In Farmville, Va., Suzanne Arena and her daughter Susan Varner had star quality. Together the flamboyant pair ran a wildly successful antique-clothing store that supplied vintage costumes for blockbusters like Titanic and drew such celebs as Richard Gere and Cindy Crawford to their otherwise quiet town in the southern Virginia farm country. With her trademark mane of curly auburn a hair, her brightly polished nails and raucous wit, Varner, in particular, was a local scene-stealer. As she herself once put it, “I’ve got my wild side on 24 hours a day.”
Tragically, those days came to an abrupt end on the evening of July 5. The first hint of trouble surfaced when Farmville police officer Chris Fishburne pulled over a speeding car—and spotted an ax with drops of blood on it in the passenger seat. At first Fishburne took the unkempt and clearly distraught driver for a stranger. Then he looked at the man’s license and realized that the driver, unrecognizable thanks to a bushy beard and Charles Manson hair, was local farmer Reggie Varner, 53, Susan Varner’s ex-husband. “I didn’t recognize him, and I’ve known the man for close to 40 years,” says Lt. Wade Stimpson, who quickly arrived on the scene.
As police attempted to question Reggie Varner, a report arrived by police radio that Frank Arena, 78, the husband of Suzanne Arena and Reggie Varner’s former father-in-law, had just returned from work to find his 79-year-old wife lying dead in a pool of blood on their living-room floor. “I don’t have an ax murderer here, I know I don’t,” Fishburne tried to reassure himself as Stimpson made the short drive to Susan Varner’s house to check on her safety. His worst fears were confirmed: Susan Varner, 50, dead from head wounds caused by a heavy, sharp implement, lay just inside her back door. “It was horrible,” says Stimpson, a friend of Susan’s. “She was always so alive and so friendly.”
Reggie Varner, who was married to Susan for 16 years, was charged that night with the double murder. So far he has refused to speak to police about his role, if any, in the violent deaths. Before that night, he was known, by reputation, as a peaceful farmer and a religious man. “Everybody loved Reggie,” says Prince Edward County Sheriff Travis Harris. “No one will say a bad word about him. We just don’t know why he did this, and quite frankly, I don’t think we ever will.”
Even so, it’s clear that for many years Reggie Varner’s relationship with Farmville’s most famous daughter had been troubled. According to those who knew him, Reggie, who grew up in the area and met Susan when they were young adults, had become increasingly resentful as Susan and her mother’s boutique grew ever more successful. Started on a whim a decade ago, Suzi’s Antiques had, within the last several years, blossomed into a nationally recognized source of hard-to-find vintage clothing, propelling the women into a rarefied world populated by new friends such as June Carter Cash and Donna Karan (both of whom sent flowers to Varner and Arena’s July 8 funeral). “Reggie was incredibly jealous of the close relationship between Susan and Suzanne,” says Frank Arena, who is convinced Reggie Varner committed both murders. “And he couldn’t handle that his wife was more successful than he was.”
Indeed, for Frank Arena, who lost his wife and step-daughter in the course of an afternoon, the murders are a cruel finale to what had otherwise been a classic American success story. “She was a great lady, one of the best,” he says of his beloved Suzanne, a no-nonsense businesswoman with the style of a southern matriarch. “I just can’t stop crying about it…. She taught me everything important about life.”
Before the tears, Arena says, came nearly a half century of happiness. Frank, then a Massachusetts trash hauler, met Suzanne when she hired him to service her egg farm outside Boston, where she was living with 10-year-old Susan, her child from a previous marriage. “Suzanne was having a hard time with trash removal and I solved the problem for her,” Frank recalls. “I started kidding with her and asked her for a date.”
The couple were married in 1963 and a few years later relocated with Susan to a ranch-style house outside Farmville. Susan, who had dropped out of a Massachusetts college, married truck driver Ted Davis and during their short-lived marriage had a child, Christine Cherkis, now 32. Susan married again in 1978, this time to Reggie Varner—a handsome and recently divorced father of one—whom many in town considered to be a good catch. (“You’d see him on a tractor with his shirt off and you’d just about die,” says one former flame.) According to Cherkis, who was 10 when her mother remarried, “Reggie was a great father and a great stepfather.”
For years Reggie and Susan Varner appeared to be an ideal match—”A couple you thought were wonderful together,” says Susan’s friend Caryn Kayton. Sometime after the birth of Susan’s son Kaleb, now 18, Varner and Arena came up with the idea of selling the antiques and old dresses and suits they had collected at flea markets in the Virginia countryside; Suzi’s Antiques, their joint venture, was born.
Arena concentrated on money matters, while Varner unearthed vintage treasures—including the black-beaded gown worn by actress Kate Winslet in Titanic—and mixed effortlessly with even the most demanding customers. Once, on one of Varner’s frequent trips to New York City, fashion designer Donna Karan tried to persuade Varner to sell her the jacket, and the jacket only, of a rare turn-of-the-century suit. “Well, Donna,” Varner is said to have replied, “just do what I do when I buy one of your suits and I don’t like the skirt. Just throw it away!”
For Susan Varner, however, dealing with her own husband was not always so easy. Back in Farmville, Reggie was taking care of his invalid parents and becoming increasingly envious. “The burden was just too much for him,” says daughter Christine, who adds that Reggie falsely accused her mother of having affairs and eventually made two attempts on his own life. Finally, in 1994, following a failed attempt at couples counseling and after Reggie began selling family property to finance a church he had founded in nearby Hampden Sydney, Va., Susan asked him to move out. Even after their divorce became final two years later, Reggie reportedly continued to blame his deteriorating mental state on Susan, and was occasionally seen spouting scripture on the streets of Farmville. (He is expected to enter a plea in the case.)
The day before Susan Varner and Suzanne Arena died, the mother-and-daughter team, in typical style, hosted a large Fourth of July bash at Arena’s home in Rice, Va. Among the guests was a local man Susan had been dating for several years. Although they had made no formal announcement, says Susan’s daughter, the new couple “planned to spend the rest of their lives together.” There’s local speculation that Susan Varner’s new relationship may have triggered something in Reggie. Whatever the cause of the killings, the sense of loss runs deep. Susan and Suzanne, says a Farmville neighbor, “put this town on the map.”
Brian Karem and Adrienne Wiley in Farmville