A bombshell dropped on the second day of motions hearings on the freezing of defendant assets in the Front Royal-Warren County Economic Development Authority’s civil suit seeking recovery of a minimum total of $17.6 million from nine defendants. At the center of that recovery effort is former EDA Executive Director Jennifer McDonald and two of her real estate companies, among several people and Limited Liability Companies (LLC’s) tied to those people.
That bombshell was an accusation by EDA Attorney Dan Whitten that a defense exhibit presented on McDonald’s behalf indicating EDA Board of Directors approval of a 2016, $2-million dollar transfer to its executive director to enact a land purchase was a forgery.
“I think this is a fraudulent document produced by Ms. McDonald,” Whitten told McDonald attorney Jay McDannell as he was questioned about the defense exhibit. Whitten observed that the board resolution authorizing an apparent wire transfer of funds to McDonald’s control was ostensibly approved and signed in closed session.
Whitten noted that such a binding financial resolution cannot be approved and signed in closed session, as it would constitute a violation of Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) standards – “I was there and that did not happen in closed session … I believe this is a fictitious document created by Ms. McDonald,” Whitten told her attorney.
The “September 2016 – $2 million purchase” is cited in the civil complaint as one of McDonald’s unauthorized uses of EDA assets for personal gain. The complaint notes a check for $94,595 was drafted to McDonald real estate company DaBoyz LLC at the September 2016 closing with TLC Settlements.
Judge Clifford L. Athey Jr. overruled plaintiff counsel Cullen Seltzer’s objection to the document’s introduction as an exhibit following Whitten’s assertion of his skepticism about its validity.
“There are a lot of people on here who are alive to say whether it is real,” Athey observed of the signature list.
Following that ruling Seltzer asked the court to direct McDonald’s counsel to cite “exactly where” the document came from. 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.”
Whitten’s stunning assertion of a forged document introduced by defense counsel led to a flurry of activity during a subsequent recess, leading to a recalling of former EDA Board Chairman and Vice Chairman Greg Drescher and the contacting of other surviving members of the EDA Board of Directors whose signatures are on the resolution. Those members include current Vice-Chairman Bruce Drummond, former Treasurer William “Billy” Biggs and former members Ron Llewellyn and William Sealock, the latter now Front Royal’s vice mayor. Two other members whose names are on the document, then Chairman Patty Wines and Jim Eastham are deceased.
Plaintiff counsel said it would attempt to contact those surviving members during an adjournment in the hearing. Following that adjournment Seltzer told the court he had contacted the EDA members in question but they would only be able to testify that afternoon through a phoned-in connection to the courtroom.
At the closing of the day’s hearing shortly before 5 p.m. Judge Athey instructed plaintiff co-counsel Seltzer and Lee Byrd to produce Drummond, Llewellyn, Sealock and Biggs for testimony on the document at 9 a.m. Friday morning. Told Biggs had expressed concerns about appearing due to the problems walking he cited in resigning from the EDA board last year, as well as memory issues from a stroke suffered several years ago, Athey said he would work to accommodate Biggs’ condition and minimize the time he needed to spend at the courthouse Friday in urging the attorneys to try and convince him to appear.
However Drescher was already on the witness list and was back in short order to testify as to his knowledge of the document. Athey ruled that plaintiff counsel could not discuss the disputed document with Drescher prior to his testimony.
After covering several other topics, McDonald’s counsel arrived at the Closed Session Resolution authorizing the $2-million transfer.
Like Whitten, Drescher said the document was the familiar EDA Resolution document.
“It looks like your signature,” McDannell observed.
“It does,” Drescher replied.
“Does that look like the way your write dates?”
“Do you have any reason to doubt its authenticity,” McDannell asked Drescher.
That question led to a lengthy pause as Drescher perused the one-page resolution document – “No,” Drescher replied as he scratched his head and cast a tight-lipped look the plaintiff attorney’s way.
Seltzer revisited Drescher’s assessment on cross examination. He noted the “CONFIDENTIAL” designation on the document and its wording asserting the closed session resolution held the same legal weight as other board resolutions.
“I don’t recall that ever happening,” Drescher replied.
“Do you have any memory of this one,” Seltzer asked Drescher of the resolution in his hand.
“Do you recall the EDA board ever approving Ms. McDonald’s purchase of a $2.5 million dollar farm for Curt Tran?”
