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Virginia State Police seeking public’s help with Culpeper arson

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The Virginia State Police Bureau of Criminal Investigation’s Culpeper Field Office is asking for the public’s help with identifying the individual who set fire to the Virginia Department of Corrections (VDOC) Adult Probation and Parole office building in the Town of Culpeper.

At 4:58 a.m. on June 16, 2021, the Town of Culpeper Police responded to a report of arson at the 1800 block of Orange Road. Surveillance video from the building shows the individual light something in his hand and throw it at a window of the building. The building was unoccupied at the time of the fire.

The suspect is described as an adult male. He was seen wearing a white or grey sweatshirt and baggy pants at the time of the incident.

Anyone with any information about this individual is asked to call Virginia State Police at 540-829-7742 or contact us by email at bci.culpeper@vsp.virginia.gov.


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Judge dismisses Meza appointment/’election’ challenge a second time

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On Wednesday morning, September 22, counsels for Plaintiff Paul L. Aldrich and Defendants the Town of Front Royal and recently resigned councilman Jacob L. Meza, revisited oral arguments on the defendants’ Demurrer motion to dismiss the plaintiff case as not having the legal standing to proceed.

And the following afternoon Warren County Circuit Court Judge William W. Sharp issued a written ruling, upholding the defense demurrer motion to dismiss for the second time. That despite an earlier Thursday morning request from plaintiff attorney David Downes for an additional week to file supporting arguments on the aspect of immediate or preliminary injunctions for relief sought by the plaintiff, raised the previous day. Downes explained in his written request that he had not anticipated the issue of immediate relief injunctions remaining part of the arguments Wednesday, due to evolving circumstances – most prominently Meza’s resignation, effective immediately at council’s July 26 meeting – and previous rulings on the issue upholding that portion of the defense demurrer motion.

On Thursday, Sept. 23, the Plaintiff team of Paul Aldrich, right, and his attorney David Downes, pictured here after a May hearing, got a ‘strike 2’ call in the legal challenge of Jacob Meza’s January appointment to town council. But with Meza since resigned will they take another swing? Royal Examiner File Photos by Roger Bianchini

“As I write this, I am aware that Mr. Downes has filed a Motion seeking additional time to brief the de facto officer doctrine, raised by the Court. I see no reason to grant the motion. This appears to be a well-established common law doctrine, and I am confident it applies to this case. Further, the Court had previously raised this doctrine in ruling on the Demurrer to the original Complaint, yet the Plaintiff ignored that part of my opinion in his Amended Complaint,” Judge Sharp noted in denying the plaintiff counsel request for time to submit amended arguments.


Judge Sharpe quoted several past U.S. Supreme Court justices on the advised willingness judges should have to re-examine their own decisions in prefacing his own re-examination of his initial April 7 ruling in favor of the defense demurrer motion to dismiss.

“It is ‘the duty of every judge and every court to examine its own decisions … without fear, and to revise them without reluctance’,” Justice William O. Douglas quoting a judge of the New York Court of Appeals.

“Wisdom too often never comes, and so one ought not to reject it merely because it comes late,” Justice Felix Frankfurter.

“I see no reason why I should be consciously wrong today because I was unconsciously wrong yesterday,” Justice Robert H. Jackson.

Of his decision to allow an amended plaintiff complaint to be filed and revisit his original ruling for the defense, Sharp wrote in late April, “Not a small part of my decision to enter the stay order, and give one last chance for oral argument, is my realization that I gave a very poor articulation of my reasons for my original decision, and I do not want to make that mistake again. It is therefore my intention to give a written explanation of my decision, whichever way it goes, in which my words are more carefully expressed.”

But in his continued analysis of arguments on the standing and substance of Plaintiff Aldrich’s filing, made as a town taxpaying citizen potentially impacted financially and otherwise by votes of an illegally appointed council member, Judge Sharp upheld his initial ruling in favor of the defense motion to dismiss. The judge addressed the changed circumstance of Meza’s resignation removing major points of relief sought by the plaintiff. “Gone is any issue of removing an ‘illegally’ installed councilman,” Sharp observed.

