FRONT ROYAL – The Front Royal Police Department is investigating a Thursday afternoon robbery that may be connected to a rash of robberies occurring within the last week in the region. A media release from the department states that this afternoon at 1:40 p.m. a call came in regarding a robbery at the Advance America Cash Advance store located at 232 Remount Road, in the Gateway Plaza shopping center. Police say the first officer was on scene at approximately 1:43 p.m.
The release states that “a black male, approximately 6’0”, 250 lbs, wearing a gray shirt, blue jeans and a dark colored baseball cap entered Advance America and demanded money from the employees.” The suspect reportedly carried a black satchel and left the business with an undisclosed amount of money and fled on foot in the direction of John Marshall Highway.
Fauquier County sheriff’s deputies responded to an Advance America branch in Warrenton approximately 90 minutes after Front Royal’s robbery and took a suspect in custody. Detectives were able to confirm that the suspect was the same subject who committed the robbery in Front Royal.
This robbery may be related to a robbery of the Allied Cash Advance Store in Winchester that occurred today at approximately 12:40 p.m. on Weems Lane and may also be connected to a Wednesday robbery in Leesburg and a Saturday robbery in Centerville.
Captain Crystal Cline, reached by telephone early Thursday evening, said the investigation continues and a felony robbery warrant would be sought in connection with the case. The identity of the subject is being withheld at this time due to the number of investigations involved.
Anyone with information about the case is asked to contact Detective M. Ramey at 540-636-2208 or email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Defense suppression motion denied – toddlers mom’s trial looming
On Monday, March 25, Judge Clifford L. Athey Jr. denied a defense motion to suppress the confession of Tabitha Rose Zimmerman to neglectful complicity in the death of her 22-month-old son Malachi, and the non-fatal abuse of Malachi’s twin brother Micah on November 8, 2017.
Zimmerman was at work on the night shift at Rubbermaid when informed by then-fiancé Chad Ritchie by phone the night of Malachi’s death that there was a physical problem with her children. Zimmerman has been charged on two counts of cruelty and injuries to children revolving around what prosecutors contend was a willful neglect of signs of a pattern of abuse of her children by her former fiancé Chad Ritchie.
Athey ruled that despite the lengthy time Zimmerman was held in custody without charges before her confession that it had been given voluntarily. Defense counsel John Bell had argued that his client’s lengthy detention, over 13 hours in the immediate wake of her son’s death at the hands of Ritchie while she was at work, led to a confession obtained under emotional duress.
The judge also ruled that Zimmerman’s lengthy detention without charges was not illegal. Athey noted law enforcement’s explanation that while holding Zimmerman for questioning, they were also examining the crime scene and obtaining information on the circumstances leading to Malachi’s death and Micah’s hospitalization.
On Friday, March 22, Athey sentenced Ritchie to serve 20 years of a 55-year sentence in the death and abuse of the twin brothers. Ritchie entered an Alford guilty plea on the second day of his December 2018 trial. In an Alford plea a defendant admits the prosecution has the evidence to convict, while not admitting guilt. See Related Story:
At what is projected to be a three-day trial beginning April 8, Bell will argue, as Ritchie’s counsel did at his trial and sentencing hearing, that older bruising on the children was a result of falling and an active lifestyle, rather than an indication of a long-term pattern of abuse. Ritchie defense attorney Jason Ransom described his client’s actions of November 8, 2017, as one terrible lapse of anger management leading to an uncharacteristic outburst of physical violence against children he loved and hoped to eventually adopt.
Ritchie’s defense contention was that Malachi’s death was caused by incorrectly administered CPR (Cardio Pulmonary Resuscitation) by a panicking large man on a small child, rather than the earlier striking of Malachi in the head and stomach that Ritchie admitted to while watching the twins on November 8, 2017.
Malachi’s cause of death was determined to be cardiac arrest brought on by internal bleeding from a ruptured intestine that flooded the child’s stomach cavity. See Related Story:
Ritchie will serve 20 years in death and injuries inflicted to toddler twins
After four hours of pre-sentencing testimony and arguments on Friday afternoon, Chad Ritchie was ordered to serve 20 years of a 55-year sentence imposed by Warren County Circuit Court Judge Clifford L. “Clay” Athey in the death of one, and beating of a second 22-month-old twin child in November 2017.
