"When someone shows you who they are, believe them the first time."
It was the 3rd of November 2006. A Friday. Twenty seven year old Justine Abshire was in the honeymoon period of her marriage. As a newlywed, she had a lot to look forward to. Justine wanted to have children. Her husband of just five months, Eric Abshire, had two children from a previous relationship and Justine adored them.
They met in 1999 when they both worked at Lowe's Home Improvement store. Justine was a cashier and Eric was her manager. She was just twenty years old. He was twenty six and told her he had two young daughters.
Eric decided to join the Marines and when he returned, they married and Eric started his own hauling business, he drove a dump truck for the company. Justine also got a new job, it was the perfect job for her.
Justine and Eric Abshire
She was a kindergarten teacher at Emerald Hill Elementary in Culpepper, Virginia, United States. That day, the 3rd of November, Justine went to work. Her colleagues all asked her if there was something wrong. They thought she had been crying as her eyes were almost swollen shut. But Justine told them not to worry. It was allergies.
Later that day, some of her colleagues saw Justine again as she had her UVA master's degree class. Justine arrived thirty minutes late for the class and wore her sunglasses indoors. When the class ended at 7pm, Justine left immediately. Her colleagues didn't know it then but that would be the last time they would ever see her again.
At 1.57am, a 911 call was made. There had been a hit and run. Police arrived at Taylorsville Road in Barboursville, Virginia and found Eric in the middle of the road hysterical and crying uncontrollably. He had his wife Justine in his arms. Justine was dead. It appeared she had suffered from multiple trauma as a result of being struck by a motor vehicle.
Eric told police that Justine called him at 1.19am. She told him her car had broken down and she asked him to collect her. She was around five miles from the house. Eric got on his motorcycle and went to the spot where she said she was. But when he got there, he found her lying in the road.
Eric told police he sat with her and covered her with his jacket. He said that he then went to try to find help. Eric went to several houses close to the road. One of the owners of one house he knocked at called 911. That call was placed at 1.57am. Eric told police he had his cell phone in his pocket but he did not realize that until later on.
While on paper, at first, the scene appeared like a hit and run case, that view changed very quickly.
Police did not find any broken glass, skid marks or tire marks on the road. There was no debris and no blood on Justine or her clothes despite the multiple injuries to her body. They believed based on the physical evidence that Justine was not simply standing on the road and hit by a car but rather someone had caused her death.
Police also discovered that despite Eric stating that Justine called him to say she was having car trouble, her car was working. There was no mechanical defect found.
Justine was very close to her parents, Heidi and Steven Swartz, and her sister Lauren Swartz, and they were devastated when they received a call from Eric's brother notifying them that Justine was dead. Their shock and devastation turned to confusion. They knew Justine well. She was afraid of the dark, she was even described as being afraid of her own shadow so it made no sense to them that she would choose to drive alone at night. They also wanted to know how her body was found lying in the middle of the road, some 600 feet away from her car. Her purse, coat and keys were in the car so they did not understand why she would have left them and walked away from the car especially as she had called Eric and asked him to come to collect her. It was dark and freezing out.
Justine Abshire and her father Steven Swartz at her Wedding
But it was only two days after Justine's memorial service when things began to fall into place. Heidi went into a restaurant and broke down. She was overcome with emotion. A woman working at the restaurant asked her if she needed anything. Heidi told her about Justine and described her as the kindergarten teacher who was hit and killed by the car.
The woman told Heidi that her daughter was not involved in a hit and run. She was murdered, and her husband is the prime suspect. It transpired that some people believed that Eric was involved in Justine's death.
Police spoke to Eric. Eric told them that evening was a normal one. Justine got home after 7pm after her class. She got home before Eric did. He was home just a little after her. He had been at the Martha Jefferson Hospital visiting his ill mother. Eric was home with Justine for a while when he received a call from the hospital. His mother's condition had deteriorated.
