In October 1984, Cheryl Nici was a 24-year-old Richmond police officer working off duty outside the downtown Richmond Marriott hotel when a gunman, without warning, fired a pistol at her head from several feet away.
“I vividly recall looking out at East Broad Street. Everything was blurry and looked like somebody was dumping a gallon of red paint — and it was dripping down over this picture of Broad Street,” Nici, now 61, said recently. “My vision went totally red. I never lost consciousness, ironically. But I remember getting down on my knees and I heard people screaming and yelling.”
Nici was shot in the head. She was in uniform, so there was no mistake that she was an officer.
“The bullet went in by my left ear, shot out of my TMJ joint, and went down through my mouth and lodged an eighth of inch from my carotid artery,” she said.
The shooter was Kenneth Wayne Woodfin, then 36, who had been on the run after committing a bizarre string of murders and woundings that kept the Richmond-Petersburg area on edge from Oct. 24 to 26, 1984.
Although he maintains his innocence to this day, Woodfin was convicted of killing his wife, Jean Whittaker Woodfin, 31; her sister, Susan Whittaker Hall, 35; and Hall’s boyfriend, Frank Gabbin, 32, before shooting and wounding Hanover County sheriff’s deputy Willard “Bubba” Worsham. Nici was his last victim.
He was sentenced to three life terms plus 116 years, nearly a decade before Virginia abolished parole in 1995.
On Thursday, Woodfin will come before the Virginia Parole Board in his latest bid to be released on parole. Nici and surviving family members of his victims are fighting to keep him behind bars.
Unlike in previous years, Nici and others worry that the board, which is the subject of an ongoing scandal related to how it has released other convicted killers, may grant Woodfin his freedom this time around.
He first became eligible for parole in 1999.
“Based on the history of the parole board and the releases of seriously violent offenders that should not have been released starting last year, I’ve lost my faith in the system,” Nici said. “The integrity and credibility of what is supposed to be an impartial and unbiased branch of the criminal justice system has been tainted.”
The Office of the State Inspector General in 2020 found violations of policy and law in how the board and its former chair, Adrianne Bennett, handled the release of at least eight convicted killers.
Reporting by the Richmond Times-Dispatch this year showed that Bennett also released more than 100 parolees from supervision without any recommendation from local parole officers.
“I can only hope that the parole board does the right thing,” Nici said. “What the parole board doesn’t realize is that if Kenneth Wayne Woodfin is released, he not only will be a threat to the victims’ families and the community, but I also would perceive him to be a threat to law enforcement. He has taken no responsibility, shown no remorse, offered no apology and continues to say he is innocent.”
“And all I can tell you is his face was the last face I saw before I thought I was going to die,” Nici said. “There’s no doubt in my mind that he is the man who held a .357-Magnum 3 to 5 feet from my head, aiming for my temple. But thank God I moved my head.”
Contacted in late April through prison officials, Woodfin initially agreed to talk with a Times-Dispatch reporter about his case. But on the day of the scheduled telephone interview, Woodfin canceled, telling prison authorities he felt ill.
Woodfin declined to reschedule the interview the following day, relaying this message through a prison official to a reporter: “He stated that he thought he knew you, but he didn’t.”
In 2014, Woodfin told NBC12 in a prison interview that he didn’t shoot or kill anyone, and deserves to be paroled because he’s innocent.
He claimed that at the time of the killings and woundings, he had been abducted and tortured by three men and woke up in a wooded area. “I’m not a threat to anybody,” he told the TV station.
Tonya Chapman, the chair of the parole board, declined to talk about Woodfin’s hearing; she said she cannot speak about specific cases.
When The Times-Dispatch first contacted Chapman on April 9, Woodfin’s parole hearing was set for April 15. It subsequently was moved to June 10 without explanation.
Nici and family members of the slain Whittaker sisters were allowed to provide their input before the board on April 28. Woodfin’s advocates, including family members, delivered their remarks on May 13.
One of those advocates was Woodfin’s sister, Joan Robinson, who said family members believe Woodfin has served enough time and deserves his freedom after nearly 37 years behind bars. She also noted that her brother continues to profess his innocence.
“We, as family members, have already met with one of the parole members,” said Robinson.
“I said what I needed to say to the parole board and I just pray that what we said as a family would be considered,” she said. “But whatever happens, I know within myself, and I trust and believe that God will do what he will do. It’s out of our hands.”
Speaking generally about the process, Chapman said after an inmate receives his or her parole interview, it could take two to three months before the case gets the requisite number of board votes on whether to grant or deny parole.
Woodfin’s parole hearing on Thursday will be his first since 2018. After he was denied parole that year, the board deferred another review for three years, which is allowed under Virginia law for offenders who have 10 years or more or life imprisonment remaining on their sentence.
Woodfin filed suit in federal court last year against Bennett, Gov. Ralph Northam and Public Safety Secretary Brian Moran, claiming his civil rights were violated because the three-year deferral process wasn’t signed into law until 1993, well after his convictions. His complaint remains active.
