From top: Tyler Binsted (Eric Yang photo); the Binsted family's Shenandoah County farm features a memorial marker for Tyler; Paula, Seth and Tom Binsted; Maggie O’Brien, Tyler’s girlfriend, was with him in Byrd Park. Jay Paul photos
Nine months after the murder of his identical twin, Seth Binsted sits in front of a fireplace in the room that he and his brother helped build. In halting conversation, as if it's too hard to explain his feelings, Seth says that he and Tyler were two halves of a whole, incomplete without each other. So he isn't even trying to put the murder behind him. Instead, he tries to keep Tyler in his mind, thinking, as he goes about his days, of what Tyler would have said or done, because otherwise he feels off balance.
Though he's 20 years old, Seth keeps death close now — "at my shoulder," he says — because he doesn't want his own to be meaningless. "Tyler's death said so much about him," Seth says. "Not just because he was an artist and left behind his sculpture. In the face of danger, he was courageous. … I think a lot about my last breath, where I'll be and what I'll be doing."
The grief stemming from the death of a twin is often the most painful, worse than losing a spouse, because the surviving twin feels incomplete for the rest of his or her life, according to some psychological studies. But the murder last March of the 19-year-old Virginia Commonwealth University student has scarred at least a dozen people connected in some fashion to the victim or his assailants.
The twins' mother, Paula, sometimes feels as though she's lost both of her boys — one to murder, the other to the depths of his psychological pain. The twins' father, Tom, can't stop thinking that he should have been in Richmond's Byrd Park when it happened, even though he was working in Washington, D.C., at the time. Tyler's sister, Kasey, who learned of her brother's death by text message, is moving to Richmond, so she can funnel her grief into nonprofit work. And Tyler's girlfriend, Maggie O'Brien, who watched the young man she hoped to marry die, who was then chased by a woman with a gun in her hand, still has recurrent nightmares.
And the criminals? Twenty-year-old Zsabriela Williams will almost certainly die in prison. Howard Scott, 18, tried to hang himself in his jail cell a week before he was sentenced to 29 years. LaPrecious Austin, 20, is scheduled for a spring sentencing.
And none of it had to happen, because Zsabriela didn't start out planning to kill anyone. Or at least that's what Howard said, and he was there. The crime in Byrd Park was supposed to be a garden-variety mugging, in which the criminals walk away with cash and the victims with their lives. But Zsabriela made a decision that ramped up the danger level, and Tyler and Maggie knew it. That one decision by Zsabriela was the domino that sent all of the others toppling.
Testimony and Tears
Most of the Binsted family, Seth, Paula and Tom, went to Zsabriela's sentencing in November. For the entire time that all of them were in the same room, Seth stared at the floor. But Paula looked right into Zsabriela's face. Paula wanted her eyes to communicate to the young woman the havoc she'd wreaked on their family.
The defense appeared to be trying to demonstrate that Zsabriela was a victim, too, since she suffered a horrific childhood. Zsabriela's mother, Penny Williams, took the stand, testifying that because of her substance abuse, she had not been able to care for Zsabriela. In fact, Zsabriela was removed from her custody when she was 3 because she showed signs of neglect and abuse, according to a state-corrections department report.
Then Penny testified to something that Zsabriela had never known. She said that the man Zsabriela thought was her dad was not her real father. Tough, petite Zsabriela, dressed up for court in a silver dress and black Nike sneakers, cried. The scene was so pitiful that even Paula was moved. "If it weren't for the circumstances, you would actually feel sorry for her," she told reporters later.
Considering the dysfunction of Zsabriela's childhood and teenage years, she would have had to be extraordinary just to stay out of prison. After she was taken from her mother, officials turned her over to a male relative, according to state corrections-department records. He physically abused his wife until she left him, according to Zsabriela, and then he began abusing her. She left when she was 12 years old, bouncing from one relative to another.
By the time she was in ninth grade, Zsabriela was already violent, moved from a public school to an alternative institution because of what state records describe as "assaultive behavior." In 2004, when she was 16, she was arrested for using a firearm in a robbery and served two years of a three-year sentence in a juvenile-detention center. She was granted a "conditional release" and placed in a supervised residential program. After she turned 18, she left because, she told officials, she was trying to avoid assaulting a younger female resident.
