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Spiker testified that Deavers became so depressed after the VFW fire that she became withdrawn and stopped going out on the gambling junkets the defense asserted provided her with a steady cash flow income.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
Blue Ridge Narcotics & Gang Task Force investigation nets dealer arrest in Culpeper
CULPEPER, VA – The Blue Ridge Narcotics and Gang Task Force has concluded a three-month long investigation with the arrest of a Culpeper, VA resident. William E. Settle III, 36, was arrested by the Blue Ridge Narcotics and Gang Task Force following a search warrant executed at his residence. Through the course of the investigation, Blue Ridge Narcotics and Gang Task Force officers learned that Settle would routinely travel outside the Commonwealth to a fentanyl source of supply. Settle would then transport the fentanyl back to the Commonwealth for distribution and sale.
On July 26, members of the Blue Ridge Narcotics and Gang Task Force obtained a search warrant for Settle’s residence located along the 600 block of Highview Court in Culpeper, VA. During a search of the residence, 50 capsules of fentanyl with a street value of $1500.00, $1,750.00 in currency, and 2 firearms were seized. Settle was arrested and charged with one felony count of possession with intent to distribute schedule I/II drug, one felony count of possession of a schedule I/II drug, one felony count of possession of a firearm while possessing schedule I/II drug, one misdemeanor count resisting arrest, one misdemeanor count of obstruction of justice. Settle was also served with outstanding failure to appear warrants out of Culpeper. Additional charges are pending. Settle was transported to the Culpeper County Jail where he is being held without bond.
The Blue Ridge Narcotics and Gang Task Force is composed of law enforcement personnel from the Culpeper, Orange, Rappahannock Sheriff’s Departments, Culpeper, and Warrenton Police Departments and the Virginia State Police Bureau of Criminal Investigation, Culpeper Field Office.
New DNA technology being utilized in 23-year-old Strasburg murder-infant abduction case
On Monday, July 26, the Culpeper Field Office of the Virginia State Police issued a statement on new DNA technology being utilized to seek new leads in a 23-year-old murder/child abduction case that occurred in the Town of Strasburg. VSP noted the ongoing cooperation of the child’s father, Daniel E. Pompell, in its investigation. Anyone with possible information regarding the July 1998 murder of Sylena Jo Dalton and abduction of then 10-week-old Allyson Kathleen Dalton is urged to contact VSP Senior Special Agent Mike Jones at (540) 829-7400 or by email at email@example.com.
Below is the VSP release in its entirety:
“Tomorrow marks 23 years since on July 27, 1998, a 10-week-old baby girl disappeared and her mother was violently murdered at their apartment in the Town of Strasburg. The Virginia State Police (VSP) Bureau of Criminal Investigation’s (BCI) Culpeper Field Office is awaiting results from new, advanced DNA testing utilized as a part of the still ongoing criminal investigation.
“As technology has changed and advanced, so have our tactics in working to solve these tragic crimes,” said Capt. John A. Defilippi, VSP BCI Culpeper Field Office commander. “The DNA testing will provide additional information that will greatly aid us with advancing this case. But we are still encouraging anyone with information related to Allyson’s disappearance and Sylena’s death to still come forward with information.”
The infant, Allyson Kathleen Dalton, was last seen at approximately 7:45 a.m. on July 27, 1998, at her mother’s second-floor apartment in the 100 block of Charles Street in Strasburg. She was with her mother, Sylena Jo Dalton, at the time.
Later that same day, at 2:25 p.m., one of the mother’s coworkers found 20-year-old Sylena stabbed to death on a couch inside the residence. Allyson was unaccounted for and has not been seen since that morning. Investigators believe Sylena was killed between 9:15 a.m. and 10:30 a.m., that morning of July 27, 1998. Neighbors told police that no screams were heard nor was there any disturbance made that morning at the apartment. No murder weapon was found at the scene.
Allyson’s father, Daniel E. Pompell, told state police agents he stopped at the residence on the morning of the murder. Witnesses confirm seeing him outside the apartment with a bundle under his arm. State Police are appreciative of Mr. Pompell’s continued cooperation related to the ongoing investigation as state police persist in efforts to locate his daughter.
Anyone with information about the case is encouraged to contact VSP Senior Special Agent Mike Jones at (540) 829-7400 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
(From a Virginia State Police release)
UPDATE: EDA and McDonald agree to $9-million debt exemption to her bankruptcy claim
On Tuesday, July 20, U.S. Western District Harrisonburg Division Bankruptcy Court Judge Rebecca B. Connelly issued a “Non-Dischargeable Consent Order Judgement” in Jennifer McDonald’s bankruptcy filing. The judge’s order decrees that “The Warren EDA is granted judgment against and is entitled to recover from Debtor, the sum of $9,000,000; and this judgment shall survive discharge of the Debtor in this Chapter 7 bankruptcy …”
The preface to Judge Connelly’s ruling notes that “In the interest of resolving this matter and avoiding litigation uncertainty, risks, and costs, but without the Debtor admitting the Warren EDA’s allegations, the Warren EDA and the Debtor have engaged in arm’s length negotiations and agree that the Warren EDA’s non-dischargeable claim is in the amount of $9,000,000 …”
The bottom line appears to be that the EDA and its former executive director have agreed that $9 million is the amount of the EDA’s civil court claim against McDonald, without her agreeing that she actually did anything wrong to justify the claim. So, that amount will be subject to collection in the civil action claim by the EDA outside the bankruptcy court process. The bankruptcy court order notes that any amount the EDA was to recover in the bankruptcy action would apply to achieving its $9-million civil claim in Warren County Circuit Court.
