Long after a man was arrested in the slaying of a well-known Newport News dentist in June 2019, a crucial question flummoxed investigators.
What was his motive?
There were no known connections between the dentist, 65-year-old William F. “Bill” Trolenberg IV, and the man accused of killing him, 44-year-old Kelly Michael Vance.
Since Trolenberg still had his wallet and $251 in cash on him when he was found shot to death outside his dental office, Deer Park Dental, robbery didn’t appear to be the reason, either.
“We still don’t know the motive, and I don’t know that we’ll ever know,” Newport News Commonwealth’s Attorney Howard Gwynn told the Daily Press in late 2020.
But under a newly reached agreement that reduces the criminal charge from first-degree murder to second-degree, Vance will be required to reveal why he killed the dentist.
By early 2021, Trolenberg’s family members “were struggling” with the lack of closure, Chief Deputy Commonwealth’s Attorney Valerie Spencer Muth told a judge Tuesday.
She said that led prosecutors to offer a deal to Vance in June 2021: They would reduce the pending first-degree murder charge “if the defendant would explain why he committed this crime.”
Vance rejected that deal at the time, Muth said. But on March 31 — a few weeks before a scheduled murder trial in the case — Vance’s attorney, Assistant Public Defender Andrew Gordon, asked if the deal was still on the table.
Prosecutors said yes, so long as “we talk with Vance ourselves” to judge his veracity, Muth said.
On April 18, Newport News prosecutors and police detectives met with Vance and his lawyer and heard his story, which Muth said appeared truthful and matched up with other evidence.
Under the agreement, Muth said, Vance is required to lay out “the full motive and accounting for this in open court” — but not until his sentencing hearing on Sept. 2. In the meantime, she said, prosecutors have shared the motive with Trolenberg’s family, who are on board with the agreement.
Newport News Circuit Court Judge Bryant L. Sugg accepted the deal Tuesday, with Vance pleading guilty to second-degree murder. He now faces up to 40 years behind bars rather than a potential life term for first-degree murder.
Also at Tuesday’s hearing, Muth outlined the prosecution’s case against Vance.
Trolenberg — a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel known by patients for his kind and friendly demeanor — was shot and killed on June 19, 2019 in the parking lot of his dental office, on Jefferson Avenue in Midtown Newport News.
Surveillance footage shows a man matching Vance’s description arriving at a neighboring business, Anderson’s Showplace, that morning. The man is then seen in the area around Deer Park Dental around 3:40 p.m. Moreover, prosecutors said GPS tracking data from Vance’s cellphone service puts him at the scene.
At 4:45 p.m. — about 15 minutes before the dental office closed — the same man walked into the office and began asking a receptionist questions about insurance, with the receptionist testifying later that his eyes appeared to be scanning the office.
Trolenberg then walked out of a back room and asked how he could help the man.
The receptionist told the dentist she was looking up some information for the man, and Trolenberg returned to what he was doing. “He didn’t seem to know him at all,” the receptionist previously testified.
The man grabbed a business card on his way out the door. About 10 minutes later, Trolenberg locked up the office, set the security system and ran to his black BMW coupe amid a drenching downpour.
What happened next was captured on a surveillance camera from a nearby home.
As Trolenberg backed out of his parking space, the man put his hand on the back of the BMW, spoke briefly to the dentist, then got into the car on the passenger side. A couple minutes later, the driver’s side door opened just as a shot is fired.
Trolenberg fell out of the car, onto the pavement.
“He began to crawl a few feet toward the rear of the vehicle,” Muth said. But the other man got out of the passenger side, walked around the car and shot Trolenberg again at close range.
The dentist was shot twice in the head.
Trolenberg had owned and operated Deer Park Dental since 2001, after retiring as chief of general dentistry at Langley Air Force Base following a 20-year career with the military.
During the investigation, surveillance footage from Anderson’s showing the suspected gunman soon led investigators to Vance, a retired Navy submarine technician who had retired from the Navy in 2017. Two Deer Park dental workers identified him in a photo spread as the person they saw in or near the office that day.
On the day of the slaying, Vance was wet and shaking when he got home late, telling his girlfriend he had been robbed at knifepoint outside Newport News Shipbuilding. With his passport stolen, Vance told her, he couldn’t fly with her and others on a planned trip to Germany the next day.
Police later found wet shoes — as well as a wallet and keys he had said were stolen in the supposed robbery — in the kitchen garbage can at his girlfriend’s Hampton home.
Investigators also found in the attic a revolver with two spent cartridges, ammunition, and the backpack, sunglasses and clothes identical to those worn by the man in the surveillance footage.
Numerous relatives and friends attended Tuesday’s hearing, but they declined to reveal Vance’s motive for the slaying.
But Trolenberg’s daughter, Natalie Trolenberg, said her father would be greatly missed, “and there is a void in our family that can never be filled.”
“We want to express our relief about the guilty plea and our longing to understand why he committed this horrendous crime,” she said, asking that anyone who has any more information “to help us understand” what happened to call the Newport News police.
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