National editor Harry Jaffe writes often about crime; this is online editor Ann Limpert’s first feature-length story for the magazine. Dialogue in the story was taken from official transcripts, taped interviews, and court records. When official records were not available, dialogue was confirmed by at least two people. Bill Sturgis is not the real name of Ed Chen’s accomplice; no other names were changed.
TUESDAY, MARCH 19, 2002
Bruce Guth pulled the cell phone from his belt and dialed up Chester Toney.
“We got a call from a woman this morning,” said Guth, head of homicide in Fairfax County. “She said her boyfriend killed his whole family. Happened a few years ago.”
We get a lot of crazy calls, Toney thought. The Fairfax County detective wrote her name and a number on his pad.
Toney was on his way to court, so he stopped to see his partner, Steve Shillingford. It was about 1 PM.
“Hey, Steve,” he said. “Would you call this girl for me? Guth asked me to check out her story. Says her boyfriend killed his parents.”
Toney went to court. By the time he returned, Shillingford had the young woman, Vickie Henry, on the phone.
“My ex-boyfriend killed his mother and father and brother,” Henry told Shillingford.
“Did you see it? Did you see the bodies?” he asked.
“No,” she said. “He told me about it.”
She started to tell him more. Shillingford put his hand over the receiver.
“Doesn’t sound quite right,” he told his partner.
“Just tell her we’ll meet her,” Toney said.
They agreed to meet at 5 PM at the Reston Town Center in front of the Hyatt hotel. The detectives grabbed a tape recorder and jumped in Shillingford’s Dodge Intrepid. They took the back way to Reston Town Center, parked in front of the hotel, and waited. It was 5 PM.
Vickie Henry drove up in a white BMW convertible, got out, and looked for the detectives.
Henry, a petite Vietnamese woman in tight jeans, looked to be in her late twenties. Her long hair was streaked blond. The detectives nodded at each other.
Shillingford got out to greet her. “Would you mind following us to the Reston District police station?” he asked.
Fifteen minutes later, Henry sat down in the interview room, crossed her legs, and started to talk. She was at times calm, at times bubbly, but she was eager to tell her story.
In 1998 she had been a stripper at the Camelot club on M Street in downtown DC. An Asian guy, Ed Chen, took a shine to her. They started to date and then moved into an apartment together in Herndon. He bought her cars and clothes. He didn’t work but had lots of cash.
“At first,” Henry said, “Ed didn’t talk much about his family. He told me his parents had died in Taiwan. Many years ago.”
But one day Henry found recent passports for Chen’s parents, Wu-Hung Chen and Yeh Mei Chen. She also found one for Raymond, his older brother. They were in a Ziploc bag in Chen’s dresser drawer. She began to ask questions: Why did Ed have an ID in his brother’s name? Why did he still get so many bills addressed to his parents? Why were his bank accounts in their name? He put her off. Bit by bit, she squeezed the story out of him.
“He said he had fallen in love with a white girl, and his parents were furious,” Henry told the detectives. “They sent him back to Taiwan. He returned, bought a rifle, went to their house in Great Falls one night and shot all three.”
“What happened to the bodies?” Steve Shillingford asked.
“He left them there in the house for four years,” she said.
“Then what?” Shillingford asked.
“He got rid of them.”
“Did you see them?
“Sounds hard to believe,” Toney said.
Vickie Henry said she had talked about the murders with Chen’s ex-wife, Mandy Kolbe.
“Ask Mandy,” the ex-stripper said. “She’ll back me up.”
Toney and Shillingford located Mandy Kolbe’s apartment in Herndon and headed there. They wanted to get to her before Vickie Henry could.
“What do you think?” Shillingford asked.
“Dancers got a bunch of shit with them,” Toney said.
Chester Toney, 43, is a broad-shouldered, dark-skinned cop from Tuscaloosa. He played linebacker for Alabama A&M. He likes to wear black: black turtleneck, black slacks, black shoes. He works out with 50-pound dumbbells and has biceps to show it. His shaved head glistens. He tucks his Sig Sauer semiautomatic pistol in his belt, a habit he picked up working undercover narcotics.
Toney had been a detective for 11 years, working with Shillingford the whole time.
“Why would Vickie turn Chen in? Was there money involved?” Toney asked.
Shillingford was at the wheel. He’s too jumpy to ride shotgun.
“We’ll find out,” he said.
Shillingford, 46, was the first black homicide detective in Fairfax, Toney the second. Shillingford is high-strung, always hurtling to the next crime scene or court date. Toney takes a half hour to walk the 100 yards from police headquarters to the courthouse–so many folks to see along the way. Shillingford looks like he could invest your retirement money. Toney looks like he could rip your throat out. But in interviews Toney can talk like Southern Comfort, and people want to tell him too much.
They pulled up to Mandy Kolbe’s place in a low-rise apartment complex just off Herndon’s main avenue.
“Let’s see how much of this story is real,” Toney said.
They knocked on Kolbe’s door. A man with pierced ears, nose, and tongue opened the door to the basement apartment. Kolbe was out but would be back soon, he told them.
They went to dinner at an Italian place. Kolbe called Shillingford’s cell phone to say she was home. They drove back and knocked on the door.
Mandy Kolbe is a petite woman with a heart-shaped face, short black hair that she tucks behind her ears, and high cheekbones.
Shillingford and Toney introduced themselves.
“Do you know what we’re here to talk about?” Shillingford asked.
