Under Cover of the Night: A True Story of Sex, Greed, and Murder

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9781494502317: Under Cover of the Night: A True Story of Sex, Greed, and Murder
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Jocelyn Branham Earnest was found dead on the floor of her living room in Forest, Virginia. By her side was a gun and a suicide note-typed, lacking a signature, and with one fingerprint on it. A fingerprint apparently belonging to Jocelyn's estranged husband.
Wesley Earnest was a respected high school administrator, poised to restart his life in a new community. Parents entrusted their children to his care and believed he was above reproach. But the investigation into the life the couple once shared would reveal adultery, troubled finances, and shattered dreams-enough for one man with murder on his mind to travel hundreds of miles.

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About the Author:

Diane Fanning is the Edgar Award-nominated, nationally bestselling author of many true crime books, including Under Cover of the Night, Her Deadly Web, and Through the Window. She has also penned the Lucinda Pierce Mysteries and Scandal in the Secret City, a World War II mystery. She lives in Bedford, Virginia.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:



Marcy Shepherd often took two weeks off from her job in the human resources department of Genworth Financial around Christmas, to spend time with her children and finish up her holiday preparations, and 2007 was no exception. On Sunday, December 16, 2007, the perky blonde went shopping with her friend and co-worker Jocelyn Earnest, and they made plans to get together again on the evening of Wednesday, December 19. Text messages bounced between the women throughout the day that Wednesday as Marcy ran errands, even briefly stopping at the Genworth offices to deliver popcorn that co-workers had purchased from her son’s Cub Scout troop.

At home that evening, Marcy sat down with her eight-year-old son to watch SpongeBob SquarePants. Just before seven thirty, she received a text from Jocelyn asking if she was there. Marcy responded, “Y.” When she didn’t hear back from Jocelyn, Marcy sent another message spelling out her answer more clearly, “Yes, I’m here.” Still no reply from Jocelyn, which was unusual since she had answered every other text that day promptly. Marcy knew a momentary pause could have a lot of innocent explanations: another phone call, taking a shower, a temporary separation from her cell phone, whatever. At first, it was not cause for alarm.

When the television show ended, Marcy went upstairs with her son, made sure he brushed his teeth, read a story to him, and tucked him in for the night at eight thirty. She sent an email asking Jocelyn if her text messaging was not working. Jocelyn still remained silent.

Ten minutes later, Marcy left her son with her husband and drove to CVS, still waiting to hear from Jocelyn—still expecting they would meet up that night. She sent another message to Jocelyn while she was in the store, before completing her purchases and leaving at 9:08 P.M.

Marcy was beginning to think that she might not see Jocelyn that evening after all. She had Jocelyn’s Christmas present—an enormous box of festive outdoor holiday lights wrapped in gold Santa Claus paper—in her car, however, and not wanting to take the package home for fear its size would stir up her children’s heightened state of holiday excitability, Marcy decided to drop it off at the office instead.

She drove fifteen minutes to the downtown Genworth Financial offices and used her key card to gain access to the building after hours. The security system recorded her walking through that door at 9:24 P.M. and taking the elevator to the first floor. She placed Jocelyn’s gift on her desk and then returned to her car, checking out at 9:28.

Still not having heard from Jocelyn was making Marcy anxious. She realized that she could be indulging a senseless agitation, but she could not quiet her escalating fears that something might be wrong. It took a quarter of an hour to drive out to her friend’s house, which was situated in a quiet, serene neighborhood in Forest, Virginia, part of scenic Bedford County, nestled up against the Blue Ridge Mountains.

When she arrived, Marcy saw Jocelyn’s green Honda parked in the driveway, but while the outside light was lit, only a single low-wattage light burned inside the white-clapboard bungalow with silver metal roof. Had Jocelyn gone out in someone else’s vehicle? If so, why hadn’t she called or texted about her change of plans? Had she accidentally left her phone behind? Had she fallen asleep? Maybe turned off her cell?

Marcy had planned to just drive by the house without stopping, but instead she turned around in the next driveway and drove back to her friend’s home. She parked and walked up the curved sidewalk to the quiet house and knocked on the front door. There was no response, and no sounds seeped from inside.

Still unsettled, Marcy returned home at a little before ten o’clock. She texted Jocelyn that she was worried and asked her to call. Marcy had difficulty getting to sleep but finally reassured herself that she’d surely get a simple explanation the next morning. Jocelyn would explain what had happened, and they’d laugh about Marcy’s unwarranted concern.

The next morning, Marcy rose a little bit after seven and at a quarter past the hour sent Jocelyn another text message. When she still didn’t get a response, Marcy set her phone to send her an alert when Jocelyn logged in to the instant messaging system at Genworth. That way, she would know right away that her friend was safely at work.

