When a family is murdered
Aquiet street. A home invasion. Arson. A family terrorized. Four people killed, including a child. This isn’t about the harrowing “Mansion Murders” in Northwest Washington. This is about a quadruple homicide that took place two hours south in Petersburg, Va., on April 19, 2014. This is not about a wealthy white family and their housekeeper. This is about four generations of a black family: Pauline Wilkins, 67; her daughter, Vicki Chavis-Ansar, 46; her granddaughter, Tanique “Missy” Chavis, 22; and her great-grandson, Delvari Chavis, 2. This is about my friend Vicki and her family, whose violent deaths went largely ignored by the media.
Vicki worked as a medical technician and aide at an assisted-living facility in Northern Virginia. Wemet when my brothers and I moved our mother into the “Four Seasons with Bingo,” as I called it. Mom had suffered a fall, resulting in a traumatic brain injury that left her mentally and physically incapacitated.
I didn’t want to leave her alone. I was terrified for her safety and emotional well-being. But Vicki, assigned to shepherd Mom through her inaugural night, reassured me, hugged me and firmly herded me out.
For the next five years, I spent more time with Vicki than withmy friends. She helped us make peace withmy mother’s increasing dementia, recounting spirited conversations Momhad with our long-dead father.
My mother lit up when Vicki’s daughter and grandchild visited. Vicki let her hold little Delvari. While Vicki’s affection for her patients was exquisite, her love for her daughter and grandson was fierce. She was desperate to protect them, afraid Missy’s lack of resources would catapult her and the baby from Northern Virginia to Petersburg, where Vicki’s mother and siblings lived.
Petersburg, near Richmond, has antebellum homes at its center and crime-dazed neighborhoods festering at its edges. A city that is largely black, with a median per-household income of about $30,000, the crime rate hovered high above the national average a few years ago.
When Vicki’s already tenuous financial situation crumbled, she moved her daughter and grandson to Petersburg. A few months later, they were all killed.
Vicki and her mother succumbed to stab wounds before the fire; Missy and her little boy perished from “thermal and inhalation injuries” during the blaze. Alexander R. Hill Jr., the suspect, was looking for Vicki’s sister, Vivian, with whom he had a relationship. Days earlier, Vicki had accompanied Vivian to procure a restraining order against him. Vivian reported that he had threatened to kill her and her family on numerous occasions. Vivian wasn’t home that night. Hill escaped. The police named him a person of interest. I expected the heinous killing of four people to saturate the news. I waited for an intrepid manhunt, a plea for the nation’s cooperation, mawkish depictions of the victims. I assumed the crime would garner attention in the District, so close to where, for eight years, Vicki had cared for so many people’s parents. The Post had nothing, nor did any of the on-air or online news outlets.
Over the next several months there was an occasional wisp of information, almost solely in the Richmond area: Hill was spotted in North Carolina; the community raised reward money; Vicki’s mother’s home was demolished.
In April, a year after Vicki’s death, the FBI elevated Hill’s status to murder suspect. A year later, he was captured in New York.
Although I spent the past year appalled by the apathy toward Vicki and her family, I wasn’t prepared for the outrage I experienced when national news stations from CNN to Fox News to MSNBC roared about the killings of executive Savvas Savopoulos; his wife, Amy; their son, Philip; and their housekeeper, Veralicia Figueroa. The hunt for a person suspected in their deaths, Daron Dylon Wint, echoed throughout the United States, and his photo was ubiquitous. He was apprehended one week after the killings.
Prominent newspapers carried headlines about pizza and DNA. We learned that the parents adored each other and were devoted to their children. They heroically prevented another housekeeper from walking into the trap their home had become. Reports speculating about what happened before the fire ensnared our attention. The national media sketched timelines, nailed scoops and touted interviews with the housekeeper’s widower and with neighbors. The Post published a column headlined “Curiosity gets the best of us when tragedy befalls the rich.”
Vicki and her family were poor. They died luridly. No one was riveted. No one speculated publicly why Hill may have stabbed Vicki and her mother while Missy and her baby were still alive when the fire started. No one breathlessly wondered where Hill might have been.
I don’t think it’s because no one cares. I think it’s because no one was given the chance to know them and their story. Now you know about Vicki Chavis-Ansar and her loved ones.