Arson defendant battling for estate

HARRISONBURG – One of the four defendants in an arson case in Shenandoah County Circuit Court is also a defendant in a courtroom battle over control of the property on which the fire occurred.

The case pits Dolly Jean Wimer, identified in the lawsuit as Dolly McAvoy, against Anna Johnston, who is the sister of a man who died and deeded the property to Wimer. Johnston accuses Wimer of steering a mentally enfeebled Robert Wine into handing over the barn and the rest of the 227-acre property to Wimer before his death in 2010. One attorney who has represented Johnston has estimated the value of the property at between $1 million and $2 million.

The case in Rockingham County Circuit Court has produced mixed results so far in determining whether Johnston or Wimer should control the property.

But there is no dispute that the date of the fire – July 27 – came 10 days after a Circuit Court jury verdict in favor of Johnston on July 17. The verdict was a short-lived victory for Johnston, who lost a key decision issued by Rockingham County Circuit Judge Bruce D. Albertson in early April.

Two months later, a Shenandoah County Circuit Court grand jury indicted Wimer, 43, and her husband, Robert Dale Wimer, 44, both of 176 Brannertown Lane, Mount Jackson, on arson charges after an 11-month investigation into the barn fire.

Another couple, Robert Lee Price, 44, and his wife, Cindy Marie Price, 44, both of 157 Brannertown Lane, were also indicted. The four defendants face a total of 17 arson-related counts.

Authorities say all four defendants were living at 176 Brannertown Lane, a part of the Wine estate, at the time of the fire.

The Wimers and Robert Lee Price made their first appearances in Shenandoah County Circuit Court on Wednesday following their arrests last week. Cindy Marie Price, who was also arrested last week, is scheduled for a court appearance on July 15. All four defendants are out on bail.

Shenandoah County Fire Marshal David Ferguson said the 9,200 square foot barn and a tractor destroyed by the fire were insured for a combined total of $100,000.

Wine, 94, a retired government chemist, died in July 2011 a year after he deeded his land to Dolly Wimer and three years after he appointed her sole beneficiary in his will. Wimer had been working for Wine since 2002. Wine had also granted Wimer power of attorney, which authorizes one person to act in place of another person under a variety of circumstances.

Johnston’s dispute with Dolly Wimer took an unusual turn in 2013 when Shenandoah County Circuit Judge Dennis L. Hupp, responding to suspicions Johnston held about the circumstances of Wine’s death, ordered his body exhumed. The death had initially been ruled a result of cardiac arrest.

“Whenever an employee of relatively short tenure with no familial connection ends up with the entire estate of an elderly person, red flags of giant proportions are raised,” Hupp said in a written ruling.

Hupp added that he could see “possible motive for foul play” by Wimer “in that hastening the death of Mr. Wine would remove his life estate in real estate and advance the date upon which she would accede to the rest of the estate.”

Wine’s body was exhumed in December 2013 and taken to the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner in Manassas. The medical examiner filed a report in April 2014 declaring heart disease the cause of death and the manner of death “natural.”

The case moved back to the courtroom in July when a Rockingham County jury found that the contested will identifying Wimer as the sole beneficiary “is not the last will of Raymond Wine.” The verdict meant that the jury backed Johnston’s assertion that a lack of mental capacity by Wine and “undue influence” that Wimer exerted over him rendered the will invalid.

But the second part of the case involving the deed to the property favored Wimer. Both sides agreed to allow Albertson instead of a jury to decide whether the deed was valid.

In his April ruling, Albertson concluded that Wine “had sufficient capacity to execute the deed” and upheld its validity.

“Independently from (Wimer), Wine sought the assistance of attorneys with whom he had long standing relationships,” Albertson wrote. “They assisted in preparing the deed. Credible witnesses who observed him execute the deed also established his capacity.”

Albertson called the deed “a deed of gift” containing words that “clearly describe the affection between (Wine) and (Wimer.)”

The judge had harsh words for Johnston.

“I find the plaintiff lacks credibility,” Albertson wrote, referring to Johnston. “Plaintiff was not intimately involved with Wine, her brother, during the time frame at issue.”

Albertson added: “Her testimony indicates to me that (Johnston) was trying to settle a score.”

Wimer’s attorney in the lawsuit, Kevin Rose, was away from his office this week and unavailable for comment.

Johnston’s attorney, Shelly James of Harrisonburg, refused to comment on her next step in the case.

“I’m not at liberty to say anything about it at this point,” James said Thursday.

Contact staff writer Joe Beck at 540-465-5137 ext. 142, or jbeck@nvdaily.com