FRONT ROYAL — Pending the signature of Judge Bruce D. Albertson, former Front Royal-Warren County Economic Development Authority Executive Director Jennifer McDonald’s civil defamation lawsuit against Supervisor Tom Sayre will be withdrawn from further legal action.
Margaret Ward, Sayre’s lawyer, explained over the phone that a non-suit means the case will not proceed unless the plaintiff decides to resurrect it within six months.
Lee Berlik, McDonald’s lawyer states in a letter to the Warren County Circuit Court office that hearings in the case slated for Sept. 12 and 18 “can be removed from the docket.” The order is signed by Berlik and Ward and is awaiting approval by Albertson.
Ward said she fully anticipates that Albertson will approve the non-suit and that “it would be extremely unusual” for him not to do so.
McDonald filed the lawsuit against Sayre in February, five months after Sayre filed a defamation lawsuit against her.
Both lawsuits stem from a June 15, 2017, incident in which a rock was thrown through the front door of McDonald’s home. That night, a note containing instructions on how to carry out the crime was found in McDonald’s front yard. The note concluded by listing phone numbers belonging to Sayre and former Town Manager Michael Graham.
McDonald was charged and found not guilty on a misdemeanor count of filing a false police report regarding the incident, a charge based on McDonald allegedly detailing the incident to local reporter Roger Bianchini about six hours before it was reported to the police.
When Judge Dale Houff dismissed the charges in October, he said he could not disregard the “common sense” that McDonald would set herself up. He noted that it is “fairly clear” that the note was somehow “fabricated” and that “something is made up and something is horribly wrong with this.”
McDonald resigned as the EDA’s executive director in December and in March the EDA filed a $17.6 million embezzlement and misappropriation civil lawsuit against her and eight other defendants. She has since been charged with 14 felony counts of embezzlement and obtaining money by false pretenses.
Sayre claims McDonald was frustrated over his inquiries regarding the EDA’s workforce housing project — one of the many alleged embezzlement schemes in the EDA’s lawsuit against McDonald — and that McDonald staged the rock-throwing incident and planted the note in attempts to frame him.
Sayre’s lawsuit also focuses on McDonald allegedly telling people that his phone number was discovered at the crime scene and that he was potentially involved in the incident. As a result, Sayre claims that he suffered from anxiety, lost sleep and a harmed reputation.
Court filings by Berlik state that Sayre spread rumors of McDonald throwing the rock and planting the note, which resulted in severe damage to her reputation and “a great deal of emotional distress and anguish.”
During an Aug. 2 hearing in Sayre’s case against McDonald, Bianchini testified that he is confident McDonald told him of the rock-throwing incident before it happened.
Front Royal police detective Landin Waller testified that Bianchini detailed the incident to him about five hours before the rock-throwing and that Bianchini “did not show any signs of deceptive behavior.”
Bianchini also testified that while McDonald did not tell him Sayre’s number was on the note, “she made it indirectly clear that it was his.” Bianchini testified that McDonald, in a series of text messages, indicated that Sayre may be a “puppet master” in a conspiracy against her.
Ward said she is doubtful whether McDonald’s non-suit will have any impact in Sayre’s defamation case that has a Sept. 11 hearing scheduled during which McDonald and Sayre will testify.
Had McDonald’s case been heard, Ward said she “was confident very much” that McDonald “would not prove that Sayre defamed her in any way.”
“It was our position from the beginning that McDonald had more likely than not created the vandalism at her house to deflect investigation into her activities at the EDA,” she said.
Ward said she does not know why the non-suit was requested but suspects it relates to a request for McDonald’s deposition. She noted that Berlik told her that, if deposed, McDonald would plead the Fifth Amendment right not to incriminate herself.
Ward said a plaintiff pleading the Fifth Amendment is not unheard of but is “unusual.”
If the non-suit had not been requested, Ward noted that she would have asked that the case be delayed until after McDonald’s criminal proceedings are complete.
Berlik did not respond to a request for comment.