Beheading still a puzzle for Va. police; but suspect is located in 2-year-old slaying

By Mark Holmberg
The Richmond Times Dispatch
March 25, 2001, Sunday

(Richmond, VA) - The beheading of a gay, homeless piano player two years ago became one of Richmond's most famous violent crimes, but that hasn't helped solve it.

In fact, there are still just as many questions surrounding the death of 39-year-old Edward Northington as there were when his severed head was found neatly centered - upright - on a James River Park walkbridge March 1, 1999.

A recent review of the autopsy report indicates that Northington's injuries were so severe he would have died several times over, even before his neck was severed between the third and fourth cervical vertebrae.

And a closer look at his past shows a man who cried openly and often, tortured by hepatitis, the AIDS virus, alcoholism and depression, and because he had alienated just about everyone who had ever loved him.

There is one ray of light. Police have a suspect, a 30-year-old from Albany, N.Y., who is serving a 10-year sentence for a sexual assault there. (Police asked that his name not be published.)

"We can put them together that Friday night," said Richmond police Detective Thomas Leonard.

Northington's head was found the next Monday.

That suspect "left Richmond right after that, and he told people [in New York] he was wanted in Richmond," Leonard said.

Barring a longshot hit on extensive DNA tests taken at the scene and from the drifter, Leonard is left hoping for a miraculous break: a witness who could "fill the gap," Leonard said.

The motive for the beheading also remains unknown.

If their suspect is the right man, he has no known links to the gay community or crimes against it, Leonard said recently.

But Northington's mother, Dottie Webb, has a haunting suspicion that her son was killed because he was gay, or because he was infected with the AIDS virus.

"You can't tell me it wasn't a hate crime," Webb said recently.

Northington had apparently been visiting at "the tubes" shortly before his death. The twin drainage tunnels overlooking the James River a mile west of the Lee Bridge were a prime nesting place for hard-drinking hobos and homeless men from Richmond.

But a half-mile upriver, in the James River Park, was a prime nighttime nesting place for homosexual cruisers looking for secluded sex in the woods beside the river.

The news of the decapitation ricocheted around the world on more than 100 homosexual-oriented Internet sites. Northington, who was openly gay, was found on the bridge leading to that "cruisy" park - as if the killer was making a grisly statement.

But police investigators refused to make that conclusion without evidence.

After all, Northington bridged the gay and homeless cultures in his life and death. His headless body was found in the river near the homeless haven, less than a half mile from the walkway traveled by gays at night.

Even Richmond's gay community was divided about what to say about Northington's death. Tracey Conaty, with the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, said the beheading fit the profile of a hate crime because of the "extreme overkill, extreme brutality."

But Marcus J. Miller, owner of Fielden's, a private club popular with gays, has said since the beginning that "we don't need to define this as a hate crime until we know what it is."

Northington was known to be a pushy, groping drunk at Richmond gay bars, some of which - including Fielden's - had kicked him out or barred him. He would interrupt conversations, and take offense when he was rejected.

But he was also known for being kind, fastidious and helpful around homeless shelters. He knew his way around a keyboard "like a concert pianist," one listener recalled during Northington's memorial service two years ago.

Henry Edward Northington was born in Henderson, N.C., and largely grew up in the Hopewell area after his mother and father split.

Northington, a willowy 6-foot-3-inches tall, graduated from Colonial Heights High School in 1978 and joined the Navy. Roughly two years later he proclaimed his homosexuality, and had to leave the service, his mother said.

He returned home, and began the hard partying that eventually estranged him from nearly all of his family.

"You fight the guilt feelings," his mother said, adding that she eventually came to the point where any help she gave her son only seemed to enable his self-destruction.

He would eventually contract hepatitis and HIV. His medical history included treatment for alcoholism and depression at McGuire Veterans Hospital.

His file there shows he suffered crying spells, his mother said. He was also known to start weeping while drinking in Richmond's gay clubs.

"It really hurt that he felt that way," Webb said.

She's left with a sense of waste when she thinks about her son's talents. "There were two things that boy could do," she said. "He could pick up an instrument and play it, and he could draw."

During the early*'90s, Northington dried out and nearly earned a graphics design degree at Virginia Commonwealth University. But he later returned to the self-destructive drinking that led him to a homeless existence.

If Northington had been drinking heavily on his last day, he had sobered up by the time the attack began. When he died, his blood-alcohol level was 0.04 percent, about what you'd expect from someone drinking a beer and a half in one hour. There were no traces of cocaine or any opiates.

The official cause of death: "Crush injury to the chest and abdomen," wrote state medical examiner Marcella F. Fierro.

"Everything on his whole left side was bent, broken and crushed," Webb said.

Northington's ribs were broken, some of their snapped ends puncturing his lungs. Arteries and veins to his spleen and left kidney were sliced open. His liver and spleen were ruptured. His chest cavity was filled with blood. He had cuts on his face arms and lower legs.

"There was no soiling of clothes or dirty open injuries to suggest he was injured by a train," Fierro wrote, noting that Northington's head and body were found near railroad tracks. "The traumatic transection of the neck showed hack marks at the edges consistent with a sharp instrument such as a knife."

No weapon has been recovered.

For weeks after the crime, Leonard got calls from people certain the person they knew or had met was crazy enough to cut someone's head off.

They also had "all sorts of people admitting to it," Leonard said.

They checked the beheading against similar crimes across the country.

But one lead after another fell through or dead-ended. The tips stopped coming in, even after the suspect's photo was plastered in homeless hangouts.

"It gets frustrating as all get-out," said Northington's mother, who wants her son's killer to pay for his crime. "I would like to do it myself," she said. "I hope I live long enough to see it."

Webb knows her son was spared "what he would've gone through, being HIV positive, if he had lived. That's some compensation."

But not knowing why the killer or killers decapitated her son keeps clawing at her heart.

"You can deal with a loved one being killed, but having their head cut off . . .," she said. "I would love to know why."

So would Leonard.

But even the lone suspect senses that investigators are hurting for evidence.

During a recent interview, Leonard said, the last thing the suspect said was, "Happy fishing."

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