RICHMOND, VA. — The joggers and dog-walkers were mostly still sleeping in on that chilly Saturday morning before the sun came up.
It was the day before Halloween, 2004, in a trimmed and spruced suburb of Richmond, Virginia.
But the coffee pot was perking in the kitchen of one early-riser on Hearthglow Lane.
The three kids were asleep upstairs as the single dad went to retrieve the newspaper in the driveway.
Ed Kelly across the street and down a few doors knew exactly what he’d heard as he lay in bed.
Ed Kelly, neighbor: “Bang bang bang,” and that rapid. And I thought, at first, perhaps, it was hunters over in the woods so I didn’t think much about it. I went on back to sleep.
But another neighbor also heard the shots—loud ones—and called 911.
When the officers responded and turned their flashlights on the trees and house fronts, they couldn’t find anything though the homeowner who’d called the cops told them he’d seen a figure, not much more than a shape, running down the darkened street.
The police drove away and Hearthglow Lane residents awoke to Saturday routines.
Or so they thought.
When Ed Kelly opened his door 45 minutes after he’d heard shots, this time the police were back, seemingly everywhere.
Kelly: The police surrounded. Closed off the road.
The neighbor who’d first called 911 had gone back outside at sunrise and spotted something awful the police had missed.
The man next door, Fred Jablin, a college professor in his early 50s, lay slumped next to his Ford Explorer in the driveway. He was dead, shot twice, by someone apparently lying in wait for him. He was murdered, probably, before his coffee finished brewing.
Kelly: He was a very methodical man. You could almost predict the time that he would come out and pick his paper up, which was approximately at 6:30 a.m.
Dennis Murphy, Dateline correspondent: It doesn’t seem the place you’re going to have a shooting. A man killed in his own driveway?
Det. Coby Kelly, Henrico County police: It’s one of your nicer neighborhoods in the city. We’ve never had, to my knowledge, anything serious—other than maybe a few instances of vandalism.
Det. Kelly: I was on call for that weekend, so if anything major—homicide or anything serious—came out. I was the one to get the page.
By 8 a.m. that Saturday, Detective Coby Kelly of the Henrico County Police was standing in the yellow-taped driveway asking the responding officers what they had here.
Det. Kelly: The best we knew was that we’ve got a man in his bed clothes that was dead in his driveway. The newspaper was still at the end of his driveway at this time of the morning in that neighborhood, it’s unlikely that you have bands of bad people running around. So we then also kind of guessed that it might be somebody that knew him, knew his schedule that sort of thing.
Fred Jablin—the murdered man—was a highly regarded professor at the University of Richmond where he’d been teaching for the past decade.
The divorced man’s children, a boy and two girls, were upstairs sleeping while there father lay in the drive way dead.
The medical examiner ruled it’s unlikely that Jablin could have lived more than a few minutes, if that, after being shot with .38 caliber bullets in the arm and the back.
Who could have lain in wait for him?
Det. Kelly: We sent an investigator to the University of Richmond, where he worked, to try to determine if there were any threats or problems that he was having at the school. And we were open to anything early on.
It didn’t look like a botched home invasion robbery. There was no obvious reason to believe it was about drugs.
This was a man who lived a quiet, ordered, suburban life.
Det. Kelly: The people that we talked to in the community said that he was a great father, very much concerned about his children, making sure they got to activities, attending soccer games and the sort of thing.
But the neighbors did approach Detective Kelly with some leads.
Det. Kelly: It was probably mid-morning. I talked to at least a couple of neighbors. I talked to a former nanny for the children. And a recurring theme was you probably need to talk to his ex-wife.
The ex-wife was Piper Rountree, a former student of Jablin’s back at the University of Texas in the early ‘80s. They’d been married almost 20-years when they divorced in 2002, two-years before.
Piper had a law degree, had worked once as an assistant district attorney, but in her years in Virginia she’d been a stay-at-home mom and faculty wife.
Now she was living back in Texas, Houston, trying to resume a career, after losing custody of her three children.
Theirs had been a messy split, an accusation that she had an affair, poison all the way around. That was the buzz police were getting from the neighbors on Hearthglow Lane.
Murphy: On the 10-scale of bad divorces, where did this one fit?