After reading a prepared statement into the record at the outset of the July 26 Town Council meeting announcing his immediate resignation, Jacob Meza, right, shakes hands with Mayor Holloway, whose council seat he was appointed to fill on Jan. 4, as he exits ‘stage right’.

Of the plaintiff claim of potential damage from Meza’s appointment, Sharp wrote: “Mr. Aldrich’s second amended complaint establishes that he is a citizen and taxpayer of the Town of Front Royal. The complaint alleges several decisions of the town council in which Mr. Meza participated, resulting in expenditures. However, the complaint does not allege that any of these decisions impacted any of Mr. Aldrich’s rights. Furthermore, the complaint does not allege that Mr. Meza’ s presence on the council had a causal relationship to any of these expenditures. While he participated in the votes, including moving or seconding motions, there is no claim that the actions would not have passed but for Meza’s participation.”

Noting his previous ruling that council actions could not be voided due to Meza’s participation in votes prior to a ruling on the legality of his seating, Judge Sharp made it fairly clear a second request for an amended complaint might be a futile gesture. “As Meza is no longer subject to removal from office and his prior actions are not voidable, I do not see any potential ongoing justiciable controversy, much less impacted right of the petitioner, that would warrant permitting another Amended Complaint,” Sharp concluded.

But has the question of whether the wording of the Town Charter dating to 1937, supports the reappointment by “election” of council members within a year of their leaving office been resolved? The judge dealt with his interpretation of that core question in his written decision:

“While Mr. Aldrich’s lack of standing disposes of the case, even if he had proper standing to challenge the appointment of Mr. Meza to the council, this claim would also fail under the law. The chief phrase of the Town Charter in dispute concerns whether membership on the town council is an ‘office under the jurisdiction of the council.’ There can be no dispute that the members of the council are officers of the town, as provided under §4 of the Charter. The question, rather, is whether such officers are considered to be under the jurisdiction of the council in the context of §47.

Chapter 47 of the Town Charter was the basis of the plaintiff’s challenge of the Meza appointment. It states: “No member of the council of the Town of Front Royal shall be appointed or elected to any office under the jurisdiction of the council while he is a member of the council, or for one year thereafter,” the relevant Section 47 passage reads. However, the court continued to side with defense counsel arguments that other Chapters of the Town Charter applied to council appointments to fill vacancies, specifically 6D and 9.

In her Demurrer filing for dismissal, defense counsel Heather Bardot pointed to Section 6D and related wording on filling council vacancies, such as the one created by Councilman Chris Holloway’s November 2020 election to mayor. “The council may fill any vacancy that occurs within the membership of council for the unexpired term, provided that such vacancy is taken within 45 days of the office becoming vacant,” Section 6D states. No reference to a one-year hiatus per appointments is made here, Bardot noted. Only the court’s authority to make the appointment were council to deadlock and be unable to fill the seat within the prescribed 45 days, is acknowledged.

Meza’s appointment was made January 4, 2021, four days after Holloway relinquished his council seat to become mayor and four days after Meza, who did not run for reelection after a controversial final year in office, vacated his seat. In 2020 Meza appeared to have alienated a portion of his base related to his Valley Health employment during the previous year. Meza did not express support for the “Birth Local” movement seeking to have Valley Health include a Maternity Unit in the new Warren Memorial Hospital. And after recusing himself from previous discussion of the new hospital funding due to his employment, the councilman chose to cast a deciding vote authorizing that EDA funding on the Town side.

In oral arguments on the original complaint, plaintiff counsel Downes suggested that Chapter 47 was intended to include council seats in the one-year prohibition, not only because council members are “under the jurisdiction” of their colleagues, but also to avoid the appearance or fact of partisan political cronyism in town politics. With the four member majority that appointed him by a 4-1 vote coming from the county Republican Committee, of which he is also a member, plaintiff counsel suggested one might at least infer the appearance of political cronyism in returning Meza to office so quickly after a voluntary choice to leave that office.

