Trail of terror: From Auckland to Goochland

Olivia Carville visited the tiny US town of Goochland where a Kiwi man had flown 18,000km to confront a 14-year-old girl, and was shot in the neck by her mother.

She recognised his face.

Cowering behind her mother who was aiming a loaded gun, the 14-year-old American girl caught a glimpse of the man who was trying to break into her family home. She realised she’d seen him before.

It was Troy Skinner, the New Zealand man she’d been talking to on an online gaming forum months earlier. But he was no longer just a profile photo from the other side of the world. He was now in her backyard in the tiny county of Goochland, Virginia, and was armed with pepper spray, duct tape and a hunting knife sharp enough to skin animals, according to authorities.

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The girl’s father wasn’t home and her neighbours were too far away to hear her scream.

Skinner allegedly hurled a brick through the glass back door and the girl’s mother fired the gun at his head.

How did Skinner – a 25-year-old from Auckland with a history of mental illness – end up dressed all in black and armed with a deadly weapon in the backyard of a quaint community deep in Virginia’s heartland on the afternoon of Friday, June 22?

Skinner's image displayed on a screen in a media conference held by the Goochland sheriff. Photo / Supplied
Skinner’s image displayed on a screen in a media conference held by the Goochland sheriff. Photo / Supplied

The Weekend Herald tracked Skinner’s path through the southeastern state. From the Richmond hostel he stayed in, through the village where he bought the knife to the manicured cul-de-sac where he allegedly terrorised an American family and finally to the hospital where he is now under protective custody as he recovers from a gunshot wound to the neck.

Lying in a hospital bed in the incarceration unit of the VCU Medical Centre Critical Care Hospital, Skinner is dealing with the reality of facing the rest of his life in prison in the United States; charged with a class two felony for breaking in with the intent to rape, rob or murder.

He is under 24/7 watch by a deputy from the Goochland Sheriff’s Department and, according to the local sheriff, has “pleaded the fifth” and refused to speak to authorities so far. His alleged crime – which has made headlines around the world – is now the subject of an investigation by the FBI, America’s principal law enforcement agency.

In a nation besieged by mass shootings and bitterly divided by gun control, the shooting of Skinner has been welcomed by those who defend the constitutional right to bear arms in America and touted as “the perfect NRA (National Rifle Association) story.”

If this mother didn’t have a gun, many residents in Goochland believe she and her two teenage daughters would be dead.

Skinner’s silence has forced detectives to piece together this bizarre crime by using the few belongings he was carrying in a backpack: a change of clothes, some handwritten notes, a kindle, a New Zealand passport, duct tape and a knife, and tracking his steps from Auckland to Goochland – a three-day, 18,743km journey.

The people of Goochland County often leave their front doors unlocked and their car keys in the ignition.

It is a safe, clean county with more churches than cafes. Goochland, a 45-minute drive from Richmond, Virginia, is nestled off Interstate 64 and easy to miss, which is exactly how the locals like it. Tourists rarely pass through the county, it doesn’t have any hotels and you’d be hard-pressed to find somewhere to buy a toothbrush after 5pm.

The Hi Richmond Hostel Skinner stayed in. Photo / Olivia Carville
The Hi Richmond Hostel Skinner stayed in. Photo / Olivia Carville

With a population of 22,000, Goochland is considerably smaller than Whakatane. Most of its residents commute to jobs in Richmond or nearby towns, 99 per cent are US citizens and the overwhelming majority are white.

Once one of the top 10 wealthiest counties in America, it has been a Republican stronghold since the 1980s. Most of its residents own guns and know how to use them. More than 2500 have a conceal and carry permit, allowing them to carry a hidden handgun at all times.

You could argue there’s not much need for the people of Goochland to carry a gun, given it is deemed safer than 70 per cent of US cities. The chances of falling victim to a violent crime in Goochland are one in 870, according to the NeighborhoodScout Crime Risk Report. In Manhattan, the chance is one in 40.

“The crime we have here is people breaking into other people’s tool sheds or wild animals killing people’s chickens,” said Joe Edwards, president of Goochland’s Brothers N’Arms gun shop.