“My friend was in a car accident last week,” she said. “Is that it?”
“Nope. Can you think of something else?”
Kolbe paused. She looked away, then back at the detectives.
“Oh–my ex-husband, Ed Chen, who killed his family.”
Shillingford and Toney turned to each other.
“Would you talk to us about it?” Toney asked.
“Yes, but not here.”
“We can go to the station,” Toney said. He asked the boyfriend if it would be okay to take her to the station.
“Sure,” he said. “That guy needs to be put away.”
Kolbe had been waiting two years for the police to ask about her ex-husband. She had known about the murders and the bodies. She and Chen had split up, and she feared he would kill her, too. Every day she wondered: “Am I next?”
One night in September 2000, Kolbe had flagged down a cop in the parking lot of the Blue Iguana, a bar in Fairfax. A mechanic had told her someone had cut the gas line to her engine. She worried that Chen was trying to get rid of her because she knew about the murders.
Kolbe had sat in the back of that officer’s cruiser and told her story. She was nervous but gave him details about when Chen murdered his family, where it happened, how he did it. The officer took notes, but he wrote down the wrong address for the crime scene. His “suspicious event” report went to a police office in Loudoun County–not Fairfax–where it sat in a pile.
It was marked CASE CLOSED.
Once Kolbe talked to the police, she figured it was time to tell her friends. First, she told her boyfriend. She didn’t want to say it out loud. She feared someone would hear. She wrote the story out on a kid’s erasable pad. She would fill the pad, make it disappear, then write some more.
When the police didn’t come to follow up the story, she worried that Ed had gotten to them. She sat down and wrote a two-page, single-spaced note. She gave it to a friend.
“Don’t read it,” she told him. “Put it in a safe place. If I am murdered, take it out and give it to the police.”
Shillingford and Toney ushered Kolbe into the captain’s office at the Reston district station. They set up a tape recorder.
“Ed and I met when we were in high school,” Kolbe told the detectives. “I went to South Lakes. He went to Herndon. Before I dropped out of school, I took ROTC at Herndon. Ed would drive me home. He was a nice guy.”
Everyone thought Ed Chen was sweet. He was generous with his time and money. He always drove nice cars. Parents wanted their kids to be polite like Ed. They knew he had been born in Taiwan and that his parents still spent much of their time there. He had an older brother, Raymond. The family lived in a big house in Great Falls.
“Ed came to my first wedding,” Kolbe said. She was 16 at the time. She walked down the aisle in a white wedding dress specially fitted because she was pregnant. Ed gave the couple a toaster.
Her friends always said she and Chen would make a good couple, and when Kolbe’s first marriage ended soon thereafter, they started to date. Chen invited her to the junior prom. When Chen was admitted to the University of Virginia in 1994, he moved her down to Charlottesville, where he rented her a separate apartment in his neighborhood.
But Chen’s parents were angry that their younger son would have a relationship with a Caucasian, especially a divorced woman with a small child. One day Ed’s brother, Ray, showed up at Mandy’s mother’s house in Reston and confronted the couple.
“Ed didn’t put up an argument. He left with Raymond,” Kolbe told the detectives.
Raymond Chen wrote Kolbe a letter: “Just because you eat Chinese food or learn a few kicks, you would not understand our culture. Ed is a good catch, and I can see why you’re interested in him, but we expect more of him. We expect him to go to the best school and marry the best girl. I wish you luck with you and your daughter. You must live with the consequences of your actions. My parents are heartbroken over your relationship.”
In the spring of 1995, Ed told Mandy he was going to Fredericksburg for a job interview. He didn’t come back that night. The next morning Mandy picked up her toddler and walked to his apartment. Ed’s clothes and computer were gone.
“He left without a word,” Kolbe told the detectives.
Chen contacted Kolbe from Taiwan. He said he had gone back to have his wisdom teeth removed. He sent her checks.
What Kolbe didn’t know was that Chen’s parents and brother had flown him to Taiwan and put him in a mental hospital.
Toney listened patiently, but Shillingford was getting antsy.
“I had moved back to the Reston area,” she said. “One day in late summer he called up out of the blue. He said he was back and we would be together.” He asked if they could meet at the Worldgate Shopping Center. Kolbe was wary.
It was August 1995. Ed Chen was 19.
“My parents aren’t going to bother us any more,” Chen told Kolbe.
Shillingford asked: “Did he tell you he killed them?”
“Not yet,” she said.
In the following days, Chen seemed “in need of comfort,” Kolbe said. They would go to her townhouse and curl up. She thought his parents had disowned him. At one point Chen told Kolbe that he had killed someone for his parents. In return, they would leave them alone. The body was in the Great Falls house.
“But the story kept changing,” she told the detectives. “Sometimes he would tell me the body was upstairs. Sometimes it was downstairs.”
Chen and Kolbe started to see each other every day. Kolbe was living with her daughter, Leah, at a friend’s place in Centreville.
“I never could trust him, so I asked him questions about everything all the time,” she said.
One night, sitting in Raymond’s Acura Legend, Ed told Mandy the whole story. “He also said he would kill Leah if I told anyone.”
Chen told her he had bought a hunting rifle at Kmart. On August 17 he stayed in the guest room at the Great Falls house. He waited for his parents and brother to fall asleep. He got the rifle and went to his older brother’s bedroom. “He said that Raymond was first,” Kolbe told the detectives. “Raymond’s eyes didn’t close when he shot him, and that meant he knew who the killer was.” He ran down the hall to the master bedroom. “Next was his mother. He did talk to his father and then shot him.”
