Charles Severance Trial, Day 1: Shooting Survivor Testifies Severance Looks Like Gunman

Testimony got underway Thursday in the triple murder trial of Charles Severance where his poetry was read by the prosecutor and the only eyewitness to one of the three fatal shootings told jurors about the day she was shot and wounded while rushing to help another victim.

Severance looks like the man who shot her, Janet Franko testified.

Franko was the caregiver for the mother of murder victim Ruthanne Lodato, who was fatally shot while answering her front door Feb. 6, 2014 in Alexandria, Virginia.

"I heard the doorbell ring. I heard a noise and a scream so I dashed to the door," Franko said.

Then Franko was shot. "That's when I hear [the] boom again and feel pain right there," she said.

It was Franko's description of the gunman that led to a police sketch.

Severance, of Ashburn, Virginia, is accused of killing three prominent Alexandria residents, including Lodato, a music teacher, over the course of more than a decade. He is also on trial in the deaths of Nancy Dunning, wife of then-Sheriff James Dunning, in 2003, and transportation planner Ron Kirby in 2013. 


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All three murder victims were shot in their homes, in broad daylight, in a wealthy residential neighborhood.

In court Thursday, prosecutor David Lord asked Franko about a police lineup photo. Franko said the eyes and slim face matched, but the beard was different.

When Lord asked her if she'd watched news about the murders, she said no, getting tearful as she emphasized that she doesn't watch stories about killings.

"I don't want to see anything, you hear me..." she said. "It's so sad!"

She told defense attorney Joe King she's seen the photo of Severance twice. In court, Severance was told to look at Franko, who testified he looks like the man who shot her.

Prosecutors have said Severance -- a former Alexandria resident with a history of erratic behavior -- committed the killings as revenge against what he perceived as the city's ruling class after losing a child custody case.

During opening statements Thursday, Lord said Severance lived near the victims when he lost custody of his son, Levite, and developed hatred toward courts and the "elite."

Severance's defense attorney, Joe King, shared poetry Severance wrote about his son after the custody battle: "Levite in family court. Levite kidnapped by social services."

The first witness to take the stand Thursday was a woman who lives in the Alexandria neighborhood where the murders took place. 

The woman, Marlene Wahowiak, identified Severance in court as someone she'd seen just days before the last shooting. Wahowiak said she'd seen the man several times as she walked her dog, but eventually became so unsettled by him that she changed her route.

"The vacant stare that man gave her caused her to never take that path again," prosecutor David Lord told jurors.

After Lodato was murdered and Franko was shot, Wahowiak heard a brief description of the gunman, and said she immediately thought of the man from her dog walks.

"I got a sick feeling in my stomach," she said.

Wahowiak called police to tell them she thought she'd seen him. A few days later, when a composite sketch was released, she called police again -- to tell them the eyes were the same.

When asked if anything was different, she answered, "He was more cleaned up."

Defense attorney Joe King pressed the witness hard on the conflicts between her description to police and how the composite sketch looked, showing her a photo of a different man whose beard more closely resembled the sketch. Wahowiak said she's never seen him.

During opening statements, Lord highlighted disturbing writings by Severance, including one piece of writing that allegedly said, "Introduce murder into a safe and secure neighborhood. It shudders with horror."

Lord told the jury they will see in Severance's writings that he showed an obsessive focus on the type of firearm and ammunition used in the fatal shootings. Excerpts from Severance's writings also include a piece saying "murder on my mind and my mind on murder" and a poem -- "Knock. Talk. Enter. Kill. Exit. Murder. Wisdom," the prosecutor said.

But King pointed out in his opening statement that there are 2,400 pages of writing and much of it is about history. The writings were part of fantasy games Severance developed, the attorney said.

King conceded that his client "certainly is very anti-law enforcement," but said Severance never mentioned any of the victims in his writings, although there was a profane rant against police.

Lord also said that on the day of Lodato's murder, a woman who was getting gas saw a car matching the description of Severance's red Ford Escort run a stop sign. She went to police after Severance was arrested.

A security camera video in the neighborhood also showed a red, small station wagon with a blur of a sticker. The prosecutor displayed a round, white sticker on Severance's car that reads "Assassination City."

The prosecutor detailed the killings his during opening statements, saying that each of the murder victims were shot more than once. Forensic scientists will testify they've rarely seen the type of ammunition used on victims in criminal cases, except in these three murders, Lord said.

During the trial, Severance's former girlfriend Linda Robra will testify he was away from home the days of the last two murders and that he had gotten her to buy a .22-caliber gun, the prosecutor said. Robra will also testify that after he left their Ashburn home in March 2014, the two small-caliber guns and ammunition were gone.

But King, the defense attorney, said he will show there is a lack of evidence and no DNA in the case. The prosecution has jumped to conclusions, the attorney said.

King also said Severance was on a historical research trip when he was arrested in West Virginia -- not fleeing, as the prosecution contends.

Severance's trial was moved from Alexandria to Fairfax because of pretrial publicity in Alexandria and because of widespread fear the killings caused there. The trial is expected to take six weeks. 

Would-be jurors were told that even though Severance is charged with capital murder, this will not be a death penalty case.

Defense lawyers for Severance have said that their client suffers from schizophrenia but they will not make an insanity defense.

In court Thursday, King said Severance's family will testify that he began to show signs of paranoia and mental illness before college.

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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