They say family is the most important thing in the world and that people will do anything for their loved ones. Love of family is what made Piper Rountree call her children every night after she lost custody of them. It’s what made her travel 1,300 miles to Richmond, Virginia to get them back. It’s what made her kill her ex-husband Fredric Jablin. And it’s what made her sister Tina try to cover her tracks, even if it meant being accused of murder.
Piper and Tina Rountree grew up together on a small farm in South Texas. Born in 1960, Piper was the youngest of five siblings. She was smart, talented, artistic and beautiful. In 1978, she left home to attend the University of Texas.
While a student there, she took a course with a serious-minded communications professor named Fred Jablin. He was eight years her senior and recently divorced.
"I was a student. He was a teacher,” she told NBC’s "Dateline." “I was the classical neophyte who looked up to him. He was just, you know, brilliant.”
After completing his course, they started dating. Not everyone thought Fred and Piper were a good match.
In an interview with CBS’ "48 Hours," Tina Rountree said, “I was always disappointed that she married Fred because I always thought she would marry someone who was more successful. Someone who's interesting. Someone who was funny. He was not."
But others felt the couple’s differences complimented each other, and initially they had a good marriage. Encouraged by her husband, Piper began law school in 1983, around the same time the couple got married. Fred continued teaching while Piper got her degree.
In 1986, Piper began working as an attorney and children came soon after. First there was a girl, Jocelyn, and then a boy, Paxton. In 1994, Fred got a prestigious job at the University of Richmond so the family moved to Virginia, where another daughter, Callyn, was born in 1995.
In Richmond, Piper took to the role of stay-at-home mom with vigor. Making new friends, however, was hard, and she missed her large tight-knit family back in Texas. She was treated for depression. Her marriage to Fred started to fray. She ran up huge credit card bills. To fill the loneliness she felt at home, she allegedly had an affair with a married doctor. Upon learning of it, Fred filed for divorce, which escalated into a bitter custody battle. In the end, Fred got the house and primary custody of their three children. Piper was granted visitation, but she would have to pay Fred child support.
Having never passed the Virginia bar exam, Piper Rountree was unable to practice law in the state. Unable to support herself as a lawyer, she returned to Texas, moving to Houston to be near her sister Tina. Though she began dating and her personal life seemed to be on rebound, she was no more successful making money in her home state than she had been in Richmond. She soon fell behind in her child support payments and twice tried to declare bankruptcy. By the fall of 2004, she owed Fred Jablin almost $10,000 dollars.
Despite living 1,300 miles away from her children, Piper saw her kids during the summer and holidays.
As she told "Dateline," “I was mom on the phone every single day helping them through homework, helping them resolve fights.”
In early October 2004, she flew to Virginia and took the kids on a camping trip.
A few weeks later, in the early morning hours of Saturday, October 30, Fred Jablin began his day while his children were asleep upstairs. He made himself a pot of coffee and went outside to pick up the morning paper while still in his bathrobe. Then shots rang out, hitting him twice, in the arm and back. A neighbor heard the gunfire and called 911. Because of the darkness, it took police an hour to find his body, which was underneath his SUV. He was pronounced dead at the scene.
Besides a spent .38 slug found in the grass, police had few clues, but Jablin’s neighbors filled in the gaps.
“As we spoke to neighbors no one knew why anyone would do something like this to Fred Jablin,” Detective Coby Kelley told "Snapped." “But they also said, 'Well have you talked to his ex-wife?'”
According to son Paxton, however, Piper was in Houston.
“He had had a phone conversation with his mother just the day before. And she had indicated she was in Houston,” Kelley said.
Piper called her son on her cell phone, which tracks the location of the person using it, so police decided to check with her carrier to see if she was in Houston the night before. According to the phone company, Piper’s cell phone was actually in the Richmond area at the time of the phone call to her son. They then tracked the phone to Norfolk, Virginia, and then to Baltimore, Maryland. Sure enough, there was Southwest Airlines flight out of Norfolk that stopped in Baltimore before continuing on to Houston.
When police received the flight’s passenger list, they saw a familiar name on it, but not the one they were expecting: Tina Rountree, Piper’s older sister. Not sure who they were dealing with, Houston Police tried to intercept the woman when the plane landed, armed with photographs of both Piper and Tina Rountree, but they got there too late.
“People were already coming off, spreading out and we didn’t have the manpower to completely stop all of them,” Houston Police Officer Breck McDaniel told "Snapped."
When police talked to Piper on October 31, she denied she was in Richmond at all.
“She claimed she was in Texas, that she had come back from working in Galveston that afternoon,” said Detective Kelley, who called her details “vague.”
Piper’s sister Tina, meanwhile, was “argumentative and aggressive” when she spoke to police, according to Officer McDaniel.
Police went back to the airport and found a Southwest Airlines ticket agent who identified Piper as a passenger on a flight to Norfolk the day before the murder. Except, she said the woman in the picture was blonde, like Tina. Piper’s brunette. She also remembered the woman checked in a .38 caliber revolver, the same type of gun that was used to kill Fred Jablin.
“We were just amazed, kind of shocked, as we never considered the fact that a person might actually bring the murder weapon with them and check it in on a plane,” said Detective Kelley. The gun had been checked with a brand-new gunlock, which police discovered Piper had bought at a sporting goods store on the way to the airport, and she had also been seen at a shooting range the week before the killing. They also found out that the week before the murder, she had bought a blonde wig.
Police and the District Attorney in Richmond, Virginia, felt they had enough evidence to make an arrest. Fortunately for them, Piper Rountree was back in Virginia for a custody hearing on November 8. Aware that Piper was the primary suspect in her ex-husband’s murder, the judge awarded custody to Fred’s brother Michael Jablin. Moments after leaving the courthouse, Richmond PD pulled her over and arrested her on a first-degree murder charge, according to NBC's Dateline.
Piper’s trial began on February 22, 2005. Being a former attorney, she knew her way around a courtroom and exuded confidence. As the prosecution cataloged their evidence and called witnesses, Piper’s defense said it may have been her sister Tina that committed the murder.
As her defense attorney Murray Janus told "Snapped," “Piper knew this from the beginning, that we were going to suggest sometimes not too subtly that this could very well have been Tina.”
Faced with what Janus told the Houston Chronicle was an “overwhelming” amount of circumstantial evidence, Piper Rountree had no choice but to take the stand on her own behalf. However, her vague answers to questions about the case and her ambivalent reaction to the murder of a man with whom she had three children made a negative impression on the jury. It took them one hour to find her guilty of first-degree murder. On May 7, 2005, she was sentenced to life in prison.
Tina Rountree pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor count of attempted evidence tampering following her sister’s conviction. According to "Dateline," she served nine months of community service. In a 2014 interview with Richmond’s CBS 6, Tina said her little sister is “my best friend” and “a remarkable person.” Under Virginia state law, Piper Rountree will be eligible for parole when she turns 60 in 2020.