simply opened her door to help another and was dead in less than an hour for her efforts.  I hope the real Dr. Kay Scarpetta's of this area have had a good holiday vacation as they're going to need all of their wits about them.  It's a new year, and, as with the old, the two-legged monsters are still among us.  Murder and mayhem, so we've found, never take a vacation.  

Clint Van Zandt is an MSNBC analyst. He is the founder and president of Van Zandt Associates Inc. Van Zandt and his associates also developed LiveSecure.org, a Website dedicated "to develop, evaluate, and disseminate information to help prepare and inform individuals concerning personal and family security issues." During his 25-year career in the FBI, Van Zandt was a supervisor in the FBI's internationally renowned Behavioral Science Unit at the FBI Academy in Quantico, Virginia. He was also the FBI's Chief Hostage Negotiator and was the leader of the analytical team tasked with identifying the "Unabomber."


Discuss:

Discussion comments

,