After over two hours of testimony, defense objections to much of that plaintiff testimony as hearsay or irrelevant, and arguments on the legal status of the Property Owners of Shenandoah Farms Inc. (POSF) regarding its necessity to comply with the Virginia Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) law regarding its role in management or potential management of Farms Sanitary District projects, Warren County General District Judge Michael Helm offered a two-phased decision. First, he ruled that the POSF was functioning as a public entity subject to FOIA law related to its expenditure of Sanitary District fees collected by Warren County as tax revenue.
“Point” to plaintiff and Farms resident Melissa Chappell-White, who brought the civil complaint seeking an injunction against the POSF acting in any business management function in the Sanitary District. Her civil court filing also sought significant financial penalties against POSF board members, ranging from $500 to $2,000 per alleged FOIA violation.
“However,” the judge continued in ruling that the plaintiff had produced no substantial evidence in support of her alleged FOIA violations, including POSF “secret meetings” and non-FOIA compliant motions into closed sessions. Judge Helm elaborated that the plaintiff had submitted no evidence that she, or anyone, had submitted a FOIA request to the POSF that had not been responded to by FOIA law or that evidence of such requests was absent from her filing.
“Game, set, match” to the Property Owners of Shenandoah Farms Inc. and its board, represented in court Wednesday, May 11, by current Chairman Ralph Rinaldi, Treasurer Bruce Boyd, and Office Manager Lisa Blansett. However, only Rinaldi was called to testify for the defense by POSF defense attorney Kayla Humenick.
Chappell-White, a retired attorney, represented herself and was the only witness called for the plaintiff. That call led to Chappell-White’s detailed review of paperwork she submitted with her civil complaint. Some of that paperwork upon which her case was built were meeting minutes, including both POSF and County Board of Supervisors meetings related to a recent initiative by the POSF to terminate a 2011 Sanitary District Management Agreement in which direct management of maintenance projects by the POSF was handed over to the County just over a decade ago, with a right of termination by either side with 90-days notice.
As to her allegations of illegally convened POSF meetings without proper notice, Judge Helm pointed to the only evidence the plaintiff provided. That evidence was a lack of knowledge of the POSF meeting schedule by the plaintiff and what she cited as 7 or 8 Farms’ resident allies who attended a March 29 County Supervisors meeting at which the POSF management agreement termination initiative was publicly presented by Rinaldi. The only way she and several other Farms citizens knew about the presentation was a call from one of the supervisors alerting her to it the day prior, Chappell-White testified.
However, Rinaldi testified that the POSF’s regular meeting schedule for the year was published a month or two prior to the start of that coming year. He also told the court that notice of special meetings were posted on the window of the POSF headquarters a number of days prior, as he understood was legally required. The judge ruled it appeared the POSF was FOIA compliant with meeting notices, based on Rinaldi’s testimony and a lack of contradictory evidence from the plaintiff.
Asked on direct examination if the POSF Board had “ever held a secret meeting,” Rinaldi replied, “That has never happened since I’ve been on that board.” Rinaldi has been on the board for over a decade.
Of plaintiff references to too-vague motions into closed sessions at POSF meetings, the court again cited a lack of verifiable evidence. After noting a shift in the burden of proof in the context of civil litigation in prefacing his decision, Judge Helm observed, “I don’t have evidence to show a willful act to hide their agenda – a lot of speculation is all I have.” Consequently, without more substantial evidence, the court ruled for the defense in dismissing the plaintiff’s requested injunction to prohibit POSF from “Conducting any business involving the Shenandoah Farms Sanitary District” based on a history of FOIA violations. And with no FOIA violations haven been proven, the plaintiff’s seeking of relief in the way of financial penalties being imposed on POSF board members was dismissed as well.
With a right to appeal the decision having been noted by the judge outside the courtroom, Royal Examiner asked Chappell-White for a reaction to the court’s decision.
“I think the court had reasons for what it did – it’s not worth appealing. I accept the court decision,” she replied. She added that she believed a positive function from her civil filing had been achieved. “I think many lessons have been learned,” she said of a raised awareness by the POSF Board of Directors as to the heightened necessity of FOIA compliance and record-keeping of that compliance regarding Sanitary District business and the use of Sanitary District fees for road, facilities, and other maintenance projects.
