by Natasha Wolff | March 2, 2016 12:50 pm
The calls began at 1:24 p.m. on Thursday, May 14, 2015. Reports of smoke and flames coming from the upstairs windows of a mansion near Embassy Row. This in itself is not a typical call for the Washington, D.C., Fire Department. There are some things that just don’t happen when you live in a $5.5 million, 11,000-square-foot French estate-style home in one of the most guarded neighborhoods in the world—a short walk from the vice president’s official home, the National Cathedral, the exclusive St. Albans School, and next door to the ambassador of Australia’s residence. A massive fire that is quickly determined to be arson is one of them.
But no one could have fathomed what came next. Because what firefighters found inside 3201 Woodland Drive was a house of horrors, a savage crime scene. When the flames were doused, they discovered the bodies, four of them. One was a child. It would soon become clear that at least three of the victims did not die from the fire, but from torture, knifing, strangulation and blunt-force trauma. In terms of sheer brutality, it rocked Washington not unlike the Charles Manson killings shook L.A. decades ago.
Who would do this to these people? These people. A lovely couple, Amy and Savvas Savopoulos, both in their mid-forties. Savvas, a fifth-generation Washingtonian on his mother’s side, was the CEO of a hugely successful business in Maryland, American Iron Works. (It helped rebuild the Pentagon after 9/11.) He founded and led Sigma Investment Strategies, a hedge fund based, somewhat atypically, in Puerto Rico. He was also an expert in Japanese martial arts and quite the race-car aficionado—he’d recently become a judge for the Paris-based governing body for worldwide auto-racing events, and kept a $700,000 Mosler in his garage. Amy, the beautiful blonde daughter of an army colonel and his college sweetheart from the University of Maryland, whom friends say he gallantly pursued from the moment they met, was a stay-at-home mom, heavily involved in her three children’s elite schools. They were philanthropic and donated to both political parties. The couple were no strangers to D.C. society: Amy hosted fund-raising events and was often photographed as a guest at major galas. The Savopouloses led a life of private planes, an “extensive” art collection, luxury cars—a Porsche, a Bentley, a Range Rover—and a vacation home in the Virgin Islands. They lived on Woodland Drive for 10 years but, as one former resident puts it, “It’s not the kind of neighborhood where you know your neighbors. It’s mainly blue-blood. People don’t interfere in other people’s business. I was a little surprised that anyone even called the fire department.”
The third adult victim was their 57-year-old housekeeper, Veralicia Figueroa, known as Vera, a woman who moved to D.C. from El Salvador to find a job that would put her two kids through college, which she did, and faithfully sent $100 a week back to her family in El Salvador.
And then the fourth, the heartbreaking fourth: Amy and Savvas’ 10-year-old son, Philip, a fourth-grader at St. Albans who loved to ride go-karts—his parents escorted him around the country to various competitive races—and who, according to police, was burned beyond recognition.
The killings—soon to be known as “the Mansion Murders”—jolted genteel Washington (which is to say, the city’s upper crust). There have been hideous and infamous crimes in the nation’s capital, but this was something else entirely.
None of it added up. Even as details began to emerge. Even as a suspect was arrested. Even more chilling, in the estimated 20 hours that the family and Vera were held hostage inside the house with their killer or killers, in what authorities believe was a nonstop reign of terror, there were many red flags that may have led to a different outcome, maybe, had they not been viewed as simply strange occurrences.
To nearby residents in this area, the wealthiest part of Northwest Washington, news of the killings dropped like a bomb. “Shock isn’t the word. It was and is incomprehensible, simply otherworldly, really,” says one close neighbor who asked to not be identified by name. “That four people could die here after being held hostage in their own home for 20 hours? And the thought that the child could be so… I can’t even go there.” She adds, “Mostly there was outrage, and then a lot of questions.”
Unusual events begin to take place the previous afternoon. The housekeeper Vera is supposed to leave for the day at 3 p.m., according to the family’s other housekeeper, Nelitza Gutierrez. Vera does not leave. It is possible that the killer or killers are already in the house at this point.