In the quiet neighbourhood of Holland Hills, a five-minute drive from the sheriff’s office, the grass is lush and green and mown in stripes. The huge homes along the cul-de-sac of Steeplechase Parkway have long driveways, wrap-around porches and wooden shutters on the windows. Golf-clubs and jet-skis sit in open garages, inflatable toys float in swimming pools and American flags festoon front steps.

It’s quiet out in Holland Hills, apart from a relentless buzz of cicadas, a whirr of distant lawn mowers and the odd dog’s bark carried on the breeze. The properties are big -divided by a wall of trees – and you couldn’t hear your next door neighbour firing a gun.

“This is bedrock America,” said Jim Agnew, who has served as Goochland County’s sheriff for 27 years. “This community is very conservative and very focused on raising families in a clean and crime-free area with room to move around,” Agnew said. “Out here there’s peace, there’s quiet and people know their neighbours – and their neighbours’ extended family, too.”

Agnew has toyed with the idea of writing a book about some of the biggest cases he’s covered during his almost-three-decade-stint as Goochland’s sheriff. There was the time he had to shoot a mother bear and her cubs with a tranquiliser gun then drag them back into an enclosure by their paws, or when he had to arrest the county’s former treasurer after she was caught embezzling $135,000 of taxpayer money to send to her Nigerian scam lover, or the 22-year-old woman who was mauled to death by her dogs in the woods.

The knife and receipt in Skinner's possession when he was shot. Photo / Supplied
The knife and receipt in Skinner’s possession when he was shot. Photo / Supplied

But nothing compares to the New Zealander who flew around the world and attempted to break into the home of a 14-year-old girl he met online: the man Agnew found writhing in agony and gasping for air on the front lawn of a house in Steeplechase Pkwy, staining the green grass blood red.

“We don’t hold any hostility towards New Zealanders. But we resent him,” Agnew told the Weekend Herald. “Most of the folks around here share the same thought as me, which is he got what he deserved.”

The violent actions of Aucklander Troy Skinner, 25, stunned not only the community of Goochland, Virginia, but also his New Zealand-based family and friends. They believe he must have had a psychotic episode before the attack and say he stopped taking antipsychotic medication for a major depressive disorder a few weeks ago.

“This was the last guy I would expect to do something like this,” Skinner’s friend, Shamar Singh, said.

“What he’s done is completely out of his mind – he would’ve had to (have) been, because he knows right from wrong, he knows good from bad, he knows consequences lead to things,” his father George Skinner told Newshub.

From the descriptions given to media by his friends and father, Skinner appears to have led a relatively low-key lifestyle, composing music for online video games. He kept to himself, had never been in trouble with police and had never travelled abroad. Skinner had applied to start a bridging course in July at the University of Auckland, with the hopes of one day studying law.

He appears to be an unremarkable man who has allegedly committed a remarkably disturbing – and uncharacteristic – crime.

No one who was close to Skinner knew anything about an American girl. Skinner first met the teenager online through the Discord chat service, which allows video-gamers to communicate via their cellphone. The pair spoke for about four months before she cut communication with Skinner, Agnew says. The sheriff’s office has not released any information about the nature of the relationship between the pair, or whether it was romantic, claiming this is a current focus of their investigation.

For whatever reason, Skinner applied for a passport earlier this year, having his photograph taken on March 6, according to Agnew. In early June, he started desperately calling around his friends and family asking for money to pay for a plane ticket. He told his father he was going to Australia, he told one friend he needed to go to Portland, Oregon, to visit a gaming friend who was dying and he told another he was going to the US to make music with friends.

Despite the conflicting stories, Skinner managed to cobble together about $1500 to pay for a flight to Washington DC.

The VCU Health Medical Centre Skinner is recovering in. Photo / Olivia Carville
The VCU Health Medical Centre Skinner is recovering in. Photo / Olivia Carville

In the small hours of the morning on June 20, he made his way to Auckland International Airport with a backpack to catch a flight to Sydney. From there, he boarded a 9.25am flight to Los Angeles, and then a 9.40pm red-eye flight to Washington DC, arriving early on the morning of June 21.

He caught a two-hour Greyhound bus to Richmond, Virginia, and walked to the city’s Hostelling International USA, a funky downtown hostel that attracts foreign travellers. Skinner told staff he had come from Auckland, New Zealand, and never gave any indication he “would be capable of such a horrific act,” says the hostel’s general manager, Brooke Matherly.