A reading of an “Exhibit A1 – the Stipulation” explaining detail of the “Non-Dischargeable Consent Order Judgement” further elaborates that McDonald as “The Debtor waives any right to contest the validity, enforceability, extent, and scope of the terms of the Stipulated Non-Dischargeable Judgment … and waives any right to seek relief from this Stipulation on any grounds” based on any applicable law.
Remaining at issue between the parties appears to be how the EDA will collect that $9-million dollar judgement the parties have agreed to. A number of McDonald-owned properties were frozen by the court early in the civil process, while properties co-owned with other family members were not. Since that order several relatives were named as co-defendants. The “Stipulation” also notes that the EDA-McDonald agreement order “shall not release or discharge any entity other than the Debtor from any liability owed to the Warren EDA” under its Amended Complaint in civil court against all co-defendants.
No ‘Summary Judgement’ against ITFederal
Also, on the EDA vs. McDonald et al. civil action side, on July 14, Harrisonburg-based presiding Circuit Court Judge Bruce D. Albertson dismissed an EDA motion for a “Summary Judgement” ruling against Truc “Curt” Tran’s ITFederal LLC. Plaintiff and defense attorneys made oral arguments on the EDA motion before Albertson on June 10. The bottom line here appears to be that the court has ruled there is not enough substantive information in the plaintiff’s original complaint to rule ITFederal immediately liable for the claim against it.
ITFederal’s $10-million EDA loan to achieve the development of its 30-acre parcel (valued at about $2 million but gifted to ITFederal by the EDA for one dollar) at the Royal Phoenix Business Park/former Avtex Superfund site, with as much as another $2 million in developmental expenses, was the largest single claim in the initial EDA financial scandal civil action.
The EDA alleges that the ITFed loan was achieved under false pretenses as part of the over-arching embezzlement-misappropriation of funds conspiracy allegedly orchestrated by McDonald as EDA executive director after former federal Sixth Congressional District Representative Robert Goodlatte brought Tran here with much ballyhoo for a fall 2016 ITFederal ribbon cutting at the Avtex site. And now the EDA claim against ITFederal, which remains current on its EDA loan payments of about $40,000 a month with an estimated $2 million spent on site, will, unlike the EDA claim against McDonald, continue as a contested part of the EDA’s civil action.
See related EDA meeting, 2018-19 audit story – “Financial Scandal Era Audits near completion as EDA ponders Budget Adjustments”
Legality of Meza council appointment will be re-argued orally third week of September
A date of September 22, at 10:30 a.m. has been set by Warren County Circuit Court Judge William W. Sharp to again hear oral arguments in support of plaintiff (Paul Aldrich) and defense (Jacob Meza, Town of Front Royal) filings on the court’s decision to re-hear a citizen challenge of Meza’s appointment/election to council on January 4th, four days after the term he did not run for reelection to, expired. Plaintiff counsel David Downes was seeking an August date further in front of the November 2nd Special Election to fill the final year of the council seat term vacated by Chris Holloway when he was elected mayor in November 2020, taking office January 1, 2021.
Meza is not running to continue into that final year of Holloway’s old council seat term. With the filing deadline passed, only Warren County Republican Committee Treasurer Amber Morris and Bruce Rappaport, a conservative independent who lost the Republican Committee endorsement to Morris, have filed to be on the ballot in the November Special Election.
Speaking of “elections”, how the term “elected” in Section 47 of the Front Royal Town Charter upon which the plaintiff case is based, is finally interpreted by the court could cast a larger shadow over the judge’s final ruling on the issue. In a letter to plaintiff attorney Downes and defense counsel Heather Bardot dated July 15, Judge Sharpe addresses his promise to resolve the case prior to the November 2, 2021, Special Election to fill the final year of the old Holloway council seat term.
“I intend to keep my word … the citizens of the Town of Front Royal deserve to have this matter resolved,” the judge wrote of that pre-Election Day resolution of the case promise, continuing, “As I have already noted, though the Complaint in this case challenges the validity of Mr. Meza’s office, if the Plaintiff’s position is right, then it is quite possible that the validity of the claims to office of other current council members and the mayor may also be in question.”
A potential impact on the mayor’s or other council members seats stems from initial May 25th hearing discussion on whether the relevant Section 47 wording could be interpreted as preventing elected town officials from running in General Elections for one year after their previous term had expired.
