Chat with Dan Morse, author of 'The Yoga Store Murder'

Nov 05, 2013

Two years ago, the Washington area was rocked by one of its most violent murders ever - a brutal crime in an unlikely place, a Lululemon store in Bethesda. In his forthcoming book, The Yoga Store Murder, Post reporter Dan Morse reveals how the case grew ever more disturbing behind the scenes and rattled everyone who touched it.

Morse answered your questions about the case and how it unfolded.

NOTE: This transcript includes questions and answers about material in the final section of the book. People reading the book may want to finish it before reading this.

Hi, Thanks for joining and the great questions you've submitted so far. Looking forward to discussing. Let's get started.

How did they figure out that someone who at first appeared to be a victim was actually a suspect? How do police investigate a case like this?

Among the group of detectives on the case, several didn't like parts of her story. They had to balance these suspicions with thinking that she could have been through a terrible event, and was shaken by it so much she didn't remember all parts of it.

Dan--I followed the case pretty closely, but hadn't previously heard that level of detail on what the Apple store employees heard and did (or didn't do). How were you able to report that? If you spoke with them, did you have any sense of their level of remorse?

I was able to review the statements they gave detectives, when they recalled what they heard and what they spoke about in the store. I also heard them testify at the trial. I think there was some remorse there. One of the Apple managers broke down when a detective told her what had happend, and what she had been hearing.

How is the family of the victim recovering? And has there been any remorse or explanation from the perpetrator?

It is a day-to-day struggle, and on the worse days, an hour-by-hour struggle. They try to remember all the good things about Jayna, but knowing what happened to her, those efforts can be overwhelmed by their grief. The perpetrator apologized at the sentencing hearing, but the remarks were muted by a pending appeal in the case.  That happens in a lot of cases. The suspect feels he or she doesn't want to put too much on the record.

I'd like your take on the Apple Store employees who heard very suspicious noises coming from the lululemon store (next door to them) but did nothing to investigate or call police. Can you elaborate on what really happened?

Good question. They clearly made a mistake by not calling 911. But I do think there were factors working against them. It was super-safe Bethesda, so they clearly weren't expecting violence, and they started thinking it was something else. And for a lot time, scientists have studied something called the Bystander Effect, which holds that when people hear possible danger  but they know others are around -- in this case pedestrians still walking down the sidewalks, just outside the stores -- they make the assumption that if it's really something bad, someone else will call. It's a terrible thing, but it has happened a lot. One scientist told me there were a confluence of events that essentially created a "perfect recipe" of what leads people not to call 911.

I'm still shocked by the brutality of this murder--the number of wounds and the weapons used. What are we to make of that?

Another good question, and it ties in with those asking about the motive in this case. I think there are two ways to look at this: One, which was presented as the defense during the trial, was that Brittany lost it, and was consumed by emotion. Another way to look at it is the opposite: Brittany was not very emotional, and simply really wanted to do this. The number of injuries wasn't a reflection of rage and emotion, it was more of a reflection of how much Brittany wanted to do this. That's an even scarier way to look at it. But I spoke with a number of psychologists who've spent a lot time interviewing convicted murders, and this was their take.

Can you describe your experience as a reporter covering this case? How did you deal with covering such a gruesome and troubling story?

Yes, it was very gruesome and troubling, but the more I leaned about it, the more I learned what Jayna and Brittany's families had to go through, and still have to go through everyday. That kind of makes you think that nothing you're feeling is even on the same planet as what they're feeling.

Did anyone explore if Brittany had a mental disorder? I've always wondered about that. What happened was bizarre and a clear act of rage mixed with craziness to try and cover it up....