But as to the future of Sanitary District project management, as previously reported by Royal Examiner, the county’s elected board has instructed the county administrator to advertise for citizen applicants to a Shenandoah Farms Management Advisory Board. So, it may be that while Chappell-White’s hope of halting the POSF retaking of Sanitary District project management authority wasn’t achieved in the Warren County Courthouse this week, it may be getting more traction within the halls of the Warren County Government Center.
Other than expressing some relief, Rinaldi initially declined comment on the civil court rulings pending further discussion with the POSF’s legal counsel.
Joint motion to continue Luckey hearing toward what – trial date or plea agreement? RSW fatal overdose hearings also continued
A trio of high-profile criminal cases set for hearings and at least one possible setting of a trial date were continued in Warren County Circuit Court on Monday morning, May 16. Those cases, in the order they were called on the May Grand Jury Term Day docket, were Daniel Edward Shifflett, Brian Thomas Martin, and William Raymond Luckey. Shifflett and Martin’s hearing were continued to July 11, at 9 a.m. Luckey’s hearing was continued to June 3, also on the morning docket.
Based on evidence indicating the in-facility sale and provision of a fatal opioid dose, Shifflett and Martin have been charged with Second-Degree Murder in the RSW Regional Jail inmate overdose death of Jonte Smith last December 12. Luckey, a former Christendom College professor and professor emeritus for 30-plus years, was arrested June 25 of last year on charges of “Indecent Liberties” and “Solicitation” of a minor child under the age of 16.
A hint that negotiations toward a possible plea deal in the 73-year-old Luckey’s case were being pursued was offered by Stafford, Virginia-based defense counsel Thaddeus Furlong in forwarding a joint motion with the Commonwealth for continuing the hearing at which a trial date was expected to be set. “I think we are making progress toward resolving this case,” Furlong told the court in seeking the continuance of the hearing.
Judge William W. Sharp granted the continuance to June 3rd on the 9 a.m. docket. The judge also extended Luckey’s $50,000 bond granted conditionally at the Circuit Court level on July 12, 2021. Luckey had initially been denied bond in a June 30 Juvenile and Domestic Relations Court hearing in front of Judge Nancy Reed. Conditions of Luckey’s bond imposed by Judge Sharp include that he has “no contact with minors without another adult within sight and sound of them” and “No contact directly or indirectly with the victim or the victim’s parents”. Luckey was further ordered “Not to counsel or direct or encourage any effort by anyone else to discourage victim, victim’s parents, or other witnesses from cooperating with the prosecution”.
The order forbidding attempts to influence a dropping of the charges addressed Assistant Commonwealth Attorney Samantha Meadows’ concern about the content of recorded phone calls between Luckey at RSW Jail after his arrest and his wife Julie, indicating a possible effort to influence the victim’s parents into dropping the charges, which Meadows noted during that earlier bond hearing would be witness tampering, a crime in its own right.
A pandemic-masked and frail-looking Luckey made his way into the courtroom shakily late Monday morning, with the aid of a walker. Defense council Furlong told the court his client suffered the consequences of an earlier brain injury. In arguing for bond in the lower court, Furlong’s co-counsel Shannon Johnson cited myriad health issues Luckey suffered from that would be exacerbated by continued incarceration. Those included cardiac problems, high blood pressure, and consequences of a past back injury. Defense counsel Johnson also contended that specifics in the Commonwealth’s case against Luckey indicate a comparatively mild incident compared to some of the verbiage included in the “Solicitation” warrant reflecting the harsher side of sex abuse against minors statutes.
As reported in Royal Examiner’s coverage of the June 30 J&D Court bond hearing, responding to his wife’s taped phone conversation comment, “This isn’t what happened” of specific oral or penetrative sexual acts listed in a general “Solicitation” warrant, Luckey replied, “No, it doesn’t say ‘Show me your hiney’.” At the initial bond hearing the prosecution first presented evidence indicating Luckey had offered the child ten dollars to see their posterior, which was declined. However, the prosecution noted that the ten dollars had been left by Luckey, perhaps indicating additional efforts by the defendant that achieved that initial request.
