POWHATAN – A Powhatan County jury on Friday unanimously found Karina Rafter guilty of the first degree murder of her estranged husband in 2016.
After four and a half days of listening to arguments and evidence, the 12-member jury took over five hours to find Karina Rafter, 43, guilty of killing her estranged husband, John Richard Rafter Jr., 48, on Dec. 9, 2016, at his home in the 2100 block of Flint Hill Road in Powhatan.
John Rafter’s body was discovered on the morning of Dec. 9 by his teenage son, who found his father in his bed with a shotgun wound to the head. The Office of the Chief Medical Examiner released on Dec. 14, 2016, that Rafter’s death was a homicide.
After a two-year investigation, indictments were issued on Feb. 6, 2019, against Karina Rafter for one count of first degree murder and one count of use of a firearm in the commission of a murder.
The case was brought before Circuit Court Judge Paul Cella by the Henrico Commonwealth’s Attorney’s Office after the Powhatan office recused itself. Matthew Ackley and Susan Parrish, special assistant commonwealth’s attorneys to Powhatan, represented the prosecution, and Craig Cooley was Karina Rafter’s defense attorney.
Both sides agreed at the outset of the trial on Monday, Oct. 21, that the case against Karina Rafter was circumstantial, as investigators were never able to present evidence that placed her in Powhatan in the possible hours on Dec. 9 when her husband died.
The Rafters, who moved to Powhatan in 2015, were married but were separated and in the process of divorcing for a second time when he died. Karina Rafter was living with her parents in Chesterfield County along with their daughter, and John Rafter lived at the couple’s home in Powhatan with their son. Karina Rafter also has one daughter from a previous marriage, who was already an adult at the time of John Rafter’s death.
Over the course of the trial, the prosecution used 22 witnesses to lay out a case that examined the relationship between the Rafters, a mounting fear John Rafter told friends he had of his wife, and Karina Rafter’s disputed claim that she was no longer in possession of the weapon that killed her husband. They also juxtaposed the behavior of Karina Rafter toward her family in the year before her husband’s death against what they showed as uncharacteristic behaviors in the days surrounding the incident.
Meanwhile, Cooley argued repeatedly – including in two motions to strike he made to try to have Cella dismiss the case and acquit his client – that the Commonwealth had provided “zero evidence” that placed her at the crime scene or even in Powhatan at the times when her husband’s death could have occurred. He called nine witnesses, including Karina Rafter, to testify and raise doubt in the jury’s minds by presenting them with other theories that he said could not be excluded – including suicide and murder by someone other than Karina Rafter. One of the alternative suspects Cooley tried to present as a possibility was the couple’s son, who was 13 at the time.
Ultimately, the jury determined the Commonwealth had met the burden of proof, finding her guilty of both counts and recommending a sentence of 23 years in prison – 20 years for first degree murder and three years for the firearms charge. Cella ordered a presentencing report before Karina Rafter’s final sentencing. Meanwhile, her bond was revoked and she was taken into custody to be held at Piedmont Regional Jail.
Murder or suicide?
On the second day of the trial, Dr. William Gormley, Virginia’s chief medical examiner, testified that John Rafter was murdered.
Gormley testified that John Rafter was killed by two simultaneous shots to the head from a shotgun. The gun in question was identified throughout the trial as an antique double barrel 16-gauge shotgun that was a family heirloom and was discovered next to John Rafter’s body on his bed and was later determined to be the murder weapon.
Firearms tests that were ordered helped establish that the shotgun was not pressed against the victim’s head, but the barrels could have been anywhere from half an inch to 12 inches away.
John Rafter’s arm length compared to the length of the gun’s two triggers was also part of the evidence, Gormley said. Each trigger fires one barrel of the gun independently, but Gormley testified that, from a medical point of view, the barrels were fired simultaneously.
Despite this testimony, Cooley continued to argue that suicide was an option in John Rafter’s death. He pointed not only to what he said was a lack of physical evidence of another person being in the room but John Rafter’s state of mind.
Witnesses for both sides established that John Rafter had struggled with mental health problems for many years, including issues with depression and times when he was having suicidal thoughts and had to be hospitalized. One occurrence in December 2015 caused his therapist, Dr. Shari Arnold, to call Karina Rafter and have her remove any guns from the home, including the shotgun. The shotgun was taken to her parents’ house in Chesterfield and put in a closet, Karina Rafter said.
Guns also were not supposed to be in the Rafter house after one of the couple’s minor children voiced suicidal thoughts in March 2016, she said.
Cooley would repeatedly return to issues of John Rafter’s problems with depression and suicidal thoughts, citing stressors such as the impending divorce, a custody battle, and depressing memories brought up in a text conversation the night before he died.
In turn, prosecutors called numerous witnesses who said that John Rafter was not depressed in the months leading up to his death. Several of the witnesses said he had told them he was afraid either in general or specifically of his wife because he believed she would harm him. Several witnesses, including his attorney, Greg Wadell, testified that John Rafter talked to them about wanting to buy a gun to protect himself from his wife.
The defense argued that, in saying this, John Rafter was following the advice of a friend to lay groundwork to try to make his wife appear crazy to help his divorce case.
John Rafter had filed for divorce from his wife on July 13, 2016. A trial date on the matter was to have been set Dec. 13, four days after Rafter was killed.
In Rafter's divorce petition, he alleged that his wife had a history of alcoholism. Karina Rafter was arrested for a domestic assault on Dec. 27, 2015, after he alleged that she had been drinking and became abusive and combative with him and scared their children, the complaint says.