Eric and Justine Abshire
Eric told police that he went back to the hospital and was there until 11.30pm. He did not go straight home after the hospital. Instead , he went to their storage unit on Route 33 in Rucversville. He stored his motorcycle there. Eric left his car at the storage unit and took the motorcycle out and went riding. He told police that he wanted to clear his head.
According to Eric, it was 12.30 am when he got home. Justine was awake and wanted to speak to him. Eric told police that they argued because Justine wanted to discuss his mother's health and Eric did not want to talk about it. He told her he needed to be alone and Eric said that Justine said:
"Well, maybe I need to be alone, too."
According to Eric, Justine then left and drove off in her 2002 Ford Mustang.
Eric told police that he wasn't worried as he expected Justine to come home and he just sat and watched television. The next time he heard from Justine was at 1.19 am when he received a call from her. She was not afraid, just angry. Justine told him that her car had broken down and asked him to pick her up. She told him exactly where she was.
He said it took him at least 10-15 minutes to leave the house after Justine called as he had to put his shoes on, get his jacket , keys and helmet. Eric claimed that he found her sometime between 1.39am and 1.44am.
Eric's version of events did not sit well with police and coupled with the crime scene and the injuries to Justine's body, they began a thorough investigation of her cause of death and the circumstances surrounding same.
It would take four years but police finally had enough to officially charge Eric. He was charged with the first degree murder of his wife.
It was the Prosecution's case that Eric murdered his wife due to his desire to leave her and for financial reasons. The Court heard how, in the months leading up to that November night, Justine had changed. She no longer met up with friends, returned people's calls and had even refused a bunch of flowers her friend sent as a house warming gift as Eric does not want me to accept gifts from you.
They believed Justine was killed elsewhere and taken to that road where she was found so that Eric could stage a hit and run. It was their case that he did so in order to collect $1.5 million in insurance money.
The Prosecution told the Court that Justine's injuries were not consistent with being struck by a vehicle. She suffered 113 blunt trauma injuries to her body.There were multiple broken bones, lacerated organs, and 23 wounds to her head. Yet, there was very little blood at the scene.
Two Medical Examiners testified on behalf of the Prosecution. They said that Justine's death wasn't caused by getting struck by a car as she stood on the road. They believed, due to her injuries, that she was beaten , strangled and then run over after she was already dead.
Dr. Todd Luckasevik who conducted Justine's Autopsy testified that his findings were consistent with manual strangulation.He found deep tissue bruising in the neck muscles and hemorrhages in one eye and lip.
He testified that Justine suffered numerous severe internal injuries including lacerated and bruised lungs, broken ribs, a shattered pelvis and a lacerated spleen and liver. Some wounds did not bleed and this indicated that they were caused after Justine was already dead. He said that he found less than half the blood he would have expected pooled in her chest and abdominal cavities.
The second Medical Examiner said that the average female body contains five liters of blood. Less than one liter of blood was recovered from Justine. This was not consistent with the lack of blood found on the road. It was the Prosecution's case that this indicated that she was killed elsewhere.
Allison Crawford testified. She dated Eric in high school and was the mother of his two children. She testified that less than two hours before Eric found Justine lying on the road, he asked Allison if they had any future together. There were 43 calls between them that day. Eric told her that he still had feelings for her. Allison told the Court that
"He asked if there was any chance for our relationship."
He told her he made a mistake and regretted marrying Justine.
Another witness testified on behalf of the Prosecution. Cecil Roebuck said that he was on the side roads of Greene County late that night in search of a school bus. He told the Court he was unfamiliar with the roads so pulled his car into a driveway to turn around. Cecil claimed that a man approached him and told him his wife's car was almost out of gas. He asked Cecil to follow him to a gas station but before they reached the gas station , the man pulled his car over and told Cecil that he ran out of gas too. He asked Cecil for a lift back to his house and he obliged.
Cecil said that he did not connect the incident with Justine's case until he saw a program about Justine's death two years later. He told the Court he believed the man was Eric and he had helped him stage the hit and run, albeit unbeknown to him at the time.
The Court also heard about Eric's financial difficulties.