RSW overdose charges
As to the two scheduled preliminary hearings for Shifflett and Martin, the former who also overdosed the day of the Jonte Smith’s overdose death, both were continued to July 11, on the 9 a.m. docket. Shifflett was represented in the courtroom by defense counsel Lou Nagy. Shifflett, like Martin who was represented by Greg Bowman, appeared by video from RSW Regional Jail where they both were incarcerated at the time of the overdose drug incidents of last December 11-12.
As previously reported by Royal Examiner regarding the “Death in Custody Briefing” of RSW Regional Jail Superintendent Russ Gilkison on March 24, the meeting minutes state: “Mr. Gilkison explained that the event took place on the night of December 11 and into the morning of December 12; inmate Daniel Shifflett and inmate Jonte Smith who were both incarcerated; had a medical emergency that was discovered after the fact that it was an overdose. The inmates obtained the heroin (corrected spelling) that inmate Shifflett stated that they were taking; from another inmate inside of the housing unit.”
Brian Martin is believed to be that inmate.
“Staff responded to the medical emergency; performed First-Aid, CPR to include AED, administered Narcan, and EMS was called. Mr. Shifflett was revived about the time EMS arrived on the scene, unfortunately, Mr. Smith was not revived by our staff or EMS and was taken via local transport to the hospital where he was pronounced dead on December 12, at 0120 hours (1:20 a.m.).”
Also as previously reported: “Inmate overdose survivor Daniel Shifflett, 32, and a second inmate, Brian Martin, 34, were indicted by a Warren County Grand Jury on April 11 for Second-Degree Murder in what is believed to have been the 21-year-old Smith’s accidental death from an opioid drug overdose. Other pending charges against Shifflett, who was incarcerated on a Probation Violation charge related to earlier drug offenses when he overdosed inside the jail, include 10 counts of distribution of a Schedule I or II substance for at least a third offense. Martin is charged with eight counts of distribution of a Schedule I or II substance for at least a third offense. At the time of his death Smith was incarcerated on possession of Schedule I, II drugs and a firearms charge.
Florida man arrested in possible Front Royal human trafficking case involving minor
A Florida man is being held without bond in the Rappahannock-Shenandoah-Warren (RSW) Regional Jail after being arrested Thursday, May 12, by Front Royal Police officers for allegedly having sex with a juvenile under the age of 15.
FRPD Chief Kahle Magalis said patrol officers were alerted to a possible human trafficking situation regarding an adult who was suspected of having sexual relations with a juvenile.
Upon further investigation, it was discovered that William Chase Mathews, 23, was providing housing for the juvenile and acting as her caretaker. The Florida resident reportedly came to the area recently to provide for the juvenile, whom he had recently met online.
Mathews appeared before a magistrate and was denied bond; he will have a court appearance on June 9, 2022, at 10:00 a.m. in Warren County Juvenile and Domestic Relations Court.
Magalis stated in the release that detectives are seeking any information regarding this case or any other situations in which a minor may have been solicited or exploited. Chief Magalis said in the release that parents should be aware of the social media platforms their children use online and report any suspicious activities to local law enforcement.
The Front Royal Police Department is an active member of the Northern Virginia/DC Metro (NOVA/DC) Internet Crimes Against Children (ICAC) Task Force, which is coordinated by the Virginia State Police.
Out of all states and U.S. territories, Virginia ranks 6th for the most human trafficking cases on federal court dockets, according to Kyleigh Feehs, Associate Legal Counsel for the Human
Trafficking Institute, which began compiling statistics on cases in 2017.
That year, there were 783 active criminal and civil human trafficking cases involving 1,930 defendants in the federal court system in the United States. In Virginia, 33 active human trafficking cases in 2017 generated 401 federal charges involving 74 defendants.
Human Trafficking Institute data released in late 2021 shows that two new human trafficking cases were brought to federal court in Virginia, resulting in six people being convicted. The Institute said then that the data release did not consider state cases nor the fact that some courts were shuttered during the Covid pandemic.
Anyone with further information regarding the Front Royal case is encouraged to contact Detective M.R. Ramey at (540) 636-2208 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Winchester man arrested for Second Degree Murder following early morning shooting
A Winchester man was arrested following the investigation into a homicide that occurred on May 6, 2022. At approximately 1:32 a.m. Winchester Police Department (WPD) officers responded to the 1800 block of Henry Avenue for a fight. As officers were approaching the scene, 911 calls were received advising a male had been shot. The male, identified as Nathaniel Jones, 37, of Winchester, was pronounced deceased at the scene.