Chen told Kolbe he put down the rifle and waited for the police to come. He figured someone had heard the gunshots and called 911. He waited more than an hour, listening for sirens.
No one came. Chen closed the front door and drove away.
“Did he tell you why he shot them?” Shillingford asked.
Kolbe said Chen told her they wanted to kill her. “I was very, very much in love with Ed at the time, and that was unconditional and blind,” she said. “I figured if he–who I cared so much about and was such a good person–did this, he must have had a good reason.”
Shillingford and Toney took a break. They got up and stretched before the next round.
“Did you ever see the bodies?” Shillingford asked.
“Eventually,” Kolbe said.
Mandy and Ed lived together in hotel rooms until they got an apartment. He did not return to UVa. In September, when Ed was working in the yard of the Great Falls house, Mandy stopped in to use the bathroom. She noticed an odor. She later drove by to bring Ed lunch but didn’t go in.
In November, Mandy was pregnant with Ed’s child. Ed took her to the Great Falls house.
“How did you come to the agreement to go to the house?” Shillingford asked.
“There was a certain amount of morbid curiosity. I wanted to see if it were true,” she said. “And I figured it was the only way I could get Ed to stay with me.”
“What was it like?” Toney asked.
“Ed and I arrived at the house,” she said. They entered through the basement, then walked past the pool table and up the stairs. She lit three incense sticks in the kitchen to mask the smell. They wore painters’ masks with essential oils.
“It burned my eyes,” she said.
In the master bedroom on the top floor, Kolbe saw piles of blankets on the bed. Chen’s mother’s tiny feet stuck out from beneath. His father was on the floor in his white undershirt and boxers. There was blood on the wall and a green trash can over his father’s head.
“We just stood there,” she told them. She began to shake.
“Ed went to check the thermostat. He left me alone in the bedroom for ten minutes. I couldn’t bring myself to walk into Raymond’s bedroom.”
On the way out of the house, Chen asked what he should do with the bodies. He’d thought about setting the house on fire or burying them in the yard. He had already started to dig two graves out front.
“No,” Kolbe said she told him. “Wild animals will get to them.”
Toney and Shillingford took Mandy Kolbe home and went back to the police station. Shillingford called homicide chief Bruce Guth.
“We’ve got a strange one here,” he said.
They also put a call into Fairfax County prosecutor Robert Horan. He’s been commonwealth’s attorney for 38 years and works closely with detectives. They call him at all times of the day but save their best for after midnight.
“You’re not going to believe this,” Shillingford told Horan. He related the outlines of the Ed Chen murders; Vickie Henry had told them the basic story, and Kolbe had corroborated it with more detail.
Horan, 72, has prosecuted at least 200 murder cases. He’s a ruddy-faced country lawyer. He loves the courtroom. He often goes for the death penalty.
He listened and thought: “This is the ultimate in bizarre.”
Horan trusted Toney and Shillingford. They wouldn’t bring him into a “wacky” case unless they figured they would get their man. Still, he was the one who would have to take the case before a judge.
At this point they had no bodies, no weapon, no evidence, no witness, not much of a motive. All they had were accounts by an ex-stripper and Chen’s ex-wife.
How, Horan wondered, could three people vanish?
WEDNESDAY, MARCH 20
Great Falls is a pastoral community along the Potomac River. Mansions and horse farms dot its hills and forested glens.
Late in the morning, Shillingford and Toney drove to the mansion on Elmview Place where Henry and Kolbe said Ed Chen had killed his parents and brother. Bruce Guth and other members of Fairfax police brass had gone to the house to alert the new owners that their home was part of a murder investigation.
The detectives rang the doorbell. A woman came to the door.
“Come on in,” she said.
The streets are freshly paved in the neighborhood where Edward Chen grew up, in the Old Saybrook section of Great Falls near Seneca Road. Though most of the houses on Elmview Place can be seen from the street, the Chens’ salmon-colored brick home with blue shutters and a three-car garage sits behind cedar trees.
The detectives and the homeowners sat down at the kitchen table. They said they had met Ed Chen only once, at the closing. He told them his name was Raymond Chen. They bought the house for $200,000, a steal in a community where houses were going for $1 million.
“It was a disaster inside,” the owner’s husband said. There was no odor, but the sheetrock had fallen from the walls and ceilings. Apparently a pipe had burst and flooded the downstairs. The new owners had done a $200,000 renovation.
“We have pictures of what it looked like when we first bought it,” he said.
“Can we see them?” Shillingford asked.
“Sure,” the husband said and brought out packages of color photos.
Toney flipped through the photographs until he came to some shots of the master bedroom. He noticed a dark stain on the floor next to the bed. He thought back to Kolbe’s description of where the bodies were when she saw the house in 1995. The head of Chen’s father would have been at the spot of the dark stain.
“Would you mind taking us on a tour of the house?” Toney asked.
The master bedroom was renovated with new wood floors and fresh paint on the walls. Toney asked the owner to describe what the room looked like before they put down the new floor. The owner walked over by the bed.
“This is where the stain was,” he said.
The detectives thanked the owners and headed toward their car.
“We need the crime-scene guys,” Toney said. “We’re going to have to cut into the floor.”
