Guilty pleas entered by 3rd arson defendant

Twenty-year-old Benjamin Thomas Hale of Castleton pleaded guilty in Rappahannock County Circuit Court Tuesday (April 26) to 12 charges related to four separate crime events. The most noteworthy of the multiple trials for which Hale was scheduled involved the Aug. 20 Grand View Road arson, when four teenagers allegedly broke into the weekend home of William Rowland to party, then used gasoline and other flammable materials found on the property to burn the cabin to the ground.

Circuit Court Judge Burke F. McCahill accepted the plea, finding Hale guilty of all charges.

Hale will be sentenced July 5. And if the judge accepts the sentencing recommendations from  Commonwealth’s Attorney Art Goff, outlined in a plea agreement, Hale will receive suspended sentences on each charge but must enter the Department of Corrections Youthful Offender Program. The program was created to rehabilitate nonviolent young offenders. A four-year period of incarceration is a mandatory minimum sentence under the program..

Also in circuit court Tuesday, an Aug. 2 jury trial was set in a felony animal cruelty case against 26-year-old former Inn at Little Washington sous chef and ex-Cafe Indigo head chef Anthony Robert Ahrens, formerly of Battle Run Lane.

The three trials against Hale, for which Goff said he spent more than 40 hours preparing, involved the theft of items from Rowland’s home and the theft of electronic equipment from the elementary school library in June or July, the theft and fraudulent use of a credit card the first week of August, and the Aug. 20 destruction of Rowland’s home.

The charges against Hale included: burglary at night to commit a felony and two counts of grand larceny (in the Rowland and elementary school thefts); conspiracy to commit credit card fraud and fraudulent use of a credit card (in the credit card case); and two counts of burglary at night to commit a felony, arson, conspiracy to commit arson, two counts of entering a property with intent to commit larceny and destruction of property (in the Grand View case).

After a flurry of closed-door meetings that began during the 9 a.m. court session Tuesday – which involved conversations between the prosecutor, investigators, victims and Hale’s attorney – Goff announced to the court that an agreement had been reached that would make all three scheduled trials unnecessary. It took several hours for the agreement to be put into writing. By 2:30 p.m., Hale stood before the court as deputy clerk Lisa Walsted read off each of the 12 charges in succession.

Terms of the plea (if accepted by the judge): Hale will sustain convictions on each of the 12 charges. McCahill noted that Youthful Offender is an “indeterminate program,” which means there is no guaranteed term of incarceration – though four years of active commitment are required. It is also not known if Hale will qualify for the program, in which case, the sentencing will result from the guilty pleas to each charge and accompanying sentencing guidelines.

Upon release, Hale will have 15 years of supervised probation, must complete 200 hours of community service, and will pay $5,000 in restitution to Rowland and $200 to the elementary school. Hale must also write letters of apology to Rowland and to RCES before his July 5 sentencing.

Hale’s mother, an uncle and a Castleton neighbor were the only remaining audience members by then, and the three looked on quietly as Judge Burke F. McCahill accepted the guilty pleas.

After the guilty pleas, Goff said evidence presented by the Commonwealth was based largely on a Jan. 6 recorded confession from Cameron MacArthur. MacArthur would have been the Commonwealth’s chief witness in the trials, Goff said, and himself received a three-and-a-half year sentence recommendation – to be served in the Rappahannock County Jail – in exchange for volunteering to testify against the other three co-defendents.

Goff told the court that on the night of Aug. 20, Hale, Rodriguez, MacArthur and Julious Lucas entered Rowland’s house through the same window Hale had entered before to steal an iPod docking station weeks before. Goff said they drank beer and whiskey upstairs, found a BB gun under a bed and took turns shooting empty beer cans off the balcony. Rodriguez ended up drunkenly falling and smashing a dresser mirror, the prosecutor said, so Lucas recommended burning the house down to destroy the evidence of their presence. All four agreed.

Goff continued that Hale used a cell phone light to identify accelerants in the two sheds on the property, and mixed them in a five-gallon bucket to spread around the house. They also found a red gasoline can in the shed. MacArthur made tents with furniture and sheets, sprayed them with wasp spray, and positioned them in places in the house where they’d best ignite the whole structure, Goff said. The boys split up into two teams, the prosecutor said, and while Rodriguez and Lucas started the fire inside, Hale and MacArthur started the engine and waited at their 1995 Honda sedan.

When the fire had been started, and the boys fled, Rodriguez turned the wrong way out of the driveway onto Grand View Road, and hit an embankment at the end of the cul de sac, Goff said. They tried to pull the car out, but the exhaust was dragging so they had to abandon the car in a thicket of pine trees. At this point, the neighborhood had begun to wake up from all the commotion, the prosecutor said; the boys started fighting with each other and then disappeared into the woods on foot. Hale was apprehended at gunpoint by a Fauquier canine squad, Goff said, adding that his initial statement to police acknowledged that Hale was present at the house, but denied involvement with the arson.

