Fifteen years ago on October 30, 2004, University of Richmond professor Fredric Jablin was shot and killed in his driveway in Henrico County. A little more than six months later in May 2005, his ex-wife Piper Rountree was sentenced to life in prison for the murder. The story below originally ran on January 1, 2005, about two months before the start of her trial.
Piper Rountree is a whisper in smoky coffeehouses and bars in this south Texas metropolis, where men and women sit huddled around pints and lattes and wonder out loud how it happened.
A sign on the front lawn of 2210 Bissonnet Street near lush Rice University once advertised her law practice. Today, her name is covered with silver spray paint. About 160 miles northwest in Austin, on the bustling campus of the University of Texas, faculty offices that once echoed with Rountree's contagious laughter are quiet, replaced with muffled musings about what happened that night.
Texans have their theories:
That Rountree fell deeper and deeper into a depression and lost touch with reality; that she was overcome by anger because her three children were more than 1,000 miles away; that her ex-husband's new life with a new woman pushed her past jealousy and into rage.
Or that she's being persecuted for a crime no loving mother could commit.
Whatever the theory, Fredric M. Jablin is dead, and police say Rountree killed him.
The tangled story of Fred and Piper ended Oct. 30 in the quiet suburbs of Richmond.
But it began years before and miles away in Texas.
* * *
Harlingen, Texas, is due south of Austin and just 30 minutes north of the Mexican border.
"The Valley," as locals call it, is a popular spot for midstate Texans to escape the occasional winter snowflake.
But when Piper Rountree was growing up there, it was an agricultural community of 28,000 where everyone knew everyone and no one locked their doors.
"You could ride a bicycle across town and not be worried," said childhood friend Lavon Guerrero.
Rountree was the youngest of five children, with two brothers and two sisters. Her father was a military surgeon, her mother a stay-at-home mom who did all the cooking and cleaning and even found time to make all the girls' clothing.
"They had this closet full of fabric that was just magical," Guerrero said. "I loved going to their house. There was so much love."
She said Rountree was an inquisitive, friendly child who embraced nature from an early age. The two girls used to hide under bridges and catch guppies with netting. When they were 10, they brought the tiny creatures home and tried to create cryogenics in the Rountrees' refrigerator.
The experiment failed.
Rountree loved working on her high school yearbook committee. She got good grades, but they didn't come easy. She had to work for them.
Growing up, Rountree was liked by classmates but was not the most popular girl in school.
"Most people would probably have described her as quirky," Guerrero recalled a few weeks ago at an Austin coffee shop.
So when Rountree moved to attend the University of Texas in the fall of 1978, she was in her element. Austin is a college town where anything goes, where the peculiar is mainstream.
She and Guerrero roomed together their freshman year.
"I used to wake up, and she'd have a hot cup of tea waiting for me," Guerrero said. "I didn't even have a coat when we came to Austin, so she'd go to class at 8 o'clock and come back and give me her coat before my 10 o'clock class.
"She's a very nurturing person."
* * *
As Rountree was getting her bearings in Austin, Fred Jablin was finishing his first teaching job at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. He was looking for a change, and the University of Texas at Austin was looking for a professor.
His friend John Daly, who had been a fellow doctoral candidate at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Ind., was teaching at Texas and recommended Jablin for a job there.
Jablin recently had divorced his first wife, Marie, and wanted to start over. He moved to Austin in 1979.
"He came down in his yellow Toyota Corolla, with his whole life packed inside," Daly said last month during an interview at his office.
"We did everything together for a few years -- scuba diving, flying lessons. And we tried to make it to every bar in town."
Jablin taught organizational communication, and in the spring of 1981, he had a student who would change his life.
"Piper was bright, smart, nice, asked good questions. She used to come sit in my office and talk," said Daly, who also taught Rountree.
By all accounts, her relationship with Jablin was strictly teacher-student until the fall of 1981, when they had their first date. She no longer was his student. They drove to a nearby lake and talked for hours.
After that, Jablin's friends rarely saw him. He was captivated.
The University of Texas at Austin is an oasis of eccentricity in a state of dry conservatism.