It was late evening, and Shillingford was still antsy. He wanted to nail down one more piece of the puzzle.
“Mandy said she wrote a letter and asked her friend to put it in a safe place in case she got killed,” he told Toney. “Let’s try and find it.”
Even as a boy growing up in Detroit, Shillingford liked to wear a gun on his hip and a badge on his shirt. His father was a postal worker; his mother worked as a secretary for Ford Motor Company. Neither parent had gone to college. His older brother got swept up in the civil-rights movement and went south, joining the Republic of New Africa group in a small Mississippi town. When sheriffs approached their house one day, a gun battle ensued, and an officer was shot dead. Shillingford’s brother served five years for murder.
In reaction, Shillingford decided to study crime. He ran track in high school and majored in criminology at Eastern Michigan University. He graduated in 1983 and looked for work in a police department. He landed a job in Fairfax in 1984, moving up from patrol to narcotics, financial crimes, sex crimes, and finally homicide. He says he works by a simple rule: “I have a hard time letting people get away with murder.”
Kolbe had given the detectives her friend’s name, Mike, and said he was waiting tables at the Silver Diner in Reston. They drove to the diner. Mike no longer worked there.
They went back to headquarters and punched his name into their computer. His parents lived in Fairfax City, close to the police station. They drove over and knocked on the door. Mike answered.
“Mandy said she gave you a letter a few years ago and asked you to keep it in a safe place,” Shillingford said. “Do you still have it?”
“It’s in the garage,” Mike said.
He led the detectives around to the back and opened the garage door. He knocked away cobwebs and moved things until they saw a small safe on a shelf. He opened the door and brought out an envelope. He handed it to Shillingford.
“I never read it,” he said.
“Thanks,” Shillingford said.
Kolbe started her handwritten letter with her name, Social Security number, and date of birth.
“I have contacted the police about the events I am going to describe in this letter,” she wrote, “but I worry that I will be killed before I get to give all the crucial details needed to put this to rest.”
Shillingford read a page, then handed it to Toney. It was the same story that she had told them the night before with a few more leads and the emotion of a deathbed confession.
“I stayed with him because we had history, because of fear,” she wrote. “I loved him. I knew it happened, but I couldn’t see that in him. I didn’t want to, so I ignored it.”
She wrote that she told Chen she was pregnant. He said he would stay with her if she helped bury the bodies. They married. He left her shortly for an Asian woman. They got back together for a time, but it didn’t last.
The birth of their daughter changed Ed Chen. He relished the role of fatherhood. He criticized Mandy for hanging out with the wrong crowd.
“We got a divorce after a year of marriage,” she wrote.
She ended the note with a crucial tip: “He told me he chopped them up and dumped them somewhere. I know his friend Bill showed him how to navigate a certain place.”
Kolbe had mentioned “Bill” to the detectives in the first interview.
“Bill have a last name?” Toney had asked.
“Bill Sturgis,” she said.
THURSDAY, MARCH 21
Toney and Shillingford went back to Great Falls in the afternoon. They had a few questions for the people of Elmview Place.
How could the bodies of three people have remained in a house for four years without any questions from neighbors?
Kolbe had told the detectives that Ed Chen had hired landscapers to mow the lawn and keep the shrubs trimmed. He stopped by every weekend to check on things. From the outside everything looked normal.
“But didn’t neighbors miss the Chens coming and going?” Toney asked Shillingford.
The neighborhood Toney grew up in in Alabama didn’t have much in common with Great Falls. It was a working-class neighborhood on the outskirts of Tuscaloosa. Folks lived in ranch-style houses. The crack of a 30-30 rifle inside a house would bring the entire community into the street. Toney was the middle of five children. His father had left school after second grade and gone to work. He was a floor-and-tile setter until he started farming ten acres of vegetables. Chester Toney got strong working the fields and got fast playing football. He and his two brothers and two sisters all went to college.
Toney became a police officer because he believed he could apply his love of athletic competition to a career in law enforcement. Tackle a fullback; take down a thug. He also knew that blacks in Tuscaloosa rarely “threw out the welcome mat” for police; he figured that he might change that perception. He graduated from Alabama A&M with a business-management degree in 1985. A year later he signed up with the Fairfax police. He planned to stay a couple of years. Now it’s home.
Shillingford and Toney knocked on doors up and down Elmview Place into the evening. Most of their knocks went unanswered.
Toney tried the house that shares a parklike backyard with the Chen’s former home. A woman answered the door.
“Did you ever notice anything odd about the house behind yours where the Chen family lived?” he asked.
“Not really,” she said. It was true that she rarely saw much activity in the house, but she knew the Chens had spent half of their time in Taiwan. Perhaps they had moved back overseas.
“I did walk over there one time,” she recalled. “I heard frogs in their backyard, so I walked over to the pool. The pool cover was half off. It looked dangerous.”
She told the detectives she could see in the windows, and it looked as if the ceilings had come down. She saw the two mounds of dirt in the front yard. She walked home and mentioned her mission only to her husband.
“I wonder if someone’s buried over there,” she told him.
FRIDAY, MARCH 22
At 6 PM, Toney and Shillingford met with Bruce Guth and Detective John Wallace at Ruby Tuesday in Reston Town Center. Four days had passed since Henry’s tip. What was next?
They tried to piece together a profile of the Chen family. They knew that the father was in the refrigeration business in Taiwan, but they also had heard that he might have been involved in money laundering. His wife did not speak English. They knew that the parents often traveled back to Taiwan. The Chens also had bought a number of houses and apartments in Northern Virginia.
