Hundreds mourn Aldridges as friends of accused killer Gene Washington question evidence

Mourners filled the upper baseball field at Charlottesville High School during a candlelight vigil for Mani and Robin Aldridge on Sunday, December 14. Photo:
Michael Johnson Mourners filled the upper baseball field at Charlottesville High School during a candlelight vigil for Mani and Robin Aldridge on Sunday, December 14. Photo: Michael Johnson

Days after hundreds of mourners gathered at events in Earlysville and Charlottesville to remember slain mother and daughter Robin and Mani Aldridge, friends of the man accused in their murders are struggling with their own shock and disbelief.

“He’s not a violent person,” said Jasmine Speller, a longtime friend of 30-year-old Gene Everett Washington, who is charged with two counts of first degree murder in the Aldridges’ deaths. Speller, who now lives in Arizona, last spoke with Washington several days before he was arrested and said their conversation was upbeat and happy, with Washington focused on work, his marriage and a newborn son.

Although Washington has a rap sheet that includes convictions in 2004 and 2006 for burglary, breaking and entering, grand larceny and drug possession, and a misdemeanor conviction for assault on a female stemming from an incident in North Carolina last year, Speller, 24, said she has never known him to be violent even in tense situations.

“He’s not a monster,” she said. “It’s never been in his nature to become volatile to the point that he’s hurting someone and can’t stop it.”

According to police, the slayings of the 58-year-old mother and her 17-year-old daughter were particularly brutal. Investigators found their bodies inside their Rugby Avenue home after neighbors called 911 to report their house was on fire shortly before midnight on Friday, December 5. Both Robin, a special education teacher at Hollymead Elementary School, and Mani, a junior at Charlottesville High School, had suffered “blunt force trauma,” according to police, who believe the fire was intentionally set.

Among the evidence police collected before Washington’s arrest was Robin Aldridge’s car, a blue Toyota Matrix, which was recovered on Saturday, December 6, in the Barracks West Apartments, where Washington lives. Police also released an image of a black, orange and white Nike high top sneaker they believe the suspect in the killings was wearing, and said that other forensic evidence was recovered from a dumpster at the apartment complex.

The violence of the Aldridges’ deaths stands in stark contrast to the lives they each led, according to friends and colleagues.

“Robin was patient, kind and soft spoken, one of those people who had a really cool presence,” said Claire Kaplan, whose daughter attended The Park School with Mani several years ago.

Elly Tucker met Robin Aldridge about 18 years ago when Tucker’s son Josh showed signs of autism as a toddler. Aldridge made regular visits to Tucker’s Earlysville home, encouraging her to seek the early intervention therapies Tucker credits with allowing Josh to thrive academically and go on to attend the University of Richmond with a scholarship in jazz piano.

“She was so reliable, wonderful and giving,” said Tucker, who noted that after Robin adopted toddler-aged Mani from Ukraine, she would bring the little girl to all of Josh’s theater performances, encouraging both children to connect and overcome their shyness.

“She was an extraordinary woman, raising an extraordinary girl,” Tucker said.

Tucker and Kaplan are not alone in their confusion over why anyone would want to harm either of the Aldridges, and after Charlottesville Police Chief Tim Longo announced that Mani and Washington “were known to each other,” questions have swirled about how their paths might have crossed, and whether music might have played a role.

Washington posted several of his own rap videos online, and Mani was a music lover and a regular at the Music Resource Center (MRC), a nonprofit that provides rehearsal and studio space for teens. The two did not meet there, said Damani Harrison, a local musician who has worked at the MRC for 11 years and said neither he nor his staff has ever met or seen Washington.

The MRC was a “safe haven” for Mani, who had learning disabilities and developmental delays, said Harrison. “She wanted to please people, and she had the sweetest kind of naiveté. She couldn’t see the bad in people; she only saw the good in people.”

Washington’s friends acknowledge that he had a rough past that included the criminal convictions for which he served time in prison, but they say that when he was released in 2011, he was determined to turn his life around and that he disavowed what they describe as a prison-time affiliation with the Bloods gang.

“Once he came home in 2011, he was like, ‘Of course people will say I’m a Blood. I’m too grown for that. I’m not trying to get myself in any more trouble,’” said Betty Poindexter, 24. Like Speller, Poindexter also met Washington in 2001 when the girls were in middle school and Washington was in high school, and stayed in touch with him throughout his time in prison. Washington wrote supportive letters to the then-teenaged Poindexter, whose grandmother had died and who had been placed into a new foster home. “He was always my friend, sending me letters, calling me, lifting my spirits. He’s always been a good person,” she said.

