A man convicted of double homicide and arson in Nelson County and sentenced about 28 years ago to serve the rest of his life in prison has been released.
On May 4, 1992, Horace Eugene Burnette III, who was 20 years old at the time, was sentenced in Nelson Circuit Court to serve life in prison plus 30 years, in addition to another 30 years to be served concurrently, for his role in the killings of Carolyn D. Fox and Lillian J. Fox, which occurred around March 1990, court records show.
The March 1990 murder-for-hire plot of the Afton residents — Lillian Fox, 71, and her daughter Carolyn Fox, 46 — led to multiple convictions in what marked the first capital murder case in Nelson County’s history.
Court testimony revealed Virgil S. Fox Jr. ordered the murders of his mother, Lillian Fox, and sister, Carolyn Fox, to collect $130,000 in insurance money and property from the women’s estates. He had enlisted the help of his son Virgil Samuel Fox III and Burnette — whose name is spelled interchangeably as Burnett or Burnette in court documents — to carry out the attack.
Court records indicate Virgil S. Fox Jr. was sentenced to two life terms plus 250 years in prison in 1992, and Virgil Samuel Fox III — who was 17 at the time of the slayings — was sentenced to 250 years in prison in 1992. Neither of the Fox men turn up in searches of Virginia Department of Corrections inmates.
A review of Nelson County Court records do not indicate where the men currently are located or if they still are in detention. Records also do not indicate if one or both of the men are living or dead.
Nelson County Commonwealth’s Attorney Daniel Rutherford, who took office in November 2016, said Burnette, now 48, was released from the Virginia Department of Corrections on April 2. He had served 27 years and 11 months since his sentence was handed down before being released on parole.
The only reasoning Rutherford’s office received was that it was a discretionary parole release, according to an offender release notice dated April 9 and addressed to the Nelson County Commonwealth’s Attorney.
“Each Parole Board member has an independent vote with unique reasoning as to why they vote to grant or not grant a case. While ensuring release is compatible with public safety,” Tonya Chapman, chairwoman of the Virginia Parole Board, said in an emailed statement when asked to explain the nature of Burnette’s release.
Since her appointment to board chairwoman April 16, Chapman said she was not personally familiar with the case. Chapman’s predecessor as board chair was Adrianne Bennett.
Chapman said there are several factors considered as part of parole eligibility, which include, but are not limited to, “criminal history, institutional adjustment, medical/mental health, sentencing information, time served, home plan, pre-sentence report, victim input, offender support, offender opposition, and risk assessment.”
Chapman did not identify which criteria Burnette met to be granted parole. She said each of the five board members take individual reasoning into account when voting on parole matters.
Chapman said because of COVID-19 the parole board has worked the past two months to review parole eligible individuals and release those whose return would be compatible with society. She did not confirm if Burnette’s release specifically was connected to the virus.
Rutherford said for Burnette to be released from prison after serving just less than 28 years is “absolutely frustrating.”
He said he was not made aware if Burnette’s release was affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, which recently has led to an overall thinner jail population throughout Virginia.
“That’s where it gets frustrating, that the system is doing this. … they’re doing this without looking at the victims or what the community wanted to happen in this,” Rutherford said of Burnette’s release and other similar instances.
The Associated Press reported May 10 at least 35 people convicted in killings were released on parole in March based on the most recent publicly available information from the Virginia Parole Board. In total, 95 inmates were paroled that month. According to records from the parole board, Burnette’s parole decision was made March 29.
Victim outreach, Rutherford said, is required in any parole release. While he said no victims currently are alive, his office received no communication from the parole board to verify that information.
Chapman said there were no victims registered with Victim Information and Notification Everyday, an online victim outreach system, and the phone numbers that were located as a result of victim research were not in service.
“Although our Victim Services Coordinator makes an extra effort to locate victims, we encourage victims, who desire to be notified when an offender is eligible for parole, to either register in VINE or contact the Parole Board directly to express their desire to be notified,” Chapman said in the email.
The News & Advance was unable to identify or contact any relatives of the victims.
According to a plea agreement dated March 1991, Burnette pleaded guilty to two counts of first-degree murder, one for each of the two victims, as well as one felony count of arson for setting on fire the home of the two victims. A second charge of arson was dropped as part of the plea.
According to testimony, Virgil S. Fox Jr., Virgil Fox III’s father, hired his son and Burnette to beat the women and burn down their home in exchange for $5,000. The younger Fox testified he clubbed his aunt repeatedly in the head with a piece of taped metal pipe while Burnette watched, according to Nelson County Times archives.
Burnette, who had started a small fire in the basement of the home only days prior to the fatal blaze, assisted in the death of Carolyn Fox.
Upon responding to the blaze, firefighters found charred remains of the two women in March 1990. A medical examiner testified in the case that Carolyn Fox sustained three skull fractures while Lillian Fox suffered one skull fracture, according to archives.
The medical examiner also testified to evidence of soot and burns in the breathing passages of the two women, indicating they were alive when the fire started.
Tommy Harvey, Nelson County Board of Supervisors chairman, was with the Rockfish Valley Fire Department when the fatal blaze and earlier fire occurred.
Now chief of the department, he did not comment on Burnette’s release, but he did recall responding to both fires.
“I remember that very well,” he said. “It was a very gruesome scene. You get that smell of a burnt body, and it takes forever to get rid of it. It sticks with you for quite a bit of time.”
After a nine-day trial in 1992, a Nelson County jury opted to give Virgil S. Fox Jr. life in prison rather than the death penalty.
Burnette was convicted before Virginia’s General Assembly abolished discretionary parole in 1995. According to the Virginia Department of Corrections website, inmates convicted prior to 1995 are eligible for parole if they meet certain conditions.
The Virginia Parole Board, the website says, is the body responsible for handling all parole policies, decisions and rulings.
Burnette’s attorney at the time, according to court records, was Michael T. Garrett, who since July 2015 has presided as a circuit judge in Amherst County and until last year regularly sat over cases in Nelson Circuit Court.
His office declined to comment, saying he would not speak on a past case.
“This was a dastardly deed, one which cannot be explained as an emotional crime or a random crime,” former Nelson Circuit Judge David Berry said at the elder Fox’s April 23, 1992, sentencing hearing, according to archives. “It’s a dumb crime. Just plain stupid and probably induced by drunkenness.”
Court evidence revealed the elder Fox lapsed into a two-month drinking binge before the murders.
Former Nelson Commonwealth’s Attorney Joseph Serkes, who later served two decades as a Nelson General District Court judge, prosecuted the case. The retired judge was quoted in the May 7, 1992, edition of the Nelson County Times as saying he was satisfied with the outcome and thought Burnett was the least culpable.
“I feel that justice was served,” Serkes said shortly after Burnette’s sentencing.
Nick Cropper covers Nelson County for The News & Advance. Reach him at (434) 385-5522.