The next morning, Skinner left the hostel dressed head to toe in black, with pepper spray in his pocket. Shortly before 1pm, he walked into Walmart in the small village of Short Pump, 24km away. He made his way to the hunting section in the back right-hand corner of the store and picked up a camouflage clip knife with a 7cm blade from a rotating stand on the counter. He grabbed duct tape from a nearby aisle. The knife and duct tape cost Skinner US$8.26 (NZ$12.21) and he paid with a credit card, without raising any suspicions from staff.

A few hours later, a resident of Holland Hills – 32km from Short Pump – saw a man dressed in black with a backpack darting across the street and hiding behind trees along Steeplechase Parkway, where the teenage girl lived.

The 14-year-old was at home with her 18-year-old sister and their mother, who was downstairs painting when Skinner knocked on the front door around 4pm, according to Agnew. Skinner said he had been hitchhiking for miles and needed to come inside. The mother refused to let him in and Skinner made his way around the back of the house and allegedly tried to break in by smashing a concrete landscaping brick from the garden on the rear basement door.

The mother called her husband, who was still at work, telling him a strange man was trying to break into the house. The father immediately called the sheriff’s emergency line and told dispatch officer Jennifer Layton a man was trying to break into his family home.

Unable to get into the basement, Skinner walked up the steps of the back deck and peered inside the house. This was when the 14-year-old girl, who was hiding behind her mother, recognised his face, Agnew says. Skinner hurled the brick through the door, smashing the glass. The mother warned him she had a loaded gun and said she was going to shoot if he tried to come inside. As Skinner reached inside the smashed door to try to unlock it, she fired two shots from her .22-calibre handgun, one hitting Skinner in the neck. He fled.

Moments later, inside Goochland’s new emergency operations centre, dispatch officer Ryan Condrey’s phone rang. It was the mother, calling to say she had shot someone who was trying to break into her house.

“She was hysterical,” Condrey says. “I could hear her daughter crying in the background. She didn’t know if she’d hit him or not.”

Goochland Virginia, where Troy Skinner, from New Zealand, attempted to abduct a teenager he met online, but was shot by the girl's mother. Photo / Olivia Carville
Goochland Virginia, where Troy Skinner, from New Zealand, attempted to abduct a teenager he met online, but was shot by the girl’s mother. Photo / Olivia Carville

As he was trying to keep the mother calm over the phone, his desk neighbour Layton was still on a call with the husband and leaned over asking if he was handling an incident on Steeplechase Parkway.

“Are you on the phone with the wife?” Layton asked Condrey. “I think so,” he replied. They sent out an urgent dispatch of a live shooting incident and every Goochland County officer on call headed for Holland Hills.

Moments later, another call came through to the emergency centre from Steeplechase Parkway. Dispatch officer Carla Fleming answered the phone and a resident said a man dressed in black was lying in the front yard, bleeding from the neck. Fleming told the resident to keep an eye on the man, but to stay inside for safety. Fleming, Condrey and Layton, who sit side by side in the emergency centre, made a second urgent dispatch update, telling the officers the location of the alleged assailant.

Agnew and eight other officers sped into Steeplechase Parkway, sirens blaring. The mother and daughters were sitting on the front porch, visibly upset.

Next door, Skinner was lying on his right side in the front yard, holding his neck and saying he couldn’t breathe. Agnew searched Skinner for weapons and found pepper spray, duct tape and a hunting knife, alongside something he had never seen before: a New Zealand passport.

At 8pm that night, Agnew called his wife Dale, the clerk of the Goochland court, and said: “The most bizarre thing I’ve ever heard has happened and I’ll tell ya’ll about it when I get home.”

It’s been two weeks since the attack and the Skinner shooting is still the talk of the town.

Grandmothers are vowing to learn how to shoot guns, parents are agonising over “how young is too young” to talk to their children about online safety and teenagers are in fear of returning to their gaming consoles.

The clerks of the county court gather around a globe to see just how far Skinner travelled, marking his journey from New Zealand to Virginia with their finger. Some decide to take up target practice to learn how to shoot a gun, lest an intruder arrive when their husbands aren’t home.

