On the morning of March 12, 2011 Dan Morse walked up to a Lululemon store in suburban Washington D.C. and began taking notes. Lululemon is an upscale chain store that sells yoga clothes and gear, but Morse wasn’t interested in their $150 running jackets. The yellow crime-scene tape strung across the front door is what brought him there.
Morse covers criminal justice for the Post, and that morning a colleague who happened to be in Bethesda Row, an area of luxury retail shops in one of D.C.’s most affluent communities, tipped him off about a rapidly growing police presence at Lululemon. The broad outline of the story as Morse learned it was shocking. Two saleswomen had been ambushed and violently attacked inside as they were closing up the night before; one woman was dead, the other was in the hospital, injured but fortunately able to share with investigators important details about the night of terror.
The incongruity of such a violent crime taking place in a store dedicated to the calming practice of yoga was strange enough; that it happened in Bethesda Row, where well-dressed locals go for martinis, facials and iPads, was even stranger. The community was terrified. The story of two masked men invading a high-end store and subjecting a pair of attractive, well-educated young women to unspeakable violence was many people’s worst nightmare, stoked by Nancy Grace and network crime dramas, confirmed: no one was safe anymore. A tony zip code couldn’t always protect you from brute psychopaths who snuck in from somewhere else.
The real story proved far more unsettling. No one could know that morning that the masked men story sounded like the plot of a crime show because it was a plot, smartly shaped by the real perpetrator to meet the assumptions of a susceptible public. In fact, as Morse scribbled notes outside Lululemon the killer wasn’t hiding out in some drug den washing blood from his hands, but in a hospital bed, having her wounds tenderly cared for. The ambush that killed thirty-year-old Jayna Murray, that left her with, astoundingly, more than three hundred wounds, didn’t originate from a break-in from intruders, but from the heart and mind of the seemingly ordinary co-worker with whom she closed the store that night.
I love recommending quality true crime books, and I’m happy to include Dan Morse’s “The Yoga Store Murder” to that list. His excellent reporting skills are evident from page one and, unlike other books covering high-profile crimes, I never felt the story was being embellished or pumped up with unnecessary speculation. Reading it was the equivalent of watching a well-done, riveting documentary as opposed to a dramatization.
I’ve always felt that for a true crime book to really work it has to be about something bigger than the crime itself; Morse’s examination of the mysteries of psychopathy is what elevated the book for me. How do we wrap our minds around the fact that twenty-eight year old Brittany Norwood, who had no history of violence, was responsible for the 331 slashing, stabbing, bludgeoning wounds on Jayna Murray, many of them concentrated on Murray’s face? Even experienced, hardened detectives were slow to accept the truth.
I’ll let readers come to their own conclusions. Norwood did have a history of lying and stealing, and whatever exploded between the two co-workers likely started because Murray had caught Norwood shoplifting from the store, and Norwood feared she’d lose her job the next day. I spoke with Morse on the phone about his book, and he said experts explained to him that psychopaths often kill for reasons that would seem innocuous, stupid or manageable to the rest of us. If you lack empathy or a conscience, Morse explained, all it can require for murder to seem like a reasonable solution is a certain set of circumstances.
The excessive number and severity of wounds on Murray is one of the most chilling aspects of the case. “Norwood’s attorneys said she snapped,” Morse told me. “That it was rage. But psychopath experts would say it wasn’t that at all. It was actually dispassionate. That that’s how long it took to kill her. You don’t have weapons at hand in a yoga store,” he said.
“You can look at 331 wounds as rage,” Morse said. “Or you can look at it as determination.”