Original article available online through the Richmond Times Dispatch.
MONTROSS — A four-man, three-woman jury Thursday night awarded an $8 million judgment against a Northern Neck restaurant owner whose wife was found dead of exposure on their 40-acre, snowbound property in February 2010.
Jurors deliberated just more than two hours after a three-day trial before issuing the verdict on behalf of the estate of Sally Rumsey, 42, and directed that the money be parceled out to Rumsey’s 28-year-old daughter and a 21-year-old daughter Rumsey had with defendant Stephen Andersen, 62.
Family members and supporters of Rumsey broke into tears at the decision, which also included a plaintiff’s verdict in favor of Sarah Thrift, Rumsey’s older daughter, whose lawyer argued that Andersen should not benefit from Rumsey’s estate. The disbursement of the estate will be argued at some future date. Defense lawyer John P. Harris III said he will appeal the verdict.
Plaintiff lawyer Randy Singer said that the award was a “reflection by the jurors of the regard held for Sally Rumsey in this community.” In court filings nearly four years ago, Singer asked for $10 million in the case.
The panel awarded $6 million in compensatory damages and $2 million in punitive damages.
The jury’s foreperson said jurors voted unanimously in both cases on the first vote and that jurors felt Rumsey’s death may have been prevented had Andersen done more to locate her on a frigid winter night. Andersen did not report Rumsey’s disappearance for 48 hours as a blinding snow storm covered the Northern Neck. Andersen testified he did what he could to locate his wife on the property but assumed she had left the area after an argument Feb. 5. Her frozen body was located by a Virginia State Trooper near the home on Feb. 9.
Thursday’s proceeding was highlighted by strained testimony from the defendant. Even his own lawyer told the jury that Andersen struggled to explain what transpired the day his wife disappeared. She was found four days later partially covered with snow about 80 yards from the couple’s rural home north of Haynesville.
“Even if you hate him, it doesn’t mean you don’t treat him fairly,” attorney John P. Harris III told the jury on Thursday. “He’s just who he is — he’s petrified. He runs off his mouth and tries to explain.”
In his 75-minute appearance on the stand Thursday, Andersen at one point paused for more than a minute wringing his hands and shifting his posture trying to answer a question about his belief of how his wife died.
In a sworn affidavit he had said that Rumsey didn’t commit suicide but “may have.” Thursday, after struggling uncomfortably, he said, “It’s the wrong answer because I believe she did commit suicide.”
At another point Andersen explained to the jury the reason 48 hours elapsed before he reported Rumsey’s absence to police on the evening of Feb. 7, 2010, Super Bowl Sunday.
“I didn’t think she was missing,” he said. “I just didn’t know where she was.”
Key conflicts in the case involved expert testimony dealing with the cause and manner of Rumsey’s death.
Kevin Whaley of the state medical examiner’s office testified that Rumsey was frozen solid and had to be “de-frosted” after she was discovered Feb. 9 and the body was brought to Richmond. Whaley refused to back off a conclusion that Rumsey took her own life, apparently wandering off from the home with a slightly elevated blood alcohol level and with a presence of the sleep narcotic Ambien in her system that was slightly above the high end of dosage levels.
Whaley conceded that the manner of death may have been accidental but flatly refused any suggestion that the death was a homicide.
Other testimony highlighted the odd position of Rumsey’s body, which was on its side but not in a fetal position in freezing weather. No snow was found beneath her body and a partially empty wine bottle was nearby but possibly propped up in fallen snow.
Singer, who argued the case on behalf of two plaintiffs, Rumsey’s estate and Thrift, presented other testimony that downplayed the death as accidental and incorporated testimony showing years of aggravation in a volatile marriage that even Andersen said was marked by agreements to simply ignore each other when arguments got heated.
“I would never have called police,” Andersen said when asked about the 48-hour lapse, explaining that Rumsey would not have wanted the community to know about troubles within the family or bring unwanted attention to herself.
Rumsey had returned days before her disappearance from a three-week bicycling trip to Asia, was exhausted, and almost immediately Rumsey and Andersen began sniping at each another, according to Andersen.
One argument was over no salt in the house for cooking, but Singer discounted a story told by Andersen to investigators that involved an eruption between the couple over Andersen’s viewing of pornography.
Andersen presented that scenario as police in Westmoreland began questioning him, but Singer told the jury that the porn argument was a ruse to explain why anger developed between the couple and why Andersen couldn’t account for Rumsey’s whereabouts.
Andersen told police he left the home to walk the dogs after the blowup only to return home and find his wife gone but key personal items still at the home, including car keys, credit cards and personal identification.
Rumsey, who had operated the popular Good Eats Café in Kinsale for nearly 20 years with Andersen, revealed fears and examples about spousal abuse to a waitress who also operated a shelter. That woman, Colleen Jordan, begged Rumsey to leave the home before she was killed. Rumsey acknowledged that dozens of signs of abuse and potential harm were part of her relationship.
Singer told the jury of Andersen’s dismissiveness and seeming lack of concern about his wife, including an episode in which Andersen told a relative days after Rumsey was found that he “had perfected the act of moving forward.” He also prepared a checklist warning himself to show emotion at Rumsey’s memorial service, according to testimony.
No criminal charges have been brought against Andersen, who was listed early on in the investigation of Rumsey’s death as a suspect. But throughout the three-day trial this week, Westmoreland’s prosecutor has been scribbling notes to herself accompanied by investigators who have been integral in looking into Rumsey’s death.
Commonwealth’s Attorney Julia Hutt Sichol declined to comment when asked if she is preparing a criminal case in the matter.