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Lia's Case

A detective, a mother and a killer who is free.


Last month, Richmond Police turned Selberis' case over to its cold-case unit when the original homicide investigator was reassigned. Sandy Selberis views this as an important move by police for Lia's case. And there have been questions about Lia's case from the start.

Richmond Police have been criticized publicly for its response to 911 calls from Selberis' neighbors the night of the shooting.

Inconsistencies abound in what neighbors reported they recall and police accounts of the incident. This is what is known:

A blast was heard outside Selberis' apartment on that oddly warm November night. Police were called. Less than 10 minutes later, three officers arrived. Two neighbors met them outside. One showed police a hole the size of a football in Selberis' window. After questioning bystanders, police concluded the hole had been caused by a rock or something like it. Reportedly, an officer entered the building, knocked on Selberis' apartment door and returned outside when no one answered. Selberis and her roommate were home at the time. Police left the scene minutes later when a call was dispatched of a shooting nearby.

Seven and a half hours later, around 8:30 a.m., Selberis' roommate tried to wake her for work. She found her limp and lifeless, bathed in blood.

Since he got the Selberis case last month, Detective Louis Quick with the Richmond Police cold-case unit has spent his days studying the contents of the file compiled by homicide detectives. Quick knows of the criticism about how police responded to the scene. Still, he says nobody in the department has pressured him to treat this murder differently. It's his case now, a new investigation. He will be "relentless," he says.

Now he's looking at the original investigation, he says. He's reviewing crime-scene photos, interviews and physical evidence. But there is no known motive for the murder. Quick says he is determined to find one.

Quick has been on the force for 22 years and has spent the last eight of them working unsolved homicides or cold cases. He's effective, he says. "I've taken cases that have seemed hopeless, made an arrest and gotten a conviction." Most notably, he solved the notorious "Golden Years" murders that vexed police in the late '90s. Quick linked the killing of seven mostly elderly Richmonders to one man, Leslie Birchart, he says, "by developing a strategy to get him to implicate himself." Quick presented his evidence to the Richmond Commonwealth's Attorney's Office, which prosecuted Birchart and won a conviction in May 2000.

Even sitting at his desk in a white cinder-block office, Quick looks like a man fit for the name. He is silver-haired and trim, and his eyes narrow when he talks. But any steeliness is softened by the honey drawl of a born Richmonder. He explains the importance of a daily journal he keeps on his computer for each cold case: When he peruses the entries, he finds clues between the lines. He has started a log for Selberis.

"All cops have this cocky attitude that they'll make an arrest," Quick says, and the Selberis case is no exception. "I have to be optimistic or I wouldn't be putting myself into it," he reasons. But it takes more than instinct to solve cold cases. Quick explains: "Lia's murder was purposeful. The person who did this had intimate knowledge. They had intent and they carried it out." Quick will trace this to motive, motive to suspect. And he thinks he'll get help. "We know there are witnesses and some people have come forward recently," he says. "I'm confident a suspect will be identified."

Quick is mindful of the role that Selberis' mother, Sandy, has played in pressing police for updates. He sounds compassionate as he pledges to keep her informed — yet at a safe distance. "You don't want [the family] to be too helpful, to conduct their own investigation," he says. "But these cases to us may be months or years old. To family it's yesterday."

Yesterdays spin and echo interminably for Sandy Selberis.

On Aug. 7, nine months to the day after her daughter's death, she sits in a coffeehouse near Virginia Commonwealth University. She has taken the afternoon off to meet with a reporter. Typically, Sandy Selberis works six days a week as a U.S. postal worker, splitting time between the Montepelier and Glen Allen offices. She needed this time away, she says, and didn't mind the drive to Richmond from her home in Louisa. Lia would have graduated this year from VCU. And being near the college, talking about her is, if only slightly, comforting.

"Lia is always on my mind," Sandy Selberis says. Dressed in olive-hued linen and simple silver jewelry, she looks like the kind of mom who'd casually drop by campus to grab some coffee with her kid. Her snow-white, closely cropped hair and Delft-blue eyes are striking yet sad. Her daughter's ethereal presence is especially poignant now. Sandy Selberis has come here to share family stories and photos that she hasn't been able to put words to since the memorial candlelight vigil held on her daughter's birthday, April 1. Had she lived — some speculate she could have if she'd been found earlier — she was set to marry her fiance, Dwayne Curd, on Aug. 10.

