Virginia seeks to have defendant in 1973 cold case killings indefinitely committed as “sexually violent predator”

·5 min read

It became clear late last year that the man charged in a 1973 rape and double slaying in Virginia Beach would never face trial in the decades old crime.

That’s because the defendant, Ernest Jean Broadnax, 83, suffers from significant dementia. He can’t understand the proceedings against him nor assist in his defense, leading a judge to declare him “unrestorably incompetent” in late 2020.

But the Virginia attorney general’s office is now pushing for Broadnax to be declared a “sexually violent predator” under state law. The statute allows the state to have certain defendants indefinitely committed to a state mental institution without a trial in their criminal case.

On Monday, a Virginia Beach Circuit Court judge found probable cause to hold a trial next year on whether Broadnax is “likely” to be sexually violent again — even at his advanced age — and should spend the rest of his days locked up in a state mental hospital.

Broadnax was charged in 2019 in the deaths of Janice Pietropola and Lynn Seethaler, two 19-year-olds found dead in their Virginia Beach hotel room in 1973. The case went cold for 45 years before a 2018 hit on a national DNA database tied the case to Broadnax, a former Norfolk resident.

Michelle Sjolinder, a Fredericksburg clinical psychologist who interviewed Broadnax by Zoom in February and evaluated his mental health and criminal records, said Broadnax has a high risk of reoffending.

“I believe he’s at high risk of further acts of sexual violence,” Sjolinder said. The victim, she said, could be a caregiver or someone close to him.

“Even if he’s not capable of completing a rape ... he may attempt such an assault,” she said.

Broadnax displays anti-social personality disorder, she said under questioning by attorney Brock Maust with the attorney general’s office.

Someone with such a disorder, she said, “acts on what they want to do at the moment,” and “doesn’t consider empathy or how their actions hurt the other person.”

Sjolinder also diagnosed Broadnax with a sexually deviant disorder in which he derives pleasure out of forcing someone to have sex against their will.

Instead of being “turned off” by someone rejecting their advances, Sjolinder says, “he becomes aroused by this.”

Also, she said, Broadnax’s neurological deficits are significant. He was often difficult to follow in conversation, she said, describing his speech as “word salad” with some truth mixed in.

Broadnax’s dementia, she said, could in fact cause him to become more aggressive at times. That happens especially with people who have had a history of violence, she said.

Broadnax, who is being held at Eastern State Hospital, attended Monday’s hearing in a wheelchair and wearing handcuffs. He was wheeled in and out of the courtroom by a sheriff’s deputy. He waved and greeted one of his defense lawyers in a good natured fashion.

Broadnax’s lawyer in the commitment case, Thomas H. Sheppard, pointed out that more than six years passed between Broadnax’s release from custody in 2013 on a violent assault and his arrest in 2019 on the Virginia Beach charges.

Wouldn’t that length of time without breaking the law “be clinically significant?” Sheppard asked.

“It does not negate decades of problematic violence,” Sjolinder replied.

Those who have monitored Broadnax in prisons and secure hospitals — including at Eastern State — said they found him to be “pleasant and cooperative,” with no misconduct while in custody.

But Sjolinder contended that how someone behaves in a “controlled environment” can be very different to how they would act on their own.

The killings of Pietropola and Seethaler, who travelled from suburban Pittsburgh to Virginia Beach for vacation in the last week of June 1973, triggered a massive police investigation at the time.

They booked their stay at Farrar’s Tourist Village, a family-owned-and-operated motel that was located at the corner of Atlantic Avenue and 10th Street, across the street from the Boardwalk.

Their motel room was broken into, and they were found shot, strangled and slashed on the last night of their stay. Pietropola also had been raped.

After Broadnax was identified as a suspect through DNA, a Virginia Beach Police detective, Kristy Curtis, traveled to Queens, New York, that year to talk with him at an apartment complex for military veterans who had substance abuse issues.

She testified Monday that she spent nine hours interviewing him at a New York Police Department precinct, during which he told her he had worked at Nick’s restaurant at the Oceanfront in the early 1970s.

She said he also remembered Pietropola and Seethaler, terming them “peep show girls.”

Also during the interview, Curtis said that Broadnax told her that a victim of a sexual assault he was convicted of in Norfolk later in the 1970s “deserved it.”

When Sjolinder interviewed Broadnax in February, she said that he referenced a photograph in which the two Virginia Beach homicide victims were wearing typical bathing suits.

“They were at the beach on vacation,” she said. “There was nothing about it that appeared to be sexually provocative.”

It was concerning, she said, “that he’s interpreting this very benign photo to mean that what happened to them was justifiable based on how they were dressed.”

Sjolinder said she also asked Broadnax about the charges against him. “If they said I did, I guess I did,” she said he replied about the accusations at one point. “Fingerprints and DNA don’t lie.”

Broadnax has a long rap sheep, to include the Norfolk sexual assault as well as another sex charge in 1981 when he was accused of breaking into a home and sexually assaulting a woman, and other charges. He pleaded guilty to burglary and served about four years.

In 2006, Broadnax was convicted in New York of beating a man with a pipe, breaking the man’s arm. Broadnax, who was 67 at the time, got an 8-year sentence. He was paroled in 2013 at the age of 74.

While he was locked up on that charge, his DNA was required to be entered into a New York database of those with felony records.

At the end of Monday’s hearing, Virginia Beach Circuit Court Judge Stephen C. Mahan ruled there’s sufficient probable cause to go to forward with the civil commitment trial.

For the trial, Broadnax is allowed to call a different mental health evaluator and other witnesses for why he should not be declared a sexually violent predator.

Staffer Jane Harper contributed to this report.

Peter Dujardin, 757-247-4749, pdujardin@dailypress.com

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