Since I’m planning on incorporating my true crime obsession into my social media presence, I wanted to start out with one of my favorite (in the most tasteful possible sense of the word) cases: the 2006 murder of Robert Wone. Technically, it should be “the unexplained death of Robert Wone” but most of my sources flat-out call it a murder. Still, I feel obligated to say that it cannot be definitively, legally, be considered a homicide. I spend an unhealthy amount of time mulling over unsolved mysteries,
First, a caveat. The most suspicious individuals in this case (in my opinion), are three men in a polygamous relationship. At least two of the men were involved in some fairly heavy BDSM, and one of them had a room full of esoteric sexual novelties. This has had the unfortunate effect of making the investigation needlessly lurid at best and outright homophobic at worst, so I want to be clear that the sole reason I find the words and actions of these men suspicious is because a man was murdered in their house and their subsequent claims did not match the available evidence.
The short synopsis: On August 2, 2006, a 32 year old lawyer named Robert Wone (by all accounts a very nice, responsible, civic-minded guy) was stabbed to death while spending the night at the home of his college friend, Joseph Price and Price’s two live-in companions, Dylan Ward and Victor Zaborsky. All three residents of the house claimed that Wone had been attacked by an intruder who entered and then fled. However, the evidence that was collected called this theory into question and cast suspicion on the residents themselves. Ultimately, all three men were indicted for destroying evidence and obstructing justice, but nothing could be proven. A wrongful death suit was brought against the men by Wone’s widow, which was ultimately settled for an undisclosed sum. No one was ever convicted of the murder and the case remains unsolved.
The long synopsis (where things get much, much stranger): Robert Wone had known Joseph Price from when they were in school together at the College of William and Mary, and by all accounts the two were close friends all the way through law school and beyond. Robert married a woman named Katherine Yu; Price entered into a relationship with a man named Victor Zaborsky, and later into a polygamous relationship with Zaborsky and a man named Dylan Ward. While Price was known to be romantically involved with both Zaborsky and Ward, I have never found anything to specify the relationship between Zaborsky and Ward. At the time of the stabbing incident, Price was a partner at a D.C law firm and Zaborsky was a 40 year old marketing executive. Dylan Ward was working as a fundraiser and had been through a varied academic career, holding degrees in foreign relations, culinary arts, and children’s literature. In the summer of 2006, he was also working on obtaining a masseuse license.
By August, 2006, Robert Wone had started a new job at Radio Free Asia in Washington D.C, close to the rowhouse shared by the three men. In late July, Robert decided he wanted to stay late at his workplace on August 2nd, to attend a law seminar and to meet the night crew. Rather than commute to his home in Fairfax County, Virginia, Robert arranged to spend the night in the guestroom at Prince’s house. At the time, a friend of the three men named Sarah Morgan was also renting the basement of the rowhouse, but she is reported to have spent the night at a friend’s home. The rowhouse had three stories and a basement, and the guest room where Wone was staying was on the second floor. Ward’s bedroom was also on the second floor, while Price and Zaborsky shared the master bedroom on the top floor. The only people known to have keys were the four residents, Joseph Price’s brother Michael (who also lived in DC), and a maid service.
As planned, Robert went to work, attended the seminar, and met the night crew at Radio Free Asia before taking a cab to Price’s house. He arrived, at earliest, at 10:32 pm (the timeline becomes tight in this case, so that’s why I’m trying to be precise). At some point between 11 and 11:30 pm, a neighbor heard a scream (later, the men’s defense attorneys would argue that it could have been later than 11:30). At 11:49 pm, Victor Zaborsky called 911 and reported that an unknown person had entered the house and stabbed someone. There is a transcript of the 911 call on the “Who Murdered Robert Wone?” website below as well as a recording on Youtube (Robert Wone 911 Call). Zaborsky remained on the line with emergency services for five minutes until EMTs arrived. When the medics entered the home, they found Wone lying on the fold out couch in the guest room, dead from three stab wounds in his chest and abdomen. Next to the bed was a knife lying on a blood-stained towel. The three men who lived in the house were reported as quiet and seemingly calm. Zaborsky does not sound calm on the phone, but I think this can be taken to mean he simply wasn’t talking by this point.