Then at 5:30 p.m., Amy calls her husband at work and asks him to come home to watch Philip because she has “plans.” This is not Amy’s style; she is not the type of person to have plans more important than taking care of her ailing son, who was home from school because he’d hurt himself on his go-kart at a race in Phoenix 10 days earlier and suffered a concussion. Authorities will know this 5:30 phone call transpires because Nelitza is with Savvas at that time, helping him prepare to open his new martial-arts center in Chantilly, Virginia. The grand opening is to be May 15, the day after the murders. Nelitza stays there to get the facility in tip-top shape. Savvas returns home.
At 5:56 p.m., the security company that monitors the house gets an alert for broken glass from the French doors on the side of the building. Later, police will find a dirty shoe print and a shattered lock on those French doors. It is unclear why no one is dispatched to respond to the alert (efforts to reach the security company were unsuccessful), though sources speculate that there may have been reassurance that nothing was amiss; according to police, the killer or killers deactivated the system once inside. It is also unclear exactly when Savvas arrives home. But it is likely, say sources, that what he finds when he enters is some kind of hell.
Shortly after the broken glass alert, Nelitza receives a voice mail telling her not to come to work as planned the next day. “It’s Savvas, I hope you get this message. Amy is in bed sick tonight and she was sick this afternoon and Vera offered to stay and help her out, so she’s gonna stay the night here.” This is highly unusual. Neither Nelitza nor Vera ever stay the night.
Nelitza does not retrieve Savvas’ voice mail until the next morning and when she does, she thinks it’s strange. “I called [Amy] right away,” she later tells ABC. Amy does not answer. Nelitza also calls Vera, her friend, and leaves a message, “Hi Vera, What’s going on?” but gets no response.
At 9:30 p.m., around the same time the cryptic message is left for Nelitza, two pizzas are ordered to be delivered to the house from Domino’s. This is not a family who’d be ordering from Domino’s, especially at such a late hour. Amy makes the order on the phone. She uses a credit card. She also gives strict and unusual instructions: Place the pizzas on the front porch. No one bats an eye. Later, the delivery person tells the police that the porch light was on but the house was entirely dark. He does what he was told—rings the doorbell, drops the two pizzas on the stoop and leaves.
Overnight, there are no reported incidents. Several sources believe that Philip, the 10-year-old, is being used as a bargaining chip, that he is the leverage, a hostage in the worst possible way, to get what the killers want from Savvas and Amy. But what do they want?
That continues to be the question, even when—especially when—a paltry ransom would be requested the next morning. “There’s no way this was just about money,” says former FBI agent and profiler Brad Garrett, who has worked some of D.C.’s most heinous and high-profile crimes. “It was too brutal, too personal.” There was nothing about the scenario on Woodland Drive that made sense, even from a psychological point of view. “It’s impossible to even guess why someone would do this,” says forensic psychologist Susan Hurt. “We don’t have a database of people who torture people for 20 hours before killing them. It has bizarre written all over it.”
The next clues from the house come in the morning. At 9:30 a.m., Vera’s husband, who has not heard from his wife, drives to 3201 Woodland Drive. “I was knocking and knocking… My feeling was that somebody was inside,” he later tells CNN. He then gets a cell-phone call from Savvas, apparently before he left the property. Vera’s husband says Savvas tells him, “I’m sorry because I didn’t call you last night. Vera told me to call you. She had to stay with my wife because she was feeling bad, and she has to go to the hospital and asked Vera to go with her.”
Vera’s husband goes home.
Ten minutes later, at 9:40 a.m., Nelitza receives a text message from Amy, saying, “I am making sure you do not come today.” Is Amy trying to protect her other housekeeper? Nelitza finds the message odd and tries to call and text Amy back but gets no response.
What happens next is a flurry of calls from Savvas to his accountant, bank and personal assistant.
A little before 10:30 a.m., Savvas’ personal assistant and driver, Jordan Wallace, who was just hired the month before and who met the family while working at a go-kart racetrack Philip frequented, drops off a package containing $40,000 at the house. He leaves the money, in $100 bills, in one of the family’s six cars, apparently by instruction. He does not go into the house, but he sends Savvas a brief text before driving away: “Package delivered.” According to police, the two exchanged phone calls and text messages both Wednesday evening and Thursday morning. The last known communication from the house was a message Savvas reportedly sent to Wallace at 11:54 a.m., 90 minutes after the money arrived, a message that was not returned.
It is believed that the four are killed between then and about 1:30 p.m., when the first 911 calls come in about the fire. But that raises so many other questions. Would someone ever kill four people with access to millions for $40,000, the cost of a year at Philip’s grade school? Why not ask for the world?