In February 2007, when Zsabriela was 19, she was convicted on cocaine charges and sentenced to five years, most of it suspended on condition that she go on supervised probation. By December, she was released from custody and began reporting steadily to her probation officer. By the end of March, she had killed Tyler.
There are a number of still unanswered questions in the case, the most baffling being Zsabriela's fatal decision. According to Maggie and homicide detective James Baynes, who interviewed her and all three defendants, the robbery started out smoothly. Zsabriela, then 19, Howard, then 17, and LaPrecious, then 19, decided to go on a mugging spree. With LaPrecious acting as the getaway driver, they were cruising the narrow streets around Byrd Park, looking for targets. Tyler and Maggie had driven to the park in her Honda Accord to take a walk on an unusually warm March night.
Zsabriela and Howard approached the couple and ordered them to stand up against a chain-link fence, and they cooperated instantly. Zsabriela held the gun while Howard reached into Tyler's back pocket and took out his cell phone. Zsabriela searched Maggie, patting her legs, hips, and torso.
Then the mugging turned vicious. Zsabriela demanded the keys to Maggie's car, and when Tyler balked, she shoved the gun into his back, threatening to "put a cap in your ass." Maggie turned over the keys.
Even then, Tyler kept his cool, lightly cajoling Zsabriela as the four of them walked to Maggie's car. Howard popped open the trunk; Zsabriela ordered the couple to climb inside, and that was the pivotal moment — the decision that put the disaster into motion. Tyler and Maggie were certain that if they obeyed they would be killed. Tyler was left with two options — get into the trunk with Maggie or defy an aggressive, angry woman with a gun.
He chose the latter, slamming down the lid of the trunk. Howard tried to defuse the situation, telling Zsabriela to let the couple go, and Tyler, still cool, advised her to "listen to your friend." Howard told the couple to just walk away, and they started moving down a path. Seth believes that Tyler probably felt safe at that point, or at least close to it.
But either Maggie or Tyler didn't do what Zsabriela wanted, didn't walk down the right path or in the right direction, and she apparently interpreted that as defiance, a challenge to the authority that the gun was supposed to give her. She aimed the gun at Tyler's back, pulled the trigger, and when he fell, Maggie dropped to the ground beside him.
"I think [Zsabriela] shot Tyler because she thought he disrespected her," Seth says now. "And in the culture that she grew up in, respect takes priority over anything. I think that she couldn't come to grips with the fact that she had a gun in her hand and the person she was pointing it at wasn't doing what she said."
After that, the scene turned chaotic. Zsabriela and Howard sped away in Maggie's Honda, only to remember that they'd left a witness behind. When they returned, Maggie tried to escape by flagging a car driven by LaPrecious. (She had no idea that LaPrecious was connected to the people who shot Tyler.) Maggie pleaded for help getting an ambulance. Then Zsabriela, gun in hand, jumped out of the Honda and chased Maggie around LaPrecious' car. After Maggie scrambled into the car, LaPrecious drove away. When LaPrecious stopped at a red light, Maggie jumped out of the car and called for help using a stranger's cell phone. She didn't realize that Tyler was already dead.
Dreams and New Direction
The ripple effect of the murder hasn't even started to subside. During Howard's sentencing in January, his mother apologized profusely to both the Binsted family and Maggie. She said she was devastated by her son's involvement in the crime. Afterward, Paula said that listening to Howard's mother was among the worst moments of the entire saga. "It's just one sadness on top of another. There's another whole family ruined — another distraught mother."
It's nearly impossible to find out how Zsabriela feels about looking like the "monster," as detective Baynes put it during his interrogation with her. She refuses to speak to media, according to her lawyer, and the people who may have been close to her can't or won't allow themselves to be contacted. Although Penny showed up for the trial, she had disappeared by January. Not even Zsabriela's lawyer could find her.
The one person who seemed to play a stable parental role in Zsabriela's life is a woman who allowed Penny to live with her in a small brick house off Williamsburg Road, according to corrections-department records. Zsabriela referred fondly to the woman as her grandmother. But when the woman was phoned and asked about Zsabriela, she said that she didn't "know anything" and cut the connection.
Nearly a year after the murder, Maggie still sees Tyler die in her dreams. During the months just after he was killed, the scene flashed into her head every time she closed her eyes.
