On Feb. 1 at 2 a.m. Amber Vernon was sitting on her brother Michael’s bed, clutching his leg to her chest. Her fiancé stood beside her, straining on the end of a belt looped around Michael’s thigh. Blood soaked through the towel beneath it. As she cradled him, Amber Vernon looked down on her brother’s face as he lost consciousness. She had seen their housemate, William Dwight Sampson, stab Michael Vernon only minutes before, in the midst of a violent argument. After the knife went into his leg, Amber Vernon said her brother slashed Sampson in the face with a box cutter, then walked into his room and lay back on his bed.
She said she had not known that the knife hit an artery. She held his leg for minutes before she realized that the effort to stop the bleeding was an effort to save her brother’s life. Amber Vernon and her fiancé could not staunch the blood. Michael Vernon became Fairfax County’s first murder victim of 2007.
WHEN THEIR FATHER, grew ill one year ago, Amber, Deborah and Michael Vernon left Pikeville, N.C. and moved to Mount Vernon to be near him, the sisters said in an interview on Monday. In 1987, they’d lost their brother Richard. He was hit by a drunk driver. “The dying thing,” as Amber Vernon referred to it once, came a decade later. Since 1998, the sisters have lost a sister-in-law, their mother and two brothers, Guy and Edward, who died of heart failure.
Alan Vernon died shortly after his three remaining children arrived. But they stayed in the area, settling into a house attached to the office of the Fairview Motel, which Deborah Vernon manages. Michael Vernon found a job as a lineman with a company contracted by Verizon to install cable. His boss parked the truck at the Fairview and lived in one of the rooms.
Sampson was a friend from North Carolina. He had been renting a room in the Fairview house for a year. But Sampson and Michael Vernon would argue, the sisters said. When Sampson spoke sharply to women, especially them, their brother would confront him. The situation had become untenable, Deborah Vernon said, and she had planned to evict him on Feb. 6.
On Jan. 31, Michael Vernon spent the evening with his co-workers in their Fairview room, according to the Vernon sisters. They had been cooking-out on a small grill and watching television. Vernon did not walk across the parking lot and back into his home until early in the morning of Feb. 1. When he went upstairs, something sparked one of his recurring arguments with Sampson.
“It happened so fast,” said Deborah Vernon, sitting behind her desk in the Fairview office, “so fast.” Only a few feet from where she sat, a staircase led up to the hallway where the fight occurred and the bedroom where her brother died. Vernon turned in her seat and stared through windows that looked out onto the cold evening outside. Slanting sunlight struck the stream of cars headed home down the Richmond Highway.
“Dwight started raising hell,” she explained. Her brother “didn’t want to hear it.” As the men yelled more violently, others in the house told Michael Vernon to go downstairs and cool off, his sisters said. Then he and Sampson started to grapple with one another in the hallway. Vernon gained the upper hand. Sampson took out a knife and stabbed him in the leg. Vernon responded by pulling out a box-cutter and slashing Sampson in the face. Then he took four or five steps into his bedroom and lay down on his bed.
No one realized how badly Vernon had been injured. The sisters said they learned later that the knife had sliced an artery. Deborah Vernon said she had to leave the bedroom as Amber Vernon and her fiancé tried to save Michael.
Amber Vernon said she elevated her brother’s leg while her fiancé used a makeshift tourniquet above the wound. She said the police arrived first, then the ambulance. All the while, her brother was losing massive amounts of blood. As his loved ones struggled , Michael Vernon lay back and drifted into unconsciousness.
“I never saw him look so much like my dad until he did that night,” said Amber Vernon.
VERNON WAS TRANSPORTED to Inova Mount Vernon Hospital, where he died, according to a police report. Sampson stayed at the scene until the police arrived. They arrested him and took him to the Fairfax County Adult Detention Center. Sampson was initially charged with malicious wounding, then with murder.
“It’s very sad that two guys lost their lives in their 40s for stupidity,” said Deborah Vernon. “[Sampson] is in jail for life and Mike’s not here anymore.”
Vernon was 47. Amber Vernon said her brother had a 22-year-old son, Christopher, who lives in Kansas City, Mo. Asked to describe her brother, she replied instantly. “He was a diehard Redskins fan.”
“Everyone that met Michael loved him,” she continued. “He was one of the most giving people in the world… If he had a dollar and you needed 75 cents, he’d give it to you.”
Michael just always looked out for us,” Deborah Vernon said. Michael Vernon was the youngest of the six siblings. But after their three brothers died, Deborah Vernon said her brother used to tell his sisters that “we were his baby girls. Even though he was the baby. We were his baby girls.”
He had also been close with the crew he strung cable with. Every morning, he would meet them in the Fairview parking lot. Deborah Vernon said emotion forced them to vacate their rooms at the Fairview in the days after Vernon’s death.
“They were waiting for Mike to come out the door. They would look up at [his bedroom] window.”
But Deborah said she and her sister will continue living in the house where their brother died. “We really don’t have much of a choice right now. The people that own this motel have been very good to us.” She added that the guests, most of whom live there permanently, have been “very caring.”
As she described the aftermath, something triggered another recollection. “Oh man, he missed the Super Bowl. He was so looking forward to watching the Super Bowl.” Then she turned back to the window, where the cars were still passing down Richmond Highway.