However, the judge continued to side with the defense stance that the Chapter 47 one-year prohibition applied only to appointed Town staff positions.

Town Hall and former Councilman Jacob Meza have prevailed in the second go-round of a legal challenge of Meza’s appointment to fill a council vacancy four days after he voluntarily left council.

“A comparison with the other named offices-especially those clearly under the Council’s jurisdiction-is instructive. The town treasurer, town manager, and town clerk are explicitly appointed by the council as a general rule, rather than as an exception to fill vacancies. The Council is authorized to exercise considerable oversight on them, with the ability to remove them from office and/or reassign their duties to other officers. By contrast, the council may only remove one of its own members in the case of repeated absences and exerts no other comparable oversight on its members. Furthermore, while the Charter provides that only the Council has authority to appoint the treasurer, clerk, and town manager, the Council shares its authority with the Circuit Court to appoint members to the Council when a vacancy arises. The Council can fairly be said to exercise general power over the clerk, treasurer, and town manager, but not over its own membership. Therefore, it would be inappropriate to find that membership in the Council is an office of the sort meant to be governed by §47,” Judge Sharp wrote of his stance on the matter at the heart of the citizen challenge of Meza’s appointment.

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Street racing cited as two charged in Frederick County teen girl’s death

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The 21-year-old brother of a 17-year-old girl killed when his car wrecked in Frederick County at high speed on August 8, has been charged along with a 26-year-old Berryville man, for illegal street racing leading to the accident that killed Sarah Michelle Ehrhardt. On Thursday, September 9, a Frederick County Grand Jury indicted Nicholas Isaiah Ehrhardt and Christopher Troy Colter on charges of Racing and Reckless Driving Causing Death. Colter was also charged with leaving the scene of the accident.

While Ehrhardt was booked shortly after the indictments were handed down, it was reported by Winchester media and on social media that the Berryville-based Colter was still being sought by authorities as the weekend approached. An early-afternoon check of the Northwestern Regional Adult Detention Center website Monday, September 13, indicated Colter was booked earlier that day.

Above, photo from Winchester-based Nicholas Ehrhardt’s social media page; below, Christopher Troy Colter from NWRADC Inmate Locator search on Sept. 13. – Photos Social Media, NWRADC

Sarah Ehrhardt was a passenger in the rear seat of a Ford hatchback driven by her brother when it left State Route 7 (Berryville Pike) at high speed eastbound at 3:25 p.m. August 8. The violence of the vehicle’s crash into a fence, metal grocery store signpost, and parked vehicle tore the vehicle in half, with the rear section containing Sarah Ehrhardt coming to rest an estimated 90 feet from the front section of the car. Sarah Ehrhardt died at the scene. Her brother and his 18-year-old girlfriend, Magdelyn Germain, were both seated in the front of the vehicle. Germain was thrown from the vehicle during the accident when her seat belt system failed. She was flown to the trauma center at INOVA Fairfax Hospital where she was treated for serious, possibly life-threatening injuries, but survived. Nicholas Ehrhardt was transported to Winchester Medical Center where he was treated, and released, for minor injuries sustained in the crash.



That witness accounts and the crash scene investigation suggested the potential of racing may have been indicated by law enforcement immediately seeking help from the public in identifying a second vehicle and driver believed to have been involved in the accident. As Frederick County law enforcement reported at the time: “Speed has been determined to have been a factor in this crash and the incident remains under investigation looking into the presence of other possible factors contributing to the cause.”

Street racing is now believed to have been identified as that other contributing factor.

Social Media page post of a Berryville-based Christopher Troy Colter with numerous expressions of affection for fast cars.