“I don’t,” Drescher answered.
Earlier defense argument and witness questioning indicated what was termed “the Buck Mountain” property purchases involving William Vaught Jr., McDonald’s DaBoyz LLC real estate company, and TLC Settlements closing company had been made as a potential site for an industrial farming operation for Front Royal Farms LLC, an entity created by ITFederal principal Truc “Curt” Tran. Tran and his ITFederal LLC are two other pivotal EDA civil suit defendants.
Asked if these additional factors altered his perception of the validity of the defense exhibit, Drescher said, “I guess I would, I don’t, I guess I would.”
The hearing reconvenes at 9 a.m. Friday in Warren County Circuit Court.
Update: Accused Brinklow murderer gets 30-years-9-months on plea agreement and probation violation charges
(Writer’s note: This story has been updated with corrections to the description of circumstances that led prosecutors to give more weight to George Good’s account of Tristen Brinklow’s murder, than to Richard Crouch’s.)
Following emotional testimony from Jennifer Brinklow, the mother of 20-year-old Tristen Brinklow on the devastating impact on her life of her son’s 2019 murder, and a perhaps surprisingly emotional series of apologies from his accused killer for his role in that murder, the Commonwealth and defense counsels debated at which end of sentencing guidelines 38-year-old Richard Matthew Crouch should be incarcerated on Second Degree Murder and related and unrelated charges he submitted guilty pleas to as part of a plea agreement.
By plea agreement already accepted by Warren County Circuit Court Judge William Sharp, the sentencing range was between 8-years-and-7-months and 28 years-and-9-months. The other involved suspect, George Good, received a 10-year prison sentence with 25 years suspended on August 13, on a similar plea agreement involving two charges of helping Crouch dispose of Brinklow’s body and a variety of unrelated charges. Good was 29 at the time of his sentencing three months ago.
After hearing about an hour and a half of testimony, questions, and arguments Judge Sharp adjourned to chambers at noon, Monday, November 29th to consider his sentencing decision. After 17 minutes Judge Sharp returned to deliver his ruling. That ruling was the high-end 28-years-and-9-months according to sentencing parameters of the plea agreement, after imposing two, 5-year sentences on concealing and defiling (allowing to decompose) a dead body; and 30 years on the Second Degree Murder charge. Crouch will also get credit for time served, about two years. It was said that currently it is estimated that inmates will serve about 85% of their sentence with good behavior time taken off. Crouch also had four, 5-year sentences related to an earlier attack on an ex-girlfriend and his drug possession with intent to distribute charges imposed with all 20 years suspended. He will be on supervised probation for five years after his release.
While getting credit for his time served, two years was later tacked on to the 28-year-9-month sentence, on a probation violation charge argued outside the plea agreement. Arguing that aspect of the cases, Assistant Commonwealth Attorney Nick Manthos countered defense co-counsel Eric Wiseley’s call to waive the two additional years of active incarceration after his client received nearly three times the sentence George Good did for their respective roles in Brinklow’s murder.
Manthos, as Commonwealth Attorney John Bell had earlier, noted that while Crouch held to his story that it was Good who actually beat Brinklow to death, the physical evidence matched Goods story that it was Crouch who attacked and strangled Brinklow to death in a methamphetamine-induced paranoid delusional state. Crouch did admit to being up for at least five days straight, perhaps as many as 10 days, doing an extraordinary amount of methamphetamine – he estimated at 3.5 grams (an 8-ball) to twice that amount per day – while trying to finance being on the run from police from an incident several days earlier in which he non-fatally had strangled an ex-girlfriend.
In ascertaining the relative merits of the two involved men’s stories, the Commonwealth noted that in his earlier attack on the ex-girlfriend, Crouch had not only choked her, but cut off a portion of her hair with a knife. Good’s description of the murder included Crouch’s choking of Brinklow and cutting off some of his hair with a knife. And when Good led authorities to a carpet and trash bags of evidence the pair had removed from the motel room where the murder occurred, one of the bags was found to contain a wad of hair matching Brinklow’s. Brinklow’s autopsy also discovered a broken bone in his neck indicative of strangulation.
Those aspects of the earlier Crouch attack on the ex-girlfriend were not known to Good, the prosecution told the court, bolstering Good’s version of events.