Ritchie, 28 at the time of his November 2017 arrest, entered Alford guilty pleas on the second day of his December 2018 trial on four charges stemming from the death of 22-month-old toddler Malachi Zimmerman and for non-fatal injuries inflicted to Malachi’s twin brother Micah on November 8, 2017. Ritchie was watching the children of his then girlfriend Tabitha Zimmerman at Zimmerman’s parents’ home where they shared a residence, while Zimmerman was on night-shift at Rubbermaid where both she and Ritchie worked and had met.
Following his choice to enter Alford guilty pleas to a charge of second degree murder in the death of Malachi; malicious wounding of Micah; and one count of endangerment of each child, Ritchie faced guidelines ranging from 15 years of actual incarceration on the low end to a high end of 20 years in prison, with a mid-range of 17 years. In an Alford plea a defendant admits the prosecution has enough evidence to convict without admitting guilt.
Asked by the judge if he had anything to say prior to sentencing, Ritchie hesitated before quietly saying, “No.”
The defense contended the cause of Malachi’s death was not being struck by Ritchie, but rather by a large and panicking man incorrectly administering CPR (Cardio Pulmonary Resuscitation) when he discovered Malachi unconscious and unresponsive in a bedroom where he left him to prepare a bath for the child after his earlier admitted striking of the children.
During Friday’s sentencing hearing defense attorney Jason Ransom reiterated his trial contention that the 6-foot-plus, 220-pound Ritchie had administered CPR as one would to an adult, with two hands and two arms thrusting fully at the abdomen of the child. After being treated by Warren County Fire and Rescue at the scene and in transport to Warren Memorial Hospital, Malachi Zimmerman was pronounced dead at the hospital. Cause of death was determined to be cardiac arrest brought on by internal bleeding from a ruptured intestine that flooded the child’s stomach cavity. See Related Story:
However, Layton countered that Ritchie claimed to be and apparently was certified in the administration of CPR – and that someone certified in CPR would not have made such a mistake.
“He was trained … he should have done better but he was freaking out,” Ransom told the court of the adult level of force he contended his client used in trying to revive a 22-month-old child.
At trial in December and again during the March 22 sentencing hearing the defense attempted to portray Ritchie as a loving father figure to the children who had one terrible lapse of anger management leading to an uncharacteristic outburst of physical violence against the twins.
“That particular day a parent (figure) who because he was overwhelmed … he lost his cool – when someone that size loses it, this is where we are. That child is gone forever and when Mr. Ritchie gets out of prison he will have to live with that,” defense counsel Ransom told the court.
“This has crushed him; this has crushed his spirit … what he did was wrong and he’s got to pay for it – the question is how hard,” Ransom asked. “I don’t think the court needs to teach him not to do this again. We would agree to 20 years if it repeatedly happened. But I think this was a one-time occurrence. This was the worst day in everyone in this family’s life. We ask for 15 to 17 years,” Ransom concluded in seeking a lower to mid-range time of incarceration.
However, Assistant Commonwealth’s Attorney Bryan Layton countered that the court should weigh the impacts on the real victims, Malachi and Micah, their mother and grandparents, rather than how Ritchie might be impacted by a few additional years behind bars.
As to Ransom’s question on how harsh a sentence his client should receive, for maternal grandmother Rosemary Zimmerman, who with husband Daniel is raising the surviving twin pending resolution of related charges against their daughter, the answer was harsh. In the day’s most emotional testimony Rosemary Zimmerman described the impact on the family.
“I was the last one to see him (Malachi) when he was carried up to the ambulance. You could tell he was dead. He was way past the color for normal … it happened in our house … they thought we were involved in this sickness,” she told the court, voice rising, starting to cry.
“The guy admitted he killed the baby and we’re suffering for it. I can’t see my daughter; and the kids (Micah and a half sister) can’t see her because of a court order against her … Malachi was dead before he got CPR,” his grandmother told the court.
Then turning toward Ritchie at the defense table, voice rising, Rosemary Zimmerman yelled, “You killed him!!! Give him the max; I don’t even know what it is at this point.”
