CHRISTIANSBURG — David Edmond Eisenhauer’s murder trial came to an abrupt end Friday as he switched his pleas to no contest and was convicted of killing Blacksburg 13-year-old Nicole Madison Lovell.
Eisenhauer, 20, of Columbia, Maryland, had been on trial since Monday in Montgomery County Circuit Court on charges of first-degree murder, abduction and concealing a body. From the start, a team of high-profile defense attorneys led by John Lichtenstein and Tony Anderson of Roanoke battled a mountain of evidence that investigators collected in the days after Lovell’s Jan. 27, 2016, disappearance.
In a press conference held at the Montgomery County Sheriff’s Office immediately after Eisenhauer’s pleas, Lovell’s mother, Tammy Weeks of Blacksburg, fought back tears and thanked investigators and prosecutors.
“I was blessed to be Nicole’s mother, to be her friend for 13 years ... She was a bright and beautiful girl,” Weeks said.
Commonwealth’s Attorney Mary Pettitt also thanked investigators and said, “The justice system is incapable of healing the loss; we all suffer with the loss of this little girl.”
Blacksburg Police Chief Anthony Wilson, who sat with Weeks and other family members for much of the trial, sounded a similar theme, saying, “Today, there are no winners. If there were winners, we wouldn’t be in this room and Nicole would be in Blacksburg Middle School where she belongs.”
Friday’s hearing began with Eisenhauer signing plea forms, then standing to tell Judge Robert Turk that while he had pleaded “Not guilty” earlier, he now wished to change that. Speaking loudly, Eisenhauer said “No contest” three times as Circuit Court Clerk Erica Williams formally read the charges against him.
There was no plea agreement with the prosecution, Eisenhauer confirmed to Turk during the judge’s standard questions that accompany such a plea.
Turk asked Eisenhauer if he was pleading no contest because he was in fact guilty of the crimes he was accused of. Eisenhauer looked quickly at Anderson and Lichtenstein, then answered “Yes.”
The judge asked Eisenhauer if he understood that he faces a maximum sentence of life plus 15 years in prison. Eisenhauer answered that, yes, he understood.
Turk ordered a pre-sentencing report and said that he would sentence Eisenhauer at a hearing that would begin May 22. Defense attorneys said it’s likely to take two days to present evidence at the sentencing.
Lovell’s death drew national media attention two years ago because it seemed to highlight the dangers of online predators. Eisenhauer, a Virginia Tech freshman when Lovell was killed, told investigators that he met the girl through a website that allowed random people to message one another. But he also told another young girl with whom he had a relationship that he’d met Lovell at a party, according to evidence that Pettitt summarized Friday.
When Lovell disappeared from her family’s home in the Lantern Ridge apartment complex in Blacksburg, it set off an intense search. Lovell had undergone a liver transplant at a very young age and needed to take anti-rejection medication twice each day. She had left home without her medicine.
This week, reporters from an array of news organizations that included “Dateline NBC” and “48 Hours” again followed the case, camping out at the Montgomery County Courthouse.
On Monday, the defense argued that Eisenhauer could not get a fair trial in the county because 29 of 36 potential jurors said they previously had heard something about the case. But Turk said that hearing about a case did not disqualify a juror – what was important was whether someone could set aside what they’d heard and decide a case based only on what they learned in the courtroom, he said.
With a jury selected, prosecutors began meticulously laying out the ties between Eisenhauer and Lovell — including DNA and fingerprint evidence; electronic data that included messages, a log from a GPS unit, and records from Eisenhauer’s Hokie Passport card; and Eisenhauer’s own recorded conversation with investigators.
Prosecutors said that Eisenhauer had persuaded Lovell to climb out of her bedroom window to meet him soon after midnight on Jan. 27, 2016. He took her to Craig Creek Road, in Montgomery County, and stabbed her to death in a wooded area above the road, then left her body in the snow, prosecutors said.
Later in the day, Eisenhauer and another Tech student, Natalie Marie Keepers, returned to Craig Creek Road, put Lovell’s body in the trunk of Eisenhauer’s Lexus, and drove to a secluded spot off the Blue Ridge Parkway, just over the state line into North Carolina and not far from the Galax home of Eisenhauer’s grandparents — an address that Eisenhauer told investigators he also used to claim in-state tuition at Tech.
As prosecutors called witness after witness — most of them law enforcement officers — the defense tried to cast doubt on each piece of evidence. Over and over, Anderson and Lichtenstein suggested that Keepers, in whose dorm room Lovell’s bloody underwear and Minions blanket was found, could have been the killer.
