How Did an '80s College Romance in Virginia Lead to Murder and a Global Diplomatic Debate? 


When I was at the University of Virginia, whispers about this story floated around: a student, 20 years before, had fled the country, then confessed to murdering his girlfriend’s parents, then recanted the confession—and now was publishing books from an American jail.

I heard this in particular because I was in the same scholarship program that had brought Jens Soering, the student in question, to UVA. The Jefferson Scholarship program accepts around 35 students per year, a crop of undergrads so decorously and straightforwardly ambitious that my postgraduate plans (the Peace Corps) seemed extremely slackerish. Bad behavior among scholarship recipients became lasting gossip, and this was a story that no one could forget, much less believe. He didn’t actually do it, one of my friends once told me, and then I graduated and forgot about it. And then read this incredibly absorbing Nathan Heller story about the Soering/Haysom case in The New Yorker last month.

The facts surrounding the murder are still a mystery. But the case certainly involves Jens Soering, high-achieving son of a German diplomat, and his college girlfriend Elizabeth Haysom, a heroin-dabbling boarding school drifter. Haysom’s parents, who lived in Central Virginia, were found dead on April 3, 1985:

The house revealed no indication of forced entry. On the dining-room table were place settings and the remnants of a meal. No weapon could be found, but there were footprints in the blood. One looked to have been made by a tennis shoe, and two more by a sock. Forensic study showed that the Haysoms had blood-alcohol levels of .22—exceedingly high. A vodka bottle nearby carried fingerprints, as did a shot glass. Four blood types were in evidence: the Haysoms’ A and AB, a bit of B blood on a damp rag, and, on the screen door and in the master suite, spots of O.
DNA analysis was largely unavailable in 1985, but, from these samples, it was possible to reconstruct a sequence of events. At some point between March 29th and 31st, the killer or killers had arrived at Loose Chippings, probably during a meal. Someone, it seemed, had sat down at the table with the Haysoms to eat. A trail of blood suggested that Derek Haysom was attacked there, and stumbled across the dining room as he bled. A bloody palm print on a side chair showed where he’d put a hand down, as if struggling to stay upright; his killer had pursued him. Derek Haysom’s jugular and carotid were cut, and he had been stabbed thirty-six times. Then the murderer, with great presence of mind, seemed to have got up, wiped down much of the scene, and washed up in the bathroom.

Though the FBI identified the suspect profile as “female who knows the family,” Haysom—who is ostensibly still the primary suspect here—as well as Soering dodged suspicion for a few months. They fled to Europe just as the police turned their sights on the two of them seriously.

From Paris, Soering and Haysom went to Bangkok, where they got false papers, then they returned to London to live off an odd scam that involved check cards and flexible return policies; eventually, they were arrested for this, and American police officers flew to London and extracted a confession from Soering without a lawyer present.

At one point, Beever asked whether Soering would ever consider pleading guilty to something he didn’t do.
“I can’t say that for sure right now,” Soering replied, “but I can see—I can see it happening, yes. I think it is a possibility. I think it happens in real life.”

Soering seemed to believe he had diplomatic immunity—that he would not be extradited to America, but to Germany, where at most, he’d be tried as a minor and receive 10 years. When he realized he would be extradited to Virginia and tried for a capital offense, he retracted his confession. He was tried, and though crucial pieces of evidence were unaccounted for in the narrative of his guilt—namely, there was a bloody shoe print smaller than Soering’s shoe at the scene—he was sentenced to life for both crimes.

Three decades later, as Heller explains in a new post at the New Yorker, the Soering case has turned out to have an extended and increasing political importance. Via a repatriation clause, Soering could be brought back to Germany and hypothetically released, having already served the equivalent of his German sentence, or—in a requirement put forth by Tim Kaine, the former governor of Virginia—held in German prison for two more years at most. A powerful block of German politicians (including Angela Merkel herself, in conversation with President Obama) has called for Soering’s repatriation, which was blocked by the next Virginia governor, and now may be approved again by the current governor, Terry McAuliffe.

McAuliffe, a prominent fundraiser for the Democratic party, now has to choose between pleasing his commonwealth’s delegates (who have just come out calling to inexplicably keep Soering under the expensive care of the Virginia criminal justice system) and taking a stand that would set him up solidly on the national and international stage.

“What started as an oddity of international law is now a point of global politics,” Heller writes, in a follow-up post.

Part of what interested me about the Haysom murders was the way the story had grown up beside its characters. What started with the adolescent fantasies and petty concerns of a campus romance ended up, thirty years later, as a political drama playing out among the leaders of two continents. In a world where every global action has a human past, that’s probably a commoner prelude to history than we know.

Contact the author at [email protected].

Image of Haysom and Soering via AP

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