An investigation immediately originated by WPD Criminal Investigations Division, with the assistance of the Medical Examiner’s Office. WPD Criminal Investigations obtained a search warrant for the suspect’s residence in the 1800 block of Henry Avenue and seized a handgun.
The victim and suspect were acquaintances, and this was an isolated incident between those individuals. As a result, Jessie Nathaniel Simms, 32, of Winchester, was charged with Second Degree Murder and transported to the Northwestern Regional Adult Detention Center, where he was held without bond.
Anyone with information on this investigation is asked to contact Detective Bansal with the Criminal Investigations Division at 540-545-4704 or anonymously use the P3 tip app or by calling 540-665-TIPS.
(Press release Winchester Police Department)
Citizen FOIA timeframe exemption claim against POSF denied, hearing continued to May 11 on allegation of FOIA violations
Long-time Property Owners of Shenandoah Farms (POSF) Board critic Melissa Chappell-White has added a FOIA violations complaint to her list of alleged failures of the organization. In fact, during a hearing on her complaint in Warren County General District Court on Wednesday, May 4, Chappell-White alleged to substitute Judge Ian Williams that the POSF had failed to comply with what she interpreted as a FOIA timeframe requirement for a response to her filing.
Current POSF Board Chairman Ralph Rinaldi told the court his wife has signed for receipt of the paperwork the morning of the previous day, Tuesday, May 3rd, and he had first seen it later that afternoon. Judge Williams noted that normal FOIA response requirements alluded to 7 days for a provision of requested materials with an “at least 3-day” variable on what appeared to be referenced as notice of receipt of the FOIA filing.
Chappell-White told the court she didn’t believe the referenced timeframe applied in her filing. Asked why by the court, Chappell-White could provide no statutory support for her contended exception. Citing potential “extensive penalties” related to her complaint, Judge Williams noted that the defendant was “entitled to something” in the way of a timeframe to reply to the allegations and prepare a legal defense to the assertion of non-compliance she appeared to be making, adding, “I want to give it to them.”
In an attachment to her petition in addition to asking for payment of her costs, Chappell-White asks for civil penalties of $1,000 for each of what she alleges were “improperly closed meetings” and civil penalties of $500 to $2,000 against “each officer, employee and member (of the POSF) for each and every willful violation” of FOIA law.
With these legal variables facing the POSF and its chairman present representing his board less than 24 hours after having received the Chappell-White filing, after consultation with the court clerk, the hearing was continued to Wednesday, May 11th at 11:15 a.m. Williams noted he would not be in court that day, with the hearing likely held in front of Judge Michael Helm in the wake of the recent retirement of Judge W. Dale Houff.
Queried about the allegations outside the courtroom, POSF Inc. Board Chairman Rinaldi said all the regular POSF meetings are held on a publicly posted schedule, with any special meetings advertised at POSF headquarters, which by his understanding met legal requirements for meeting notices.
Chappell-White, along with a couple of other prominent POSF critics, have noted they have elected not to become involved with the POSF as members and generally do not attend POSF meetings to give input on POSF perspectives in an advisory role to Warren County on the management of the Farms Sanitary District since 2010/11. Prior to that the POSF had managed the Sanitary District in conjunction with the county government since the Farms Sanitary District inception in 1995.
Chappell-White’s filing asserts that: “Most recently, POSF Inc’s actions have violated the rights and privileges of the taxpayers of the Shenandoah Farms Sanitary District (SFSD), including petitioner Chappell-White, by planning in secret to try to take over management of the SFSD without giving notice of its intentions and opportunity for SFSD taxpayers to become informed or participate in the decision-making process. Respondent met secretly to develop its plan, and even kept secret its intention to present its plan at a Board of Supervisors meeting on March 29, 2022.”
In the wake of the POSF Inc.’s notice to the county government that it wished to terminate the 2011 management agreement, effective at the end of this fiscal year, the Warren County Board of Supervisors has accepted that notice per conditions of that agreement. And while POSF critics have claimed credit for that 2010/11 County management takeover, Rinaldi noted that POSF leadership at the time, including him, approached the County about taking over management responsibility due to the amount of money involved.