Each was questioned separately by the police and all gave essentially consistent testimony. More disturbingly, none of them seemed especially concerned about Wone.
So, essentially, a lot happened between 10:32 and 11:49 pm. The rest of this article will attempt to fill the gaps.
According to Price, Zaborsky, and Ward, Wone arrived shortly after 10:30 pm. Zaborsky was already upstairs in the master bedroom watching TV. Wone, Price, and Ward had a brief conversation in the kitchen. At some point, Price saw something–a spider or insect- on the back patio light that caused him to go outside and investigate. He later said it was possible he didn’t lock the door when he went back inside.
Shortly after this, each of the men got ready to turn in for the night. Price went up to the third floor and spent a few minutes watching TV with Zaborsky before turning off the light. Ward went to his room, took a sleeping pill, read for a few minutes, and then went to sleep. He said that he heard Wone taking a shower in the second floor bathroom. The time was now around 11 pm.
Price and Zaborsky claimed to have heard the back door chime, indicating someone was entering the house. They assumed that it was Sarah Morgan, thinking she had decided to stay the night at the rowhouse after all. Then, a few minutes later, they heard a “low scream”, raced downstairs, and found Wone bleeding from stab wounds. At this point Zaborsky screamed, and this is believed to have been the scream heard by neighbors, The commotion woke Dylan Ward, who came out of his room to see what was happening.
Here we reach one of the thornier points in the narrative. Different sources have given contradictory information as to exactly where Wone was found. He was on the bed in the guest room when the medics arrived, but one account given to a first responder claimed that they had found him by the back door to the patio and then put him on the guest room bed. A variant on this story has them finding Wone “on the patio” implying that he was outside the house. Most later versions of the narrative have them finding him on the bed in the guest room. This is problematic for a lot of reasons, particularly because it adds some doubt as to where exactly the attack occurred. Since the scenario with Wone being found in the bedroom seems to dominate most recent accounts of the story, I’ll be working based on that one, but that the men would change their story on this one point puzzles me.
So, the account continues, the Price and Zaborsky heard a scream, came downstairs, find Wone stabbed on the bed, and call 911. Dylan Ward was awakened by the commotion in the hallway outside his room. At some point between hearing the muffled scream from the guest room and calling emergency services, the men said they had heard the back door chime again, indicating someone leaving the house.
In the aftermath of Wone’s death, another lawyer friend of his assisted his widow, Katherine, when police were questioning her. According to this man, Price contacted him the next day to ask what the police wanted to know. The three house residents all got lawyers and stopped discussing the case.
From the beginning, the police were suspicious of the story. For one thing, there was no evidence of an intruder in the house, and if there had been, the intruder’s behavior was nonsensical. He or she would have had to have gotten over the tall fence that surrounded the property, found the unlocked back door, walked in undeterred by the chime, walked past the most valuable items in the house, gone up to the second floor and past Ward’s bedroom door, and entered the guest room and stabbed Wone to death as he lay on the fold out couch.
During the investigation, an autopsy was conducted on Robert Wone’s body and many pieces of evidence were taken from the house. I will summarize the highlights of what was discovered below.
From the Autopsy
- The cause of Wone’s death was the three stab wounds in his chest and torso, some of which had pierced his heart and pancreas. Each of the stab wounds was clean and symmetrical, indicating that he had not been able to struggle. There were also no defensive wounds. The knife marks were not consistent with the knife found by the bed. They were more consistent with a cutlery set found in Dylan Ward’s room, from which a knife was missing. (More on that later). The medical examiner determined that the wounds should have bled more than the small amount of blood found at the scene indicated, and that none of the stab wounds would have been immediately fatal or incapacitating.
- Robert had signs of hemorrhaging around his eyes, a sign that he had been smothered or suffocated, although this would not have been fatal.