In the Goochland cafe, Sheriff Agnew and his wife are eating a hot dog and chicken salad sandwich when 20-year-old Hunter Bailey approaches their table. “Did you hear about that shooting up in Holland Hills?” Dale Agnew asks Bailey.

Goochland County Sheriff James Agnew with his wife Dale Agnew. Photo / Olivia Carville
Goochland County Sheriff James Agnew with his wife Dale Agnew. Photo / Olivia Carville

“Oh, that New Zealand guy? Yea, that sounds crazy. I was in North Carolina and it was all over the radio,” Bailey replies. “In my eyes, she didn’t do nothing wrong,” he says, referring to the mother who shot Skinner.

“They would’ve been dead – if she didn’t have a gun. They would’ve all been dead,” Dale Agnew says.

Sitting at the next table, Hashaam Markas, 33, introduces himself to Sheriff Agnew and says he’s only recently moved into the county.

“There was a New Zealander committing crimes in Goochland, Virginia? Now that is odd,” Markas says, overhearing the conversation. “Did the homeowner shoot him? Did she shoot him dead?” he asks.

No, the sheriff replies. In the neck, but he’s alive. “If there’s ever a reason to have a gun, it was proven last Friday,” he says. Both men nod.

Chris and Courtney Subudhi, who live on Steeplechase Parkway with their five kids aged 3 to 11, were home on the afternoon of the attack, but say they didn’t hear anything. When they found out what had happened, they say, the most striking element of the incident to them was that the man came from New Zealand.

“That’s a really far trip. No one just shows up in Goochland, we’re just a blip on a map,” Courtney says. “Plus, New Zealand is so beautiful, why would he want to leave and come all the way over here for some girl?”

Brian Sylvester, who lives five houses down from the incident, says he was also at home at the time of the shooting but heard nothing. He was in the front yard, beside the pool, with his son and his son’s girlfriend, shooting his own .22-calibre handgun at targets.

Sylvester’s father is a certified NRA instructor; Sylvester says this case was a perfect example of the need for home protection in America. “He was not there just to say hello to her daughter. I firmly believe the family would’ve been hurt if she didn’t have a gun.”

His wife, Jennifer, criticises American media for only highlighting stories that support the gun control mantra and says cases like this always fly under the national radar. “I work with people in Richmond who haven’t even heard of this story. This is a great example of the use of a gun. She did the right thing, but home protection stories are never followed up in America.”

Jennifer Sylvester says that before the attack she wasn’t sure she would be able to shoot an intruder, but now she wants to sign up for target practice, just in case. “We hope the family is going to be okay,” she says. “It’s a pretty big deal when you pull the trigger. That’s quite a load to carry.”

The family involved in the attack have asked for privacy and neighbours tell the Weekend Herald they have agreed to protect their identity from reporters.

Skinner will likely be discharged from hospital this week.

He will then be moved to the Henrico County Jail, where he will appear in court via video link for a bond hearing that will almost certainly be denied. Skinner has rights to a lawyer, but so far none has been appointed.

Patients in the incarceration ward of the VCU Medical Centre Critical Care Hospital are not allowed visitors or phone calls, the Weekend Herald is told. Sheriff Agnew received a call from Skinner’s father in New Zealand last week, asking how his son was doing. Agnew told him Skinner was still in hospital and refusing to speak to officers.

On Skinner’s release from hospital, he will enter the American justice system, where he will face trial for a class two felony, which carries a potential sentence of life imprisonment.

Troy Skinner’s movements ahead of arrest.

June 20

• 6:05am, June 20: Qantas flight QF140 – Auckland to Sydney.

• 9:25am – Qantas flight AA72 – Sydney to Los Angeles.

• 9:40pm – American Airlines flight: AA303 – Los Angeles to Washington D.C.

June 21

• 8:35am, June 21, Greyhound bus: Washington D.C. to Richmond, Va.

• 3:03pm – checked into Hosteling International USA in Richmond, Va

June 22

• 8:46am, June 22, checked out of Hosteling International USA

• 12:45pm, bought knife and duct tape at Wal-Mart in Glen Allen, Va.

• 2.30pm, resident of Holland Hills subdivision, while driving out of neighborhood, notices male walking in black clothing with a backpack crossing the road along Bulldog Way and Steeplechase Parkway.

• About 4:27pm, Goochland emergency services receive call from resident about Skinner breaking into their family home.

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