According to County Administrative Office records, of 1,762 surveys distributed to Farms residents in December 2009 regarding the future of the Sanitary District’s management, only 252 (14.5%) were returned. Of that less than 15% response, 66.2% favored a change in management away from the POSF, with 82% of that majority favoring the County taking over. The primary reason cited by supporters of a change was the size of the sprawling Sanitary District requiring a larger management entity’s oversight.
It appeared the POSF anticipated retaking the Sanitary District Management lead in the wake of County financial reporting lapses and the submission of higher road improvement project cost estimates than the POSF was finding over the past year. However, at its meeting of May 3rd, the board of supervisors instructed the county administrator to advertise for Farms residents applications to a Sanitary District Management Advisory Board. Rinaldi has said he feels the current POSF Board is more qualified for the management role than he felt it was in 2010/11.
However, it remains to be seen how many current POSF board members will feel compelled to apply for those Advisory Board positions after being rejected as group, apparently without notice, from the county government.
Sheriff Carter finds himself in one-person minority on RSW Jail leadership in wake of recent inmate fatalities
The Rappahannock-Shenandoah-Warren (Counties) Regional Jail (RSWRJ) dealt with Fiscal Year 2023 budget variables, the advisability of seeking American Correctional Association (ACA) certification, and the aftermath of the facility inmate opioid overdoses and one fatality, among other business at its meeting of April 28. And while discussion of “personnel matters” related to the “secreting in” of those opioid drugs continues to be done in Closed Session, it spilled into the re-convened open meeting after an hour-and-fifty-minutes behind closed doors.
That occurred when the only of the board’s three county sheriffs present for the 2 PM meeting, Shenandoah County Sheriff Tim Carter submitted a motion “to remove” RSW Regional Jail Superintendent Russ Gilkison “from his position immediately”. Carter prefaced his motion acknowledging he knew it likely would not have enough support to even get to a vote. And he was correct, the motion died without a second from the other eight board members present.
Following the meeting’s adjournment Royal Examiner asked Sheriff Carter about his putting forward the motion he seemed to acknowledge knowing would have no support. “I think we need new leadership in this position. I think he’s placed our communities and the board in a bad position. And I’ve heard enough from those closed session meetings to lead me to believe – I don’t have any confidence in him.”
However, two other board members expressed a different perspective following the meeting. “Superintendent Gilkison has my complete confidence. He has masterfully managed the RSW Regional Jail facility and I strongly believe he has and continues to do what is best for inmates, staff, and the communities the facility serves, which balance can be very difficult to accomplish,” Authority Chairman and Rappahannock County Administrator Garrey Curry told Royal Examiner. Curry noted he was speaking for himself, not as chairman for the authority board as a whole.
Queried about the Carter motion dying without a second, Warren County Administrator and Authority Board member Ed Daley said, “The two incidents (the Dec. 12, 2021, Jonte Smith overdose fatality and March 1, 2022, female inmate Kacey Kerns death during a possible suicide attempt) demonstrate the importance of having procedures in place and ensuring that they are followed. We discussed the compliance report from the State Department of Corrections in March. It was very positive. The American Correctional Association (ACA) provides accreditation for correctional facilities that meet various standards. Russ has been gathering information regarding ACA standards and shared what he has with us at the meeting. We have asked for additional information regarding the value and the cost of ACA Accreditation compared to State Accreditation. The Superintendent and his staff are clearly on task and leading the Board in a positive direction.”
The motion into Closed Session included in the meeting agenda packet reads: “Closed Session Pursuant to (Code) 2.2-3711 A1 for the discussion of personnel matters involving the performance of specific staff that was involved in the recent deaths in custody”. However, a late addition was added regarding “the possibility of litigation related to inmate deaths”.
Knowing he couldn’t comment on specifics of an ongoing investigation into personnel issues revolving around the recent fatal incidents, particularly the smuggling of drugs into the facility, we asked Superintendent Gilkison about the RSW Jail’s policy on searches of inmates entering the jail that were in place at the time it is believed the involved drugs were smuggled into RSWRJ in early December. He provided Royal Examiner with facility entry search policy guidelines predating the overdose incidents. Those guidelines, from which the below excerpts were taken, were implemented February 24, 2020, rescinding “all previous rules and regulations pertaining to the subject” at RSWRJ.
