The appearance of Eige Sober-Adler’s body in a field behind a hotel in suburban Northern Virginia remained a horrifying mystery for 35 years.
In 1987, the 37-year-old woman from Kensington, Maryland, was murdered in a parking lot near the Dulles Toll Road on Centreville Road in Herndon, where she had abandoned her car for reasons unknown. Construction workers found her nude and beaten body behind a Days Inn, according to a report in The Washington Post. An autopsy determined her cause of death was a skull fracture and cerebral hemorrhage caused by an unknown object.
It was a “brutal and cold-hearted” murder, according to Fairfax County Police Chief Kevin Davis.
But it wasn’t the only murder that followed that pattern in Fairfax County.
Jennifer Landry, 19, from Randolph, Massachusetts, was found in August 2002. Police would later learn that she was picked up in Washington, DC, then taken to Mount Rainier, where she was killed.
Neither murder had a solution or apparent leads. The parents of Landry and Sober-Adler died before knowing what happened to their daughters.
But even though the murders were 15 years apart, they were the work of one man: a serial killer still at large. And he wasn’t done killing yet.
A Prime Suspect
Charles W. Helem was a career criminal. He had a long rap sheet of offenses, beginning with an arrest for assault and battery when he was 13, according to a report on the case published by Alexandria-based Connection Newspaper in December 2003.
Just looking at the details of his crimes, it appears that Helem committed domestic violence time after time. Police see that as part of his modus operandi.
He and his wife Denise Custis were married for one month after they met early in 1996. Helem reportedly beat her four times before she left him in December of that year.
Then in 1997, he came after her, choking her so hard that he lifted her off the floor.
According to the deposition at the trial that followed, he flung her across the room, smiling as he attacked her. “He then came down on top of her, started choking her again, and stated, ‘You’re not going anywhere. You’re not going to meet anybody. You’re going to meet your sister, and you’re going to meet your daughter.’” Custis’s sister and daughter were deceased.
He proceeded to beat her on the face until she passed out. When she awoke, she couldn’t speak, so he gave her a notepad and pen to communicate. Then he took her on a drive from Maryland through Virginia, checked into a motel in North Carolina, and eventually drove her to a hospital because she was bleeding from the mouth. X-rays revealed both of her cheekbones were fractured.
Helem was charged with interstate domestic violence and kidnapping. Though he was acquitted of the kidnapping, according to court documents, he served time from 1997 to 2001 in a federal prison in Lompoc, California, for the assault.
Custis ultimately was able to get away. But after his release, Helem entered into a relationship with Patricia Bentley, 37, a single mother of two sons and a school-bus driver for Loudoun County schools, who was described by neighbors as a quiet person who kept to herself and had an immaculate home.
This time, the ending was tragic. On April 6, 2002, Bentley was found dead, strangled inside her townhouse on Beaujolais Court in Chantilly’s Brookleigh neighborhood. There was no sign of forced entry. She had been in a relationship with Helem for four months, and it had recently ended. It did not take long for investigators to apprehend Helem, living with a new girlfriend, and determine that he still possessed a key to Bentley’s apartment.
On October 9, 2003, Helem was judged guilty of murder in the first degree. He was sentenced to life in prison. But while the state of Virginia was satisfied with the verdict, and locked up Helem in the supermax Red Onion State Prison near Pound, Virginia, little did they know they had, in fact, just incarcerated a serial killer.
Cold Case, Solved
Decades of investigative work would eventually draw to a close. Because Helem decided to solve the mystery himself.
Helem sent letters to Prince George’s County detectives in 2010 and 2017, but refused to speak to them, according to ABC News. In the letters, he confessed to murdering Landry in August 2002, and hinted at another murder that Fairfax County Cold Case Unit detectives were actively working on. Prince George’s County detectives finally got him to confess to that murder in a jail-cell interview about the Landry case in 2021. He identified Sober-Adler as his victim, providing details only the killer could know, which could not be released to the public at press time.
Prince George’s County Cold Case Unit detectives issued an arrest warrant for Helem in mid-January 2022 for the Landry murder, just a week prior to the indictment by Fairfax County for the Sober-Adler murder.
At the press conference following the indictment, Fairfax County police were clearly relieved that they were able to solve this case, with the cooperation of Prince George’s County detectives. “It was a big day all around,” Fairfax County Commonwealth Attorney Steve Descano told Northern Virginia magazine. “I was personally really, really happy and relieved and grateful that we can bring this [cold case] to a close.”
Descano said in the press conference that he would be pursuing a vigorous prosecution—another life sentence. “What I meant was that we wouldn’t be treating this case any differently than if we had arrested Mr. Helem off the street,” he says. “In a case like this, he’s already serving a life sentence. He is not going to ever walk the streets free again, barring some incredibly unusual circumstance that’s out of our control … It’s not about his sentence. It’s my opinion that we have an obligation to a community, to the family of a victim, to really take these cases seriously and do them the same way because when the justice system is functioning as it should, and particularly crimes as serious as this one, our work is really more than about the length of the sentence. It is about what we say to the community and how the community feels.”
The guilty verdict is not, however, the end of the story.
There may be other victims out there—perhaps other women—whom Helem murdered but who have yet to be found. At the press conference, Davis said that is something police are exploring. “Now we know he killed in ’87. He killed twice in 2002. So we are working backwards now, both Fairfax County and Prince George’s County, to see if there’s any other possibilities or any other murders or other crimes that he’s been involved in.”
Prince George’s Cold Case Sergeant Gray McDonald said during the press conference that they contacted the Behavioral Analysis Unit of the FBI to have them check across the country to see if anything met his MO—a guy in a truck who propositions women.
When asked about the possibility of Helem’s other victims, Descano said he couldn’t comment since the Sober-Adler case is set to go to trial.
In a larger sense, Helem’s behavior—a spousal abuser who was really a serial killer—points to evils that go on every day.
According to Descano, violence against women is often a pattern, not a one-off occurence. “I think that you’ll see violence against women being an indicator for possible escalation in any jurisdiction that you’re in,” he said. “That’s why we, in my office, really make it a priority.”
The Sober-Adler murder in ’87 may have been impossible to foresee. But what if Helem’s abuse of Custis in ’97 was a red flag that might have helped prevent the murders of Landry, Bentley, and any other unidentified victims out there? It’s that kind of ongoing escalation that caused Descano to create a domestic violence unit that works on nothing but these types of cases.
“We’re really trying to get accountability the first time that a victim steps into the courthouse,” he says. “As a way to try to keep things like this from escalating.”
As detectives pursue identifying other possible victims of Helem, one of the burning questions that many people seem to want answered is, Why would a guy doing life for murder confess to another murder? But understanding a serial killer is a tough proposition.
“I actually do know what his goal was in [making the confession],” says Descano. “And that goal will likely become more public as we move down the road here. But I don’t want to get into that before we’re at the right point. I will tell you that I’ve never found it a great use of my time to try to get into the psyche of individuals who do certain things, just because most of the time, it’s untruthful.
“I think for the armchair psychologist at home, it might be a cul-de-sac not necessarily worth going down.”