That Section 47 wording is: “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.” (underscore added)
However as previously observed during the May hearing, with an 84-year precedent in place of council members and mayors running for re-election since the 1937 passage of the Town Charter, the likelihood of such a judicial re-interpretation might seem remote. In fact, Downes noted that the plaintiff is not pursuing such an interpretation of the Charter wording, adding that what he termed “a methodical analysis” of relevant historical documents, which he cited as “the Virginia Constitution of 1776, the Virginia House of Delegates Rules of Procedure from 1912, Robert’s Rules of Order from 1915, the Town Charter of 1937” among others “shows that the framers of the charter were clearly addressing an election by councilmen and not a general election by the public.”
In addition to jurisdictional issues and legal standing of the plaintiff to challenge Meza’s “appointment” or “election” by his four Republican Committee colleagues to council on January 4, it continues to be the context of the words “appointed” and “elected” as it applies to council actions in Charter Section 47 around which the case revolves.
Much of the written arguments filed by the two sides in the wake of Judge Sharp’s decision to re-examine and re-hear those arguments, echo points made during the May 25 hearing. As reported in Royal Examiner’s story on that hearing, “Bardot pointed to the absurdity of the Section 47 wording” if it was interpreted to mean council could “appoint” someone who was already a council member to a council seat. So, she asserted that Charter Sections 6D and 9 applied to filling council seats, rather than Section 47.
In her Demurrer filing for dismissal, Bardot pointed to Section 6D wording on filling council vacancies: “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.
Citing the inclusion of the words “appointed or elected” Judge Sharp’s initially ruled that Section 47 applied only to paid staff appointments, not council member appointments. Sharpe said it seemed clear that the Town Charter’s intent, dating to its 1937 adoption, was not to prevent council members from running for re-election for a year. So, the court sided with Bardot’s stance for the defense that Sections 6 and 9 of the Charter were the applicable sections on council appointments, rather than Section 47.
In the first round of oral arguments, as he likely will again on September 22, Downes countered that it was “dangerous to take one word out of context” in trying to decipher the intent of town fathers 84 year ago. The plaintiff counsel argued that the Section 47 wording referred to two distinct and different actions: 1/ appointment to a town staff position while being a council member, or within a year of having been a council member; and 2/ “election” as in acquiring a council majority consensus for reappointment to a council seat within a year of leaving council voluntarily, like Meza by not seeking reelection, or involuntarily, as in being voted out of office by the public.
Some have contended Meza did not run in 2020 because he may have believed he would have lost after a controversial year in office surrounding his employer Valley Health and his flip-flopping on recusals from discussion and votes in authorizing a $60-million County-Town EDA loan to help finance construction of a new hospital without a Maternity Unit.
Plaintiff Paul Aldrich and his counsel contend Meza’s appointment/election by four of his County Republican Committee colleagues (the vote was 4-1) was the very type of political cronyism Section 47 of the Town Charter was designed to prevent.
And so the two legal sides continue to circle and counter the other’s points of contention on jurisdiction, authority of the plaintiff’s challenge and how long-dead town fathers used the English language 84 years ago.
Stay tuned, as a final decision on these issues has been promised by the court before November 2, 2021, one might guess by the end of September or early October at the latest.
Non-fatal Hill Street stabbing report leads to charges against roommate of victim
In the early morning hours of Thursday, July 15, 2021, officers with the Front Royal Police Department responded to a residence in the 400 Block of Hill Street for a report of a stabbing. When officers arrived, they located a male victim, identified as Mario Frazier, who was bleeding from an apparent stab wound to his neck. Frazier provided a statement to officers identifying the offender as 61-year-old Front Royal resident, Anthony “Tony” Herbert. Frazier, who shares a residence with Herbert, stated there was an argument and physical altercation leading to the stabbing. The victim was transported to Warren Memorial Hospital, where he was treated for non-life-threatening puncture wounds.
Herbert was quickly located and apprehended by Front Royal Police officers without further incident. Herbert was transported to Rappahannock Shenandoah Warren (RSW) Regional Jail, where he was held without bond on a Malicious Wounding charge. He has a scheduled court date of September 21, 2021, at 10 a.m. in Warren County General District Court.
(From a July 15 FRPD Press Release)
FRPD traffic stop leads to chase, multiple charges against Virginia Avenue resident
On Tuesday evening, July 13, 2021, at approximately 7:50 p.m., a Front Royal Police Department officer observed a red Jeep Liberty speeding on John Marshall Highway. The officer initiated a traffic stop and the driver pulled over to the side of the road.
As the officer began exiting his marked patrol vehicle, the driver of the Jeep Liberty quickly pulled off, driving east on John Marshall Highway towards Linden. The officer pursued, and the driver made an abrupt U-turn near ESA Lane and began traveling back into town. Additional officers from the Front Royal Police Department and Warren County Sheriff’s Office followed the vehicle as the driver continued north onto Commerce Avenue and several other streets until coming to a sudden stop in the 200 block of Virginia Avenue. The driver then fled on foot, where he was apprehended after a short foot chase.
The driver was identified as a 51-year-old Front Royal resident, Otis Lee Allen. Allen was taken into custody and transported to Rappahannock Shenandoah Warren (RSW) Regional Jail without further incident. Allen was released on a $3,000 secured bond with a scheduled court date of August 3, 2021, at 10:00 a.m. in Warren County General District Court.
(From an FRPD release)