“As far as the community was concerned,” Shillingford said, “they were recluses.”
Ed Chen’s parents had brought him to the United States when he was 11. He grew up wanting to assimilate. They spoke Chinese; he wanted to talk teenage slang. His brother, Raymond, doled out the money and tried to keep his little brother in line. Ed was a quiet kid. He wasn’t great with the girls. Mandy was one of his first sweethearts.
Raymond was more active in the community. Still, he had few connections. The Chen family liked it that way.
“Ed’s parents always prepared to flee Taiwan if they had to,” Kolbe had written in her letter. “They spent their whole lives preparing people for their disappearance.”
Which made it easy for their second son. After Ed killed them, he told people here that his parents had died in Taiwan. His story for the Taiwanese was that they’d died in a car crash in the United States.
Kolbe and Henry said that Ed had assumed Ray’s identity and gotten a driver’s license in his name. The detectives found documents to verify the swap. He had been paying taxes in his parents’ names.
They knew that Ed Chen had gotten custody of Samantha, the daughter from his brief marriage with Mandy. Father and daughter were living in an apartment in Herndon.
They also had verified that Ed Chen had bought a rifle at a Kmart in Herndon on August 15, 1995. It was a 30-30 deer rifle.
The prosecutor, Robert Horan, said he needed more evidence–a murder weapon or a witness or a confession.
“All we really have is two holes in the yard with nothing in them,” Shillingford said.
And they had Vickie Henry, who could go back to Ed Chen at any time.
“We have no idea what she is going to do,” Toney said.
Horan had given them some advice: “Keep Vickie close.”
TUESDAY, MARCH 26
Toney and Shillingford knew one way to keep Vickie Henry close and reel in Ed Chen. They drove to Ashcroft Terrace in Loudoun County’s Cascades neighborhood and knocked on the door of Henry’s townhouse. She opened the door in sweats. She was barefoot. Her hair was pulled back into a high ponytail.
“Can we come in and talk for awhile?” Shillingford asked.
“Sure,” she said. She was sipping Champagne. She offered them some. They declined.
The house was decorated with framed art on the walls and plush furniture. A maid was vacuuming, so Henry led the detectives to her bedroom. They could see into the bathroom, where candles were perched along the edge of the Jacuzzi. They sat around on the bed and armchairs.
Toney thought to himself: “Vickie has come a long way from swinging on a pole at Camelot.”
“Hey,” Shillingford said, “would you mind calling Ed so we can tape a conversation? Maybe you can get him to talk about the murders.”
She kept sipping.
“I don’t know if I want to do that,” she said.
“Why not?” Toney asked.
“He might catch on,” she said.
The room went silent. Toney took over. He steered the conversation to movies and looped around to Champagne and routed it back to the phone sting and how Henry would make a good actress. He worked her long enough to ease her fears. She agreed to tape a phone call.
Shillingford went out to the car to get the tape deck and headphones. He also called two teams of detectives. Bruce Guth was a few blocks away to serve as backup. Earlier in the day, another team of detectives had located Chen’s Acura Legend and outfitted it with a “bird dog,” a transmitter that would allow them to track his movements.
Shillingford went back to Henry’s place and wired the phones. Henry called Chen’s apartment. No answer.
Toney asked Henry: “What’s your favorite drink?”
“Jose Cuervo,” she said.
She sipped her Champagne.
“I have to make a run,” she said. “I’ll be right back.”
Ed Chen’s friends never trusted Vickie Henry. The lipstick was too heavy, the nails too bright. All she ever wanted to do was shop. They figured she was after Chen’s money.
In the mid-1990s, Reston and Herndon were bursting with cash from Northern Virginia’s high-tech boom. Reston Town Center was a monument to new money. White-tablecloth restaurants like Morton’s and McCormick & Schmick’s lined the streets behind façades that were designed to give the new buildings an old-time veneer. Reston Town Center looked like the backdrop for a Pottery Barn catalog–working hard to look authentic. It was not unusual to see Ferraris and Maseratis cruising the streets along with the Beemers and the Benzes.
Some of the fancy cars were gifts from Ed Chen. Kolbe could list a few of the eight cars Chen had bought for members of their circle of friends: an Acura Legend for one, a Nissan 300ZX for another, an Isuzu Trooper for her, a BMW 850 for another buddy.
When Chen married Kolbe, he took eight of their friends along on the honeymoon to Cancún. If a friend needed some cash to buy a house or fix a wrecked car, Chen was there. His friends called him “the philanthropist.”
Kolbe had told Toney and Shillingford that Ed Chen had banking and investment accounts in various states. The detectives had asked one of the financial sleuths in their unit to follow the money trail. He started to identify accounts in Wisconsin that were linked to accounts in Maryland. One had $1.8 million, another $1.9 million.
Chen traded stocks over the Internet. If he needed cash, he would sell one of the family properties. But when Chen took up with Vickie Henry, his friends said the money flowed in her direction–to her clothes, to her family in Florida, to her bank accounts.
Chen and Henry had a volatile relationship. In 2000, Chen had Henry arrested on a domestic-assault charge. In retaliation, she told detectives that he was using a fake license in his brother’s name. Shillingford found the records to verify the story, but no one followed the lead that might have taken them to the murders.
