Editor's note: This is the first in a series of stories looking back at this year's top local news.
Courts in Virginia’s 26th Judicial Circuit stayed busy in 2018 as judges presided over cases involving murder, sex crimes against children and adults, and illegal narcotics.
Here's a look at some of the cases:
• A Warren County grand jury indicted a man and a woman in March on charges related to a 22-month-old boy’s death and injuries to the child’s twin brother that occurred the previous fall. Early in December, Chad Ritchie entered a plea deal the second day of his jury trial that called for him to plead guilty, but maintain his innocence, to his charges of second-degree murder, malicious wounding and two counts of child abuse. The children’s mother, Tabitha Zimmerman, charged with child endangerment, faces a jury trial on the two counts.
• Front Royal police charged a man and a woman in January with engaging in sexual activity with a child under 13 years old. Merranda Sue Ward must serve eight years in prison after a judge convicted her of the sex crime along with other offenses per a plea agreement reached between Ward’s lawyer and a prosecutor. The co-defendant in the sex case, Joshua Showers, is scheduled to appear in Warren County Circuit Court in January.
• A judge sentenced a Fort Valley man in Shenandoah County Circuit Court in late January to two life terms in prison for committing two counts of rape of a child under 13 years old. The judge upheld a jury’s recommended sentence it reached after finding James Allen Lutz guilty of both charges.
• A judge sentenced a New York couple to suspended prison time for running methamphetamine in Shenandoah County in 2013. The judge convicted Wayne Allen Shillenburg and Valeria Ann Hall to 10-year prison terms for making the drug and suspended all time.
• A Warren County grand jury indicted a Front Royal woman in February on a charge of child abuse. Authorities had accused Katlyn B. Morningstar of biting an infant in her care. Less than six months later a jury found her not guilty and acquitted her of the charge.
• Authorities accused Shane Wesley Sisk of raping a woman in Shenandoah County and then trying to set her on fire earlier this year. Sisk faces a jury trial in Shenandoah County Circuit Court in April.
• Allen Julian Whitehead pleaded guilty in Warren County Circuit Court earlier this year to firearms charges and assault. The court dismissed at the prosecutor’s request Whitehead’s remaining charges of malicious wounding and another gun offense. Authorities had accused Whitehead of shooting his daughter in the face.
• A 16-month investigation in the illegal-drug trade culminated in the indictment of 18 people in federal court. Most of the defendants already had been indicted in Shenandoah County Circuit Court on drug charges. The federal indictment means the U.S. District Attorney’s Office takes over the cases, leaving the local prosecutors to ask the circuit courts to dismiss the defendants’ charges.
The 26th Judicial Circuit also saw two of its longtime judges retire this year. Judges Ronald Napier and Dennis L. Hupp stepped down from the bench after years of service. Hupp remained on a list of judges who offered to preside over the court when called to serve. The Supreme Court of Virginia and the General Assembly has yet to fill either of the two judgeships with permanent replacements.