Roommates testify at hearing in Virginia student death case

AP News
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Posted: Jun 17, 2015 8:25 AM

FREDERICKSBURG, Va. (AP) — The man accused in the April slaying of his roommate and fellow University of Mary Washington student said he had a physical confrontation with the woman before she was found bound and strangled, the victim's other roommates testified Tuesday.

The women testified at a preliminary hearing for Steven Vander Briel, 31, who has been charged with the abduction and slaying of Grace Rebecca Mann, 20, of McLean.

After the graphic testimony of Kathryn Erwin and Holly Aleksonis, who shared an off-campus house with Briel and Mann, Fredericksburg General District Court Judge John S. Stevens found probable cause to send the case to a grand jury and Circuit Court.

Mann's slaying has attracted heightened attention because of a federal gender-bias complaint filed in the weeks after the death of the campus feminist leader. The complaint alleged a series of physical and sexual threats on social media that were aimed at campus feminists.

The women said they came home on the afternoon of April 17 and found the house in disarray: Water in dog dishes had been overturned in the kitchen and a picture frame was askew.

They ultimately went to Aleksonis' room and knocked on the door, getting no response, before one of them turned the doorknob and a sweat-drenched, agitated Briel emerged, the women testified. He closed the door behind him.

The women said Briel had told them he had gotten into an argument with Mann for unspecified reasons. He slapped Mann, the women testified, and Mann bit him on the hand.

Briel told his roommates he had to defend himself against Mann's attack.

He also asked them what they would do if Mann didn't return, they said.

Both women said they were confused by the question.

When the women entered the room, they found Mann beneath a comforter.

Her hands were bound with a sweater and a belt. A plastic bag was over her head and plastic bags had been stuffed into her mouth. Aleksonis shrieked at the discovery.

Erwin removed the plastic from Mann's throat and gave her CPR, while Aleksonis called 911.

Briel had left the house in the tumult. He was later captured after an intense police search.

Briel's attorney questioned the women about unspecified texts between Briel and Mann. He also asked Erwin, "Did he ever do anything that caused you to wonder about Grace's well-being?"

"Nope," Erwin said.

Briel, who appeared in court in an orange jumpsuit and shackled, is being held without bond.

The Title IX complaint against the University of Mary Washington, a public school, alleges the administration failed to act on a series of sexual and physical threats made on social media and directed to members of Feminists United on Campus.

Mann was an outspoken feminist on campus and leader of the group.

Mary Washington President Richard V. Hurley has denied the school was indifferent to the threats and has outlined the actions the school took, short of banning an instant messaging app called Yik Yak where threatening messages were sent.

Attorneys for Feminists United have said they don't know if Mann's slaying was connected to the threats.

In a letter June 8, Hurley complained that Feminist United attorneys had implied otherwise.

The university, he wrote, had received no reports of "threatening or inappropriate behavior" by Briel before Mann's slaying.

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Steve Szkotak can be reached on Twitter at http://twitter.com/sszkotakap.