She was known as the “Queen of Del Ray.” A realtor with McEnearney Associates in the Alexandria neighborhood, Nancy Dunning was credited with helping to transform the once under-the-radar area into the bustling, family-friendly spot known today. She was also the wife of Alexandria Sheriff Jim Dunning.
So when she was shot point blank on the afternoon of Dec. 5, 2003 after answering a knock at the door, friends and family were in shock.
“Alexandria Sheriff’s Wife Slain at Home,” blared the headline in The Washington Post the next morning. “No Motive or Suspect in the Realty Agent’s Death.”
It wouldn’t be until 11 years later, and two more murders in the same brutal fashion, that the case would be cracked.
“It’s a very dark place.”
On a ragged hill in Alexandria stands an old, abandoned cannon. Most residents don’t know much about it. But, apparently, Charles Severance knew it was once used in the French and Indian War. And, as Alexandria commonwealth’s attorney-turned-author would come to discover, it may have been the centerpiece of a murderous plot to seek revenge on the city of Alexandria, the dark heart of a triangle that formed a map locating a trinity of victims, in the mind of a serial killer.
Bryan Porter, who was first elected Alexandria commonwealth’s attorney in 2013 and is still serving today, is now revisiting the murders and the motivation of Severance for a new book, The Parable of the Knocker: The True Crime Story of a Prosecutor’s Fight to Bring a Serial Killer to Justice. The book from the prosecutor who put the serial killer behind bars is raising new questions about what may have motivated the murders and why he chose his victims.
“I spent a significant amount of time trying to get into Severance’s head,” writes Porter in his book. “Believe me, it’s a very dark place.”
Parable of the Knocker is a deep dive into the murderous rampage of a man obsessed with British Gen. Edward Braddock, who was also hell-bent on waging a kind of guerrilla war against Alexandria elites. It’s a story that weaves together Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Edward Snowden and the Gospel of Luke. In Severance’s mind, he was a noble savage tomahawking the homestead of his enemies. In reality, he was an unemployed manipulator guided by old grudges and suffering from, as Porter says in the book, undiagnosed mental illness. Porter’s book goes inside the investigation that tracked the murderer down and prosecuted him in a high-stakes courtroom drama.
“I am the lion in this home. You must submit.”
Charles Stanard Severance, born Sept. 25, 1960, was raised in the leafy suburban Oakton neighborhood of Fairfax County. He was a normal kid from a normal family. He went to Robinson Secondary School, and enrolled as an undergraduate at George Mason University and ultimately the University of Virginia before taking a series of engineering jobs, eventually landing a gig at a local wastewater authority. When he was in his 20s, he briefly joined a cult. His mother later testified that he started giving all the little money he had to the “church.” Eventually, he bought a townhouse in Alexandria on Gunston Road that he dubbed “Gunston Manor.”
His grudge with Alexandria started with a court case, a bitter custody dispute between Severance and the estranged mother of their child. They met at a square dance in Northern Virginia in July 1998, and by the time their son was born in April 1999, she had moved into his house in Parkfairfax. She thought she could ride out his tempestuous nature, but his emotional abuse and erratic behavior was too much. She left in early 2000, prompting an epic custody battle that eventually led to a murder spree.
“I am the lion in this home,” he told his girlfriend, according to court papers. “You must submit.”
Severance acted as his own attorney, filing a series of briefs that were a cross between therapeutic rage journaling and amateur legal trolling. The court record is clogged with hundreds of sarcastic and derisive legal pleadings, a paper trail that played out against the backdrop of a series of court hearings where Severance verbally attacked the boy’s mother. His behavior was so alarming that the presiding judge in the case asked Sheriff Jim Dunning to provide extra deputies as courtroom security.
In the midst of all this courtroom drama, Severance decided to run for mayor. It was not his first foray into politics. He had already run against Alexandria Mayor Kerry Donley in a special election in 1997 and then against Congressman Jim Moran later that year. During one forum in 1997, he grabbed an American flag off the stage, pointed the speared end at his opponent, then the audience, and then ran out the door. His 2000 campaign for mayor was even more unhinged, and Donley recalls that he turned every question around to a diatribe abasing the dangers of psychotropic drugs. During a Federation of Civic Associations forum, Severance punched a debate organizer.
“I got coldcocked,” recalls Rod Kuckro, who helped organize the debate at George Washington Middle School. “I worked in a bar when I was in college, so it wasn’t the first time I’ve been punched.”
