The tale of UVA students Elizabeth Haysom and Jens Soering, who were convicted in the 1985 double murders of Haysom’s parents, has long riveted central Virginia, and a new documentary reveals how the two saw themselves as tragic characters out of Shakespeare and Dickens.
Initially Soering confessed to the murders, he says, to protect his beloved from the electric chair, but he almost immediately recanted, and 30 years later, still maintains his innocence.
Soering’s attorney, Steve Rosenfield, filed a petition for absolute pardon with Governor Terry McAuliffe last week. Earlier this year, German filmmakers Marcus Vetter and Karin Steinberger screened their documentary, The Promise, at the Munich Film Festival. Germany, too, has long been fascinated with the case involving one of its citizens, who has garnered support from the entire Bundestag and Chancellor Angela Merkel.
The real-life film noir, screened for reporters August 24, opens with lonely highways and dark country roads to Loose Chippings, the genteel Bedford home of Derek and Nancy Haysom, and then slams the viewers with gruesome murder scene photos that one investigator described as “like stepping in a slaughterhouse.”
Soering was 18 years old when he met Haysom, two and a half years his senior, in 1984. “I was practically a child,” he says. Both were Echols scholars, and Soering also was a Jefferson Scholar, a rarity even in the world of the University of Virginia’s gifted students.
Soering says he was a virgin when he met Haysom, and the pair’s passionate affair was documented in their love letters in that era before e-mails and texts.
Writes Haysom after their arrests, “Promise me, Jens. Whatever it takes now, promise me you will not let me ruin your life. I’ve seriously fucked up mine. Don’t let me destroy yours. I would kill myself if I discovered you were compromising yourself for me.”
That was a warning Soering did not heed from a woman who also referred to herself as Lady Macbeth.
Haysom’s letters and writings frequently expressed her wish that her parents were dead. She also has suggested that her mother sexually abused her, but denied it when pressed on the witness stand at her trial.
Soering saw the tale as more Romeo and Juliet, he says. When Elizabeth came back from Bedford and said to him, “I’ve killed my parents. I’ve killed my parents. You’ve got to help me,” Soering turned to Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities, and pictured himself as Sydney Carton, giving up his life to save another, only he believed that as the son of a German diplomat, at worst he’d only be sentenced to a few years in prison in Germany, ultimately to be reunited with Haysom.
“I said it was me,” says Soering in the film. “I thought I was a hero.”
And police were willing to believe that. Even when Haysom told the detectives interrogating her in London, where the couple was arrested in 1986, “I did it myself,” a detective says, “Don’t be silly.” To which Haysom responds, “I got off on it.”
Haysom was an “unconventional beauty,” says Carlos Santos, owner of the Fluvanna Review, who was a Richmond Times-
Dispatch reporter when the trials took place. “She was worldly, smart,” he says, admitting on the witness stand that she used LSD and heroin. “At the same time you could tell that she lied,” says Santos. “She was a beautiful, charming liar.”
“I have brought sorrow to so many,” Soering tells the filmmakers. “I have destroyed my life because I thought it was about love. Retrospectively I realized I never knew this woman.”
Soering, 50, was sentenced to two life sentences in 1990. Haysom, 52, is serving a 90-year sentence.