Mitigation witnesses for the defense included Ritchie’s parents, siblings and friends who all described the defendant as good around children, including the twins from their experience. They also referenced Facebook photos appearing to indicate a positive relationship between Ritchie and the twins posted prior to the tragedy.
However, prosecutor Layton pointed to evidence, including the defendant’s own verbal and written interviews with authorities in the wake of Malachi’s death and his brother Micah’s treatment for injuries at the hospital the night of November 8, 2017.
“He was so upset the kids weren’t behaving the way he wanted them to that he took cigarette breaks to try and calm down,” Layton told the court. He pointed to the defendant’s description of events indicating that Malachi had lain down and cried for 10 minutes after being struck by Ritchie one of the earlier of three times the defendant admitted to hitting the child. Upset by that continuous crying, Ritchie returned to again strike the child, choking and body slamming him, Layton said, “Then he stopped crying – how hard to you have to hit a child to stop him from crying like that,” Layton asked the court.
“He (Ritchie) tried to minimize it from the outset,” Layton said of the defendant’s portrayal of events. “The defense says he was panicking. But look at the text he sent Tabitha Zimmerman – what does he tell her, ‘Get your ass home – we have a problem.’
“A dead child is not a problem; a dead child is a tragedy. He deserves far more than 20 years,” Layton told the court of the sentencing guidelines.
Noting the defendant’s age, Judge Athey observed that unlike Malachi Zimmerman “Mr. Ritchie will get a second chance” when he is released around age 50.
Following his sentencing of Ritchie, Athey set Monday for a pre-trial hearing on charges the twins’ mother faces related to the case. A three-day trial has been set for April 8-10 for Tabitha Zimmerman, 29, on two counts of cruelty and injuries to children revolving around the prosecution theory that the violence of November 8, 2017, was a culmination of a pattern of abuse by Ritchie that the mother was aware of and allowed to continue.
Her attorney John Bell was a spectator at both Ritchie’s trial of December 10-11 and Friday’s sentencing hearing. Bell agrees with the Ritchie defense team on one aspect of the case, that older bruises found on the twins were a result of the toddler’s active lifestyle, horseplay and rough housing with each other, rather than a long-term pattern of physical abuse by Ritchie, at least any pattern of behavior the children’s mother was aware of.
Jackson Street methamphetamine suspect denied bond
A Front Royal man accused of distribution and manufacture of methamphetamine just four blocks from the Jackson Street Front Royal Police headquarters was denied bond on Wednesday. Bradley David Light and his court-appointed attorney Matt Beyrau appeared before Judge Ian Williams on March 20 in Warren County General District Court.
Beyrau argued that with a probable cause hearing scheduled for October 2, over six months out that the presumption of innocence should impact a decision on the defendant’s bond. Light’s attorney told the court the 54-year-old defendant had “strong ties” to the community and believed he could get a job back with a former local employer in the moving business.
Perhaps indicating an eventual line of defense strategy, Beyrau also pointed to the presence of another person at the carriage house apartment over an old garage space at 409 East Jackson Street during the execution of a search warrant on February 27. Asked by Beyrau if a Charles Carruthers had been present or charged in relation to the raid at 409 Jackson Street, drug task force Special Agent Tony Fox replied that he didn’t know, adding, “It’s not my case.”
It was also revealed during defense cross examination of Special Agent Fox that Light had not been present at the outset of the search of his apartment – “Mr. Light arrived later during the execution of the search warrant,” the special agent testified.
Beyrau asked the Judge Williams to grant Light a “bond he can afford” in the $2,000 range, adding of the charges against his client, “There is no presumption against bond.”
Assistant Commonwealth’s Attorney Michael Fleming elicited testimony from Special Agent Fox about the methamphetamine manufacture process, ingredients and accessories found at 409 Jackson Street and their volatility. The agent described the danger of flash fires, ingredients burning at 1200 degrees Fahrenheit and toxic fumes. The agent noted that windows had been knocked out at both ends of the second-story apartment during the search to allow venting to minimize fume dangers to the agents.
