Front Royal Mayor Hollis Tharpe was present with wife Debbie to hear a misdemeanor warrant issued for solicitation of prostitution by a Warren County Grand Jury Monday afternoon, April 15. Due to the involvement of a special prosecutor from outside the county Tharpe’s case was called first on a crowded grand jury docket convened at 2:17 p.m.
Winchester attorney David Hensley told Judge Clifford L. Athey Jr. he was making a special appearance on Tharpe’s behalf. Hensley said he would seek discovery of prosecution evidence against Tharpe and Athey gave Special Prosecutor Heather Hoevermale 30 days, to May 15, to respond to the defense discovery motion.
The matter was set to be revisited on the court docket of June 17, at 2 p.m. Athey instructed Hoevermale to send the prosecution discovery to Hensley pending Tharpe’s retention of another attorney to handle the case in the long run.
As previously reported by Royal Examiner, the 67-year-old Tharpe called the misdemeanor charge against him “embarrassing” and “baseless”. He indicated that when he visits massage parlors it is for legitimate massage therapy on his aging and aching body. The date of the offense is listed as May 31, 2018 and is believed to involve a massage parlor on the town’s south side.
Nearly two-and-a-half-hours before the indictment was returned by the grand jury, in a press release issued from the Front Royal Town Council Clerk’s Office at 11:58 a.m. Tharpe announced that he would voluntarily place himself on temporary administrative leave without pay pending resolution of the charge against him. So, Vice-Mayor William Sealock will chair coming council meetings, beginning with a work session Monday evening at 7 p.m. at Town Hall.
The list of press releases related to the misdemeanor “solicitation of sexual conduct” allegation against the Front Royal mayor expanded at 3:37 p.m. Monday afternoon when a Virginia State Police notice of Tharpe’s grand jury indictment and court appearance went out.
That VSP release states, “The charge stems from an investigation initiated in October 2018 by the Virginia State Police at the direction of the Office of the Attorney General.”
That there was an investigation into Tharpe went public on August 30, 2018, when Warren County Commonwealth’s Attorney Brian Madden filed notice he would recuse himself from any possible prosecution relating to an “Investigation Concerning Hollis Tharpe”. The Winchester Commonwealth’s Attorney’s office of Marc Abrams was appointed by the court to replace Madden’s office in the matter.
BREAKING NEWS: Former EDA administrative assistant Michelle “Missy” Henry arrested by VSP
WARREN COUNTY – Michele “Missy” Henry, who worked alongside former EDA Director Jennifer McDonald, who is currently jailed on a number of charges related to embezzlement of funds from the entity, was arrested Monday (June 24) without incident at her home by the Virginia State Police.
Henry has been charged with two counts of felony embezzlement and is currently being held without bail. She is scheduled to appear in Warren County Circuit Court on Tuesday, June 25 at 9 a.m.
This is a developing story that will be updated as information warrants.
Defendant attempts to flee courtroom after drug case bond revoked
While the temperature took a pleasant turn downwards on Friday, June 21, things heated up inside the Warren County Courthouse the afternoon of the Summer Solstice when a defendant appearing on a bond appeal hearing brought by the commonwealth did not take his bond revocation well.
During the afternoon docket around 2:30 p.m. 34-year-old Ray Martin Johnson decided to bolt from Circuit Courtroom “B” after the commonwealth’s motion to have his bond revoked on two drug charges was upheld by Judge Clifford L. Athey Jr.
As he exited the courtroom, Johnson met a Virginia State Trooper headed into court in the small ante-room area between the smaller circuit courtroom and outer door to the second floor hallway. That unexpected encounter initiated a scuffle reportedly resulting in someone’s head’s contact with a wall. Johnson’s attempt to leave the courthouse was quickly aborted by the trooper and a combination of Warren County Sheriff’s Office bailiffs and law enforcement personnel in the courtroom for other cases.
Johnson’s ill-advised exit attempt resulted in additional charges of “Escape-not convicted escape from custody by force or violence” and “Simple Assault-law enforcement officer, judge or fire & rescue personnel” being added to his previous charges. According to Assistant Commonwealth’s Attorney Samantha Meadows, who noted she had left the courtroom before Johnson’s flight attempt, the bond revocation involved two felony distribution charges, one for Schedule 1 and 2 drugs, the other for Schedule 4.
According to RSW Regional Jail inmate records, Johnson’s previous criminal record includes “Vandalism-intentional damage of property”, “Traffic-driving on a revoked license, third or subsequent offense” and “Contempt of Court-Failure to Appear”, as well as the two “Narcotics” charges, “Conspiracy to Distribute Cocaine” and “Distribution, sell a Schedule 4 drug”.
