Murder of Robert Eric Wone
Robert Eric Wone was murdered in Washington, D.C. in August 2006. The case remains unsolved. Wone's body was found in the home of a college friend. Wone, who was 32 years old at the time, was a lawyer living in suburban Oakton, Virginia, but had been working as general counsel at Radio Free Asia in downtown Washington, D.C.. He had stayed the night at the home of friends located about one mile from his office. According to police affidavits, Wone was believed to have been "restrained, incapacitated, and sexually assaulted" before his death.
Within days of the murder, D.C. police alleged that the crime scene had been tampered with, but no charges were filed for over two years. The individuals present in the townhouse when Wone was attacked were charged in late 2008 with obstruction of justice and conspiracy related to alleged tampering with the crime scene. The men were acquitted of the charges in June 2010. No one has been charged with Wone's killing. Wone's widow filed a $20 million wrongful death lawsuit against the residents of the townhouse in November, 2008; the suit was settled on August 3, 2011 for an undisclosed sum.
Late on August 2, 2006, Robert Eric Wone was fatally stabbed while staying overnight at a Swann Street, NW townhouse in Washington, D.C., owned by Joseph Price and his domestic partner Victor Zaborsky where they lived with Dylan Ward in a polyamourous relationship as a "family". Wone had gone to Price's residence at approximately 10:30 PM after working late, as had been arranged days before. Neighbors reported hearing a scream, later identified as Zaborsky's, during the 11:00 PM newscast (i.e. before 11:35 PM). Zaborsky made a 9-1-1 call at 11:49 PM, and paramedics arrived five minutes later, followed by the police. Price phoned Wone's wife, and Wone was pronounced dead at George Washington University Hospital at 12:24 AM on August 3.
Price, Ward, and Zaborsky all initially spoke with the police without attorneys, and video recordings of those interviews were shown at the subsequent conspiracy trial. They denied any involvement in the death and speculated that an intruder had killed Wone. The three also denied any sexual relationship with Wone, and Wone's family have described him as both "straight and happily married". All three men attended Wone's funeral, where Price served as a pallbearer. Eric Holder, who worked at that time at Covington & Burling, called Wone "a kind and gentle man" who was "killed in the most horrible of ways".
Paramedics responding to the emergency call "found the three residents’ calm behavior unusual; none was screaming or even helping direct the paramedics." According to Ward's attorney, detectives who interrogated the three housemates on the night of the murder informed them that they were the main suspects in the case, and asked many sexually charged, accusatory questions. Three days after the murder, the Gay and Lesbian Liaison Unit of the D.C. police were called in, but unit head Sgt. Brett Parson declined to discuss the unit's involvement. Within two weeks of the murder, police publicly alleged that the crime scene had been tampered with. Investigators spent more than three weeks examining the townhouse in detail, "removing flooring, pieces of walls, a chunk of staircase, the washing machine, even sink traps." Allegations that the area around Wone's body had been cleaned were revealed in an affidavit in support of a search warrant for homeowner Joseph Price's offices at the D.C. law firm of Arent Fox.
Three months after Wone's death, there was a burglary at the Swann Street residence, in which more than $7,000 of electronic equipment was taken. Two individuals, including Price's brother, were charged with the burglary, but those charges were later dropped. In 2007, D.C. police revealed that they had been preparing to make an arrest in the Wone murder case in 2006, but that the burglary had derailed those plans. Police have not revealed the name of the arrest target, nor the charge(s) that would have been filed.
Lack of progress
In August 2007 The Washington Post reported Katherine Wone's frustration with the FBI crime lab, "It has been trying at times as we continue to wait for the FBI to complete their analysis of all the samples that were taken." Over one year the case had been transferred to three separate prosecutors, earning it "vagabond status" in the U.S. Attorneys' office. On the one-year anniversary of Wone's death, Katherine Wone held a press conference to appeal for public assistance in finding the killer, her first public comment on the case. During the press conference, Holder publicly pleaded with the three residents to provide additional information, saying "You need to ask yourself, 'Have I provided police with all the information I know?'" Interested parties, such as the OCA, used the first anniversary of Wone's death to criticize what they deemed police inaction in the investigation. In contrast to the first anniversary of Wone's murder, there was no press conference on the second anniversary, and neither the Wone family nor police made any statements to the press.
Arrests and charges
An obstruction of justice charge was filed in October 2008 against housemate Dylan Ward, who had since moved to Miami-Dade County, Florida and was living in a home owned by Price. In November 2008, Price and Zaborsky were arrested and also charged with obstruction of justice. All three men were later released pending trial, but subject to electronic monitoring and curfews. On December 19, 2008, additional charges of conspiracy were filed against all three men. During the same hearing, the electronic monitoring and curfew restrictions for the three defendants were ended and prosecutors announced the possibility that charges related to tampering with evidence could be filed in the future.
The affidavit filed by authorities supporting the arrest warrant for Ward showed that investigators had concluded the men were not telling the truth about what happened. The report states "The evidence demonstrates that Robert Wone was restrained, incapacitated, sexually assaulted, and murdered inside 1509 Swann Street," and there exists "overwhelming evidence, far in excess of probable cause" that Price, Zaborsky, and Ward "obstructed justice by altering and orchestrating the crime scene, planting evidence, delaying the reporting of the murder to the authorities, and lying to the police about the true circumstances of the murder." Lawyers for the three accused men have called the affidavit "speculation, innuendo, assumptions, and irrelevant inflammatory comments" and maintain their clients' innocence. Price and Zaborsky were domestic partners, and the affidavit alleges that Price had previously had a sexual relationship with Ward. Washington attorney Dale Sanders opined that the release of the extensively detailed affidavit was intended to turn one of the housemates, presumably Ward, against the others, and hypothesized that it indicated prosecutors lacked sufficient evidence to charge any of the housemates with additional crimes without the cooperation of a witness.
