The classroom is full of Anne Arundel County police cadets. They are hearing a story, and they’re riveted. The petite blond guest speaker in their Davidsonville training center is a former model, but it’s not her beauty that’s transfixing them. It’s what she has to say that’s so powerful.
“The physical abuse started with him choking me. One night after I had gone out with friends, he accused me of cheating on him. He called me a liar and told me he couldn’t trust anything I said. While he had me pinned down by the throat, he said I was stupid and worthless. I wondered what I did that was so wrong, how I could be so half-witted and make him so angry. Like other abused women, I felt that he was right and I was wrong. It had to be my fault.”
Some of the cadets are thinking hard, trying to match her name with the old newspaper stories. She has introduced herself only as Lisa. Is this Lisa Marie Spicknall? Those who have solved the puzzle are wondering how much of that woman’s highly publicized personal trauma will be revealed today.
“The abuse progressed. I had moved in with him on my 18th birthday, leaving the only home I had ever known. I wished that someone would hear him beating me or hear me screaming and call the police. Or that I would get the courage to stand up to him. I didn’t. I couldn’t. I allowed him to treat me the way he did.
“After we moved in together, the beatings intensified. There were days I couldn’t leave the house because I was so bruised. I wore long sleeves in the summer. I was thrown into walls, chairs, and down the stairs. I had my face slammed into a wall and my nose broken.
“The worst beating was on a night just after I moved my car. He came home and thought that because my car had been moved, I was cheating on him. He beat me for over an hour—and then beat me again when I wouldn’t have sex with him. The next day, I went into hiding.”
She tells the rookie cops she stayed hidden for two weeks before Richard Spicknall found her. He claimed to be in counseling and promised the beatings would stop. Also, if she would not return home, he told her, he would kill himself, and his death would be her fault. The story was convincing enough for her to buy. And there was another reason: She was pregnant with his child.
It was not a happy nine months. “It was a time of fear,” she tells the cadets. “Not only was I afraid of doing something wrong, but if he hit me, he might hurt the baby. Still, nothing stopped him from throwing me down the stairs while I was pregnant, and hitting me with chairs and phones. If he could pick it up, he would strike me with it.”
Some of the cops look down at their yellow legal pads. The female trainees are taking lots of notes.
“The abuse didn’t stop after I had my two children. He hit me while I was holding our son or daughter. He didn’t worry about injuring them. The children began to cry whenever he raised his voice. He broke my arm by throwing a pager at it and told me if I went to a hospital he would kill me. So the broken arm went unreported.
“The threat of death to an abused person is very real. They believe what they’re told by the abuser, especially when it comes to violence. I feared for my safety and my two small children.”
On Nov. 21, 1998, she tells the cadets, the abuse in the relationship reached a new level. Her husband threw her out of the house.
“He told me I could take my son, but not our older daughter, Destiny. When I protested, he grabbed me by the throat and, with my son in my arms, pushed me down the stairs. He threw a diaper bag after me and locked me out of the house.”
The marriage was over. Three days later, a police sergeant retrieved her daughter. Lisa Spicknall got a protective order and filed for divorce. She was given custody of both children, and Richard was given liberal visitation rights.
“On Sept. 9, 1999, my former husband committed the ultimate act of domestic violence: He shot my two beautiful children. My son, Richie, died instantly. My daughter, Destiny, died after suffering for more than 30 hours. My former husband finally got what he wanted—the ultimate control of my life. He took everything. My worst fears came true,” says Lisa, who is wearing, as always, a picture of her two deceased children pinned just below her shoulder.
The murder of the two children was more than three years ago, but the ordeal continues. Her husband, while not denying the murders, is disputing Lisa’s abuse claims from prison, maintaining that he never once struck her. He is also asking for a new trial in the matter of the children’s murder, saying that his attorney coerced him into pleading guilty in the first one. If it goes forward, she will have to attend. She has filed a $20 million civil suit against the state of Maryland, claiming that the gun her husband used to kill the children was obtained illegally. Meanwhile, speaking to police departments, colleges, and women’s groups on domestic violence has become a part of her life.
“I decided you can either lie down and die or get up and fight,” says Lisa, now 28 and an employee of the Roberta Roper Foundation, an organization that helps crime victims.
