VIRGINIA

Sarah Greenhalgh, Winchester Star reporter, found dead in fire

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The FBI has joined the investigation into the presumed homicide of a Virginia newspaper reporter who was killed in a house fire on Monday.

Sarah Greenhalgh. (Photo: to FauquierNow.com)

Sarah Greenhalgh, a reporter for The Winchester Star, was found dead in her burning home on Monday. Authorities in Fauquier County said they are awaiting autopsy results to determine a cause of death, but they're investigating her death as a murder.

Sheriff's Lt. James Hartman refused to say how Greenhalgh died or what led authorities to believe she was killed.

"We have preliminary autopsy results, but nothing we can release without jeopardizing the case," Hartman said.

On Wednesday, detectives said that the investigation now involves several people of interest. Sources tell ABC 7 News that the popular writer and photographer had met people through online dating sites and was working on an investigative piece for the Star.

The 48-year-old was found dead in her Upperville home Monday after an off-duty firefighter saw smoke coming from the cinderblock home and called 911. Greenhalgh had rented the home on a farm about 60 miles west of Washington, D.C., for about a year and lived alone.

"She's a dynamic person, just could do anything, could go anywhere," said Greenhalgh's mother, Sara Lee Greenhalgh.

Sara Lee spoke through tears, recounting her daughter's energetic and outgoing spirit.

"I just don't understand how such a thing could take place to such a vibrant person. I just can't understand it," Sara Lee continued.

Investigators won't say if Greenhalgh died before the fire, but they believe her last posting on her Facebook page could be key. The Sunday night posting said Greenhalgh was sleeping with the windows open and hoped to be left alone.

ABC 7 has learned that investigators went to a man's apartment in Gainesville late Tuesday night armed with a search warrant. One witness says that she saw Greenhalgh and that man arguing in a nearby parking lot the day before she died.

Her mother said the family spent this past weekend together for a family member's wedding.

"I called her on Monday morning, the morning that it happened, and she didn't answer the phone, so I don't know, I don't know what happened. I don't understand any of it. it's so horrible," Sara Lee said.

At The Winchester Star, Greenhalgh covered Frederick County government since August, said Managing Editor Maria Hileman.

Hileman said Greenhalgh was an accurate and fair reporter and that she couldn't think of any of her stories that would have made her a target.

"She really had sort of a very effervescent personality. When she came into the room, you knew that Sarah was in the room," Hileman said. "She was very friendly and lively."

Hileman said the loss was tough for the close-knit staff of nearly 30. Police talked to the staff and went through Greenhalgh's desk, Hileman said.

Greenhalgh had worked the weekend before covering a strong storm that swept through the state and then took a few days off. Hileman said she last saw her on Friday.

"It really seems strange without her here," she said.

Greenhalgh had worked at other local papers in Fauquier County and had covered local equestrian sports, especially steeplechase racing, as a freelance writer for The Chronicle of the Horse and other publications for more than 20 years.

"They (the police) found her cell phone and her laptop in her car, like maybe she was loading her car getting ready to go to work," said Sarah's landlord Ann McLeod.

Hartman said Greenhalgh was well known in Fauquier County and in equestrian circles and was active on Facebook. Police are reaching out to those communities in their search for clues.

People in that circle who knew Greenhalgh were stunned by her death.

"People are still just sort of shocked and trying to figure out why," said Tracy McKenna, advertising manager for The Equiery, an equine-interest magazine in Maryland.

Beth Rasin, editor of The Chronicle of the Horse in Middleburg, Va., just a few miles from Greenhalgh's home, said: "It's hard to think something like that could happen in this area. It's a pretty safe place to live."

Both women remembered Greenhalgh fondly.

"She was a super, super nice, happy, upbeat, outgoing, friendly person," Rasin said. "She had a lot of friends and was a very loyal friend. I can't imagine anyone would have a bad word to say about her."

McKenna said that once you became Greenhalgh's friend "she always had your back."

She also shared a June, 2009 post from Greenhalgh's Facebook page:

"I have been very lucky in my life to have done so many of the things most people have on their list, like seeing many of the great works of art in person, riding in a supersonic jet and in a bi-plane, hiking an active volcano, rafting in the Grand Canyon, seeing Carnival in Venice, hiking pyramids in Mexico, falling deeply in love (helplessly and unconditionally), eating some strange things and going on an African Safari by vehicle (and walking)."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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