It seems like a shocking but isolated incident – a grisly killing carried out in a posh clothing store located in the heart of Bethesda, Maryland, a fashionable Washington, DC suburb where violent crime is rare. But last week’s shocking murder of Jayna Murray, the thirty-year-old manager of an elite yoga apparel store, Lululemon, has caused something of a local furor. For one thing, the victim and the apparent perpetrator, Brittany Norwood, 28, are both women – a statistical rarity. In fact, according to the US Justice Department, less than 3% of all murders involve women in both roles. And then there’s the attack’s savagery: Norwood apparently beat and stabbed Murray nearly beyond recognition, so badly, in fact, that even seasoned homicide investigators blanched after arriving at the crime scene. And finally, there’s the matter of race. Norwood, you see, is Black, and Murray was White, in a city – 60% Black and 30% White – where racial tensions figure into nearly every local controversy.
Norwood herself seems to have played on racial fears and stereotypes when she planned and executed the crime. She originally told police that two masked intruders, both Black, had tied her and Murray up and raped them before beating them. That initial account sent shock waves throughout the area, and generated enormous sympathy for both women. But when police examined them, they found no evidence that either had been sexually assaulted. In addition, Norwood’s wounds, which were relatively slight, appeared completely self-inflicted. And under repeated questioning, her story’s inconsistencies mounted. Police eventually concluded that she’d concocted the entire intruder story, and had killed Murray herself.
Now that Norwood’s been charged, many local residents and storeowners have breathed a sigh of relief. Some who had hired extra security and installed video cameras on the assumption that two killers were still on the loose, and could strike again, are happy that their neighborhood may not be falling prey to the kind of racial crimes and robberies witnessed elsewhere in the area. A widely read local columnist, Robert McCartney, neatly encapsulated the kind of polite racism one hears in affluent White neighborhoods when he noted that many residents had long feared that Bethesda’s relatively new Metro subway stop would bring a “bad element” to the area. That’s rather ironic, when you consider that Norwood’s hiring – and her role in the killing – might actually confirm just such an exaggerated racial fear. But so far, none of the major newspapers, including the Washington Post, has mentioned that Norwood is Black, or even run a picture of her – unthinkable if the protagonist of the crime had been a White man – a sign of just how touchy the issue is.
Why did Norwood kill Murray? Some have speculated that the two women may have had a workplace dispute, possibly because Norwood, who’s had documented financial problems in the past, was caught stealing or embezzling from the store (which comes close to another racial stereotype). But workplace disputes account for just 9% of all murders involving women, according to Justice Department statistics. And while employees of an adjacent store did say they heard the women arguing the night of the murder, police don’t think this was a spontaneous, heat-of-passion crime based on a specific triggering event. Based on the forensic evidence, which appears to include the murder weapon, but most of which has not yet been made public, police have already charged Norwood with first-degree murder, which implies deliberate premeditation.
What shocks many local analysts of the crime is its degree of rage and violence, which is highly suggestive of a deeply personal motive. In fact, according to research studies, women who commit murder rarely kill strangers or even co-workers; they normally kill intimates – either their husbands, lovers or friends. Which raises the issue of just what kind of personal relationship Murray and Norwood might have had, and whether trouble in that relationship might have prompted Norwood to kill – and to kill in such a vicious way. Some observers have speculated that two might have been lovers and that Norwood became jealous and eventually violent when Murray, who reportedly had a new steady boyfriend, moved to break off their relationship.
Others wonder whether the two women’s connection to the high-powered American yoga world – with its deliberate blending of sex, glamour, beauty, and affluence – may have helped set the stage for such an extreme crime, by creating impossible expectations of status and achievement among two beautiful, high-achieving women. Norwood, in fact, was a stand-out soccer star in her home town of Seattle before moving to Washington, DC and eventually becoming hired by the Canadian-based Lululemon, whose use of sexually inflammatory advertising to sell its pricey yoga apparel has caused considerable controversy, including threats of a possible boycott. Perhaps both women found themselves in fierce competition, and only one could keep up, and that led to a pattern of disrespectful verbal conflict and emotional distress that boiled over into rage between two prideful divas.
Right now, Norwood’s motive is largely a matter of speculation. Some desperately want to believe that she must be mentally ill, or a substance abuser. But beneath the surface of this crime is the reality of shifting gender roles and sources of power and influence among aspiring young women in extremely status-conscious metropolises like the nation’s capital. As opportunities for these women have expanded, so, perhaps, have the stakes in trying – and perhaps failing – to obtain them. Once upon a time a losing female party might have slinked to the sidelines. No longer. I am woman, she says. Hear my roar.
STEWART J. LAWRENCE is a Washington, DC-based an immigration policy specialist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org