Det. Kelly: Probably at least an 8.
It’s not just on TV shows that detectives often have to rule out the spouse or the ex in a murder investigation.
It was one of the first orders of business for Det. Kelly and his team to find out if Piper Rountree had a reason to kill her ex-husband, find out where she was at the time of the murder.
They had to examine the classic trio of ingredients for any suspect: did they have the means, the motive and the opportunity.
Piper seemed to be ruled out as a suspect on opportunity alone. Her 12-year old son had talked to her just the night before the murder.
Det. Kelly: And she indicated to him that she was in Texas and said she was coming back from work and just a little bit of chit-chat back and forth.
Murphy: She’s 1200-miles away from the scene, so common sense would tell you, she couldn’t have been the suspect?
Det. Kelly: Sure. But, of course, we wanted to verify that.
The detective reached Piper in Houston that Saturday night. She said a friend had already told her about Fred’s murder but her main concern hours later, now on the phone with the policeman, was the welfare of her three children.
Piper Rountree: I didn’t know what was going on, what was going on... they wouldn’t let me even talk to the children. And I was really concerned because they took the children into police custody.
It was all very puzzling, Fred Jablin shot dead in his driveway... but detectives were starting to fit some of the pieces together.
Piper Rountree, Fred Jablin's ex-husband: I was a student. He was a teacher… and I was the classical neophyte who looked up to him. He was just, you know, brilliant.
Piper Rountree, the undergraduate student, and Fred Jablin, the professor, met at the University of Texas in the early ‘80s and got married, almost on a whim, when, later, she was studying law in San Antonio.
Piper Rountree: He just said, “Well, let’s get married this weekend,” and I said. “Okay.” That was about it.
As Piper tells it, she and Fred—the man who would end up slain in his driveway—were both driven careerists.
She taking on a job, first, as a young assistant district attorney in Hays County Texas, then a position advising school boards across the state.
Fred, meanwhile, threw himself into his work at the university.
But bythe time a second child came along, the 60-hour workweeks, the juggling of home and career was too much for both.
Piper Rountree: Something needed to be done. And that’s when Fred looked around. And he said, “Well, look. I’m the more mobile of the two of us. Why don’t we try to, you know, move somewhere else?”
So they moved from Texas to Virginia where Fred accepted a teaching job at the University of Richmond.
They found a house here in the western suburbs of Richmond but if “relax a little” had been the idea, that didn’t happen.
Before long there were three children, two cats, a dog, a ferret, and an activity list that would have exhausted Hercules—walks before school, piano, soccer, tennis and art classes after.
Piper Rountree: I was mostly an at-home mom. I was dedicated to the children doing everything that I could for the children. I cooked everything, I mean absolutely from scratch. I canned went berry-hunting. My neighbor referred to me as the Martha Stewart of motherhood.
The more she became Super Mom, Piper recalls, the less her husband Fred seemed to be around at all.
Piper Rountree: He was never really a be-around dad. He spent even more time with the university, and gave more of himself to the university.
Dennis Murphy, Dateline correspondent: Did you think he was stepping out of your little family circle a little bit?
Piper Rountree: Yeah.
Murphy: Did you feel you were on your lonesome?
Piper Rountree: Uh-huh. Uh-huh.
Murphy: When do you sort of do a reality check on the marriage that we’re heading in different directions?
Piper Rountree: We had been in and out of counseling after we got to Richmond for a number of years. I kept saying you know, he needs to be a little more active in the family, just showing up at dinner time is not sufficient.
Ultimately, the cracks in Fred and Piper’s marriage couldn’t be repaired.
Divorce papers later would have Fred accuse Piper of having an affair with a married doctor.
Piper’s sister Tina, a nurse practitioner, involved herself in the divorce by drawing up a scorched-earth character analysis of Fred that portrayed him as an abusive narcissist who at one time had smoked marijuana with his students and wasn’t fit to be a parent.
Piper e-mailed that toxic document to Fred’s colleagues, to their children’s scout leaders, to members of the PTA—the family’s dirty laundry was now hanging out for the whole community to see.
Murphy: How painful was the divorce?