In March 2001, the judge in the custody case granted Severance’s estranged girlfriend full custody of the boy, determining it was in the “best interest of the child.” Severance was given one last opportunity to say goodbye, but the judge had become increasingly concerned about the father’s mental state during the long and twisted custody dispute. So he required the final goodbye take place in the courtroom in the presence of uniformed sheriff’s deputies. This was the last time Severance ever saw the boy, and the fact that he was not allowed to touch his son during the meeting became the source of a great deal of anger and resentment.
“Can you forgive someone for kidnapping your child? Can you murder someone for kidnapping your child?” Severance later wrote in a diary seized by investigators. “What God-fearing patriarch would not murder men and women who delight in terrorizing his family?”
That was in March 2001. His first victim was Nancy Dunning, Sherriff Dunning’s wife, two years after losing custody.
Her husband’s name was the one that appeared on the protective order forbidding Severance from contacting the boy or his mother, and Sheriff Dunning’s deputies were the ones present for the last meeting with his son.
Nancy Dunning was home in the middle of the afternoon and when she answered the door at her Mount Ida Avenue house, Severance shot her with a 0.22LR North American Arms five-shot mini-revolver with Remington subsonic ammunition.
The motivation seems pretty clear-cut, but, almost immediately, suspicion began swirling around her husband, Sherriff Jim Dunning. Did he have some kind of motive to kill his wife? As Porter points out in the book, taking a hard look at the spouse is standard operating procedure in any murder case. But Sherriff Dunning had a rock-solid alibi for the time of the murder because he was with his son, and the two were waiting for Nancy to join them for lunch. When she failed to appear, they drove to their house and discovered the body. Nevertheless, rumors began to circulate through the Del Ray community that he may have played some part in the murder.
“I never believed in my heart that he did it,” says former City Councilman Lonnie Rich, who knew the Dunnings for many years. “However, in my head I always knew there was a possibility that he did. I didn’t know.”
“Let the evidence establish who did it.”
One of the central themes in Porter’s book is that Jim Dunning was essentially another victim of the serial killer because he went to his grave in 2012 with a cloud of suspicion over his head. Severance was still two years away from being a suspect, and Jim Dunning faded from public life after the murder of his wife. Despite the fact that he was ostensibly in charge of the Sheriff’s Office as an elected official, he rarely made public appearances.
Investigators eventually came to the conclusion that Severance was responsible for the murder, and Porter says that showing what it took to clear Jim Dunning’s name was one of the main points of the book. The rumors about problems in the Dunnings’ marriage and potential motivations can be buried under a mountain of evidence that Porter put together and presented to jurors. As for any lingering suspicions about Jim Dunning, Porter says the specter of confirmation bias is one of the takeaways of the book.
“When I’ve taught this case to law-enforcement officials, that’s one of the big lessons learned I try to explain,” says Porter. “You can’t figure out who did it and then let the evidence be seen through that slant. You’ve got to let the evidence establish who did it, and until it does you’ve got to keep an open mind.”
One of the most surprising mysteries about the Nancy Dunning murder was that it was a mystery for so long—more than a decade. Jim Dunning moved to South Carolina and died. Meanwhile, Severance got in his Ford Escort and drove across the country, visiting historical sites along the way, including some associated with the French and Indian War. Life moved on, suspicions lingered and Severance sent hundreds of postcards to his parents from across the Ohio Valley.
“Tomahawking a homestead in the backwoods of America”
“Tomahawking a homestead in the backwoods of America,” was a phrase that appeared in those postcards, an indication of the violence that was brewing inside Severance’s troubled mind.
Porter says that phrase is central to understanding Severance. It appears not only in those postcards to his parents from the 10-year hiatus, but also in writings, verbal communications, internet postings and a notebook of deranged scribblings Porter calls the “Manifesto of Hate.” The idea was that Severance was a kind of American version of the “noble savage” featured in the works of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, fighting back against invading white settlers embodied by British Gen. Edward Braddock’s invasion into Ohio country.
“Severance imagined he was engaged in a guerrilla war against an oppressive and haughty opponent, an opponent who wanted to impose its form of law and order on a proud patriarch,” Porter explains in the book. “Severance’s repeated use of the tomahawking phrase was a metaphor for his murders. It allowed him to indirectly take credit for the crimes, doing so in an obfuscated manner, which would prevent anyone from divining what he was talking about.”