The police trailed Henry when she left her townhouse.
She drove to Reston Town Center and picked up a guy at the pool hall. They drove to the Hyatt and parked close to the hotel. They disappeared and returned in less than an hour.
Meanwhile, Toney and Shillingford went out for a bite to eat. Toney had Guth pick up a fifth of Jose Cuervo. Then the officers tailing Henry called: “She’s heading back.”
Toney waited until he knew she was in her townhouse before he called.
“Are you back?” he asked.
“Come on over,” she said.
The two detectives went back to Henry’s living room and organized the taping gear. Toney excused himself to go out and get the bottle of tequila. Guth told him that Ed Chen was back in his apartment. It was time to make the call.
Shillingford and Vickie Henry were alone in her place for a few minutes. At one point she got his attention, pointed two fingers in the direction of her chest, and said:
“Hey, Steve, these are real.”
Toney returned and gave Henry the bottle of Cuervo.
“Now is a good time to call,” he said.
Henry stood in the kitchen and tapped out Chen’s number. He answered. They hadn’t spoken in a week. Henry said she was having a hard time emotionally.
“How would you feel if you had to hold a secret like that?” she asked.
“I would hold it well,” Chen said. “I wouldn’t say shit. That’s part of the deal. You keep secrets.”
Henry kept Chen on the phone for 30 minutes. Shillingford listened on the headphones, jotted suggestions, and slipped them to Henry.
“Do you miss your parents?” she asked.
“Don’t you know it’s on my mind every minute of my life,” he said.
Shillingford slipped her a note.
“Would you do it again?” she asked.
“No way,” he said. “If I could pick one moment to change, just one, it would be that.”
“But they’re gone.”
She ended the conversation. Shillingford and Toney packed up their equipment, thanked Henry, and left.
“Man,” Shillingford said, “she was good.”
WEDNESDAY, MARCH 27
Vickie Henry was not good enough. She never got Ed Chen to admit he had murdered anyone.
It was time to cut up the floors in the Chens’ former house.
Shillingford and Toney rolled up to Elmview Place. The crime-scene search squad drove up in the rear. The detectives appreciated the technical team: They had to handle the dead bodies and get the fingerprints and swab the blood and test it.
They brought their saws and testing kits up to the second-floor master bedroom. The owners expected them. They were told they might have to let the police saw up their floor. Fairfax would pay to put everything back in perfect condition.
Toney matched a spot on the floor to the round stain he had seen in the photograph taken before the renovation. “Cut here,” he said.
Detective Jack Tuller, the handyman of the crew, kneeled down and eased his circular saw into the new hardwood flooring.
“Why are you cutting a crooked line?” Toney asked. “I thought you were supposed to be a carpenter.”
“Because the stain spread out in a circle,” he said.
In a few minutes the subfloor with its dark splotch was exposed.
Detective Mark Garman kneeled and scraped some of the darkened wood onto a metal spoon. He dropped a few splinters into a small vial with fluid. The fluid turned red.
Garman looked up: “It’s presumptive for blood.”
THURSDAY, MARCH 28
It was day ten since Vickie Henry had called in the tip.
Shillingford went to see Horan. He laid out the case:
They knew Ed Chen had bought a rifle. They were convinced he had used it to kill his parents and brother. He had locked the door and let them turn to mummies over a four-year period. He had switched identities with the brother he had killed. He had disposed of the bodies, but they had not been found. Police had found traces of blood in the house.
“Ed Chen is living with his young daughter and taking good care of her,” Shillingford said. “He’s also living with his secret.”
Shillingford asked Horan if he would authorize murder warrants to arrest Ed Chen.
“I’m worried that word of our investigation will reach him,” Shillingford said, “and he will flee.”
Horan said he was still not ready to authorize arrest warrants. Horan knew about Bill Sturgis, the guy Kolbe said had helped Chen dispose of the bodies.
“If Bill Sturgis tells you what he did with the bodies,” Horan said, “we can lock up Chen.”
FRIDAY, MARCH 29
Bill Sturgis got a knock on his door and opened it to Chester Toney, detective David Allen, and a uniformed Fairfax cop.
“Can we talk with you for a few minutes?” Toney asked.
Next question: “Where is your .40-caliber pistol?”
Sturgis said it was in his bedroom. He had registered the gun in his name. It was legal.
“Tell me about Ed Chen,” Toney said.
“He’s a friend of mine,” Sturgis said. “I haven’t seen him in awhile.”
“Look,” Toney said, “we know about Ed. We just need you to verify some information.”
“Like what?” Sturgis said.
“Like what happened in that house,” Toney said. “You weren’t the only person who saw inside the house.”
Sturgis lived next to the Reston police station. He agreed to go to the office for an interview.
On the short ride over, Toney said: “No matter what you tell us, you are going to go home free.”
Bill Sturgis did not believe the cop.
But in fact, Sturgis could not be charged with a crime, even if he admitted to helping Ed Chen dispose of the bodies. Under Virginia law, helping someone get rid of bodies is a misdemeanor. The statute of limitations is one year.
“My life is going to change,” Sturgis thought.
Sturgis was 31. Tall and lanky, he wore his hair short like his father, a retired Air Force officer. He didn’t have much of a relationship with his dad. His father had married a German woman while stationed abroad. She was a beauty. And wild. Sturgis was born in Virginia, but the family moved to California when he was a kid.