Piper Rountree: Extremely painful. I had been through every type of litigation in my life. You know big corporate litigation, split-up mergers, child custody. I’ve been through trials—you know, just heartbreaking trials—nothing, nothing have I ever read about in stories could have come close to what went on in this divorce.
When all the bitter divorce ammunition had been expended, Fred Jablin was left standing as the overwhelming winner.
He was awarded primary custody of their three children and kept the house.
And with Piper now having TO go back to work—stay at home mom no more—the judge ruled that she’d have to pay Fred almost $900 a month in child support.
Murphy: Did you have any idea as you saw this divorce working its way out that you would lose primary custody of the children. Did you ever think that could happen?
Piper Rountree: No. Not at all.
Murphy: So here you are seeing now—what? -- The children on a scheduled number of weekends and summer visitations and that whole kind of thing?
Piper Rountree: Uh-huh. Uh-huh.
A whirlwind of a mother without children’s daily attention, a onetime lawyer who’d let her career lapse, Piper Rountree limped home to Texas to tend her wounds, to Houston, where her older sister Tina took her under her wing.
Murphy: You guys are close?
Piper Rountree: Yes, very close. She’s wonderful. She’s one of the best healers I’ve ever known.
But despite her sister’s help and support, Piper, who had given up her career for the kids, was having hard time finding work as a lawyer.
She scrounged together a job researching oil field lease records.
Piper Rountree: I had absolutely no money. From the divorce, I had a car and a set of bedroom furniture. I needed a house. I needed someplace to start working out of and had to start making money quickly.
But Piper fell so far behind in her child support payments, that she attempted to file for bankruptcy but her ex, Fred Jablin, thwarted her.
Piper Rountree: For awhile, I honestly couldn’t make the payments at all, because I didn’t have any money.
But gradually, Piper Rountree cobbled together a new chapter in her life.
She found a boyfriend who tried to help her get back on her feet financially. There was a lawyer friend rented her an office...
... And the greatest support of all: her sister Tina who ran a wellness clinic for women.
Through all her travails of getting back on her feet, Piper was still Mom—though long-distance Mom—to her three children.
Piper Rountree: I was mom on the phone every single day helping them through homework, helping them resolved fights. You know, “Can I go over to somebody’s house?” They would call me, especially my son, we had call, talked to each other almost every night just to hear each other breathe on the phone.
Now, two years after the divorce, Piper says, she and Fred had finally settled into a routine—the worst, finally, seemed behind them.
The kids came to her house in Houston and she flew up to see them for visitation as often as she could.
Murphy: What’s the temperature between you and Fred at that point?
Piper Rountree: It got better.
Murphy: Could you be civil with one another?
Piper Rountree: Yes. Yes.
Then came that Saturday. Piper was in Houston that evening when she got a call from her friend on her cell.
Piper Rountree: She said Fred was dead and I couldn’t understand what had happened.
And back on Hearthglow Lane, with Fred shot dead in the driveway, there was something detectives couldn’t understand yet either, and it had to do with Piper’s cell phone.
Six hours after the murder, as requested by investigators, phone service technicians were tracking that cell as it pinged off various towers.
Piper would tell people she’d been in Texas that weekend when Fred had been murdered but her cell phone seemed to be saying something else.
Det. Kelly: Piper’s cell phone was in Richmond that morning.
The cell phone didn’t necessarily mean Piper herself had been in Richmond, but detectives quickly learned someone named Tina Rountree—her sister—had bought a roundtrip plane ticket from Houston to Virginia.
A passenger, a blonde woman, airline personnel recalled, who checked a .38 in her luggage.
10 days after the killing, police had gathered enough additional evidence to make an arrest in the case—not of Tina Rountree, but her sister Piper who would be charged with the first-degree murder of her former spouse, Fred Jablin.
Murphy: Piper, did you kill your ex-husband, Fred?
Piper Rountree: No.
A jury was about to be told otherwise.
Piper Rountree had pleaded not guilty to the charge of first-degree murder.
Wade Kizer, prosecutor: The evidence of her guilt is overwhelming.
But prosecutor Wade Kizer told the court he would prove she hadn’t been in Houston the day of the murder—as she claimed—but in fact had lain in wait before dawn in the driveway of her former home in Richmond, Virginia.
