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Killing for Love: The Murderers I Knew

December 18, 2017

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Everyone has freshman-dorm horror stories, but I’ve got a real one: During my first year at the University of Virginia, I lived in the same residence hall as a couple who would later be convicted of a double murder that took place while we were dorm-mates. Jens Soering was the socially awkward 18-year-old son of a German diplomat; Elizabeth Haysom was the worldly 20-year-old daughter of a retired businessman who had sent her to an English boarding school, where she said she’d used heroin. When Jens and Elizabeth started dating, people were surprised she chose him. When her parents were brutally stabbed to death over Spring Break at Loose Chippings, their Bedford, Va. home, people were shocked — not because we suspected they were involved, but because we felt so sorry for Elizabeth (and by extension, Jens).

The following fall, when Jens and Elizabeth went on the lam to Europe because police were closing in on them, people were stunned. The duo was arrested for passing bad checks and began the extradition process to the U.S. Jens initially confessed to the crimes, and Elizabeth pled guilty in 1987, claiming she stayed in Washington, D.C. over the long weekend of the incident to establish an alibi while Jens drove to the Haysoms’ home, where she hoped he would kill them. The motive for the murder was unclear; Elizabeth accused her mother of sexual abuse but recanted that allegation.

Before Jens’ 1990 trial, he changed his story, arguing he mistakenly believed he wouldn’t be eligible for the death penalty because of his family’s diplomatic immunity. He said he’d taken the proverbial bullet for Elizabeth, who had been the one to drive to Bedford from D.C. and killed her parents, because he was so blindly in love with her. He said he believed he could spare her life and would be able to reunite with her after he served a few years in Germany, where prison sentences are usually shorter.

Only after Virginia agreed to drop the death penalty was he returned to the States, where he stood trial in 1990. Despite his fresh contention that Elizabeth had slain her parents while he stayed in D.C. — and inaccuracies in his original confession about key details of the crime scene, suggesting that he might not have been there — he was convicted and received two life terms, served consecutively, with no mandatory parole. Because she pled guilty, Elizabeth cut a deal that guarantees her parole in 2030, when she’s 68.

In the years since his conviction, Jens has become a cause celebre, writing manifestos from prison and attracting support from lawyers, a pastor and other advocates. The case has been the subject of true-crime books as well as articles in the Washington D.C. City Paper and The New Yorker. Now there’s the inevitable documentary, Killing for Love, which has just been released on VOD. The sensational title, as well as the melodramatic Amazon plot summary (“What could make an innocent man take the fall for a crime he didn’t commit?”) indicate the filmmakers, Marcus Vetter and Karin Steinberger, buy Jens’ revisionist tale. If you believe Jens didn’t actually murder the Haysoms, Killing for Love (which originally carried the less salacious moniker The Promise) is a confusing title. Should she have been the culprit, Elizabeth surely didn’t do it for love.

The film has a few minor factual inaccuracies: One of Jens’ die-hard backers extols his intelligence by noting he was both a Jefferson Scholar and an Echols Scholar and asserts that’s an exceedingly rare feat. In fact, Jefferson Scholars enrolled in the College of Arts & Sciences are automatically admitted to the Echols Scholar program. The directors also take a shortcut by using stock footage of the Bruin movie theater in L.A. to represent the cinemas where Jens bought tickets to the films Witness, Stranger Than Paradise and The Rocky Horror Picture Show to support their alibis. D.C. locals know Rocky Horror played at the Key Theater in Georgetown throughout the ’80s. These errors can be chalked up to the filmmakers’ status as foreigners, but they raise questions about what else Vetter and Steinberger may have gotten wrong.

It’s not clear whether the directors intended an inside reference by opening and closing their film with “I Put a Spell on You,” used to great effect in Stranger Than Paradise, in a not-so-subtle nod to Elizabeth’s supposedly hypnotic hold over Jens. The documentarians also employ the needless gimmick of hiring movie stars Daniel Bruhl (The Zookeeper’s Wife) and Imogen Poots (Sweet Virginia) to read the overheated letters Jens and Elizabeth wrote each other before and after their “little nasty,” as they called the double homicide.

I must confess I’ve always thought Jens was guilty of perpetrating the slaughter, in part because he gave off a vaguely Nazi vibe when I knew him. He wrote an op-ed in one of our college’s papers supporting President Reagan’s much-maligned 1985 trip to Bitburg Cemetery to lie a wreath at the graveyard where many SS veterans were buried. He also lorded his Aryan heritage over two close friends of mine, both of them Jewish, whom he bested in his quest for Elizabeth’s affection. And, as I later learned, one of his “love” letters to Elizabeth depicted a Third Reich-themed sexual fantasy.

But having been an apparent Nazi sympathizer doesn’t make Jens a murderer, and Killing for Love constructs a fairly convincing case that he was a patsy. It puts forth an alternate theory that Elizabeth committed with murders with the aid of an accomplice or two, including a now-deceased classmate who was allegedly her drug dealer. That should raise enough reasonable doubt to merit reopening Jens’ case, but his hopes to be released and returned to his homeland were dealt a serious blow by former Virginia Gov. Robert McDonnell before he was convicted of federal bribery charges in an unrelated matter. The Supreme Court vacated his conviction, and the Justice Department opted not to retry him, so — unlike Jens — McDonnell never spent a night, much less 32 years, in prison.

In the final verdict, Killing for Love acquits itself well as a captivating entry in the same genre as The Jinx and Making a Murderer. And I’m sure this won’t be the last time this case is revisited — it seems well-suited to being dramatized on Ryan Murphy’s American Crime Story or Dick Wolf’s Law & Order: True Crime series.

No matter what, this story will always hit terrifyingly close to home for me. In my second year at U.Va., I nearly shared a two-bedroom apartment with Jens and three other guys from our dorm. One of my aforementioned friends had asked Jens to live with us, but he ultimately declined, explaining he required a private room “so I can make love to Elizabeth any time I want.” Just thinking about it almost kills me.

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