When Hamilton Somerville Jr., owner of the 345-acre hilltop estate known as Mt. Athos, died suspiciously in late 2001, the eyes of Orange County, Virginia, turned to his pretty second wife, Donna, once the hospice nurse for his late first wife. Was she guilty of killing the man she'd comforted?
It lies little more than 75 miles southwest of Washington, D.C., and yet Virginia's Orange County seems a world and time apart. Large horse and cattle farms grace the rolling hills. Winding drives lead up to antebellum homes with columns and front porches, where country squires once surveyed their vast plantations. It is a realm of quiet money, not given to rumors of murder. Yet nearly 18 months after the untimely death of Hamilton Somerville Jr., 57, a gentleman farmer from an old Virginia family that was related to the duPonts, the county remains abuzz with the mystery of what happened at Mt. Athos, his 345-acre estate in the pastoral hamlet of Somerset.
By day, the hilltop house at Mt. Athos is obscured by trees. After dark, however, its lights can be seen from the Somerset Center Store, down at the rural intersection that constitutes the town. At about nine on the night of November 13, 2001, Wanda Donivan, one of the women who take turns managing the store, called her sister Sarah Rogers. “Something's wrong up on the hill,” she said. “It's all lit up.”
Rogers's boyfriend, Tony Garnett, a 39-year-old farmworker and close friend of Ham Somerville's, called the house but got no answer. Alarmed, he drove up to find a grim assemblage of police and rescue-squad cars. Somerville, he was told, was dead in his upstairs bedroom. He had apparently choked to death. Donna, Somerville's wife of 10 years, was upset, but managed to express to police sergeant James Fenwick that she wanted her husband cremated immediately.
Plans for cremation were duly made, then halted at the last minute by a suspicious family member. An ensuing autopsy revealed that Somerville had died from an overdose of morphine and codeine. His doctor, Michael Silvester, had not prescribed those drugs, and indicated that Somerville had no physical condition that would have required them.
In the ensuing months, investigators interviewed more than 80 people but issued no charges. Stories swirled, many of them about Donna Somerville's history as a hospice worker: she had tended to Ham's first wife in the end stage of her cancer, then to Ham's mother in her last days. At Christ Episcopal Church in nearby Gordonsville, the matter was too touchy even to discuss. Ham and Donna had been stalwart members of the church, and, in the wake of her husband's death, Donna remained a member of the vestry. On Sundays, she often served as a chalice bearer at Communion, passing the wine that represents Christ's blood from one kneeling parishioner to the next. Many of the parishioners were, to say the least, confused.
At about four P.M. on this past Valentine's Day, the case took another dramatic turn. A lone police car rolled up to the house on the hill. The Black Widow of Orange, as some had come to call her, was handcuffed and charged with first-degree murder. For both those who had always suspected her and those who continued to believe in her innocence, one question hung above all. What evidence had led the investigators to make their arrest at last?
Sleepy and forgotten as it appears, Orange County and its environs have been discovered of late. Affluent northerners have settled in, refurbishing the old 19th-century homes and acquiring livestock. So far, neighboring Albemarle County is a greater lure for celebrities, among them actress Sissy Spacek, novelist John Grisham, and music star Dave Matthews, but recently playwright Sam Shepard and actress Jessica Lange bought a big farm right down the road from Mt. Athos.
The newcomers to Orange County seem incongruous with the area's more established families, such as the Scotts and the duPonts, but all are welcome at the fall steeplechase races at Montpelier, President James Madison's homestead—the year's social and sporting highlight. That includes the working farmers who still make up much of the county's citizenry and live by the salt-of-the-earth values of their forebears.
Ham Somerville Jr., all agree, embodied the best of both landed gentry and working farmer. He had grown up at Mt. Athos and inherited the property, but he also loved caring for it. “The soil on that place was the blood that ran through his veins,” says his middle daughter, Alita. A big, portly, good-natured man, he maintained 40 or so head of cattle and worked outside from sunup to sunset. Nearly every day, he came down to the Somerset Center Store for lunch, greeting the ladies behind the counter with quips and loud laughter, then ambling back to the store's communal lunch table. He was a generous man, quick to lend his tractor or to hire a farmhand who needed work. As a recovering alcoholic, he had helped a number of neighbors stay sober; at Christ Church, his strong bass was a mainstay of the choir. From all he did, he had reaped a wide circle of fiercely loyal friends. “I don't think they came any finer,” says Sheriff C. G. Feldman, who sometimes sat at the lunch table himself. “He was just a super guy.”
