In the all-American suburb of Richmond, Va., residents say Fred Jablin fit right in.
"He was very involved with his children," says his neighbor, Megan McCreary. "He was doing the same things that we do as Moms and Dads."
"I'm very proud of my brother. He was my best friend," says Michael Jablin, Fred's older brother. He says Jablin, a leading academic, was ambitious, but his career took second place to his three children -- especially after his divorce from Piper Rountree, his wife of 18 years.
"He was the acting dean at the University of Richmond for a temporary period. But he couldn't run for full deanship because he had to dedicate his life and his times to his children, and that hurt him academically," says Michael Jablin. "He made that sacrifice because his kids came first."
The morning of October 30 should have been the beginning of another hectic day with his kids. But it would not turn out that way. Fred Jablin was found murdered in front of his home.
Neighbors heard shots but didn't see anything. No weapon was found, and there was almost no physical evidence. After checking the house, police ruled out robbery. Homicide Det. Coby Kelly led the investigation: "I learned pretty early on that people said, 'I have no idea who would wanna do this to Fred, but have you talked to his ex-wife?'"
Rountree says she was shocked by her ex-husband's murder. "It was very sad," she says. "He's the children's father. The children need two parents. They need a mother; they need a father."
At the time of the murder, Rountree was living 1,000 miles away in Houston. Because of the divorce, police remained suspicious of her. "We knew we wanted to talk to her," says Kelly. "We knew we wanted to do it as soon as possible."
Police wondered if Rountree could have flown to Virginia the weekend of the murder. They checked local airports, and on a flight out of Norfolk, one passenger's name jumped out at them.
"They say, 'We don't have a Piper Rountree, but we've got a Tina Rountree on this flight," says Kelley.
As police quickly discovered, Tina was Piper's big sister, and she also lived in Texas. Could the murder of this beloved professor be some kind of conspiracy of sisters? As Correspondent Harold Dow reports, discovering the truth would lead Kelly across the country and back, through a trail of bizarre clues and deep into a strange relationship.
"Piper and I are soul sisters. We're incomplete without each other," says Tina Rountree. "We call each other two or three times a day. We're very, very tight.
The two sisters came from a large, but tight knit Texas family. When Rountree attended the University of Texas, she became a standout student who caught the eye of her communications professor, Fred Jablin. She was 21, athletic and artistic. He was eight years older, brainy and slightly eccentric.
"From Day One, I was always disappointed that she married Fred, because I always thought she would marry someone who was more successful," says Tina Rountree. "Someone who's interesting. Someone who was funny. He was not."
But friends said the marriage worked. "I think they found in each other what they needed for each other," says Professor John Daly, who knew the couple, and remained one of Jablin's best friends.
"He also had a very quirky side to him, as I've been described as having myself," recalls Rountree. "I think those two qualities between us meshed a lot."
The early years were good, and Jablin was supportive of Rountree's decision to attend law school. After graduating, Rountree practiced law in Texas, and the couple started a family. Rountree was devoted to her children, but she was drifting away from her husband.
"We were not in love with each other," says Rountree. "It was like being married to your best roommate."Jablin moved the family to Virginia when he got a better position at the University of Richmond – but the marriage was crumbling. Rountree was treated for depression and her behavior became erratic. She ran up huge credit card debts. The couple divorced, and during a bitter battle for the children, Jablin argued that Rountree was unstable. Remarkably, he won custody.
"I didn't feel good," says Rountree. "A lot of things in the system are very unfair. Fred also, to give him credit, he's very, very good at what he does. He teaches how to present testimony … he taught attorneys."
Tina Rountree, however, was angry: "To see what the courts did was absolutely amazing. How can a man, if he loves his children, hurt the children that much? And as smart as he was, that he couldn't see that what he was doing was just really getting back at Piper. But he used the children. And how can you do that?"
After the divorce, Roundtree made a painful decision. She wasn't licensed to practice law in Virginia, so she moved back to Texas where she could work as a lawyer, seeing her children as often as she could. "I would see them at least once a month," she says. "And talk to them every day, almost."