1. Unclothed searches will be conducted on all general population inmates returning from court, regardless of the jurisdiction, as well as all newly committed inmates that will be assigned to general population. This is an effort to prevent any contraband coming into the facility; examples include, but are not limited to, the following:
- After receiving information directly from the arresting officer that the subject being committed may possibly be concealing weapons, drugs or contraband.
- Subject has a previous record of concealing contraband, weapons or drugs.
- Subject has previous or current charges involving drugs, weapons or smuggling.
- Has been incarcerated at another facility and is being transferred into the custody of the RSW Regional Jail. This includes those going out for overnight court to other jurisdictions.
- Any Work Release inmate removed from the program will be strip searched when the inmate returns to the RSW Regional Jail.
19. Per, Virginia Code 19.2-59.1, no person in custodial arrest for a traffic infraction, a Class 3 or Class 4 Misdemeanor or a violation of city, county or town ordinance, punishable by no more than thirty (30) days in jail, will be strip searched upon committal unless there is reasonable cause to believe on the part of a law enforcement officer that the individual is concealing a weapon.
1. All persons, once committed to the jail and after classification and medical screenings are completed, will have an unclothed search conducted prior to moving into General Population housing. No individual shall be moved to General Population prior to being unclothed searched.
At its March meeting the RSWRJ Authority approved the acquisition of scanners that are designed to augment full body and body cavity searches. The Tek84 Intercept Whole Body Security Scanning System was approved for purchase at an initial cost of $149,000 with funding split between the Jail’s General Fund and Commissary Fund. It was noted that in the current Fiscal Year-2022 about $159,000 in additional bed rental fees had been collected from what was the projected revenue for the entire fiscal year. Some of that surplus would be applied to the General Fund contribution to the purchase. After the initial three-year parts, labor, and service contract expires an annual maintenance cost of $7,500 per year was forecast. There were no dissenting votes to the purchase.
Also at its 2 PM April 28th meeting, as noted by Ed Daley above, the RSWRJ Authority Board discussed the advisability of seeking American Correctional Association (ACA) accreditation. Information presented to the board noted that of a total of 59 jails in Virginia only 9 currently hold ACA accreditation. That includes 2 of 23 regional jails and 7 of 36 local jails. With an annual cost of $13,500 tied to achieving the official certification and maintaining it, the board decided additional information was necessary before reaching a decision. It was observed that a number of jails that had sought and received the certification had since lost or given it up.
Seeking information on why jails that had sought the accreditation and then given it up voluntarily would be helpful in understanding perceived drawbacks to official membership. It was noted that a jail could seek to self-regulate to the ACA standards without official involvement or accreditation from the national organization.
As to the jail’s approximately $16-million draft FY-23 budget, like municipalities across the commonwealth, RSW Regional Jail is awaiting final approval of a state budget. With state contributions still up in the air, the board and Finance and Personnel Committee are working with two Cost Of Living Act (COLA) increases, one at 10%, the other at 5%. It was predicted that the likely outcome of state funding would lead to a 5% or 4% increase. A vote was delayed, likely to next month’s meeting. The possibility of a work session prior to that late May meeting to cover over a final draft proposal, hopefully with actual state number to fill in, was broached.
In other business, during his Superintendent’s Report, Gilkison told the board that currently there are no COVID cases in the facility. However, screenings and quarantines upon entry are still being observed as a precaution. Work Release teams are still hitting various neighborhood roads for trash pickups, which has been well-received by impacted neighborhoods, Gilkison told the board. The facility is still dealing with over 40 staffing vacancies, some incurred with the onset of the COVID pandemic.
Prior to the late afternoon adjournment, coming meeting dates of May 26, July 28, and September 22 were set. All Authority Board meetings convene at 2 PM, generally following a 1:30 PM Finance and Personnel Committee meeting, as was the case this month.
Judge finds Williams not guilty on sexual abuse of child charge
After a day and a half of testimony and arguments on defense motions to strike the Commonwealth’s case as not meeting evidentiary standards to proceed, on Tuesday, April 26, Warren County Circuit Court Judge William W. Sharp found Derrick Williams not guilty of Aggravated Sexual Abuse of a child under 13 years of age. Late Monday afternoon, following motions arguments at the conclusion of the prosecution’s case on the trial’s first day, Sharp dismissed an Indecent Liberties charge against the 37-year-old Williams involving the same child. In that ruling Sharp upheld a defense motion to strike the Commonwealth’s case due to the alleged victim’s inability to define its or the adult’s “private parts” as to allegations of sexually-oriented touching.