If Ham had a flaw, his friends and family agree, it was naïveté. His mother and grandmother had raised him to think the best of people no matter what, and he did. He was, perhaps, naïve in his emotions too. That, say friends, is what may have led him to marry the attractive hospice worker who'd attended his first wife, Sidney, and to do so less than a year after Sidney's death. Even when gossip about Donna Ecochard Somerville's friendships with local men began to pervade the county, says a neighbor, “he thought the sun rose and set on her.”
The stone pillars that mark the entrance to Mt. Athos stand less than half a mile down two-lane Route 20 from the Somerset Center Store. Distinctively red-brown in hue, the stone they were carved from was quarried on the property a little more than a century ago. The pillars originally supported a grandiose gatehouse above. Past them, up a milelong winding drive, once rose the county's most ostentatious home, an odd juxtaposition with the property's name. The original Mount Athos is on a peninsula in northern Greece, jutting into the Aegean Sea and dotted with 20 monasteries, a spiritual place cut off in every way from the material world. Virginia's Mt. Athos is cut off now by something more mundane: a NO TRESPASSING sign put up by Donna following her husband's death.
After a few graceful turns, the driveway passes a pond set off by three large, ornate Japanese teahouses. A century ago, topped by copper flying fish and ablaze with the then still-rare marvel of electric lights, they provided a backdrop for lavish evening parties. Now they sag and tilt in grievous disrepair, a poignant, somewhat spooky sight.
The original mansion is long gone, having burned down only three years after it was built. In its stead is the sizable two-story stone-and-wood farmhouse where Ham Somerville grew up. From the front door unfolds a panoramic view of the Blue Ridge Mountains to the west. The greenery at the front is untended, however, the windows dusty, the screen door rusted and locked. As his friends attest, Ham was the sort of man who preferred tramping directly from his truck in the driveway to the kitchen door in back.
One day late last summer, the back door was opened by a handsome woman of 50 in a light-blue pullover and white slacks. At the time Donna Somerville had short-cropped blond hair framing silver-rimmed glasses—recently she's darkened it—and a nurse's calm demeanor. According to several locals, she had lost considerable weight since the start of Sheriff Feldman's investigation; she looked quite slim that day. Behind her, in the doorway, flitted the shadowed figure of her l8-year-old daughter, Johanna, whom, according to Alita, Ham adopted not long before he died.
If Donna was surprised to see a reporter at her door, she betrayed no indication of it. Graceful and poised, she said she would be more than happy to discuss the circumstances of her husband's death at some point—just not at the moment. She did allow that she had had a tough year. “A friend told me, ‘When you're going through hell, keep going,’” she said. “So that's what I'm doing.” Politely, but firmly, she reminded her visitor of the NO TRESPASSING sign at the front gates. The conversation was over.
Behind the house lay a large, square concrete foundation. Like the front pillars and gatehouse, and the teahouses by the pond, the foundation evokes a ghostly echo of the past. From it once rose the Gothic and bizarre tower of Mt. Athos, a high, round lookout from which the estate's most colorful owner would gaze down, literally and figuratively, at his neighbors. A turn-of-the-century Wall Street speculator, Walter George Newman had brilliant visions of what Mt. Athos could be, and, for a while, the money to make them real. But he would end up, like Donna, a haunted figure on the hill.
Sooner or later, so would everyone else who lived here.
Colonel James Madison Sr., father of the fourth president, had bought the land in l790. After his death, it passed to one of his grandsons. Walter George Newman had about as much in common with these prior owners as a stableboy would with a horseman. Newman had begun, in fact, as a local stableboy before setting out for New York City, where he somehow insinuated his way into the good graces of New York governor Roswell P. Flower. As local historian J. Randolph Grymes Jr. learned, an initial investment made at Flower's suggestion yielded $18,000. Before long, Newman was a millionaire, the owner of gold, silver, and copper mines. The Copper Man, as he'd come to be known, returned to Orange County and in 1899 bought the Mt. Athos property. Then he ordered up, for $500,000, the most expensive house ever built in the area.
