During opening statements, the prosecution painted a picture of a man who, like a pot of boiling water, had been simmering at the surface for some time before finally spilling over in rage.
“Obsession can be a powerful thing,” said Assistant Commonwealth’s Attorney James A. Willett in Prince William County Circuit Court. “[When a man] gets obsessed with another human — a woman, it can alter his behavior. It can alter a man who was a law-abiding citizen for 51 years.”
Elliott, 52, is accused of shooting Dana Thrall, 25, and Robert Finch, 30, inside their Woodbridge town house Jan. 2, 2001.
Prosecutors contend Elliot saw Finch an impediment toward a romantic relationship between him and Rebecca Gragg, 35. Elliott and Gragg had met through and adult Web site in the late 1990s, where Gragg had advertised for a type of “sugar daddy,” Willett said. Gragg was Finch’s former girlfriend and mother of his two children.
Willett said both Elliott and Gragg had described their relationship as nonsexual, but Willett said that didn’t stop Elliott from trying to take it to the next level.
“He tried every way he could to have that kind of relationship with her,” Willett said Tuesday, during the trial’s second day. “He paid her rent, for her two kids to go to Catholic school, a cell phone, he gave her a credit card. When that didn’t work, he told her he was suicidal and depressed. When that didn’t work, he tried to play on her fears.”
Defense attorneys painted a different picture; they said their client did not know Finch or Thrall, and described Gragg as a person whose statements could not be believed. When giving his opening statement, attorney Henry Asbill told the jury that Gragg had four children by three different men.
Asbill told the jury that Gragg worked most of her adult life as a stripper or escort, and stated how she had a Web site that showed “provocative” pictures of herself.
“Rebecca Gragg is streetwise,” Asbill said. “She is manipulative and cunning.”
He described his client, who is married with three children, as a man who held a high-profile job in the Army. Elliott joined the military in 1971, and soon after boot camp, Asbill said, he went into Army intelligence — work which required a security clearance — and stayed at the job for 30 years, retiring in 1991. After retirement he worked as a civilian, earning a rank equivalent to a lieutenant colonel.
Asbill said that during Elliott’s relationship with Gragg, he was not a devoted husband and that he and his wife were living separate lives. Asbill described the Hanover, Md., man as a “lonely, friendly middle-age fool,” when he decided to e-mail Gragg.
“She saw him as an easy mark,” Asbill said. “She had a lot of problems and she needed money to solve them.”
Asbill estimated Elliott spent about $400,000 on Gragg during there 11/2-year relationship because he said his client wanted to help her get her life back on track.
“What he got back was a lot of phony promises and countless lies,” Asbill said.
According to the defense, Gragg herself had threatened to kill Finch. There were also male relatives of Gragg who had threatened Finch with a gun, and who had beat Finch up in the past, Asbill said.
Elliott had admitted to police, after being confronted, that he was in the Rollingwood Village neighborhood early Jan. 2; however, he said, he was doing surveillance on the home Finch and Thrall shared because Gragg believed Finch was doing drugs and needed that evidence for an upcoming child custody battle.
Willett told the jury a woman who was delivering newspapers in the neighborhood at around 4 a.m. saw a suspicious-looking truck in the area, and a man walking nearby, which she thought didn’t look right and called police.
“She called the police at 4:15 a.m.,” Willett said. “At 4:20 the police get a domestic violence call for the same area [from a neighbor who had heard a woman scream and gunfire]. The police get there at 4:25 a.m. and they see Robert Finch’s legs. One officer sees the body and he says ‘that truck.’ At 4:38 he looked for the truck, but it was gone.”
Asbill said that truck is now “unrecognizable” because it had been taken for evidence, but he said nothing was found inside the truck.
There was one drop of blood, which after DNA testing was confirmed to match Elliott’s, found on the backyard fence of the town home shared by Finch and Thrall, Willett told the jury.
Witnesses brought in by the prosecution will continue today and Thursday in the case that is slated to last three weeks. The commonwealth did call its first witness, Cindy Johnson, Dana Thrall’s mother, to testify Tuesday.
Willett told the jury Thrall was an innocent bystander, who even though in her own home was at the “wrong place at the wrong time.” According to prosecutors, Elliott went to the door of the town house and knocked. It was Finch who came downstairs and was shot first. Then, after hearing shots fired, Thrall came downstairs, where she was then shot.
Johnson called her daughter her “rebel” who was a caring and considerate mother of two.
Thrall was placed on life support after she had been shot several times in the chest and head, but never regained conscience. She died Jan. 4 with Johnson at her side.
“I told her I loved her, and that I was so sorry that she was there,” Johnson said through her tears on the witness stand. “I said that her children were safe and that we had them. Two tears escaped from her eyes when we said that [right before she died.] The passion for her children was so strong that I believe she wanted to find out if they were OK [before she died.]”