CULPEPER — It is no source of pride in Culpeper County that two of the best-known trials ever held in the 140-year-old courthouse ended in wrongful capital murder convictions.
Just last year, a federal judge cited prosecutorial and police misconduct in tossing out the conviction of Michael Wayne Hash, prompting Commonwealth’s Attorney Gary Close to resign out of concern that he had become a distraction to law enforcement.
But distractions continue to this day at the courthouse, where the blunt-talking, gun-toting Megan R. Frederick, elected commonwealth’s attorney last November, is bitterly at odds with Sheriff Scott Jenkins.
Some are concerned that poor relations between the two top law enforcement officials in Culpeper could be detrimental to public safety.
The rift stems from the Hash case, which helped Frederick win her office and for which Jenkins, his chief deputy and Close are being sued in a federal civil rights case set for trial in June.
“The problem in Culpeper is that this group of elite, good old boys — and good old boys can be women — they do not like anyone who doesn’t want to get along with them or join their team,” Frederick said in a recent interview.
She said a threatening note was left on her office door during one of two unsolved break-ins. And she was investigated but not charged by the Sheriff’s Office for what she says was a baseless assault complaint from a probation officer.
Jenkins did not respond to repeated requests for an interview for this story. But he said in an email that “since I’ve been repeatedly attacked by (Frederick), my words would probably appear biased or politically motivated to some.”
In 2000, Jenkins — then a deputy sheriff — was assigned to reinvestigate the unsolved 1996 slaying of Thelma B. Scroggins, a 74-year-old Lignum woman who was shot to death in her home. Jenkins was assisted by another deputy sheriff, James Mack.
Jenkins was elected sheriff in 2011, and Mack is now his chief deputy. They and Close are among the defendants named in the civil rights suit filed by Hash.
The suit alleges, “These law enforcement officials engaged in a concerted and malicious effort to convict Hash for a brutal crime despite the total absence of credible evidence against him.”
Hash, 32, was tried for the Scroggins slaying in 2001. Last year, U.S. District Judge James C. Turk overturned the conviction, calling it a miscarriage of justice.
Among other things, Turk wrote, “Investigator Jenkins testified falsely at Hash’s trial regarding whether (a witness’s) interviews were recorded,” and that Close “concealed negotiations with (the witness) regarding a plea agreement in exchange for his testimony.”
Turk’s ruling was not appealed by the Virginia Attorney General’s Office, and a special prosecutor declined to retry Hash, who was released and then filed his federal suit.
A similar federal suit filed in 2006 by Earl Washington Jr., an innocent man convicted of capital murder and sentenced to death in Culpeper in 1984, was settled for $1.9 million paid by the state.
Washington came close to execution in 1985. But he was cleared and the real killer implicated by DNA testing in 2000 in what was arguably the biggest black eye ever suffered by Virginia’s justice system.
Close, who covered Washington’s trial as a young newspaper reporter in Culpeper, became commonwealth’s attorney for Culpeper in 1991.
Days after Gov. Jim Gilmore pardoned Washington in 2000, Close told the Richmond Times-Dispatch that it did not mean Washington was innocent.
Just months later, Close prosecuted Hash.
Hash, 19 at the time of trial and 15 at the time of Scroggins’ slaying, was sentenced to life. Two of Hash’s teenage friends also were tried: Jason Kloby, who was acquitted; and Eric Weakley, who pleaded guilty and testified against Kloby and Hash.
Hash’s conviction was vacated last year.
“The court is disturbed by the miscarriage of justice that occurred in this case and finds that Hash’s trial is an example of an extreme malfunction in the state criminal justice system,” Turk wrote in his 64-page ruling.
The judge found that some of Jenkins’ actions as an investigator rose to the level of “outrageous misconduct.” Not only did Turk find the conviction tainted, he also wrote that Hash had made a showing of actual innocence.
Denying any wrongdoing, Close stepped down from office in March 2012. Jenkins did not step down, saying he had done nothing wrong.
Frederick says Jenkins’ alleged misconduct in the Hash case is at the root of the trouble she is having with him.
“I don’t like him. I don’t like what he did,” she said. “I think he needs to resign.”
Several longtime Culpeper-area lawyers did not return calls for this story.
Attorney William Ashwell said Frederick’s office “has been tremendously helpful in a civil matter I’ve got going on over here.” He said his interactions with Frederick’s office have been very professional.
