Wife bypasses trial, enters plea in husband's disappearance, apparent death

Aimee Ambrose
York Dispatch

Virginia Hayden went up to the wire, with attorneys ready to pick jurors for her trial Tuesday morning, when she entered a plea in her husband’s apparent death and disappearance.

The chief evidence pointing to Thomas Hayden Sr.’s alleged homicide was a scalp in a bloody, vacuum-sealed bag found by the side of a Dover Township road a decade ago.

Detectives uncovered several documents with his forged signature, according to prosecutors, and they heard accounts from family and neighbors that he was last seen in late 2011. Virginia told police multiple times that Thomas decided to travel to Mexico and never came back, according to charging documents.

His body has never been found.

Virginia Hayden

The now 71-year-old Virginia Hayden was charged in 2019 with first-degree murder and 65 other criminal counts, including forgery, theft, tampering with public documents and receiving stolen property following more than two years of investigation into her husband's disappearance.

As she was set to go to trial Tuesday, she instead pleaded no contest to third-degree murder and one felony count of tampering with public records. The no-contest plea, under the legal term “nolo contendere,” means she did not admit guilt in the case but the court will proceed as it would with a guilty plea.

She was then sentenced by York County Court of Common Pleas Judge Harry Ness to six to 20 years in prison in addition to seven years of probation, with the probation to run alongside the prison term, court documents show.

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Hayden was given credit for 1,227 days she has already served in jail since her arrest in 2019.

A passerby found the bag with the scalp — which also contained hair in a ponytail tie and part of a blood-stained bed sheet — along Conewago Road in January 2012. Five years later, almost to the day, in January 2017, Thomas Hayden's daughter called police asking to check on his welfare.

That led Northern York County Regional Police investigators to the mystery of where he had gone. 

According to the criminal complaint in the case, police found Virginia Hayden allegedly forged her husband’s signature on documents to sell their house and a trailer. A handwriting expert reportedly helped determine the forgery.

Police also alleged she continued to collect her husband's Social Security benefits through their joint bank account.

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Virginia Hayden also purchased a handgun a few weeks before her husband disappeared. She claimed to have sold it, police said, but they found no record of such a sale. The scalp was eventually linked to her husband after investigators compared DNA from it to DNA from his brothers.

At a preliminary hearing in the case in 2019, a forensic pathologist testified that Thomas Hayden likely died of a gunshot wound, based on the state of microscopic bone particles found in the blood with the scalp in the bag.

— Reach Aimee Ambrose at aambrose@yorkdispatch.com or on Twitter at @aimee_TYD.