Kizer: I think she left the hotel room that morning, got in position, and waited for Fred Jablin to come out to get the newspaper. She stepped out of the shadows at that point, shot him and then fled.
The prosecutor didn’t have the murder weapon, didn’t have fingerprints at the scene, or witnesses to the killing, but he argued he could put Piper Rountree in the driveway that morning through a chain of circumstantial evidence, starting with some curious things she did in the days leading up Jablin’s murder.
Kizer: It was a circumstantial case but there was an enormous amount of circumstantial evidence.
Isn’t it funny, posed the prosecutor, that Piper Rountree went to this gun range to take target practice just four days before the murder?
The friend who accompanied her said Piper asked him not to mention their trip to the police.
Mac McClennahan, witness (on the stand): She said please don’t say anything about the gun range. It’ll just complicate things.
And why, asked the prosecutor, did Piper—that same week—order two wigs—one blonde, one red—on the Internet?
The woman at the wig company testified that Piper wanted them fast.
Eleanor Ceballos, works for wig company: Rush. Overnight, if possible.
And two days before the murder, was Piper the passenger who checked in for a Southwest Airlines using a photo ID license under the name Tina Rountree?
Wearing a long blonde wig, did she buy the ticket from Houston to Norfolk, Virginia?
The airline counter agent identified Piper as the woman who flew that day under the name Tina Rountree.
Prosecutor: Look around the court room and see if you can identify the person to whom you sold that ticket.
Airline counter agent: The lady right here (pointing to Piper Rountree).
And a Houston Hobby Airport, TSA security officer distinctly remembered being called that day to sign off on the blonde passenger’s unusual item in checked luggage: a .38 caliber handgun—a passenger he identified in court as Piper Rountree.
And so it went for the rest of the her travel, argued the prosecutor, the clerk at an off-airport, rental car business, testified that most of their clients were African American so she remembered renting a minivan to the woman she identified in court as Piper Rountree.
Also recognizing her was the front desk clerk at the motel up the road in Richmond, Virginia.
She was certain it was Piper who paid cash and asked if she could register under another name.
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But the prosecution’s best evidence against Piper Rountree was a cell phone.
The court would learn that cell phones are capable of doing much more than placing a call or taking snapshots. They do something that probably most of us either don’t know about or don’t give a second thought to. They can tell technicians exactly where you are at any given moment. They are like a GPS mapping gadget.
And the story told by piper’s cell phone threatened to convict her.
Back at the murder scene that Saturday morning one of the questions detectives were asking themselves was where is the ex-wife?
Det. Coby Kelly: We knew that eventually, and sooner rather than later, we wanted to talk to and either eliminate his ex-wife as a suspect.
Lead Detective Coby Kelley got Sprint, Piper’s cell service, to track her phone.
Cellphones send signals—pings—to nearby towers wherever they are.
Det. Kelly: We were able to get some specific information about where it was around the time of the murder and in fact, where it was at that moment. And we were able to track that the phone had been in the Richmond area at the time that Fred was shot.
And look at one cell phone call in particular, said the lead detective, that Piper made on Friday, the afternoon before the murder.
Det. Kelly: Piper told us that she in fact, was in Galveston on Friday. Recalled making a phone call and talking to her son and so that clearly put that telephone call in her hands—speaking with her son. And we had known that this cell phone was hitting off of towers in the Richmond area. So, we knew that that part of her story was not true.
Piper had phoned her 12-year-old son and told him she was calling from Texas.
Oddly, she also asked to speak to the friend he was with that day. Not knowing the cell phone was bouncing off a Virginia tower, was she trying to place herself in Texas about 14-hours before the murder?
Had she used her own son and his friend to try to establish an alibi?
Murphy: On Friday, she calls her son and says, “Hi, how’s everything going? I’m in Galveston.” And the cell phone record shows she’s where?
Kizer: Here in Henrico county.
The prosecutor had portrayed Piper Rountree as a mother so desperate to get her children back that she would cold-bloodedly plot and carry out her ex-husband’s murder. Brushing up her handgun skills, concealing her identity and posing as her sister, a clumsy scheme that Piper, a former assistant district attorney herself, messed up every step along the way, argued the prosecutor.