They appeared to be the ideal couple. She was a Northeast High School cheerleader from Pasadena, Md., a mostly white, blue-collar town in Anne Arundel County. She had once worked for the John Casablancas modeling agency. Richard had been his high school’s senior class president, a running back on the football team, a sprinter on the track squad, and a star outfielder in baseball. He was an only child, the son of a Baltimore cop, with a mother who doted on him. As modern-day romances go, the origins were classic—they met inside a Glen Burnie shopping mall in 1991.
Lisa was 16, working after school in a men’s clothing store. Richard was 18, just out of high school and taking business courses at Anne Arundel Community College. He dropped out after they met. Their first apartment was in Annapolis, but according to Lisa, he bounced around the area from job to job because of his temper. Richard worked in restaurants, formalwear shops, and tire-supply stores. They were frustrating, short-time jobs that went nowhere. He also began trying to dominate her, demanding to know her whereabouts at all times.
When Richard Wayne Spicknall—he often went by the middle name—was between jobs and nearly broke, they would move in with his parents. The senior Spicknall household was a three-bedroom, one-bath ranch in Glen Burnie. After two different stays, they got an apartment in Columbia. That was where, one night, he rammed her face into a wall and broke her nose.
“My nose wouldn’t stop bleeding, so after a few hours he had to take me to a hospital. Neither of us said anything, but the doctors knew it was domestic violence. They kept us apart and wouldn’t let him near me,” she says.
But no law-enforcement agency was informed.
Richard Spicknall had several small brushes with the legal system. In an interview at the Maryland House of Corrections, in Jessup, he freely admits to punching a uniformed cop in 1994 and being arrested, though he was acquitted in court. There were also two shoplifting charges when he was a teenager.
After Lisa Spicknall moved in with her boyfriend, her parents began to notice differences in their daughter. They didn’t catch the bruises, but they began to be alarmed by the degree of control he exerted over her.
“He cut her off from us,” says Lisa’s mother, Peggy Fields. “She was allowed to see his family, but not us. I was worried because
Lisa wasn’t even allowed to go to the supermarket alone. He had to be there, telling her what to buy.”
She was forbidden to contact her old girlfriends. Socializing with them brought beatings.
“One night, Lisa and I went out to our high school’s homecoming,” recalls Heather Siemenkiewicz, Lisa’s friend since the fourth grade. “When we came home, Richard was there and accused her of cheating on him. He began to be physical with her, but I stepped in. After that, he wouldn’t let her see me. He did his best to alienate her from friends.”
Asked for her first impression of Richard Spicknall, Siemenkiewicz replies, “I thought, almost immediately, What an asshole.”
“He was creepy,” agrees fellow former cheerleader Donna Puccinelli. “Lisa was doing a complete turnaround. She used to be outgoing. After they married, she became withdrawn.”
Lisa’s former co-workers at the Baltimore law firm of Leonard C. Redmond III, where she was the receptionist, have few good words for her husband. “He was a little weasel,” says one attorney, who asked not to be identified. “A real control freak. You could tell he was verbally abusive, but we never saw anything physical.”
In a face-to-face prison interview, Richard Spicknall defiantly denies Lisa’s charges: “Yeah, I have a temper. I have an attitude, too. And I like to bark a lot. So what? I never hit her.”
Lisa became pregnant in 1995, and the two married that November at a Methodist church in Baltimore. But only Richard’s family attended the ceremony. Lisa’s family and her school friends say they never received invitations. She gave birth to Destiny early in 1996. Richard was born 14 months later. Both their first and middle names were chosen by him.
After Destiny was born, Richard forbade Lisa from going back to work at the law firm. Despite the two small children she now cared for, the beatings and abuse continued. Her husband was far from being a heavy drinker. He never used drugs. But Richard Wayne Spicknall was not only manipulative, but quick to anger—an emotion that often preceded physical violence.
Lisa Spicknall and her husband began sharing custody of their two children not long after they separated, in December 1998. But she sought and received a protective court order that prevented her husband from phoning, writing, or visiting her. Under the terms of that document, whenever Des and Richie Spicknall were picked up for their weekly three-day visit with their father, a third adult had to be present. Still, each time Richard got the opportunity, he implored Lisa to reconsider her decision to divorce him.
“We can work it out,” he would say. But apologies, even followed by begging, no longer worked.
In September 1999, Richard asked to take both children to Ocean City for a week. His parents had access to an apartment at the Capri condominium there and were already at the beach waiting for him. The holiday was to be his longest visit with his kids since the separation. Lisa was apprehensive—she had never been apart from her children that long—but agreed to the vacation.
