Timothy Wilson Spencer (March 17, 1962 – April 27, 1994), also known as the "Southside Strangler", was an American serial killer who committed three rapes and murders in Richmond, Virginia and one in Arlington, Virginia in the fall of 1987. In addition, he is believed to have committed at least one previous murder, in 1984, for which a different man, David Vasquez, was wrongfully convicted. Spencer grew up in one of the toughest black neighborhoods in Arlington, called Green Valley. He was known to police as a prolific home burglar. Spencer became the first murderer in the United States to be convicted on the basis of DNA evidence, with David Vasquez being the first to be exonerated following conviction on the basis of contradictory DNA evidence.
Debbie Dudley Davis, a 35-year-old account executive, was murdered between 9:00 p.m. on September 18, 1987 and 9:30 a.m. on September 19, 1987 in her Westover Hills apartment, where Richmond Police discovered her naked body lying on the bed. She had been strangled with a ligature and ratchet-type device. The medical examiner determined that her cause of death was ligature strangulation.
Dr. Susan Hellams was murdered in her West 31st St. home on the night of October 2, 1987 or the early morning of October 3, 1987. The police were called by her husband after he returned home and discovered her partially clothed body on the floor of the couple's bedroom closet. Hellams was a resident in neurosurgery at the Medical College of Virginia in Richmond. Her attacker apparently gained access to the house by cutting out a large portion of a second-story bedroom window screen. The medical examiner determined that the cause of Hellams' death was ligature strangulation, apparently caused by two belts found around her neck.
On November 22, 1987, Diane Cho, a 15-year-old high school student, was found in her family's apartment located on Gavilan Court in Chesterfield County, near Richmond. She too was raped and strangled in circumstances similar to the Davis and Hellams murders.
Spencer's final known victim, Susan Tucker, 44, is believed to have been raped and murdered in her condominium in Arlington, Virginia, on or about November 27, 1987. However, her body was not found in her apartment until December 1, 1987. Despite the change in location, her injuries left detectives certain that her death was caused by the murderer now dubbed by the press as the "Southside Strangler".
On January 16, 1988, Rena Chapouris and Michael St. Hilaire were found dead within a few blocks of each other, in circumstances which appeared similar to the previous murders. Though initially thought to be the work of the Southside Strangler, Chapouris' death was subsequently determined to be the work of a copycat, as she had not been raped as previous victims, and St. Hilaire's death was ultimately determined to be a suicide.
On January 20, 1988, Arlington County police arrested Timothy Wilson Spencer, a 25-year-old Richmond resident, for the rape and murder of Susan Tucker in her Arlington home. Police established that Spencer had traveled from Richmond to Arlington during the period of her death to spend Thanksgiving with his mother, who lived about a mile from Tucker's home.
He was subsequently charged with the murders of Debbie Davis, Susan Hellams and Diane Cho. At the times of the Richmond murders, Spencer had been staying at a South Richmond parolees' halfway house within walking distance of both Davis's and Hellams's residences. Before his release, he had been serving a sentence for a 1984 burglary conviction, explaining the hiatus in his offending.
Forensic testing was commenced on various biological and other samples found at the crime scenes, as the cases were prepared for trial.
Trials, appeals and execution
Spencer first came to trial in Arlington, Virginia, on July 11, 1988, for the rape, burglary and murder of Susan Tucker. He was represented by Carl Womack and Thomas Kelley. Spencer was convicted and sentenced to death, following the presentation of DNA evidence linking him to the Tucker crime scene, the first case in Virginia in which DNA was successfully used to prove an offender's identity.
Following his conviction for the Tucker murder, Spencer again went on trial, this time in Richmond, for the rape, burglary and murder of Debbie Davis. DNA evidence in the form of semen and hairs collected at the scene of Debbie Davis' murder was determined to be consistent with Spencer's DNA. Forensic evidence given at his trial indicated that the statistical likelihood that the DNA found at the crime scene came from someone other than Spencer was one in 705,000,000. Spencer was convicted of the rape, burglary and capital murder of Debbie Davis on September 22, 1988.
Spencer came to trial, again in Richmond, for the rape, burglary and murder of Susan Hellams, on January 17, 1989. He was convicted and sentenced to death, again following the introduction of DNA evidence linking him to the scene of Hellams' murder.
Following the successful conviction of Spencer for the Tucker, Davis and Hellams murders, his DNA was compared with samples collected at other crime scenes, including both open and apparently closed cases. As a result of these investigations, it was determined that DNA evidence linked him to the 1984 murder of Carol Hamm, a crime for which David Vasquez had been convicted in early 1985. While the standard of the DNA evidence was determined to be inconclusive, FBI investigators were sufficiently confident given the factual similarities to the more recent crimes to report their conclusion that Spencer most likely was responsible for the Hamm murder, among others. Vasquez was granted an unconditional pardon for her murder on January 4, 1989, having served five years of a 35-year prison sentence, and became the first American to be exonerated on the basis of contradictory DNA evidence.
Despite the conclusions of investigators as to his guilt, Spencer was never in fact charged or convicted for Carol Hamm's murder. DNA evidence was not sufficiently conclusive in Diane Cho's case, nevertheless Spencer was tried and convicted for her murder.
Spencer's appeals against his conviction for the murders of Susan Tucker, Debbie Davis and Susan Hellams were turned down. The United States Court of Appeal affirmed in its judgement that the reliance on evidence based on new DNA technology in obtaining Spencer's conviction was safe.
Timothy Wilson Spencer was executed on April 27, 1994 at Greensville Correctional Centre in Jarratt, Virginia. He was put to death in the electric chair.
Paul Mones' book Stalking Justice: The Dramatic True Story of the Detective Who First Used DNA Testing to Catch a Serial Killer, published in July 1995, details the experience of Arlington Detective Joe Horgas in investigating the murders and pursuing the matter to the conviction of Spencer and the vindication of David Vasquez.
The murders and Spencer's conviction also formed the basis for an episode of the forensic science documentary series Medical Detectives, which aired on October 31, 1996.
The investigation of the Southside murders and eventual conviction of Timothy Spencer form the subject matter of Chapter 11 of former FBI psychological profiler John Douglas' 1996 memoire Journey into Darkness.
Patricia Cornwell's bestselling novel Postmortem attracted considerable controversy and criticism in Richmond at the time of its publication in 1990, due to the close similarities between the facts of Spencer's 1987 crimes (particularly Hellams' case) and those of the serial murders which formed the basis for Cornwell's plot. Cornwell was in fact employed as a computer analyst within the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner in Richmond at the time of Spencer's 1987 killings. While it is acknowledged that the subject matter of several of Cornwell's earlier books are loosely based on real crimes in the Virginia area, she has also stated that she writes about specific types of crime, not specific cases.:84
Pop culture references
American mixed martial artist Joe Brammer has adopted the nickname "The Southside Strangler".
There is also a Richmond-based punk rock group named The Southside Stranglers.