FRONT ROYAL — Judge Ian Williams on Wednesday ruled in General District Court that former Front Royal-Warren County Economic Development Authority Executive Director Jennifer McDonald defamed Supervisor Tom Sayre and that he is entitled to $20,000 in damages.
Sayre’s defamation case centered around his phone number being listed on a note that was discovered in McDonald’s yard during the investigation into a June 2017 incident in which a rock was thrown through her home’s front door.
That note contained instructions on how to carry out the crime against McDonald and also referenced a May 2017 break-in at the EDA’s office.
McDonald last year was charged on a misdemeanor count of filing a false police report related to the incident, with the primary evidence being that she told local reporter Roger Bianchini of the rock-throwing before it had occurred. Those charges were dismissed in October.
During previous testimony in the civil defamation hearing, Bianchini testified that McDonald told him of the incident several hours before it occurred, a fact confirmed by Front Royal Police Detective Landin Waller’s testimony. Waller testified that during an interview regarding the office break-in, Bianchini revealed he learned of the rock-throwing hours before it was reported to the Warren County Sheriff’s Office.
Bianchini provided the same testimony in the criminal proceedings, but McDonald’s criminal lawyer David Crump asked what he would say if former EDA Administrative Assistant Missy Henry’s calendar showed he has a meeting scheduled with McDonald the morning after the incident. Bianchini responded that his memory is imperfect and that he did not remember if he had scheduled a meeting with McDonald.
Bianchini said over the phone Thursday that “anyone can write anything on a calendar at any time” and that if a meeting was scheduled the morning after the rock-throwing, it was canceled. He noted that the alleged calendar entry supposedly said he had a meeting at 9:30 a.m. with McDonald while his interview with Waller was at about 10:30 a.m. and there is no way he would have forgotten going to the EDA office an hour after having done so.
Judge Ian Williams said it is unfortunate that Bianchini’s “lack of memory” resulted in the misdemeanor charge being dismissed. He said Bianchini “seems to have rehabilitated” his memory. He added that witnesses who did not testify in criminal proceedings confirmed Bianchini’s statements.
The basis of Sayre’s suit is that the note was an attempt by McDonald to implicate Sayre in a crime because he was asking questions regarding the EDA’s workforce housing project.
Court filings in the EDA’s $17.6 million civil lawsuit against McDonald and others allege that the workforce housing project is one of many ways she embezzled money from the authority.
While McDonald has been sued by Sayre and the EDA, she also stands charged on 28 felony counts including embezzlement, obtaining money by false pretenses and money laundering stemming from her employment as executive director.
During Wednesday’s testimony, Sayre testified that the land for the workforce housing apartments was supposed to be a gift from her aunt and uncle.
The EDA, he said, later announced that the land would not be free due to a missed deadline and former EDA Chairman Greg Drescher said the authority had a moral obligation to purchase the land.
Sayre said his interest was piqued because the land deed was normal and not a “deed of gift” while a contract mentioned nothing of free land.
Sayre testified he initially learned of the rock-throwing from McDonald in her office on Aug. 9, 2017. He said McDonald asked if he was aware of the incident, he replied no, and she “acted surprised.”
He added that she turned her head to the side and “it was hard for her to look at me eye to eye at that point.” He said she did not mention the note or that he may be a suspect.
About two weeks later, Sayre said he learned of his number’s appearance on the note during a phone conversation with local reporter Norma Jean Shaw.
“I’ll never forget...I was in my kitchen,” Sayre said and began crying.
After being given tissues from a bailiff, Sayre eventually continued, saying Shaw told him to “protect myself.”
He said Shaw said his number was found at the scene of the crime, that the perpetrator — supposedly a former client of Sayre’s who threw the rock to pay off a debt — was identified and “I was basically caught.”
“I was stunned,” Sayre said.
During a previous hearing, text messages and emails from McDonald to Bianchini were revealed in which she stated that her private investigator may have tips that an elected official was involved in a series of vandalism incidents at her house. Also referenced in exchanges between the two was that an individual identified as “photo boy” and “Putin” may be involved in the incidents.
Bianchini previously testified that while Sayre’s name was not directly mentioned, those were indisputable references to Sayre. Bianchini explained “photo boy” is a reference to a Northern Virginia Daily photograph from the 1990s in which Sayre is participating in an anti-abortion demonstration. Evidence also shows that McDonald sent Bianchini an email stating that “photo boy” is the “Putin” pulling the strings in a conspiracy against her.
Bianchini also testified that McDonald never told him whose number was on the note, but hinted that it was Sayre’s. Bianchini further testified that McDonald told him her private investigator identified the rock-thrower via security footage and the perpetrator was going to wear a wire to help identify “Putin.”
Ken Pullen, that private investigator, previously testified that there was no video footage and no one was going to wear a wire. Sayre’s lawyer Tim Bosson said that alone is enough evidence to prove his case.
Sayre said everything about the exchanges between Bianchini and McDonald was false and it was a scam by McDonald to deflect attention off of her.
Bosson asked why McDonald would make “off the record” comments implicating Sayre but not identify Sayre during a police interview as an individual who may want to harm her.
