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Deavers found guilty in VFW Post 1860 arson and embezzlement case

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Leslie R. Deavers pictured outside the Warren County Courthouse on March 7, her next-to-last day free on bond prior to her Friday conviction on arson and embezzlement charges against long-time employer VFW Post 1860. Photo/Roger Bianchini

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.

VFW Post 1860 as firefighters work to extinguish the blaze. /Photos FRVFRD

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Spiker testified that Deavers became so depressed after the VFW fire that she became withdrawn and stopped going out on the gambling junkets the defense asserted provided her with a steady cash flow income.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.

Firefighters worked tirelessly for hours in an attempt to save the building.

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.”

Despite valiant efforts by first responders, the historic VFW post could not be saved.

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

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Crime/Court

State Police investigate Culpeper Sheriff’s Office fatal shooting

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At the request of Culpeper County Sheriff Scott Jenkins, the Virginia State Police Bureau of Criminal Investigation’s Culpeper Field Office is investigating the deputy-involved shooting.

At approximately 9:40 a.m., Thursday, Feb. 25, 2021, the Culpeper County Sheriff’s Office responded to a request for a welfare check on an individual who resides within the 12000 block of Horseshoe Drive. When sheriff’s deputies arrived at the residence, they encountered Donald Francis Hairston, 44, in an already agitated state.

Within minutes of the deputies’ arrival, Hairston ran indoors and barricaded himself inside the residence. Despite the deputies’ attempts to communicate with Hairston in an effort to de-escalate the situation, Hairston exited the residence armed with a gun. He discharged the firearm and then pointed the firearm at the deputies. A deputy fired and struck Hairston, who succumbed to his injuries at the scene.

Hairston’s remains will be transported to the Office of the Medical Examiner for examination and autopsy.

No deputies or other persons were injured during the incident.

The investigation remains ongoing at this time.

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Warren County Sheriff’s Office K9 Unit assists in arrest after driver flees vehicle

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On February 22, 2021, at approximately 06:41 PM, members of the Warren County Sheriff’s Office Special Problems and Drug Enforcement Unit attempted to stop a vehicle for speeding on Stonewall Jackson Highway. The suspect vehicle failed to yield leading to a pursuit that was terminated on Gooney Manor Loop. After the pursuit was terminated, the suspect vehicle continued to drive recklessly, striking a Sheriff’s Office vehicle.

Due to the reckless and dangerous disregard for persons and property, the pursuit was then reinitiated continuing onto Bentonville Road, where the suspect lost control and wrecked at 07:02 PM. The driver fled the vehicle on foot and the passenger was apprehended at the scene. Warren County Sheriff’s Office K9 Unit consisting of Master Deputy C. Anderson and M. Griffith, along with their canine partners Rooster and Gator, apprehended the driver after a short track where the driver was found hiding in a nearby creek.

Canine partners Rooster and Gator.

The driver, Garland Turner Jr., age 28 was charged with Possession of Schedule I/II, felony eluding, felony hit and run, assault on a law enforcement officer, and driving suspended.

Garland Turner Jr. Photo / RSW Regional Jail

The vehicle owner and passenger, Alicia Knott, age 21 was charged with Possession of Schedule I/II and obstruction of justice.

No one was injured during the incident.

Alicia Knott. Photo / RSW Regional Jail

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Virginia Beach return preparer sentenced to prison for tax fraud

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On February 22, 2021, Ryan Dalletezze was sentenced to 24 months in prison, followed by 12 months of supervised release. Dalletezze was also ordered to pay restitution to the IRS in the amount of $291,579.

According to court documents, from 2013 to 2016, Ryan Dalletezze, 42, prepared tax returns through a Virginia Beach company, D&D Tax Services LLC. Dalletezze was a “ghost preparer,” in that he received money as a paid preparer but failed to report or identify himself on his customers’ returns. Dalletezze routinely claimed exemptions on his customers’ returns that were false, such as education and business expenses, energy credits, and business losses. Dalletezze’s customers had no knowledge of the fraud. Dalletezze personally received the resulting refunds and kept substantial portions for himself. The filing of these false and fraudulent returns resulted in a tax loss of over $291,000.

“In the midst of the 2020 filing season, this case is a good example of why it’s extremely important to choose a reputable return preparer,” said Kelly R. Jackson, IRS-CI Special Agent in Charge of the Washington DC Field Office. “Taxpayers should cautious of preparers who fail to review their tax return with them prior to submission to the IRS and/or refuse to sign the return as a paid return preparer.

Although most preparers provide honest and professional services, there is a small number of dishonest preparers who set up shop during filing season to steal money, personal and financial information from clients. Taxpayers can avoid falling victim to unscrupulous preparers by following important steps.

Tips when choosing a tax preparer:

  • Look for a preparer who is available year-round in case questions arise after the filing season.
  • Ask if the preparer has an IRS Preparer Tax Identification Number (PTIN), which is required for paid preparers.
  • Inquire about the preparer’s credentials and check their qualifications.
  • Ask about service fees. Avoid preparers who base fees on a percentage of their client’s refund or claim to offer a bigger refund than their competition.
  • Never sign a blank or incomplete return and review it before signing. Refunds should go directly to the taxpayer, not the preparer.

For more tips on choosing a tax professional or to file a complaint against one, visit IRS.gov. Taxpayers who suspect tax violations by a person or business, may report it to the IRS using Form 3949A, Information Referral.

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Richmond businessman sentenced to prison for employment tax fraud

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On February 10, 2021, Rama Gogineni was sentenced to eleven months in prison for failing to collect, truthfully account for, and pay over employment taxes. Gogineni was further ordered to pay restitution to the IRS in the amount of $980,219.01 and three years of supervised release after his release from prison.