The criminal complaint resulting from the search warrant references the seizure of a “Hydrochloric gas generator, one pot, empty Pseudphedrine package, hypophosphite salts, liquefied ammonia gas, and hydrochloric acid.” Special Agent Fox also testified to the presence of lithium, pill and coffee grinders common to methamphetamine production process.
Fleming pointed to Light’s criminal record, including previous possession with intent to distribute Schedule 2 and Schedule 3 substance convictions.
Noting Light’s carriage house apartment was in a residential neighborhood, Fleming told the court, “The prosecution thinks he is a danger to himself and the community.”
In handing down his denial of the defense bond request, Judge Williams said a decision was “not about the presumption of innocence – it’s about probable cause” and whether the defendant s, in fact, “a danger to himself and others – I have to look at the dangers first – someone in a meth lab is playing Russian Roulette every day,” the judge said in denying bond.
What do the Sayre-McDonald lawsuit and the Titanic have in common?
FRONT ROYAL – “This will be a damaging loss for whoever loses,” Judge Ian Williams observed Wednesday of the time, effort and expense being put into the Tom Sayre defamation lawsuit against former Front Royal-Warren County Economic Development Authority Executive Director Jennifer McDonald at the General District Court level – a level where the maximum award is $25,000.
“It’s very curious – but I’m giving you more time to arrange the deck chairs on the Titanic,” Williams added of additional time he granted Sayre attorney Tim Bosson and McDonald counsel Lee Berlik in an attempt to reach a legal consensus on filings in the case. – “There will be no more hearings on this,” the judge warned of dueling evidentiary motions before the new trial date of August 2, at 1 p.m. The Winchester-based judge explained he had to change the original trial date from June 21 due to a conflicting trial assignment.
As the March 20th motions hearing drew to a close after an hour-and-forty-five minutes, Judge Williams bemoaned the time and legal effort being put in on preliminary motions. He asked the attorneys what they made an hour. Bosson replied $350, Berlik $425 (I’m definitely in the wrong line of work).
Noting that amounted to $775 for every hour put in by both sides on the case, the judge marveled at the work being done on a case with a $25,000 award cap.
The most recent result of all that legal work was plaintiff Tom Sayre prevailing on a series of evidentiary motions argued Wednesday afternoon in his $25,000 defamation suit against McDonald.
Overruled by Judge Williams on March 20 were defense motions to: 1/ a “plea and bar” which would have essentially thrown the plaintiff’s case out as having not established the grounds, including malice, upon which the civil suit is based; 2/ to further reduce the number of complaints on statute of limitations violations; 3/ remove additional detail on specific complaints in the case added since the initial filing; 4/ and prevent any plaintiff subpoena of records of EDA/McDonald Private Investigator Kenneth Pullen as privileged information.
On that latter issue, plaintiff counsel Bosson told the court that he had verified that the EDA Board of Directors had initially hired Pullen in the wake of the May 17, 2017, EDA office break in. However, he said the EDA board had turned the private investigator’s contract over to its then executive director as incidents of alleged trespass and vandalisms reported by McDonald at her home escalated over the following month.
The fact that then-EDA Board Chairman Greg Drescher requested Town Police to drop their investigation of the EDA office break in, in favor of the EDA’s private investigator’s handling of the case has been a sticking point for EDA critics, particularly former Town Councilwoman Bébhinn Egger’s father Mark Egger. The elder Egger has repeatedly questioned the board of supervisors on lapses in county oversight of the EDA; as well as seemingly conflicting stories regarding who hired the PI and why Drescher, speaking for the EDA board, sent a letter asking for a halt to the FRPD investigation.
Judge Williams authorized a subpoena of Pullen and his records from June 6 to August 16, 2017. However, Bosson told the court he had been informed by the EDA that they do not have any documents related to Pullen’s investigation; and that either “Ms. McDonald has them or they’ve been destroyed.”
But the court ruling on Pullen and his records will allow information in a series of July 14, 2017 emails between McDonald and this reporter subpoenaed by the plaintiff and referenced several times in Wednesday’s hearing, to be corroborated or not corroborated by the private investigator, if not on paper, on the witness stand.