- Robert had six needle punctures in his skin on his neck, chest, foot, and hand, and these were believed to have been inflicted before he died. Robert did not have any medical conditions that could have explained this, and the ambulance crew that brought him to the hospital claimed that they did not make any of the puncture marks either. This led to the possibility that Robert had been drugged.
- Except that….toxicology tests showed no sign of alcohol or any common drugs–including most paralytic drugs–in Wone’s system.
- Semen was found in Wone’s anal and genital region. When tested, it proved to be his own. While there was no bruising or other signs of a violent sexual assault, this led many to speculate that one of Dylan Ward’s electrical sex toys could have been used on him.
From the Crime Scene
- The bed and guestroom where Robert was found were remarkably clean. There was a small amount of blood that would have been beneath the body. It was not smeared at all, meaning the that the body had not been moved since the attack (another strike against the patio door story). A chemical reagent was used to test for more blood, and indicated that there might have been bloodstains on the walls and at various other points in the room. Very unfortunately, the test was done incorrectly, meaning that it could have reacted to materials other than blood
- There was a knife from the house’s own kitchen and blood-stained towel next to the bed. As indicated in the autopsy summary above, the knife did not actually match the wounds on Robert’s body. Nor did it show any trace of the fibers from the T-shirt Robert was wearing. It did have blood on it, as well as fibers from the towel. When examined closely, it appeared as if the knife had been dipped in blood and wiped on the towel.
- Several of Robert’s personal items were on a bedside table, including his
Blackberry with two unsent messages time-stamped at 11:05 and 11:07 pm. One was to his wife Kathy, and the other was to a coworker confirming lunch plans. If the times were accurate and the messages were written by Robert, this would mean that his death happened between 11:07 pm and (probably) 11:30 pm.
- Drug-sniffing dogs were brought to the house, but the only drug that was found was some Ecstasy
- Cadaver dogs alerted near the laundry machine in the house and a drain in the backyard, where a hose was running from the house. When questioned, Price claimed that it had been set up this way due to an unrelated matter. Many people have taken this to mean that bloody garments were placed in the washing machine and that blood was rinsed down the outdoor drain.
For the most part, I have concluded that the intruder theory is utter baloney. That is not to say that I haven’t gone down some dark alleys of thought to see if it might be possible. And it is possible, just not very probable. It should be noted that a neighbor did report that the day after the murder, there was an indentation in the cover of a child’s sandbox, as though someone had come through the yard and stepped on it. The most likely possibility–for a very weak definition of likely–is that a professional hit man had been hired to kill Wone and followed him to the house or knew he would be there. The point here is that if an intruder did kill Wone, they almost certainly entered the house with the express intent to do so. I suppose a “robbery gone wrong/mistaken identity angle” makes slightly more sense if Wone really was attacked by the back door as in the initial report. But if that really did happen, why would the SS3 change the narrative to finding him in the guest bedroom? So, I don’t think anything like this happened.
There has been a lot of theorizing about a “fourth man” that may have been present that night–someone who contributed to Robert’s death and then fled the scene, leaving the other three men in the house to handle it from there. The most frequent name that comes up in this theory is Michael Price, Joseph Price’s brother. Michael Price was a phlebotomy student at the time, and he missed his class the night of the murder–the only time he is recorded as having done so. This is, at the very least, an odd coincidence. I have never found documentation as to exactly what hours his class ran, and 11 o’clock at night seems a little late for most college classes. Michael also had a bit of a criminal history and was later found to have broken into the rowhouse and stolen valuables. This is all a little strange to me, and makes a theory that involves Michael Price one worth considering. However, it seems unlikely that all three men would agree to cover for him, and maintain the façade for years. To me, it’s still more logical to link Robert Wone’s death to one or all of the people known to be in the house.
