SPOTSYLVANIA, Va. -- The murders were among the most publicized in recent Virginia history: three girls abducted from their yards and killed in the rolling hills of the state's Civil War battlefields. For more than five years, investigators found few clues.
They called in psychics and checked out 11,000 leads. DNA from 400,000 convicted felons was tested. A $150,000 reward was offered. Even a segment on "America's Most Wanted" failed to produce any useful tips. Week after week, a federal and local task force that at times numbered 80 officers met to pore over the evidence, which led them nowhere.
Then, suddenly, there was a message last week on the Spotsylvania sheriff's hotline. "I think I've found your boy," said Charles Pickett, a case manager with the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children in Alexandria, Va.
Computer data, Pickett said, had linked the suspect in the June 24 abduction and rape of a teenage South Carolina girl with three victims from here: Sofia Silva, 16, killed in September 1996; and Kristin Lisk, 15, and her sister, Kati, 12, killed eight months later.
"I'm trying to stay calm but I'm vibrating inside," Spotsylvania's sheriff, Ronald Knight, said Tuesday. "But if the bottom falls out, like it has before, we still have to go back at the investigation again."
The 38-year-old suspect, Richard Marc Evonitz, fatally shot himself Thursday as police in Sarasota, Fla., surrounded him and a police dog bit his leg. Authorities hope that DNA will prove he was the killer of the girls in Spotsylvania, 70 miles south of Washington. Lab results may not be known for two weeks or more.
Evonitz had served three years' probation after pleading no contest in 1987 to a Florida charge of lewd and lascivious behavior in the presence of a child. Police targeted him last week after the South Carolina teenager escaped and notified authorities.
By the time police arrived, he had fled his apartment near Columbia. Inside, authorities said they found notes about where the Spotsylvania girls had lived and a local newspaper published the day after the Lisk sisters disappeared.
When police implicated Evonitz in the June 24 abduction, the South Carolina office of the missing children's center began running data through its computers and notified Pickett, an 18-year veteran of the organization's headquarters in Alexandria.
"We have a huge database," Pickett, who lives in Spotsylvania, said Tuesday. "When I ran Evonitz's name, timelines with the Spotsylvania murders started matching, age groups and circumstances of the crimes matched, addresses came up.... By the end of the day I had a 50-page printout to give the sheriff."
Knight, the sheriff, said the task force working on the Spotsylvania killings has been doubled to 12 officers since Evonitz's suicide, and as many as 70 people will be interviewed or re-interviewed. "We want to reconstruct the last 10 years of Evonitz's life," he said.
The slayings traumatized the towns of Spotsylvania County, a normally quiet area of 100,000 people that serves as a bedroom community for Washington and northern Virginia. For the first time, parents began accompanying their children to school, locking their doors and eyeing strangers warily.
"We lost our innocence with those killings," Knight said. "Suddenly we were no longer country bumpkins. We weren't immune anymore."
Sofia disappeared one afternoon after school while doing homework on the front step of her home in a subdivision known as Oak Grove Terrace. She left money and personal possessions, and there was no sign of a struggle.
Police theorized she got into a car with someone she knew. Six weeks later her body, wrapped and bound in a white cloth covering, was found in a nearby stream.
Eight months later, Kristin and Kati disappeared from their front yard after coming home in separate school buses. Kristin's school bag, with a ladybug good luck charm attached to the zipper, was left on the ground, next to her geometry book. A few days later, their bodies were found in a river.
Sheriff's deputies said Evonitz was unknown to them when his name was mentioned as the prime suspect last week. He apparently had no police record during the two years he lived here in the mid-1990s selling computer-operated grinding machines.
Virginia law did not require Evonitz to register as a sex offender. The law has since been changed and requires offenders to register within 10 days of changing residences.
Authorities initially had said the deaths of Sofia Silva and the Lisk sisters were unrelated because a suspect in the Silva slaying had been arrested and investigators said the DNA evidence against him was overwhelming. Charges were later dropped, however, when state officials admitted that a lab examiner had erred in determining that fibers found in the suspect's van matched those on the victim's body.