She had been living in Houston for nearly three years, when the police called her to say that her ex-husband had been shot. They said they wanted to ask her some questions.
"I did not kill Fred Jablin. That's not what a good parent does," says Rountree. "It's not what a mother does. No mother would do that."
What's more, a witness places her in Houston the day of the murder. Marty McVey, a Texas lawyer, is a friend of both Rountree sisters. Police, however, also had questions for Tina Rountree. She was listed as the passenger on that flight leaving Virginia the afternoon of the murder, but Tina Rountree says she was at work that day in her health clinic.
Jablin's morning ritual created a target of opportunity for his killer, who lay in wait, to gun him down in his own driveway. "When we got there, the coffee was brewing, and the newspaper was still at the end of the driveway, so he hadn't had an opportunity to retrieve it," says Kelly.
Just hours after the crime, Virginia police were tracking a suspect. They discovered that someone using the name Tina Rountree had boarded a flight in Virginia that was scheduled to land in Houston at 4:30 p.m. Police called Houston homicide.
Det. Breck McDaniel and five officers rushed to the airport with the driver's license photos for both Rountree sisters: "We were looking for females, and I was putting my money on blondes."
The plane was 10 minutes late, and whoever had traveled on that flight managed to pick up two bags at the airport, and slip past the officers.
Even though police in Houston hadn't caught anybody at the airport, Richmond Det. Kelly was convinced the Rountree sisters had something to do with Jablin's murder. When Kelly's flight arrived in Houston the day after the murder, he joined police and went straight to Rountree's house.
"I didn't get any response at all," says Kelly. "We were there for a considerable time knocking, banging pretty loudly. … So we decided to leave someone, and the rest of us went down to try to locate Tina."Police drove the freeway 30 miles south to downtown, but they couldn't find Tina Rountree at home, either. Minutes later, the officer they left behind at Rountree's house called to say that Piper was leaving her house in her black Jeep.
As Kelly drove north to try and intercept Rountree, she turned south on the freeway toward downtown Houston. "At some point, we turned around and got in behind her," says Kelly. "She makes kind of a last minute diversion, from on off ramp, back onto the interstate. … So we followed her. She ended up at the office of Marty McVey. She pulled into a parking spot. I got out of the car, approached her and introduced myself. She said, 'Come on inside.'"
They discovered Tina Rountree sitting in Marty McVeigh's Houston law office was none other than Tina Rountree. They all knew each other because Rountree had once rented office space from McVeigh. Det. Kelly had questions for all of them, starting with Piper. "She hemmed and hawed," recalls Kelly.
McVeigh, a criminal defense attorney, had a strong alibi for Rountree. He said she was with him at precisely the time the suspect they were chasing had supposedly landed in Houston on the day of the murder: "If she was on that flight, it would have been impossible for her to get to my office at 4:30 because I understand the flight didn't come in until 4:40. It was 10 minutes late. And it's at least a 30 or 45-minute drive from Hobby Airport to my office. So I would surmise she was not on that flight."
As for Tina Rountree, she said she had been seeing patients all day -- and denied any involvement in the murder.
The detectives left McVeigh's Houston office with precious little information, but they soon got a stunning lead. The ticket agent remembered the woman who bought that plane ticket as Tina Rountree had used someone else's credit card. She was also allowed to check items that shocked investigators.
"The woman was actually trying to check a gun," says Kelly. "You could have bought me for a dime when she said that."
Believe it or not, checking that gun was legal, but where did the murder weapon come from?
"It never occurred to us that the person who brought the gun to Virginia actually flew it with them, under the plane," says Kelly, who along with his investigators, had to keep digging. There just wasn't enough evidence to make an arrest.
The investigation into Jablin's murder led Kelly directly to Rountree and her older sister, Tina. "Neither one of them acted in a manner which we would expect family members would normally act when they have learned that a former loved one has been murdered," says Kelly.
The plane ticket in the name of Tina Rountree led police to a mystery man. The ticket was paid for with a credit card in the name "Jerry Walters."
"I don't think anyone on the face of the Earth was more shocked than myself to find out my card was in Richmond, Va.," says Walters. "I did not have a clue."
