Approaching 6 p.m. after nearly five hours of testimony in Warren County Supervisor Tom Sayre’s defamation of character civil suit against former EDA Executive Director Jennifer McDonald Friday afternoon, Winchester-based Judge Ian Williams continued the trial to September 11 at 1:15 p.m. Sayre attorney Tim Bosson said he anticipated his client testifying for a half hour to 45 minutes that day, with a similar time frame anticipated in cross examination by McDonald attorney Lee Berlik.
Berlik also told the court he may call his client to testify on her own behalf that day. If he so chooses it is likely to result in more testimony than McDonald offered when she was called shortly after 1 p.m. Friday as the first witness for the plaintiff. It seems that the first thing that occurred when McDonald walked out of the RSW Jail on bond after two months in jail on Wednesday was the serving of a witness subpoena on behalf of the plaintiff.
When she was called to testify by Sayre’s attorney, Berlik alerted the court that “any and all questions relating to the EDA” would be met by his client’s right to assert her Fifth Amendment right not to self incriminate.
McDonald and her two real estate LLC’s are named as three of nine human and LLC defendants in the EDA civil litigation seeking recovery of about $20 million in allegedly embezzled or misdirected EDA assets. She is also facing 14 felony criminal charges handed down by the special grand jury empanelled to investigate potential criminality related to the Cherry Bekaert EDA fraud investigation and consequent civil suit filed March 26.
McDonald wasted no time in asserting her Fifth Amendment right. At least five out of the eight questions asked of her were negated by McDonald’s plea of the Fifth. Judge Williams upheld McDonald’s Fifth Amendment responses.
Questions she did respond to included confirming her December 2018 resignation as EDA executive director; an assertion that an old personal assets statement was outdated; and verification that text and email messages dated between June 6 and July 14, 2017 were actual communications between her and Royal Examiner reporter Roger Bianchini. Those texts and emails were introduced as plaintiff’s Exhibits 3 and 4. They were exhibits that would significantly come into play during later testimony.
In asserting the plaintiff’s claim for $25,000 in damages for defamation of character Sayre attorney Tim Bosson called a series of witnesses to illustrate that McDonald had spread the idea of his client’s involvement in both the EDA office break in of May 18, 2017, and a series of trespass and vandalism incidents alleged to be occurring at her home property through May and June of that year.
To a great extent those witnesses and their testimony revolved around the content of a note found at the scene of the vandalism McDonald reported occurring around 9 p.m., Thursday, June 15. According to the Warren County Sheriff’s Office investigative report, McDonald pointed out a crumpled piece of paper in her yard she indicated was not there earlier in the day when she cleaned her yard.
The note mentions several names and instructions to conduct an effort to terrorize McDonald that appears to include the EDA office break in McDonald reported on May 18, 2017, and continuing through a series of events at her home property. The names “Tom” and “Matt” appear on the note, as well as “the Examiner” where “Norma Jean” was purported to have been waiting for files McDonald reported being stolen during the May 18 EDA office break in about a month before the purported home rock-throwing vandalism.
Two phone numbers of alleged participants in the conspiracy are also present at the bottom of the note. They turned out to be the business numbers of Sayre and former Town Manager Michael Graham.
As they did at McDonald’s 2018 Halloween Day false police report misdemeanor trial, Shaw and Graham both testified they knew nothing of the note or its alleged conspiracy, as Sayre is likely to on September 11. And while Warren County General District Judge W. Dale Houff dismissed the false police report case against McDonald last year, he did observe of the note that “something is made up and something is horribly wrong with this”.
There was also something apparently terribly wrong about a story Royal Examiner reporter Roger Bianchini testified McDonald told him several weeks later about identifying a suspect in the masonry stone vandalism of June 15, 2017. The Royal Examiner reporter said that in late June or early July 2017 McDonald said that while several security cameras on her property had been vandalized during earlier trespasses, one less obtrusive one near her front door had remained in tact.
That camera recorded a facial image of the suspect, whom her private investigator had eventually identified as a petty criminal type and former client of Tom Sayre’s law practice. One of McDonald’s emails to Bianchini, dated July 14, 2017 appeared to verify Bianchini’s testimony.
“He talked with PI and PI has asked him to wire himself and go talk to the culprit. we do not want a he said/she said situation,” McDonald emailed in response to Bianchini’s query, “Anything good to report” about the investigation into the vandalism.
“So he admitted to his own Russia collusion – who is his ‘Putin’ pulling the strings?!!? … and is it a lone wolf or multiple Putins,” Bianchini responded about the masterminds of alleged conspiracy against her.