Severance’s second murder didn’t happen until a decade after the first, a lapse of time that would later prove problematic for prosecutors hoping to tie the three murders together. The victim this time was Ron Kirby, director of transportation for the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments. Like the Nancy Dunning murder, Kirby was killed in the middle of the day on Nov. 11, 2013 when he answered a knock at the door. Also like the Nancy Dunning murder, the murder weapon was a 0.22LR North American Arms five-shot mini-revolver with Remington subsonic ammunition.
But, unlike Dunning, Kirby had no direct relationship to Severance. There was the fact that he had been a leading force in the effort to build a new Woodrow Wilson Bridge. Severance opposed the proposed location of the bridge (he wanted it moved south into Fairfax) during his days on the campaign trail, but, as Porter says in the book, that was a tenuous motivation for investigators.
And then came the third murder on Feb. 6, 2014, just a year after the Kirby murder and 11 years after the Dunning murder. This time the victim was Ruthanne Lodato, a beloved music teacher who was the sister of a General District Court judge. Like the previous murders, she was shot when she answered a knock at the door in the middle of the day. The murder weapon was—once again—a 0.22LR North American Arms five-shot mini-revolver with Remington subsonic ammunition.
But unlike the Dunning murder, this one had no direct relationship to the source of his outrage. The judge that oversaw his case was in the Juvenile and Domestic Relations Court, which was on a different floor of the courthouse. And he had a different last name, so it seems unlikely that Severance would have even known of the connection.
But the third murder was unlike the other murders in a more important way: There was an eyewitness—a caretaker who happened to be in the home tending to Lodato’s mother. Dorcas Franko, Lodato’s caretaker, was also shot—making her Severance’s fourth victim—but lived to tell her story. Also unlike the other murders, this one happened in a neighborhood where a private security camera got footage of Severance’s 1999 Ford Escort driving away from the scene of the crime.
The eyewitness helped a police sketch artist put together a composite sketch that was a dead ringer for how Severance looked at the time, and it didn’t take long for investigators to track down Severance, who was living with a girlfriend out in Loudoun County. Severance’s first instinct was to put on a tricorn hat and head to the Russian Embassy to seek diplomatic refuge.
“Severance saw himself as a noble exposer of truth.”
“Severance saw himself as a noble exposer of truth; as another Edward Snowden,” Porter explains in the book. “Like Snowden, Severance had braved the anger of an oppressive government for the sake of principle. And since the Russians had provided Snowden with asylum from prosecution, why wouldn’t they provide it to Charles Severance, a brave American who had chosen to act against a corrupt and venal government?”
Admittedly, the tricorn hat was an unusual choice. Porter believes the hat and a poncho Severance was wearing were an attempt to disguise his appearance, which was on every television screen in the form of a composite sketch. Severance tried to piggyback his way into the embassy, following a visitor through an open door. But then a guard confronted him, and he complained the city of Alexandria was persecuting him. The guard called Secret Service, which dispatched agents who questioned the strange-looking man.
The Russians decided they didn’t want to press charges, and Severance left, although Secret Service agents followed him to his 1999 Ford Escort and asked him for consent to search it. He declined, and Porter says that was a misstep because the murder weapon was probably inside.
Severance was eventually arrested March 13, 2014 on an unrelated charge, being in possession of a gun, despite the fact that he was already a convicted felon from an unrelated incident that happened during the 10-year hiatus. That was an incident that happened in Rockingham County, where Virginia State Police caught him with three concealed guns and no license. That gave investigators an opportunity to bring charges related to the firearm while they held him in custody and decided what to do next.
One of the first questions was whether or not to pursue the death penalty. Porter says that was a pretty easy decision. Although the case was a capital murder case, Porter waived the death penalty.
“Severance’s serious and untreated mental illness was uncontroverted and Alexandria is a progressive enclave, which evidences little support for the death penalty,” Porter writes in the book. “The combination of mental health mitigation and the community ethos mattered deeply to me. I sincerely questioned the morality of seeking the capital punishment for a person so affected by mental illness.”
That was the easy question. The more vexing one was this: Should he charge Severance with one murder? The Lodato case had ample evidence (an eyewitness, security camera footage), and it was clear that he would have a rock-solid case. Or should he charge Severance with all three murders, even though the evidence in the Dunning murder was very thin and a substantial amount of time had already passed, complicating the case?