As Bosson noted during Wednesday’s hearing, in those emails McDonald alleges “a culprit” in the alleged June 15, 2017 rock-throwing vandalism at her home had been identified and was being approached by Pullen to wear a wire on a suspected accomplice in an alleged plot to terrorize her. Bosson told the court that based on information from the recipient of those McDonald emails the references to “the first Putin” and “our photo boy” as a director of the operation against her are references to Mr. Sayre. The alleged plot to terrorize McDonald was outlined in the crumpled, typed note the WCSO incident report indicated was pointed out in her yard to sheriff’s office first responders investigating the June 15 vandalism reported at 9:02 p.m.
As Royal Examiner previously reported, that note investigators assumed to be dropped by the vandal at the scene contains two phone numbers, Tom Sayre’s office number and former Town Manager Michael Graham’s cell phone number; as well as references a “Matt” being run off by a barking dog of McDonald’s; getting “files to the Examiner” because “Norma Jean will be waiting for them”; and instructions “not to call Tom during business hours…” and, drum roll please, “Do not take this sheet with you …”
The incident report appeared to indicate no fingerprints found on the note.
All those implicated by name and known to authorities testified at McDonald’s misdemeanor false police report trial that they had no knowledge of the note or any plot against McDonald. While dismissing the case against McDonald on October 31, 2018, General District Court Judge W. Dale Houff commented that there was something “terribly wrong” about the note. However, Houff ruled that Commonwealth’s Attorney Brian Madden had not established enough evidence or motive as to why McDonald would fabricate such a situation.*
As for defense attorney Berlik’s complaint that plaintiff counsel Bosson has not been responsive to subpoenas of plaintiff records in a timely manner, Bosson noted that many of the responses were being delivered to the McDonald team in Circuit Court where the defendant has become the plaintiff in filing a $600,000 defamation suit against Sayre.
“They filed the exact same thing in circuit court and will receive them there – I don’t understand why we are here,” Bosson said of the defense’s beef over the subpoena responses.
“Do you think the two of you can agree on anything,” Judge Williams asked the attorneys. When Berlik began, “Not now,” the judge countered, “If you can’t do it, I can go through all of (the subpoenas) and choose (what’s in and what’s out) and you can live with it … we’re not having another hearing on this.”
In making his case to reduce the scope of the defense subpoena submission, Sayre attorney Bosson pointed to his own four subpoenas totaling 20 specific requests in the wake of the judge’s earlier hearing admonishment to the attorneys not to turn evidentiary subpoenas into fishing expeditions. Bosson compared his numbers to the defense filing of seven subpoenas totaling 89 specific requests.
While setting a series of dates for submissions and responses approaching the new trial date, the judge set May 10 for the final product – “either separate orders or one agreed-upon order,” Williams observed, adding, “If you achieve that (an agreed order) I may invite you all up here for champagne.”
Williams then glanced to his left at Front Royal Town Attorney Doug Napier listening to the proceedings, offering to include him in the celebration of functional legal compromise; leading Front Royal Police Captain Crystal Cline to Napier’s left to inquire if she might be included in that celebration as well.
Back on the serious legal train, Napier told the court that the town government could not respond to a defense subpoena of town personnel text messages because “we just don’t have them.”
Napier was also present representing the Town in attempting to join the plaintiff in the effort to quash certain defense motions on the table that day. However, Napier acknowledged that two attempts he had made to notify Berlik of the Town’s planned joining in that motion had failed to reach McDonald’s attorney. During the hearing Napier simply deferred to the plaintiff’s arguments on the motions to quash.
FOOTNOTE: Despite McDonald’s criminal case acquittal, it is noteworthy as previously reported by Royal Examiner, that the prosecutor did not call the Town Police investigator who developed the false police report case against McDonald, nor the State Police officer who filed the warrant, nor an EDA employee whose recorded FRPD interview appears to corroborate this reporter’s timeline on meeting with McDonald about incidents at her home prior to the report of the vandalism rather than the following morning as asserted in her criminal case defense. Madden also did not present evidence regarding motive given to him by one prosecution witness – Royal Examiner Editor Norma Jean Shaw’s exploration of McDonald’s use of large amounts of cash in purchases and down payments in her personal real estate business; as well as Shaw’s inquiries into the identify of a “secret investor” in the since-aborted police academy project slated for EDA land in the Happy Creek Technology Park. That investor was believed to be ITFederal principal Truc “Curt” Tran. Tran has since said such an investment was discussed, but never agreed to. A file containing that information stored in an obscure place in McDonald’s office was the only thing she reported missing from the May 17, 2017, EDA office break in. Without a shovel being turned on the site, the EDA reports it spent over $500,000 on the police academy project before its abandonment.