There, Jablin made a living being organized and showing others how. His world was a series of deliberate, studied decisions, punctuated by occasional wacky outbursts. Often, when he was a young professor and working late at night, he would let his colleagues know it was time for a drink by barking through the office corridors. They'd bark back and leave for their favorite bar.
It made sense, then, that when he went looking for love, he found it in someone who balanced his calculated, hard-working side.
He fell for a whimsical woman named Piper. She was beautiful and smart and artsy, "more attractive than he deserved," one of Jablin's friends joked. Fred was a "a hard-working nebbish" who quietly hovered for hours upon hours over his desk, lit by a green lawyer's lamp.
"I'm sure Piper's quirky side appealed to him, and his calmness was very attractive to her," Guerrero said.
But Piper was different. Friends say Jablin would do anything for her, including moving to San Antonio so she could attend law school there. When they returned to Austin three years later, he built a house for her. And when they started having children, he got a better-paying job at the University of Richmond so she could stay home with her babies.
"She could be very charming, but soon after they got together, she changed," Texas professor Daly said. "She was always high-strung and had peaks and troughs, but I think those peaks and troughs got higher and higher and deeper and deeper as things went on."
* * *
By the early 1980s, Jablin already had started making a name for himself as one of the country's leading experts in the field of organizational communication. His early focus was on how brainstorming works and how supervisors and their subordinates communicate. Later, he became interested in "organizational socialization," which Daly described as "how newcomers to an organization make sense of what is happening."
He uprooted from Austin in mid-1983 to move with Rountree to San Antonio, where she studied law at St. Mary's University. He still worked in Austin and commuted 90 miles each way.
That October, Rountree and Jablin exchanged vows in Travis County, Texas. She was 23; he was 31.
After Rountree graduated, they moved back to Austin and had two children -- a girl, then a boy. Another daughter came later.
From the start, Jablin's cerebral ways clashed with Rountree's emotional personality. Rountree often would call the university's communications-studies office and leave frantic, hysterical messages for her husband.
"She called once and demanded to talk to Fred, and he wasn't available. So she said, 'Tell Fred I had to fire the maid,' or 'Tell Fred he needs to come home right now,' " recalled Deanna Matthews, administrative associate at the communications-studies office.
Where Rountree was very spontaneous and sometimes irrational, Jablin was the epitome of reason -- sometimes so much that his friends and co-workers had to laugh at him.
"When Piper first got pregnant, Fred came in to ask the women here how much he should expect to pay for his child's ear infections in an average year," said Margaret Surratt, the office's executive assistant.
"Fred retreated into being more and more rational because he coped with her unpredictability in the way that made the most sense to him."
Jablin had a fairly traditional view of marriage and believed that a wife should stay home with the children if the family could afford it. And since Rountree bounced from job to job and never found her niche, friends say, it was easier for Jablin to convince her to be a stay-at-home mom.
In e-mails and interviews, Rountree's family and friends have said Jablin tried to control her.
Regardless, when the University of Richmond's Jepson School of Leadership Studies offered Jablin about $30,000 more than he was making in Austin, he didn't hesitate about moving his family in 1994. Here, they could afford for Rountree to stay at home.
Her children came before all else -- her siblings, her career, her marriage. She relished her role as a mother.
Rountree and Jablin stayed together in Richmond for about seven years before the marriage went sour.
"She comes from a family that believes in family," Guerrero said. "The Piper I know loved nature and all living things. It's very hard for me to imagine that she could have done this. She's a person who would pick up a spider and put it outside. I can't imagine she could have done something that would have orphaned her children."
* * *
They had their good times. Jablin and Rountree were fiercely devoted to their children, both were adventurous, and they threw wild Halloween parties every year in Austin.
But as passionate as they once were for each other, their relationship turned rocky after they moved to Richmond.
Soon after relocating, Jablin became a sought-after professor whose classes at UR filled quickly. Friends say he was particularly excited about his new research on the concept of courage -- what it is and how it works.
And even though Rountree got to spend more time making a home for her children, she wasn't content.
In late 2000 or early 2001, Rountree began an affair with a married Richmond-area doctor who also had young children, according to court records. Jablin's divorce from her was granted on the grounds of adultery.
After Jablin moved to Richmond, Daly saw his friend only a few times a year at professional conferences. Jablin routinely complained about Rountree, about how their marriage of 18 years was ending so poorly, about how he was spending most of his retirement savings on attorneys.
