'Horrorcore' Music Adds to Mystery Of Slayings in Va.
By Paul Duggan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 24, 2009
FARMVILLE, Va., Sept. 23 -- The town is what its name suggests, a little crossroads burg swaddled in crop fields and pastureland for miles around. God and country-western span the radio dial, the main street is Main Street and the barber sells Lucky Tiger flat-top wax.
Folks in Farmville figured that the town, population 7,000 or so, was their haven, an oasis of quiet sanity in what a lot of them think is a mixed-up, gone-to-hell world. That was before a 20-year-old Californian, a rapper of luridly violent lyrics who billed himself as Syko Sam, alighted in their central Virginia community last week.
On Friday, four people in the house where he had been staying -- a college professor; her estranged husband, a minister; their teenage daughter; and a young friend of the girl's -- were found bludgeoned to death. Police said Richard Alden Samuel McCroskey III, aka Syko Sam, was a guest of the two teenagers', who shared his enthusiasm for "horrorcore" rap.
McCroskey is in the Piedmont Regional Jail in Farmville, charged with murder. And Farmville, in the rolling countryside 70 miles west of Richmond, doesn't feel so insulated anymore.
"Most of the people are in shock," said Gerald Spates, town manager.
The killings, which remain unexplained, have stirred plenty of chatter among residents about what was at the root of the tragedy, with many blaming toxic Internet influences. "I guess we have to realize that these things are going to happen anywhere, society being the way it is today," Spates said. "We're not as isolated, being a small town, as we once were."
As police continue an investigation this week that the chief prosecutor described as "coast to coast" and "unparalleled" in scope for rural Prince Edward County, details have emerged about McCroskey and his music, his connection to the teenagers and the quadruple homicide at 505 First Ave. in a gray colonial shaded by oaks and maples.
Two of the victims, Debra S. Kelley, 53, a professor of criminal justice at Longwood University in Farmville, and her 16-year-old daughter, Emma Niederbrock, lived in the house, a short walk from the 4,700-student campus. Also killed were Kelley's estranged husband, Mark A. Niederbrock, 50, an unordained Presbyterian pastor, and their daughter's friend Melanie Wells, 18, of Inwood, W.Va. All died of blunt force trauma to the head, according to autopsies.
McCroskey, of Castro Valley, Calif., near Oakland, is a self-described performer and promoter of horrorcore, or death rap, a screechy subgenre of hip-hop that celebrates homicidal lunacy in songs that are the musical equivalents of slasher movies. Many devotees keep in touch with one another on MySpace.com, as McCroskey and the two teenagers did.
Although McCroskey has been charged only in Mark Niederbrock's death, James R. Ennis, the Prince Edward commonwealth's attorney, said that "additional homicide charges are anticipated" after crime lab technicians test evidence from the house. Authorities declined to speculate on what role, if any, the gore-themed music played in the killings. McCroskey's court-appointed attorney did not return a phone call seeking comment.
Ennis said police think McCroskey acted alone and declined to say whether drugs might have been a factor in the slayings.
"I mean, things like this don't happen in Farmville," said Diane Poindexter, 59, echoing a remark heard again and again on Main Street. She sat on a bench in front of Hill's Consignment shop, passing time with 50-year-old Tonya Hill, the owner. "Everybody's blaming it on MySpace," Hill said. "They say it's the Internet just bringing in creeps."
A few doors away, at the Farmville Barber Shop, Robin Davis, 52, keeps snapshots of her customers tacked to a bulletin board, most of them outdoorsmen in camouflage, all smiles, kneeling with antlered animals they just shot. "I'm hearing this out of everyone who comes in, that the parents are to blame," Davis said. "Why did they let their kids get involved in this stuff?"
What Kelley thought of horrorcore rap and her only daughter's interest in it is a particularly pertinent question. Her academic specialty was violent criminal behavior and victimization, a subject she had researched extensively over the years.