Kizer: She did things that might look foolish at this point. But she also went to great efforts to try to avoid detection. And I think lots of times people who commit murders for revenge frequently make mistakes. And they think that they’re smarter than everybody else.
And to cap it off, investigators said they found records showing her personal car was left in this parking lot at the Houston airport.
Det. Kelly: We later were able to look at the parking records from the Houston Hobby airport parking deck, and they had noted that her tags on that vehicle were in their parking deck during the three days that we were- very much interested in.
A car, she told investigators, she’d used on a busy few days driving through Texas.
But the garage records—the prosecutor would tell the court—showed otherwise.
Houston Hobby airport garage employee: We have an employee that uses a handheld system that records license plates ...
Det. Kelly: In order to make sure that you and I don’t go there, go on a three week vacation, and then come back and say, “I’ve just been here one day and I lost my ticket.” They go by at four or five o’clock in the morning and actually type in all the license plates of the cars that are still there—to at least give them an idea of—how long vehicles are in their lot.
Murphy: So, her Jeep Liberty enters the Houston Hobby parking garage when?
Det. Kelly: On Thursday sometime and was there through Saturday.
Was the petite woman at the defendant’s table the figure waiting in the driveway that Saturday morning? The one who fired the shots and then ran into the darkness?
Or had there been a horrible mistake—maybe a stolen cell phone—maybe even a sister closer than close exacting a revenge of her own?
The motel was registered in the name of Tina Rountree.
Did Tina Rountree—angry about how her little sister was being treated by her ex husband—kill Fred Jablin?
Piper Rountree said she didn’t do it.
She didn’t shoot her ex-husband to get her children back.
She claimed she was in Houston when it happened. But to win her an acquittal, her lawyer Murray Janus had a mountain of circumstantial evidence to explain away.
Murray Janus, defense attorney: Do you have your suspicions? Sure. Do you have your probables? Sure. But that’s not enough.
Overall, the defense was a little like the “quack like a duck” theory: If airline personnel checked in a Tina Rountree, if a TSA officer approved a Tina Rountree checking in a handgun... If a clerk said she rented a Tina Rountree a car in Virginia, if Tina Rountree had access to both her sister’s cell phone and her car, then maybe it was Tina Rountree in the driveway shooting the ex-husband of her beloved sister, the man who’d caused Piper so much anguish in her view.
Though the jury would never hear from the sister Tina. Neither prosecution nor defense called her to the stand—her presence in the court was almost palpable.
Janus: From the opening statement on, we repeated the name Tina Rountree, Tina Rountree.
Dennis Murphy, Dateline correspondent: Is it fair to say that Tina, the sister, had issues about her sister’s husband?
Janus: I’d say more that she was supportive of her sister right down the line. And the blood is thicker than water.
Murphy: The jury is hearing about Tina Rountree taking the plane, Tina Rountree checking into a motel, various clerks along the way seeing a blonde woman?
Murray: And some of the witnesses saying the woman was 5’7 seven to 5’9, blonde, and giving a description that more aptly fit Tina than it did Piper.
Piper was a few inches shorter than her sister.
Janus: And the person came about 2 inches up to your height, is that correct?
Allen Benestante (witness): Yes sir.
Janus: That would make the person about 5’9?
Benestante: Yes sir.
And there was a point about the return segment of Piper’s supposed travel that spoke to her defense.
On the Saturday of the murder, with investigators already in full pursuit of Piper, they knew that a Tina Rountree was ticketed on a Southwest Airlines flight from Baltimore to Houston.
So the Richmond cops alerted their counterparts at the Houston P.D. to meet the flight and question Piper if she got off the plane.
Five Houston officers were waiting at the gate, photo of Piper in hand, but none her get off the plane, none saw her pick up her checked luggage.
Murphy: Does that suggest a conclusion that Piper Rountree wasn’t on that plane?
Janus: Certainly does.
Janus (in court): Everyone on that plane, as they were exiting, would have to come right by you at the gate. You were looking at people in the face and comparing them to the picture you had of Piper Rountree?
Breck McDaniel: Yes sir.
Murray: You didn’t find her though, did you?
Breck: No, sir.
