Few clues, many tears in deaths of Virginia Tech students
Those who knew Heidi Childs and David Metzler, shot to death in a national forest this week, say they led exemplary lives.
By Rex Bowman | The Roanoke Times
By all accounts, the two Virginia Tech students were great people: He was hardworking and fun-loving. She was bubbly and outgoing. He was a "sweetheart." She was a "shining star." And, as everyone who knew them could see, the two deeply religious, sun-kissed sophomores were in love.
"They were the cream of the crop," sighed the Rev. Gerald Kroll of Heritage Baptist Church in Lynchburg, summing up the short, happy lives of David Metzler and Heidi Childs.
Metzler, 19, of Lynchburg and Childs, 18, of Forest were found shot to death Thursday morning in the remote Caldwell Fields area of the Jefferson National Forest in Montgomery County. Metzler was found dead in his 17-year-old Toyota. The body of Childs, his girlfriend of four years, was found outside the car. Montgomery County Sheriff Tommy Whitt said of the crime scene: "It's brutal. It's ugly."
Brutal and ugly. The words are the antithesis of the lives the two teenagers led, according to friends who struggled to come to grips with the reality that two of the sweetest people they ever knew were gone so abruptly.
At Tech on Friday, about 100 people attended an impromptu, student-led memorial service for the two on the Drillfield. The 45-minute gathering included prayers and singing, including the hymn, "It Is Well with My Soul."
Jeff Highfield, director of Campus Crusade for Christ at Tech, which Metzler and Childs joined when they enrolled at the school, said those who knew the couple are heartbroken.
"They were great people, wonderful students, they loved life and had great friendships, and most of all they loved the Lord," Highfield said. "David was just starting to be a Bible study leader for freshmen men to help them transition to campus life. He really had a heart for other guys in that respect."
"Heidi was incredible," said longtime friend Nicole Settje, who set up a prayer group for the families on Facebook. "She had a smile that would brighten a room when she walked in. My first memory of her is, when we attended the Word of Life camp in Florida in the summer when she was in the eighth grade, she brought a baby snake on a charter bus. The snake was on the bus for 16 hours, and when we found out, there was panic on the bus. But she didn't mind, she wanted to protect that baby snake."
Metzler, meanwhile, worked for Settje's father's plumbing company during the summers, Settje said, and Metzler took the good-natured joshing of the older plumbers gracefully. "He had a very fun relationship with everyone. He would work with this bunch of middle-aged plumbers, and one guy named Steve would pick on him, and David would call him Stevie-poo."
When he wasn't spending summers working on pipes, Metzler, along with Childs, worked at Lynchburg's Mountain Frost Creamery, driving the ice cream truck through the hilly neighborhoods.
Sarah Baker, who now lives in Tennessee but was in the youth group with the two at Heritage Baptist Church, said she knew them from their days together in church band -- both Metzler and Childs played guitar -- and both were great to be around.
"She was wonderful, one of those innocent, shining stars that give you hope for the next generation," Baker said. "She was very sparkly. And friendly." If another girl was too shy to get onstage to play, Baker said, Childs would take the stage to offer encouragement. If there were too many guitars for the amp system, Childs would be the one to unplug and let others play.
"And David was very honest and helpful," Baker said. "He was following in his father's footsteps as a man of integrity."
Childs was the daughter of a Virginia State Police trooper. Metzler's father is a doctor. While Childs was home schooled, Metzler attended Brookville High School. Their family lives intersected at worship services at Heritage Baptist, where parishioners have been praying for the families.
"Everybody's pretty emotional right now, because it tears us up," Kroll said. "They were both godly young people."
On Friday night at the church, about 80 friends and family members talked informally about Metzler and Childs in the same room where the two played the guitar and sang many times.
Will Honeycutt, who taught a young adult Bible study class that the two attended this summer, said the whole church community was grieving.
"We are a family, and when one member suffers, we all suffer," he said. "It wasn't only a loss for their parents, it was a loss for all of us."
