A convicted serial killer was sentenced to life in prison Thursday for the slayings of three prominent Alexandria residents over the course of a decade as part of a grudge against the city's elite.
Charles Severance, 55, of Ashburn was convicted in November of three killings stretching from 2003 to 2014. All three victims were shot in their homes in the middle of a day in a quiet, residential neighborhood, and all three were well known in the community.
Nancy Dunning, killed in 2003, was a successful real estate agent and wife of then-Sheriff James Dunning. Ron Kirby, slain in 2013, was a transportation planner often quoted in the media for his expertise on the region's traffic woes. And Ruthanne Lodato, who was killed in 2014, was a well-known music teacher whose brother and father were judges in Alexandria.
Prosecutors said Severance, who has a history of mental illness and ran fringe candidacies for political office when he lived in Alexandria, wanted revenge against what he considered Alexandria's enforcement class after losing a child custody case there.
Severance's journals were filled with passages glorifying violence and justifying murder as revenge for the loss of his son, Levite. An Alexandria judge denied Severance custody of the child when the boy was a baby, and witnesses testified that Severance seethed for more than a decade.
In one passage, titled "Parable of the Knocker,'' Severance seemed to describe exactly the conduct in the killings: "Knock and the door will open. Knock. Talk. Enter. Kill. Exit. Murder. Wisdom.'' In another passage, he wrote, "Received no satisfaction after revenge killing.''
A caretaker at the Lodato home who survived being shot identified Severance at trial as the attacker.
Severance was convicted of capital murder, but prosecutors opted against seeking the death penalty. Under Virginia law, the only option at sentencing was life in prison without possibility of parole.
Judge Randy Bellows emphasized the horrific nature of Severance's crimes and ordered that his sentences on 10 different counts be served consecutively. Bellows imposed three consecutive life terms plus 48 years in prison plus a $400,000 fine.
Bellows' voice broke as he described the effect of Severance's actions. He said Severance's decision to kill his victims in their homes "was itself an act of unsurpassed cruelty... By killing them in their own homes, he made certain that their blood-soaked, bullet-ridden bodies would be found by their families.''
Defense lawyers had urged the judge to take Severance's history of mental illness into account, saying Severance was not "born evil.''
Commonwealth's Attorney Bryan Porter explicitly urged the judge to reject that argument.
"Anyone who would do this... has something wrong with them,'' Porter said. "But that fact alone should not mitigate punishment. You would expect to find a man haunted by demons, who has something wrong with him.''
Porter said there's a difference between mental illness and being legally insane, which requires that a defendant not understand the difference between right and wrong. Porter said Severance's careful planning and efforts to avoid getting caught showed that he knew his actions were wrong.
Severance's anger at the world "is the same type of violence and anger we've seen in Charleston, Aurora,'' and other mass shootings, Porter said. "The difference is that Charles Severance didn't want to get caught. So he was more calculating about it.''
At Thursday's sentencing hearing Thursday in Fairfax, Severance shouted "sadism'' twice into a microphone before the hearing began before being subdued by a sheriff's deputy. He complained about his court-appointed attorneys, and when he was given the opportunity to address the court before sentencing, he made reference only to "the 37th article of religion, according to the Book of Common Prayer, the Church of England, 16th century... It is lawful to wear weapons.''
A new attorney was appointed to represent Severance on his appeal.
Among those in the court gallery Thursday were Attorney General Mark Herring, whose office provided legal support to the local prosecutors, and former Gov. Bob McDonnell, a high-school friend of Lodato's husband. McDonnell is free while his appeal of his corruption conviction is being heard by the U.S. Supreme Court.