Mt. Athos was designed to stir envy and awe, and in that it succeeded. An electric generator, rare for the time, could power the 500 lights that lined the winding drive and illuminated the gatehouse and teahouses, as well as the huge stone-and-wood mansion on top of the hill. At night the house could be seen for miles around—it was the highest house in the county, because Newman had had the crest of the hill raised by five feet to elevate it above neighboring Somerset Plantation. According to Grymes, when Newman came down by train from New York, the Copper Man had his arrival heralded by a trumpeter so that crowds would know to gather for the silver coins he'd throw as he disembarked.
Less than three years after its completion, on January 16, 1903, the house at Mt. Athos burned to the ground. So, on the same night, did a house Newman owned near a gold mine in North Carolina. The Copper Man had just gone through an acrimonious divorce, and both properties had been in his wife's name; he was in court fighting to get them back when they mysteriously burned. Newman went on to marry a second time, building a new house atop Mt. Athos. But he got caught passing out to would-be investors a bogus endorsement of one of his gold mines on stolen U.S. Senate stationery. On the eve of a 1914 Senate inquiry into the matter, Newman's Gold Hill Consolidated Co. stock was trading at 62.5 cents a share; almost overnight it plummeted to 6.25 cents per share. Four years later, at 58, Newman died far from home, in New York's Hotel Chatham.
By 1929, Mt. Athos was in the hands of Marion duPont Somerville, a wealthy neighbor and horsewoman whose family had bought Montpelier, just down the road. The current house was built in the 1930s. Marion had married a Somerville—Ham junior's uncle, Tom—and so the two families became intertwined. But the marriage was an unhappy one. In the ensuing divorce, Tom got Mt. Athos, which included an adjoining property, Glen Valley.
The Somervilles were a long-established family in Orange County, whose English forebears had been planters, horsemen, and ministers. So no one was surprised when Tom's brother, Ham senior, married Henrietta Howard Donaghy, a Philadelphia Main Line woman with a family fortune. Ham senior's new mother-in-law bought Mt. Athos from Tom and bestowed it upon the newlyweds as a gift. And so began the estate's next sad chapter.
Ham senior, father of the recently deceased, had a troubling tendency to go on drinking binges. Henrietta often had to take her husband to the hospital to dry out. Family lore has it that Ham senior finally offered to grant his wife a divorce, taking little or none of her money. Eventually he lived in a room beside the Inwood Restaurant in nearby Gordonsville, dying poor but apparently sober. When Ham junior went to clean out his father's room, he found a box of full Jack Daniel's bottles, each with an unbroken state seal dated December 25 of a different year: Ham senior's private testament to his years of abstinence.
Locals recall Ham junior fondly as a stocky kid who hung out at the Montpelier store in suspenders and knickers. After two years of college, he dropped out, and eventually worked in landscaping. He married Sidney Brainard, a descendant of an old German family, who came with a two-year-old daughter, Ginger, from a first marriage. Soon the Somervilles had two daughters of their own, Alita and Sara. For a time they lived “over the mountain,” west of Orange County near Harrisonburg. Sidney ran a flower shop, painted oils and watercolors, and loved to cook and entertain. “She was a jolly party girl,” recalls one local. “Really fun to be around.” Except when her mood swings kicked in.
“My mother beat the living crap out of [Ham junior] in public,” recalls Alita. “She put him on the ground and beat him senseless, and he never raised a hand to her.” Only years later, when Alita was diagnosed as being bipolar, did Sidney realize she herself might be similarly afflicted.
Eventually Ham junior realized that he'd inherited a disease himself. He wasn't a binge drinker like his father, but his alcoholism steadily worsened. In the mid-1980s he went through a 28-day rehab program. He also became a pillar of Christ Episcopal Church. “He needed that,” says a friend, Johnny Rogers. “It took the place of alcohol for him.”
Ham's mother, Henrietta, was still living at Mt. Athos when Ham and his family moved into the Glen Valley farmhouse next door. Four years later, Sidney was diagnosed with breast cancer. By the summer of 1990, she had declined severely enough to be in bed, on medication, under the care of a doctor, a nurse, and a hospice worker named Donna Ecochard Scott.
