Ex-sheriff faced 21 counts in federal court; judge is considering agreement
By Sally Voth -- firstname.lastname@example.org
HARRISONBURG -- Disgraced former Page County Sheriff Daniel W. "Danny" Presgraves stood before U.S. District Judge Glen E. Conrad Friday morning and pleaded guilty to racketeering.
Nine women, believed to be the victims of Presgraves' aggressive sexual advances detailed in the former sheriff's indictments, sat two rows behind the prosecution.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Tom Bondurant spoke of fancy dinners and conjugal visits for inmates performing work at Presgraves' properties.
Conrad said he wasn't ready to accept the plea agreement, but would take it under advisement.
By pleading guilty Friday, Presgraves, 47, avoided going on trial next month on 21 counts, including money laundering, mail fraud, cockfighting-related conspiracy and violating the civil rights of female subordinates. Two charges of lying to federal investigators were to be tried separately.
The maximum penalty for racketeering is 20 years in prison and a $250,000 fine, Bondurant said. He said Presgraves has agreed to pay a $75,000 penalty. The plea agreement stipulates that Presgraves admits guilt to six of 14 acts in the racketeering count -- five acts of obstruction of justice and one act of using inmate labor. While Presgraves didn't admit to the numerous sexual-harassment allegations in the rest of the indictment, the obstruction he admitted to was related to the investigation of that harassment.
Federal investigators began a probe after receiving information the sheriff was taking bribes from cockfighters, Bondurant said. That's when other misconduct came to light, including "predatory sexual behavior towards the female employees" of the Sheriff's Office, he said. This included groping, masturbating in front of the women and undressing an intoxicated employee, according to Bondurant.
In summer 2007, Presgraves called his employees to his home and told them he was under investigation, Bondurant said, "and said he would find out who was testifying against him." Many employees -- who could be fired by Presgraves without cause -- took this as a threat not to cooperate.
Presgraves approached one female victim in the Sheriff's Office parking lot in August 2007, and told her the feds were in town and, "she didn't have to tell them anything," Bondurant said.
On Aug. 19, 2007, the former sheriff was at a party drinking with a 19-year-old female employee, according to Bondurant. He said Presgraves engaged in "predatory" sexual activity with her while she was very drunk. When he later saw her at the Page County Fair, Presgraves told her she could tell investigators she'd been drinking, "But, the important thing is I didn't touch you."
He told her to stick to the story and assured her that her job was safe, Bondurant said. Her mother was also approached by Presgraves, who said, "These women are going to be the death of me," Bondurant said. While staring at her, Presgraves said her daughter was the star witness and he could talk to her at any time, Bondurant said.
"What happens at the Page County Sheriff's Office stays at the Page County Sheriff's Office," Bondurant said another woman was told. 'You should take it to the grave."
Some Page County Jail inmates were known as the "chosen few," released from the jail to do construction-related work at Presgraves' home and other properties he had an interest in, Bondurant said. He said Presgraves, who owned a construction and land-investment company, called other jails seeking inmates with specific construction skills.
"[There were] steak dinners they received at the defendant's house, conjugal visits with wives and girlfriends," Bondurant said.
Some were even taken to a baseball game in Washington, Bondurant said. Some were paid. While inmates sentenced to more than a year are sent into the state prison system, Presgraves wrote to the Department of Corrections asking to be allowed to keep in the local jail some inmates he had working for him, Bondurant said.
The judge repeatedly asked Presgraves if he understood his plea and the rights he was giving up. Presgraves said he did.
"There will be period of incarceration to serve," Conrad said. "By the way, it wouldn't make me mad if you did change your mind [opted out of the plea agreement]."
A guilty verdict would mean Presgraves gave up certain rights, including the right to have a gun and the right to hold public office.
"No doubt in your mind?" Conrad asked.
Presgraves replied, "No doubt."
The criminal acts are the antithesis of public service and what a sheriff should do, the judge said.
"This is an awfully big day for you," he said. "It's a life-altering day."
A probation officer will prepare a report that will help the judge decide whether to accept the agreement. A sentencing date hasn't been set, and Presgraves remains free on bond.
After leaving court, some of the women hugged Luray resident John Case, a friend of some of the sexual-harassment victims.
"It's been a nightmare for them," Case, 49, said. "They needed justice. It's obvious through the plea agreement that he's not going to get what he justly needs. We're talking about nine-plus women here. For him to get what he needs, that's not going to happen, [but] just for him having to stand up there, get a guilty plea, that was a part of that. They're happy that it's over with.
Racketeering was "the essence" of the prosecution's whole case, Bondurant said outside court. He said Presgraves was driven by "plain and simple arrogance."
"He thought he was like the king of the county, and he could get by with anything he wanted to," Bondurant said.
And, for a few years, Presgraves could, Bondurant said. The prosecution had more than 100 people to testify, he said.
"I'm sure there's a huge collective sigh of relief over the mountain right now," Bondurant said.