- Last Updated on Thursday, 30 May 2013 10:12
- Published on Wednesday, 29 May 2013 00:58
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Well-known Westmoreland County restaurant owner Bryan Oliff, a life-long resident of Montross and a popular former high school football player, and two of his employees have filed “malicious prosecution” lawsuits against Westmoreland County Deputy Sheriff Anthony Darby seeking a total of $20 million in compensatory and punitive damages.
Darby did not reply to repeated messages left asking for his response to the lawsuits. Westmoreland County Sheriff C.O. Balderson said, “Right now, since at this point it is in litigation, I would reserve comment. I wish I could comment, but at this point it would not be appropriate.”
The lawsuits are the result of actions taken by Darby, a detective with the sheriff’s office, and other officers that caused the filing of five felony complaints against Oliff on May 9, 2012. Oliff was publicly arrested at his catering business 13 days later, the beginning of what he refers to as his “nightmare.”
Also arrested that day were Josh Sanford and Lois Wright, employees of Oliff. Oliff was charged with five complaints of selling, giving or distributing a controlled substance which imitated a controlled substance, a Class 6 felony under Virginia law. Sanford was arrested on one count of the same charge and Wright was arrested on two counts.
Oliff and his employees immediately and vehemently denied all charges filed against them. Darby and the Westmoreland County Sheriff’s Office said the charges were the result of an undercover investigation resulting from information supplied by James Calvin Newsome, a confidential informant who was facing felony charges for grand larceny at the time and who was seeking a plea bargain.
Four months after the arrests, Matthew Ackley, a special prosecutor from Henrico County who was handling the cases for the Commonwealth of Virginia, decided not to proceed against Oliff and his two employees and terminated the prosecutions because of a lack of evidence to support the charges.
The lawsuits claim that Darby and other sheriff’s officers knew or should have known that Newsome was “unreliable and untrustworthy,” that Darby and others sought “to injure Oliff personally,” and that Darby brought the charges without probable cause and the prosecution was “malicious, done with bad faith, done with a reckless, willful and wanton disregard” of the rights of Oliff and his two employees “with actual malice and intent to injure.”
A prominent Westmoreland County resident, who has known Oliff for most of his life and who asked not to be identified, said this week, “I am all for a very strong criminal justice system, in many ways I believe it is not tough enough. But, I just can’t believe how reckless this investigation was.”
The lawsuits have been filed in Westmoreland County Circuit Court. Darby has 21 days to file a response to the suits. Although other officers in the Westmoreland County Sheriff’s Office, including Sheriff Balderson, are not defendants in the suits, that could change, sources said. The suits ask “leave to amend these pleadings and /or add parties as further evidence and circumstances may dictate.”
A source in the Westmoreland County Courthouse said subpoenas have been issued to Sheriff Balderson and his office seeking records and documents in the case. The source, who asked not to be identified, said the prosecutions against Oliff and his employees “appear to be the result of incredibly sloppy police work.”
Oliff, 49, a former member of the Westmoreland County School Board and the owner of Angelo’s Pizza, had no criminal record prior to the arrests. He said this week the lawsuits are necessary to restore and repair his reputation. “I spent 22 years building a business, do you really believe I would have endangered that by doing something so stupid,” he said.
The lawsuits claim that Darby and other officers, working with the Tri-County Narcotics Task Force, between February and April 2012 gave Newsome more than $900 to purchase drugs from Oliff and his employees. Newsome entered Oliff’s restaurant in Montross five different times with money provided him by Darby and returned to give officers a plastic baggie of white powder that Newsome said was cocaine.
The lawsuits allege Darby claimed to have the drug sales on audio and video and that Darby also claimed he had conducted positive field tests of the substance provided by Newsome. However, according to the lawsuits, on April 4, 2012, a report from the Commonwealth of Virginia Forensics Department in Richmond advised officers “the substance was not a controlled substance” in any of the five incidents.
According to the lawsuits, a review of audio and video of the alleged drug sales did not show any criminal activity and, in fact, according to Oliff one of the so-called drug sales videos showed Newsome sitting at the bar in Angelo’s Restaurant. At the time the alleged sale was supposed to be taking place, Oliff’s retired and respected father, George Oliff, was sitting at the bar - right next to Newsome - having dinner as he does almost every day.
The lawsuits claim that even after the tests from Richmond showed the substance being provided by Newsome was not a controlled substance, Darby continued efforts to prosecute Oliff. On April 17, according to the lawsuits, Newsome said he had a conversation with Oliff about the alleged cocaine at the BP station in Kinsale. Newsome said Glenn Branich of Westmoreland was a witness to the conversation.
According to the lawsuits, Newsome’s claim was again false. “Had Detective Darby contacted Branich, he would have learned three important facts.” The lawsuit claims that Newsome was not telling the truth, that none of 16 different cameras at the BP station showed any meeting between Newsome and Oliff and at the time and date Newsome said the drug conversation took place, Oliff was actually hunting with Branich at a location more than 20 miles away from the BP station.
At this point, the lawsuits claim Darby clearly knew or should have known that “Newsome had lied to him the entire time and had stolen the monies used in the investigation.” Yet three weeks later Darby went before a grand jury and “falsely represented to the grand jury” that Newsome was trustworthy and that the audio and video recordings of Newsome showed Oliff engaged in “unlawful activity.”
The grand jury was “relying upon the intentional and false representations of Detective Darby...who initially wanted to bring charges against Oliff for selling real illegal drugs...and instead presented false evidence...to gain indictments for selling or distributing a controlled substance which imitated a controlled substance,” according to the lawsuits. In Virginia, selling something that the buyer believes is a controlled substance is a felony.
The lawsuits allege five charges were brought against Oliff, one charge against Sanford and two charges against Wright, despite the fact none of the audio or video recordings showed any illegal activity, no drugs or money were found in the possession of Oliff or his employees and none of the undercover officers involved in the investigation saw any exchange of drugs or imitation drugs between Newsome or Oliff or Oliff’s employees.
“The criminal charges have had a severe negative impact on Oliff’s reputation, his business, Angelo’s Pizza, and his financial and personal well being,” according to the lawsuits. The suits claim similar damages for Sanford and Wright.
Oliff’s suit seeks compensatory damages of $10 million and punitive damages of $2 million. Sanford’s suit seeks $2 million in compensatory damages and $1 million in punitive damages. And, Wright’s suit seeks $4 million in compensatory damages and $1 million in punitive damages. The lawsuits were filed by James Thorsen, an attorney with extensive malicious prosecution experience, who is with the Richmond firm of Marchant, Thorsen, Honey, Baldwin and Meyer LLP.