Two days before the trip, Richard left what he had termed his “dream job” as floor manager of the ESPN Zone sports bar in Baltimore’s Inner Harbor. He had worked there for eight months. Earlier that year, he had filed for personal bankruptcy, listing $1,000 in assets and $42,000 in debts. He had failed to make child support payments to Lisa that week.
Still, he’d been able to find enough cash to visit the A-1 pawn shop in College Park on Sept. 2 and purchase a 9 mm Smith & Wesson handgun for $200. It was inside his mother’s blue cloth-top Jeep Wrangler when he picked up the two children on the evening of Sept. 8. Richard told Lisa he would be leaving late that night because he wanted them to sleep while he drove.
“He asked me to come to the beach with them,” Lisa says. “He thought he could talk me into getting back with him. I think if I had come along, he would have shot me, too.”
The Frederick C. Malkus Jr. Bridge, named for a former Maryland state senator, was built in 1987. The concrete structure spans the Choptank River, separating the haves of Talbot County from the have-nots of adjoining Dorchester County. The bridge it replaced is now used as a fishing pier. Most travelers know none of this—and don’t care. For them, the span is a blip on U.S. Route 50, about the halfway point between Washington, D.C., and the beaches of Ocean City.
For Lisa Spicknall, it will always be the place where her husband chose to leave the highway, take a handgun from the glove compartment and shoot their two small children, buckled in their car seats in the back.
Richard Spicknall has offered up several versions of his actions that night. One account is that he became depressed as he drove east over the Chesapeake Bay Bridge and began crying. Near the town of Trappe, he saw a ranger’s station and pulled up to it, intending to give someone on duty the gun before he did something foolish with it. When he found nobody there, he sat on a picnic-table bench and contemplated suicide. But he couldn’t bring himself to shoot himself and instead shot his son in the chest and his daughter in the stomach.
In a taped confession, he said he told them, “I love you guys. I don’t ever want to leave you,” as they slept before reaching in through the vehicle’s window and pulling the trigger twice. Following the murders, he drove to a residential construction site, where he abandoned both the car and the children. In this account, he then tried suicide by jumping off the highest point of the Malkus Bridge, more than five stories above the Choptank.
“I walked up to the bridge and jumped,” he told the Easton Star Democrat. “When I jumped, I jumped with the gun in my hand, pulling the trigger. The last thing I remember at that point was hearing the click of the gun, the last thought was it was not going off, and then waking up in the water.”
That wasn’t the story the Maryland State Police got from Richard Spicknall when he telephoned them from a pay phone. He first told the cops that he had been driving to the beach late that night and had picked up a hitchhiker. The hitchhiker was a carjacker, who pushed him out of the car and into the water. Richard was able to give a detailed description of his assailant, remembering each piece of clothing the children’s kidnapper was wearing.
Detectives, who questioned him for
16 hours before getting this version, thought his statement was totally unbelievable. Although he was wet and sitting near the end of the fishing pier when they found him, he was largely unharmed. A five-story fall into the middle of a swiftly flowing river in the dark of night should have caused injuries, if not death, they thought. Richard was allowed a phone call, which he used to contact his father at the condominium in Ocean City. He repeated the carjacking tale, and his father called Lisa and repeated it to her. She thought the story was false.
“Who picks up hitchhikers late at night with two little kids in the back seat?” she asked her mother, adding, “He did something to the children.”
The two sped to Talbot County, about an hour away. At a State Police station, they sat and waited while the police searched until 7:45 the next morning. That’s when a voice came over the public-address system. “We found the kids and they’re hurt,” a dispatcher announced. A construction crew had discovered them at the building site as the shift began.
Destiny was resuscitated by local medics and then flown to the University of Maryland Medical Center in Baltimore. After that, her condition never improved; she died with Lisa at her bedside. Richie was pronounced dead within minutes after arriving at a Dorchester County hospital.
At Richard Spicknall’s bond hearing, where he faced two murder charges, his lawyer gave Lisa a preview of what lay ahead. Michael Belsky, an attorney who specializes in defending policemen and members of their family, called his client “an all-American young man who has been a hardworking family man all his life.”
Belsky also hinted that the murder charges would be contested, referring to the “alleged confession that is both suspicious in nature and procedure.” Richard, for his part, began claiming that he had blacked out before pulling the trigger and couldn’t remember anything. Belsky promised a full psychiatric evaluation. Because of the notoriety of the case, a change of venue was requested and granted.