My thoughts about the needle marks and possible drugging can be divided into three broad theories. One is that the Wone was in fact injected with a drug while at the rowhouse, and the toxicology screening did not test for this particular drug. This is entirely possible–toxicology tests are for specific drugs and they will not pick up what they don’t test for. Many people accept this theory, but I have some problems with it. For one thing, I find it unlikely that the men would have had access to an extremely rare paralytic or date rape drug and not have access to the more common ones that were tested for. Secondly, the puncture marks were in multiple places all over Wone’s body, and if the drug was needed to paralyze him, it seems like there would have been an intense physical struggle even to inject him.
The second possibility is that, despite claims to the contrary, these marks were left over from testing and/or treatment that Wone received from EMTs. Yes, the marks are described as “pre-mortem” but Wone would have been very recently deceased at this point. Also, ambulance crews treat badly injured and ill people every day. It would be surprising if they did remember everything done to one patient when asked about it later. During some of my research, someone mentioned that multiple needle marks in different regions of the body is consistent with someone searching for a vein, and this fits better with attempts at medical treatment or testing then with drugging a conscious person.
One last theory about the needle marks that I have entertained is that they were inflicted by one of the three men in the rowhouse immediately after Wone’s death using an ordinary pin from the household, in an attempt to see gauge if Wone was actually dead or not. This is a little strange and far-fetched, and I prefer the EMT theory if any theory at all, but lots of things about this case are strange and far-fetched so I shouldn’t discriminate.
Warning: Here is where I go full Adults Only). I have always been a bit ambivalent about the sexual assault aspects of this case. One thing that has never been clear is exactly how much semen was collected from Wone–if it was only trace amounts, that would make it more likely that it was unrelated to his death. If it was a large amount, and recent, that makes it harder to dismiss. Most people who study this case read it as having a sexual motive, and this is not without reason. I think some kind of sexual assault is entirely possible, but I can’t help but wonder if maybe we’re all over-focusing on that angle. I’m not a medical expert, and I’m really not an expert in the intricacies of male genitalia, but I wonder if the ejaculation of semen could have been some sort of reflexive response to the suffocation? As an added note, if investigators suspected that one of Dylan Ward’s sex toys had been used on Robert, why not collect it and test if for DNA?
I don’t see any reason to think anyone but Robert Wone himself wrote the unsent Blackberry messages. The data from the Blackberry was erased before it could be analyzed, but, given that Wone was wearing sleepwear and his mouth guard, I think it more likely that he fell asleep without sending the messages or did not realize they hadn’t been sent. If the men in the house could have manipulated the Blackberry, presumably in order to mess with the timeline, why not adjust the time stamp until even later? Also, would they really have known the details of Robert’s lunch plans? Tangentially related, but I think that Robert being asleep when he was attacked could resolve a lot of the issues with the possible drugging and the lack of defensive wounds. I’m not sure about Robert’s sleeping habits, but, speaking for myself, I am a very deep sleeper who takes a long time to wake up, and even after I do it’s usually a few moments before I can move all my limbs. Not saying I could sleep through three stab wounds, but it’s not outside of all probability to me.
I want to conclude by discussing the behavior of Price, Zaborsky, and Ward. I think at least one of them knows exactly what happened, and I think at least one participated in the assault that led to Robert Wone’s death. However, I want to clear up what isn’t suspicious about their actions. Getting lawyers is absolutely what anyone in their situation should do. A guy is stabbed to death in your house, you’re already raising a few eyebrows by having an atypical personal life, and the police are not making a secret of doubting your story–this is exactly what lawyers are for, and Price would have known this. Neither should the fact that the men appeared cold and arrogant to the investigators be taken as an automatic sign of guilt. The adage that people react differently to crises gets repeated a lot in true crime discussions, but it’s still very true.