And Piper’s best witness helped explain to the jury why the cops didn’t see her get off the plane that day.
Martin McVey is the Houston lawyer who at one time shared some of his office space with Piper.
In key testimony for the defense, McVey testified, under oath, that he was talking with Piper Rountree in his Houston office on 4:30 the very afternoon of the murder.
Four-thirty p.m. is a critical time because the airplane the prosecution believes that Piper Rountree was aboard didn’t arrive that day until 4:40 pm… and they knew someone calling herself Tina Rountree had been on that flight.
Houston Hobby airport to McVeigh’s office near downtown takes at least 20 minutes.
Janus: October 30th, 2004-- did you ever see Piper Rountree ?
Martin McVey: I did in my office.
Janus: And could you tell the jury what time you saw her?
McVey: Approximately 4:30 that afternoon.
If he saw her at 4:30, then she wasn’t on the flight and, therefore, probably not in the driveway in Richmond that morning with a gun.
Janus: He’s an attorney-at-law and I can’t believe for one minute that an attorney is gonna commit perjury and risk (a) being indicted and (b) losing his license.
Then came the most dramatic moment of the trial, Piper Rountree—a one-time prosecutor herself, now charged with first-degree murder—electing to take the stand in her own defense.
The defendant said she had no motive to kill her ex-husband—the divorce had been horrible, for sure—but things between her and Fred Jablin, she said, had greatly improved.
Janus:September, October 2004— how were you getting along with Fred Jablin, compared to during the divorce itself?
Piper Rountree: it was an answer to my prayers. we were doing very good.
As for the circumstantial evidence against her, her jeep parked for three days in the Houston airport garage, clearly she said, the attendants had mistaken her car for someone else’s...
Murray: Did you drive your car to the Hobby Airport Parking Garage, Thursday October 28TH?
Piper Rountree: No. I never went to the Hobby Airport Parking Garage.
But most prominently—how could she explain those tell-tale cell phone calls?
The cellphone and her car, she said, were all but communal property, used not just by her but her sister Tina as well.
Murray: Did you ever use Tina’s cell phone?
Piper Rountree: Yes.
Murray: Did Tina ever use your cell phone?
Piper Rountree: Yes. I own several cell phones and had access to several.
She also said people constantly confused her and Tina’s voices— they sounded so much alike—explaining how her son and his friend could have confused Tina for her.
Janus: Has anyone ever confuse your voice with Tina’s?
Piper Rountree: All the time.
And as for the clerks who identified her on the day of travel between Houston and Virginia?
Well, they were simply mistaken Piper said. In a post 9/11 world airline workers are trained to look carefully at photo IDs before letting a passenger board a plane—so if they were looking at Tina Rountree’s driver's license, it must have been Tina they saw that day... and now in court, Piper implied, they were simply confused by a sisterly resemblance.
Janus: Does anyone ever confuse the looks of you and Tina Rountree?
Piper Rountree: My mother can’t tell us apart on pictures.
As far as taking target practice, that’s just Texas-style recreation that wouldn’t be understood by anyone but a Texan—and that’s why she asked her friend not to mention it to detectives.
Piper Rountree: I immediately realized that they would look at this as being very suspicious. And, what is normal for Texans... anyway, it just didn’t look good.
And those wigs sent special delivery? She said it was Halloween coming.
Piper Rountree: There was a Halloween party coming up and that’s what the wigs were for.
In the end, she says she didn’t kill her ex-husband and didn’t know who would shot to death the father of her three children.
Janus: Did you shoot and kill Fred Jablin on Saturday morning, October 30th?
Piper Rountree: I did not.
Now the prosecutor had his chance to cross-examine Piper Rountree, to grill her about her cell phone that he argued put her in Richmond the morning of the murder.
Piper Rountree: I know where I was.
Wade Kizer: It’s your telephone.
Piper Rountree: My phone is used by different people. Tina used it. And it basically was a community phone.
How could she explain the phone call to her son on Friday—the day before the murder—telling the boy she was in Texas when in fact that very phone she called on was in Virginia?
Kizer: You used it on Tuesday. And then, Saturday night when Detective Kelley calls you on it, you’ve got it then. But while the crime’s being committed , you don’t know where it is?