The defense team of Justin Daniel and Tiffany Welch pointed to conflicting statements on circumstances of the alleged touching in several law enforcement interviews with the alleged victim, as well as answers to questions when called as the prosecution’s second witness in the Circuit Court trial. They also noted an inability of the child to pin down any timeframe whatsoever to when the alleged indecent touching or sexual abuse occurred. The original warrants and indictments handed down by the grand jury cited a timeframe from February 1, 2020, to July 12, 2020.
The defense theory outlined in its opening statement was that the child’s mother had created the notion of sexual abuse by Williams in the child’s mind in order to gain a legal and financial advantage over Williams in pending civil litigation. During cross-examination of prosecution witness FRPD Investigator Zach King, who was one law enforcement officer to interview the alleged victim, a specific exchange was noted. Asked “why she was there” the girl responded, “to help me and my mom.” To the follow-up question “With what?” she answered, “I don’t remember.”
The defense asserted that the mother’s planting of the idea of inappropriate touching led to the child’s confusion on dates and circumstances in various interviews and testimony, rather than any embarrassment in answering questions about the alleged abuse, which defense counsel and their client contend never occurred. During direct examination Williams said he had discussed a pending hostile civil litigation with the victim’s mother in mid-June 2020, about a month prior to her complaint being filed and the child being picked up by law enforcement while at a relative’s home. That relative testified that when she was informed authorities were on their way to pick the child up from her home on July 12, and why, she had asked the girl if she had ever been abused by Derrick Williams to which she had replied “no”. While Commonwealth’s Attorney John Bell objected to the question and answer as hearsay, it was allowed as a counter to the girl’s testimony she had not discussed the “bad touching” issue with the relative.
“She didn’t want to go. She asked, ‘Why do I have to go’,” the relative added of the last time she saw the child.
Called to the stand late Tuesday morning as the defense’s final witness, Derrick Williams was first asked, “Did you ever touch (the victim) for sexual purposes?” – “No sir, absolutely not,” he responded. However, he also agreed the child was a truthful person who would not intentionally lie. In response to prosecution assertions on the implication of all involved parties’ agreement on the basic honesty of the child, defense counsel noted that the mother had full possession, isolating the child from other emotional support group individuals with a different perspective on the interrelationship of the child’s mother, the accused, and the alleged victim, as of the filing of the indecent liberties and sexual abuse complaints on July 12, 2020. During sometimes emotional testimony Williams’ voice cracked during questioning about the charges and his relationship to the child he was accused of sexually-tinged touching and abuse of.
Defense counsel also focused on Williams work schedule with VDOT, month-plus-long battle in May-June 2020 with a severe case of COVID, and support of his mother during a family crisis in late April 2020 when his father survived a cardiac arrest but dealt with ongoing complications, to illustrate what they asserted was a lack of opportunity to have engaged in the alleged behaviors during the February to July 2020 timeframe asserted in the complaint and indictments.
Following Derrick Williams’ testimony Tuesday morning, Commonwealth’s Attorney Bell called one rebuttal witness, another child present to witness a previous interaction between the accused and alleged victim. Bell explained the purpose of the rebuttal testimony was to counter one statement made by the defendant during his testimony. That young witness testified that they had seen the alleged victim and Derrick Williams alone together in a specifically described circumstance, though not a specifically sexual or abusive one at some point in the “summertime” of 2020. Asked by Bell during his cross-examination, “You have never been alone (in the given circumstance)” with the victim? Derrick Williams responded, “No sir.”
It was noted by defense counsel that the circumstance described by the rebuttal witness did not include any inappropriate contact between Williams and the alleged victim. Rather, as noted above, the prosecution explained the rebuttal testimony as countering the defendant’s testimony about having never been in the described social setting with the alleged victim.
As one of the prosecution’s first witnesses on Monday, the alleged victim’s mother said she became aware of the alleged inappropriate touching of her daughter from a disclosure by the child Bell called as the prosecution’s rebuttal witness. She also testified she first heard about the alleged abuse on July 12, 2020, when the complaint was filed with the magistrate.
