Firefighters discovered the bodies of Ted Ralston, 71, and Joanna Gormly, 73, in the basement of their burning home on Vaughn Bay the evening of May 17. They also discovered evidence the two had been murdered and that accelerants were used to start the fire and cover the crime.
Pierce County detectives arrested a third resident of the home, Ezra Ralston, 26, the couple’s grandson, early the next morning and charged him with two counts of first-degree aggravated murder. Three others were arrested in the following days: his girlfriend, Rebecka Neubauer, 22, and Sean Higgins and Spencer Kleine, both 23, were also charged with the murders.
All four pleaded not guilty and were held without bail.
According to the Pierce County prosecutor’s office, the crimes were allegedly part of an attempt to somehow gain ownership of the Vaughn property that Joanna’s parents bought in 1966.
The grandson lived with the couple off and on starting in 2015. He struggled with his mental health, and the couple told friends they thought moving him from Texas, where he lived, to the family home, where he had enjoyed many summers growing up, could help him.
Ted and Joanna were married on the lawn between the beach and that house in 1969, when her parents lived there. They renewed their vows on the same spot 30 years later and celebrated their 50th anniversary in August 2019.
Ted grew up in North Seattle. Joanna was born in New Jersey, but the family moved around the country for her dad’s work and she graduated from Issaquah High School. The couple met as undergraduates at the University of Washington where they lived in a shared home called Russian House with two dozen other students, an immersive education setting facilitated by native-born Russians who managed the premises and coached the residents on language and culture.
After their son, Alex, was born, the young family moved to the English countryside in Great Milton where Ted studied Byzantine history and Russian language at Oxford University on a Fulbright scholarship. He later returned to UW to pursue a Ph.D. in history, completing his research but not his dissertation. Both he and Joanna were fluent in Russian and spoke some French, and Joanna, who had a degree in foreign language studies, was learning Swedish at the time of her death.
“From ages 1 through 4 of my life we lived in England,” Alex said. “We came back, lived briefly in Seattle and then moved to the East Coast, where we lived in Washington, D.C., Maryland and Virginia.” But Alex spent part of every summer on the beach at Vaughn Bay.
“When we first met them they were living in, I believe, Bowie, Maryland, in ’75, but they came out here all the time to visit Jan and Dick (Gormly, Joanna’s parents),” said Norm Brones of Vaughn. “Ted worked on the Magnuson campaign in 1974 here in Washington. Joanna also worked on that campaign; she was politically active early on, but then stayed home with Alex.”
After working for Sen. Warren Magnuson, Ted became a congressional aide for both Senators Patrick Leahy and Daniel Inouye. “He worked on the Church Committee,” Brones said. “That was the CIA investigation committee, and that’s why everybody around here assumes he was in the CIA, which to the best knowledge of any of his lifelong friends, nobody can confirm.”
The U.S. Senate Church Committee, named for its chair, Sen. Frank Church, was convened in 1975 to investigate abuses by the CIA, FBI, IRS and the National Security Agency (NSA) during the Watergate and Vietnam War protest era. Ted worked on the committee as a congressional aide for over six years.
“In sixth grade, my dad left politics and we moved back here where I went to Key Peninsula Middle School for part of sixth grade, seventh and eighth,” Alex said. “I have friends still that I’ve kept in contact with over all these years.” Alex and his family now live outside Austin, Texas.
Ted’s knowledge of history and experience with national security issues evolved into arms control treaty monitoring and studying Soviet strategy and politics. He researched and taught these subjects at Stanford University for two years as a member of the Center for Strategic and International Security.
In 1983 he was tapped by retired Admiral Robert R. Inman, former chief of the NSA and deputy director of the CIA, to join the Microelectronics and Computer Technology Corporation in Austin. MCC was a consortium of some of the biggest names in computers, electronics and military contractors at the time focused on closing a gap in technology development compared to other countries.
Ted went on to found two start-up companies specializing in software design and system security. He was hired by IBM in 1999 to work on what became the Tivoli Security Division in 2000.
The couple also helped a Russian family adjust to life in the U.S. when they met in 1991.
“Ted and Joanna were my best American friends, we feel like they are part of our family, they did so much for us,” said Tatyana Koshevaya, who is now a social worker. “They were heroes for me. Joanna helped me get my first job and helped us bring my brother to this country. They were with us in our hard time.”
The two families spent quality time together. “They liked Russian food and we cooked for them, while Ted played guitar and Joanna would sing Russian songs,” Koshevaya said. “Our English improved as did their Russian. They were my first and greatest mentors in this country.”
Ted and Joanna moved “20 times” for Ted’s work, Joanna once said, but they came to the Key Peninsula to live full-time next to her parents in 2001.
“They bought that house to be there with Janet and Dick and do more for them. She was close to her parents,” said Britta Brones, who is married to Norm.