At the time of the accident, Frederick County law enforcement sought dash-camera footage from anyone in the vicinity of the crash, which was described as follows:

“At approximately 3:20 p.m. Nicholas was in the left lane of Route 7 coming around a bend, at a very high rate of speed, when his vehicle dipped off the left edge of the roadway and onto the gravel shoulder. From there, Ehrhardt came back up onto the pavement, where he lost control and came sliding back across both eastbound lanes and off the right shoulder of the roadway. The vehicle next made significant impacts with a fence, a business sign (on a metal post), and a parked vehicle, with the body and frame of the Ford separating into two pieces. During the course of the crash events, Germain was ejected out onto the roadway after a catastrophic failure of the seat belt system and was subsequently flown to the trauma center at INOVA Fairfax Hospital where she was treated for serious, possibly life-threatening injuries, but expected to survive. Nicholas Ehrhardt was transported to Winchester Medical Center where he was treated, and released, for minor injuries sustained after the crash.”

As noted above, Sarah Michelle Ehrhardt was pronounced dead at the scene. In an obituary posted on the Omps Funeral Home website she was described as “an avid reader” who could spend hours in her favorite used book store, who also “loved spending time writing stories, snuggling with her dogs and laughing with friends and family”. She was also cited as “a rising senior at Eukarya Christian Academy in Stephens City” who was very involved with “the Media Ministry” at her church, the Winchester Church of God.

Omps Funeral Home’s celebration of the life of Sarah Michelle Ehrhardt remains accessible online.

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Multi-jurisdiction effort nabs Front Royal trio in burglary-theft ring

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On August 19th, 2021, the Front Royal Police Department received a report of a burglary that occurred at the Hydro Spray Car Wash in the 500 block of North Commerce Avenue. While under investigation, detectives linked a series of other recent burglaries and thefts in Front Royal and other area jurisdictions to several suspects residing in Front Royal. Arrest warrants were obtained for Tyler S. Lockette, Stephanie R. Miller, and Justin L. Conner for their involvement in a 25-day crime spree that included commercial burglaries at Royal Pawn, LDees Pancake House, Hydro Spray Car Wash, and Spot Laundromat in Front Royal. Additional charges were obtained for the theft of 2 motor vehicles and theft of property from 3 unsecured motor vehicles.

On 08/25/2021, Stephanie Miller was arrested and transported to the Rappahannock Shenandoah Warren (RSW) where she was ordered to be held on a $2500 secured bond.

Stephanie Miller. Photo courtesy RSW Jail.

On 08/29/2021, Tyler Lockette was arrested in Howard County, MD where he was held without bond and extradited back to Virginia. Mr. Lockette is currently being held without bond at the Northwestern Regional Adult Detention Center (NRADC) in Winchester, VA.


 

Northwestern Regional Adult Detention Center (NRADC) in Winchester, VA.

On 09/01/2021, Justin Conner was arrested and transported to the Rappahannock Shenandoah Warren (RSW) where he was ordered to be held without bond. The court date for all offenses has been set for various dates in September in Warren County General District Court.

Justin Conner. Photo courtesy of RSW Jail.

 

The Front Royal Police Department would like to extend our thanks to the multiple citizen tips received in these cases. We would also like to thank the Frederick County Sheriff’s Office, Winchester Police Department, Mt. Airy Police Department (MD), Carrol County Sheriff’s Office (MD), and the Howard County Sheriff’s Office (MD) for their support during this investigation.

This investigation is still ongoing and further charges may be forthcoming.

Anyone with any further information is asked to contact Front Royal Detective M.P. Gallagher at (540) 635-2208 or by email at mgallagher@frontroyalva.com

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Update: Federal Prosecutors charge McDonald on 34 criminal counts in EDA financial scandal

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On Tuesday morning, August 31, former Front Royal-Warren County Economic Development Executive Director Jennifer McDonald was arrested on a 34 count indictment handed down by the Western District of Virginia Federal Prosecutor’s Office in Harrisonburg. The 40-paragraph True Bill elaborating on the charges to a Harrisonburg Grand Jury is dated August 25, and signed by Acting U.S. Attorney Daniel P. Bubar. Of those 34 counts, 16 are for money laundering, 10 for bank fraud, 7 for wire fraud, and 1 count of aggravated identity theft regarding someone identified only as “T.T.”