Even allowing for this, there are things in their behavior I find problematic. Reports are consistent that none of the men expressed concern for Wone, and, with the possible exception of Zaborsky during the 911 call, little evidence of fear that an armed intruder had been in the house. The Trace Evidence podcast covered this case (the link is below), and the host mentioned something which somehow had never occurred to me before but is actually quite significant: the accounts given by the three men have Dylan Ward being awoken by the commotion in the guestroom and coming out to see what was going on. Price and Zaborsky apparently ran right past his room to the guestroom where they found Robert, and there’s no mention of either of them saying something in the spirit of “Hey, Dylan, you’re not also stabbed to death in your room, are you?” If they were operating on the assumption that an intruder was in the house and had attacked Robert, wouldn’t they check on Dylan or call out to him to see if he was okay?
I don’t think Joseph Price wanted to assault or kill Robert, or ever planned to. I think it most likely that whatever happened that night, happened outside his immediate control, or at least he did not plan on doing it in advance. The reason I think this is because the two men had been close friends for years. Now, I realize that doesn’t necessarily mean anything, and that no one can ever know what even a trusted person will do. However, it is also true that the best predictor of future behavior is past behavior, and in the decade-long friendship between Prince and Wone there was absolutely no indication of the kind of tensions that would lead to a murderous assault. It’s tempting to develop a theory based around two or more of the Swan Street three conspiring in advance to attack Wone, as that would solve some of the problems associated with the rapid timeline. However, the relationship between Wone and Prince and the less-then-perfect “cover-up” lead me away from this idea. If the crime was pre-meditated, it seems reasonable to think that an intelligent and experienced lawyer like Prince would have found more effective ways to divert suspicion from himself.
I should also talk about what is known about Victor Zaborsky’s actions that night. One point that seems to have been agreed upon is that the loud scream heard by neighbor’s was Zaborsky’s, not Robert’s. There is really no reason for Zaborsky to scream and draw attention to the situation other than that he was genuinely shocked and terrified by something. That something was most likely the stabbing that had just happened in his house. Is it possible that Wone’s death happened without his approval or perhaps even knowledge? I have wonder what someone with more experience than myself in reading behavior would think of Zaborsky’s 911 call. To me, it sounded reasonably genuine (which does not even mean he was telling the whole truth, only that he was really upset). This is worth a whole separate discussion when it comes to assessing reactions to crime. Someone can be emotionally genuine without being truthful about the facts.
So I don’t think Price had a pre-meditated plan to kill Robert, I don’t think Zaborsky wanted the murder to happen, and I really have no idea how Dylan Ward felt about Robert. If any one of the three was not directly involved in the attack, my order of probability would run Zaborsky, Price, Ward.
Below are the two main things from the case for which I have no good explanation.
- The murder weapon that was likely not the murder weapon. Why would anyone bother planting the kitchen knife in the guestroom? Why not just let the police assume that the intruder brought their own knife and left with it, like most intruders would do? The only way this makes a small amount of sense is if the kitchen knife was being used to deter or slow the search for the actual murder weapon. I still wonder about the missing knife from Ward’s cutlery set. Dylan Ward’s mother presented the missing knife after the indictment, saying it had always been in her possession. But how long had she actually had it?
- If in fact large amounts of blood were cleaned up before the arrival of the EMTs, why would the men bother to clean it up? After all, wounds inflicted by an intruder would bleed the same as wounds inflicted by anyone else, and cleaning the scene would only make it look more suspicious. The only speculation I can offer here is that the men wanted to make sure none of their own blood, DNA, hair, or prints could be associated with the blood, and had to clean it all up to err on the side of caution.
That was a lot of information, and I apologize for the wordiness. I also want to make it clear that I am only offering the known facts about the case and observations for discussion. I am very open to other interpretation and insights. I also invite you to check out the links provided below, and to research the case on your own.
Best of luck in all your endeavors (within legal and ethical limits),
This website hasn’t been active in a few years, but it has a lot of good information: Who Murdered Robert Wone? Among other resources, it contains a layout of the house.
A lot of the physical evidence comes from this document: Affadavit for Dylan Ward’s Arrest
The Trace Evidence podcast covers the case in episode 12 and had a lot of good insights :https://www.trace-evidence.com/episodes/
Note: This essay was originally published on my now-defunct wordpress.org blog