June jury trial set for former breeding kennel owners in child, animal cruelty cases
FRONT ROYAL – On Monday, March 18, Circuit Court Judge Clifford L. “Clay” Athey ordered a June trial in the 25-count case against former commercial breeding kennel owners Wendy and Brian Tenney. A two-day jury trial was scheduled for June 3-4. A morning docket hearing date of May 6 was set on the defense motion to suppress certain commonwealth evidence. The Tenneys are free on bond and waived their speedy trial right in response to a question from the court about setting a trial date.
Both Tenneys face six felony counts of child endangerment and neglectful care (“Labor-Cruelty and Injuries to Children”), one count for each of their six children under the age of 18, as well as 19 counts each of misdemeanor animal cruelty. The charges stem from the conditions found in their home and a detached kennel area on their property during the execution of a search warrant on September 12, 2018. That search warrant was executed after Animal Control Officer Laura Gomez went to the Tenney residence to report discovery of some of their goats in the road.
Tenney counsel from the Staunton law firm of Timberlake-Smith noted his clients had waived their right to a jury trial; however, the court ordered the case be heard by a jury of the Tenneys’ peers.
General District Court Judge W. Dale Houff certified the felony charges to the grand jury following a 2-1/2 hour hearing on December 12. And while the Tenneys dropped an appeal of the lower court ruling the 28 surviving dogs and cats (of 30 seized) be released for adoption by the Humane Society of Warren County’s Julia Wagner Animal Shelter where they had been held since September 12, they are taking their fight against the misdemeanor animal cruelty charges to the higher court.
At the time of the September 12 search warrant’s execution the Tenneys were in the process of appealing a Warren County Board of Supervisors’ April 17 decision (by a 4-1 vote, only the Tenneys’ South River District Supervisor Linda Glavis dissenting) to revoke their commercial breeding kennel permit. That permit was revoked following a four-month hearing process before both the county planning commission and board of supervisors. The Tenneys have since dropped that appeal.
The county planning department recommended the commercial breeding kennel permit revocation in the wake of a March 6, 2017 kennel fire at the Tenney property in which 16 dogs died. A county fire investigation indicated the cause of the fire as the type of portable space heater animal control had warned Wendy Tenney against using as they are subject to wire chewing by the dogs. The fire investigation also presented evidence the kennel had been illegally wired without the necessary permitting and inspections.
Addressing the felony counts related to the Tenney children on December 12, General District Court Judge Houff said he did not question that the Tenney children were loved by their parents. However, he disputed defense counsel’s contention that
what was found on the property during the September search presented an uncharacteristic “snapshot” of how the Tenney’s normally lived. Judge Houff said photo evidence and witness testimony presented “such an array of chaos” that it could not simply be dismissed as a momentary aberration without further scrutiny at a higher level, first before a grand jury and then as now certified, before a jury of the Tenneys’ peers.
Following execution of the September 12 search warrant the family’s six minor children were removed from the home and released to the custody of their maternal grandmother. According to Tenney attorney Tate C. Love that transfer was made voluntarily by the Tenneys without a court order. Following the December hearing Love noted that all the Tenneys’ interactions with social services had been voluntary.
Under cross-examination Animal Control Deputy Gomez admitted that on previous inspections of Tenney’s property as recent as March or April 2018 conditions had been normal, clean and acceptable. Defense counsel also pointed out that Mrs. Tenney had asked Gomez to allow her to clean up after she called for the search warrant but had not been allowed to do so.
But under redirect examination Gomez noted that her previous inspections of the Tenney property had always been scheduled in advance – “This was unscheduled,” the animal control officer observed.