His mother started to party and hang out with the Hell’s Angels. His parents divorced. He bounced back and forth from his mother in California to his father in Virginia. At one point he was placed in a foster home. In Virginia, he dropped out of high school. In California, he got into meth, coke, acid, weed. One day he looked in the mirror and saw a scrawny teenager with hollow eyes and decided to leave his drugged-out life in California. He got clean, lived on a Caribbean island, then moved back to Virginia. He got his GED and a job as a mechanic. He had bad credit and could afford only an apartment in a bad neighborhood.
Sturgis met Ed Chen when he was working on cars at HBL of Tysons on Leesburg Pike. Then Sturgis started waiting tables in restaurants. It was late 1998. They would hang out at Clyde’s in Reston Town Center.
Though they were unlikely buddies, they bonded. Chen showed an interest in Sturgis, and Sturgis was a good listener. Ed Chen had a lot to say. He told Sturgis that his parents and brother had held him down. They had tried to control his every move. He felt like their slave. He was lonely amid his friendships. Sturgis could identify with Chen’s struggles. To Sturgis, Chen was a kindred spirit. Chen and Sturgis joined a loose group of friends who would drive to DC and hang out at MCCXXIII on Connecticut Avenue. They hit the strip clubs. Sturgis was with Chen when he met Vickie Henry at Camelot. He also knew Kolbe because she was part of the crowd.
Above all else, in Bill Sturgis’s eyes, Ed Chen was a great father trying to raise Samantha, then two years old. When they hung out at Chen’s house playing video games, Chen would listen to Samantha sleep through an intercom. She called Sturgis “Uncle Billy.”
Being a good father made Chen “gold” in Sturgis’s view.
At the police station, Sturgis wanted to cooperate as little as possible. He still thought Chen could get away with the murders. He knew there was no evidence.
“Can I smoke?” he asked.
There was no smoking permitted in the public building.
“Sure,” Toney said. “Go ahead.”
All Toney wanted was confirmation that Sturgis had seen the bodies and helped Chen dispose of them. He stepped out of the interview room and called Shillingford.
“We have Bill here at the Reston station,” Toney told his partner. “He’s not being cooperative yet.”
Shillingford was waiting at police headquarters in Fairfax, a walk from Horan’s office. If he got word from Toney that Sturgis had talked, he was ready to get the arrest warrant and cuff Ed Chen.
Sturgis started answering Toney’s questions with “yes” or “no.” He was burning through his pack of Marlboro Lights. But it became clear that the detectives knew most of the details. Toney’s mix of camaraderie and certainty began to wear Sturgis down.
“Do you remember when Ed first mentioned that he needed your help with something?” Toney asked.
“One day we were watching a movie that involved getting rid of bodies,” Sturgis said. “Ed asked me what I would do in that situation.”
“What did you say?”
“I would dispose of them by taking them apart and putting them in a bag and dropping them in the ocean. It was a movie Mafia kind of thing. I didn’t take it seriously.”
A week or so later they were driving in Chen’s new silver BMW Roadster. “That situation is real in my life,” he said. “I have bodies to dispose of. Will you help me?
Toney: “Did he say how many bodies?”
Sturgis: “He said three.”
Toney: “Did he say where the bodies were?”
Sturgis: “Not at that point.”
“What was your reaction?”
“My reaction was–‘Really?’ ”
One summer night in 1999, four years after Ed Chen had shot his parents and brother, he walked Bill Sturgis through the back door of the house on Elmview Place.
“Now you’re going to know everything about me,” Chen told his friend.
In darkness they walked up the flights of stairs.
“What did you see?” Toney asked.
Sturgis described the mummified bodies, one still on the bed in the main room, one on the floor, another in a room down the hall.
“Because of decomposition, it was hard to see what nationality they were,” he told the detective. “They looked to be Asian.”
Sturgis and Chen walked down the stairs and left through the back door. They stood outside and smoked cigarettes. Chen asked again if Sturgis would help him dispose of the bodies.
He said yes.
“I told him not to worry,” Sturgis said to Toney. “I wasn’t going to turn him in or anything.”
To Sturgis, Chen was a friend in need. He wasn’t shocked; he had grown up around Hell’s Angels. Chen was a good person, no matter what he had done. And for Sturgis, a struggling waiter, this was an opportunity: In exchange for helping him, Chen would give him the silver BMW and $100,000.
Chen asked what they would need. Sturgis, who had worked as a plumber and had restored airplanes for the Smithsonian, reeled off a list: a reciprocal saw with long blades, large plastic bags, gym bags, cement to weigh them down, coveralls, masks. And a boat.
The next day they shopped for the tools and loaded them into Chen’s Ford F-150 pickup. They bought a 19-foot powerboat and took it to Deale, Maryland. They returned to the house, and Sturgis went to work.
“How did you feel?” Toney asked.
“Numb,” Sturgis said. “I had a job to do. I cut up the bodies and stacked them like firewood.”
“Was Ed there with you?”
“Did he stay as you dismembered the bodies?”
“Did he leave?”
“He said, if I didn’t mind, he didn’t want to be there for that. He said he wanted to leave because he knew them. That’s all.”
Sturgis packed the bodies into four gym bags. He set them on the living-room floor. He mixed concrete and poured it into the bags.
They returned a day later, loaded the bags onto the truck, drove to Deale, and headed out into Chesapeake Bay. Sturgis had bought a depth finder so he could find a deep place to dump the bodies. They threw the first bag over. It bobbed up and wouldn’t sink. They circled back. Sturgis cut the bag with a knife and held onto it until he felt it pull him down. He did the same with the other bags.