“He did and multiple putins, but the first putin asked him to do it,” McDonald replies.
“Is the first Putin our photo boy?” Bianchini inquires.
“Yes sir,” McDonald replies ending the e-conversation of July 14, 2017.
On direct examination Bianchini explained the “photo boy” reference related to an earlier, June 11, 2017 text from McDonald: “May have a tip that an elected official is in cahoots with what is happening to me,” McDonald texted.
“Someone I have been trying to find photos of for you,” McDonald added in response to a request for an “off the record” clue as to an identity.
The only person Bianchini said he and McDonald had discussed acquiring a photo of from local newspaper archives dating to 1989-90 was Tom Sayre around the time he arrived in this area sporting what Bianchini described as a radically-different look.
Private Investigator Ken Pullen was asked about McDonald’s representations about a suspect requested to wear a wire on Sayre in discussion about the plot against McDonald. Pullen testified under direct examination by Sayre attorney Bosson that he had initially been hired by the EDA Board of Directors around June 6, 2017 to investigate the EDA office break in. Drescher testified that McDonald asked her board to ask that FRPD be taken off the case because she did not feel comfortable with the direction of their investigation, which appeared to be moving toward the three EDA staffers with access to a key to the office since there was no sign of forced or unforced entry.
Drescher has previously said that the private investigator-driven investigation was eventually turned over to McDonald and encompassed events alleged to be occurring at her home.
Asked about McDonald’s June 11 text to Bianchini that there was evidence “an elected official is in cahoots with what is happening to me” and “No one else knows what is happening this is from my PI,” Pullen stated he had no such evidence.
“You didn’t tell her that?” Bosson asked.
“No,” Pullen replied.
Asked about the alleged effort to have a suspect wear a wire on a co-conspirator Bianchini believed McDonald had identified as Sayre, Pullen said, “No I had not,” adding, “I had no suspect – I did not have anyone wired up.”
If Sayre’s counsel focused on evidence indicating the former EDA executive director had spread his client’s name into the community as a suspect in criminal behavior targeting her, McDonald attorney Lee Berlik took a “no harm, no foul” line with plaintiff witnesses. He argued that the presence of Sayre’s phone number and name on the mysterious note had not meaningfully impacted the Shenandoah District supervisor’s reputation.
Repeatedly he asked plaintiff witnesses what they thought Sayre’s reputation in the community was and had it been damaged by the talk of his phone number’s presence on the note found at the site of the June 15, 2017 vandalism.
A number of witnesses, including Sayre’s fellow Supervisor Archie Fox, former Town Manager Michael Graham whose number was also found on the note, and former Royal Examiner Editor Norma Jean Shaw said they thought Sayre’s reputation was a good one and not been terribly damaged by the talk of his involvement in a plot against McDonald.
Only Bianchini said he thought Sayre’s reputation varied widely depending on who in the community you talked to. But he also failed to say whether he believed that reputation had been damaged widely by the rumor of his participation in an alleged criminal targeting of McDonald.
Asked how many people he told about McDonald’s contention about Sayre’s number on the conspiracy note, Bianchini estimated five or less – his Royal Examiner associate Norma Jean Shaw and possibly Publisher Mike McCool, Michael Graham because of the (202) number, another local reporter using only the four 7’s as a clue, and a girlfriend to illustrate how crazy his job was getting.
Berlik made a point of noting to those others whose name or phone number was on the note that they had not filed a defamation suit over their being implicated in a fashion similar to Sayre’s.
Only Shaw, who along with “the Examiner” was cited as waiting for allegedly stolen material from the EDA office break in, replied that she had considered filing a defamation suit against
McDonald, but added, “I don’t think she has any more money and it would be a waste of time.”
And now there is a five-week wait for the dramatic conclusion of the first of dueling defamation lawsuits filed by Sayre and McDonald against each other – stay tuned for more developments …
After barricading himself, suspect found dead of apparent self-inflicted gunshot
Units from the Frederick County Sheriff’s Office responded to Gate Stone Lane on June 13, 2021, for the report of a domestic assault and possible barricaded subject with a firearm.
At approximately 7:23 am, a 9-1-1 hang-up was received in the Frederick County Emergency Communications Center. Dispatchers called the number back and were advised by a male that it was an accidental dial and that everything was fine. The dispatcher could hear a woman in the background crying and yelling for help, as well as children screaming, and immediately sent units to investigate. The female was able to exit the residence with her children, and call back in to 9-1-1. The caller advised that her husband had physically assaulted her the night before and again this morning, to include choking her, and was now in possession of a handgun threatening to kill himself.