“Did you inquire or did they come to you?” Bell asked about how the information was obtained from the other child. “I asked,” was the reply.
The defense team also focused some questioning of witnesses and motions arguments on their contention that the lead investigative agency, the Warren County Sheriff’s Office, had an ongoing conflict of interest due to the alleged victim’s mother’s past employment at the county sheriff’s office. It was established during the defense case that there had been no follow-up interviews with Derrick Williams or other individuals familiar with the social interaction between the accused and the victim, as well as Williams’ social interaction with the victim’s mother.
Defense counsel pointed out that the case had gone through three lead investigators. Jeremy Seabright and Emily Young left the Warren County Sheriff’s Department early in the investigation, after which current lead Laura Nelson-Haas spearheaded the investigation. Only Nelson-Haas was called by the prosecution as a witness. She indicated from her interview her belief the child was telling the truth in trying to describe inappropriate sexual contact with Williams.
Nelson-Haas described her leaving the WCSO for a while in 2015, then returning and being assigned to the regional law enforcement academy for recertification as this case was developing in 2020, she acknowledged previous problems with the investigation. She even termed some of its earlier days as “a trainwreck”. However, despite formerly knowing the victim’s mother “as a bailiff in this building” Sgt. Nelson-Haas denied that interfered with her work on the case.
After the defense rested at 11:17 a.m., Judge Sharp recessed the bench trial to allow the sides to prepare closing arguments. When court readjourned at 11:32 a.m., defense counsel Welch reiterated a motion to strike the Commonwealth’s case of aggravated sexual battery against Derrick Williams due to a lack of substantial evidence. She argued that the allegations of sexual abuse in the warrants and indictments were not corroborated by prosecution witness testimony, particularly from the alleged victim. And at 11:49 a.m. the defense again called for the prosecution’s sexual abuse case against Derrick Williams to be dismissed.
After about 2 minutes of reading material before him at the bench, Judge Sharp began by noting he felt the question before the court fell into two categories. The first related to the vagaries in the prosecution case, particularly the lack of a timeframe for the offenses never being established. He reviewed previously submitted case histories in support of both sides of the argument, particularly the prosecution assertion that in cases of sexual abuse of a minor pinning down the precise time of the offense is not a primary concern in consideration of guilt or innocence. Here the judge moved smoothly toward consideration of “weight of evidence” and “reasonable doubt”.
Following a tracing of the evolution of “reasonable doubt” historically in American law, and noting that the alleged victim was “unable to give any description of actions or time” of the allegations against the defendant, Judge Sharp said, “I can’t get to reasonable doubt in this case.” And as the clock on the courtroom wall struck noon the judge concluded that “I must find” the defendant “not guilty”.
That led to a barely suppressed wave of emotion through one side of Circuit Courtroom B where relatives and friends present in support of Derrick Williams took up many of the seats. Leaving the courthouse later Williams declined comment other than to say he was relieved to finally be out from under the cloud of the allegations made against him and was now ready to move on with his life.
That “cloud” included a second charge of Aggravated Sexual Battery against another child that was dismissed on the second day of a two-day trial in February. That dismissal was due to the late surfacing of email/text message evidence in the file of the original lead investigator Emily Young that was not forwarded to other investigators or the Commonwealth Attorney’s Office before Young left the department. That charge was dismissed on a defense motion following the surfacing of the evidence during the second day of the trial. In an NVD story on that trial, Commonwealth’s Attorney Bell observed that the late-discovered evidence contained elements that would have been helpful to both sides in that case. Perhaps ironically, that first alleged victim was the prosecution’s rebuttal witness in these cases.
Williams’ attorneys told the media following the result of these two cases they felt justice had been done and commended Judge Sharp for his thoughtful appraisal of the circumstances at issue in these cases. “Our reaction is we are very happy for Derrick. We think this was absolutely the correct result. I think the judge got it completely right. That’s why we didn’t have to do closing arguments,” defense counsel Justin Daniel said, adding, “We believe a hundred-and-fifty-percent in Derrick’s innocence. We always have. He’s reacted in exactly the way an innocent person would react from the very beginning of this case. And this case has been pending for almost two years.”
A follow-up story is pending upon acquiring comment from all involved sides, including Commonwealth’s Attorney Bell and lead investigator Nelson-Hass, in addition to additional comment from the defense team.