"Fred was always saying he was going to sue everyone. Piper's affair bothered him badly, and he wanted to sue her and the doctor," Daly said. "Fred always said he couldn't understand how a mother could do that to her kids."
Their divorce was a particularly cold one. Both Jablin and Rountree told friends they spent thousands of dollars on attorneys.
"Things could have been so different if they could have had an amicable divorce," Guerrero said.
Rountree lost custody of the children and had to pay $890 a month in child support to Jablin, but she often failed to do so, according to court records. She was living in Houston with her sister, Tina, and worked first as an attorney and then as a researcher for a title company.
She saw her children only a few times a year.
"Fred was not willing to give her any access that wasn't mandated by the court," Guerrero said. "It was all about winning with Fred."
Jablin's friends, though, say Rountree never came to terms with losing custody.
"For a while, Fred thought it would never end, that she would torture him for the rest of his life," Daly said. "I don't know what drives a person like Piper, except a deep sense of righteousness."
Anne van Kleeck, who also taught at Austin, was good friends with Jablin and Rountree until they moved to Virginia. In August, van Kleeck reconnected with Jablin via e-mail.
"He told us how much of a grade-B movie the dissolution of his marriage with Piper had been. And it turned into a horror film," she said last week.
From his e-mails, it was clear that Jablin was "happy but a little overwhelmed with single parenting," she added. "It was clear how devoted he was. The kids came first."
Van Kleeck and her husband, Jim Smeeding, used to have dinners with Jablin and Rountree. They even went with the couple to visit Rountree's family in Harlingen.
"I never thought of it as a troubled relationship," van Kleeck said. "They're different people, but most of us are connected to people who balance us out."
After the tumultuous divorce in 2002, friends say Jablin got back on track. He had a routine with his kids, he loved teaching at Richmond, and he even had started dating. One woman had connected particularly well with him, and the children liked her, too.
"I think his life was back together again," Daly said.
Rountree, though, did not like another woman getting close to her children, Jablin's friends say.
* * *
Martin McVey is the Santa Claus of Houston.
Last month, his office was crowded with tubes of wrapping paper and boxes of toys. He plays St. Nick at a local children's hospital each Christmas.
He also helped Piper Rountree get back on her feet after she separated from Jablin.
Rountree moved to Houston in 2002 to be close to her sister, Tina, a nurse practitioner near Rice University who specializes in menopause treatment and weight management. Tina Rountree found her sister an office space just down the street in McVey's duplex. It was a small, first-floor back room -- once a bedroom -- with peeling paint and sparse furniture.
McVey is a criminal-defense attorney who practices law in a cluttered downstairs office and lives upstairs in the house at 2210 Bissonet St. His white Jeep Cherokee is parked in the driveway when he's there and open for business. He chain-smokes and wears shorts in December, a luxury some Texans enjoy.
McVey worked under the same roof as Rountree for a year and a half, when she left to work for a title company. He described her as "a highly educated lady that dearly loved her kids."
He was called to testify at her divorce trial.
"She would talk about Fred, but mostly she was just upset with the court system in Virginia. She felt it was not being fair to her in both the property issues and the custody issues," McVey recalled.
"I didn't sense anything more than the regular animosity that recently divorced people who have had a custody battle would have. When you try a custody case, you have one really happy person and one very unhappy person. There's not much middle ground."
McVey didn't see Rountree for about a year. Then, this past Halloween -- a Sunday -- she returned. She said Jablin had been killed.
"She came in the front door of my office and had four detectives with her -- two from here, two from Virginia," he said, taking a long drag on his cigarette, followed by a gulp from a large jug of orange juice. "She was totally hysterical, crying, and she kept saying, 'I want to talk to my kids.'"
McVey calmed her down, spoke to the detectives and told her to find a good family attorney in Virginia so she could get her children back. Having worked his fair share of homicide cases, McVey knew how to deal with the detectives and Rountree.
"The next Sunday, she came by and said she was going to Virginia for a court hearing for her kids," McVey said. "I asked her, 'Do you have a good lawyer up there?' She said yes, and I said, 'Have at it.' Next thing I know, she's charged with murder."