McCroskey's older sister, Sarah, told the Associated Press that her brother had been bullied when he was younger and spent much of his time on the computer.
Acquaintances recalled Emma Niederbrock, who was home-schooled, as a quiet girl who wore Goth attire and makeup. On horrorcore Web pages, eulogies to her and Wells, who also styled herself in the Goth look, refer to the two by their MySpace names, Ragdoll and Free Abortions, respectively. How they and McCroskey first met wasn't clear. But Ennis said the teenagers were in Michigan on Sept. 12 for a 10-hour death rap concert, which McCroskey also attended.
Sarah McCroskey said that her brother left to go on a trip Sept. 6 and that she heard he got into an argument with his girlfriend at the concert. Then he left the family a cryptic phone message Thursday, saying "I love you guys." She said that was uncharacteristic because theirs was not a " 'Leave It to Beaver' kind of family," the Associated Press reported.
Mark Niederbrock and his estranged wife escorted their daughter and Wells to Michigan, Ennis said. The concert, billed on Web sites as the "Strictly for the Wicked Festival," was held in a small venue near Detroit, featuring acts such as Insane Poetry, Mental Ward, Stitch Mouth and Phrozen Body Boy & the Devil Town Triad. Asked whether the teenagers' first encounter with McCroskey was at the concert, Ennis said, "I don't believe so."
When the parents returned to Farmville with their daughter and her friend, McCroskey accompanied them, said Luther Glenn, 57, an elder of Walker's Presbyterian Church, where Niederbrock preached. The church, with about 60 members, is deep in woods 20 miles west of town, near a dot on the map called Hixburg. Although Niederbrock graduated from a Richmond seminary about six years ago, he had put off going through the extensive Presbyterian ordination process.
Like others, Glenn, a farmer, was at a loss to explain why his minister would trek 600 miles with his daughter so she could listen to death rap performers enthuse about ax murders, bloody rapes and other depravities. Niederbrock, who had been separated from his wife for several months, had been renting a little cinder-block house near the church. After they returned from Michigan last week, though, he stayed in the Farmville house with the others long enough be killed there.
A patrol officer found the bodies Friday after Wells's mother called Farmville's 27-member police department, saying that she could not reach anyone by phone at Kelley's house. McCroskey was arrested the next morning at Richmond International Airport, where he was awaiting a flight home to California.
Ennis declined to say whether police had found a murder weapon or determined when the slayings occurred.
"Just horror and shock," said the Rev. Jason Whitener, also a Presbyterian pastor. "It's a numbness, because the reality is hard to sink in." He said that Niederbrock, a longtime friend, quit his job as a photocopier service technician in his mid-40s to enter the seminary and had planned to become ordained. As an unordained pastor, his $600-per-Sunday income was far less than the salary and benefits he would have been entitled to as a full-fledged reverend.
Whitener and Glenn said they think Niederbrock's decision to become a preacher put a strain on his long marriage to Kelley. "That was a difficult thing for Mark, because she was not committed to the church," Whitener said.
Kelley, who had a doctorate from the University of Illinois, joined the Longwood faculty in 1994.
"Debra was a deep thinker, so she tended to be more on the quiet end of the spectrum, somewhat reserved," said Brian Bates, chairman of the department of criminal justice studies. Sitting in an upholstered armchair in the rotunda of Longwood's Ruffner Hall, Bates said of the killings, "I never thought something like that would happen in a little place like Farmville."
The Longwood campus, with its tidy lawns and immaculate buildings, covers 60 acres at the south end of the town, not far from First Avenue. Across the shaded street from the house where the bodies were found, a husband and wife, 81 and 84, stood on their porch Tuesday, talking about the community they love.
"It's the nicest place we've ever lived, and we've lived around right much," said John Jackson, a retired Virginia state forester who was transferred a lot in his career.
"We've always felt safe here," said his wife, Lazelle.
And the killings?
"This?" the husband said, gesturing at the crime scene and shrugging. "I don't know."
"Internet," his wife said.