In an e-mail, Susan and Larry Lewis, who know both families, said "both families, each and every member, are very down to earth, awesome, caring, un-selfish, giving, nice people, and strong Christians."
Kroll said Metzler and Childs both threw themselves into the Disciples in Action program, which involves memorizing Scripture, serving in nursing homes and helping senior citizens in the church.
Barbara Tinsley, who lives across the street from the Metzler family, recalled Metzler as an easygoing fellow who once laid mulch for her. "He was a nice young man from a fine Christian family," she said. "He was always polite and friendly."
Settje said Metzler and Childs were always together, and no one seemed able to imagine them apart. "She was very bubbly, very vivacious and full of life," Settje said. "And he was an all-around nice guy. He was just a sweetheart who loved everyone and would let you know he loved you.
"And we didn't think of them as separate."
Staff writers Sharla Bardin and Jorge Valencia contributed to this story.
Students' deaths: Neighbors did not hear shots
By Shawna Morrison
Investigators continued for a second day on Friday to try to find any evidence or bit of information that might lead them to whoever was responsible for the deaths of two young Virginia Tech students.
The bodies of David Lee Metzler, 19, of Lynchburg and Heidi Lynn Childs, 18, of Forest were found by a passer-by about 8 a.m. Thursday in a day-use area in Caldwell Fields, a group campground in the Jefferson National Forest in Montgomery County.
Both appeared to have been shot, the Montgomery County Sheriff's Office has said. Their bodies were taken to the medical examiner's office in Roanoke for autopsies, but reports hadn't been completed by Friday afternoon, the sheriff's office said.
Officials have not said how many times or where on their bodies they were shot, or what type of gun may have been used. No one reported hearing gunshots between Wednesday night and Thursday morning, when investigators believe they were killed.
Deputies asked some neighbors near the Craig Creek Road site Friday about an older-model Chevrolet Caprice or Ford Crown Victoria that had recently been seen driving through the area.
Neighbor Jeff Caldwell said he had seen the car go back and forth along the rural road for the past two months or so.
"That is one of many we're trying to make contact with," Lt. Brian Wright with the Montgomery County Sheriff's Office said. "We're trying to reach out to folks who may have been in the area."
Wright said investigators were also trying to find anyone who may have had contact with Metzler and Childs.
No suspects or a suspect vehicle have been identified, he said.
"Right now we just don't have anything solid enough to put out there," he said. He urged anyone with any information to call police.
"It's always possible that someone may have seen something that may be helpful even if they don't know it may be helpful," he said. "There's going to be folks working around the clock just trying to follow any leads or anything."
Little new information about the deaths was released Friday, and a list of items seized during a search of Metzler's car had not been filed.
Addison Field, the site of the killings, was cordoned off all day Thursday by investigators. They finally left in the early morning hours on Friday.
By the afternoon, neighbors had tied a bouquet of chrysanthemums and alstroemeria lilies to a post on the short wooden fence at the back of the lot, just a few feet from a pile of shattered vehicle glass and a patch of bloodstained grass.
Several deputies patrolled Craig Creek Road, partly to give residents some peace of mind, Wright said. A few residents, scared by the killings, asked deputies to search their homes before they would go inside.
Though investigators wrapped up their on-scene investigation Friday morning, others were still combing the area in the late afternoon.
An inmate work crew from the Montgomery County Jail picked up trash along Craig Creek Road for most of the day, checking for anything of interest. A class of 13 students from the New River Valley Criminal Justice Training Academy performed a grid search of the thick fields of tall mustard weed surrounding the lot.
"Just a fresh-eyes sweep on any evidence that may have been left behind," Sgt. D.R. Link said.
Caldwell Fields, a popular weekend camping site for Tech students, will remain open, an official with the U.S. Forest Service said.
Groups that reserve the two fields used for camping will be notified of the killings, said Cindy Schiffer, a district ranger for the Eastern Divide. It will be up to them whether they want to camp there.
