FRONT ROYAL – A Warren County jury on Friday recommended a Front Royal woman serve five years in prison after finding her guilty of stealing from a local veterans group and setting fire to its headquarters.
The jury convicted Lesley Rose Deavers at the end of a five-day trial of arson of an occupied building and embezzlement. Jurors later recommended that Deavers serve five years in prison for arson and six months in jail for embezzlement. The jury also recommended Deavers pay a fine of $100,000 for the arson conviction.
Judge Clifford L. Athey Jr., who presided over the trial, advised jurors they could recommend a punishment of five to 20 years for arson and a fine of up to $100,000, and one to 20 years in prison, or up to 12 months in jail and/or a fine of up to $2,500 for embezzlement.
Athey dismissed the jury and scheduled Deavers’ sentencing hearing for May 24, at which time he also would hear a defense motion to set aside the verdict. Athey denied a defense motion to grant Deavers’ release on bond until the sentencing hearing.
Deavers, 57, of Rugby Street, Front Royal, stood charged with one felony count each of embezzlement of $200 or more from the Front Royal chapter of Veterans of Foreign Wars and arson of an occupied building. The court dismissed Deavers’ second felony count of arson, specifically of an occupied public building, at the request of the prosecutors after the defense argued the VFW headquarters was a private facility.
Commonwealth’s Attorney Brian Madden and Assistant Commonwealth’s Attorney Bryan Layton presented evidence during the five-day trial they claimed proved Deavers’ stole money from the VFW through 2014 and 2015 and, when questioned about a July 3, 2015, break-in at the building, intentionally set a fire in the headquarters eight days later on July 11, 2015. Authorities have not charged anyone in the break-in. Prosecutors also presented evidence they said showed town police investigators interviewed Deavers about the break-in the day before the fire and told her they planned to resume their questioning a few days later.
Defense attorneys Jason Ransom and Jonathan Silvester presented evidence they said showed their client did not steal money from the organization she supported for 19 years nor did she have a motive. The defense presented testimony that Deavers was at home of the time of the July 3, 2015, break-in and could not have broken into the building.
The defense also presented evidence they claim that faulty, improper wiring likely caused the fire. Athey qualified two electricians called by the defense as expert witnesses. Both witnesses testified that the electrical system, specifically the panel boxes, appeared in the photographs to have been improperly installed.
Jurors took approximately 2 1/2 hours to reach a verdict and another 40 minutes to decide on a recommended punishment.
After reaching its verdict Friday afternoon, jurors heard testimony during the sentencing phase from post commander Jeffrey D. Cook who spoke about how the embezzlement and the fire affected the veterans’ organization. Madden asked Cook about the status of the organization. The local American Legion post lets the VFW meet at its building, Cook said. The VFW has spent the past three years trying to build a new headquarters and, since demolishing the building, saw the cost of such a project increase beyond the organization’s means, Cook testified.
The embezzlement also hurt the organization and the members’ morale, Cook said.
“It’s been very devastating for the members,” Cook testified. “I have to look at these guys every month and tell them what we’re trying to do to rebuild, to reestablish a place within the community so that we can take up what we used to do and that was to serve our community, from the little leagues to the Scouts, even with ... our wives and our own children.”
The loss of the post headquarters cut the organization’s ability to raise revenue, Cook said. The post had held events such as bingo and dinners to help raise money for the organization.
Madden asked Cook to tell jurors about “any sense of betrayal” felt by VFW members as a result of Deavers’ actions.
“I can tell you everyone at that post considered her a part of the family,” Cook said. “I’m not afraid to say that to her; everybody loved her.
“We were totally caught blindsided, and no one’s gonna win here,” Cook added. “But, to a T, every man and woman that was a part of the post feels like we’ve been stabbed.”
The VFW went through financial hardship and nearly reached a point before the fire to where they could possibly offer Deavers full time employment with the organization, Cook said.
Ransom asked Cook what percentage of the members did he estimate thought Deavers committed the crimes. Cook said he estimated about 90 percent believed she committed the crimes.
Deavers’ boyfriend Ashby Spiker Jr. testified on behalf of the defense and told the jury how his girlfriend’s imprisonment would affect his life and the lives of her children and grandchildren.
“Well, it’s gonna be rough,” Spiker said, going on to say that other family members would likely watch the grandchildren since he works full time.
Deavers testified as to her relationship with her grandchildren.
“That’s my world, and I’m their world,” Deavers said. “I take care of them from daylight until they go to bed.”
Ransom asked Deavers if she had ever been convicted of a crime, to which she said no. Deavers admitted she has had one speeding ticket in her life.
After hearing testimony, jurors heard arguments from Layton and Ransom as to the punishment members should recommend. Layton did not ask the jury to recommend a specific sentence. Ransom asked the jury to consider Deavers’ family.
“When she goes to prison, it’s gonna be difficult for the grandkids,” Ransom said. “It’s gonna be difficult for Ashby Spiker.”