Johnson is scheduled back in court at 9 a.m., tomorrow morning, Tuesday, June 25.
Why do I have this feeling it’s going to be a long, hot summer both inside and outside of the Warren County Courthouse?
Not only communications, but Sayre net worth at issue in motions hearing
Attorneys in the Jennifer McDonald defamation suit against Tom Sayre argued a variety of issues during the June 19 Discovery Motions hearing in Warren County Circuit Court. At issue was the scope Discovery materials Sayre is compelled by the court to produce in response to plaintiff motions, including a reply to what the Shenandoah District County Supervisors’ net worth is.
On that latter issue Sayre attorney Margaret Fonshell Ward argued that while such information may eventually be relevant in such a civil damages case, it is not subject to a Discovery Motion by the plaintiff at this point in the pre-trial proceedings.
“Right now is not the time – it can be addressed later,” Ward told the court of establishing her client’s net worth.
McDonald attorney Lee Berlik countered, citing a Fairfax case he is handling involving an airline, in which such Discovery was allowed.
“I agree it is the defendant’s burden of proof (in establishing their net worth) but the plaintiff has the option of seeking the information,” Berlik argued, observing, “If it turns out Mr. Sayre is a billionaire … he may not want the jury to know that it wouldn’t be a burden for him to pay” the damages being sought.
Those damages in McDonald’s February-filed counter suit to Sayre’s $25,000 defamation suit filed in September 2018, total $600,000, including $350,000 in punitive damages.
Both McDonald and Sayre’s defamation suits revolve around the infamous “conspiracy to terrorize McDonald” note discovered at the scene of a stone-throwing vandalism at her property McDonald reported to law enforcement the evening of June 15, 2017.
As observed in yesterday’s lead hearing story, while dismissing the false police report charge against McDonald on Halloween the judge observed that something was “horribly wrong” about the note.** And Berlik himself observed during Wednesday’s hearing, “The note remains a mystery.”
But back to the net worth question attached to McDonald’s defamation suit against Sayre, Athey agreed with the plaintiff and granted its Discovery Motion for Sayre’s net worth.
Sayre attorney Ward asked that the information “not be disclosed beyond Mr. Berlik”.
“Do you have a problem with that?” Athey asked Berlik.
Berlik replied that he would like to check with his client before definitively answering that question.
“Okay, the two parties will know each other’s net worth – but perhaps not the public,” Judge Athey observed of the status of that Discovery Motion.
As for plaintiff Discovery Motions for Sayre electronic or other communications, Athey ruled the defendant must provide a log of his phone records for 21 days surrounding the June 15, 2017 vandalism report, including the evening it occurred. Berlik argued that since the note included an instruction to call the numbers in the note “when anything has happened” what numbers Sayre may have received calls from in the aftermath of the reported vandalism incident are relevant.
The judge agreed; and Sayre’s attorney did not object to a focused request for phone records.
Athey also agreed that specific defendant communications in 2018 could also be relevant, and ordered them produced as well as relevant materials sought from 2017.
As for three months of Facebook communications or messaging, Berlik cited vagueness in the defendant response, “We don’t believe they’re there.”
The response to the plaintiff’s additional query, “Did you look?” was silence, Berlik told the court. The judge told defense counsel that a more appropriate response would be, “They may be there – I’ve looked, I didn’t find them.”
McDonald’s attorney also cited a lack of response to his request that the defendant provide any evidence that McDonald did fabricate the note or stage the rock-throwing incident. Athey observed that his experience of such cases was that there was no such evidence to produce.
However, the judge did not address how the 2900 pages, or even the 100-page summary thereof, of the Cherry Bekaert financial fraud investigation he ordered produced in the EDA civil case might impact such a related defamation case Discovery request, at least on the circumstantial side of the equation as to possible motive.
Of course, Cherry Bekaert devotes an entire 18 bullet point sub-section titled “Scope Limitations” describing limits placed on its inquiry “by the EDA BOD (Board of Directors) and County Board of Supervisors” that set fact-finding limitations to its EDA inquiry. See more on that in a forthcoming Royal Examiner story and in this linked story.
** Footnote: The note pointed out to investigators responding to her report of the June 15, 2017 rock throwing vandalism details instructions and information tied to what appears to be a conspiracy to terrorize McDonald for some unstated purpose: “She either does this the easy way with us or we make her life hell. No one should get hurt in this, but scared absolutely,” paragraph three of the note reads in part.