“This is why so few people (out here) knew them, until the last six or seven years,” Norm said. “Ted literally made more than one trip around the world each year. He started and went one direction and hit Singapore, Australia, India, multiple places in Europe.”
Joanna meanwhile remained politically active throughout her life. She volunteered for numerous campaigns, from presidential down to local races and causes. She took over from her father doing the books for Key Medical Center, became president of the board of directors, and was an early supporter of a new tenant, The Mustard Seed Project.
“Ted was probably the smartest person in whatever room he was in, but he didn’t have to be."
“Her enthusiasm for the work was reassuring at that stage,” said Edie Morgan, TMSP founder and executive director at the time. “She was always a most gracious, warm person.”
After Joanna’s parents passed away within three weeks of each other in 2015, she and Ted bought and moved into their house in 2017.
“They made a really active choice to stay in buying that house,” said Anna Brones, Norm and Britta’s daughter. Ted and Joanna had spoken often of living abroad, of traveling, of finding a city to live in, she said. “But they thought, ‘So, we’re home now.’ Maybe there’s something in having roots in a place and then rediscovering them.”
“She really liked living in Vaughn,” said Joanna’s brother, Ken Gormly, 63, of Fox Island. “Living in the family home really made her happy. She started doing more things around the house, improving the landscaping. I spent quite a bit of time with them there.” Ken grew up in the house and attended Vaughn Elementary, Harbor Ridge (then called Goodman) Middle School, and graduated from Peninsula High School.
“They were involved in the civic center, the Lions’ Club, Rotary, the health center and both of them were very active in the 26th Legislative District Democrats,” Alex said. Ted also contributed articles to the KP News (see Peninsula Views in this edition) and was part of the distribution team.
Ted retired in 2013. “That’s when we started getting them into the community,” Norm said. “I pulled him along to come do things at the civic center and we started going to Blend when it first opened. Then he was ‘voluntold’ to get on the civic center board. We cleaned and maintained the tennis courts every year; that was important to him.”
“Ted was probably the best tennis coach I ever had,” said Quinn Ralston, 20, Alex’s son. He coaches at the prestigious John Newcomb Tennis Ranch in Texas. “Whenever I came out here, we’d drive down to the civic center courts and hit for an hour or so. Even with two metal hips he was still playing. He wanted me to teach him a two-handed backhand, because he was going to need shoulder surgery and that wouldn’t allow him to hit a one-handed backhand anymore.”
“I really enjoyed playing tennis with him,” said Luc Revel, Norm and Britta’s son-in-law. “It’s so rare to meet someone with such breadth, between sports and culture, it was really incredible. I feel like everyone has a similar story; he could always connect with something, no matter what you were interested in, like a Swiss army knife of knowledge. He had the right tool for you, no matter what you were interested in.”
“Joanna was in charge of the catalog for Flavors of Fall, doing cut and paste by hand,” Britta said, referring to the biannual fundraising auction of the KP Civic Center. “She took it so seriously, that she should be involved. From that time on she was having a renaissance.”
Part of that renaissance, for both Joanna and Ted, was performing at the Blend Wine Shop in Key Center nearly every Friday night in recent years. What started with one or two guitarists grew into a large ad hoc band called The Mind Blenders, organized in part by Blend owner Don Swensen and musician Clark Snyder.
“It’s always been a community thing, so admittance isn’t dependent on your skill,” Snyder said. “Ted was an original, he was there before me. For the last three years, every week Ted was over at All Star Music, taking guitar lessons to get better for Friday night.”
After the band started playing regularly, Joanna wanted to join.
“She had an idea that not only did she want to sing, she wanted to perform, and once she got a taste of that, she was just in high gear — she was on it. She really wanted to learn. Don and I were mentoring her, but Ted was really supportive,” Snyder said.
“Ted was probably the smartest person in whatever room he was in, but he didn’t have to be. Some people need to be a know-it-all, and he didn’t. Joanna didn’t take away anything he had. He shared and supported,” he said.
Joanna wrote a song she wanted to perform for Ted as a surprise at their 50th wedding anniversary, which they celebrated at Blend in August 2019. She rehearsed it for three weeks.
“I loved her voice. I saw where it came from,” Snyder said. “It was just her spirit, that was the thing, that’s all I heard, and her willingness to keep going.”
The band helped create the music for her song, but Joanna wrote the lyrics and worked hard to refine it, Snyder said. “She wanted to usher in that anniversary not only as a singer, not only as a performer, but as a writer and as a member of the band. And she would say, ‘OK you guys, let’s take it from the top.’ We all understood. There was just something in the way she said it, like, ‘I’m in the band now, so now I can use this phrase. I earned it.’ ”
Her song ends with the lines:
Maybe I’ve only misunderstood
Could be something’s coming, could be it’s good
Won’t be so easy moving somewhere
Look over my shoulder, and you’ll be there.