Arriving units located the female and her children, ages 10, 8 and 2 in front of the residence and removed them from the area with a perimeter set up to contain the armed suspect. Additional FCSO units responded to the scene and a command post was established where attempts to contact the male inside the home began.
Members of the Sheriff’s Office SWAT, CNT and Drone Teams were activated and began responding to the scene as attempts to communicate continued. The Virginia State Police and Middletown Police Department provided mutual aid and the Winchester Police Department’s SWAT team responded to reinforce FCSO SWAT. Both Frederick County and Winchester Fire and Rescue had personnel standing by to assist as well.
With the perimeter in place and all specialty units set up, the decision was made to attempt to deploy a “throw phone” to communicate with the male, as there was no landline phone in the home and loud speaker announcements had not generated any response. A key to the front door was provided for the deployment of the throw phone. SWAT members could see the foot of a person at the top of the landing to the second floor. Verbal call outs had no response and, out of an abundance of caution, SWAT pulled back and a drone was deployed inside the residence to attempt to assess the situation. The drone showed the lower half of the male laying prone in a doorway but was unable to confirm his condition. A “throw-bot” video device was then deployed which also gave a limited view but confirmed no movement from the suspect. At approximately 10:50 am, SWAT members ascended the stairs and located 46-year-old Stephen Griffitt deceased from an apparent self-inflicted gunshot wound. A medic unit confirmed Griffitt was deceased and the residence was secured for investigators to begin processing the scene at approximately 11:30am at which point the perimeter was released and command terminated.
Front Royal man facing multiple drug-related charges in fatal car-motorcycle collision
The Virginia State Police (VSP) are investigating a fatal head-on collision between a car and a motorcycle that occurred late Sunday morning, June 6, on Strasburg Road (Route 55 West). The driver of the car, 30-year-old Front Royal resident Charles J. Corathers, is facing a variety of charges including driving under the influence of drugs, driving on a revoked license, possession with intent to distribute schedule I/II drugs, and possession of paraphernalia. Corathers was transported to the RSW Regional Jail where he is being held without bond.
Killed in the collision VSP investigators determined was caused when the eastbound 2006 Ford Focus Corathers was driving crossed the center line and struck a westbound 2006 Kawasaki motorcycle was 33-year-old John L. Cunningham of Strasburg. Cunningham, who was wearing a helmet, died at the scene. Corathers was uninjured.
Royal Examiner asked VSP Public Information Officer Sgt. Brent Coffey if an additional charge of Vehicular Manslaughter was possible. “Yes, that is an option. We consulted with the Commonwealth’s Attorney, but I don’t have a time table for additional charges,” Sgt. Coffey replied by email. This story will be updated when additional information on other pending charges is acquired from the Warren County Commonwealth Attorney’s Office.
Below is the VSP press release in its entirety:
“Virginia State Police Trooper A. Pike is investigating a two-vehicle fatal crash in Warren County. The crash occurred Sunday, June 6, 2021, at 11:50 a.m. on Route 55 (Strasburg Road), 1/2 of a mile west of Route 678 (Fort Valley Rd).
“A 2006 Ford Focus was traveling east on Rt. 55 when it crossed the centerline and collided head-on with a westbound 2006 Kawasaki motorcycle.
“The driver of the Ford, Charles J. Corathers, 30, of Front Royal, Va., was not injured in the crash. Corathers was wearing a seatbelt.
“The driver of the Kawasaki, John L. Cunningham, 33, of Strasburg, Va., died at the scene of the crash as a result of his injuries. Cunningham was wearing a helmet.
“Corathers was charged with driving under the influence of drugs, driving on a revoked license, possession with intent to distribute schedule I/II drugs, and possession of paraphernalia. Corathers was transported to the RSW Regional Jail where he is being held without bond.
“VSP’s Culpeper Division Crash Reconstruction Team responded to the scene and is assisting with the ongoing crash investigation.”
This was not Corathers first run in with the law as illustrated in this linked Royal Examiner story:
Virginia’s annual crime analysis report now available on Virginia State Police website
Virginia’s official and only comprehensive report on local and statewide crime figures for 2020, is now available online. The Crime in Virginia report continues to provide precise rates and occurrences of crimes committed in towns, cities and counties across the Commonwealth. The report breaks down criminal offenses and arrests by the reporting agency.
Violent crime includes the offenses of murder, forcible sex offenses (rape, sodomy, and sexual assault with an object per the FBI’s updated rape definition), robbery and aggravated assault. Overall, Virginia experienced a 1.9 percent decrease in violent crime offenses compared to 2019. There were 15,713 violent crime offenses reported in 2020 compared to 16,018 violent crime offenses in 2019.
