FRONT ROYAL – Supervisor Tom Sayre’s civil defamation case against Jennifer McDonald, former Front Royal-Warren County Economic Development Authority executive director, was continued to Sept. 11 after 12 witnesses’ testimonies spanned nearly five hours Friday in Warren County General District Court.
Sayre’s defamation claim stems from a June 15, 2017, incident in which a rock was thrown through the front door of McDonald’s home. During the investigation of that incident, a note was found on McDonald’s lawn containing directions on how to carry out the crime and listing Sayre’s phone number at the end.
Sayre’s claim is that McDonald planted the note with intentions of framing him because he questioned the EDA’s workforce housing project, which is one of several avenues McDonald is accused of using as an embezzlement scheme in a $17.6 million civil lawsuit filed by the authority.
While McDonald faces the EDA’s pending civil litigation, she was released on bond this week after serving two months in jail on 14 indictments of embezzlement and obtaining money by false pretenses.
The Virginia State Police charged McDonald last year on a misdemeanor count of filing a false police report relating to the rock-throwing incident and the charges were dismissed.
Sayre’s case, however, is based on allegations that she staged the rock-throwing incident, planted the note and told people his number was listed. The lawsuit claims Sayre suffered anxiety and a harmed reputation as a result.
Local reporter Roger Bianchini was a key witness due to his June 16, 2017, interview with the Front Royal Police Department regarding a break-in at the EDA office.
Front Royal Police Detective Landin Waller testified that break-in included the vandalism of several photographs and a picture of McDonald’s face being pinned to her board room chair with a steak knife. He added that files regarding the ITFederal, workforce housing and criminal justice academy projects - all listed as alleged embezzlement schemes in the EDA’s lawsuit - were later reported stolen.
Waller said there was no forced entry and the perpetrator must have walked through the office door, adding that the only people with keys were McDonald, former EDA administrative assistant Missy Henry and former EDA Marketing Director Marla Jones.
During Bianchini’s interview, he informed investigators that McDonald detailed the rock-throwing incident to him on June 15, 2017, about five hours before it was reported to the Warren County Sheriff’s Office.
Waller testified that he had no reason to doubt Bianchini and “he did not show any signs of deceptive behavior” during the interview.
During that June 15 meeting with McDonald, Bianchini said McDonald mentioned a note that had a phone number with a 202 area code and a phone number with a lot of sevens. This led him to believe it was Sayre’s phone number, which he knew ended in four consecutive sevens.
“It was danced around that the seven, seven, seven number was Mr. Sayre’s and she made it indirectly clear that it was his,” he said.
Bianchini said he went on to tell his former co-worker Norma Jean Shaw, former town manager Michael Graham (to whom the 202 number belonged), his girlfriend and a Northern Virginia Daily reporter that Sayre’s number was on the note.
Jones testified that Bianchini was indeed in the office on June 15, 2017, and that she did not see him at the office on June 16, 2017, but the position of her office may have prevented her from seeing him.
Jones also testified that Bianchini “seems to think that conspiracies are everywhere.”
Bianchini testified that the rock-throwing incident was preceded by McDonald telling him of a series of vandalism incidents at her house.
Tim Bosson, Sayre’s lawyer, presented a June 11, 2017, text message in which McDonald told Bianchini that her private investigator may have tips that an elected official is involved in those incidents.
While she did not directly identify Sayre as that elected official, Bianchini said she told him it was “someone I’ve been trying to get a photo of for you,” which was definitely a reference to Sayre. Bianchini noted that the two had previously discussed an image of Sayre that appeared in an edition of the Northern Virginia Daily around 1990, which Bianchini said he would like to locate because Sayre “looked a little different" than he does now.
This, Bianchini said, was the only photograph he and McDonald ever discussed.
Of his relationship with Sayre, Bianchini said “let’s just say I’m more comfortable when he’s not around.” He said McDonald was aware of this “tenuous” relationship and perhaps she was trying to “play me” for better stories regarding the EDA.
Lee Berlik, McDonald’s lawyer, attempted to identify faults with Bianchini’s memory, indicating that he may have been informed of the rock-throwing incident the morning of June 16.
Berlik noted that Bianchini has a pacemaker, which may affect memory, a side effect of which Bianchini said he was unaware.
Berlik then pointed out that Bianchini was drinking at Melting Pot Pizza the night of June 15, to which Bianchini responded that he had two or three Bud Lights. Asked if beer affects his memory, Bianchini said: “maybe if I drink a whole lot of beer.”
“But two or three? No, and I don’t drink a lot because my cardiologist won’t let me.”
Berlik pointed out that during a hearing in the filing a police report charge against McDonald that Bianchini said his “train of thought derails frequently.” Bianchini said that while those derailings occur, his memory is “a lot better” the day after an incident as opposed to years after and that he is certain McDonald told him of the rock-throwing incident a day before it happened.
Bianchini noted that he had been writing stories about the workforce housing project while Shaw had been asking questions surrounding McDonald's land purchases with former Sheriff Daniel McEathron - who died of an apparent suicide after being named in the EDA’s civil lawsuit.
Shaw testified that in 2017 she had been investigating EDA projects, and McDonald told her that every time such a story appeared another incident occurred.
The note left in McDonald’s yard states that files should be delivered to Norma Jean, and when asked who would have the motive to put her name one such a note, she said the “only person I could imagine would be Jennifer McDonald.”
Tim Bosson, Sayre's lawyer, presented a July 14, 2017, message from McDonald to Bianchini stating that a private investigator was able to use a security camera to identify the rock-throwing perpetrator, who she said was a “former client” of Sayre. McDonald states in the message that the private investigator would have that culprit wear a wire to help identify those involved in the rock-throwing.
Bianchini noted that in these messages, McDonald once again indicated that Sayre was perhaps a “puppet master” in the conspiracy against her.
Ken Pullen testified that the EDA hired him as a private investigator regarding the breaking and entering at the EDA office, but he did not tell McDonald that he suspected an elected official to be involved and he never suspected Sayre’s involvement in the situation. Regarding the wire, he said, “that’s not correct.”
When presented with a letter sent to the Front Royal Police asking for the investigation to be put on inactive status, former EDA Chairman Greg Drescher testified he signed a similar letter, but that was not his signature.
Drescher noted that after the EDA hired the private investigator, he signed a letter asking the Front Royal Police to stop investigating the EDA office break-in and to hand the matter over to the Sheriff’s Office.
Berlik asked several witnesses of what they knew of Sayre’s reputation.
Bianchini said Sayre’s reputation “varies broadly depending on who you to talk to” and “it runs the spectrum from bad to good.” He said he was unaware if Sayre’s reputation had suffered since 2017.
Supervisor Archie Fox said Sayre has a reputation of being honest, a reputation that would hold up upon being accused of a crime. Fox added that the presence of Sayre’s number on the note did seem to weigh on him and it could have affected his career.
Fox also testified that in June 2017 he was at a ribbon-cutting for the new middle school and as he was walking down the hallway, former Sheriff Daniel McEathron told him: “Stay away from Tom Sayre. I’m telling you, stay away from Tom Sayre.”
Waller testified that Sayre has a reputation of being an honest person and that has not changed since May 2017.
Jones said Sayre is “very politically motivated” and “very self-promoting” but she does not know of his reputation other than he is not thought of as a criminal.
In a brief testimony at the beginning of the hearing, Bosson asked if McDonald would like to admit she defamed Sayre, to which she responded: “No.”
Sayre is slated to testify on Sept. 11.