Chestertown, Md., was not prepared for a trial like the Spicknall case. The picturesque village of fewer than 5,000 inhabitants on the Eastern Shore has a one-room brick courthouse and no metal detectors. One was hastily borrowed from Montgomery County before the trial. By now, Belsky had begun an aggressive strategy to pursue a “not criminally responsible” plea, Maryland legalese for an insanity defense.
Lisa Spicknall attended every preliminary hearing prior to the trial. Each time, she says, she looked her husband in the eye, while he, in turn, stared at the floor. Still, there was confrontation. Once, when he passed her, she whispered to her mother, “He’s such a coward.”
Hearing the remark, he reacted and lunged toward her, even though he was handcuffed and manacled at the ankles.
“If you want me, come and get me,” he shouted as he was pulled away by marshals. “He would have choked me to death if he could have,” she says now.
Richard continued to haunt her life from behind bars. When the court granted Lisa an emergency request for a divorce decree in December 1999, her husband was brought from the Talbot County Jail to the Howard County Courthouse manacled, surrounded by sheriff’s deputies.
In his opening statement at the murder trial, Belsky turned the charges upside down. His client, he said, had purchased the gun to kill himself, not the children.
“In a moment, he took their lives and then tried to take his,” Belsky said. “There was no premeditation, no planning. His mind began to unravel. Without thinking, without premeditating, he did the unexplainable.”
Previewing his insanity defense, Belsky said that Richard Spicknall suffered from a mental disorder similar to that of his father, who had once had a nervous breakdown. New filings now claimed that the cops had found Richard balled up in a fetal position on the ground. “His answers to officers’ questions were unintelligible and slow to nonspecific and random,” Belsky said.
Lisa Spicknall was the prosecution’s first witness. She gave an hourlong description of their marriage. Belsky, sensing both a conviction and the death penalty for his client, caved in after less than a week. With Richard’s consent, he changed the plea to guilty to save his client’s life.
At his sentencing, Richard had plenty to say. First, he claimed he wasn’t afraid of the death penalty—”except,” he said, “taking that road would cause more pain to my family. I can’t understand or explain to my family what happened that night. My children know the circumstances and know what happened. I can’t ask my family to forgive me. My children do forgive me. I owe it to my family not to drag this out for years.”
Lisa had expected self-serving comments; she walked out of the courtroom when he began to speak. “There’s nothing he can say to myself or my family that can change anything,” she said. “There is nothing we wanted to hear.”
While Lisa spoke to the courtroom, she clutched two baby blankets. She described the continual nightmare she had been living: “It’s hard to think that every day they’re not coming home. They loved each other, and now they’re taking care of each other.”
Besides giving Richard Spicknall two life sentences without parole, Judge J. Frederick Price tacked on a 20-year sentence for handgun possession.
Lisa Spicknall’s ordeal continued after the sentencing. Her former husband mounted a public-relations offensive, writing letters to newspapers and granting interviews to reporters. In one, he answered the question of whether he had killed his children to hurt his wife:
“No,” he said. “It was not a crime of hatred. It wasn’t a crime of revenge. It was a crime of love. It was emotional—it had nothing to do with the kids. I know that she made comments to the media after sentencing, that the kids never did anything wrong. She’s right. They never did anything wrong, and that goes down both ways.
“When I shot them, I think it was out of mercy, of love. My hands were tied. I couldn’t do anything else anymore. I’m about to kill myself, I’m about to leave the two people I vowed to protect and never leave, and somewhere along the line this situation happened. But it was never to hurt anybody else. It was never to hurt the kids. It was never to hurt her, my family. The whole situation involved the kids, but it had nothing to do with the kids.”
Asked last month why he would drive to the beach with a gun in the car, he had a ready answer: “My parents were going to take the children back to her. I planned to stay at the beach and kill myself there.”
In a letter last month, Richard Spicknall continued to claim that he had never physically abused his wife: “The Maryland State Police, after listening to these allegations, investigated, and determined they could not be proven. I never abused my ex-wife and any statements printed will be challenged.”
From behind bars, he wrote that his former wife is “a selfish, manipulating, opportunist who is looking for all the attention she can. I am a good person, who came from a good family with good values, but just met the wrong person and made some mistakes…”
Richard’s mother, Roni Spicknall, seconds her son. Interviewed for this article, she describes the shootings as “the culmination of a year of torment by Lisa. He snapped.”