The following 2020 crime figures in Virginia are presented in the report:
- The number of reported homicides increased from 428 to 528 (23.4%). Victims and offenders tended to be younger males; 45.1% of homicide victims were men between 18 and 34 and 52.7% of offenders were men between 18 and 34. Nearly half (49.2%) of all homicides occurred at a residence/home.
- Motor vehicle thefts and attempted thefts increased 6% compared to 2019 during which 10,575 motor vehicles were stolen in 10,044 offenses. During 2020, there were 11,209 motor vehicles reported stolen in 10,773 offenses. In 2020, 6,366 motor vehicles were recovered (vehicles may have been stolen prior to 2020). Of all motor vehicles stolen, 40.2% were taken from the residence/home. The reported value of all motor vehicles stolen was $113,993,341.
- Drug arrests decreased by more than a third (36.7%) with the largest percentage decrease in the under 18 age group (48.6%). The number of reports of drugs seized decreased for nearly all drug types, especially marijuana (31.7%), due in part to decriminalization of possessing less than 1 ounce of the drug effective July 1, 2020.
- Burglary decreased 18.4%. Of the 11,413 burglaries and attempted burglaries, more than half (52.2%) took place at night between 6 p.m. and 6 a.m., a reverse pattern from 2019 during which 54.8% of burglaries occurred during the day. Furthermore, 68% occurred at a residence/home, a decrease of 7.3% over the previous year.
- Of the known weapons reported for violent crimes, firearms were used in 83% of homicides and 50.4% of robberies. Firearms were used in more than one-third (35.2%) of aggravated assault cases.
- There were 190 hate crime offenses, involving 193 victims, reported in 2020 representing a 2.7% increase compared to 2019. Two offenses indicated more than one type of bias motivation. Nearly three-fourths (72.8%) were racially or ethnically motivated. Bias toward sexual orientation and religion were next highest (14.4%, 11.8%, respectively). Of all reported bias motivated crime, 77.4% were assault offenses (aggravated assault, simple assault) or destruction/damage/vandalism of property.
The report employs an Incident Based Reporting (IBR) method for calculating offenses, thus allowing for greater accuracy. IBR divides crimes into two categories: Group A for serious offenses including violent crimes (murder, forcible sex offenses, robbery and aggravated assault), property crimes and drug offenses, and Group B for what are considered less serious offenses such as trespassing, disorderly conduct, bad checks and liquor law violations where an arrest has occurred.
For both Group A and Group B offenses, there were a total of 206,609 arrests in 2020 compared to 274,636 arrests in 2019, representing an overall decrease in arrests in Virginia of 24.8%.
Per state mandate, the Virginia Department of State Police serves as the primary collector of crime data from participating Virginia state and local police departments and sheriffs’ offices. The data are collected by the Virginia State Police Criminal Justice Information Services (CJIS) Division. This information is then compiled into Crime in Virginia, an annual report for use by law enforcement, elected officials, media and the general public. These data become the official crime statistics for the Commonwealth and are sent to the FBI for incorporation into their annual report, Crime in the United States.
Judge will allow amended complaint to be filed against Meza council appointment
It appeared to be a 3-2 win for Plaintiff Paul Aldrich from Judge William Sharp in a June 4th written decision on oral arguments to reconsider the judge’s original denial of a challenge of the in-house appointment of Jacob Meza to the Front Royal Town Council four days after the term he chose not to run for re-election to expired on January 1.
The bottom line was in the final paragraph of the 3-1/2 page written reaction to the oral arguments the court heard from plaintiff counsel David Downes and defense attorney Heather Bardot 10 days earlier on May 25th.
“I will grant the plaintiff, Aldrich, twenty-one days to file an Amended Complaint if he be so inclined. The defendants, Town and Meza, shall then respond within twenty-one days of the Amended Complaint,” Judge Sharpe wrote in concluding his written decision, adding instructions to Aldrich’s attorney – “The plaintiff’s counsel, Mr. Downes, should prepare an order reflecting this ruling, to be endorsed by both counsel with an opportunity to note any exceptions.”
The need for an amended complaint was explained in the judge’s previous three-plus pages, ruling on five specific issues in dispute:
1/ Does the court have jurisdiction to make a ruling? – Yes.
2/ Does the plaintiff complaint fail to state that Town Code Section 47 applies to council appointments? – Not yet proven by the defendants.