Gomez called for the search warrant after observing the conditions in a detached kennel area on the Tenney property. Gomez visited the Tenney property on September 12 to report that some of their goats had escaped the property and were in the road.
Prosecution witnesses from the sheriff’s office involved in the search of the Tenney home and kennel on September 12, 2018, indicated that the combined smell of wasting food, trash, animal feces and general smell of ammonia was so bad they could only continue the search in five-minute increments even with ventilators on due to the strength of the odor.
Deavers found guilty in VFW Post 1860 arson and embezzlement case
FRONT ROYAL – After 2-1/2 hours of deliberation Friday afternoon, March 8, a Warren County Circuit Court jury found Leslie Rose Deavers guilty on the two remaining counts against her – arson of an occupied building and embezzlement of funds from the Samuel R. Millar Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) Post 1860. A third charge, arson of a public building, was nol prossed (not prosecuted) by the prosecution at the week-long trial’s outset when it was pointed out the VFW Post headquarters building was not open to the general public.
At the time the fire broke out the VFW headquarters building was occupied by long-time VFW Post employee Deavers, her boss Billy Rose (now deceased) and visitor Brendon Squire who had stopped in to inquire about joining the Front Royal VFW Post.
After another 40 minutes of deliberation, the jury then came in with a sentencing recommendation on the low end of the incarceration range on those convictions. The 57-year-old Deavers faced a prison sentence of 5 to 20 years on the arson conviction and from no time to 12 months in jail or 1 to 20 years in prison on the embezzlement conviction.
The jury recommendation was the minimum 5 years in prison for the arson of the VFW Post headquarters on July 11, 2015; and 6 months in jail on an embezzlement scheme the prosecution contended the arson was set to cover up. The eight-woman, four-man jury also recommended the maximum fine of $100,000 on the arson conviction and the maximum fine of $2,500 on the embezzlement conviction.
Testimony from prosecution expert witness, ATF forensic auditor David Clemson indicated Deavers made 98 cash deposits into a joint bank account shared with her boyfriend of 17 years, Ashby Spiker Sr., totaling $105,010 in 2014 and 2015, prior to the July 2015 fire that destroyed the VFW Post headquarters. After the fire those cash deposits dried up, prosecution forensic audit evidence indicated.
Spiker testified that Deavers became so depressed after the VFW fire that she became withdrawn and stopped going out on the gambling junkets the defense asserted provided her with a steady cash flow income.
Deavers took both the verdict and sentencing recommendation without any visible emotional reaction.
Judge Clifford L. “Clay” Athey Jr. set a May 24 hearing date for arguments on a defense motion to strike the jury verdict and on sentencing should the defense motion be denied by the court. A pre-sentence report on the defendant will also be filed prior to the May 24 hearing. The defense must file its written motion to strike the jury verdict by April 8; the prosecution’s response is due by May 8; and the defense reply brief is due by May 19.
Lead defense counsel Jason Ransom promised an appeal should the convictions hold. Following the prosecution’s objection, Athey denied the defense team’s request to reset bond for their client pending the May 24 hearing date. So Deavers, who has been free on a secured $25,000 bond for about two years following her arrest on February 8, 2017, was remanded to the custody of the Warren County Sheriff’s Office at about 5:45 p.m. Friday afternoon.
Deavers was arrested after an extensive 18-month investigation involving multiple agencies. Following Deavers’ conviction late Friday afternoon Warren County Fire Marshal Gerry Maiatico, who testified extensively about details of the fire investigation as one prosecution expert witness, thanked those involved agencies including the Front Royal Police Department, the Warren County Sheriff’s Office, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) and ATF’s Forensic Audit Division, the Fire Marshal’s Offices of Shenandoah, Frederick and Loudoun Counties, and of course Maiatico’s own Warren County Fire & Rescue Department – “It was an intense investigation and it’s great to see our justice system work,” Maiatico said after the trial’s conclusion.
In the wake of Deavers’ conviction current VFW Post Commander Jeff Cook said, “It’s bittersweet. No one really wins in this – you’re talking about someone losing their freedom and you’re talking about justice being served. It’s something I’m going to wrestle with. But we fought long and hard over the last three years since the fire; hopefully, now that the verdict is out there the air is cleared of any potential wrongdoing on a post member’s part. Hopefully, we can get the word out to the community and maybe we can get a chance at rebuilding the Post.”