When by 10 A.M. she had not received any alerts, Marcy called someone who worked for Jocelyn and was told, “We’re expecting her but we haven’t seen her.”

Something was wrong. As long as Marcy had known her, Jocelyn was always one of the first people at her desk. At 11:30, Marcy again made the drive to Jocelyn’s home, in escalating anxiety.

Jocelyn’s car was still parked in the same spot. Just as the night before, only one weak light glowed beyond the windows. The temperature had risen a bit from the morning’s low of twenty-four degrees, but with the light breeze, it was still cool enough to make Marcy shiver on the way up the sidewalk.

Once again, she knocked on the front door. When she got no answer, she balled up her fists and pounded on it as hard as she could, desperate to capture her friend’s attention. The possibility of calamity roared in Marcy’s ears. Was Jocelyn sick? Injured? An innocent explanation (could Jocelyn have gone to bed early, turned off her phone, and overslept?) seemed less and less likely.

Marcy moved around the exterior of the home; coverings on all the windows prevented her from seeing the interior, but she knocked on each one. Still no sound from inside. She called a mutual friend and co-worker, Maysa Munsey, hoping she had answers. But Maysa did not know where Jocelyn was, either—and she, too, was worried.

Maysa knew the code to the home’s alarm system, and Marcy knew where to find the keypad—if only she could get inside. Then Marcy remembered Jocelyn telling her about a spare key she kept in the shed, inside the six-foot fence that surrounded the swimming pool area. Marcy went over to the gate, surprised to find it unlocked when she tugged on the handle.

Still on the phone with Maysa, Marcy located the spare key inside the outbuilding and ran back to the front door. But it didn’t work. She tried again and again, thinking that it was just her anxiety making the simple task difficult. Finally, she gave up and dashed around the house to try the back door instead.


When the door, which opened to the kitchen, swung open, it brought with it a blast of heat, enough to fog up Marcy’s eyeglasses and momentarily obscure her vision. She called out, “Jocelyn! Jocelyn, where are you?” Then she tilted her head back to peer under her lenses and gasped. She could see Jocelyn lying still on the floor.

“Maysa, call 9-1-1 right now!” Marcy cried. She disconnected from Maysa and punched 9-1-1 into her own cell phone as well.

The 9-1-1 operators asked her to check for a pulse and try CPR.

Marcy felt her hands trembling with panic as she walked across the living room, still on the phone with 9-1-1. As the fog faded, her vision improved, allowing her to see her friend clearly. Her fears morphed into visceral horror. Jocelyn was dressed as if she just walked in the door in a pair of jeans, a sweater, and her winter coat, but she was lying flat on her back on the floor. Her legs stuck straight out. She appeared stiff and unnatural.

Marcy didn’t want to believe what she was seeing. Maybe Jocelyn just bumped her head, her heart insisted. But logic kicked back into gear when Marcy saw the pool of dark red surrounding Jocelyn’s head, mottling the blue carpet with dark, streaky stains trailing across the floor.

The blood puddle was predominately to Jocelyn’s right, so Marcy stepped to the left of the body and kneeled down. That was when she saw the firearm. “There’s a gun,” she said. She moved away from it, kneeling on her friend’s other side. She placed her fingers on Jocelyn’s throat. It was stiff. It was cold. And nothing beat beneath her skin.

Marcy got a close look at her friend. Her lips were blue. Her fingernails were blue. Blood stains ran in multiple directions on her face, forming a strange hatch pattern. At the operator’s request, she reached down and touched Jocelyn’s left wrist. Nothing.

The 9-1-1 operator told Marcy to see if Jocelyn was breathing by placing her hand on the stomach area. Marcy slipped her hand in between Jocelyn’s sweater and the shirt beneath, desperate to feel the up-and-down movement of respiration, but it wasn’t there. Marcy’s heart pounded, her mouth dry. She wanted to breathe life back into her friend, but she knew it was far too late. Jocelyn was obviously past the point where CPR would be of any use.

As Marcy stood there, shaking with grief and horror, she thought about all the times that Jocelyn had expressed fear that her life would end violently—the moments she had expressed her paranoid-sounding thoughts about her estranged husband, the many times Marcy observed Jocelyn gripping the armrest in a fear that she’d see Wesley as soon as they’d completed the last turn in the road approaching the house.

Marcy knew Maysa was on her way to the house and that Maysa would have her own children with her. She did not want them to arrive and walk right inside. Marcy opened the front door and stood there watching and waiting, then suddenly wondered about Jocelyn’s pets—her black Lab, Rufus, and her two cats. She left the doorway and went down the hall far enough to look into the master bedroom, where she was relieved to see Rufus safely in his kennel. Locating the cats would have to wait.