“You’re going to kill four people to get basically nothing and spend 20 hours doing it?” says Garrett. “None of it made sense. ”
Investigators believe the fire was started in Philip’s room, with the child already grievously stabbed though still alive on his bed. Police reports state that he “was located on the charred remains/mattress spring of a queen-sized bed.” A report also states that the body was so charred they couldn’t even determine the gender. The adults—Amy, Savvas and Vera—were found in an adjacent bedroom. Amy and Vera were tied up in chairs, stabbed and bludgeoned. Savvas was dead on the floor. Also in the bedroom were the two pizza boxes from Domino’s. Though the killer or killers used accelerant to start the fire, according to police, it did not spread as quickly as they apparently thought it would. Plenty of evidence was left behind: a bloody baseball bat in the bedroom where the three adults were found, a knife in the trash behind the house, duct tape and matches. A samurai sword from Savvas’ martial arts collection is also believed to have been used during the ordeal. Even stranger is the fact that thousands of dollars in cash, all of Amy’s jewelry and plenty of other valuables were left behind, untouched.
“The weirdest thing,” says Garrett, “is that the crime itself was so disorganized. There are two things that you would never do in a home invasion. Order pizza, for one. And stay in the house for 20 hours.” It signals to him that this was no experienced killer. “And I will tell you, I’m always nervous when people don’t have experience in doing these sorts of things, because they tend to be more violent. They don’t know how to resolve the situation they’ve gotten themselves into and so they react, they panic. I think some version of that happened with this guy and potentially other accomplices.”
In those early hours, authorities had even more to worry about than solving the crime. The Savopouloses had two other children, teenage daughters, who were away at boarding schools—Abigail, the older of the two, at Mercersburg Academy in Pennsylvania and Katerina at the Peddie School in New Jersey—both of whom had to be told. Abigail, now a freshman in college, sat through grisly testimony at a court hearing in July. Savvas’ father, who started the family fortune, has also attended courtroom proceedings. But none of the immediate family members have spoken to the press.
Amy, Savvas and Philip were pronounced dead at the scene by first responders. Vera still had a heartbeat and was rushed to Georgetown University Hospital, but doctors were unable to revive her.
A few hours after the grisly crime scene is discovered, the first clue: Amy’s blue Porsche 911 is found ablaze in a church parking lot, 13 miles from the mansion. It was last seen in their driveway at around 10:30 a.m. Inside, investigators find a green Day-Glo construction vest, like those worn by workers at Savvas’ ironworks company. The vest goes to be tested for DNA. The cops don’t miss a beat. Almost immediately they obtain surveillance video of someone running from the burning Porsche.
But the big break in the case is one for the books. Those pizzas ordered from Domino’s? Because the fire didn’t spread quickly enough, a piece of partially eaten crust is left intact in one of the boxes. Law enforcement quickly conducts a DNA test on the crust, knowing that saliva can contain genetic information. There is an immediate match, to someone who is already in the criminal database. The suspect is one Daron Dylon Wint, a 34-year-old born in Guyana who immigrated to the U.S. in 2000, then enlisted in the Marines but never made it through boot camp. He has a long arrest record, though not for murder; he’s been charged with domestic violence, assault, burglary, harassment and carrying concealed weapons. And more: His own father took out an order of protection on him. Wint is a muscular man, but in person he’s much smaller in stature than one might expect, at five-feet-seven-inches tall and only 155 pounds at the time of his arrest. And he has a connection to the Savopoulos family, having worked for American Iron Works as a welder for two years, from 2003 to 2005, a job from which he was fired. Cathy Lanier, the Washington, D.C., chief of police, wastes no time in reassuring the public that this is not a random crime. But still: Could someone harbor that much hate after 10 years for an ex-employer? It later comes to light that five years prior, he had been arrested behind a dumpster near the American Iron Works headquarters with a machete. But that is a long leap, as Garrett and others put it, to torturing and killing four people. “Did something recent happen where Wint decided that this guy is the reason he hasn’t been able to get a job, that nobody’ll hire him?” says Garrett. “That’s how some twisted people—they’ll go back and blame the past for their current problems.”
