On Aug. 2, 2006, Victor Zaborsky called 911 to report an intruder at his townhouse in Washington, DC. “We’ve had someone … in our house … and they stabbed somebody,” he said, sounding frantic. “We heard the chimes, and we heard the screams from our friend.”
By the time EMTs and police arrived, Zaborsky’s friend, attorney Robert Wone, was dead. Wone had been stabbed three times in what seemed like a methodical fashion, but he had no defensive wounds.
Soon Zaborsky, his husband Joe Price, and their roommate Dylan Ward were all under police suspicion. EMTs called to the scene had been struck by the fact that all three men were in bathrobes and relatively quiet.
Police became laser-focused on the fact that the three men were gay and had overlapping romantic relationships with each other, construing them as a throuple.
Wone’s death was ruled a homicide; police claimed the evidence at the scene didn’t point to an outsider. In 2008, prosecutors publicly claimed Wone had been sexually assaulted and murdered. But they didn’t accuse the townhouse residents of causing Wone’s death. Instead, Zaborsky, Price, and Ward were tried for obstruction of justice regarding the investigation.
Peacock’s new two-part documentary, Who Killed Robert Wone?, rivetingly builds up a mystery by considering the narratives posed by defense attorneys and prosecutors and tracking how media and bloggers amplified the story. The result is a thrilling — and perhaps somewhat unintentional — juxtaposition of the evidentiary standards of law and the psychological-mystery angles stoked by the media and amateur sleuths.
Who Killed Robert Wone? is not a victim-centered true crime documentary. Wone is a minimal presence, evoked mainly as a subject of debate between law enforcement, bloggers, and friends. The documentary includes interviews with Wone’s other close friends, who recall he was somewhat shy but in love with his wife, fellow attorney Kathy. Kathy wasn’t involved with the documentary, but there’s footage of the one media interview she gave after the murder (“The four and a half years that I had with Robert, it is very sacred,” she says).
Wone, a general counsel attorney for Radio Free Asia, had been staying overnight with his friends, Price, also an attorney, and Zaborsky. Price and Wone knew each other from college; Price even once threw a birthday party for Wone. On the night of the murder, Wone had been looking to stay overnight in DC so as not to wake Kathy up with a late arrival at their suburban home.
There end the undisputed facts. The documentary includes interviews with law enforcement, prosecutors, defense attorneys, and Washington reporters and bloggers, and it’s very clear that after the night of the murder, the investigation and the surrounding chatter were skewed by overt biases.
For instance, police seemed confused by the fact that Ward wasn’t just rooming with Zaborsky and Price, and that there were romantic ties involved.
“I got three homosexuals in a house and I got one straight guy, what’s he doing over there?” one cop asks Price in interrogation footage from that night. “I think we’re all drinking wine — know what’s gonna happen tonight? You’re coming to Jesus tonight.”
“That’s fascinating and insulting and offensive,” Price replies.
While the residents said an intruder was the culprit, cops claimed there were intact cobwebs on a security fence that an outsider would have had to jump over to get in the house. Wounds like Wone’s would have resulted in significant blood loss, but that wasn’t apparent on the scene, which looked like it had been staged. During the investigation, Price remembered suddenly that he had removed the weapon, a knife, from Wone’s chest. (Ultimately no fingerprints were found.) When Ward took a polygraph test, the results indicated possible deception when he said he didn’t know who killed Wone.
In 2008, prosecutors indicted and arrested the three men for obstruction of justice and released a theory of the case: Wone’s own semen had been found on his body, leading them to believe that Wone had been sexually assaulted, paralyzed with a drug, and murdered.
Allegations exploded online. Price had been active in the mid-aughts marriage-equality battles, and these sensational charges received a lot of attention, including from the gay community. Lots of background information was leaked about the men’s sex lives. S&M devices — including restraints and genital cages — were found in Ward’s room. Price was a submissive who posted in online kink communities under the name “Culuket,” which police claimed was a reference to ketamine. There was ecstasy at the scene, but a drug screen of Wone was negative.
The documentary does a good job of showing how a legal case became a melodrama. One headline called the case a “gay mystery novel.” Gay bloggers, including David Greer and Doug Johnson, started a popular blog called Who Murdered Robert Wone?, which parsed every new development for a growing community of proto-redditor commenters.
“We were pretty much a gay family of choice looking at a family falling apart three blocks away,” Greer says about himself and three other gay bloggers, pointing to the commonalities that can propel personal interest in true crime mysteries.
In 2010, Price, Zaborsky, and Ward all went on trial. At the trial, the defense managed to get most of the sensational sexual materials classified as prejudicial, and therefore outside the purview of the case, and prosecutors subsequently focused on questions about the murder weapon to highlight potential obstruction by the accused. The men were ultimately acquitted.
The documentary reenacts the judge’s ruling, where she noted: “Even if the defendants did not participate in the murder, some or all of them … have chosen to withhold … information for reasons of their own.” But, pointing out the difference between moral and evidentiary certainty, she declared them not guilty.
The men moved to Florida, and eventually, Ward broke up with the Price/Zaborsky marriage. In the absence of a legal finding, the documentary puts forth other suppositions. Price’s defense attorney speculates that Ward was the most probable culprit. Blogger Greer zeroes in on an idea that the three house occupants were not actually in a throuple.
“It was not a three-way relationship,” he suggests — rather, he says Price had independent relationships with Ward and Zaborsky. “Those dynamics set up what probably exploded that night in some way or some fashion,” he says. It’s an interesting theory, one you could imagine as the basis for a mystery novel. But despite the potential emotional importance, the nature of their relationship is ultimately not a legal question.
That’s the tension at the heart of Who Killed Robert Wone?, which effectively pits the public’s hunger for narrative against legal rigor. The documentary’s captivating structure, deconstructing a case with an ultimately inconclusive outcome, could be read as a cautionary note about establishing judgments based on speculation. It probably won’t be. ●