* * *
For a woman who so embraced nature and the outdoors, Piper Rountree has traded toads and kittens and flowers for cold steel and concrete.
She celebrated her 44th birthday on Thursday in a Henrico County Jail cell, awaiting trial Feb. 22.
"I'm concerned about her, not being around nature," Guerrero said.
Police say they believe Rountree flew to Virginia sometime before the weekend of Oct. 30 using her sister's identification and wearing a blond wig. They say she checked into a local hotel and then shot Jablin, 52, just before dawn on Saturday, Oct. 30, in the driveway of the Henrico home they once shared, 1515 Hearthglow Lane. He was hit in the arm and the back when he stepped outside to retrieve his newspaper.
Their three children, now 8, 12 and 15, are living with Jablin's brother in Northern Virginia.
Rountree's attorney, Murray Janus, declined several requests for an interview with Rountree.
Tina Rountree has been charged in Houston with tampering with evidence
Back in Austin, the university community is still dealing with Jablin's death.
Daly heard about Jablin's death two days later while he waited for a flight back to Austin from Houston. His wife broke the news.
"Everyone was sure it was Piper," Daly said. "I hoped it wasn't her, more than anything in the world. The worst thing for any kid is to have your mother kill your father. What happened to Fred was his own worst nightmare because now his children are parentless."
Daly came to Richmond to speak at Jablin's memorial service. That night, he sat in his hotel room and watched television news footage of Rountree heading into court for her custody hearing.
"She wore a black dress with a crucifix, which was not something she'd normally wear, and my first thought was, 'How manipulative can you be?' " Daly said.
Guerrero has been following the Jablin murder case online.
"I'm worried that this really interesting, cool person will be burned at the stake because of cultural differences," Guerrero said, adding that Jablin is being made into some sort of saintly character. "He traveled the world lecturing on interviewing. Words were his weapon."
* * *
The Volcano is tucked under thick palm trees that nearly hide the entrance, a bungalow bar that you wouldn't find unless you were looking for it.
There, the story of Piper Rountree is frequent happy-hour fodder.
It's just a block from where she worked and from her sister's office, a few streets from the Rice University campus in an area of Houston that resembles Richmond's Ginter Park.
One of the bar's regulars said he was sipping a frozen orange drink under strings of Christmas lights Nov. 3 when Rountree approached a female bartender and him, asking if they remembered seeing her there the night of Friday, Oct. 29.
"She told me her boyfriend, who she lived with four years ago, had been stabbed," recalled Kevin O'Keefe, a 51-year-old Texas transplant who lives in Houston. "She said the police had called, wanting to know where she was that night."
In fact, O'Keefe did remember Rountree. Initially, he thought he might have seen her there at the bar on night in question, just 12 hours before the shooting in western Henrico.
But after careful consideration, O'Keefe realized he couldn't have seen her at The Volcano that night. He had planned to go to the bar that Friday but was tired after a long day of work out of town. That night, the bar hosted its annual pumpkin-carving contest, and he definitely wasn't there for it.
He had seen Rountree, but it had been earlier in the week. And that night -- it could have been Wednesday or Thursday -- was the first time O'Keefe, who stops in at The Volcano most nights, had ever seen her.
The bartender said the same thing. She remembered Rountree but not from that Friday night.
"She was completely wound up, saying she was accused of doing something she couldn't have done if she were in Texas the night before," O'Keefe said.
Rountree had a glass of wine that night, and she asked O'Keefe to write a statement about seeing her at the bar. She even left with her sister and returned with a notary to witness his statement. O'Keefe refused because at that point, he wasn't sure which night he had seen her.
Now, he's glad he didn't sign anything. He's been visited by Henrico authorities, including Commonwealth's Attorney Wade Kizer. He's fairly certain he'll have to testify at Rountree's trial in February.
"I'm trying not to assume she's guilty. I don't know what proof they have," he said last month at the bar, nursing a drink. "She was just so adamant to have an alibi."
The regular barflies now have something to talk about each night. They follow the investigation online and discuss their findings when they gather after 5 for a cold one.
In the well-manicured suburbs of Houston, they don't get many high-profile murder cases. And at The Volcano, they're a novelty.
"This is better than Scott Peterson," Volcano regular Richard Baker said.