Her lawyers explored this possibility. But it wasn't really there. Brittany had no history of seeing psychiatrists. The attorneys looked into the possibility that she could have had behavioral issues related to concussions she may have suffered on the soccer field. But I don't think they found any real evidence of that. She had good lawyers, and I have always felt that if something was there, they would have brought it out. In Maryland, and in a lot of places, one of the key markers for being not guilty by reason of insanity is that the suspect did something that he or she didn't really understand was against the law. It's a pretty high bar to clear. In Brittany's case, she immediately went into cover-up mode, which makes it hard to argue you didn't know there was something wrong with what you did.

I don't understand the outrage at the Apple store employees. Of course in hindsight, they should have called. But unless I could have been really sure that the noises weren't a TV, radio, or a simple argument, I would have never called 911. You never think "huh, my neighbor is getting murdered" because the chances of that happening are SO SO slim. It is much much more likely those noises are something else. Give these people a break. Hindsight is 20/20 and unless you make a habit of calling 911 every time you hear something weird, you might have made the same choices.

I think there's reason and room to have your reaction. On one hand, they did hear screams, and at one point at least one of them heard the words "God help me. Please help me." But on the other hand, as one psychologist told me, who I quoted in the epilogue of the book: "When things like this happen, the people who don't call 911 seem like monsters. How can people be that cold? But time and time again, we've seen this happen to people who are not monsters."  One lesson to draw from all this -- and police would be the first to say this -- is when in doubt, call 911.

Can you give us an update on Brittany Norwood? Has she ever expressed any remorse? Could she ever be paroled? Thanks.

She is at Maryland's only female prison, the Maryland Correctional Institution for Women, in Jessup, which is between Washington, D.C. and Baltimore. Under the terms of her life sentence, she can never be paroled. She has appealed her conviction, and the legal papers in that process are due to be submitted early next year. She apologized at her sentencing, but only sort of. She said she was sorry for what happened. She didn't expressly say she did it. That's common for defendants who don't want to say anything that could be used against them. But it is very hard for the victim's family and friends -- in many cases I cover, and certainly in this one. They think: The least the person could do, at this point, is come clean and fully admit to what he or she did. When that doesn't happen, it's understandably very painful.

No one ever talks about the family of the murderer. Were they open with you and did you feel that they might have known their daughter was troubled before this happened? I read something a while back that her college teammates weren't too surprised by this episode.

I was certainly impressed by both families. Jayna's family was open with me -- not because they wanted to relive any of this, but because they figured if I was going to write a book, they wanted me to understand their daughter. They're incredibly proud of her, and certainly for good reason. The Norwoods didn't want to speak with me, mainly for a reason I thought was understandable: They didn't want to draw any more attention to what Brittany had done. But I was able to speak with people who either know the Norwoods -- or in the case of the detectives who worked the investigaton, got to know them. They're kind people, and for the detectives, that made the case even harder.

I know there were allegations of past incidents of stealing from friends and teammates, but Brittany didn't have any history of violence did she? It is really scary that someone can exhibit such an extreme level of violence as she did in this case. She basically tortured Jayna. And as you said, it seems clear that she really wanted to do this, it wasn't a case of her "snapping." Truly disturbing that she seems to have sort of been "lying in wait" for a way to manifest these violent tendencies.

I couldn't find any criminal record or past violence -- and I agree that makes it really scary. She did have an old boyfriend who took out a resrtaining order against her, and thought at one point she needed anger management counseling. But I don't think anyone could have seen anything close to this coming.

Please forgive me- I know only a little of what happened: were there any videos of the attack itself?

No. Lululemon didn't have interior security cameras. Brittany most certainly new this, and that might have helped convince her to try to make up a story and cover up the crime.

Thanks for all the great questions. And thanks to those reading this online, and reading the Post. We greatly appreciate it.

In This Chat
Dan Morse
Post staff writer Dan Morse covers courts and crime in Montgomery County, Md. He arrived at the paper in 2005, after reporting stops at the Wall Street Journal, Baltimore Sun and Montgomery (Ala.) Advertiser, where he was a Pulitzer Prize finalist. He is the author of The Yoga Store Murder, to be published Nov. 5 by Berkley Books.
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