The card not only paid for the plane ticket, it was also used for cash in Richmond. "We're trying to figure out, who is Jerry Walters," says Kelly.
Walters says that he and Rountree had been dating for about a year prior to Jablin's murder. He says he gave Rountree the credit card, but he swears he had no idea about the murder: "I knew, absolutely nothing of this…I didn't even know what her plans were for the weekend."
The credit card trail was pointing to Rountree. But Kelly was still puzzled. How could Piper, a brunette, have used Tina's ID to fly to and from Virginia, when Tina was a blonde?
Then, Kelly discovered an intriguing purchase: "Wigs were purchased during this time with that card."
Wigs, including a blonde wig that police believe Rountree used to impersonate her sister at the Houston airport.
And what about Rountree's motive? Investigators learned that in addition to losing custody, Rountree had been ordered to pay child support to Jablin. And she owed him more than $700,000 in back payments.
"She was continuing to amass more debt to Fred, the person who had her kids, and was keeping her from her kids, in her mind," says Kelly. "So, I think, you know, the pressure was building. The pressure was building."
Kelly thought that with Jablin gone, she'd get her children back. He believed he was building a pretty solid case, but there were problems: There was no direct evidence linking Rountree to the crime, no witnesses, no fingerprints, no DNA evidence and no murder weapon.
The gun was never found, but Kelly learned that Rountree had come to a Houston shooting range just four days before the murder, and practiced with a .38-caliber revolver. Jablin was killed with a .38-caliber bullet.
In the midst of the investigation, police made a startling discovery. They learned that her cell phone was in the Richmond area on the night of the 28th, which was a Friday. And on Saturday, too.
Saturday was the day of Jablin's murder.
Plus, parking lot records show Rountree's car was parked for three days at a Houston airport the weekend of the murder.
But as police were closing in on Rountree, they ran into a big stumbling block: Rountree's alibi. Rountree claims she was at a bar in Houston on Friday night, before the murder. A regular customer of the bar backed her up, and so did the bartender.
McVey also swears that Rountree was in his office the afternoon of the murder. Nevertheless, Kelly was certain that Rountree had killed her ex-husband."I imagine she woke up very early that morning. She parked probably on a street a block over," says Kelly. "I think that as he walked down the driveway to get the paper, I imagine she said something to him. And I can see him approaching her. But at some point, she exposed the gun. And as he turned to run away, she fired three shots."
Ten days after the killing, police arrested Rountree for the murder of Fred Jablin. Against her lawyer's wishes, Rountree decides to take the stand in her own defense. She denies murdering her ex-husband.
Rountree, 45, is confronting the fact that she is about to be tried for murder and could lose everything that matters to her. "I'm fighting for my life. I'm fighting for the fundamental values that I have," she says. "I believe in truth and honesty. I believe in God. I believe in motherhood and my children."
Tina Rountree believes in her sister's innocence: "It's very scary and it's not fair. It's so unfair."
Piper could go to jail for the rest of her life, which would separate these two sisters forever.
Police and prosecutors are confident they have the right sister, but now four months after the murder, they must prove it to a jury. They must also prove that Rountree, wearing a wig and using her sister's ID had flown to Virginia to shoot her ex-husband as he walked out to get the morning paper.
"She'd lost custody of her kids and was devastated. She was bankrupt," says lead prosecutor Wade Kizer, who argues that Rountree had a powerful motive to kill. "This is the answer. 'Get rid of Fred. Get the kids back. Don't have to pay child support. The kids are with me.'"
Rountree's lawyer, Murray Janus, says police and prosecutors are making a mistake. He says the wrong sister is on trial: "I think you'll hear evidence that Tina had certainly at one time a gun herself, a .38 caliber."
With no witnesses to the crime, prosecutors rely on circumstantial evidence: the credit card trail of Jerry Walters. His card purchased the plane ticket, bought wigs, and even paid for gas the weekend of the murder.
But what about Piper's alibi? The people from the Volcano bar in Houston now say they didn't see Piper the night before the murder. After checking receipts, they realized they had the nights confused.
