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Year in Review: Heroin, murder cases weighed on courts in 2016

A few cases stand out every year among the thousands crowding onto state and federal court dockets in the northern Shenandoah Valley. Some are notable for their drama, others for important legal and social issues they raise and still others are memorable for the level of interest they generate in the community.

Few people could fail to miss the heroin epidemic that continued to play out in area courtrooms, the last stop for many defendants on a trail marked by months of selling to family, friends, neighbors and strangers, some of whom came close to dying as a result of overdoses.

Wayne Brisett and Rosalind Deneen Allen, both of Baltimore, were accused by federal authorities of delivering about 1½ pounds of heroin – the equivalent of 23,000 dosages – to Front Royal residents, two of whom suffered non-fatal overdoses. Brisett was sentenced to 12½ years in prison and Allen to 10 years in a conspiracy that included four other defendants who received lesser sentences.

Another heroin dealing conspiracy that centered on Winchester led to a prison sentence of 12½ years for Terry Donnell Johnson, identified in U.S District Court documents as one of the conspiracy’s two leaders. Federal law enforcement officials also accused Johnson of selling crack cocaine.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Donald Wolthuis estimated that the nine defendants in the case sold or contributed to the sale of between 22 and 66 pounds of heroin.

A drug court created to provide alternatives to jail for hard core addicts began hearing cases in Winchester in August. The court allows certain defendants to enter rigorous treatment and rehabilitation in exchange for the withholding of a likely jail sentence. The drug court hears cases from Frederick and Clarke counties and Winchester.

Lauren Cummings, executive director of the Northern Shenandoah Valley Substance Abuse Coalition, said in November that several drug court participants were already showing significant progress in the first few months of the program’s operation.

The lengthy criminal history of Claude Shafer Jr. received its grimmest chapter when he entered an Alford plea of guilty in June to the first-degree murder of Phyllis Kline, 65, his neighbor in Edinburg. An Alford plea means a defendant continues to insist on his innocence while admitting the prosecution has enough evidence to convict him in court.

Shafer stabbed Kline to death on the night of June 14, 2013, during a break-in at her house. Authorities found her body two days later when she didn’t appear at her usual Sunday morning church service.

Commonwealth’s Attorney Amanda Wiseley initially sought the death penalty for Shafer but the case was beset by long delays stemming partly from Shafer’s mental health problems at the Rappahannock-Shenandoah-Warren Regional Jail and months of ensuing treatment at Central State Hospital in Petersburg.

Another murder case in Shenandoah County ended in a 50-year prison sentence for Lucas Scott Ward, a former resident of Maryland, who came to Strasburg for a wedding in October 2014 that ended with him arrested in a fatal shooting.

Ward shot the victim, Corry O’Neill, in the mouth at about 3 a.m. while Ward, O’Neill and several others were gathered in a hotel room. Ward pleaded guilty to second-degree murder and several other charges, including malicious bodily injury, strangulation, abduction and assault on a police officer.

A case that began as a criminal investigation slid into a legal dispute between the Shenandoah County Sheriff’s Office and the county public school system. The saga began in January when the Sheriff’s Office and school officials began investigations into allegations of sexual assault by some members of the Strasburg High School boys basketball team on a teammate.

Seven members of the team were charged with misdemeanor assault or battery by mob and pleaded guilty in Shenandoah County Juvenile and Domestic Relations Court in April.

School officials demanded to see a videotape that was operating on the basketball team’s school bus at the time of the incident. The Sheriff’s Office had seized the tape as part of its investigation and continued to withhold it from anyone not involved in law enforcement or the criminal justice system. School Board members said they needed to view the videotape to determine what kind of disciplinary action they should take against students involved in the incident.

Circuit Judge Thomas Wilson IV eventually ordered Sheriff Timothy C. Carter to “make the video available and to show it to the School Board, at times determined by the School Board chair, in the presence of parents and the students at the upcoming School Board disciplinary hearings, in closed session.”

Elsewhere, most of the prosecution’s case against two defendants charged with a long list of cigarette tax evasion offenses collapsed in June when a judge accepted arguments from defense attorney David Downes that his clients had a binding plea agreement with Deputy Commonwealth’s Attorney Louis Campola, despite Campola’s assertions to the contrary.

Under the terms of the agreement and the judge’s ruling, Campola agreed to drop dozens of charges against the two defendants represented by Downes. The only exception was a single count of money laundering against one of the defendants, who had pleaded guilty months before the judge’s ruling.

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