Alita Somerville met Donna, her future stepmother, for the first time in July 1990, when Alita came home from college. She had been upstairs attending her mother and came down to Glen Valley's Great Room to see her father engaged in earnest conversation with an attractive woman who was wearing a robin's-egg-blue tank top, a tight, short denim skirt, and sandals. Instead of sitting across from Ham, she was sitting up on the bar, with her legs spread at about his eye level, recalls Alita.
“I'm Alita Somerville,” said Ham's middle daughter coldly. “And who might you be?” Alita was stunned to learn that this was her mother's hospice worker.
Alita feels sure that her father remained faithful to Sidney until her death. And she has no reason to think that Donna's care of her mother was anything less than professional—Sidney was closely monitored by doctors and nurses. But as a licensed hospice worker, Donna did administer high doses of prescription morphine by pump to Sidney at the end of her life, when she was in considerable pain. And at least one other visitor found Donna's behavior with Ham disquieting. “When Sidney was on her deathbed, I remember seeing Ham in the doorway, and Donna caressing him,” says a family friend. “Ham was unaffected, but I could feel that Donna was being flirtatious. Very inappropriate—too touchy.”
With his wife's death on September 3, 1990, Ham turned his attention to his mother, Henrietta, who was now dying of cancer, too. Ham assured her she was in the best of hands, however: Donna would be her hospice worker.
“Ham took Donna to a Christmas party after Sidney died,” recalls one friend. “And he told me a story about that party. He said that he asked his mother if Donna could wear her fur coat to the party, because Donna had asked to. His mother agreed. When they got back to Glen Valley, Donna comes out wearing the coat and says, ‘I have a surprise for you.’ She opens the coat, and she's naked under it.”
Henrietta died on January 14, 1991. Unlike Sidney, she was fairly mobile and alert into the last week of her life. She needed an oxygen pump, recalls one of her granddaughters, but not morphine. Thus, her death was “more a surprise” than Sidney's: “kind of sudden,” says one of Ham's daughters. In her will, Henrietta left her estate, after expenses, to her “beloved son Hamilton Albert.” Now Ham owned Mt. Athos, as well as Glen Valley, a trove of family heirlooms, and a fair amount of cash.
Seven months later, on August 17, 1991, Hamilton Somerville and Donna Jean Scott, née Ecochard, were married at the Orange County Circuit Court in a civil ceremony. “Ham was vulnerable and lonely,” theorizes a friend. “He just wanted a woman on the mountain.”
The marriage was Ham's second. For Donna, who had just turned 39, it was her fourth.
According to what she told the Somerville daughters, Donna had grown up the black sheep of a blue-collar family in Paramus, New Jersey, and left home before her 18th birthday on the back of her first husband's Harley-Davidson. The Harley got her to Orange County, where she divorced its driver and married her second husband, who at some point became disabled. Her third husband was a Vietnam vet who lived in a trailer. With him she had her daughter, Johanna. Meanwhile, Donna had become a registered nurse, which entitled her to do hospice work.
Donna's past and the circumstances of her courtship with Ham put off a number of the old, horse-country types whom Ham and Sidney had entertained. One by one, they drifted off. “After Sidney died, we just saw him at church,” says one old friend gently. “We did wonder who they played with.” Ham could not have been unaware of the snubs, but he was not the sort of man to fret about them. Besides, he was in love. “We'd go out as a foursome, and they'd be holding hands,” recalls another friend. “At the start, she'd go farming with him,” recalls yet another friend. “She was his companion.”
Perhaps inspired by Ham's religion, perhaps in search of a more accepting social circle, Donna got seriously involved with her husband's church, Christ Episcopal in Gordonsville. She became a member of the altar guild and a lay minister. Along with her to church each Sunday came Tom May and Ben Armistead, a middle-aged pair who now lived in the Glen Valley house. According to one of Ham's daughters, Sidney had instructed Ham to draw up a trust after her death that allowed Armistead and May to stay on as tenants at the farm. To whom Glen Valley would ultimately pass, however, was an intriguing matter of interpretation.