“You had a solid case in Lodato. Solid case. Why muddy the waters?” Alexandria Sheriff Dana Lawhorne, who was an Alexandria police detective at the time, recalls telling Porter. “But my policy is never argue with success, so he made the right decision.”
It was a big decision—and a big gamble. If Porter had followed Lawhorne’s advice, defense attorneys might have been able to make the case that two other murders had been carried out in similar fashion by an identical murder weapon, which means that the real killer was still out there and not on trial for murdering Lodato. On the other hand, putting all three together raised the stakes because a jury might find the Dunning evidence so weak that the entire case may be called into question.
“I wasn’t eating. I wasn’t sleeping. I was totally stressed out,” admits Porter. “I was totally at the end of my rope.”
“No one is making the decision for you.”
For Porter, the answer came one morning at home as he was waking up, seemingly out of the blue. In the book, he recalls hearing a voice—essentially his conscience, Porter says—in his head that helped him finally reconcile the conflicting advice he was getting about whether to charge all three murders or just go with the Lodato case.
“No one is making the decision for you,” the voice told him.
“I thought about it and decided that I needed to follow my gut instinct,” recalls Porter.
Porter’s gut was that charging all three murders was the right thing to do. Letting Severance skate on one or two murders for strategic reasons seemed like letting the darkness win. And, in the end, one of the central themes in the book is that Severance’s theory that violence wins—an idea that repeatedly came up in his rambling writings—is wrong.
“Knock and the door will be opened,” Severance wrote in one of his twisted poems. “Knock. Talk. Enter. Kill. Exit.”
The title of that poem was “Parable of the Knocker,” a title that Porter appropriates for the title of the book, and he explains that it’s a dark twist on a real Bible passage from the Book of Luke. Sometimes it’s known as “Parable of the Midnight Knocker.” Other times it’s known as the “Parable of the Friend at Night.” In the gospel story, a person who needs bread knocks on the door of a neighbor who is unwilling to help. But the knocker is persistent and he eventually gets the bread.
The passage is usually interpreted as a story to show the value of the persistence of prayer. But in Severance’s warped mind, Porter explains, Severance thought he was being persistent with his neighbors in another way—exacting revenge from the oppression of the law-enforcement class. But, as Porter writes in his book, that hate did not win.
“I really like Bryan’s emphasis on the narrative of love wins,” says David Lord, an Alexandria city prosecutor who worked closely with Porter on the trial. “As prosecutors we deal with the worst that humanity has to offer, and that notion that at the end justice prevails and love wins offers a counterbalance to that with a sense of hope.”
“He glorified himself into being some kind of political revolutionary.”
Porter says he now believes that the second two murders were randomly selected, based more on where they lived than who they were. Dunning was targeted, he believes. Kirby and Lodato, on the other hand, just happened to be home in the middle of the day when he came knocking. But, the three murder locations do form a triangle around Edward Braddock’s cannon, a relic from a war that pitted two Colonial powers against each other in a wilderness that included native allies on both sides.
Perhaps Edward Braddock and his battle-worn history had more influence over the murders than the Woodrow Wilson Bridge or a judge that was presiding over a courtroom a floor above the one that was the scene of his dramatic last meeting with his son.
“I’m absolutely confident that played a factor, although I don’t know exactly because Severance was very circumspect,” says Porter. “That doesn’t make sense, but he kind of glorified himself into being some kind of political revolutionary.”
Severance was ultimately sentenced with three life sentences—one for each victim—plus 48 years. He’s currently serving time in Wallens Ridge State Prison in Big Stone Gap, Virginia.
Sitting in his office on the third floor of the Alexandria courthouse, Porter says he often gets asked whether justice was achieved. His answer to that is that he’s incapable of rendering a just outcome. The only just outcome, he says, is if the victims were still alive and spending time with their families.
“The best I can do is try to protect the community, which I think we did in this case, provide answers to the communities and families, which I think we were ultimately able to do, and then try to be a real human being and provide a little bit of solace to the families, and I think we were able to do that,” he says. “They’re always going to feel the loss, and I can’t make that right. But at the very least we were able to stop the killing, and I think we got the appropriate punishment.”
In other words, as Porter closes the book: “Power does not come from the barrel of a smoking gun. Love wins in the end.”