The concluding of four paragraphs of instructional text in the typed or computer-printout note upon which no fingerprints were apparently found included the admonishments, “Do not take this sheet with you (reporter’s note: OOPS), but make sure to keep it in your car with our numbers. Do not call Tom during business hours cannot have anyone hearing the conversation, so call me first,” followed by a 202 number that evidence at McDonald’s October 31, 2018 false police report misdemeanor trial indicated was former Town Manager Michael Graham’s, followed by Sayre’s local legal office number.
On October 31, 2018, Graham testified he knew nothing of the note; and Sayre is alleged to have publicly asserted he believes McDonald fabricated the note and incident in order to discredit him professionally and politically – leading to the dueling McDonald-Sayre defamation lawsuits.
McDonald attorney – ‘I don’t work for the Afton Inn’
Also in the Jennifer McDonald-Tom Sayre defamation case motions hearing Wednesday, June 19, Norma Jean Shaw attorney David Downes pointed to a Wednesday morning Josh Gully news story referencing an alleged November 2018 bank wire transfer payment of $10,000 authorized by McDonald to her attorney Lee Berlik’s firm.
Downes reference was made at the hearing’s outset shortly after 11:30 a.m., when Downes alerted the court that opposing “counsel may have a conflict of interest”. Downes explained by pointing to the cited reference to the Cherry Bekaert accounting fraud investigation finding of a November 11, 2018, wire transfer of $10,000 from First Bank & Trust to Berlik Law LLC; a payment authorized by McDonald as a payment to the “Afton Inn Attorney”.
Downes told the court that Berlik “can’t continue to use potentially stolen funds” to pay for his representation of McDonald” adding without suggesting Berlik had previously been aware he may have been paid with stolen funds – “He’s on notice”.
Following Wednesday’s hearing Berlik declined to address the now public Cherry Bekaert allegations against his client; however, outside the courtroom he did tell media present, “I don’t work for the Afton Inn.”
As noted in our above-referenced story the question about whether McDonald might be using allegedly embezzled EDA assets to pay for her civil cases legal representation was first raised by Sands-Anderson attorney Cullen Seltzer during a May 22 EDA civil litigation hearing. That discussion over the status of a plaintiff Discovery Motion request for information on McDonald’s payment of her civil legal fees – a plaintiff motion denied at the time by Judge Clifford L. Athey – came two days before McDonald’s arrest by the Virginia State Police.
The four felony charges McDonald was arrested on – two of Fraud-Obtain Money by False Pretenses and two of Larceny-Embezzlement – related to payments made to credit card companies utilizing what Afton Inn developer 2 East Main Street LLC and Cherry Bekaert assert were fraudulent invoices McDonald created to indicate payments for Afton Inn work.
After the document purported to be a closed-session resolution signed by the EDA Board of Directors authorizing a 2016, $2-million dollar transfer to its executive director to enact a land purchase was allowed to remain in evidence over the objection of EDA counsel Cullen Seltzer, McDannell was questioned about the document’s origin. After an initial hesitancy telling the judge he did not know the precise origin of the document, McDannell told the court “from my client – she gave me a pile of documents and it was in there with them.”
The following day surviving members of the EDA board whose signatures were on the questioned defense exhibit testified that while it appeared to be their signatures on the closed session authorization of the $2-million for a land transfer to be accomplished by their executive director, they had no recollection of signing such a closed session document.
And so the legal landscape upon which McDonald’s dueling defamation lawsuits with Tom Sayre, as well as her portion of the defense in the EDA civil litigation case seeking recovery of over $21 million in EDA assets, continues to shift seismically for her attorneys at nearly every courtroom step.
Judge allows Shaw-Sayre communications Discovery, but not third-party
FRONT ROYAL – Attorneys for Jennifer McDonald, Tom Sayre and one involved third party argued motions related to plaintiff Discovery filings and responses in Warren County Circuit Court late Wednesday morning. The motions involve McDonald’s $600,000 defamation lawsuit against Sayre filed in February.
Five months earlier in September 2018 while McDonald was still EDA executive director, Sayre filed a $25,000 defamation suit against McDonald. Both suits revolve around the name “Tom” accompanied by Sayre’s phone number found in McDonald’s yard following a reported vandalism on her property on June 15, 2017.
At issue Wednesday were responses or a perceived lack thereof to plaintiff McDonald attorney’s request for social media and other electronic communications records of Sayre and that third party, Royal Examiner Editor Norma Jean Shaw.