May and Armistead may have felt the property was theirs. In a six-page feature on Glen Valley inVirginia Country: Inside the Private Historic Homes of the Old Dominion, a coffee-table book written by Betsy Wells Edwards and published in 1998, the pair are said to have bought Glen Valley in 1990. (“Gracious hosts, May and Armistead think nothing of entertaining even as many as 100 friends for a buffet following the November hunt races at nearby Montpelier ... ”) But the two were simply trustees of the property, along with Ham. The Somerville daughters, meanwhile, assumed Glen Valley would one day be theirs. “The trust was drawn up because Mom wanted someone to take care of the house until we were of age,” says one Somerville daughter. “There was a verbal understanding with our father that it would go to us some day. We talked about it on a regular basis.”
Yet the trust agreement never mentioned the Somerville daughters, and in 1998 the trust was terminated. Glen Valley was declared to be owned by Ham and Donna together, and though May and Armistead stayed on, they seem to have done so without any guarantees. With Ham's death, that suggests they remain there strictly due to Donna's good graces.
One friend recalls both Ham and Donna as being “a little Christ-bitten,” evangelical. Despite this, in the first year of their marriage, Donna startled one of the Somerville daughters with a surprising show of physical affection for a plumber who was working at Mt. Athos. The plumber's wife had just died of cancer, and she was, as one daughter puts it, “still warm in the grave” when Donna summoned the plumber for repairs. The Somerville daughter came over from the guesthouse to see Donna and the plumber “kissing, through the kitchen window.” Later, she observed them holding hands down by the pond. (Donna Somerville's attorney did not respond to repeated requests from V.F. for comment.)
By now all three Somerville daughters were off on their own. Yet they came to feel that Donna resented their phone calls and occasional visits. “There were constant blocks,” recalls one daughter. “One was ‘You can't bring your dog’—that became the excuse.” Donna, Alita believed, was reading her letters to her father. When she tried E-mail instead, she says her missives somehow failed to reach him. A request by Alita to be married at Mt. Athos was rebuffed by Donna on the grounds it would involve too many people.
The daughters felt Donna had done more than push them away from their father. She had robbed them of their past. “My mom and dad and the three of us, along with my grandmother, were a family,” Alita explains. “When Donna came into the picture, it all got invalidated. We weren't allowed to talk about that life anymore, and the minute we brought up any of those relationships, like mine with my grandmother, Donna would tell me how it never really happened, and she was much closer to my grandmother in her last months than I had ever been. That's what's really painful for the three of us, that from the minute Donna entered into our lives, 21 years of family history was invalidated.”
Undeterred, and apparently happy, Ham worked hard to make the farm prosper. Before or after his chores, he liked to relax on his back porch with one or another of his A.A. buddies, smoking Camel Lights and drinking coffee. He “sponsored” (as they say in A.A.) Tony Garnett, a farmhand who lives in a modest house next door to Mt. Athos, and never turned on him when Garnett fell off the wagon. Another A.A. buddy, Johnny Rogers, often went to Ham for financial advice; despite his raggedy clothes, Ham knew a lot about stocks from managing his own portfolio. When Rogers needed work, Ham gave him that too. With these friends and others, Donna was a generally cheerful presence in the background, though she had little patience with Ham's smoking. In trying to goad him into stopping, one friend recalls, she would say to Ham, “I just wish you'd hurry up and die and get it over with.”
The women at the Somerset Center Store, however, noticed Donna's behavior with a succession of local men. She seemed to “zoom in,” as one observer puts it, on the newly divorced or widowed, offering comfort that seemed to involve a lot of touching. To the astonishment of the women behind the counter at the store, she often expressed her particular brand of sympathy even when she came in with Ham. “Ham would start walking to the back,” recalls one observer. Suddenly, “Donna and [another man with her] would be all over each other.”
One memorable Saturday, Ham, Donna, and three local men tramped into the store and sat at the lunch table in back. The women behind the counter were agog: Donna had been physically affectionate, at one time or another, with each of those three men at the store. “I've seen her with her hands on people's legs at the table,” observes one of the managers. In all, the store managers count at least four men with whom Donna flirted at the store.
Certainly, Donna showed an unusual flair for forthrightness. “Three years ago, in front of the store,” recalls Sarah Rogers, one of the store's managers, “Donna says to me, ‘Ham gave me herpes.’ I was shocked that she'd tell me that. She said the first year they were married he'd had an affair and given it to her.” In any event, Rogers says, “no one talked about it, because we loved and respected Ham.”
