Most true murder stories have a short shelf life.
An arrest is made, a trial takes place, and either guilt or innocence is decided. And the world moves on, the mystery either solved or set aside.
That, however, has not been the case with the gruesome 1985 demise of Derek and Nancy Haysom in their Boonsboro home. Even though the Haysoms’ daughter Elizabeth and her boyfriend, Jens Soering, were convicted of the crime (Haysom as an accomplice), the speculation surrounding it has never ebbed. At any dinner party or church social or neighborhood bar in Lynchburg, a sure way to trigger a conversation, even now, is to ask: “So, what do you think about the Haysom murders?”
Everyone, it seems, still has an opinion. Did Jens really commit the crime alone, as the courts ultimately decided, or did Elizabeth join him that night when her parents were stabbed to death? Down another road of speculation, did Elizabeth bring a mysterious third person with her to the house on Holcomb Rock Road, as Jens has insisted from prison over the years?
Now, we may never know. In a surprising decision that broke with a long string of previous rejections, the Virginia Parole Board gave both Soering and Haysom their freedom on Monday, under the condition that they be deported to their home countries (Germany for Soering, Canada for Haysom). Any dark secrets the two might yet conceal will no doubt leave with them.
Ever since she was convicted as an accessory to murder in a Bedford County courtroom, Elizabeth has mostly kept her thoughts to herself.
“I don’t like being public entertainment,” she said in one of her few interviews.
Jens, on the other hand, used every opportunity to proclaim his innocence, spinning a web of supporters that included many from the religious community and even a few from law enforcement.
As a reporter for The News & Advance, I covered the trials for both Elizabeth and Jens. I also talked at length with members of the Bedford County Sheriff’s Department about the case. I did some extensive research for my newspaper articles and an eventual book, which included traveling to Nova Scotia to find background on Derek Haysom. I also interviewed Jens twice in prison and tried to do the same with Elizabeth (she responded with a very polite and formal refusal note).
One of the things that struck me through all of this was how many questions had been left open. All that was determined with certainty was that the Haysoms had been murdered, and that their daughter and the boyfriend of whom they had disapproved finally emerged as the only logical perpetrators. Beyond that, there was precious little hard evidence, other than Jens’ confession after being arrested in England (which he later recanted) and the fact that the couple had fled the country.
But who else could have committed the crime? It was obviously not a murder/suicide. There was no sign of forced entry, which meant no burglar or home invaders who might have surprised the Haysoms at dinner.
At first, there was some speculation that Derek Haysom may have made some powerful enemies during his military and business careers and that his death might have been a contract killing. Then again, what hit man would have carried out his grisly assignment using a knife rather than a gun? And why then, when Haysom was no longer living in Canada?
The knife always bothered me, too. I simply could not envision Jens Soering — a slighty built, bespectacled 18-year-old who had apparently never before committed a violent act — driving down to the Lynchburg suburbs from Washington (where the hotel the couple had checked into a hotel as an alibi), clutching a knife and spending four hours on the road trying to figure out how he could kill two people singlehandedly.
That murder weapon, plus the fact that the Haysoms’ blood alcohol content was more than twice the legal intoxication limit, suggested another scenario. What if Jens and Elizabeth went to her parents’ house together to discuss their differences? What if a violent argument ensued, someone grabbed a knife off the table, and the Haysoms were unable to resist?
Of course, that is just another baseless speculation.
My second prison interview with Jens Soering was particularly odd. In the movies, reporters always converse with convicted criminals through wire mesh or protective glass, yet I was given entrance to the prison’s inner sanctum. Jens appeared with a single guard, and the two of us were sent down a hallway to a small room that contained two chairs and a table. Then the guard left, and we were alone. We talked for about an hour, until Jens said: “I hate to break this up, but I have to use the bathroom.”
It took another 15 minutes before we could find anyone to let us out — and this was a prisoner who had been convicted of one of the bloodiest crimes in Central Virginia history. Obviously, no one considered him to be a deranged psychotic.
I wasn’t the least bit intimidated, though, because Jens was simply making the usual pitch for his innocence. Very convincingly, I might add.
Whenever I interviewed him face to face, I always left thinking: “Wow, maybe he’s right. Maybe he is innocent.”
Then I would talk with Ricky Gardner, one of the lead investigators on the case for the Bedford County Sheriff’s Department, and I’d leave with my mind changed again, back to “He had to have done it.”
In the end, it really doesn’t matter, except perhaps as some form of what Elizabeth Haysom calls “public entertainment.” Her parents are dead, and she and Jens have paid with what could have been the richest and most productive years of their lives. The case has produced several books, a movie and a half-dozen reality TV treatments.
Why all the attention? Possibly because of the always intriguing “rich kids gone bad” factor, with both families in the upper income range. Possibly because Jens and Elizabeth were captured in England, triggering years of legal machinations to get them back, whetting the public appetite for a trial.
Now, speculation about the crime may finally die down, only to be replaced by another debate.
Should they have been paroled?
Laurant is a retired News & Advance columnist. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.