Justine's father, Steve Swartz, testified. He told the Court that his daughter was the couple's credit-holder and at the time of her death, they had $85,000 in debt.
Insurance claims adjusters also testified about several of the policies of which Eric was the beneficiary.Less than two weeks after Justine's death, Eric filed an uninsured motorist claim that would have paid him $100,000 had it been approved and up to $1.5 million if the commercial aspect was approved. Justine's name was on the insurance for one of the dumpster trucks.
Eric filed for bankruptcy in 2009 and received $330,000. The money was used to pay off debts.
Some of the other evidence was heard in the absence of the Jury and it included claims of an affair Eric had with a woman a month before his Wedding and three days after Justine's death. It was also claimed that he had photos of a naked woman but he ripped them up so that he wouldn't look bad.
It was the Prosecution's case that Eric's cell phone records showed that he was at home and not at the Martha Jefferson Hospital where he claimed to be and therefore had plenty of time to kill Justine.
They told the Jury that there were two periods late in the evening and into the following morning that were of particular importance, from 10.04pm to 11.23pm and from 12.08am to 1.19am, when a call from Justine's phone came in. The cell phone records showed that he was at home and not at the hospital at that time.
The Prosecution also told the Jury that Eric used his phone 157 times that day so the fact he said that he only realized his cell phone was in his pocket some time after he found Justine's body was an absolutely incredible statement to make.
The Prosecution highlighted the fact that Eric was once a Marine and had both CPR and First Aid training, yet he made no effort to aid Justine.
In one final blow and a sharp shock to Eric's case, the Prosecution revealed that he had a nickname for Justine. He called her Thing.
It was the Defense's case that Justine was killed in a hit and run accident. It was their case that Eric was visiting his mother at Martha Jefferson Hospital until 11.30pm that night and then went to the storage unit to get his motorcycle. They claimed he would not have had time to kill Justine and then stage a hit and run.
It was their case that Eric and Justine had a happy marriage. His brother lived with them for a while and testified that they were really happy. He said that he also got on well with Justine.
The Defense attacked the credibility of the Prosecution witness Cecil. They believed he was motivated by the $50,000 reward for information offered by Justine's parents and was hoping to receive favorable treatment in relation to two felony fraud charges he was facing from a $10,000 debt.
The Defense argued that the Medical Examiner failed to do a specific procedure aimed at discovering a hidden injury to the spinal cord. They claimed that this would have proven Justine died instantly of a broken neck. If Justine died instantly of a broken neck, that would also explain why there was so little blood at the scene.
The Jury found Eric guilty of first degree murder. He was sentenced to life in prison.
At Eric's sentencing hearing, the Court heard Victim Impact Statements.
Her sister Lauren said:
"For the seven years before she was killed by Eric, I watched my sister's life start to fade. She became quiet, withdrawn, she became poor, she became scared. She became the victim of domestic violence, which I saw with my own eyes.In hindsight,I feel like I watched her die."
Lauren claimed that she saw Eric shove Justine before they got married. She said that Justine also told her about several other incidents.
In the months leading up to that November day, Justine's family and friends noticed a change in her personality. Justine had always been kind, loving and friendly and while she still had those qualities, she stopped meeting friends and colleagues for social visits. She was withdrawn and quiet, a shell of her former self.
Justine was made to feel worthless and tried to do everything in her power to please Eric. Her father even testified that at their own Wedding, Eric was distant and went out on his motor cycle alone. Justine missed a number of her own Wedding activities like lunch and had to spend the second night alone at the hotel.
Eric had a violent past. He was charged with malicious wounding and was the subject of a protective order by the mother of his two children. Eric claimed this stemmed from a verbal disagreement he had with her that turned physical. He claimed she attacked him and hit him in the face with a remote control. Eric claimed that he grabbed her by the shirt and the throat in self defense.
During the four years that police were investigating the case, Justine's family fought hard to ensure there would be some form of justice. Her father, Steve Swartz, said:
"In addition to wanting Justine's case solved, the other thing we sincerely hope is that no one else gets hurt before that happens."
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