By the summer of 2001, life on the hill had become more complicated. Lance Clore, a local man in his mid-30s going through a divorce, had begun working on a regular basis at Mt. Athos. Clore had lived in Somerset his whole life and was well liked. Another young man, Jeff Carpenter, had moved into the guest cottage at Mt. Athos. Carpenter was working as the farm manager for Diana Dodge, of the Detroit Dodges, over at nearby Nokomis Farm, and Dodge was building him a house on her property; Ham let him stay at Mt. Athos until the house was finished.
According to the ladies at the Somerset Center Store, Donna was affectionate with both Clore and Carpenter at various times at the store that summer. “She was physical with both of them,” Rogers says with a sigh.
At Donna's instigation, Clore joined the Christ Episcopal Church. He became a thurifer, in charge of swinging the censer. One observer at the store came to feel that Clore and Carpenter were “in competition with each other” for Donna's affections.
Ham seemed oblivious to Donna's apparent improprieties, and some of his A.A. buddies did not know quite how to approach him about them. Alita did notice, on a rare visit to the hilltop house in July 2001, that her father and Donna appeared to be sleeping in separate bedrooms. Yet if things “weren't too good” in the marriage, as Ham confided to one friend, he saw no reason not to fraternize with the hired man and the tenant. Just weeks before Ham died, an old friend saw him having a jolly dinner at a local restaurant with Clore and Carpenter. “Men's night out,” he declared.
Then came the first of Ham's mysterious episodes.
Unquestionably, Ham's lifestyle put his health at risk. He smoked a lot; at the early-November races at Montpelier, he got out of breath just walking around the grounds. Despite his daily work on the farm, he was at least 40 pounds overweight, yet continued to eat fatty foods. “At the church pancake dinners,” says one friend, “we'd fight for the bacon.” Still, the first setback seemed to come in a somewhat peculiar way.
Two weeks before he died, Ham awoke feeling groggy and disoriented. When he tried to walk, he got dizzy and took, as he told a friend, “two steps forward, three steps back.” His arms and legs seemed not to work. He stayed in bed until he felt better, and eventually the feeling came back into his limbs. He had no lingering paralysis, he said, just a sense of being generally run-down, as if he had the flu. Donna took his blood pressure, but Ham never went to a doctor.
On the night of Sunday, November 11, Ham had another episode. “He's very groggy, like he won't get out of bed,” Donna told Johnny Rogers when he stopped by unannounced for coffee on Monday morning. “Sit here and I'll go see if he's up.”
A few minutes later, husband and wife both came down. As Ham entered the kitchen, he staggered. He told Rogers he didn't remember falling asleep the night before.
Ham managed to get down to the store that day for lunch, but he looked unwell and talked of flu symptoms. The next day—Tuesday, the day of Ham's death—Jeff Carpenter went to the store for lunch and reported that Ham was in bed. Early that evening, Lance Clore visited the store and said that Ham was still in bed.
At exactly 8:44 P.M., a call came in from Mt. Athos to the 911 Emergency Center in Orange County. A rescue squad was immediately dispatched. Sergeant James Fenwick, first to arrive on the scene, raced upstairs to find Ham unconscious. Fenwick tried to revive him with CPR, as did an emergency medical team that arrived soon after. But Ham was unresponsive, and after 45 minutes, the rescuers gave up.
Tom May and Ben Armistead had rushed over to Mt. Athos when Donna discovered Ham “blue” in the face. Now Clore and Carpenter were downstairs, too, along with a handful of police officers. Donna had been frantic when she called May and Armistead, according to one report, but now seemed calmer. Along with calling the Somerville daughters, she reportedly phoned the Preddy Funeral Home and had one of its directors come up to remove Ham's body for immediate cremation.
Alita Somerville returned to her home in Pennsylvania at about 11:30 P.M. to find a message on her answering machine from Donna: “Call home.” Of the three daughters, Alita had had the prickliest relationship with her stepmother. Now Alita listened to Donna's voice again on the machine. It had an “every-day-of-the-week sound,” Alita says. She first thought that perhaps Donna was just calling to discuss plans for Thanksgiving—though her stepmother had already made clear in a letter to Sara that the daughters would not be welcome to stay at Mt. Athos for the holiday; they would have to stay at the nearby Holiday Inn Express. “But then something got hold of me,” Alita recalls, “like a breeze that comes through the window. I thought: Something's wrong.”
