After brutally murdering 21-year-old Danny Petrole, last March 15, Chantilly High grad Owen Barber IV joined his buddies at Bridges nightclub in Fairfax to party.
But for Barber, the partying is now over. Last Thursday, Feb. 7, in Prince William County Circuit Court, he officially owned up to his evil deed. Wearing a T-shirt, rosary, dark jeans and leg shackles — the chains clanking softly as he shuffled across the floor to the witness table — Barber pleaded guilty to first-degree murder.
"Are you entering this plea freely ... and because you are, in fact, guilty as charged?" asked Judge Herman Whisenant. "Yes, sir," replied Barber. "Do you understand that the commonwealth has no agreement on sentencing and I could sentence you to life in prison?" asked Whisenant. Again, Barber answered, "Yes, sir."
The murder, alone, stunned the local community nearly a year ago, when Petrole — the son of a former Secret Service agent — was found slain in his car in front of his Bristow townhouse. But the details revealed as the case recently unfolded in court have both shocked and saddened area residents as they learned the scope of a massive drug operation running throughout Centreville and Chantilly — and begun when all the principal players were still in high school.
The story revolves around drugs and money — and Barber, now 22, Petrole, formerly of Virginia Run, and Centreville resident Justin Wolfe, 20, were up to their ears in it. Barber sold low-grade marijuana, called "swag," Petrole sold high-grade marijuana, called "chronic," and Wolfe bought it from both of them and dealt it to others.
Someone always owed someone for drugs fronted to them, but not yet sold. But, say prosecutors, when Wolfe decided not to pay an $81,000 debt he owed Petrole, he hired Barber to kill him. Barber did so, but police soon traced the murder weapon to him and he fled to California.
Authorities later apprehended him there, but investigation had also developed Wolfe as a suspect in the murder conspiracy. He, too, fled — to Florida — but was arrested when he returned to Virginia.
Since murder for hire is a capital offense in this state, Wolfe faced the death penalty and — after a three-week jury trial — he was found guilty as charged. The jury recommended that he, indeed, be put to death and, on April 22, Whisenant will either uphold that recommendation or sentence him to life in prison without parole.
As the triggerman, Barber, too, would have faced the death penalty but, in return for his testimony against Wolfe, prosecutors reduced his charge from capital murder to first-degree murder, thus sparing his life.
During Wolfe's trial, Petrole's roommate, Paul Gunning, said Petrole spent $360,000 a month for 100 pounds of chronic — sent to him under a phony name — from a source in Seattle. But he also made big money selling it. After expenses and Gunning's commission — for introducing Petrole to the Seattle source — Gunning said Petrole pocketed anywhere from $100,000 to $140,000 a month from his drug dealing.
Wolfe, too, had a high-level operation, enabling him to spend thousands of dollars in a weekend and to vacation in Jamaica, shortly before the murder. But sometime in February or March of last year, testified Barber, Wolfe asked him to "get his chronic man."
Said Barber: "I asked if he wanted me to rob him, and he said, 'No, we gotta kill him 'cause he knows too many people.' He said it was Danny Petrole. I knew his name — I didn't know him; we'd gone to school together in the eighth grade."
Barber testified that, in return, Wolfe promised to give him 4 1/2 pounds of marijuana and $10,000 and would forget about a $3,000 debt that Barber owed him. Witnesses testified that, shortly before his murder, Petrole delivered a large shipment of marijuana to Wolfe.
Prosecutors said phone records revealed Wolfe and Barber were in constant contact with each other, both before and after Petrole's arrival, with Wolfe telling Barber what car Petrole was driving when he left Wolfe and where he was headed. Armed with a 9 mm Smith & Wesson, Barber was ready.
Prince William police Det. Brenda Walburn, of the Violent Crimes Unit, testified last Thursday that Barber told police he followed Petrole that night through Fairfax County and into Prince William, until Petrole stopped in front of his new townhouse.
"He admitted that he got out of his car and shot Mr. Petrole nine times," she said. "He admitted that he shot until the gun was empty."
Assistant Commonwealth's Attorney John Notariani then entered Petrole's autopsy into evidence, as well as the transcript of Barber's testimony during Wolfe's June 1 preliminary hearing — in which Barber detailed the specific parts he and Wolfe played in Petrole's murder.
Judge Whisenant then formally found Barber guilty and set his sentencing for May 8. He was also charged with use of a firearm in the commission of a felony, but Notariani made a motion to drop that charge and the judge accepted it.
Afterward, outside the courtroom, Wolfe's stepfather, Ben Steinberg, said he and Wolfe's mother, Terri — who firmly believe Justin is innocent — are working on the appeal process. She also said she was amazed that the commonwealth dropped the gun charge against Barber — especially since "he used a gun to kill [Petrole]." Understandably upset that the jury sentenced her own son to death, she said that, "by lying, Owen Barber won't die."