The charges and outline of the case in support of them (Jennifer McDonald Indictment) echo earlier criminal indictments filed at the state level before the State Special Prosecutor’s Office in Harrisonburg turned the case over to federal authorities in late 2019. The state special prosecutor had dropped the indictments it had filed to avoid speedy trial issues due to the volume of evidentiary material – estimated at 800,000 to over a million pages at the time. Failure to meet speedy trial deadlines could have led to defense motions for dismissal of charges on the criminal side of the EDA financial scandal case.

Jennifer McDonald booked during state criminal prosecution process in 2019. Royal Examiner File Photos by Roger Bianchini – Mug Shots RSW Jail

An attempt to reach McDonald attorney Peter Greenspun at his Fairfax office for detail on his client’s arrest and bond situation was unsuccessful prior to publication. However, a check of the RSW Jail website indicated no new booking of McDonald at the tri-county regional facility.


In a statement on the McDonald prosecution released by the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Harrisonburg at 3 p.m. Tuesday afternoon, it was noted that McDonald had an initial court appearance on the new federal charges earlier in the day and that she was released pending trial.

While not reaching McDonald’s attorney, Royal Examiner did reach Warren County EDA Board of Directors Chairman Jeff Browne, who circulated the indictment document Tuesday morning. We asked Browne for a reaction to the long-awaited development on the criminal side of the EDA financial scandal case.

“We’re going to continue to pursue the civil case and are pleased that justice is being served on the criminal side – it’s been a long time coming,” Browne said of the nearly two-year lag time on refiling of criminal charges related to what was a $26-million-dollar civil litigation related to the allegations of criminal misdirection and embezzlement of Town-County EDA assets. That total has climbed to a $62-million claim after McDonald’s bankruptcy filing involved the state bankruptcy court in the case.

The FBI and VSP were both involved in the April 2019 search of McDonald’s former office; below, being locked down after her resignation under mounting investigatory pressure by her board on Dec. 20, 2018.

“We don’t control the criminal side, but there are some familiar numbers in this criminal filing that reflect work done by the Cherry Bekaert staff,” Browne commented of the company the EDA contracted to investigate EDA financial records during the later years of McDonald’s executive director’s tenure. “Any help we can offer, we’ll be there for federal prosecutors. But our focus is on the civil side and bringing assets back to the community,” Browne added. He noted that federal authorities are forecasting a criminal trial for McDonald in 2022.

As recently reported out of the bankruptcy process, the EDA and McDonald have reached a no-fault agreement on a debt of $9-million by the former EDA executive director to the EDA. That agreement in which McDonald admits no wrongdoing, has also been accepted by EDA civil case Judge Bruce D. Albertson. Exactly how that agreement will result in payment of that debt remains to be seen on the civil case side.

Another perspective on FBI-VSP presence at EDA headquarters during April 2019 seizure of materials from McDonald’s former office. Federal prosecutors from the Western District of Virginia have begun to reinitiate criminal charges in the EDA financial scandal case.

Early in the civil process, then presiding Judge Clifford L. “Clay” Athey Jr. froze some real estate assets McDonald held in her name alone, while leaving others she co-held with other family members free of possible civil liability. However, since that time several of her family members have been named as co-defendants in the EDA civil litigation alleging a McDonald-led conspiracy to move EDA assets to the personal benefit of her and others. The defendant list in that civil case has climbed to as many as 23 co-defendants alleged to have conspired and/or benefitted from the alleged embezzlements.

What implication movement on the McDonald criminal case might have on charges against some, if any, of the civil case co-defendants, some who also previously faced criminal charges dropped by the state Special Prosecutor’s Office on speedy trial/dismissal concerns, remains to be seen.

Royal Examiner will publish additional information on this evolving situation as it becomes available. This story was updated at 3:55 p.m.

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Grandson who reported unresponsive Grandmother charged with her murder

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On the morning of August 28th, 2021, at approximately 10:48 A.M., Frederick County Communications Center received a call, in reference to a female who was unresponsive.

The caller, David Austin Rowe, advised that his grandmother (Dianna Lynne Swaner, age 63) was laying on the floor and appeared to be deceased. Rowe advised the location of the incident was in the 1300 block Quail Run Lane, in the County of Frederick.