“I am innocent of the crimes I have been convicted of. I have been eligible for parole since 1999, “ Woodfin wrote in the complaint. “I am 72 years old, forgive me for my writings, I have cataracts on both eyes.” He also wrote that he suffers from heart disease, high cholesterol, hypertension “and other ailments.”
Nici has led a letter-writing campaign to the parole board through Google and Facebook that seeks to keep Woodfin behind bars.
The motive for Woodfin’s crime rampage is obscure. But evidence suggested that he sought retribution on family, friends and even police whom he believed interfered with his marriage.
Less than two weeks before the killings, Woodfin and his wife were charged by Ashland police with possession of cocaine with the intent to distribute it after raiding the couple’s apartment and finding drugs.
While released on bail, Jean Woodfin told her lawyer she was afraid of her husband and wanted a divorce, and she moved out of the apartment with her sister’s help while Woodfin was still in jail, according to news accounts and evidence.
After Woodfin was finally released, he tried to reconcile with his wife. But reconciliation efforts failed on the afternoon of Oct. 24 at Woodfin’s mother’s house in Petersburg, where he met his wife and her sister. That was the last time either was seen alive.
Jean Whittaker’s body was found with bullet wounds in the chest and back the next day in Petersburg’s Blandford Cemetery.
Woodfin then returned to his mother’s house, where authorities believe he abducted his sister-in-law, Susan Whittaker Hall, and drove her to 111 N. Strawberry St. in Richmond, where she lived with Gabbin, a former close friend of Woodfin who also was the son of a Goochland County sheriff’s deputy. Both were killed by gunshot wounds to their heads.
About 90 minutes after they were fatally shot, Worsham, the Hanover deputy, was sitting in his patrol car at an Ashland traffic light. When he turned to his left, he saw a car passing slowly in the opposite direction before hearing four shots. Two rounds hit him in the shoulder, but he was able to radio for help.
Police swarmed the area. Officers found Woodfin’s abandoned vehicle but he managed to escape through the woods.
Then on the evening of Oct. 26, Woodfin shot Nici as she was standing outside the Marriott providing security for an Episcopalian ministers convention and the University of Richmond homecoming. She had a folded wanted poster with Woodfin’s photo in her pocket.
Although she didn’t know it was Woodfin at the time, he and another man approached her outside the hotel that evening. She thought it was odd because Woodfin was wearing a royal blue jogging suit and looked tired and ungroomed, while his friend was nicely dressed in a corduroy jacket, designer jeans and expensive shoes.
The well-dressed man chatted with Nici briefly before both men left. Woodfin came back alone around 11:20 p.m. and gave Nici a note that Woodfin said his friend wanted her to read. She stuck it in her pocket and Woodfin walked away.
About five minutes later she pulled out the note and the first line read, “A marriage is social and holy.”
She didn’t read the entire letter, but scanned down to the signature. It was signed with the name “Nat Turner,” who was the leader of a slave revolt that killed 55 white people in Southampton County in 1831.
The note blamed a Richmond police officer, a relative of Woodfin’s wife, of interfering in his marriage. Family and friends later said that Woodfin believed the officer was trying to break up his marriage.
A similar note that authorities believe Woodfin wrote was sent to the The Times-Dispatch. The note, also signed “Nat Turner,” claimed that Woodfin’s wife had been “tortured” by the sheriff’s office in Hanover. “Her only crime was Marrying a Black Man,” it said, which included a photo of Jean Woodfin.
Nici is alive today because of her actions when reading the note. She bent her head down to give the note a second look, and in the split second that she raised her head back up, Woodfin fired. He apparently was aiming for her temple, and the shot missed its mark.
Nici also attributes her survival to a mystery man who came to her aid soon after she was shot. He used first aid to control the bleeding to her head and neck, and picked up her police radio to alert authorities that an officer was down.
But after police and paramedics arrived, the “gentleman did a magic trick — he disappeared,” Nici said. “To this day, we don’t know who he is.”
Sherry Whittaker Parke, who lost two of her sisters in the 1984 rampage, said her family lived in fear before Woodfin eventually gave himself up. Police advised the family to go into hiding because they couldn’t guarantee their safety, so they packed up and traveled to Pennsylvania to stay with her husband’s relatives.
“We couldn’t have the funerals of my sisters because of fear that he could show up,” Parke recalled.
Parke, now 66, said she still lives in fear that Woodfin may eventually be released.
“We’re still concerned that he could just show up,” she said. “If you really hadn’t been in fear of your life before, I don’t think people would understand.”
Parke’s daughter, Kim Parke, who was a small child at the time of the killings, said Woodfin shouldn’t be released because he’s never taken responsibility for his actions or demonstrated that he’s been rehabilitated.
“He showed no remorse, he hasn’t shown any character development, [and] he hasn’t shown anything that would demonstrate to me that he’s changed at all,” said Kim Parke, an attorney with the National Veterans Legal Services Program in Washington.
“So that obviously concerns me a lot. He has never come forward and said, ‘I know what I did was wrong, but I’ve learned from it.’ Nothing of that sort. That’s what the parole board is supposed to take into account when they make their decisions.”