Piper Rountree: I can’t tell you definitely.
And how did she explain her Jeep Liberty the prosecutor said was parked in the Houston airport garage when she told investigators she’d used it to drive all around Texas on the days in question?
Kizer: Thursday, Friday and Saturday you were driving the black Jeep Liberty, correct?
Piper Rountree: Yes.
Kizer: Well, can you explain why the records from the Houston Hobby Airport show that your vehicle was in their parking lot on Thursday, Friday and Saturday?
Piper Rountree: No. I have no explanation.
“I can’t explain,” “I don’t know,” “I can’t answer that”: Piper Rountree’s risky gamble to take the stand was going poorly on the scorecard of some courtroom observers.
Murphy: Did she make a poor choice do you think?
Kizer: I think she probably did. I think it’s consistent with Piper’s personality to try and talk her way out of things.
Throughout the trial, the defense had tried to seed the thought with the jury that it might actually have been Piper’s older sister, Tina, who’d flown to Virginia and committed the murder.
The prosecutor went for the jugular, pressing her hard for virtually throwing her sister to the wolves.
Kizer: You had the blonde wig?
Piper Rountree: Yes sir.
Kizer: Where is that?
Piper Rountree: Last time I saw it Tina had it.
Kizer: You want this jury to think that Tina committed the murder, don’t you?
Piper Rountree: I have no idea what happened.
The only problem with the "maybe Tina did-it" alternate theory was this: there was testimony that Tina Rountree was in Houston that Saturday morning and not in Fred Jablin’s driveway.
To prove that point, the prosecutor called an employee from Tina Rountree’s health-care clinic. A woman testified that Tina had been seeing patients in Houston that morning.
But still the prosecutor was not able to rattle Piper Rountree’s key witness—Martin McVey.
The attorney was adamant that Piper was with him in his office on 4:30 that Saturday afternoon—making it impossible for her to have be on a plane that day flying back to Texas.
Martin McVey: I have told everyone that has asked that question. “I saw Piper Rountree on October 30th at 4:30.”
Passenger manifests, cell phone records, wigs and witnesses—had the prosecution done enough to prove its theory that Piper Rountree tried to win in the driveway what she’d lost in family court—the custody of her three children?
Or was it the version the defense implied—did her sister Tina decide to exact revenge and kill Fred Jablin for Piper?
Was it Tina with the cellphone and the rental car?
Tina walking right past the cops at the Houston airport on the lookout for her sister?
It was up to the jury to decide Piper Rountree’s guilt or her innocence. If convicted, the 45-year old woman could spend the rest of her life in prison.
In the courthouse a jury of 12 would now decide if Piper Rountree, one-time soccer mom, former Texas prosecutor, would spend the rest of her life in prison.
They included a desktop analyst, a sign technician, a salesman, a hospital worker, and the foreman, a manager at a courier company.
In a circumstantial case with no eyewitnesses, no confession to the crime, the jury was going to have to work its way though the evidence piece by piece.
Polly, juror: When I first got started in the trial, I still asked “well, maybe somebody framed this lady.”
Timothy, juror: Nobody really saw her shoot him.
Polly: I thought she was innocent. She looked like she just a normal lady, you know, a mother.
As the jury started to put together the trail of circumstantial evidence as laid out by the prosecutor, they struggled to come to terms with the horror of it all— Was Piper Rountree even capable of lying in wait to kill the father of her three children, her husband of almost 20 years?
The prosecutor had said yes—and told them of a divorce so bitter, so off-the-charts ugly, that Piper Rountree, a stay-at-home mom, had not only lost custody of her kids but was ordered to pay her ex-husband child support as well.
Timothy: The picture that they were basically painting for us is that something in her snapped. Fred had her kids, she basically owed him you know, owed him all this money. And she probably wasn’t doing what she wanted to do with her life as far as her job is like and what not.
Polly: I think something went wrong in their marriage and she just went off the edge.
Jim: She was getting beat up with Fred, by Fred with child support. I think she was resentful of Fred for that.
Dennis Murphy, Dateline correspondent: She came out very much on the losing end of this divorce suit?
Joe, juror: Yes, she did.