Frederick County Sheriff’s Office Patrol Division responded to the scene and secured the residence. The Patrol division requested the assistance of the Frederick County Sheriff’s Office, Criminal Investigations Division.

Through the investigation, it was determined the deceased female’s death was suspicious.


Search warrants were obtained, and the Medical Examiner’s Office was contacted. The Medical Examiner’s Office responded to the scene to assist with the investigation.

Through the investigation, it was determined the death was not an accident, but the victim had been murdered.

David Austin Rowe, age 18, the grandson to the victim, was arrested and charged with 2nd degree murder.

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Operation Valley Venue IX nets 83 charges & seizure of $130,435 in illegal drugs in Northern Shenandoah Valley

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The Northwest Virginia Regional Drug and Gang Task Force conducted its ninth annual Operation Valley Venue this week. The three day operation took place from Tuesday (August 24, 2021) to Thursday (August 26, 2021), and was a collaborative effort between the task force and area law enforcement agencies. The annual operation concentrated on identifying and arresting individuals for trafficking, manufacturing, and distributing illegal narcotics within the city of Winchester, and the counties of Clarke, Frederick, Warren, Shenandoah and Page.

The Northwest Virginia Regional Drug and Gang Task Force was assisted by the Drug Enforcement Administration, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, District 11 Probation and Parole, the Woodstock Police Department, and tactical teams from the Frederick County Sheriff’s Office, Shenandoah County Sheriff’s Office, and Virginia State Police. The Northwest Virginia Regional Drug and Gang Task Force member agencies also provided additional patrol and investigative personnel to assist during the three day operation. The operation netted 73 felony charges, 8 probation violations, and 2 misdemeanor charges. Additionally, 86 probation searches were conducted, 5 search warrants were obtained and executed, and 22 interdiction traffic stops were completed. During the operation, 881 grams of methamphetamine with a street value of $87,800.00, 328 grams of heroin with a street value of $39,610.00, 8 grams of cocaine with a street value of $800.00, 7 grams of crack cocaine with a street value of $800.00, 19 doses of MDMA/Ecstasy with a street value of $380.00, 33 doses of LSD with a street value of $480.00, 3 fluid ounces of PCP with a street value of $300.00, and 70 grams of psilocybin with a street value of $350.00 was seized. The total street value of the narcotics seized during the operation was $130,435.00. In addition, $16,295.00 in currency, and 8 firearms was seized.

The Northwest Virginia Regional Drug and Gang Task Force is comprised of law enforcement personnel from the Clarke, Frederick, Page and Shenandoah County Sheriff’s Offices, Front Royal, Luray, Strasburg, and Winchester Police Departments, and the Virginia State Police Bureau of Criminal Investigation, Culpeper Field Office. The Northwest Virginia Regional Drug and Gang Task Force is a HIDTA funded initiative.

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10:00 am 3rd Annual French & Indian War W... @ Abram's Delight
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National Public Lands Day @ Sky Meadows State Park
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Carriage Barn in the Historic Area. A blight decimated American Chestnut trees in North America in the 1920s. One hundred years later, Sky Meadows State Park has teamed up with the Virginia Chapter of the[...]
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Historic Area. Stop by the Friends of Sky Meadows Farmer’s Market for tasty preserved products, heirloom vegetables, eggs and more. Pick from seasonal vegetables grown in Sky Meadows’ authentic Kitchen Garden, July through September. Grab[...]
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Honor Display: Warren County ens... @ Warren County Courthouse
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WHAT: The local chapter of Coming to the Table is hosting a display on the Warren County Courthouse lawn to honor the more than 1,100 men, women, and children enslaved in the county at the onset[...]
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10:00 am 3rd Annual French & Indian War W... @ Abram's Delight
3rd Annual French & Indian War W... @ Abram's Delight
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3rd Annual French & Indian War Weekend @ Abram's Delight
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6th Annual Wine Pull @ Front Royal Golf Club
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