On the drive back to Reston, Chen didn’t have much to say. A day later, he gave Sturgis the title to the BMW and the first installment–$40,000–on the $100,000. Sturgis used the cash to pay a full year’s rent on a new apartment in Reston Town Center.
Sturgis and Chen drifted apart over the next year.
“Ed told me he wanted to disappear, to start a new life,” Sturgis said.
Toney turned off the tape recorder and told Sturgis he could go home. He offered Sturgis a ride.
“I’ll just walk,” he said.
“Thanks for talking to us,” Toney said.
Sturgis said: “You know, detective, I lock my door at night, but that doesn’t keep the ghosts out.”
Toney left the interview room and called Shillingford.
“Sturgis confirmed that there were three bodies, and he cut them up and dumped them in the bay,” he said. “He gave us plenty of details. We have it.”
“Great,” Shillingford said.
Shillingford called Horan.
“Get the arrest warrants,” Horan said.
Shillingford got the warrants and drove to Ed Chen’s apartment in Herndon. He and Detective John Wallace knocked on the door. Chen answered. He was wearing khakis and a maroon-and-gray polo shirt.
“I am Detective Steve Shillingford from the Fairfax Police Department,” he said. “The lie is over.”
Chen was calm.
“Can I come in?” Shillingford asked.
“Do you have a warrant?” Chen asked.
“Actually, I do,” Shillingford said. “You are under arrest for murder.”
Chen looked over his shoulder. Five-year-old Samantha and a friend were crouched on the spiral staircase, peeking through the rails.
The detectives walked through the door. Wallace ushered Chen into the living room and put on the handcuffs.
Shillingford walked upstairs to make sure the children were okay. Samantha asked whether he wanted to see her room. She showed him her dolls. He explained that they had to take her father away.
Shillingford walked back downstairs and introduced himself to Ed Chen, the man he had been working to arrest for the past 11 days. Chen asked whether he could say goodbye to his daughter. Shillingford said yes.
“Can I take off my handcuffs?” he asked.
“No,” Shillingford said.
Samantha came down the stairs. Chen called her into the living room and asked for a hug. She put her arms around him.
Detective Wallace stayed with the children. Shillingford drove Chen to the police station. He looked at Samantha.
“I know I’ll never see her again,” he said.
On December 9, 2002, the night before jury selection was to begin for his trial, Edward Chen pleaded guilty to murdering his mother, father, and brother. Mandy Kolbe, Vickie Henry, and Bill Sturgis had agreed to testify against him. The judge sentenced him to 36 years and one month. He will be eligible for release in 2039, when he is 62.
Chen said nothing in court, but after the arrest he gave a statement to Shillingford.
“I bought a hunting rifle at Kmart,” he said. “And one night I really lost my nerve, lost my mind, and did it.”
An hour after returning to his apartment from the Reston police station, Bill Sturgis saw a news flash: “Local man arrested for triple homicide.” He was worried, but over time he realized he was in the clear. The one-year statute of limitations on the crime of disposing of bodies had passed.
“Even though the crime of murder is a selfish crime, Ed is an unselfish person.” Sturgis said recently over lunch in Reston Town Center. “He’s already convicted himself. He spent the rest of his life making up for it.
“Getting away with it is harder than getting caught. He wasn’t a happy person.
“If it was my choice, I’d have him with his daughter. He was a great father–something I lacked as a child.”
Mandy Kolbe felt vindicated at her ex-husband’s arrest; many friends hadn’t believed her story. She has remarried, has a third child, and works as a waitress at a Reston sports bar. Samantha, now eight, lives with her. Kolbe is trying to get some of her ex-husband’s funds, which are in trust, for their daughter.
Sitting in a Starbucks in Reston Town Center, holding her sleeping three-month-old girl, she describes Ed Chen as a good father. If they hadn’t had a falling-out over jealousy, she could still be with him. She writes to him in jail, and he sends Samantha letters in Chinese and English.
“He was an extremely good dad,” she says. “He always put Samantha first.”
Vickie Henry is under federal investigation for attempting to extract funds from Chen-family accounts here and in Taiwan.
Horan still questions her motive. Why would she turn Chen in? He is convinced she did it out of anger after a lover’s quarrel.
But what if her actions were more calculated? Ed Chen had showered Henry with gifts, cars, a new home. But he’d cut her off when they fought. He may have turned away her requests for money in February 2002, just before she called the Fairfax police. After her tip had put Chen behind bars, she offered to get a lawyer and pay his legal bills. He agreed. He gave her access to account numbers and a pipeline to funds in Taiwan. After Chen was sent away for 36 years, she posed as Chen’s mother and went back for more. The feds were waiting.
They nailed her in a phone sting.
Steven Shillingford says that explanation might be too logical. “Nothing in this case has been rational,” he says.
Chester Toney says everything just fell into place in the Chen case. Is Ed Chen a stone-cold killer?
“I don’t know what face to put on a killer,” he says. “They come in so many forms. He’s just one of them.”
Prosecutor Robert Horan tells us the case still haunts him: “The amazing thing, I think, is that these people–a bunch of people–knew about this for years. There was almost a casual air about it. The behavior of everyone connected to this is so out of the ordinary that I hope it was just this particular group.”