Sayre’s and Shaw’s first names, as well as Sayre’s phone number and other names and numbers were on a crumpled note pointed out by McDonald to Warren County Sheriff’s Office investigators responding to her report of a rock-throwing vandalism at her home at 9:02 p.m. Thursday, June 15, 2017.
The note portrays a multi-person conspiracy surrounding, not only incidents alleged to have occurred at McDonald’s Faith Way, county home in the May-June 2017 timeframe, but also an alleged May 18, 2017 break-in at the Kendrick Lane EDA office in Front Royal. The latter was a scene at which there was no forced entry apparent. The latter was a scene at which there was no forced entry apparent, and only three staff members, McDonald, Missy Henry and Marla Jones with keys.
On Halloween Day 2018, McDonald was acquitted of a misdemeanor charge of filing a false police report in the June 2017 vandalism incident in what some cynical observers have called a “Trick or Treat” – as in no available corroborating or motive evidence being presented – prosecution. The case was developed by the Front Royal Police before being turned over the Virginia State Police, based on information received in an already scheduled FRPD interview, at 10:30 a.m. Friday morning, June 16, 2017, with this reporter. That information was that McDonald told Bianchini about the vandalism during a lengthy 3 p.m. meeting in her EDA office the afternoon of June 15, about five to six hours before she reported it occurring.
Among the records McDonald attorney Lee Berlik was seeking in Discovery were three months of social media, online messaging and text communications – May 1 to July 31, 2017 – between Shaw and Sayre, Shaw and Mark Egger, Shaw and a colleague at Royal Examiner (who do you think) and Shaw and Commonwealth’s Attorney Brian Madden.
After much discussion and Shaw attorney David Downes invoking of the press privilege of source protecting, Judge Athey allowed discovery of any Shaw-Sayre communications, but not that of Shaw with a private citizen (Egger), a colleague at work (Bianchini) or the commonwealth’s attorney (Madden).
“Communications with the plaintiff are one thing … but where you cross the Rubicon is requesting communications with other parties. I understand your point that she may have been an accessory but her communications in her professional capacity” with third parties were off limits, Athey told Berlik in prefacing his decision in apparent agreement with Downes that media has a professional right to keep some source communications private in the conduct of their profession.
As for the apparent conspiracy alluded to in the note containing Sayre’s phone number, as well as that of former Town Manager Michael Graham and the names “Tom”, “Norma Jean”, “Matt” and “the Examiner”, Berlik admitted some question exists when he told the court, “Whether it is authentic or not remains to be seen.”
What Berlik did not admit was his client’s connection to any such questions.
In fact, in prefacing his dismissal of the misdemeanor filing a false police report charge against McDonald on October 31, 2018, Judge W. Dale Houff commented, “There is something horribly wrong about the note.”
Following his Discovery Motions decision Athey questioned attorneys on the trial date for the Sayre-McDonald defamation case scheduled in General District Court downstairs. Told August and that both sides have indicated an appeal of the verdict is likely, Athey set a hearing date for the McDonald defamation case on the Motions Date of September 18, at 9 a.m. The judge indicated the likelihood of setting a trial date on the McDonald lawsuit then and observed the two cases could potentially be joined at that point.
The alleged conspirators’ “note” with its names and numbers appearing to implicate “Tom”, “Norma Jean”, “Matt”, Graham’s 202 phone number, and even “the Examiner” is likely to play a big role in both trials.
The note and vandalism it is allegedly tied to, among other incidents of trespass and vandalism at McDonald’s home and the EDA office complex came at a time Royal Examiner staff, then-Councilwoman Bébhinn Egger (Mark Egger’s daughter), and others eventually including Sayre and county board colleague Archie Fox were raising questions about the validity of multiple EDA projects being forwarded by McDonald as EDA executive director.
Shaw, particularly, was deep into an investigation of large amounts of cash being used by McDonald in her personal real estate business transactions. Those real estate transactions, along with questioned EDA projects like ITFederal and Workforce Housing among others, lie at the heart of the EDA civil litigation now seeking recovery of $21.1 million in allegedly misrepresented, misdirected or embezzled assets.
Arrested by VSP on May 24, McDonald is now jailed without bond as a possible flight risk on four felony financial criminal charges, two of Fraud, Obtaining Money by False Pretenses in excess of $200; and two of Larceny-Embezzlement in excess of $200. Those appear related to the EDA civil suit “Afton Inn Embezzlements” allegations of falsifying work invoices to pay off credit card debts. The evidence on those charges appear fairly cut-and-dried evidentiary-wise compared to some other allegations in the EDA litigation.