And the Binsted family's grief is so intense, you can feel it the moment you step into their home, a farmhouse on a country road in Mount Jackson. Their pain seems to have weight. They have a new dog, a huge, irrepressible chocolate Lab. But instead of lightening the atmosphere, his clumsy joy makes their sadness more obvious.
When Seth was home from James Madison University for Christmas, he saw a program on the Discovery Channel about twins that said their hearts start beating simultaneously while they're in the womb. That makes sense to him, because it foreshadows the hyper-connectedness he felt growing up as a twin.
He says he and Tyler didn't talk much in public because they already knew what each other was thinking, and according to studies, he's probably right. Not only do identical twins share the genes that color their eyes and hair, but they also share the genes that map out their brains and guide their emotions. So sometimes they do know what each other is thinking, says Nancy Segal, a psychology professor and director of the Twins Studies Center at California State University, Fullerton.
In Mount Jackson, people viewed Seth and Tyler as a unit, "the twins" or "the boys." Since it was hard to tell them apart, teachers would call just one of them "Seth&Tyler." As early as elementary school, the twins made their own best friends, Stephen and Matt, but then the four of them created a clique that lasted through high school. They were the smart, confident boys, well liked by their teachers, distant from some of the country kids less interested in books, music and art.
Seth was captain of the soccer team, and Tyler played on it. Tyler, who played guitar well, formed a band with Stephen. Tyler was a gifted artist, and when he applied to college, he got into VCU and the Rhode Island School of Design, another top art school. The twins were as hyper-connected and promising as Zsabriela was alienated and unsuccessful.
Now Seth is trying to drag something constructive from the months since his brother's death. He studies harder at JMU because he's determined to do work that makes his life meaningful. He has discarded the trivial; he doesn't want to have conversations with people about nothing; he wants to create real connections.
Tyler's sister, Kasey, has decided she has two choices — go down with her grief or use it to create something. She's moving from Montana to Richmond in the spring to start a nonprofit organization that would provide more opportunities for children and young people in the inner city. It's work Tyler would respect, she says. If he could express his feelings about his own murder, she says, he would feel "anger but also sympathy" for his killers.
While Tyler was dying just after midnight on March 27, Paula was alone in their farmhouse. Tom was in Washington, D.C., working on a pipe-fitting job. Hours later but before dawn, she woke to the sound of knocking on the door and the wild barking of one of their dogs. After making her way down the narrow wooden staircase in the center of their house, she found a police officer on her porch. When he told Paula about the murder, she lost control, grabbing onto him and crying. Months later, she would say that he didn't talk much but had a comforting presence. He reminded her of her father.
Together, Paula and the officer called Tom, and since Mount Jackson is about 100 miles from Washington, he had a long time to think as he rushed home. Against all reason, he's haunted by the idea that he should have protected his son by being there during the crime or by teaching him how to scramble out of an impossible situation.
Kasey found out in the worst possible way. About an hour after Tyler died, she woke up in her apartment in Montana, sensing something was amiss. After fighting with sleeplessness, she dropped off again, until her mother called and left a message at 8 a.m. In the next 15 minutes, before she could get hold of her mother, phone calls came in one after another, and one acquaintance left a text message saying that her brother had been murdered.
Meanwhile, Seth was touring the Moorish city of Granada as part of his semester abroad with JMU. The city's fifth-century buildings and streets, especially the Alhambra palace and its gardens, should have entranced him, considering that he'd turned his creative bent to photography. But all day he felt sick with an ache that suffused his body and settled in his stomach, nauseating him. Later he would say that he sensed something was wrong, but not with Tyler.
When Tom managed to get hold of Seth on a cell phone, Seth scrambled to find buses and planes that would get him back to their farmhouse. Paula says the reality of what happened didn't sink in until Seth actually saw his brother's body in the viewing room. Then he just fell apart, Paula says.
Seth says now that on that day he felt as lonely as the last person on the planet. "We weren't just brothers who had similar personalities," he says. "Our personalities complemented each other; we balanced each other out. So when he was killed, that balance just spun out of control. I don't have Tyler to balance anything anymore, unless I can maintain him in my mind. He's so deeply intertwined in me that in order to be myself, I have to have him with me."