McVey doesn't change his story his story about her visit to his office Saturday afternoon. But Kelly says McVey is mistaken: "It's impossible for her to have been in his office at the time he's saying, when we know her plane had just landed or was just about to land at that point."
Is McVey a liar? "I think so," says Kelly.
The most damaging evidence comes from Piper's cell phone. Towers in the Richmond area picked up its signal the weekend of the murder. Records show one call, to Fred's house, to someone Rountree knew very well.
Rountree's own son, 12, submits written testimony about a phone call the day before the murder of his father. The prosecutor says he "would testify that when he received the phone call, the caller ID indicated on his cell phone was 'Mom's cell.' And when he answered the phone, he recognized the voice of that of his mother, the defendant."
Now, Rountree knows she's in trouble. Defying her lawyer, she decides to gamble, taking the stand to tell her story to the jurors directly.
"They need to know something about me, something about how I think," says Rountree. "What I do. Why I wouldn't do these things."
She denies killing her ex-husband, and her lawyer takes her through the evidence, piece by piece. Her denials are direct, and she seems to have an answer for almost everything. But cross-examination isn't so easy. When she is asked if she would do anything for her children, Rountree says, "I wouldn't kill for them, no."
But as the interrogation continues, Rountree seems to run out of answers. She has no explanation for why records from the Houston airport show her vehicle in their parking lot. And she has no explanation for her son's testimony about the cell phone call the day before the murder.
Kizer takes aim at the defense strategy of implicating Piper's sister for the murder: "You want this jury to think that Tina committed the murder. You're willing to put it on her, aren't you?"
The trial lasts five days. It's now up to the jury to decide whether Rountree, a mother who says she loves her children, is also the killer who murdered their father.
"Right now, as we stand here talking to each other, the jury is deliberating your fate," Dow asks Rountree. "How do you feel about that? What are your thoughts? What are you feeling inside? Are you afraid?"
"Yea," says Rountree. "Yes."
Throughout Rountree's murder trial, Jablin's brother has watched closely in disbelief. "There is no doubt in my mind [that Rountree is guilty]," says Michael Jablin. "And I was very said about the whole thing, hearing it … about how somebody with such a high level of education could have plotted such an event."
Every day, Rountree's mother, Betty, sat in the courtroom. She says she can't believe her youngest daughter is a killer: "Do I think she's guilty? Is this what you're saying? No I do not. She's had so much love in her life and she's such a gentle kind person, I honestly cannot believe that she did this."
The jury deliberates for less than an hour. They find Rountree guilty of first-degree murder.
No one seems surprised, not even Rountree. Within an hour, the jury hears more testimony and then will recommend her sentence – anywhere from 20 years to life.
Betty Rountree pleads leniency for her daughter – so the children who have already lost their father won't lose their mother, too: "Her whole life was just with those children…taking them different places…reading to them."
Michael Jablin is not vindictive – just sad, and searching for answers. "How do you explain to young children that their mother killed their father?" he asks. "They've lost both parents now. How do I explain that to these children?"
In less than an hour, the jury decides to recommend the harshest penalty: life in prison.
Within minutes of the verdict, 48 Hours talked to Rountree in a holding cell. "I think I'm still in shock," says Rountree.
Has reality hit yet? "Not so much," she says. "Somewhat. I don't know."
In spite of all the evidence and the jury's swift verdict, Rountree still insists she's innocent.
"You still are saying that you didn't kill your ex-husband?" asks Dow.
"I didn't. I didn't," says Rountree. "I know it looked like it. I mean, obviously, it looked like it. I didn't."
Rountree seems to be in denial about the verdict, and about the future with her children. "I just love them and miss them," she says. "And want to talk to them."
What kind of mother would do this?
"I don't know what kind of mother would leave them without a father and without a mother," says Michael Jablin. "It's very hard to understand that. It's very sad when you have to think about that."
The verdict may be in. But the mystery remains. Why did she do it?
Michael Jablin now has legal custody of Piper and Fred's three children. Tina Rountree, charged with tampering with evidence, will be tried this fall. Piper Rountree will be eligible for release in 2020. She will be 60 years old.
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