The fact that all the crimes he enter guilty pleas to, including the assault on his ex, the methamphetamine use, and dealing, as well as Brinklow’s murder, occurred while Crouch was on probation led Judge Sharp to side with the prosecution on the necessity of imposing the two probation violation years hanging over Crouch – “There has to be a consequence, otherwise probation means nothing,” Judge Sharp said in rendering his decision on that second part of the day’s hearing on Crouch’s fate behind bars.
While admitting to the drug use and paranoid state leading him to believe that he was going to be robbed of his meth stash worth several thousand dollars, Crouch insisted that Brinklow coming at him with a knife and Good’s response of pulling him off Crouch and beating him to death was not a part of his drug-induced delusions. However, it seemed Crouch and his attorney in the plea sentencing, Howard Manheimer, may have been the only two in court buying into that scenario. It appeared seven relatives and friends accompanied Jennifer Brinklow to court Monday.
Several times asked by the court if he had anything to say before decisions were rendered, Crouch in a low, emotional voice expressed remorse, saying, “I am so sorry, I am so sorry with all my heart.” Crouch told the court and Brinklow’s mother that he had become involved in a jailhouse ministry conducted at RSW and related drug abuse counseling to try and steer inmates away from drug addiction upon their release.
He also looked at Tristen’s mother testifying from the witness box directly in front of him as she recounted the multiple impacts, including being told she now suffers from PTSD (Post Traumatic Shock Disorder) in the wake of her son’s murder. “I didn’t know a person could live without a heart and soul,” Mrs. Brinklow told the courtroom of her life since December 13, 2019, when she was informed it was her missing son’s body discovered in an abandoned refrigerator near the river. The murder occurred in September 2019.
She said tears came often, stimulated by “a smell, food, a cloud – ANYTHING. I never had anxiety, now there are places I can’t go without breaking down … It’s beyond obvious those two did not know Trey – a few minutes with him and he’d give you anything he had … Four days after he turned 20 you took his life – he was just a kid.”
Following the rendering of his plea agreement sentence of 28-years-9-months, Judge Sharp told Crouch he hoped he made the best out of the portion of his life that will now be spent in prison; that he was truly remorseful for letting a dangerous, illegal drug get a grip on his life that led to this point; and that he would continue to work to counsel others away from a similar fate, and turn his life in a positive direction.
“I wish you luck,” the judge told Crouch.
“Thank you,” Crouch replied.
Local man arrested for robbery of City National Bank
On November 17, 2021, the Front Royal Police Department and the Northwest Virginia Regional Drug and Gang Task Force arrested Phillip Michael Fincham for the robbery of City National Bank and possession of a controlled substance. Mr. Fincham was taken into custody without incident in the 500 block of Manassas Avenue.
On November 12, 2021, a male subject entered the City National Bank located at 600 North Commerce in the afternoon hours and presented a note to the teller demanding money. The Criminal Investigations Division was also able to connect the same suspect to an attempted robbery of the Circle K Convenience Store on Sunday, November 7, 2021, and attempted Break and Enter of the Knotty Pine Restaurant on Sunday, November 8, 2021, and a Break and Enter with larceny of the Knotty Pine Restaurant on Wednesday, November 10, 2021.
On November 17, 2021, the Northern Regional Drug Task Force determined that Fincham was in possession of narcotics and made contact with him in the 500 block of Manassas Avenue. After a short interview, Fincham was taken into custody and charged with possession. Fincham was also in possession of U.S. currency that matched the serial numbers of the money taken during the robbery from City National Bank on Friday.
Mr. Fincham was subsequently interviewed and confessed to the robbery of City National Bank. Additional charges will be obtained against Mr. Fincham regarding the break and enter of Knotty Pine and the attempted robbery at the Circle K in the next couple of days. Mr. Fincham was held without bond pending his court appearance on the current charges.
The Front Royal Police Department would like to thank the businesses and public for their assistance in this investigation that led to a quick conclusion to this investigation and the ensuing arrest of the suspect. Anyone with any further information is requested to contact the Front Royal Police Department’s Criminal Investigation Division at (540) 636-2208.