One of the two fields remains reserved for this weekend, she said.
She said there is no apparent reason to believe people using the site would be in any danger.
Columnist Dan Casey contributed to this report.
Neighbors shaken after meadow becomes killing field
By Dan Casey
Cathy Taylor and her husband, Steve McMahan, live on Craig Creek Road in northern Montgomery County.
Their place is about 5 miles west of Caldwell Fields camping and recreation area, a broad and wildflower-filled series of meadows wedged between the tall, bumpy ridges of Brush and Sinking Creek mountains in the Jefferson National Forest.
Friday about noon, the somber couple drove out to Caldwell Fields, one of their favorite places, about 15 miles from the Virginia Tech campus.
As rain sprinkled, they tied a small bouquet of flowers to a weathered fence that edges the Addison Caldwell parking area and sat in their car and reflected.
The flowers were a lone memorial to David Lee Metzler and Heidi Lynn Childs, the Virginia Tech sophomores found gruesomely shot to death in a gravel lot Thursday morning.
Both Taylor and McMahan have a hard time reconciling the savagery of those killings with the quiet solitude of the setting.
"It's such a peaceful, serene place," said Taylor, who often runs past the mountain-flanked meadows. "It's almost a spiritual place. I'm very sad."
"It's strange," added McMahan. "They create a place like this that's so serene, and then something like this happens. It's perverse."
Sad and strange were common up and down Craig Creek Road's 20 curvy and rolling miles Friday.
Others were shock, fear, and nagging concerns that larger-town violent crime had finally visited the grassy pastures and thickly forested glades of their rural neighborhood.
"I didn't sleep at all last night," said Myra Webb, who for the past decade has lived with her husband, Steve, in a modest one-story rancher about a mile west of the camping and picnicking area. Theirs is the closest house to Caldwell Fields.
"Of all the times we have watched the news, and there was extreme violence in other neighborhoods, but when it happens in your front yard then you understand why people become nervous and apprehensive," Webb said.
Webb said she and her husband heard nothing suspicious Wednesday night or early Thursday, the time frame in which investigators presume Metzler and Childs were killed in a way the Montgomery County sheriff has labeled "brutal" and "ugly."
But even if she had heard shots, that wouldn't be unusual.
"There's a lot of shooting around, even when there's no hunting season," she said. People frequently come out to the national forest for target practice.
Normally Craig Creek Road is quiet. But on nice weekends when classes are in session at Virginia Tech, it's a conduit for hundreds of students who stream to Caldwell Fields to camp, party or play in nature.
"There are hundreds of them when they come, but they never have been any trouble, except for speeding on the road," Webb said.
Two deputies I found at the crime scene Friday morning said violence was almost unheard of in the area.
"It's typically just drinking violations," said Montgomery Sheriff's Cpl. Jason Milburn. "Drinking in public, that sort of thing."
Jason Hutchinson, 31, has lived with his family for all his life just about 2 miles east of Caldwell Fields, just over the Craig County line.
"I know it's pretty sad," he said of the killings. "It don't make you feel too good when you think about it that close to your front door."
About 3 miles west of the recreation area, Saford and Linda Hughes live in a small cabin on the north side of the road, with a wood stove for heat and an outdoor privy. They've been married for 47 years and reared a son and daughter there.
Saford Hughes, 66, was born and raised along the road.
"We just don't have [violent crime] down here," Linda Hughes said. "It's a good place to live, and raise a family, and learn the values of life."
But Thursday morning's events had clearly unnerved them. Much remains unclear about the killings, including who did them and why.
"Probably not knowing why it was done makes it more scary," Hughes said.
"It just give you a sick feeling in your stomach," added Saford Hughes.
Their thoughts on Friday were with the families of the two slain students.
"Their people have got to be going through an unbelievable time, the parents," Saford Hughes said.
"Ain't nothing we can do to help but feel sorry for the families," Linda Hughes added. "You got to think, 'Oh my, but what they're going through today.' "