Bosson said McDonald told Bianchini so he would tell people and “spread the gossip” and “that’s what he did,” as Bianchini previously testified that he told about four people of the note.
After learning that McDonald attempted to frame him in a crime, Sayre said he suffered from “a lot of” stress, anxiety, loss of sleep and sought counseling from a priest.
Lee Berlik, McDonald’s lawyer, noted that it seemed Sayre’s emotional harm was based on Shaw calling him, not anything McDonald said.
Berlik added that Sayre was “instrumental” in spreading the word that his number was on the note, to which Sayre responded that he told a limited amount of people because he was scared.
Sayre said: “There are people that get knocked off when they know too much,” citing the murders of a Front Royal Police Department officer and a local doctor.
“I was a little concerned that McDonald might kill me,” Sayre said.
Berlik said while Sayre may have feared for his life, that does not mean it was a reasonable thought.
Sayre, who previously practiced as a full-time lawyer, claimed further damage as he was “so disheartened” by his phone number’s appearance on the note because a lawyer’s credibility “means everything.” He said McDonald “was trying to destroy me” and was worried he could be disbarred.
Sayre said he eventually stopped practicing law full-time to accept a position as Seton Home Schools’ human resources manager. Berlik said that not practicing law full-time was Sayre’s voluntary decision. He added Sayre did not suffer monetarily from the decision, as his beginning salary at Seton was $92,000 — about $10,000 less than his salary as a lawyer – which has since increased with cost of living adjustments.
Sayre said he lost money due to “loss of opportunity” because he spent so much time attempting to “put the pieces of the puzzle together.”
He added that he was worried about losing his position on the Board of Supervisors, saying “look what happened to Hollis Tharpe” — Front Royal’s former mayor who resigned before having a misdemeanor prostitution case against him dropped.
“You were worried about a lot of things but none of them actually happened,” Berlik said.
Berlik asked if the motive behind the lawsuit was not to repair reputational damage but to “punish Jennifer,” to which Sayre responded, “absolutely not.”
Berlik noted several witnesses previously testified that they never believed Sayre was involved in the rock-throwing and that his reputation was not harmed.
“His reputation hasn’t been affected, except in his mind,” Berlik said.
Berlik said all of Bosson’s claims were based on assumption and “you’ve got to provide people who actually believed the harm to his reputation.”
Sayre noted that Drescher and former Sheriff Daniel McEathron — who committed suicide in May after being named as a defendant in the EDA’s lawsuit — started “treating me differently.”
After Berlik referenced the rock-throwing incident as “petty vandalism,” Bosson said the vandalism was much more as it was an attempt to implicate Sayre in a series of crimes.
Bosson added that there was “serious harm” to Sayre’s reputation in the year between the rock-throwing and the misdemeanor charge against McDonald.
Berlik also questioned what the defamatory statement was: McDonald’s communication with Bianchini or the note. Berlik said Bosson just presented suspicion and a possible motive but no one knows who wrote the note. Berlik added that Sayre’s number was indeed on the note, so telling that to people is a true statement and not defamatory.
Sayre said he would not speculate who threw the rock or wrote the note “but I think all the evidence points at McDonald” and there is “overwhelming evidence” that it was her.
“I’ve been harmed by this letter,” he added.
Berlik said there are other people who would have the motive to harm Sayre’s reputation, such as Bianchini. Berlik added he was “not saying” Bianchini threw the rock. Berlik noted, however, that Sayre “had stalked” Bianchini and accused him of cutting wires on his wife’s vehicle.
Beyond Bianchini, Berlik added that there are “plenty of people around here who would have motivation to frame Sayre.”
Sayre said he “had worked hard to mend” his relationship with Bianchini but after learning of the note “he grew distant from me again” and began writing unfavorable articles.
Sayre said McDonald seemingly “played” Bianchini to spread false information about the note.
Sayre also noted that because McDonald knew of the crime before it happened, all other suspects are exonerated. Sayre said McDonald made a mistake in putting his number on the note and, if she did not, she may still be the EDA’s executive director.
In arriving upon a decision, Williams said the proceedings were “far from a simple case” and it “had a lot of components to it.” He said while evidence Bosson presented “is not quite bulletproof that the defendant is the scrivener of that note” that the court “can look at the totality” of circumstantial evidence to figure out McDonald’s “scheme” and “motive.”
Williams said the evidence points toward a scenario in which McDonald’s attempted to deflect attention and implicate Sayre, noting that “clearly the defendant had a lot riding on keeping a lid on” questions regarding EDA finances.
Williams said Bosson’s theory is “clear and convincing in the eyes of the court.” Williams added that there was clear malice and, fortunately, Sayre’s reputation was not largely affected.
Berlik said after the hearing that McDonald has 10 days to appeal the case to the circuit court and he does not know what her decision will be. McDonald declined to comment on the hearing.
Regarding a possible appeal, Bosson said after the hearing: “That’s a joke.” He said that the evidence “proved it all” and the “truth won.”
Sayre said after the hearing that he was “pleased with the results” but declined to comment further, saying he wished to “savor the victory.”