Editor’s note: This is the first of a two-part report on the unsolved murder of Robert Wone, who was killed 10 years ago this month in D.C. Next week: Where are the players in the case today?
On the evening of Aug. 2, 2006, Washington attorney Robert Wone arrived at the townhouse of his longtime college friend Joe Price after spending all day and part of the evening working late at his downtown office at Radio Free Asia.
Price, a gay rights attorney associated with the LGBT group Equality Virginia, and his partner Victor Zaborsky and their roommate Dylan Ward – who were also friends of Wone — said later that they invited Wone to spend the night in their guest bedroom so he wouldn’t have to drive home to Oakton, Va., where he and his wife, Katherine Wone, lived.
Wone, whose wife says he was straight, would have a chance to visit with his friends and avoid having to drive home late at night only to have to return to D.C. early in the morning for work, the gay men have said.
In a development that set in motion what observers have compared to a mystery novel, D.C. police responded to Zaborsky’s 911 emergency call to the gay men’s house at 1509 Swann St., N.W., near Dupont Circle, later that night and found Wone stabbed to death and lying on what appeared to be a neatly arranged bed.
Although the three gay men said they were certain an intruder entered the house and stabbed Wone while they were asleep in their respective bedrooms, homicide detectives quickly reported that the crime scene appeared to have been cleaned up and possible evidence tampered with.
Investigators sealed the house, forcing the men to temporarily move out, while crime scene experts took weeks to search the house for evidence related to the murder.
After the investigation dragged on for more than two years, police and prosecutors obtained an indictment against the three men on charges of conspiracy to obstruct justice, obstruction of justice and evidence tampering in connection with the Wone murder.
But no murder-related charges were brought, prompting legal observers to conclude the authorities didn’t have sufficient evidence to charge the three men with murder. Prosecutors with the U.S. Attorney’s Office said their option of filing a murder charge sometime later if new evidence surfaced remained open.
Meanwhile, a detailed arrest affidavit released at the time the charges were brought stunned those who knew the three men and created a sensation in the community, especially the
LGBT community. Among other things, the affidavit said the autopsy findings and physical evidence indicated that Wone appeared to have been restrained or immobilized by a paralytic drug and sexually assaulted before being stabbed in the chest.
According to the affidavit, the three stab wounds on Wone’s chest and abdomen were surgical in nature, with no indication that Wone moved or tried to defend himself while being stabbed.
The surgical-like precision of the wounds could only have occurred if Wone were lying completely still.
Although the chemical tests associated with the autopsy did not find traces of a drug, prosecutors said that type of anesthesia-like drug usually dissipates quickly and cannot be detected in tests.
The arrest affidavit also disclosed that investigators found S&M-related restraining devices as well as devices used to administer electrical shocks to a person’s genitals in Ward’s bedroom. In addition, the affidavit said the autopsy found needle marks on Wone’s body that were not made by emergency medical technicians that arrived on the scene and examined Wone.
It was not until early 2010 that pre-trial proceedings began for Price, Zaborsky and Ward. In response to strong objections by a team of defense attorneys representing the men, prosecutors backed away from their earlier claims that Wone was sexually assaulted.
Among other things, at the advice of their attorneys, the three men chose to waive their right to a jury trial and instead requested that Superior Court Judge Lynn Leibovitz preside over the trial and render the verdict.
Following testimony by expert witnesses on both sides – the three defendants also chose not to testify – and dramatic closing arguments by prosecutors and the defense, Leibovitz found the men not guilty of all three charges.
But in a lengthy written verdict that she read from the bench, Leibovitz said that while she felt there was significant evidence implicating the defendants, there continued to exist a reasonable doubt on all charges against them.
Leibovitz said she did find that prosecutors established beyond probable cause that Wone was not murdered by an intruder who entered the house while the three defendants were asleep.
“It is very probable that the government’s theory is correct, that even if the defendants did not participate in the murder, some or all of them knew enough about the circumstances of it to provide helpful information to law enforcement and have chosen to withhold that information for reasons of their own,” she said.
“Nevertheless, after lengthy analysis of the evidence, I conclude that the government has failed to prove beyond a reasonable doubt the essential elements of obstruction of justice or evidence tampering,” Leibovitz said from the bench.
Although greatly relieved by the not guilty verdict, Price, Zaborsky and Ward had yet another hurdle to face. Wone’s wife filed a $20 million wrongful death lawsuit against them, which could have resulted in a prolonged civil trial. Legal experts pointed out that the standard of probable cause and a conviction beyond a reasonable doubt is less stringent in civil cases compared to a criminal case.
As the two sides prepared for a civil trial the defense team created a stir by announcing that the three gay men would invoke their Fifth Amendment constitutional right to refuse to testify in the civil trial on grounds that their testimony could lead to self-incrimination.
Possibly because of that or other reasons, Katherine Wone announced that she and Price, Zaborsky and Ward had reached an out of court monetary settlement in the lawsuit, the terms of which would not be publicly disclosed.
At the conclusion of the criminal trial, police and prosecutors said the case would remain open with the hope that one or more witnesses would come forward with the additional evidence they need to charge one or more people with Wone’s murder.
Among those closely following the Wone murder case since shortly after Wone’s death have been four gay men who created the widely read blog WhoMurderedRobertWone.com. One of the men, gay activist David Greer, told the Washington Blade the blog would continue publishing posts by them and the hundreds of readers who have contributed comments over the past nine years.
“In hundreds of posts and thousands of comment threads here and elsewhere, people have tried to piece together what exactly happened that night, who the guilty party or parties are, and why it all happened,” one of the editors wrote in an Aug. 2 posting.
“Ten years later, it still makes absolutely no sense,” the posting says. “We cannot begin to imagine the grief that Robert’s family, friends and close associates felt then, or now.”
It adds, “Ten years has been too long for his murder to remain unsolved, with too little done to hunt down the killers.”
William Miller, a spokesperson for the U.S. Attorney’s office, which prosecuted the case, said the case remains an open investigation.
“Beyond that, we have no comment at this time,” he said.
Next week: Where are the players in the case today?