Page County man faces up to two life sentences in connection with April shooting of pregnant woman
Page News and Courier
LURAY, Feb. 14 ― On his second day of trial on Tuesday just before 9 a.m., Matthew David Furlow sits on a bench in Page County Circuit Court. Ten months after he was initially charged in connection with the shooting of a pregnant woman, his once buzz-cut hair is noticeably longer and a small, tear-shaped tattoo is discerned at the corner of his eye. A large white cross hangs from his collared shirt.
Every so often, he turns to look at a crowd of about 18 spectators, as whispered chatter in the court room indicates that Furlow is expected to change his plea.
Around 9:10 a.m., he does.
“I felt that it was just the right thing to do,” the 27-year-old tells Judge Clark Ritchie when asked what prompted his decision to plead guilty to all charges.
In total, Furlow pleaded to eight felony charges, including attempted capital murder, conspiracy to commit capital murder, aggravated malicious wounding, attempting to conceal a body, abduction by force/intimidation, grand larceny and two counts of use of a firearm in commission of a felony.
Those charges stem from April 4, when Page County deputies were called around 2:17 a.m. to 250 Peach Orchard Rd., near Luray, after a resident called to report that an individual was trying to enter her home. They arrived to find Ellen Piepenbrink, 20, outside of the residence suffering from two gunshot wounds to the head. She was transported to the U.Va. Medical Center in Charlottesville with life-threatening injuries.
In court on Monday, Page County Commonwealth's Attorney Ken Alger told jurors in his opening statement that Piepenbrink, who was about eight weeks pregnant at the time, was “very excited” to learn she was expecting.
“She thought she was in love,” said Alger, adding that Furlow, the baby's father, held a different view.
“Get rid of the baby,” Furlow texted Piepenbrink, according to Alger. “If you don't get rid of the baby, I will.”
On April 3, continued Alger, Furlow set that plan in motion with the help of Raymond Lee Shifflett, 21, who, along with Furlow, was named in eight indictments in August.
During an Aug. 11 joint preliminary hearing in general district court, Capt. Aaron Cubbage of the Page County Sheriff's Office testified that Shifflett arrived at Furlow's house at 384 Peach Orchard Rd. on the evening of Sunday, April 3, 2016, and the two began planning how to kill Piepenbrink. Shifflett lives on the same road, at 145 Peach Orchard Rd.
Reading from a transcribed interview, Cubbage testified that Shifflett told investigators that Furlow asked him to help kill Piepenbrink because he didn't want to “go to court for child support.” Throughout the course of several interviews, continued Cubbage, Shifflett said that Furlow shot Piepenbrink, while Furlow maintained that Shifflett had pulled the trigger because Shifflett was “upset because [Piepenbrink] wouldn't date him.”
Investigators on Monday testified that Furlow deliberately misled Shifflett to believe that he and Piepenbrink had “had sex” the Saturday prior to the shooting ― a claim that Piepenbrink denied.
“Shifflett in hindsight realizes he was being manipulated by Furlow the entire time,” Alger said in court on Tuesday, adding that Shifflett now “regrets” his participation in the incident.
On the first day of what was scheduled to be a three-day trial, jurors listened to several hours of testimony from half of the 20 witnesses expected to take the stand, including the 911 caller, an Emergency Medical Technician and Page County deputies and investigators who all testified that Piepenbrink remained conscious following the shooting and repeatedly identified her shooter as Furlow. Cubbage, Shifflett, Furlow and Piepenbrink had been scheduled to testify.
Following Furlow's shift to a guilty plea on Tuesday, Alger summarized what those and other witnesses “would have testified.”
According to the Commonwealth's Attorney, Piepenbrink arrived at Furlow's house around 9:30 p.m. on Sunday, April 3, and the two spent the next several hours hanging out upstairs with Shifflett, as Furlow and Shifflett planned the shooting by sending Facebook messages to each other. At times, said Alger, the two men spoke about the plan as Piepenbrink sat in the next room.
Telling her they were going for a walk to meet someone, Alger continued, the men lured Piepenbrink to the intersection of Furlow's driveway and Peach Orchard Road, where investigators found a large pool of blood, two shell casings from a .380-caliber pistol and items from Piepenbrink's purse.
At the intersection, Piepenbrink texted a friend around 11:30 p.m. As she placed her cell phone in her back pocket, she felt a blow to the back of her head and fell to the ground.
Realizing she'd been shot, said Alger, Piepenbrink, “played dead” as she watched Furlow “circle” her body, then shoot her a second time in the back of the head.
Furlow and Shifflett then began to drag Piepenbrink face down by her arms 150 feet from the roadway, up an embankment, through briars and into a wooded area. Concerned because of her pregnancy, said Alger, Piepenbrink then “rotated her body” in an effort to protect her stomach, prompting Shifflett to question if she was still alive.
Pausing, Furlow leaned down, hovering his face closely to Piepenbrink's. Alger said Piepenbrink planned to testify that she continued to play dead, holding her breath ― an “extremely difficult” feat because she suffers from asthma.
“Furlow then pistol-whips her with the gun,” Alger said, adding that as the men dragged her, Furlow kicked her several times.
Once in the wooded area, “Matt kicked her again.” He then cut off the shirt and jacket she was wearing, fearful that the items of clothing, which belonged to him, could link him to the crime.
“They left her in the weeds,” said Alger.
Planning to return before daybreak to bury her, the two men returned to Furlow's house, where they continued drinking. Furlow placed Piepenbrink's cell phone, purse and other items, as well as the clothes that he and Shifflett had been wearing, in a trash bag that investigators weren't able to locate.
A firearm with its serial number scratched off was found inside a rubber boot in Furlow's garage. Investigators on Monday testified that they were able to link the gun to Furlow using a hidden serial number that was detected by a state lab. The knife used to cut off Piepenbrink's clothing and four unspent hollow-point rounds consistent with the casings found on the roadway were also retrieved from Furlow's residence.
Alger said that Piepenbrink planned to testify that she laid in the woods for what “felt like an hour,” continuing to play dead because she feared that Furlow and Shifflett were watching.
She laid there “waiting to die,” wearing only a pair of leggings and a bra in 30-degree weather, said Alger.
Motivated by the thought of her unborn child, Alger continued, Piepenbrink crawled out of the woods and saw a porch light about 450 feet away. She made her way to the light at 250 Peach Orchard Rd., next door to Furlow's, and banged on a basement door. When no one answered, she hid inside a nearby storage building, later climbing stairs to knock on an upstairs door at the residence.
The residents called 911 around 2:30 a.m., said Alger — nearly three hours after Piepenbrink had been shot.
Alger continued, telling Judge Ritchie that Piepenbrink sustained a total of 10 injuries, including the loss of her left eye, a broken jaw and several broken bones in her face. Piepenbrink's therapist, said Alger, had planned to testify about the “emotional impact” Piepenbrink has suffered.
“She does not look in mirrors,” said Alger. “She only takes photos that show half of her face.”
Furlow is scheduled to be sentenced in Page County Circuit Court at 9 a.m. on Wednesday, May 3. Piepenbrink is expected to take the stand at that time, said Alger. Furlow faces the possibility of two life sentences.
A jury trial for Shifflett that was set to begin next Wednesday has been continued, said Alger, adding that throughout the course of the investigation, Shifflett's statements were consistent with Piepenbrink's account.
On Tuesday morning, Piepenbrink, who sat through all of Monday's trial and Tuesday's proceedings, stood surrounded by friends who took turns holding the daughter that was born on Nov. 23.
As they exited the courtroom, one of them noted, “She's a miracle baby.”