A violent chapter in Charlottesville history was marked with a violent footnote last month when Craig Nordenson, who killed two people in a notorious shooting at the city’s coal tower in the summer of 2001, died on April 19 at Red Onion State Prison in Wise County. The local medical examiner is calling the death a suicide, but a Department of Corrections (DOC) investigation is underway, and his adopted mother and her lawyer say they’re not convinced he killed himself. As the story of his death unfolds, so do details about his life behind bars and the family who came to accept him as one of their own.
Early in the morning of Saturday, August 18, 2001, 20-year-old Craig Nordenson confronted Arthur Woodward, 24, Marcus Griffin, 23, and Katherine Johnson, 16, who were drinking at the base of the coal tower, a long-abandoned structure east of downtown. He had been living at the tower site on and off, and friends later said he’d been using drugs and had suffered some sort of breakdown the week before, cutting his wrists and seeking treatment at a local hospital. Around 4:30am that day, he shot Griffin and Johnson with a gun he’d stolen from his half brother, killing them both—Woodward got away—and hid from police for three tense days, finally surrendering after cops used tear gas to drive him out of a shed on an East Jefferson Street property.
He confessed to the killings less than a year later, and started serving two life sentences in a state with no parole. But in jail, he gained two things: a family, and, ultimately, a new last name.
Daniele Verdier-Logarides and her husband Jacques had gotten to know Craig through one of their sons, who befriended him before the slayings and often invited the teen to stay with the family of six in their Albemarle home. He was a troubled kid then, Verdier-Logarides said, but quiet and polite. He seemed to have no immediate family looking after him. She knew he bore physical scars from childhood abuse, and suspected there were emotional ones, too. She thought he was using drugs, but she invited him into the fold. As her sons got older and headed to college, Craig drifted out of their lives.
Verdier-Logarides was dumbfounded when she learned he was responsible for the shootings that had paralyzed Charlottesville that summer weekend. She got in touch with his lawyers—Denise Lunsford, now the Albemarle County Commonwealth’s Attorney, and Rhonda Quagliana, who would later represent George Huguely in his trial for the murder of his UVA girlfriend Yeardley Love—and visited him in jail. Their connection grew as Craig’s trial went on.
“I told Craig I was sorry I had not taken better care of him and that from now on I would not fail him ever again,” Verdier-Logarides said. “Over the past 13 years, I came to know him as if I had made him.” She and her husband eventually adopted him.
She regularly drove the five hours to see him at Wallens Ridge State Prison in Big Stone Gap. He was incredibly bright, Verdier-Logarides said, and a voracious reader, fascinated by civil rights and the legal system. When she sent him money for commissary, he always ended up buying things—soup, toiletries—for other people.
“He had a tendency to believe everything,” she said, and warm to anyone who was kind to him. “You tell him two nice things and like that, you were a good person.”
But he had a short temper, she said, and he never outgrew a defiant streak that sometimes put him at odds with the guards who ran his life in the prison system that, by this spring, had been his home for more than a third of his life. He was moved from Wallens Ridge to nearby Red Onion in November, Verdier-Logarides said, though she doesn’t know exactly why. She got a call from the prison warden on the afternoon of April 19.
“He said, ‘There was a situation last night and inmate Nordenson was pronounced dead at 12:30pm,’” said Verdier-Logarides. She got nothing more besides a promise that, as Craig’s next of kin, she would see a report on his death within 60 days. He was 10 days shy of his 33rd birthday.
DOC spokesman Larry Traylor said an investigation is opened whenever there’s an inmate death, but that “this Department would not comment on any investigation.”
Richard Kennedy, a Wise County attorney representing Craig’s estate, said the family has been told little in the meantime: Craig was being held in isolation, and was found with cuts on his wrists and ligature marks on his neck.
The Roanoke Medical Examiner’s Office, which conducted the autopsy, would say only that he died of ligature asphyxiation, and that his death has been ruled a suicide. But Kennedy said they won’t know that for sure until more information is released. “The initial report from the prison is that it’s a potential suicide, but no one has declared that fully,” he said. “It would be considered unusual to find cords or razor blades or other contraband that could be used like that in a segregation cell. From my personal experience, this one’s got a lot of snags in it. It’s not cut and dried.”
Despite the fact that he had suffered from depression, Verdier-Logarides doesn’t believe her adopted son would have committed suicide. She said in the weeks leading up to his death, he had become absorbed by the possibility of getting assistance from the National Clemency Project, a Florida-based group he thought might be able to help him make the case that he had been suffering from severe mental illness when he committed the 2001 murders. It was something he hoped might get him out of Red Onion and into a lower-security facility.
Whether or not that would have happened, “he was interested, he was happy, it was keeping him busy,” Verdier-Logarides said. In a handwritten letter dated April 9—ten days before his death—he asked her to retrieve the original indictments in his case.
“Keep me updated on your health,” he wrote. “I’ll pray for you. I Love, Love, Love You! Always, Craig.”
Katie Pollard, Kate Johnson’s mother, learned of the death of the man who killed her daughter in a letter from the DOC’s Victim Services Unit. It shook her. None of her family members nor Marcus Griffin’s had wanted the death penalty in the case.
“One of the reasons Craig’s death upset me so much is because it meant that I would never get the chance to talk to him about what happened,” said Pollard, a Charlottesville native who has lived in the area most of her life. She had thought about getting in touch with him over the years, but she never did.
“His death was neither justice nor justice delayed,” she said. “His death was just another tragic ending to a young person’s life. I grieve for his family as well as all family members involved.”
Verdier-Logarides, too, feels for the other local mother who lost a child.
“It’s terrible what Craig did to Kate and Marcus,” she said.
She wonders how his life might have ended differently if he’d had more support when he was young—from a family largely absent from his teenage life, from a mental health system that could have helped him when he was struggling. But all she can do now is wait for details of his death and plan a memorial service.
“What can I say? I loved him,” she said.