Sunday, April 03, 2005
Haysom murders, 20 years ago today: blood sweat and convictions
Starting in 1985, the Haysom double murder case ranged from Virginia to England and ignited a three-year legal battle.
Carl Wells remembers it clearly.
Retired now to his 200-plus-acre farm just outside Bedford, Wells, 69, was Bedford County's sheriff 20 years ago today when friends found the brutally stabbed bodies of Derek and Nancy Haysom in their Boonsboro home.
"It was about as bad a crime scene as you'd want to look at," he said.
The discovery of the bodies touched off a criminal investigation that led from Virginia to England and ignited a three-year legal battle.
Beyond the sheer violence of the act came the shocking discovery that the affluent couple's college-age daughter, Elizabeth, and her German boyfriend, Jens Soering, both honor students at the University of Virginia, were responsible for the crime.
The slain couple's ties to South Africa and Canada, along with Soering's father being a West German diplomat, caused a flurry of national and international media attention.
In Bedford, the case was the talk of the town.
"Wherever you went, people were talking about it," said Carol Black, who has been the county's Circuit Court clerk for 21 years. "When you put it all together, it was all so different than anything else that had ever happened."
Chuck Reid, one of the lead investigators on the case, had worked other homicides for the sheriff's office, but the Haysom case was different.
"They don't stick in my mind like that one does," Reid, now 53 and a captain with the Blue Ridge Regional Jail Authority's Moneta annex, said last week.
Haysom, now 40, pleaded guilty in 1987 to conspiring to kill her parents and is serving a 90-year sentence at the Fluvanna Correctional Center for Women in Troy.
Soering, now 38, was convicted in 1990 on two counts of first-degree murder during a three-week trial that was televised on late-night TV and drew a throng of spectators who brought sack lunches to avoid giving up their seats in the packed courtroom. He is serving two life terms at the Brunswick Correctional Center in Lawrenceville.
Over the last two decades, books and cable television documentaries have been produced about the relationship between the two young lovers that led to murder.
Bedford County officials marveled recently at how quickly the time has passed since the killings.
Soering feels differently.
"I'm not aware of anybody in prison who thinks that 20 years goes by quickly," Soering said during an interview last month.
'A real whodunit'
For Wells and his small staff, examining the crime scene that Wednesday afternoon in 1985 yielded few clues.
"This was a real whodunit," said Ricky Gardner, 49, who is a captain now with the sheriff's office. Back then, he was 29 years old and had spent the past five years as a road deputy before Wells promoted him to investigator a few months before the murders.
When authorities stepped into the house that day, they found Derek Haysom lying on his left side near the front of the two-story brick and wood home with dozens of stab wounds to his torso, his throat slit, his face disfigured with cuts. In the kitchen lay Nancy Haysom, face down, her throat also cut, with similar stab wounds. Blood stained the floors of the home.
There was no sign of forced entry or robbery. The couple appeared to have sat down to dinner before they were killed, and they had been drinking quite a bit. Autopsies on the bodies determined both had 0.22 percent blood-alcohol levels.
Wells made Gardner and Reid the lead investigators on the case, and they would spend several months, work 12-hour days and chase down a number of false leads before turning their focus on Elizabeth Haysom and Jens Soering.
Derek W.R. Haysom was 72 when he was murdered. Nancy Haysom was 53. Tall and robust, Derek Haysom's appearance not only conjured up comparisons to Ernest Hemingway, but his actions also exemplified the famous author's creed of grace under pressure. South African by birth, Haysom fought for the British behind enemy lines in the Middle East in World War II. He rose to become a powerful South African steel company executive and later moved to Nova Scotia at the request of the Canadian government to turn around a failing national steel mill there.
Beautiful as well as intelligent and adventuresome, Nancy Astor Benedict Haysom was raised in Lynchburg among privileged family. She had been all over the world with her father, a geologist, before marrying Derek Haysom in South Africa in 1960.
Between them, they had five children from prior marriages.
Born in 1964, Elizabeth Haysom inherited her mother's beauty, and by the time her parents retired to the rural, upper-class community of Boonsboro just outside Lynchburg in 1982, she was a bright teenager who had been reared in exclusive English boarding schools.
She also harbored deep-rooted resentment against her parents' overbearing control over everything she did, Haysom later told Soering.
In the fall of 1984, the 20-year-old Haysom enrolled in an honors program at the University of Virginia, about an hour from her parents' home.
Soon, she was seen hanging out with Soering, a self-described socially awkward and insecure 18-year-old West German student with thick glasses who was a Jefferson Scholar, which afforded him a prestigious academic scholarship.
It would be that insecurity and awkwardness that would lead Soering to make what he now calls "the mistake of my life."
Investigators close in
In the absence of substantial physical evidence, Gardner and Reid began to focus on what little they had, including a bloody footprint on the Haysoms' floor.
"We talked to everybody that we could to come up with a motive for why these people were so brutally murdered," Gardner said.
Wells took the unusual step of issuing weekly press releases to newspaper and television reporters starved for any tidbit of information, but he didn't want to reveal that family and friends of the Haysoms were considered suspects.
"There are certain things in the house that only we know and the person or persons who were there know," he told The Roanoke Times & World-News in a story about a week after the bodies were found. "I want to keep a couple of aces up my sleeve."