Did he hit her?
“Of course not. They lived in my house twice, and they had some fights, like everyone does. But when Richard got mad he just hit the door with his fist—except once, when he punched it through the bedroom wall.”
Roni Spicknall contends that it was Lisa who was the abuser, who beat Destiny so that she became covered with bruises. Her former daughter-in-law responds by admitting that both children did indeed at one time have bruises on their legs. “They were fair-skinned and bruised easily,” Lisa says. “They got them by running through the tunnels at Chuck E. Cheese.”
Peggy Fields remembers the bruises and the accusations. She says she told her daughter to stop taking the kids to Chuck E. Cheese’s until the divorce was final.
In addition to enduring her former husband’s continued snipings from inside the Maryland House of Corrections, Lisa Spicknall has recently acquired a stalker, an appendage that seems to accompany both beauty and sudden fame. After she was followed and telephoned for months, she determined to keep her phone number and address secret. The man, a bus driver more than double her age, was served with a restraining order.
Lisa’s civil suit against the state of Maryland blames a faulty system for allowing Richard Spicknall to acquire a firearm. The terms of the protective order she was granted against her husband when she left him forbade him to purchase a gun. But somehow, the paperwork never made it into the state’s computers, and thus Richard’s name was not on file at the College Park pawn shop. Court records subsequently showed that there were hundreds of similar cases where the restraining orders weren’t properly recorded.
At a hearing, Maryland State Police Superintendent David Mitchell seemed to shrug off this situation, stating, “The majority of these mistakes were not fatal.”
“I think we’ve done pretty well,” noted Judge Martha Rasin, “but as long as we have Lisa Spicknalls in the world, we haven’t done well enough.”
Still, Lisa Spicknall’s civil suit was dismissed. The ruling is currently being appealed in Annapolis. Experts believe she has little chance of winning.
Lisa will also have to face her former husband yet again. Richard has claimed, among other motions, “ineffective assistance of counsel” and that his plea of guilty was involuntary; a new trial looms. A hearing scheduled for this month has recently been postponed with Richard promising an amended filing.
“This time, the trial is going to be done right,” Richard says from the other side of the glass inside the visitor’s room in Jessup. “I’m not going to spend the rest of my life here. I’ll either wind up laying on a table and letting them put the needle in or be able to walk away. There’s nothing to lose.”
Lisa Spicknall has a different fantasy. “My mother and I went to see The Green Mile. There are some execution scenes in the movie using an electric chair, and one goes terribly wrong when they use a dry sponge on a murderer’s head. There’s no conductivity, so he catches on fire. Even though they don’t have death by electrocution in Maryland, I wish he would be electrocuted that way, with a dry sponge.”
Of course, Richard Spicknall’s life in the maximum-security wing is no picnic. The killing of small children is a prison taboo, and convicts deal with the crime harshly, often killing the offender. Richard Spicknall has avoided this sort of penal justice by asking for and getting protective custody, a form of solitary confinement. In January of this year, he attempted suicide by overdosing on prescription drugs. He was briefly hospitalized at Patuxent Institution, where criminals who are mentally ill receive psychiatric counseling.
Lisa Spicknall gave birth to her third child, a boy, Zachary, on Oct. 29. The father is a well-known Baltimore radio personality. They’re happy, she says, but after her decadelong ordeal, she’s marriage-shy and even unsure if she can share quarters with another man. She says she’s going forward with her life.
Progress, though, is slow. Every day brings reminders of the bad blood between her and the Spicknalls. Following the trial, for instance, her former father-in-law began sitting on his front porch at night with a gun in his lap. After a few days of this, he telephoned 911 and threatened to kill Lisa. He was committed to a psychiatric hospital and died six months later, at the age of 52.
The two families have also bickered over the two dead children. Lisa’s family claims that a plaque that she placed at the cemetery on the anniversary of their deaths was desecrated by the Spicknalls.
Lisa has even encountered the interfamily recriminations on her new career path. She claims that once when she spoke on domestic violence at a college, members of the Spicknall family showed up and heckled her.
From his cell, Richard Spicknall complains that Lisa shouldn’t be using his name. Lisa says she’s doing so only because that was the one the children had when they died.
“I know one thing, though,” she says, pushing aside the feud for a moment. “Zachary is going to be the most loved, spoiled kid who’s ever lived.” CP