UPDATE: FRPD seeking suspect in City National Bank robbery
Town of Front Royal Police are seeking what is described as a young, white male suspect 5-foot-3 to 5-foot-6 in the Friday afternoon, November 12, robbery at the City National Bank located at the busy mid-town intersection of Sixth Street and Commerce Avenue. Here is the FRPD Press Release issued shortly after 4 p.m. Monday in its entirety:
“On Friday, November 12, 2021, at approximately 3:45 pm, Front Royal Police Department responded to a reported robbery at the City National Bank located at 600 North Commerce Avenue. Arriving officers were advised that a male suspect had entered the bank and showed the bank teller a note requesting money. The male suspect was given an undisclosed amount of U.S. currency and fled the bank on foot. He was last observed crossing Commerce Avenue heading east on 6th Street. There weren’t any injuries reported in the incident.
“The suspect is described as a young white male possibly in his 20’s, 5’3-5’6, 140-160 lbs. He was last seen wearing a dark hooded sweatshirt and a white covid style mask with sunglasses. The suspect did not display a weapon. The police department advises that anyone with information please contact Detective DL Fogle at (540) 636-2208 or email@example.com”
Little civil consequence of more criminal prosecution delays in EDA case
Contacted about the new dates in late 2022 of trials in the now federal prosecutor-handled criminal indictments against former Front Royal-Warren County Economic Development Authority (EDA) Executive Director Jennifer McDonald, current EDA Board of Directors Chairman Jeff Browne said while it has little, if any, impact on the EDA’s civil litigation seeking recovery of assets, he understands public frustration from continued delays on the criminal side of the EDA financial scandal.
“I don’t believe the delay in the criminal case impacts our civil case. We have no control over the criminal case, but it is frustrating that Warren County residents must wait so long for justice to be served. I understand the reasons for the delay, but it still is frustrating,” Browne told Royal Examiner.
The reason for the delay continues to be, as it has been from the outset for the most part, the volume of evidentiary documentation in the case, as well as the introduction of new attorneys into the legal equation who must absorb the information in that documentation estimated at well over a million pages.
Most recently, federal Judge Elizabeth Dillon granted McDonald’s newest attorney, court-appointed Andrea Harris’s request for a continuance of McDonald’s criminal trials slated for the first week of this month. The federal prosecutor from the Western District of Virginia did not object to the continuance. Consequently, new trial dates between October 11 and November 18, 2022, are now on federal docket. Since the delay came at the request of the defense, speedy trial guidelines will not come into play.
As Royal Examiner previously reported, on August 31 McDonald was re-arrested on a 34-count indictment handed down by the Western District of Virginia Federal Prosecutor’s Office in Harrisonburg.
Of those 34 counts, 16 were for money laundering, 10 for bank fraud, 7 for wire fraud, and 1 count of aggravated identity theft regarding someone identified as “T.T.” – our best guess representing ITFederal principal Truc “Curt” Tran. The 40-paragraph True Bill elaborating on the charges to a Harrisonburg Grand Jury is dated August 25, and signed by then-Acting U.S. Attorney Daniel P. Bubar. McDonald was once again released on bond.
The charges and outline of the case in support of them echo earlier criminal indictments filed at the state level before the State Special Prosecutor’s Office in Harrisonburg turned the case over to federal authorities in late 2019. The state special prosecutor had dropped the indictments it had filed to avoid speedy trial issues due to the volume of evidentiary material – estimated at 800,000 to over a million pages at the time. Failure to meet speedy trial deadlines could have led to defense motions for dismissal of charges on the criminal side of the EDA financial scandal case.
Jury convicts Winchester man of distribution of heroin resulting in an overdose
A federal jury convicted a Winchester, Virginia man yesterday for conspiring with others to distribute 100 grams or more of heroin as well as distributing heroin that resulted in serious bodily injury.
According to court documents and evidence presented at trial, Robert Bradley Lockhart, 33, was a heroin dealer connected to a drug pipeline between Baltimore, Maryland and Front Royal, Virginia. During the course of the investigation, the Northwest Virginia Drug and Gang Task Force (NWDGTF) Front Royal Team identified more than 30 overdose injuries connected to that heroin pipeline, and conducted dozens of controlled heroin buys, traffic stops, search warrants and interviews with Virginia-based heroin sub-distributors. This investigation led to the arrest of many individuals, including the defendant, Robert Bradley Lockhart.
