Who killed Sarah L. Greenhalgh? A Virginia murder mystery

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A lot has happened since I left Warrenton, Va., four years ago. After I came home I worked as a reporter in Westchester County for a year. When I officially got completely fed up with journalism I  went to Europe to hang out with family and do some research for my next book.  After that I got a gig as a freelance editor while I earned my paralegal certificate from Pace University. With the certificate in hand, I started In Brief Legal Writing Services.

Alexandra Bogdanovic
Founder/owner of In Brief Legal Writing Services, Alexandra Bogdanovic. Photo by N. Bogdanovic

But one thing hasn’t changed. The 2012 murder of Sarah L. Greenhalgh remains unsolved. Or more accurately, no one has been charged and no arrests have been made in the death of the newspaper reporter who shared my passion for the cops and courts beat, photography and my love of animals — especially horses.

Sarah, 48, was working as a reporter in Winchester, Va., when someone shot her and then torched the house she was renting in Upperville, Va., in July 2012.

The initial investigation revealed that Greenhalgh and John Sheldon Kearns — a Gainesville man identified in news reports both as her boyfriend and ex-boyfriend — had supposedly argued “hours before her death.” Soon after the discovery of Greenhalgh’s body, news about a post on her Facebook page also surfaced.

In that cryptic post, reported to be her last, Greenhalgh said she planned to “sleep with the windows wide open” that night. She also lamented about an unknown man who had apparently been bothering her.

While authorities first identified Kearns as a “person of interest” they did not identify him as a suspect in the case until December 2014.

As of last July, the investigation was still ongoing.

“We’re still pursuing leads and working with the division of forensic science,” Lt. James Hartman of the Fauquier County Sheriff’s Office told the Loudon Times-Mirror last year. “People have referred to it in the past as a cold case just because it’s the third anniversary, but it’s never been closed.”

Now, more than one year later, I can’t help but wonder how much progress — if any — the authorities have really made. It’s not that I don’t believe Lt. (now Sgt.) Hartman. In more than eight years of covering cops and courts in Fauquier County, I got to know him pretty well and have always known him to be as forthright as possible under the circumstances. I just have a nagging feeling about this case.

I have from the beginning.

Perhaps it’s because I saw Sarah just a few weeks before she died. Perhaps it’s because of the unique bond we shared as police reporters. Perhaps it’s because I followed in her footsteps.

You see, I got the job as the cops and courts reporter at the newspaper that was then known as the Fauquier Times-Democrat  after Sarah left to take another newspaper job in Florida in the fall of 2003. I inherited her beat notes (a list of sources, contact information and detailed instructions on how to access the court websites) and comprehensive newsroom survival tips.

I also inherited a desk drawer full of pens — and a sticky note detailing what would happen if any went missing.

“I will kill you if you steal my pens,” my predecessor had written, adding a smiley face to take the edge off the threat.

And that, as a mutual friend quickly pointed out — was typical.

Yes, Sarah was a tough woman. She was also talented, driven, dedicated and outspoken.

I am sorry we never got a chance to work together. Judging by what our mutual friends have said, we probably would have gotten along famously — or we might not have gotten along at all.

“You and Sarah are a lot a like,” one friend once said.

I thanked her for the compliment.

The Martha Moxley murder and her killer’s fate: a personal perspective

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In the fall of 1975, a heinous crime rocked Greenwich, Connecticut. A teenage girl was brutally murdered in Belle Haven, an especially private and wealthy neighborhood in what consistently ranks as one of the wealthiest communities in the country.

A cautionary tale

I grew up not far from there. But as a kid, I was blissfully unaware of what had happened on the other side of the tracks — or more accurately — on the “right” side of I-95, just a few short miles away. As the years went by and the case remained unsolved, my friends and I spent countless hours playing on our own street, less than a five-minute drive away from the spot where someone had beaten Martha Moxley to death with a golf club.

At some point — probably in my early teens — I learned all about the girl who was killed on “Mischief Night,” the night before Halloween when teens egg cars, houses and decorate their neighborhoods with toilet paper. Adults used Martha’s story as a cautionary tale, warning us not to go out on Mischief Night, or not to stay out too late if we did. Being teenagers — and more accurately being teenage girls — we also swapped stories, gossiped and speculated about the  unknown killer and unsolved crime.

‘Super Cop’ comes to town

As a young reporter my first “real” newspaper job in Greenwich in the 1990s, I worked with one of Martha’s closest friends. As you can imagine, that gave me a whole new perspective on the matter. It was no longer just a brutal and senseless crime that rocked my town; it was a brutal and senseless crime that directly affected someone I knew.

Alexandra Bogdanovic
Founder/owner of In Brief Legal Writing Services, Alexandra Bogdanovic. Photo by N. Bogdanovic

Given that, you can also imagine my reaction when, as a reporter for the same paper, I witnessed  former LAPD Detective Mark Fuhrman’s arrival in town. Although I wasn’t the police reporter at the time (I had happily given the beat to a colleague) I do know the Greenwich police — long frustrated and embarrassed about their inability to solve the Moxley case — weren’t exactly happy about it, either.  Apparently Fuhrman got what he wanted — and then he wrote a book. In it, he identified Michael Skakel, who is related to the Kennedys, as the “prime suspect” in the case.