They have to find Wint. Authorities track him to a girlfriend’s apartment in Brooklyn. But by the time they get there, he has fled. It’s believed that he sees himself identified as the suspect on the TV news and bolts. What follows is a 48-hour-long manhunt through several states. A week to the day after the murders, police catch up to Wint leaving a Howard Johnson hotel parking lot in College Park, Maryland. He drives off as police pull up. A truck is following him as he is chased for five miles by 20 law enforcement vehicles and a helicopter before he is finally apprehended. Between the two vehicles, there are three men and two women traveling with him. The others are questioned and ultimately released, despite a wad of $10,000 in stolen cash that is found in the truck.
The affidavit for Wint’s arrest states that the quadruple murder “required the presence and assistance of more than one person.” And the DNA of a third, unknown individual, in addition to that of Wint and Savvas, is lifted from the vest found in the Porsche; if there was a match to someone, it has not been made public. But what about inside the house? If there were, as police believe, multiple perpetrators, why was Wint’s the only DNA found on the pizza crust? No fingerprints? Did no one use the toilet? It’s possible that authorities have more information but for strategic reasons are not releasing it at this point.
As of early February, Wint has yet to be arraigned for murder, with his next court appearance scheduled for February 19, after this issue went to press. “If an indictment comes down [from the grand jury], he will get arraigned,” prosecutor Emily Miller explains. “I can’t say what the grand jury will do.”
The hope is that the grand jury will not only return an indictment against Wint, which seems inevitable, but will also shed light on possible accomplices.
One individual who was flagged early on as a person of interest is Savvas’ assistant, Wallace, who police say “lied” in his statements. According to an official affidavit, “As detectives continued to question Wallace, Wallace changed his account of the events regarding how he received the package, where he left the package, and when he was told to get the package.” Wallace also inexplicably sent a photo text message of the $40,000 to a woman believed to be his girlfriend on the morning of the killings, according to police, but was initially cleared by authorities and released. Since then, local journalist Nate Thayer found a connection between Wint and Wallace: “They both lived in the same apartment complex in New Carrolton, Maryland” for several years; the apartment complex is also “immediately adjacent to the church parking lot” where the stolen Porsche was found in flames. The police later confirmed that they “are aware of the connections between the two men.” Wallace has a solid alibi at the supposed time of the killings; he was captured on surveillance cameras at the martial-arts studio after dropping off the envelope. However, according to other police records, his BMW was found parked a block away from the house after firefighters arrived. It was later searched, and investigators uncovered a backpack containing Wallace’s passport, his checkbook and the title to Savvas’ Mosler race car.
Efforts to reach Wallace, who does not have an attorney of record, were unsuccessful. The public defenders’ office, representing Wint, did not return calls for comment. But Wint’s previous private lawyer, hired by his mother, did speak to DuJour. Sean Hanover, who was terminated from the case because “[Wint] and I did not see eye-to-eye,” nevertheless believes that his former client is a “scapegoat” and the focus on him is a “red herring.” He suggests that whatever happened in that house—and he is not confirming that Wint was there—was the result of a bigger operation than he could have ever orchestrated alone. “This is almost like a mafia-type hit,” says Hanover. “You have a very obvious public execution, in a gruesome way.” He pauses. “What if this was the perfectly orchestrated crime? Because it was designed to be exactly what it was—gruesome and barbaric.”
There has been an impenetrable veil of secrecy surrounding this case. No one directly involved would speak on the record, and the press corps, while frustrated, treat the family members at court hearings, all of whom are surrounded by protective victim-rights advocates, respectfully.
But the questions on everyone’s mind remain: Why? What was the motive? What piece is missing? If, in fact, as Hanover suggests, it is a far more complicated case than the arrest of Wint would lead one to believe, it would both make more sense and open a Pandora’s box. Is there a mastermind at play? “If you mean by mastermind, an outside party that had an interest in this and caused it to occur: yes,” says Hanover.
On Monday, June 1, 2015, Savvas, Amy and little Philip, their caskets covered in big blooms of white hydrangeas, were laid to rest after a service at St. Sophia Greek Orthodox Cathedral, where Savvas and Amy were married and Philip was baptized. And late this fall, the mansion, boarded up with plywood since the killings, was snapped up—“as is,” including extensive damage—for $3 million, in a classic fire sale. “You’d have to have a pretty strong stomach to buy that property, in my view,” says Garrett. But nothing surprises anyone on Woodland Drive anymore.
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