Neighbors of the Haysoms, scared that they too were in danger, latched onto any gossip about the case, including one theory that the murders were related to a satanic cult.
"They were locking their door and almost afraid to go to sleep," Wells said.
Gardner initially dismissed Elizabeth Haysom as a suspect.
But as other leads in the case were examined and dismissed, he and Reid focused on her whereabouts at the time of the murders. She told Gardner she and Soering had rented a car and driven to Washington, D.C. The mileage on the car, however, showed it had been driven hundreds of miles more than a round trip from Charlottesville to Washington.
Haysom said she and Soering had gotten lost on the way and spent time driving around Washington.
The discrepancy, coupled with Haysom's indifferent behavior during interviews and at her parents' funeral, warranted closer scrutiny.
"We had suspicions her activities weren't right and neither were his," Wells said. "They didn't show the real concern that they should have from the start. I'm a firm believer that a person's body will tell you more than their tongue."
"She didn't seem to be upset about anything really at all," Reid said.
While Haysom agreed to submit samples of her fingerprints and blood to police, Soering refused. He feared he would be deported or his family would somehow get in trouble if West German authorities found out he was involved in a murder investigation, Gardner said. At the time, Soering's father was vice consul at the West German consulate in Detroit.
The investigators had learned through interviews with Haysom family members, including Elizabeth, that Derek Haysom didn't approve of Soering dating his daughter.
In an interview the first week of October 1985, Gardner and Reid confronted Soering about his involvement in the murders.
"We did the good cop-bad cop thing," Gardner said. "I called him everything but a liar."
But Soering stood by the couple's story that they were miles away at the time of the murders. Eventually, he promised to return a week or so later for a follow-up interview, Gardner said.
Instead, Soering and Haysom disappeared from UVa and left the country separately for Europe.
Seven months later, short on money, they were arrested outside London in May 1986 on check fraud charges. British police searched the couple's apartment. They found bogus passports, wigs, mustaches and fraudulent checks, as well as letters to each other and a diary that led them to believe a murder had been committed, Gardner said.
Faye Massie, who works in the Bedford County Circuit Court clerk's office now, was a secretary at the sheriff's office in 1986 when she answered a phone call from a British investigator.
"He said, 'Have you all got an unsolved murder?'" Massie could hardly contain her excitement. "I said, 'Hold on, let me get the sheriff.'"
Gardner and Jim Updike, who was the county's commonwealth's attorney at the time and is now a Circuit Court judge, flew to England to interrogate Haysom and Soering.
Confessions soon followed.
According to Soering's confession, he drove the rental car alone to the Haysom home to commit the murders, Gardner said. He wounded Derek Haysom first after he was chastised by Haysom for dating his daughter. Then he tackled and killed Nancy Haysom in the kitchen before finishing off Derek Haysom.
Soering has said over the years that he was in Washington when the murders occurred, and that he confessed only to save Elizabeth Haysom from being sentenced to death - and under the mistaken belief that he would be deported to Germany, where he would be tried as a youth and face a limited jail sentence.
"My feeling was, 10 years of my life was worth saving Elizabeth's life," he said.
But Elizabeth Haysom ended her relationship with Soering not long after her arrest and told authorities that Soering had committed the murders. She pleaded guilty to being an accessory to the murders before the fact in 1987 in a Bedford County courtroom.
Soering was initially charged with capital murder. He fought extradition to America for three years, backed at one point by the European Court of Human Rights, until the charge, which carries the death penalty, was dropped.
He returned to Bedford County in 1990 and pleaded not guilty to two charges of first-degree murder. Using Soering's confession and Haysom's testimony, prosecutor Jim Updike successfully convinced a jury that his footprint resembled the bloody footprint found at the scene.
He was sentenced to two life terms.
For the first 15 years behind bars, in maximum and super-maximum security prisons, Soering said, "I saw myself as the victim of a young woman who was mentally ill."
But lately, his devotion to Christian meditation has allowed him to conclude that he bears some responsibility for what happened, though he still maintains his innocence.
"I could have prevented this crime," he said. "If I had not been as cowardly as I had been, this double murder would not have happened."
He was denied parole in 2003 but is eligible again next year.
"I sort of feel sorry for him," Gardner said. "He let this relationship with this girl ruin his life. I'm thoroughly convinced that he has convinced himself that he didn't do it."
Haysom has said little publicly since her arrest and declined a request to be interviewed for this story.
She has been turned down twice for parole but is eligible each year until 2032, when she will have to be released under the state's mandatory parole guidelines. A Canadian citizen, she will face a federal deportation hearing when she is either paroled or released.
The former honors students continue to display their intelligence through their writings. Soering has written "The Way of the Prisoner," about Christian meditation, and "An Expensive Way to Make Bad People Worse: An Essay on Prison Reform From an Insider's Perspective," as well as a number of compelling articles on prison violence. His third book, "Convict Christ," is due to be published soon.
Haysom, too, has written about prison life and her religious faith for magazines and newspapers.
Reid and Gardner are unflinching in their belief that they solved the crime. Gardner has been interviewed so many times over the years that he keeps a special briefcase with crime scene photos, copies of letters and newspaper clippings about the case.
"Both of them are right where they should be," Gardner said. "If ever there were a pair that need to be punished, it's them."