A Look Back at One of Virginia's Most Controversial Crimes
After 33 years behind bars, Jens Soering is headed back to Germany. He has campaigned tirelessly for his freedom – insisting he did not kill his girlfriend’s parents in their home near Lynchburg. The governor has refused his request for a pardon, but Virginia’s parole board agreed to release him and the woman convicted of serving as an accomplice. After covering this story for nearly a decade, Sandy Hausman looks back on the case.
At 18, German citizen Jens Soering won a full scholarship to the University of Virginia. That’s where he met another honors student, 20-year-old Elizabeth Haysom, in August of ‘84, and by December they were an item. She made no secret of hating her parents, Derek and Nancy Haysom, a wealthy couple who lived in Bedford County. In the spring of 1985, they were brutally murdered.
“This is the way we found Mr. Haysom, just inside the front door, and you can see all the blood on the slate floor,” said Ricky Gardner, a newly minted detective with the Bedford County Sheriff’s office. When I met him in 2013, he showed me a scrapbook he’d kept on the case.
“Mr. Haysom was stabbed 36 times," he recalled. "His throat was cut. And Ms. Haysom, the same. She was stabbed six or seven times, and her neck was also severed.”
On the weekend when her parents were killed at their home – a place they called Loose Chippings, Elizabeth said she was in Washington. She claimed to have rented a car and traveled to DC with Jens. Gardner checked on that rental car and was intrigued. It had gone 669 miles.
“Charlottesville to Washington, DC to Loose Chippings, back to Washington, DC and back to Charlottesville – that’s right about 669 miles,” he concludes.
In early October, Gardner met with Soering, who denied any part in the murders. A few days later, he and Elizabeth left the country.
“An innocent person don’t run!" says Gardner. "That’s one more piece of the puzzle.”
For about eight months they traveled in Asia and Europe before being arrested for check fraud in England. When questioned about the murders, Jens said he committed the crime, because the Haysoms disapproved of his relationship with Elizabeth.
“He knew they hated him, but he said that he went there initially hoping to change their mind, but if not, he was prepared to kill them,” Gardner explains.
A senior detective on the case doubted Soering, a guy of average height, could have singled handedly killed two people with a knife, and he wondered if Jens could feel such intense hostility toward the couple he had met only once for half an hour. Ricky Gardner, however, was convinced.
“Jens was just so much in love with Elizabeth. I mean he was smitten. I mean he had never had sex with a female before, and she was older than him, and she had been all through Europe, and he hadn’t been anywhere, and she just talked about how much she hated her parents and how mean her parents were to her, and that just enraged him, and he was willing to do anything for her, and he did.”
But another story would emerge before his trial began. Jens claimed that he falsely confessed to a crime that Elizabeth had committed to save her from execution. Gail Starling Marshall, the lawyer who handled Soering’s appeal, says he was a worldly young man who, as the son of a German diplomat, had traveled extensively. He had no record of violent behavior, but he was smart and strategic.
“He thought that he had diplomatic immunity, that he would not be tried in the United States – that he would be sent to Germany,” she explains.
Germany is more lenient when it comes to crimes committed by young people, and there’s greater emphasis on rehabilitation. Teenaged killers can be released after only a decade, and Soering said he would gladly spend ten years behind bars to save the woman he loved from the electric chair.
“He was a virgin. He was a non-drinker. He was not a drug user. He was a nerd really," Starling Marshall remembers. " I think he was overwhelmed that this glamorous woman was attracted to him, and he also knew that she would be tried in Virginia – thatVirginia had the death penalty, and so he thought, ‘Knight in shining armor! I can give up ten years of my life, but it’s worth it for this woman I love.’”
Elizabeth also confessed, but changed her story when she heard Jens had admitted to the crime – and as their romance fell apart, he too claimed innocence.
Jens Soering will soon be back in Germany after more than three decades in prison for a double murder he claims he did not commit. The woman convicted as his accomplice – Elizabeth Haysom – has also been paroled. As a Canadian citizen, she’ll be deported to that country. The two met at the University of Virginia in 1984. Less than a year later her parents were murdered. Soering was convicted of killing them, but doubts about the case remain.
When the Bedford County Sheriff’s office began investigating the bloody murders of Derek and Nancy Haysom they feared they might be dealing with a dangerous cult, but they would eventually turn their attention to the couple’s daughter – Elizabeth Haysom -- and her boyfriend, Jens Soering. When they became suspects, the two left the country but were caught in England where Soering gave a flawed confession. Prosecutors back in Virginia ignored his mistakes.
“As far as I’m concerned, they were taking square pegs at that point and driving them into round holes,” says Chip Harding, the sheriff of Albemarle County. He recruited a retired detective from the Charlottesville police department and a former FBI agent to review the case. They were convinced Soering did not commit the crime and asked Bedford County Detective Ricky Gardner to meet with them.
“You know we put in collectively hundreds of hours. We’ve got over 125 years of investigative law enforcement experience, and yet we can’t even get the guy – Ricky Gardner, who claims ‘I know more about this case than anybody on Earth’ to even give us an hour. He says, ‘I’m too busy to sit down with you.’”
They pointed to DNA evidence that type-O blood, which the prosecution claimed was Soering’s, actually came from an unidentified man, and they found proof of an FBI profile never shared with the jury. It pointed an accusing finger at Elizabeth, according to former G-man Stan Lapekas.
“A retired and now deceased FBI agent named Edward Salzbach performed a profile of the crime scene," he says. " The detective, Ricky Gardner, denied that it ever happened.”
Lapekas was equally disturbed by a prosecution witness – an expert on tire tracks – who laid an impression of Soering’s foot over the photo of a bloody sock print at the crime scene and called it a perfect match:
“The footprint that was presented in court to the jury by the non-expert witness through an overlay in my opinion is nothing more than a magic trick that was purchased at a five and ten store.”
Earlier experts supposed the print was left by a boy or a woman with a relatively small foot, but – again – that wasn’t mentioned at trial. Nor was the jury told about nude pictures of Elizabeth, who said they were taken by her mother who had sexually abused her. Detective Gardner thought that detail unimportant.
“She had acknowledged that her mother had touched her and fondled her and tried to have a romantic relationship with her," he recalls. "That was bizarre, but it doesn’t link back to the murder or anything.”
Republican politicians like Delegate Rob Bell insisted Soering was guilty and used this case to burnish their law and order credentials.
“The facts of the case warrant exactly what he’s getting or even the death penalty. He was convicted by a jury, fought every step of the way, had the best lawyers every step of the way, appealed every step of the way,” Bell contends.
In fact, Soering’s lawyer made serious mistakes during the trial that doomed his appeals, and the attorney was eventually disbarred.
The parole board – political appointees with a staff of part-time, retired state police, concluded Soering’s claims of innocence were without merit and recommended against a pardon. Chairman Adrianne Bennett cited the cost-benefit to taxpayers of deporting Soering and Haysom, then thanked Bedford County Sheriff Mike Brown and Maj. Ricky Gardner for their transparency and professionalism during the parole board’s probe.