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Police charge Severance with 3 Alexandria murders

ALEXANDRIA (AP) After months of investigation, a former Alexandria resident with a history of erratic behavior has been charged in the shooting deaths of a sheriff’s wife, a transportation planner and a music teacher, killings that began in 2003 and alarmed city residents by their seemingly random nature.

Charles Severance, who is being held in Loudoun County awaiting trial on an unrelated gun charge, used to live in Alexandria. He was a fringe candidate for political office, noted for bizarre behavior at political forums including charging at an incumbent congressman with a flagpole.

A grand jury indicted Severance on Monday, the prosecutor’s office said in a written statement.

The Alexandria Police Department said he was indicted in the 2003 slaying of Nancy Dunning; the November 2013 shooting of transportation planner Ronald Kirby; and the February shooting of music teacher Ruthanne Lodato. All three were shot in their homes at close range in the middle of the day.

“We’ve been waiting for this day for a long time,” Police Chief Earl Cook said at a news conference. “I am confident that the suspect Charles Severance is the suspect that we have been looking for almost 11 years.”

While two of the murder charges could carry the death penalty, the prosecutor’s office said in a press release that it did not plan to pursue a death sentence. That means that the maximum potential sentence is life in prison.

Liz Dunning, daughter of Nancy Dunning, was among several family members who attended Monday’s press conference. She thanked police for their work in a statement she read as she left police headquarters. “While nothing can bring her back, I hope that today’s indictment is the beginning of a process that will offer our family and the other affected families some small amount of closure,” she said.

Nancy Dunning, a well-known real estate agent in the city, was the wife of then-Sheriff James Dunning. He died in 2012, and at the time of his death had never been cleared as a suspect in his wife’s murder.

Cook defended his department’s work on the Dunning case over the last 11 years in Monday’s news conference.

“We have to look at everyone,” Cook said. “We never arrested James Dunning because we never had evidence that James Dunning committed a homicide.”

Cook declined to speculate on a motive for the killings, saying “I can’t get into the mentality of Mr. Severance.” He deflected questions about Severance’s mental health to Commonwealth’s Attorney Bryan Porter, who did not return calls and emails seeking comment Monday.

Cook said little about the evidence, but noted in general the importance of eyewitnesses. In the Lodato slaying, a caregiver who worked in the Lodato home was also shot, but survived.

When Severance was arrested last March in West Virginia on the unrelated gun charge from Loudoun County, police declined to refer to him as a suspect in the Alexandria killings but said they wanted to question him about the cases after receiving a tip. By June, police acknowledged that Severance was the focus of their investigation.

Police said evidence indicated similarities in the weapon used in each of the killings. The slayings occurred within a few miles of each other. All three victims were prominent residents within Alexandria, but none were known to have a specific connection to Severance.

Court records show Severance carried a deep grudge against Alexandria civil authorities, who revoked custody of his year-old-son in 2000 and forbade him any visitation until he received a mental-health examination. Severance represented himself in parts of the custody dispute and offered scattershot criticisms of authorities, though he was never specific in directing his anger at one person or agency. He wrote in one motion about the “inferior opinions of some prominent secular Alexandria authorities and teachers of the law with their rusty moral compasses.”

Severance also ran a website, mentaldisorder.com, in which he said his son “was legally isolated and separated from his father by the notorious City of Alexandria Juvenile Court. Although vilified by the inferior opinions of some judges, Charles Severance remains a God-fearing, highly respected, and solid citizen of Virginia.”

Ed Ungvarsky, a capital public defender who had himself appointed to represent Severance on the gun charge in Loudoun, did not return calls and emails seeking comment Monday.

— MATTHEW BARAKAT, Associated Press

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