But half of the marriages in the country end, many in hard-fought custody battles. Not enough to build a murder case on its own, but the prosecutor had also told them had told them of a detailed plan to kill her husband that began with those wigs bought on Internet, express delivery.
Piper said she ordered them for a Halloween costume—the prosecutor said they were for a disguise so she could travel to Virginia undetected to kill her ex-husband.
Polly: I knew right then that she had those wigs for a purpose.
Murphy: To cover up, to conceal her identity?
Polly: That’s right.
And she had gone to a shooting range just four days before Fred Jablin was killed.
Polly: That was really important to me. Why she was learning how to shoot.
But it was the cell phone records that the jurors found most disturbing— those signals that showed her phone was making calls in Virginia when she says she was in Texas.
Joel, juror: I think the biggest weapon in this whole thing was the cell phone.
Bruce, juror: Cell phone records are the thing that just ‘til the end of time will stand out to me and how they pinned her, to pinpoint places throughout her time in Virginia.
Timothy: What really solidified it was when her kids, you know, recognized like her voice and they documented that when she spoke to her kids she was here.
And none of the jurors thought Piper Rountree helped herself by taking the stand in her own defense.
Joe: When Piper took the stand I was expecting a lot more emotion. I don’t care what kind of relationship I had with a spouse, if by some chance they were killed in accident or by someone else I would be just so torn up I couldn’t imagine, and here she was showing little or no emotion.
Jim: I hate to be flip about it but she’d quite frankly have had more credibility with me if she’d come out and said ‘yeah he’s dead and I am glad he is. I would have believed that.
But what about Piper Rountree’s alibi witness—Martin McVey, the Houston lawyer, who says he was with her at 4:30 the day of the murder—making it impossible for her to have been on the plane back from Virginia that day?
Murphy: Here’s this friend who’s a lawyer, he’s taking the oath not to tell you a lie and he saying “I saw her at 4:30 Saturday afternoon?”
Bruce: Completely uncredible.
Polly: I just think that he was just being a friend to her.
But the defense attorney had suggested a more likely killer—Piper’s sister Tina.
It was Tina’s name on the plane and car reservations, he pointed out, and Tina had access to her sister’s cell phone.
Joel: We heard Tina’s name more than we heard Piper Rountree’s name. They used that constantly. But that was Tina’s credit card or this, look at Tina in this picture?
Bruce: Not for one moment did I believe that Tina Rountree murdered Fred Jablin.
Tim: Plus the fact of the matter, Tina was technically placed at the clinic during that time frame.
But the jurors did consider this—why if Piper Rountree was on that flight back to Houston that Saturday afternoon did five officers miss her as she got off the plane and picked up her bags?
Joel: They missed her and it was unusual that they missed her. Don’t know how they did because they had the right flight they were on the correct ramp.
In the jury room, they were trying to reach a verdict.
Would Piper Rountree be found guilty of murdering the father of her three children, her one time husband of almost 20 years?
Bruce: It was a little overwhelming here, we’ve got somebody’s life in your hands and though we’ve all had all this evidence you still question yourself at the very end of—am I making the right decision?
Finally, after much thought, the jurors reached a unanimous verdict.
Sheriff (reads the verdict): We the jury find the defendant guilty of the first degree murder of Frederic Jablin.
Piper Rountree was found guilty of murdering her ex husband and sentenced to life if prison.
But she says the jury got it wrong and the real killer is still on the loose.
Murphy: If not you, who did it?
Piper Rountree: I don’t know if we’re ever gonna find out. I have got ideas, you know. I’ve been sitting here and I’ve been trying to figure out what happened. I’m not a whole lot closer than I was. I’ve got some very good ideas as to what happened. There are a lot of pieces missing.
Piper Rountree is appealing her conviction. And Tina Rountree? Once asked if she felt "used" by her sister's defense, she said that it didn't bother her. But she does deny killing Fred Jablin. She did, however, plead guilty to a misdemeanor count of attempted evidence tampering after she helped her sister dispose of one of those wigs. She served 9 months of community service, and her record was cleared. One final note: Fred Jablin's brother has custody of the couple's children.
This report originally aired Dateline NBC Tuesday, January 23, 8 p.m.
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