Cook also gave emotional testimony in the sentencing phase of the trial after Friday’s guilty verdict came in.
“Will you rebuild soon?” Commonwealth’s Attorney Brian Madden asked.
“I don’t believe so. It’s been very difficult – we were woefully under-insured at the time of the fire,” Cook replied. Damage assessments estimated the value of the lost headquarters, which had to be demolished following the fire, in the $400,000 range.
Cook noted that existing regulations require that a new VFW Post be built 13 to 15 feet off the ground due to floodplain requirements. “So the cost is about four times the amount originally projected. Short of a donation from someone with deep pockets we’re chipping away slowly at the $400,000, $500,000, $600,000 that will be necessary.”
Asked by Madden about the impact of the loss of the headquarters building and the Post’s thus far unsuccessful effort toward rebuilding, Cook said it had been a difficult three years since the fire.
“We exist as an organization by monthly meetings at the American Legion, who have been gracious enough to allow us to use their headquarters,” Cook said.
Cook appeared emotional as he noted the loss of 13 members who have died in the years since the Post 1860 building was destroyed.
“Most are aged – the greatest generation is passing fast,” Cook said of the few remaining World War II veterans, “Some were POW’s from Vietnam.”
“Is there a sense of betrayal?” Madden inquired.
“Yes, everyone at that Post loved her. No one wins here. We feel stabbed – we fought and were at the point of being able to offer her full-time employment, now we’re not.”
In the wake of some positive comments by VFW Post members, even prosecution witnesses, about Deavers’ presence at VFW Post 1860 as its bar, events and V-Tab slot gambling machine manager, defense attorney Ransom asked Cook one question on cross-examination.
“What percentage of members think she did it?”
“I’d say 90%,” Cook replied.
“Really, 90% – no further questions.”
Asked about the exchange during a recess, Cook said, “I’m surprised that he asked the question. There were a few who would never believe that she would do it and there are others who said, ‘Look, it just doesn’t make sense – there had to be something there.’ ”
Of the prosecution’s case and jury’s support of it, Cook observed, ”You could pick apart one or two things but those one or two things were all interlinked – and it was just that, the interlinking that told the story.”
Of the jury that reached a unanimous verdict in 2-1/2 hours in a complicated, circumstantial case developed over an 18-month, multi-faceted investigation, Cook said, “I’m proud of them – they’re a part of our community and it’s good to know you can get justice in rural America. It makes me even more proud that I wore that uniform for as long as I did.”
The reaction from the defense side was different.
“I’m stunned; I’m shocked,” Ransom who led the defense with co-counsel Jonathan Silvester, said. “When I heard it I said I do not understand how they reached that verdict. I thought it was clear that she didn’t embezzle any money; I thought it was clear she didn’t burn the building down. I don’t think the commonwealth met their burden of proof. I don’t even think it was close to meeting their burden of proof … I just don’t see how they reached (that verdict) – it just blows my mind.”
In arguing against jail time for his client in the sentencing phase, Ransom noted that Deavers maintains her innocence and emphasized his client’s clean police record and her importance as a stabilizing influence in the lives of her two adult children and seven grandchildren, two of whom aged two and four live with her and long-time boyfriend Ashby Spiker.
“It will be difficult for her grandkids and Ashby Spiker,” Ransom told the jury of Deavers absence from their lives.
And if not totally convinced, as noted above the jury did come in with a sentencing recommendation on the low end of incarceration ranges. Next Ransom will target Judge Athey, first on the defense motion to strike the jury verdict, and if not successful in that endeavor, on a sentence even beneath the low-end incarceration guidelines recommended by the jury.
In his closing in the sentencing phase, Layton asked the jury to listen to the words of Post Commander Cook “and do what you think is appropriate.”
In rebuttal to the defense closing, Layton suggested that rather than impacts on the defendant’s life, the jury consider the impacts on the members of VFW Post 1860 – “What about the impact on those men? That place of community has been ripped away from them … find an appropriate balance,” Layton urged the jury.
Updated March 9, 2019