“What happened?” Alita demanded when Donna answered the phone.
“Tell me what happened,” Alita persisted.
“Your father's dead,” Donna said.
“Somehow I knew that,” Alita said. “How did it happen?”
“I don't know.”
“Where were you?”
“I was in the room trying to revive him, and I called 91l, and they couldn't revive him.”
“How did he die?” Alita demanded. “What was he doing in bed so early that night?”
Alita thought Donna sounded vague.
“So you're trying to tell me you were in the room but you don't know why, and you were performing CPR and you don't know what he had, and there were clocks in the room but you don't know what time it was.”
Before the conversation ended, Donna mentioned that Ham would be cremated because “that was what your father wanted.”
Alita thought: Not so fast.
Because cremations in Virginia cannot occur without a signed death certificate from a medical examiner, which takes about 24 hours, Donna scheduled Ham's for Thursday morning. Grimly, Alita worked the phones all Wednesday, first persuading an elderly uncle that something had to be done, then contacting a local attorney.
Thursday morning at about nine, Alita finally reached Tim Sanner, the Commonwealth's Attorney for Orange County. Sanner, a short, bald, earnest man given to dark suits, heard her out and contacted the undertakers at Preddy Funeral Home. He told them he wanted to have an autopsy conducted on Ham Somerville Jr. At 9:30, the undertakers postponed the cremation.
It had been scheduled for l0.
By early Thursday afternoon, family members had begun to gather at Mt. Athos for the funeral later that day. Sara and Ginger arrived before Alita. They found Donna visibly upset, as one family friend puts it. Later, she would tell them she had wanted a quick cremation only to keep a family secret: the genital herpes Ham had allegedly passed on to her. He had often cheated on her, Donna reported. She and Ham had been in couples therapy, she added, to resolve their problems.
Alita encountered a cool reception when she walked into Mt. Athos. May and Armistead seemed tense. So did her sisters, who shuddered at the thought of an autopsy for their father.
Peter Howe, a lawyer who worshiped with the Somervilles, asked all three daughters into the sunroom with Donna. Because a psychiatrist and old family friend, Dr. John Eagle, was also on hand Alita suspected she might be accused of acting irrationally due to her bipolar disorder. Firmly, she told Dr. Eagle that she was on medication and under a doctor's care. As he knew, she said, she was also an alcoholic. But she was a staunch member of A.A.
In the meeting Donna announced darkly that “someone” had demanded an autopsy, and that this was reprehensible—a total invasion of her late husband's privacy. Worse, Ham's body would be carved up. Sara and Ginger clutched each other, too horrified to speak.
“Now, wait a minute, Donna,” Dr. Eagle interjected. “You know that's not what happens. You're a hospice nurse.” Dr. Eagle turned to the daughters. “If your dad was lying there in a casket after an autopsy, you'd never be able to tell.”
An overflow crowd gathered for the funeral at Christ Episcopal Church later that afternoon. The prevailing sentiment, along with grief at Ham's untimely death, was sympathy for Donna. There was no coffin up front, nor an urn of ashes. Ham's corpse was en route, as the service began, to the county medical examiner.
An uneasy lull hung over the hamlet. Then, in mid-January 2002, came the shocking results of the toxicology report, and the verdict that Ham had died from high amounts of morphine and codeine found in his stomach. Overnight, many locals who had consoled Donna drew back in horror and anger. “People also felt they were deceived,” says one churchgoer of Donna's frequent professions of grief. “She had broken down and sobbed in front of them.”
A scattering of Donna loyalists wondered if Ham might have committed suicide. The police, too, began asking friends if Ham had ever talked of ending his life. The queries were met with disbelief. “Ham and I were going to go to England to look at cathedrals this summer,” says one close friend. “I just can't imagine him wanting to kill himself.” Months later, Jeff Carpenter put it more succinctly from the doorway of his newly built house on Diana Dodge's farm. “I knew Ham Somerville,” he said, still shaken by the events of that night, “and Ham did not kill himself—that's for sure. So you can put two and two together.”
