‘She Was A Beautiful Woman’
Sipe’s Family Still Fighting For Justice, 12 Years Later
Posted: November 16, 2013
ABINGDON — Pamela Woods called and called.
She called her daughter, Stephanie Sipe, all day long on July 23, 2001. But the 20-year-old never answered the phone.
Around 10 p.m., the worried mother had a friend drive her to Sipe’s Harrisonburg apartment in the Deer Run complex.
When Woods, now 56, entered apartment A-7, she found her daughter’s bloody body behind the door. At first, she saw a cut on Sipe’s wrist and thought she committed suicide, but a closer look revealed a large slice.
Sipe had been murdered. Her nearly 2-year-old son, Zachary, was left in a bathroom — only a closed door separated the boy from his mother’s body for hours.
The police investigation would later uncover a murder-for-hire plot pointing the finger at the child’s father, Ivan Teleguz, as the man responsible for ending Sipe’s life.
“She was a beautiful woman taken away from a beautiful son,” said Jennifer Tilley, her older sister.
Teleguz, now 34, sits on Virginia’s death row while waiting on the outcome of his latest appeal of his 2006 conviction for Sipe’s murder.
‘Happy, Loving Person’
Sipe grew up in the Shenandoah Valley, attending Fort Defiance High School before getting her GED. Growing up, her family said, she was a normal girl, who loved crafts and decorating, especially during Christmas.
“She was a very happy, loving person,” said Tilley, adding that at Christmastime, she enjoyed getting people presents, even if she only had a few dollars to spend at the dollar store. “She made sure everybody got something.”
At 16, she met Teleguz, a Ukraine national, at the McDonald’s on Carlton Street in Harrisonburg. They began dating and Teleguz eventually moved in with the Sipe family.
“This was the love of her life. She was happy with him,” said Tilley, noting that Teleguz was only Sipe’s second boyfriend. “He was quiet, she was quiet. They stuck to themselves … never fought.”
Despite Sipe’s love for Teleguz, her family always thought he was odd.
“There’s something we just can’t piece together … something we’ll probably never know,” Tilley said.
Rumors later circulated, and it was suggested at trial, that Teleguz had ties to the Russian Mafia.
“I was trying to figure him out, but I never could,” Woods said.
After Sipe became pregnant with Zachary, her relationship with Teleguz withered. Her family said he no longer wanted anything to do with Sipe or the child.
The couple’s relationship ended and she moved to Harrisonburg. She was learning to live on her own, to cook and to be a mother.
But her life was cut short.
Days, then months, went by without an arrest. At first, there was no evidence linking Teleguz, or anyone, to the crime. The case eventually went cold.
“We lived on the edge for a while,” said Tilley, 37.
In July 2004, the Harrisonburg Police Department, led by investigator Kevin Whitfield, now Elkton’s police chief, arrested three men for the crime: Teleguz, Edwin Gilkes Jr. of Altoona, Pa., and Michael Hetrick of Warren, Pa.
Gilkes, now 35, would admit to participating in the plot to kill Sipe but not to participating in the murder. He pleaded guilty to accessory before the fact to first-degree murder and was sentenced to 15 years in prison.
Hetrick, whose blood was found at the crime scene as a result of a cut during a struggle with Sipe, admitted killing her and pleaded guilty to first-degree murder and conspiracy to commit murder. Now 39, he is serving two life sentences.
Whitfield began connecting the dots when Teleguz and his friend, Aleksey Safanov, were arrested on federal drug and gun charges in Massachusetts.
Safanov, apparently looking to get a break in his case, would tell investigators about Teleguz’s role in the murder. He also led police to Gilkes, who in turn led investigators to Hetrick.
Hetrick told police Teleguz drove him and Gilkes from Lancaster, Pa., to Harrisonburg. He then took them to the Walmart on Va. 42 just south of the city, where they bought dark clothing and the 7-inch blade that was used to kill Sipe.
Teleguz, according to the trial testimony, dropped the duo off near Sipe’s apartment and returned to Pennsylvania to create an alibi.
Prosecutors and witnesses claimed Teleguz wanted Sipe dead because he was angry he had to pay $119 a week in child support payments.
In addition to DNA evidence found at the scene, the testimony of Safanov, Gilkes and Hetrick at trial in Rockingham County Circuit Court in February 2006, led jurors to convict Teleguz. They recommended the death penalty.
“It was an emotional roller coaster but we were a little relieved,” said Tilley, who to this day says she can’t shake the cold stare Teleguz had in the courtroom throughout his trial. “You’re looking at someone that was emotionless.”
In July 2006, a judge upheld the jury’s recommended death sentence, telling the defendant it was clear he was guilty.
“If I had one iota of doubt of your guilt, I would do so,” now retired Judge John McGrath told Teleguz at sentencing. “If I had one iota of doubt of your viciousness, I would.”
With the trial behind them, Woods and Tilley began to move forward with their focus on Sipe’s child.
Zachary, now 14, lives in the Shenandoah Valley with family. The eighth-grader plays drums and guitar in the school band, enjoys going to church and loves to hunt.
“Stephanie would be so proud of him,” Tilley said. “She devoted everything to him.”
The family said they haven’t shared much with Zachary about his mother. And he doesn’t ask much. The family speculates he might have done some of his own research on the Internet, but they’re not sure.
“He knows his daddy killed his mom but he doesn’t know why,” said Tilley. “I don’t think it’s something he wants to grasp right now. We’ll just let him live a kid’s life.”
His grandmother is already prepared to have a talk with Zachary.
“I saved all the papers to give to him when it’s time,” Woods said.
Over the years, the stack of newspaper articles saved for Zachary has grown as appeal after appeal has been filed in an attempt to spare Teleguz’s life.
“I didn’t realize we’d be here 12 years later,” Tilley said. “It’s unreal how it’s dragging out.”
This week, a hearing was held in U.S. District Court in Abingdon after two witnesses — Safanov and Gilkes — said they lied at trial.
In spite of the recanted testimony, Judge James Jones turned down Teleguz’s appeal for a new trial in August 2011. But in August 2012, the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that Jones did not thoroughly analyze the claims, which prompted this week’s hearing.
Hetrick has never changed his story.
Tilley believes the witnesses testified truthfully at trial. She said Hetrick had no reason to kill Sipe except for Teleguz.
“He didn’t know her, but he knew him,” Tilley said.
It may be several months before Jones rules on whether to give Teleguz a new trial.
If Jones doesn’t throw out the conviction, and the circuit court doesn’t reverse the decision, Teleguz’s execution date will be set. He could then ask the U.S. Supreme Court or Virginia’s governor to intervene.
Should it occur, the family is mixed on whether they will attend the execution, which either could be by lethal injection or the electric chair. In Virginia, death-row inmates get to choose.
“This is somebody’s life,” said Tilley, who added she would attend if her mother wanted the support.
“It’s my nephew’s dad.”
Woods plans to attend the execution, which would take place at the Greensville Correctional Center in Jarratt.
“I want to see if he cries,” said Woods, who says she’s shed countless tears since that fateful night more than 12 years ago. “I remember the tears in her eyes when I found her. I want to see the tears in his eyes.”
Contact Pete DeLea at 574-6278 or firstname.lastname@example.org