Karina Rafter said she had not been drinking and only scratched his neck once while she was trying to prevent him from accessing the contact information for her Alcoholics Anonymous group, which she had sworn to keep secret. She pleaded no contest to assaulting her husband.
John Rafter had sought full legal and physical custody of the couple's two children. But his wife challenged him in a Nov. 29 legal filing that said she had been the children's primary caretaker during their marriage and was the "proper person" to have legal and physical custody of them.
Ackley and Parrish argued that there were several possible motives that could have ultimately led Karina Rafter to kill her husband.
She had homeschooled their two youngest children for many years, but they were enrolled in Powhatan County Public Schools for the 2015-2016 school year, Parrish said. However, Karina Rafter said in fall 2016 that her daughter wanted to be homeschooled again, which her husband adamantly opposed, refusing to sign a letter authorizing it. Karina Rafter sent her husband 13 texts in seven days asking him to sign the form.
There also was the issue of the divorce and the looming possibility of a custody battle. John Rafter had his wife served with divorce papers in July 2016, and, in the weeks that followed, she sent him 48 requests asking him to withdraw his divorce petition. She didn’t retain her divorce lawyer, Michael HuYoung, until Oct. 17, 2016, Parrish said.
The prosecution confirmed an email from HuYoung to his client on Nov. 30, 2016, in which he told her “this is going to get ugly.” Later that day, she is known to have purchased shotgun shells at Walmart, Ackley pointed out.
The Commonwealth argued that in the weeks before he died, John Rafter felt the need to buy a gun because he still was not in possession of his own guns, including the shotgun. The question of who was in possession of the shotgun leading up to the day he died was one of the biggest and most contested issues in the case.
Karina Rafter testified her husband asked in several phone calls for her to return his shotgun to him. She said she sought advice from at least two people – her mother, who told her not to return it, and her attorney, who said she should.
She said she did return the shotgun toward the end of November. The gun had been stored separately at her parents’ house from the shotgun shells and she couldn’t find them, so she ended up going to Walmart and buying a new box of shotgun shells on Nov. 30, 2016, and taking them to her husband, she said. She said they met in the garage for her to give him the shotgun shells, which is where the box was later found by investigators with three shells missing.
The prosecution showed several surveillance videos of Karina Rafter purchasing the ammunition, which she had told Powhatan deputies about during an interview on the day of her husband’s death that lasted five and a half hours. Investigators also found a Walmart receipt in her car for the purchase of the ammunition.
During that purchase, she experienced issues with her credit card that lasted more than eight minutes. She attempted to put back some of the items, but prosecutors pointed to the fact she never pulled out the shotgun shells as a sign of her determination to get them.
Several hours after the murder, Karina Rafter was tested for gunshot residue and it came back positive on one hand.
Cooley showed evidence through video and witness testimony that tried to call those findings into doubt because she and her possessions were touched repeatedly by detectives before the test was administered.
The day of the murder
Establishing an exact timeline for John Rafter’s murder was nearly impossible. His last known text was about 1 a.m. He was supposed to wake up his son for school the next morning but never did. At 8:41 a.m., the son made a frantic 911 call to say that he had found his father dead in his bed.
Detective Marilyn Durham, who was lead detective on the case, said she interviewed the boy and initially considered him a possible suspect but did not believe after speaking with him that morning that he committed the crime.
The teenager also told investigators he thought he had heard a loud bang about an hour earlier but went back to sleep. He said it was daylight when he heard the noise.
Karina Rafter went to Walmart around midnight on Dec. 9, 2016, which she later told investigators, who corroborated her movements with surveillance footage. However, she did not have either her phone or her daughter’s phone, which she frequently carried, with her.
Durham said they could not determine when she left the parking lot which direction she headed or establish that she went to Powhatan.
The first movement on Karina Rafter’s phone and her daughter’s phone occurred around 7:30 a.m., when she drove her to school at then Pocahontas Middle School. FBI Special Agent Jeremy D’Errico, who specializes in cellular analysis, showed how her movement was tracked using the phones from her parents’ house to the school and back.
At 8:49 a.m., she received an alert from an app on her phone saying her son’s phone had called 911. She called and texted her husband four times over the next hour asking if there was anything wrong but never went to his house.
Cooley argued that based on the timeline set by the son’s recollections of when the bang happened and it being light out, the FBI had established Karina Rafter’s alibi with her phone records.
However, the very last witness testimony the jury heard was from Durham saying that the alarm on John Rafter’s phone was set for 6 a.m. and it was going off when deputies arrived.
Karina Rafter went to her attorney’s office at about 9:15 a.m., and, while there, her daughter’s phone received a confusing text message from her son later confirmed to be a message that their dad was dead. The mother and son were not on speaking terms.
Karina Rafter showed the text to people at the lawyer’s office but still did not go to the house on Flint Hill Road. She instead picked up her brother and went back to her daughter’s school to have lunch with her. She was there when detectives arrived to inform her of her husband’s death and take her to the sheriff’s office, where she was interviewed by detectives for five and a half hours.
In her closing argument, Parrish pointed to the inconsistency in behavior of testimony that Karina Rafter had once gone to give her daughter Benadryl at 3 a.m. when she was staying with her father, yet when she received an alert of a 911 call on her son’s phone, she didn’t go check it out.
Laura McFarland may be reached at Lmcfarland@powhatantoday.com.