VFW FIRE FILE

Heavy smoke billows out of the Front Royal VFW Post 1860 on North Royal Avenue on July 11, 2015. 

FRONT ROYAL — Jurors considering arson and embezzlement charges against a town woman heard attorneys for both sides Monday give different accounts of how and why a veterans’ group headquarters caught fire in 2015.

Lesley Rose Deavers appeared in Warren County Circuit Court where she stands charged with two counts of arson of an occupied building and one count of embezzlement. The jury trial began Monday and is expected to continue through Wednesday.

Authorities accuse Deavers, 57, of 102 Rugby St., Front Royal, of embezzling from the local chapter of the Veterans of Foreign Wars from January 2014 through May 2015, and of setting fire to the organization’s headquarters at 1850 N. Royal Ave., on July 11, 2015.

Defense attorneys Jason Ransom and Jonathan Sylvester represent Deavers. Commonwealth’s Attorney Brian Madden and Assistant Commonwealth’s Attorney Bryan Layton are prosecuting the case. Judge Clifford L. Athey Jr. seated the jury at 2 p.m., and the trial began at 3:30 p.m. with opening statements from Madden and Ransom.

Madden admitted to jurors the prosecution’s case relied on circumstantial evidence given that investigators have no witnesses who might have seen the defendant set the fire, no surveillance camera footage, fingerprints or DNA.

Deavers and Billy Rose, now deceased, were both affiliated with the VFW and two visitors were in the building when the fire started, Madden said. Deavers, who was employed part-time by the VFW, worked to clean the facility and volunteered to run the club operation. A visitor in the building saw the fire and called 911, Madden said. As Front Royal police officers arrived, they noticed a gas can on a side stoop by the building, Madden noted. The fire destroyed the can but investigators recovered some residue, he added.

Firefighters arrived and tried to save the building. A firefighter would testify that most of the flames appeared to come from a utility closet where the VFW stored its bingo game records, Madden said. The closet was supposed to be locked, but Madden said a police officer would testify it was unlocked. Town police and the Warren County fire marshal returned to the scene a couple of days later once the site cooled to resume their investigation.

The preliminary investigation led the police and the fire marshal to seek assistance from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives to determine a potential cause, Madden said. The law presumes fires occur by accident so the prosecutors must prove the defendant intentionally set the fire, Madden noted.

“So, as a result of the Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms investigators getting called, through the long and very detailed investigation, you’re going to hear the testimony of two ATF agents and what they discovered, and eventually they determined there was little if any evidence to indicate that the fire had been an accident,” Madden said. “So the belief, the working theory, is it was probably arson.”

Investigators then needed to find out why someone would burn down the VFW building, Madden said.

“There’s no indication, based on their review of the evidence, that there was any individual or outside organization who would have gone out of their way to burn down the VFW here in the town of Front Royal,” Madden said. “So, again, the working theory was that somebody set it and the reason why it was set ... the belief was that somebody had a motive to burn the building, maybe not to burn the whole building down but maybe they had motive to set fire to the building to hide some other possible criminal activity or to cover up some evidence of ongoing criminal activity.”

Investigators looked into suspects and eventually focused on Deavers, who had access to the building and to certain sources of the VFW’s money, Madden explained in his statement. Evidence prosecutors planned to show include VFW financial records as well as bank statements from an account belonging to Deavers’ live-in boyfriend, Madden told jurors.

The prosecutor noted that a burglary had occurred at the building about a week prior to the fire and whoever entered the facility ransacked Deavers’ office and broke into electronic gambling machines. Authorities have not charged anyone in the burglary.

But Ransom painted a different picture of how and why a fire might have started at the VFW building, and told jurors his client did not commit arson nor did she steal from her employer of almost 20 years.

“Mr. Madden is correct that circumstantial evidence is good evidence in our court of law,” Ransom said. “However, mere speculation, mere conjecture and guesswork is not adequate under our court of law.”

Ransom told jurors Deavers, a grandmother of seven, dedicated 19 years to the VFW. Deavers loved the members, the organization and what it represents, Ransom said.

“At no point in time was she part of any burglary into the VFW,” Ransom said. “At no point in time did she steal one penny from the VFW, and at no point in time did she set fire to the VFW.”

The defense plans to show that evidence points to possible causes of the blaze, including a lit cigarette tossed into a bathroom trashcan that caught fire and spread into other parts of the building, and an incorrectly installed electrical system throughout an aging structure, Ransom explained.

The defense attorney told jurors the evidence would show his client was at home at the time of the reported burglary so she could not have been involved in the break-in. But Ransom gave another possible reason and culprit for the burglary.

“She wasn’t involved in any burglary, OK, and as we all well know, and the evidence will show that, unfortunately, Warren County, like everywhere in the Shenandoah Valley, has a heroin epidemic ... and you’re gonna hear evidence from law enforcement that heroin addicts tend to break into places, tend to steal, so they can fix their habit,” Ransom said.

The defense plans to put on evidence to show that large amounts of cash deposited into Deavers’ boyfriend’s bank account came as a result of him selling vehicles and from other sources, not the VFW, as prosecutors would claim, Ransom said.

Contact Alex Bridges at abridges@nvdaily.com