3/ Has the defense established that Town Code Section 47 is unconstitutional in its stated exception to the appointment of councilmen to the office of Town Treasurer within the one-year prohibition to staff appointments, and hence render it not applicable to the issue at hand? – No.
4/ Does plaintiff Aldrich state sufficient grounds to support the sought preliminary injunction against Meza’s appointment? – No.
5/ Is a Writ of Mandamus the proper remedy for this case? – No, but a “quo warranto” filing asserting the priority of the Town Charter in the challenge could be the venue for such remedy.
And as stated above, the bottom line is that Judge Sharp will allow the plaintiff to amend his complaint to fit the proper legal reference points the court notes in its ruling. And then allow the defense to respond to that amended complaint before moving toward a hearing for more oral arguments in support of the amended written complaint and defense response.
Alisa Carson gets 12-month suspended sentence in shooting incident plea agreement
During the Tuesday, June 1st afternoon docket of Warren County General District Court, the Commonwealth entered into a plea agreement with 41-year-old Alisa Carson on two firearms charges related to a March 29th shooting incident in her Church Street apartment. Carson, who holds the Happy Creek Magisterial District Chair’s seat of the Warren Count Republican Committee, pled “No Contest” to a misdemeanor count of “reckless handling of a firearm”. The Commonwealth consequently dropped a felony “willful discharge of a firearm, missile in/at an occupied building” charge.
“She said she thought it was unloaded,” Assistant Commonwealth’s Attorney Nick Manthos told the Royal Examiner after completion of the approximate 10-minute hearing that began at 2:34 p.m. Substitute Judge Ryan Nuzzo accepted the agreement and found Carson guilty of the reckless handling charge. A “No Contest” plea does not admit guilt but acknowledges that the prosecution has the evidence to convict.
Per the plea agreement, Carson was sentenced to 12 months in jail, with all 12 months suspended. She will be on unsupervised probation for those 12 months and is ordered to remain on good behavior for that period of time.
Carson also sacrificed the involved Ruger .22-caliber handgun to the Commonwealth as part of the agreement. And defense counsel Jerry Talton told the court that his client would sacrifice her right of appeal of a guilty verdict as part of the agreement.
As reported in our story on her arrest “Church Street shooting incident results in charges against local woman”, Carson was booked into RSW Regional Jail at 11:58 p.m., Monday night, March 29, and released the following morning on a $5,000 unsecured bond. No one was injured in the incident at 17 Church Street in the rear of the old Murphy’s Building less than a block off the western end of East Main Street in Front Royal’s Historic Downtown Business District. See the linked arrest story for more on Carson’s previous June 8/9, 2020 news cycle appearance in Royal Examiner, this one with political, rather than criminal overtones.
Suspect arrested after Stephens City robbery
On May 20, 2021, at 10:55 p.m., Deputies from the Frederick County Sheriff’s Office responded to 121 Fairfax Pike (Shell Station/Handy Mart) Stephens City, Va., for a report of a robbery that just occurred.
When Deputies arrived on the scene, they made contact with the store clerk, Shahzad Munir, and a witness, Mr. Munir advised a black male wearing a neon yellow shirt was in the store for approximately 40 minutes at the lottery ticket machine next to the counter. The male then went to purchase items from Mr. Munir and when Mr. Munir began to check the male out, the male walked behind the counter, pulled a knife, and demanded money. Mr. Munir then began to wrestle with the male, knocking numerous items down in the store. As the suspect fled the store, he dropped his face mask and his cell phone but was able to get away with an undisclosed amount of money. The male ran outside where a witness, in this case, attempted to stop him but was unable to. The male entered a vehicle (later learned to be a green Honda Accord showing a Virginia Registration). The witness struck the passenger side windshield, damaging it. The suspect fled the scene.
Through the investigation, it was determined the suspect, in this case, was going to be Richard George Wheatly. Units across the area were advised of the vehicle description in question and BOLs for the vehicle was given. Culpeper County Sheriff’s Office was contacted since it was believed that the suspect lived in that area. Culpeper County Sheriff’s Office located the vehicle as it entered their County. Richard George Wheatly, age 27, was stopped and taken into custody without incident. Richard Wheatly was held without bond at the Jail at the Northwest Regional Adult Detention Center. Wheatly was charged with Assault, Robbery of a business, and vandalism.
This was one of those cases where there could have been a serious injury and numerous agencies were able to work together, develop the information needed to locate the suspect, and in the end, there was a positive outcome without any injury to anyone involved.
(Press release from Sheriff Lenny Millholland, Frederick County Sheriff’s Office)