She hurried back to stand guard at the front door, the phone still connected to 9-1-1. Maysa Munsey, her long, wavy brown hair flying, arrived before any of the first responders. When she pulled up, Marcy shouted out, “Leave the kids in the car.”

The operator agreed, saying, “Don’t let them in the house. Don’t let them in the house.”

Marcy blocked the front door as Maysa joined her on the front porch. Wrapping her arms around Marcy, Maysa asked, “Are you certain she’s gone?”

Marcy nodded. The two women hugged and sobbed as they waited for the police cars to pull up. Deputy Jason Jones was the first to arrive at the home in the Pine Bluff subdivision. Speaking to Marcy and Maysa, he said, “Please remain here at the house until investigators arrive and talk to you.”

The two women left the porch and waited in the driveway. They felt helpless and out of place. Less than a week until Christmas, and instead of making holiday preparations and wishing “Happy Holidays” to friends, family, and co-workers, they stood together in the cold without a single merry thought. The very idea of Christmas spirit felt obscene on that dark winter’s day.


Bedford County deputies Jason Jones and Robbie Nash had been the first officers to arrive at the scene at 1482 Pine Bluff Drive on Thursday, December 20, 2007. The medic unit was right behind them, but Jones told them to wait outside until they cleared the residence. The two lawmen separated and searched the home, sweating from the heat in the house. Finding no one there except for a black dog in a kennel and two cats, Jones allowed the medics inside but warned them not to disturb the body or anything around it any more than necessary. After determining that Jocelyn Earnest had no vital signs, they gathered up their equipment and went back outside. Jones stayed in the room with Jocelyn’s body waiting for the arrival of an investigator.

·   ·   ·

Gary Babb, the sergeant in charge of investigations for the Bedford County Sheriff’s Department, had stopped by his home in the small city of Bedford for lunch when he received a call from the dispatcher requesting that he respond to a DOA in Forest, approximately twenty-two miles away. He grabbed the rest of his sandwich and went out the door.

He took Route 221 toward Lynchburg, then traveled down roads that twisted and turned under canopies of tall trees and past pastures of cows and fields lying fallow for winter until he reached the small suburban development where the body had been discovered.

A lot of civilians sat in cars or milled in the street in front of the house in question. As he walked from his car, they stared at him with expressions of naked longing that blended an unsustainable mixture of hope, hopelessness, and denial.

The outside of the house appeared ordinary enough with white vinyl siding and a large bay window, enhanced by a stunning stone chimney and foundation. A tall weathered wood fence surrounded the backyard. Uniformed officer Robbie Nash stood on the porch in front of the open front door, guarding the scene. Jones stepped out onto the porch upon the detective’s arrival, and the two deputies explained what they’d found inside of the home and the futile efforts of the rescue squad.

“Did you find a suicide note?” Detective Babb asked.

Both officers shook their heads and said, “No, sir.”

Stepping across the threshold, Babb noted that the deceased thirty-eight-year-old woman was five feet six inches tall, of medium build, with hazel eyes and light brown hair with dark blond highlights. She was lying on her back, wearing jeans, brown shoes, and a car coat. One step inside, he noticed that despite the open door and the winter air slipping through it, an uncomfortable heat filled the home. The smell of death and blood had dissipated to some degree, though, leaving only traces of the ominous odor.

Between the front door and the body, Babb spotted a sheet of paper facedown on the floor, appearing to be insignificant household clutter. But it bore four creases, as if it had once been folded into quarters, and that piqued the detective’s interest. He pulled on a pair of gloves and flipped the paper over. On the reverse side, he read:

Mom, I just can’t take it anymore. I’ve tried so hard to be strong but I just can’t continue. The ups and downs are too much to deal with. I keep trying to appear as though I am doing fine but the days are so overwhelming and lonely. My new love will never leave the family. Wes has buried us in debt and starting over is too much. I am so sorry mom. I am so sorry everyone.

Babb was immediately suspicious of the note. To begin with, it was typed and did not bear a signature—unusual for the last words of someone about to commit suicide. In addition, the tone of the message was more impersonal than other final messages he’d read in the past, and it raised more questions than it answered. Nevertheless, the note was not sufficiently unsettling to rule out the possibility that Jocelyn had taken her own life.

To avoid tracking through the pathway in the immediate vicinity of the victim, Babb walked through the kitchen and came around the other side to get a closer look at her. Leaning forward, he saw bloody streaks running across her face. A revolver lay on top of her coat—an unusual position for a suicide. Usually, the weapon ended up under the body. But again, Babb knew it was way too soon to reach any firm conclusions.

The detective moved down the hall where he found a thermo...

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