Dates like these — along with birthdays and holidays — are touchstones for Sandy Selberis. In the wake of her daughter's death, the passing of each has meant groping beyond sadness and pain to feel a deeper loss that must last forever.

She cradles a bundle of photographs, then fans them into a kind of timeline that suggests the happy and awkward evolution of a young woman discovering herself. Lia was like a chameleon, always changing, Sandy Selberis says. She points this out in pictures where her daughter appears to grow more and more distinct from her younger sister and brother. "I helped her dye her hair," she says, reminiscing.

Lia Selberis embraced new looks the way she did new friends. She sought out the unusual and the creative in both. "People have told me that they have found their own strength through her," Sandy Selberis says. "Despite what kind of turmoil she was in, and she was in turmoil a lot, she would do everything she could to bolster someone's ego. She would hang out with all the kids who were the misfits. She had the courage to be different."

Bill and Sandy Selberis — who divorced five years ago — knew their daughter Lia was different from the time they moved to Richmond from Rhode Island 25 years ago. She could read before her classmates and was often set apart. She also had asthma. When she was 18 she nearly died from it. This was the first time she cheated death. The next time she came closer. The next time was brutal.

On April 30, 1993, Lia Selberis had just turned 22 and was in her third year at VCU. She was walking home alone late at night from The Village Cafe on Harrison and Grace streets to her apartment a few blocks away. Johnny Jones, a man from Petersburg whom she'd never seen or met before, had been watching her, waiting. Jones abducted Lia from the doorstep of her apartment, thrust her in the trunk of his car and drove to a hotel in Chesterfield where he raped and sodomized her. She spent the night in the bathroom with her hands and feet bound with rope. Jones had been on drugs for days and had stabbed a woman the day before. The next morning, he put her in his car and began driving north.

Jones repeatedly told Selberis he was going to kill her. At some point he pulled off the road, dragged her into the woods and began strangling her. Then he stopped. For some reason, Sandy Selberis says, Jones decided to wait.

Near exhaustion, he stopped at a rest area outside Arlington. Selberis begged to use the bathroom. And Jones relented, untying her feet so she could go just outside the car. Instead she fled toward other people at the rest stop. Jones sped away. Later, Selberis retraced her abduction for the police. Jones was caught five days later near his home in Petersburg.

In September 1993, Selberis testified in court against Jones. Today, Jones is serving three life sentences in a Virginia prison for, among other charges, the rape, sodomy and attempted murder of Lia Selberis. Jones is eligible for parole in 16 years.

After the abduction, Sandy Selberis tried to tell herself that her daughter had suffered unthinkable cruelty and survived to show others it was possible. For nearly a decade Lia Selberis did. She recovered. And she began helping other victims of violent crime. "She had really evolved," her mother says. "A lot of her inner doubt was gone. She was so happy."

Then, nine months ago, she was murdered in her sleep. "She'd beaten the odds so many times," Sandy Selberis says. It's as if that should have saved her.

Sandy Selberis now searches for answers, not peace. She has discovered some things. She has learned what it feels like to hold a short-barreled shotgun in her arms. She has learned to cling to clothes that carry her daughter's smell. She has learned to obsess over every word Lia uttered, to hear again and again the tired tone in her voice the last time they spoke. This, especially, has led to more questions. Questions, now, for Detective Quick.

Sandy Selberis has come to the coffeehouse because she wants people to remember her daughter. Sharing her story is a plea for help: Someone may know something that could lead to the killer. "It's for her, to dignify her," Sandy Selberis says.

There is something else. What happens when — or if — Quick gets his man? Selberis is desperate to find out. Until then, she can guess. "It's going to be like hitting a wall at 150 miles an hour when an arrest or a conviction is made," she predicts. "I fear it so much, being left here, not knowing who I'm supposed to be. But it's probably the road back to sanity." S