A county figure willing to speak his mind about Frederick was William C. Chase Jr., a member of the Board of Supervisors for 32 years who is critical of the new commonwealth’s attorney.
In a recent email, Frederick alleged that Chase and some other members of the board were corrupt but offered no details. In response, last month a majority of the board voted to file a misconduct complaint against her with the Virginia State Bar for calling them corrupt.
“It’s a mess, it’s a real mess and I don’t know how it’s going to shake out in the long run,” Chase said. “I think people are just shaking their heads in amazement.”
The supervisors had earlier turned down Frederick’s request for $60,000 so her office could have its own investigator, as do some other Virginia prosecutors. But Frederick said she could not elaborate on her corruption allegation until after the bar complaint is resolved.
The state bar would not confirm there is a complaint pending.
J.E. “Chip” Harding, the sheriff of nearby Albemarle County, said he does not know Frederick well. But, he said, “I feel very sorry for the position that Megan Frederick (finds) herself in ... to come into a situation where your sheriff and several members of that agency have been basically called out by a federal judge.”
“As a young commonwealth’s attorney coming into that situation and going to your Board of Supervisors and saying, ‘I need an investigator in my office that I can trust,’ and they don’t give that to you, you’re at a real disadvantage,” Harding said.
When Frederick campaigned, she promised to bring integrity to the Commonwealth’s Attorney’s Office, which has almost a dozen employees. Her opponent last November was Paul Walther, an experienced prosecutor who served under Close and was appointed commonwealth’s attorney after Close resigned.
Frederick said the Hash case shows Jenkins was not truthful and asked, “What does a commonwealth’s attorney do when a federal judge has documented that the sitting sheriff has lied? ... What do you do? It’s a bad position to be in.”
She also complained that Jenkins has shifted his position on Hash’s guilt.
In a 2010 affidavit, Jenkins said then-Culpeper Sheriff Lee Hart instructed him and Mack to investigate Hash and the two other teens for the murder. Hart also played a role in the wrongful conviction of Washington.
Jenkins said in his affidavit, “To this day, I do not believe the story they told — that three teenage boys murdered Thelma Scroggins — is plausible.”
But in his written response to Hash’s suit earlier this year, Jenkins said he believes Hash is guilty.
Frederick complained that Jenkins is flip-flopping. “Which one is it, Sheriff? We’d like to know. Pick a side and stay on it,” she said.
Frederick said that after she assumed office, a box of records concerning the Hash case that had been missing mysteriously reappeared. Then, she said, “we had a couple of break-ins. ... There was not any indication they tried to get anything but the Hash box.”
A door handle was broken and a threatening note was left on the door. “I think the good old boys definitely want to scare me,” she said. She added that she was concerned for her safety and carried a handgun.
In a news release in May, Frederick complained that the Sheriff’s Office released information about what she says was a baseless assault complaint against her involving a probation officer in a dispute over new technology.
“During my campaign for this office, I knew — and told voters — that there were serious problems with the administration of justice in Culpeper. Now, six months into my service, I can emphatically state that the problems I saw during my campaign represented the tip of what constitutes an iceberg of institutional corruption,” she said in the news release.
Now, almost a year into her term, things have not improved, she said.
“His deputies record us when they’re in our office. It’s a bit of a nightmare,” she said.
“There is a tension between the prosecutor’s office and the sheriff’s department. At some level, a little bit of tension is never bad. My job is not to have them give me the truth, my job is to seek the truth,” she said.
A problem, she said, is that because of everything that’s going on, a deputy or investigator “often thinks that if I’m evaluating the case and I’m unhappy with something they’ve done that it’s an attack on the sheriff and it isn’t, it is me seeking the truth.”
She said she will work with Jenkins on general public safety and law enforcement issues, such as jail overcrowding, in group settings.
“I’m willing to govern with him on that, but if he wants me to like him he’s going to have to wait a very long time. ... At the end of the day we have no relationship and that’s the way it is,” she said.
Like Frederick, Henrico Commonwealth’s Attorney Shannon Taylor is the first woman to be elected her county’s top prosecutor. Taylor said she is familiar with the problems in Culpeper.
“We don’t see this type of contentious relationship anywhere else in the commonwealth,” she said. “I can’t even imagine how I would be doing my job right now if I were constantly fighting the police chief.”
Taylor said, “Citizens want their law enforcement agency and their prosecutor’s office to work together because that translates into success, which translates into safety for the community.”