Three once politically active gay men whose polygamist relationship and proclivity for S&M sex has been exposed by prosecutors following a D.C. murder investigation are scheduled to go on trial May 10 in a case that mimics a mystery novel.
Gay rights attorney Joseph Price, dairy industry official Victor Zaborsky and former Virginia gay rights group staffer turned massage therapist Dylan Ward have been charged with evidence tampering, obstruction of justice and conspiracy in connection with the August 2006 murder of Asian American attorney Robert Wone.
Wone, 32, was found stabbed to death in a second floor guest room in the Dupont Circle area townhouse where the three gay men lived at the time. Authorities have yet to charge anyone with the murder itself, but police and prosecutors have said they believe Price, Zaborsky and Ward most likely know the identity of the killer.
The men have pleaded not guilty, saying an unidentified intruder who entered their house through a rear door killed Wone while the three slept.
Wone was a longtime friend of Price since the two were students at the College of William & Mary in Virginia. He was spending the night at the gay men’s house on Swann Street, N.W. after working late at his nearby office, according to his wife, Kathy Wone, and other family members who say he was straight.
The trial is set to begin after more than a year of haggling between defense and government attorneys over the admissibility of a mountain of evidence gathered by D.C. police and prosecutors. A team of nearly one dozen defense lawyers is set to face off against a smaller team of prosecutors headed by Assistant U.S. Attorney Glenn Kirschner, who is considered one of the city’s most effective prosecutors.
“Given the sophistication of the defendants’ cover-up of the murder of Robert Wone, the evidence obtained to date does not yet establish beyond a reasonable doubt who actually killed Robert Wone,” Kirschner wrote in a government motion filed in February.
“Although the government investigation into the murder continues,” he wrote, “there is ample evidence demonstrating the killer is someone known to the defendants, and not, as the defendants told the police, an unknown, unseen phantom intruder.”
Much of the government’s evidence against the three defendants surfaced in October 2008, when prosecutors released a 13-page affidavit in support of an arrest warrant for Ward, who was the first of the three men to be charged in the case.
The affidavit describes in detail some of the findings of crime scene investigators and an autopsy conducted on Wone. It says that someone in the house cleaned the crime scene by wiping away spattered blood. The affidavit also says chemical and fiber tests showed someone used a towel to wipe some of Wone’s blood onto a knife taken from the defendants’ kitchen. The men told police they found the bloody knife on a nightstand in the room where Wone was sleeping, saying it was the weapon an intruder used to stab Wone three times in the chest and abdomen.
Prosecutors, however, said later that a knife missing from a cutlery set found in Ward’s bedroom appeared to be the actual murder weapon based on the shape and depth of the stab wounds. Prosecutors obtained a duplicate of the missing knife from the manufacturer for the purpose of comparing it to the wounds on Wone’s body, court papers show.
Prosecutors initially said they would argue at trial that Wone had been immobilized by a paralytic drug, sexual assaulted and possibly tortured with needle punctures found in various places on his body before being stabbed. They pointed to autopsy findings showing surgical-like stab wounds on the body, with no signs that Wone moved or flinched when he was attacked. The lack of any signs of defensive wounds or slightly jagged stab wounds — which are found in virtually all stabbings — indicated the victim was immobilized, Kirchner has argued.
Kirschner has since said the government has been unable to definitively show through chemical tests that Wone was immobilized with a drug, but he indicated he might introduce evidence found in Ward’s bedroom of a large collection of S&M sex devices, including body restraints, face masks, and an object used to administer an electric shock to different parts of the body.
Defense attorneys, led by seasoned trial lawyers Bernard Grimm, Thomas Connolly and Robert Spagnoletti, the gay former D.C. attorney general and a former U.S. prosecutor, have waged a fierce pre-trial fight to disqualify key pieces of government evidence. Superior Court Judge Lynn Leibovitz was expected to rule on evidence related matters as a final pre-trial hearing set for Wednesday, after Blade deadline.
While details of the murder scene and the private, sexual proclivities of the defendants have emerged over the past two years, gay activists have watched cautiously as fellow activist Price prepares for trial.
Price, an attorney in private practice, had served as general counsel to Equality Virginia, a statewide LGBT rights group based in Richmond. Ward, who worked as a staff member of the group, left the organizations a few months before the Wone murder. Price withdrew from the group shortly after the Wone murder drew extensive media coverage.
“You have gay activists on trial that had a polygamist gay family,” said David Greer, a D.C. gay man and one of four editors of whomurderedrobertwone.com. “Having a conjugal relationship with more than one partner is not pushing the white-picket-fence image that gay organizations like to promote.
“To have them on trial in an unseemly situation that has surfaced here is difficult for the gay community. But it also shows that our community has matured” by not automatically rallying behind activists charged with a crime, Greer said. “It shows that our community supports justice.”