According to court records, Gogineni was the president and director of Computech Systems, Inc., a technology consulting services firm in Richmond, Virginia. Gogineni was responsible for collecting, truthfully accounting for, and paying over Social Security, Medicare, and income taxes withheld from his employees’ wages.

From approximately 2007 through 2015, Gogineni failed to pay nearly one million dollars in employment taxes to the IRS. Gogineni entered into three separate installment agreements with the IRS during this time, committing to make payments, but defaulted each time. Gogineni pled guilty to these charges on September 3, 2020. Gogineni must voluntarily report to the designated institution by noon on April 30, 2021, to serve his sentence.

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South Carolina murder suspects apprehended in Frederick County after I-81 chase

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Thomas Rhoads, 39, William Christopher Flynn, 31 and Dominick Michael Rhoads, 19, with murder in the shooting deaths of Daquavious Antonio Tillison, 24, and Lorenzo Sanchez Hunter, 33. Photo courtesy of Anderson Police Department.

On Friday, Feb. 12, 2021, the Anderson Police Department in South Carolina issued a “Be On the Lookout” for three suspects wanted in connection with a homicide investigation in the city of Anderson. At approximately 1 p.m., a Virginia State Police trooper observed the suspect’s vehicle, a 2014 Ford Fusion, traveling north on Interstate 81 at the 283-mile marker in Shenandoah County. The trooper waited for additional troopers and initiated a traffic stop. The suspect’s vehicle pulled onto the right shoulder and then accelerated at a high rate of speed. A pursuit was initiated.

During the course of the pursuit, the Ford Fusion ended up heading south in the northbound lanes. The driver lost control at the 309 mile-marker in Frederick County and the Fusion ran off the left side of the roadway and went down an embankment, through a fence, and struck a tree. The suspects then fled the vehicle on foot. All three suspects were apprehended a short time later without further incident.

The driver, Frank T. Rhoads, 39, of Anderson, S.C., suffered minor injuries during the incident and was transported to Winchester Medical Center for treatment. Rhoads was then transported to Northwestern Regional Adult Detention Center and charged by Virginia State Police with one felony count of eluding police, reckless driving, and for having altered/fictitious license plates on his vehicle.

The two passengers in the Ford, Dominick M. Rhoads, 19, and William C. Flynn, 31, both of Anderson, S.C., were uninjured during the incident.

All three suspects are being held on warrants of extradition out of Anderson, South Carolina. Virginia State Police was assisted by the Frederick County Sheriff’s Office.

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Cartel money launderer sentenced to 96 months in federal prison

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Ana Bella Sanchez-Rios, the former owner and operator of a Martinsville business used to launder more than $4.3 million in profits for an international drug cartel, was sentenced last week in U.S. District Court to 96 months in federal prison. Sanchez-Rios laundered the funds for the Jalisco New Generation Cartel (CJNG), a Mexican-based criminal organization considered by the Department of Justice to be one of the most dangerous transnational organizations in the world. Acting United States Attorney Daniel P. Bubar, Special Agent in Charge Jarod A. Forgot of the Drug Enforcement Administration’s (DEA) Washington Division, and Raymond Villanueva, Special Agent in Charge of Homeland Security Investigations Washington, D.C. Field Office announced the sentence.

“When individuals launder money for a drug cartel, they play a critical role for the organization by concealing and transferring illegally-obtained funds, which perpetuates the cartel’s illegal activity and the scourge of the narcotics the cartel pedals,” said Acting U.S. Attorney Bubar. “Money laundering investigations can be particularly difficult, and I’m proud of the hard work of our federal and state law enforcement partners in bringing Sanchez-Rios to justice.”

“Drug cartels like CJNG perpetrate unspeakable violence across the globe and drive the spread of deadly drugs like fentanyl and heroin,” said Jarod Forget, Special Agent in Charge of the DEA Washington Division. “We are committed to working with our partners to shut down these violent organizations in our area, often by tracking their illicit proceeds and disrupting these organizations at their bottom line. Today, these criminals’ addiction to money and greed has met its consequence.”

Sanchez-Rios, 48, was indicted in March 2019 along with 12 members of CJNG on a variety of federal drug trafficking and money laundering charges. In June 2020, Sanchez-Rios pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit money laundering and operating a business that transmitted criminally derived funds.

Sanchez-Rios owned and operated Bella’s Tortilla & Meat Market, a business that contracted with Intermex Wire Transfer, LLC. Sanchez-Rios admitted that from 2016 through 2018, she used the business to launder the drug trafficking proceeds on behalf of CJNG. Sanchez-Rios’ role was to receive U.S. currency from multiple individuals working for the CJNG, which she knew where the drug trafficking proceeds and derived from a criminal offense. Sanchez-Rios then wired that money to individuals in Mexico. The defendant conducted wire transfers in small amounts and falsified and fabricated the names and addresses of the senders in order to conceal the nature, location, source, ownership, and control of the funds.

In total, between May 10, 2016, and September 11, 2018, Sanchez-Rios transferred or caused to be transferred $4,394,959 in the proceeds of drug trafficking via Intermex from Bella’s Tortilla & Meat Market in Martinsville to individuals in Mexico.

The investigation of the case was conducted by the Drug Enforcement Administration, the Department of Homeland Security-Homeland Security Investigations, the Henry County Sheriff’s Office, and the Virginia State Police. Assistant United States Attorney Sean Welsh is prosecuting the case for the United States.

This effort is part of an Organized Crime Drug Enforcement Task Forces (OCDETF) operation. OCDETF identifies, disrupts, and dismantles the highest-level criminal organizations that threaten the United States using a prosecutor-led, intelligence-driven, multi-agency approach. Additional information about the OCDETF Program can be found at https://www.justice.gov/OCDETF.

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