Another July. It’s been seven years since my fellow journalist and friend Sarah Greenhalgh was tragically slain.
I remember sitting in the then Fauquier Times-Democrat newsroom. I was the managing editor of the Culpeper Times in 2012 but worked mostly from our Warrenton office. I was busy working on a story. I recall Mark Grandstaff, a young reporter who was covering crime, courts and government, coming into the newsroom, reporter’s notebook in hand and looking rather shaken. He said there had been a fire in Upperville. I heard him but keep typing. Then, he went on, “it was a fire but there was a woman found dead inside…her name was Sarah Greenhalgh.”
I shot up. “What!” “What…what did you say?” “I know her,” I stammered. “She used to work here.”
My mind raced, thinking of those writers and friends who knew Sarah. Had they heard? Did they know? And her mother … I couldn’t imagine her disbelief and grief.
It was July 9, 2012 and as the details unraveled her death became more sinister. Not only burned but shot in the back of the neck. Killed and then consumed by flames. The firefighters had responded to a house on fire, not the scene of a murder.
It was grisly.
I had met Sarah years before when we were both in the newsroom. I was covering education and Sarah was tackling government and also put together our arts section. I remember so clearly on 9/11 when the twin towers were struck. Most of us were spellbound watching the television and realizing that it wasn’t a plane gone astray but targeted attacks. Sarah was quickly at her desk, on the phone and putting together a story. She was tough, gritty, no nonsense and a professional.
She could also be quick to comment and not always kind. She clashed with her editors, was stubborn, opinionated and oftentimes harshly blunt. She was competitive and cherished challenging her photographer colleagues like Doug Lees and Betsy Burke Parker when it came to capturing flying horses on film.
She was also my friend and we shared laughs. She came one year for Thanksgiving dinner, bringing a delicious baked brie smothered in pecans and cranberries. She cherished her cats, she moved easily in the equestrian world, she had a flare for color and obscure bits of information and, if she liked you, was loyal to a fault. While we shared the same profession, our lives were different. She was single and I married with children. Both of us consumed by our respective paths but found kindred souls in spirit.
My youngest son and I helped Sarah move from her apartment in Middleburg when she got a position at a paper in Florida. She treated us to a pasta dinner. Her mother was worried about Sarah’s plans to drive a truck alone carrying her belongings south, but Sarah was strong willed and the next day was on the road.
Over the years we’d exchange Christmas cards (hers were handmade with glossy photographs of her cats bedecked in bows and ornaments or a pride of lions from an African safari) and occasional phone calls and Sarah was hoping to get back to Virginia, back to her old haunts, Saturday night polo matches to watch and being in a newsroom.
So, when she landed a job as a government reporter with the Winchester Star, it was a happy time for her. She was excited and told me that she’d found a small place to rent on a farm in Upperville.
I was honored to be asked to speak at Sarah’s funeral. The church was filled at Trinity Episcopal in Upperville. She is buried there with a simple marker. I had lunch one March with her mother and a friend to remember Sarah’s birthday in spirit. We visited her gravesite. Over the years, I’ve kept in touch with her mother who, in her mid-80s, seems to have accepted the fact that she will not see closure on her daughter’s death in her lifetime. How very sad.
As another July comes and goes, I am heartened to learn that Scott Hook, the interim Fauquier commonwealth’s attorney, has requested a special prosecutor to continue investigating this crime. (Hook previously represented one of the suspects in the case.)
Paul Walther, Culpeper’s Commonwealth Attorney, is a good and thorough man. I had many occasions to meet with him when I was in Culpeper and as the special prosecutor appointed, I am confident he will be diligent. I know that the Fauquier sheriff’s office does not consider Sarah’s death a “cold case.” Even with the passage of years, their intent is to find out who did this to her.
I penned a column when this tragedy happened. I titled it, “A song for Sarah.”
Ironically, had this happened to another, Sarah would have been on this story like glue, tirelessly dogging all involved to find answers. She would have been outraged at the deed and bent on finding justice. No doubt she would be pushing, badgering and relentless.
I hope to give her voice and that perhaps this renewed resolve by law enforcement will add a new chapter to this tragic tale.
I still sing for Sarah.
Reach Anita Sherman at firstname.lastname@example.org