“Stopping the flow of heroin and other powerful drugs from out-of-state is a top priority of the Justice Department,” United States Attorney Christopher R. Kavanaugh said today. “Lockhart, and others, brought hundreds of grams of deadly drugs into Virginia and caused multiple overdoses. I am grateful to the work of the Front Royal Police Department, the DEA, and the Assistant United States Attorneys who prosecuted this conspiracy for closing this deadly pipeline.”
According to cooperating witnesses, Lockhart obtained quantities of heroin ranging from 10 to 30 grams each time he traveled to Baltimore between the summer of 2016 and December 2017, sometimes going to Baltimore several times a week. His heroin sales led to three different overdoses, one of which was the basis for the second count. Law enforcement conducted six controlled purchases of heroin from Lockhart and recovered 24 grams of heroin concealed in his anal cavity on the date of his arrest.
The Front Royal Police Department, the Drug Enforcement Administration, and Northwest Virginia Drug and Gang Task Force investigated the case.
Assistant U.S. Attorneys Kathryn Rumsey and Heather L. Carlton prosecuted the case.
Citizen-filed ‘Stalking’ warrant against former school board chairman dismissed, accuser arrested on second ‘Stalking’ charge
On Tuesday, October 26, a misdemeanor “Stalking” warrant filed by Robert L. Shipley III against former Warren County School Board Chairman Arnold M. Williams Jr. was dismissed in Warren County General District Court at the request of the Commonwealth Attorney’s Office. The motion for dismissal cites inconsistencies between information in the citizen-acquired warrant and that shown in two video sources, body-cam footage of responding Front Royal Police officers and security video from the public retail site of Shipley’s initial complaint.
“Review of the body camera of the initial report is not consistent with the complaint presented to the magistrate,” Commonwealth Attorney John Bell wrote in his motion for dismissal. In addition to the police body camera recording, Bell references security camera footage at the Martins Grocery store site of the law enforcement response to Shipley’s complaint, noting, “Neither the original report nor the recorded events on the security cameras are sufficient to establish probable cause for a stalking warrant.”
Presented with this information Judge W. Dale Houff granted the request for dismissal.
Had the case not been dismissed, Bell explained that he would have recused himself from it due to familiarity with one of the involved parties, in this case the defendant and his wife, the latter as an attorney a familiar face around the Warren County Courthouse. “If there was an arguable case with at least evidence for probable cause, I would have asked for a special prosecutor to take the case to trial. Since there was no evidence that even amounted to probable cause, I was ethically obliged to dismiss the case,” Bell told Royal Examiner.
It might also be noted that despite the law enforcement response to Martins, FRPD did not file a warrant from officers’ investigation at the scene. Rather, Shipley presented information to the magistrate requesting the warrant. As FRPD Major Kevin Nicewarner told us, FRPD only served the warrant after the magistrate issued it based on the information provided by Shipley.
And there are more layers to this story. It turns out that Williams’ wife, attorney Nancie Williams, had a previous stalking warrant filed against Shipley. RSW Regional Jail records indicate Shipley was booked into the jail on August 26 on a misdemeanor stalking warrant and released September 1, on a $5,000 bond.
And then on October 27, one day after Williams’ charge was dismissed, the 45-year-old Shipley was again booked into RSW Jail, this time on a charge cited as “Stalk person with protective order” believed related to his August arrest on the stalking of Nancie Williams warrant. A second stalking charge with a protective order in place makes it a felony charge. A bond hearing on that felony charge is scheduled for Wednesday afternoon, November 3 (which is Shipley’s 46th birthday according to the RSW website). A trial on the original misdemeanor stalking charge is slated for December 11, at 1:30 p.m. in Warren County General District Court.
Contacted about the situation, Nancie Williams said that Mr. Shipley had been an opposing party in a civil matter she worked, the result of which she termed “quite agreeable” between the opposing sides. As to any ongoing civil matters involving Shipley, Williams added that she is no longer counsel in the case and has not been since the conclusion of the original case. However, she observed that from her perspective, “Mr. Shipley’s behavior seemed to escalate following the conclusion of the original case.”
Contacted about his entanglement in what had primarily been a legal situation between his wife and Shipley, Arnold Williams told us, “I guess it was his way to remove me from being protection for my wife and boys. And to be falsely accused is really a hard pill to swallow. But it’s good my charge was dismissed and I hope and pray for my family that Mr. Shipley gets the help he needs to resolve his obsession with my wife.”