An accidental overdose seemed just as unlikely. “My dad was not the type to take pills,” Alita says. “And he never would have taken morphine or codeine—especially those—because he'd seen what they did to his wife in her last stages of cancer.”
So far, the source of the drugs remains a mystery. Some months before Ham's death, Donna had become a volunteer at the Hospice of the Rapidan in nearby Culpeper. But a spokesperson for the hospice explains that, as a volunteer, Donna had no access to drugs from the hospice, and no authority to prescribe them through a pharmacy. She could only help administer drugs prescribed by a doctor.
What, in any event, would have led Donna to murder her husband? As more than one local observes, Donna could have demanded a divorce and secured at least a few million dollars. Or perhaps not. In the search warrant executed for Mt. Athos on January 8, 2002, investigators applied to look for “correspondence or personal records of Hamilton A. Somerville Jr. pertaining to his desire to terminate his marriage to Donna J. Somerville.”
Undeniably, Ham's death has left Donna a far wealthier woman than any divorce settlement would have. Aside from modest trusts already set up for his daughters, Ham left his entire estate to his wife. Thus, Donna has acquired much more than land and money. “She has generations of family art, jewelry, china, and furniture,” says Alita bitterly. “Paintings by famous Philadelphia artists of ancestors who helped settle Philadelphia. Jewelry and silver that was earmarked for each of us by our grandmother. A pocket-watch collection on my father's side of the family, some from the railroad, which my father's family helped build. And family-history books: we have volumes thousands of pages thick. These are books that started in Europe and traveled across the ocean by boat. And we'll never have them.”
When the results of the toxicology report were made public, Donna stopped going to the Somerset Center Store. But to the consternation of many of her fellow parishioners, she remained active at Christ Church. Often she went to both Sunday services, accompanied sometimes by Lance Clore, who reportedly continued living up at Mt. Athos. (Carpenter had moved out of the guesthouse at Mt. Athos soon after Ham's death.) Sometime last spring, the local bishop intervened, requesting that Donna stop assisting in Communion. About the same time, she stopped giving readings. But she remained on the vestry, an elected post, and lobbied hard to have the church's fall picnic held at Mt. Athos. Peter Howe, the senior church member who had aided Donna in the days after Ham's death, reportedly helped put a stop to that.
Among Donna's staunchest supporters at the church were its reverend, Ted McConnell, and his wife, Anita. Then, in early December, McConnell startled his congregation by announcing his imminent departure for a new posting in Fond du Lac, Wisconsin. Was it a coincidence, parishioners wondered, that McConnell was leaving soon after the convening of a grand-jury investigation to consider murder charges against Donna Somerville? At the minister's hastily arranged good-bye party, Donna amazed many present by sitting on Clore's knee.
A first grand jury ended inconclusively. By the time the jurors reconvened on February l4, and Donna was arrested, word was out that the evidence included wiretaps. “Wiretaps didn't give us the whole story,” Sheriff Feldman said after Donna's arrest. “I don't think any piece gave us the whole puzzle. What we've got is an accumulation of l5 months of hard investigative work. We feel very comfortable with what we've got.” At the Central Virginia Regional Jail, Donna was held for six days until bail was set at $300,000, with a trial date still to be set.
Of the other characters in the story, Jeff Carpenter seems to have satisfied the police that he knows nothing about how Ham died. Certainly his cheerful demeanor, when he was pulled out of the shower at his new house at Nokomis Farm one morning, seemed unlike that of a murderer. Lance Clore, though more brooding, strikes all who know him as incapable of foul play. (Clore failed to respond to two calls from V.F.for comment.)
Then there is the Glen Valley duo of Tom May and Ben Armistead. Both are still members of Christ Episcopal Church: Armistead is the choir director, May the organist. Both also work in adult-care facilities, Armistead as an administrator. Reached by phone, May declined to comment to V.F. A subsequent call to Glen Valley was not returned. There is no evidence that anyone other than Donna was involved, but Sheriff Feldman stresses that the investigation is ongoing.
A few locals still believe in Donna, if only out of principle. “Everyone is condemning Donna,” says longtime dairy farmer Bill Roberts. “But I was taught that you're innocent until proven guilty.”
“If she is innocent,” adds Johnny Rogers, “a lot of people are going to pay for their sin of treating her so badly.”