The wheels of justice

As so often happens, especially in big cases, the wheels of justice seem to turn very, very slowly — until something happens to speed things up. In this case, it just so happened that a grand jury investigation was authorized in 1998, the same year that Fuhrman’s book was released.

The grand jury investigation itself took more than a year. As a result, Skakel turned himself in to authorities in January, 2000. Two years later, he was tried and convicted of murder, and he was ultimately sentenced to 20 years to life in prison.

He remained in prison for more than 10 years, until a judge ruled that his attorney made mistakes that resulted in a wrongful conviction.

According to a Hartford Courant account, however, prosecutors now want Skakel “back in prison.”

So do I.

Supreme Court decision fatally flawed

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“Before Miller, every juvenile convicted of a homicide offense could be sentenced to life without parole. After Miller, it will be the rare juvenile offender who can receive that same sentence.”

– from the majority opinion in the recent Supreme Court of the United States  (SCOTUS) ruling on Montgomery v. Louisiana,  delivered by Justice Anthony M. Kennedy.

Four years ago, a Supreme Court ruling in Miller v. Alabama put an end to life sentences without the possibility of parole for most young killers.

The majority held that children are fundamentally different from adults, and that several key characteristics specific to minors — such as lack of maturity and the propensity for some to be easily influenced –should be taken into account when they are sentenced. Furthermore, SCOTUS ruled, an offender’s ability to change must also be taken into account. Finally, the Court said that a life sentence without the possibility of parole is too severe in most cases, and essentially amounts to cruel and unusual punishment.

Last week, America’s highest court held that the 2012 ruling can be applied retroactively.

In other words,  all juvenile offenders found guilty of murder and sentenced to life without the possibility of parole at any time before the Miller decision took effect must now get a chance to seek it. According to published reports, that could affect up to 1,000 offenders in three states.

Looking at these decisions from a strictly logical — rather than a strictly legal — standpoint, it is clear that they reveal a basic but serious flaw in the American justice system.

As we all know, the system is designed to protect the defendant’s rights from the time he or she is first questioned by the authorities through a trial (if the case comes to that) and beyond. The goal is to thwart unscrupulous police conduct, prevent wrongful conviction and remedy wrongful conviction if it occurs.

The preservation of a defendant’s Constitutional rights is paramount, and understandably so.

On the other hand — as the SCOTUS rulings in Miller and Montgomery demonstrate — the system routinely shows little regard, much less compassion, for victims and their families.

Of course it goes without saying that not all victims of violent crime are fine, upstanding, law-abiding citizens. One could even argue that some people who are murdered deserve their fate. Make no mistake about it: my argument does not pertain to them, but to ordinary people who have been killed in cold blood. It also pertains to the “young offenders” who have taken their lives.

Take Henry Montgomery. Today he is known as the petitioner in Montgomery v. Louisiana.  But he was just 17 when he killed a cop in East Baton Rouge back in 1963. He was ultimately convicted and sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole and is now 69.

In delivering the court’s decision that the Miller ruling should apply to Montgomery’s case, Justice Kennedy wrote:

“Extending parole eligibility to juvenile offenders does not impose an onerous burden on the States, nor does it disturb the finality of state convictions. Those prisoners who have shown an inability to reform will continue to serve life sentences. The opportunity for release will be afforded to those who demonstrate the truth of Miller’s central intuition — that children who commit even heinous crimes are capable of change.”

After spending most of his life in prison, Montgomery claims that he has changed. Maybe that’s true and maybe it isn’t. The bottom line is that he was convicted of killing Charles Hurt. A jury determined that Montgomery robbed Hurt of his future, and robbed Hurt’s family of a future with him. And that will never change.

Yet the Court makes no mention of the toll the crime likely took on Montgomery’s loved ones in its January 25 ruling on his case. Instead, Kennedy quotes from another case, Graham v. Florida, writing:

“Because retribution ‘relates to an offender’s blameworthiness, the case for retribution is not as strong with a minor as with an adult.'”

Yes, it would seem that a young killer’s rights trump all. The fact that a life has been taken means little. The fact that a family is left behind to pick up the pieces means nothing if the murderer was young, or too stupid to know better, or easily influenced.

A cynic could even say the odds are stacked against victims, their loved ones and the hard-working prosecutors that seek justice for them.

Alexandra Bogdanovic
Founder/owner of In Brief Legal Writing Services, Alexandra Bogdanovic. Photo by N. Bogdanovic

As anyone with even the most basic knowledge of criminal justice can tell you, crimes are committed against the community, not individuals. So technically, prosecuting attorneys represent “the people,” not the individual victim.  In and of itself, that fundamental lack of personal advocacy can be confusing and frustrating, especially for those traumatized by  violent crime.

Then there are the rules that can prevent the revelation of certain information about the defendant — such as prior convictions — at trial because it could be prejudicial. On the other hand, there’s little to keep the defense from calling witnesses to discredit the victim — especially if there’s anything sketchy in his or her past.

Now, to make matters even worse, the families of people murdered by minors initially sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole must come to grips with the fact that those killers may someday go free. For those who wish to prevent it, their only recourse may be to write the Parole Board or appear at the offender’s parole hearing to have their say.

I can only imagine how scary, unpleasant and stressful that would be. It would be cruel and unusual punishment, indeed.


*Because this blog is written for a general audience, Bluebook citations are not included.