Officials believe that a knife from the kitchen had been smeared with blood and placed near the body, while a duplicate of the knife which was missing from a set found in Ward's bedroom would have been more consistent with the wounds to Wone's body. The autopsy revealed evidence of some degree of suffocation, perhaps by a pillow, and puncture marks on his neck, chest, foot and hand. Though no toxins were found in his blood, a lack of evidence of struggle led investigators to suspect Wone had been injected with a paralytic agent. Cadaver dogs found a blood residue in a dryer lint trap and the patio drain, which detectives believe may be evidence that someone washed themselves in the back patio area, and dried wet clothes in the dryer. City Paper Columnist Jason Cherkis reported unattributed criticism of the medical examiner's failure to test for exotic drugs and to keep a sample of Wone's blood for later testing, as well as detectives' failure to follow up on a lint trap that had attracted a cadaver dog's attention. Price's lawyer has challenged the timing of the indictments, has said that the civil suit "looked unseemly", and questioned whether the prosecutors and Wone family attorneys were acting in concert.
In April, 2009, prosecutors disclosed that two emails had been drafted on Wone's BlackBerry "at a time when prosecutors believed Wone dead". An independent criminal law attorney noted that "The defense will argue that this is consistent with their claim that the murder happened quickly by an intruder and it was not a long, drawn-out effort to sexually assault Wone before he was killed, as the government is alleging." Previously a court filing indicated the government intended to release a personal profile that Price allegedly used on ALT.com, "a sexually oriented web site specializing in S&M practices".
Formal defense in the conspiracy case began on June 17, 2010, and concluded without any of the defendants testifying.
Judge Lynn Leibovitz found each of the three men not guilty of charges of conspiracy, obstruction of justice and tampering with evidence on June 29, 2010. Leibovitz, in explaining her ruling for almost an hour from the bench, stated that she personally believed that the men knew who killed Wone, but was not convinced beyond a reasonable doubt that they committed the offenses with which they were charged.
On November 25, 2008, Wone's widow Katherine filed a $20 million wrongful death lawsuit against the three men, largely based on the police affidavit. The lawsuit alleged "defendants' negligent failure to rescue Robert Wone after he was injured, defendants' destruction of evidence of Robert Wone’s murder, and defendants' conspiracy to destroy evidence and obstruct the police investigation into Robert Wone’s murder." The suit was settled August 3, 2011 for an undisclosed sum. Prior to his nomination as United States Attorney General, Eric Holder advised Wone's widow on a pro bono basis.
Wone's death has proven to be one of Washington, D.C.'s most mysterious homicide cases. The Washington Examiner listed the Wone case, in light of the arrests, as one of eight top crime stories in D.C. for 2008. The Washington Blade stated that the case "has captured the interest of the gay community because it occurred inside the home of a prominent gay male couple." Camille Paglia commented that the relative lack of news coverage for the crime "appears to be a blatant case of politically correct censorship". In March 2009, a MyFoxDC.com story on the crime highlighted a website (Whomurderedrobertwone.com) cataloging the investigative efforts of "four amateur sleuths who live in the neighborhood".
Since Wone's death, multiple organizations have established scholarships and other memorials in his name, including the Virginia Department of Social Services "Robert E. Wone Award for Exemplary Service"; the annual "Robert E. Wone Judicial Clerkship & Internship Conference," which rotates among the D.C. area law schools, including Georgetown University Law Center, American University Washington College of Law, and Howard University School of Law; a workroom at OCA headquarters; the "Robert E. Wone Fellowship" of the Asian Pacific American Bar Association Educational Fund; the "Robert E. Wone Scholarship" of OCA's New Jersey Chapter; the "Robert E. Wone Memorial Trust," administered by the Community Foundation of the National Capital Region; and the "Robert E. Wone Clinical Fellowship" at the University of Pennsylvania Law School, including a room in the law school's Civil Practice Clinic. On October 22, 2011, family and friends gathered at Barksdale Field at the College of William and Mary to dedicate two benches and two Chinese pistache trees in Robert's memory. The plaques on the benches read "Rest awhile and enjoy the wonderful world around you," a reference to one of Wone's favorite songs by Louis Armstrong, It's a Wonderful World.
Robert Eric Wone (June 1, 1974 – August 3, 2006) was a fourth generation Chinese American, born and raised in New York City. After graduating from Xaverian High School as salutatorian of his class, he attended The College of William and Mary as a James Monroe Scholar. There, Wone met Joseph Price, then a senior, in the 1992–93 academic year. Wone and Price shared several activities, including an honor society and student government leadership positions, before Price graduated in 1993. During 1993, the Richmond Times Dispatch published an opinion piece co-written by Wone, criticizing a prior Times Dispatch article on William and Mary faculty. Graduating in 1996, Wone then received his law degree with honors from the University of Pennsylvania Law School in 1999. He subsequently served as law clerk to Judge Raymond A. Jackson of the Federal District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia. Wone later worked in real estate law for six years as an associate with the Washington, D.C., firm of Covington & Burling. As part of his public service responsibilities with the law firm, Wone served as the general counsel for the Organization of Chinese Americans (OCA). In June 2003, Wone married Katherine Ellen Yu, and the couple lived in Fairfax County. In July 2006, about one month before he was killed, Wone left Covington & Burling and was hired as general counsel for Radio Free Asia. Wone was very active within the Asian American community, supporting organizations including the OCA and the Museum of Chinese in the Americas. At the time of his death, he was president-elect of the Asian Pacific American Bar Association.
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