That defense suffered serious blows Thursday as forensic scientists said Eisenhauer’s DNA was identified on fingernail clippings taken from Lovell’s body. Her blood was found in the trunk of his car, on the car’s back seat and in numerous other spots connected to the case, testified Nicole Harold of the state crime lab in Roanoke.
And a bloody handprint on a shovel that was found in his car — presented by Lichtenstein as evidence that Keepers had to have been present at Lovell’s death — was determined to be too incomplete to identify as Keepers’ or anyone else’s, testified Cory Bartoe, also of the state crime lab.
The next evidence jurors would hear was going to be messages taken from the cellphones police took from Eisenhauer and Keepers. Late in the day Thursday, the defense objected that it had not been proven that Eisenhauer actually wrote the messages sent from his phone.
When Turk said that he was satisfied that the messages were Eisenhauer’s — Blacksburg Det. Deziree Twigger, one of two lead investigators in the case, took the phone directly from Eisenhauer, the judge noted — the case came to a quick end.
After Eisenhauer made his pleas Friday, Pettitt and Assistant Commonwealth’s Attorney Patrick Jensen read a summary of the evidence that would’ve been presented if the trial continued. This was largely a long string of messages between Eisenhauer, Keepers and others.
There were conversations between Lovell and Eisenhauer that began in December 2015. On Jan. 3, 2016, Lovell wrote, “Dear David, you are my crush even though I know you don’t think of me that way. ... I will always be here if you are looking for a good time.”
On Jan. 13, 2016, Eisenhauer messaged Lovell to say that he wanted to take a break from communicating with her and to sort out their relationship. They could stay friends, he wrote, “but I can’t stress enough you don’t tell anyone about me because they will hurt you.”
Lovell messaged back, “Who will hurt me? You’re scaring me.”
Eisenhauer had messaged a friend to say that he was trying to end a relationship with a young girl but that his attempt to present a false identity had failed and the girl’s friends had found him on Facebook. When the friend told him not to worry about it, Eisenhauer wrote back, “Too late, I need a place to hide a body in case things go really bad.”
Eisenhauer and Keepers shared a long string of messages about Lovell’s death, with Eisenhauer writing on Jan. 29, hours before he was taken into police custody, that he’d looked online and seen that police “do basically nothing” to find missing children.
“I guess we figured out how people commit mass murder,” Eisenhauer wrote.
Still messaging to Keepers on Jan. 29, Eisenhauer said that he figured that in a few more days, any search would wind down and they would be in the clear. He said that he thought he and Keepers had gone overboard in hiding Lovell’s body after stripping her and wiping her with cleaning wipes to try to remove evidence. “Always go overboard when your life is on the line,” Eisenhauer wrote.
There also were messages that Eisenhauer exchanged with another juvenile girl, identified in court as B.B., with whom he’d formed a relationship during the summer of 2015. He met B.B. in person at least five times, sometimes picking her up from school and taking her home. They communicated daily using the Kik app on their phones, prosecutors said.
The relationship with B.B. continued as Eisenhauer became involved with Lovell. In December 2015, Lovell messaged B.B. to say he had met a girl at a party and that she said they had “messed around,” Pettitt said in court.
Eisenhauer wrote that he was unsure what had happened because he had woke up after the party and found himself on the side of the road.
Eisenhauer wrote that the new girl’s name was Nicole and that he was worried that his parents would find out about his involvement with her. He began messaging B.B. about plans to get rid of Nicole, writing in January 2016 that he and a friend in the military planned to murder her.
On Jan. 26, 2016, Eisenhauer messaged B.B. to say that he would carry out the plan that night, prosecutors said. Eisenhauer wrote that he would turn off his phone while he did it. B.B. attempted to message Eisenhauer that night and his phone could not be contacted, prosecutors said.
When they got back in touch, B.B. messaged Eisenhauer to say she had seen a report of Lovell’s disappearance. B.B. asked Eisenhauer if he were responsible and he replied that Nicole had tripped on a branch and cut her neck open, prosecutors said.
On Jan. 28, 2016, the day after he’d killed Lovell, Eisenhauer got a message from B.B. suggesting he come over and “bring some protection.”
Jensen read Eisenhauer’s reply: “With all the s--- that came about because I couldn’t keep it in my pants, I think I’m done for a bit.”
When approached by reporters outside the courtroom, Lichtenstein and Anderson declined to comment on the outcome of the case. From a parking lot outside the courthouse, they waved as sheriff’s deputies drove Eisenhauer back to jail.
Keepers, 20, of Laurel, Maryland, is scheduled to begin a jury trial on Sept. 17 on charges of being an accessory before the fact to first-degree murder and to concealing a body.