The Special Grand Jury
However, as the civil defamation motions were being argued Wednesday on the second floor of the Warren County Courthouse, the Special Grand Jury convened to investigate potential criminality tied to the EDA civil litigation was meeting for what appears to be the first of several days of witness testimony this week.
Speaking of social media, the rumor of additional indictments being imminent have been floating on social media for weeks since those initial four indictments were handed down on May 24. One large question connected to any next round of sealed grand jury indictments is whether they will simply pile more on to McDonald’s legal plate, or add additional defendants into the mix.
Not directly related to the above question but more on the familiar faces sightings ledger, one encountered on the second floor of the Warren County Courthouse after the adjournment of the defamation hearing belonged to former County and EDA Attorney Blair Mitchell. Mitchell, who retired in April 2017, told media present he had testified for about an hour before the special grand jury but declined to elaborate on the nature of the questions he was asked.
But noting his retirement date and corresponding EDA business of the previous years, we can probably make an educated guess at some of those questions relating to Mitchell and McDonald’s interactions on projects cited in the Cherry Bekaert accounting investigation of EDA finances over the past decade. High on that list may well be Leach Run Parkway Easements, myriad other real estate transactions, not to mention the advent of the ITFederal and Workforce Housing Projects – (Come on, TELL US, Uncle Blair!!!)
Motions filed, August hearing date set in ‘Bawdy Place’ prosecutions
A hearing date of August 13, at 2 p.m., was set Tuesday for pre-trial motions in three cases related at least indirectly to former Front Royal Mayor Hollis Tharpe’s May 2018 visit to a Biggs Drive massage parlor. The cases of Cynthia Atkinson Bailey, her daughter Brandy Nicole Atkinson and son Jesse Thomas Atkinson have been joined for trial according to defense counsel David Downes.
Downes filed motions, including discovery, during the Tuesday, June 18, Warren County General District Court morning docket. The criminal complaint against Bailey and her co-defendants alleges that massages of a sexual nature were a prominent part of the services “menu” being offered at the Biggs Drive address.
A gigolo, I mean “Giglio Motion” filed by Downes Tuesday sought information on potential prosecution witness Tiffany Amber Wymer. The motion cites a felony charge “on or about December 6, 2018” for “possession with intent to distribute marijuana” that according to the defense motion was dropped by prosecutors on May 28, 2019 in Frederick County General District Court.
Downes questions if the resolution of that case related to Wymer’s anticipated testimony in this (the Bailey et al) prosecution and “whether she has received immunity from prosecution for” a variety of other possible charges, including “her fraudulent welfare applications … operating an illegal sex chat website” and “prostitution charges”. Downes further asks how many incidents of prostitution Wymer may have received immunity for.
Bailey, 55, was arrested on May 15 by Front Royal Police along with her daughter, son and stepson Joshua Allan Stamper. Bailey’s charges include maintaining a “bawdy place” (defined as gross, indecent or overly graphic establishment), receiving money from earnings of prostitution, prostitution, and cruelty to children, the latter charge related to the presence of a juvenile in the residence who “answered phone calls, arranged appointments and walked clients to the rooms” according to warrants. Bailey’s relations’ charges relate to various jobs they performed at what was cited as an unlicensed massage parlor operating at the business address of Blue Valley Services.
While Tharpe has admitted to visiting the business he has asserted it was for legitimate massages on his 67-year-old body. Tharpe was indicted on a misdemeanor solicitation of prostitution charge on April 15. That day he put himself on administrative leave and four days later announced he would resign as mayor, effective May 2. Tharpe explained his decision as preventing his legal situation from interfering in the conduct of Town business.
Tharpe was in court Monday, June 17, to have motions and trial dates set in Warren County Circuit Court where his misdemeanor solicitation case is being heard due to the direct indictment by a Warren County Grand Jury.
It was a grand jury, ironically perhaps, chaired by now Interim Front Royal Mayor Matt Tederick.
Two days after her arrest, Bailey attorney Downes issued a press release asserting that his client’s prosecution was “retaliatory” and “selective” due to her assertion to authorities that she would plead her Fifth Amendment right not to self-incriminate if asked to testify regarding clients, including Tharpe. In his release Downes noted that Bailey had initially been arrested on June 7, 2018 on a charge of prostitution. That arrest came one week after the Tharpe massage parlor incident cited in his indictment. That charge was dropped by the commonwealth on October 2, 2018.
Downes release led to responses from both Tharpe Special Prosecutor Heather Hovermale and FRPD Chief Kahle Magalis denying any inappropriate actions related to the massage parlor warrants