The judge found Hale guilty on all the charges, and will allow 60 days for the evaluation for the Youthful Offender program. Hale will continue to be held on $300,000 bond until his July 5 sentencing.

So far, 17-year-old Erick Xavier Rodriguez and 19-year-old Cameron MacArthur have pleaded guilty to each of the five felonies and two misdemeanors against the co-defendents. Twenty-year-old Lucas will stand trial for the same charges – and several others – on May 7.

Also in Circuit Court Tuesday

• Ahrens, 26, will is scheduled for a jury trial August 2 at 9 a.m., charged with felonious cruelty to a companion animal, resulting in its death. Goff said that the trial will take a full day to complete. The prosecutor also said that he’ll be issuing a capias to subpoena Leo Shipp – who made the original written complaint against Ahrens, but recanted on the witness stand during his March 6 preliminary hearing – forcing Shipp to testify against Ahrens, his son, on that date. Though Ahrens’ attorney Frank Reynolds waived a jury trial, Goff requested a trial by jury. “And you’re gonna pay for it!” Reynolds said in court.

The former chef is accused of throwing his brown tabby cat into a dog kennel that housed his two Alaskan malamute dogs on Christmas Eve – because, he told the court in a March 6 preliminary hearing, the cat had bitten his finger.

• William Edward Green, 57, of Boston will serve three months of active incarceration for distribution and possession of marijuana, though he was sentenced to five years in a state penitentiary for each charge. Since all but three months of those sentences was suspended, Green was also ordered to complete two years of supervised probation upon release, must complete a substance-abuse prevention program, and his license will be suspended for 12 months.

According to Feb. 2 preliminary hearing testimony from Anthony Zopp, the Blue Ridge Narcotics and Gang Task Force conducted a search of his Boston house and property on April 2. Officers recovered nearly a pound of processed marijuana and $2,800 in cash ($200 of the cash were marked bills from the task force) in his bedroom closet, and also found about 65 seedling marijuana plants and six plants in various stages of growth near a dog kennel in the guest house. The plants were all seedlings in a windowbox, one or two inches tall, his attorney added.

Goff acknowledged that the three-month active sentence was below the sentencing guidelines – the midpoint sentence according to the guidelines is seven months incarceration – but noted that Green was a good candidate for probation and would likely never come before the Rappahannock Circuit Court again.

• Theotis Darnell Williams, 34, of Culpeper, waived his right to a jury trial and will have a bench trial July 5 on possession of PCP charges. Williams was charged after being stopped March 5, 2011, for having an expired inspection sticker and not wearing a seatbelt, by Virginia State Trooper Phillip Thomas. Thomas told the court he issued Williams a summons for the traffic violations and then asked to search the car; Williams consented. During the search, Thomas discovered a number of pill bottles, and within one of the bottles, Thomas said there was a small vial filled with a noxious liquid, which was later sent to the lab and confirmed to be phencyclidine, a schedule II drug commonly referred to as PCP.

• Michael Lawrence Nelson, 59, of Boston waived his right to a jury hearing and will be tried May 22, charged with two counts of assault on a law enforcement officer, obstruction of justice and resisting arrest. According to March 12 testimony from former RCSO deputy Shawn Walters onTuesday, he and deputy Robbie Fincham responded to an emergency call from Nelson’s mother on Nov. 23 about her son acting threatening, wielding a chair, at their shared home in Boston. While apprehending Nelson, Walters said that the man, who “appeared to have been drinking,” tried to attack the deputies, and used his estimated one-inch-long fingernails to scratch Fincham’s hand. Once Nelson was in handcuffs, Walters said, before being led out of the house, the handcuffed man kicked Walters in the groin. Nelson remains in Rappahannock’s jail.

• The drug possession case against Douglas Michael Twyman, 54, of Castleton was continued until May 22, when Goff said that negotiations should be resolved. Twyman is charged with possession of schedule I/II drug methadone, a powerful opiate narcotic.

During an Aug. 15 search hostage situation, six deputies responded to a report that Twyman’s housemate – 21-year-old Chad O’Neill Hargrove – was holding his girlfriend at gunpoint in their Whorton Hollow Home. According to Sheriff Connie Smith, a search warrant had been issued by the time officers charged into the house to rescue the woman, and an undisclosed number of marijuana plants were found on the property, as well as processed marijuana inside the house. Investigators said the opiate methadone was found on Twyman’s person and elsewhere.