Terri Steinberg wept bitterly Wednesday afternoon in Prince William County Circuit Court as a judge sentenced her son, Justin Wolfe, 21, of Centreville, to death.
But Virginia Run's Janie Petrole did the same thing, March 15, 2001, when she learned that her son Danny, 21, had been murdered — shot gangland style in his car as he pulled up to his Bristow townhouse.
Owen Barber, now 22, later pleaded guilty to murdering him and will be sentenced Aug. 7. But he won't receive the death penalty since he testified that Wolfe hired him for the job. In Virginia, murder-for-hire is a capital offense and, after a three-week trial in January, a jury found Wolfe guilty and recommended he pay the ultimate price.
Wednesday, after four hours of testimony and argument, Judge Herman Whisenant sentenced him accordingly. He also sentenced him to 30 years in prison for distributing marijuana, plus three more years for use of a firearm in a felony.
Barber and Wolfe were Chantilly High grads; Petrole graduated from Centreville High — and all three dealt drugs. During the January trial, Barber said Wolfe promised him drugs and $10,000 to kill Petrole.
Many of those testifying were self-admitted drug dealers and users in their early 20s. They told how hundreds of thousands of dollars changed hands regularly.
As Wolfe's empire grew, said Commonwealth's Attorney Paul Ebert, Wolfe pretty much "threw his money away — spending $2,000-$3,000 on a weekend. He estimated he made $100,000 tax-free. But as he became bigger, he became so greedy that the well-being and lives of others meant nothing to him."
Authorities said Wolfe owed Petrole almost $81,000 for drugs fronted to him; eliminating him would also eliminate the debt. Barber didn't even know Petrole, but he needed the money and was willing to do the deed.
And he did, firing 10 shots — nine hit their mark — from a 9 mm Smith & Wesson, through Petrole's passenger-side window. But he tossed the gun in a nearby intersection and joined Wolfe and others at Fairfax nightclub Bridges to party.
The celebration continued next evening at Bohemian Caverns, a Washington, D.C., nightclub. It was Wolfe's 20th birthday, dubbed by his friends, "St. Wolfie's Day." But when authorities found the gun and traced it to Barber, both he and Wolfe fled. Federal marshals captured Barber in California; Wolfe was arrested after returning to Virginia.
During Wednesday's sentencing hearing, defense attorney Marvin Miller called several witnesses on his client's behalf. Wolfe's stepfather Ben Steinberg told how Justin had always taken care of his younger siblings. He said he'd never seen him angry or violent toward anyone. "Did you know he was selling drugs?" asked Ebert. "No, sir," replied Steinberg. Wolfe's step-grandfather, Robert Huss, offered similar testimony.
Former prison warden James Aiken of North Carolina said he didn't believe Wolfe had exhibited a "pattern of violence" in the community, at home, school or against people in authority. He said Wolfe's crime warranted life in prison without parole and he didn't see him as posing any threat to anyone in prison.
Miller said his research didn't uncover any cases in which those convicted of murder for hire received the death penalty, except once where the hirer also helped in the killing. "The imposition of the death penalty here would be inconsistent with every other murder-for-hire case in Virginia," he said.
Noting that Wolfe has no history of crimes against others, he said, "He's not an individual beyond any redemption. It was a sorrowful, tragic incident. But is it in the interest of the Commonwealth of Virginia for Justin Wolfe to lose his life?"
But Ebert said none of the evidence presented Wednesday changed anything. "This would send a message as to what the drug culture can lead to when you mix drugs, guns and violence," he said. "[Wolfe's] not the type of person who actually goes out and does the dirty work — he gets others to do it for him. This type of person can be much more dangerous than the actual perpetrator because he sets the instrument of death into motion."
Wolfe said he felt terrible about what happened to Petrole and thanked his family for supporting him. Then Judge Whisenant imposed the jury's recommendation, telling Wolfe that the jurors "heard about the drugs, money and conduct of the people involved — and the lifestyle that you and the people around you lived. I don't think the court can disregard that. And [they] all agreed on the guilt and punishment."
Afterward, Ben Steinberg said he and Terri were prepared for the worst and will appeal: "We'll keep going; we still believe in [Justin]." Petrole's father supported the judge's decision: "The message is that every choice has a consequence, and people must be responsible for their actions. I have compassion for Justin Wolfe and hope he's found or will find Jesus Christ as his Savior."