Recently, Washington was “ecstatic” over the birth of his son, said Poindexter. “He felt like he was the man of the house, out here working, going to school. He has so many places he wants to take him and things he wants to show him.”

Washington also lived through his own devastating loss, said Poindexter and Speller, who recalled his anguish over the slaying of his younger brother, Gerald “Scooter” Washington, who was shot to death at age 18 by his landlord on Sixth Street SW on March 14, 2006. The shooter, Jamel Ross, was taken into custody at the time, according to news reports, but wasn’t indicted until two years later, prompting complaints from Gerald Washington’s family members about their long wait for justice. Charged with manslaughter and claiming self defense, Jamel Ross eventually took an Alford plea and was ultimately sentenced to four-and-a-half years in prison.

“I had to tell Gene when it happened,” recalled Poindexter of the moment Washington learned of his brother’s death. “He broke down. To this day, he goes to his grave and talks about him. Whatever he’s doing, he wants his brother to be proud of him.”

Before Washington was charged with murder in the Aldridges’ deaths, he was already facing fresh legal troubles stemming from a September 6, 2013 incident in North Carolina. According to a Major Violation Report filed in Albemarle County Circuit Court, Washington was arrested and charged with attempted rape, first degree, on September 6, 2013, while working for a temp agency that sent him to Avery County, North Carolina. He was eventually found guilty of the lesser charge of misdemeanor assault on a female, according to the Avery County Court Clerk’s office, and he received a sentence of 15 days.

The conviction, however, prompted legal action against him in both Charlottesville and Albemarle. In Charlottesville Circuit Court, he was found guilty of violating the terms of his probation on March 14, 2014. Judge H. Thomas Padrick reinstated 13 years of prison time, but suspended all of it. In Albemarle County Circuit Court, Judge Paul Peatross found him guilty of a probation violation on April 15, 2014, reinstated eight years but suspended all but 30 days. Washington served 24 days, from May 20 to June 13, according to Albemarle Charlottesville Regional Jail records.

Once released, Washington’s probation violations continued, according to another Major Violation Report dated December 8, the day police announced Washington’s arrest in connection with the Aldridges’ murders. The document says Washington failed to report to an officer twice, and failed to complete a mandated substance abuse evaluation after a drug screen came up positive for marijuana. The last time Washington made contact with his probation officer was November 24, when he apologized for the missed appointments, and explained he was picking up extra hours at his construction job and that his wife had given birth to their son the month before. He agreed to meet with his probation officer, but never did.

The report, which carries a timestamp of 12:06pm on December 8, recommends a warrant be issued and a probation hearing set. Police announced Washington’s arrest for murder just before 9:30pm the same day.

Charlottesville defense attorney David Heilberg, who is not involved in Washington’s case, said it’s not unusual to see such violations go unpunished when the offender has no violent felony record and is working full-time.

“They have big caseloads, these probation officers,” he said. When it comes to issuing arrest warrants for violations, they prioritize the most serious cases, and Washington probably would have been at the bottom of the pile, said Heilberg.

“He has a record, but he’s not one of those recidivists that grabs your attention,” he said, expressing support for probation officers. “They bend over backwards to make sure sex offenders and people with patterns of violent behavior don’t slip,” he said.

Department of Corrections spokesman Larry Traylor said the department, which oversees Virginia’s probation districts, does not “comment on or release an offender’s case file information.” He said probation officers work with Commonwealth’s attorneys and the courts to respond to probation violations.

“Our job is to report the alleged violations,” Traylor said. “There is due process, a court hearing and the court makes a decision on that action.”

Washington is next due to appear in court on February 19. His court appointed attorney Lloyd Snook declined comment.

As the investigation into what Longo called an “evil, senseless and brutal” crime continues, the Aldridges’ friends are trying to stay focused on happier times and the love the mother and daughter shared with each other and the community. At a memorial service on Saturday, December 13 at an Earlysville home, Elly Tucker said hundreds of people showed up, with everyone filling different roles including an assistant principal directing parking outside.

“That’s the kind of person Robin was,” said Tucker. “She brought the best out in people, and everybody pitched in.”—With reporting by Graelyn Brashear