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The Background: Drugs, Murder and Money

— When 21-year-old, Centreville High grad Danny Petrole was slain in his car in front of his Bristow townhouse, March 15, 2001, it stunned the community and devastated his family. It also led police to discover a drug ring of major proportions operating in the Centreville/Chantilly area.

Hundreds of thousands of dollars changed hands regularly, and a dozen young drug dealers in Fairfax and Prince William counties became rich. Among them, said authorities, were Centreville’s Justin Wolfe, almost 20, Petrole and the man later convicted of killing him, Owen Barber IV, 21, of Centreville.

After Petrole arrived home that night, Barber fired 10 shots from a 9 mm Smith & Wesson through Petrole's passenger-side window, with all but one bullet striking him. Driving away, Barber tossed the gun into a nearby intersection. Both he and Wolfe then fled the state – Barber to California and Wolfe to Florida – but were arrested that April.

Petrole was the son of a former Secret Service agent who lived in Virginia Run. He attended NOVA and delivered flowers part-time. But when police searched Petrole's belongings, they discovered $965 in his wallet and $17,460 in the trunk of his car.

In his townhouse were guns, $120,366 in cash and nearly half a million dollars worth of ecstasy and marijuana. It was later revealed that Petrole spent $360,000/month buying marijuana from Seattle, pocketing $100,000 to $140,000/month from selling it.

Barber and Wolfe were 1998 Chantilly High grads; Petrole graduated in '98 from Centreville. During Barber's and Wolfe's trials in Prince William County Circuit Court, much of the testimony came from young, self-admitted drug dealers and users in the local area.

Both Barber and Petrole sold marijuana. According to court testimony, Wolfe also had a high-level operation, buying marijuana from both of them and dealing it to others. Initially facing the death penalty for killing Petrole, Barber testified against Wolfe. He said he hadn’t known Petrole, but killed him because Wolfe had hired him to do so; in return for his testimony, Barber’s charge was reduced from capital to first-degree murder.

In January 2002, Wolfe, then 21, was convicted of capital murder, since murder-for-hire is a capital offense. Five months later, Wolfe was sentenced to death, as his jury had recommended, plus 33 years in prison – 30 for drug distribution and three for use of a firearm in the commission of a felony. On Aug. 6, 2002, Barber received 38 years in prison.

Wolfe always maintained his innocence, and Barber provided the only evidence directly linking Wolfe to the murder. But during a November 2010 evidentiary hearing in Federal Court in Norfolk, U.S. District Court Judge Raymond Jackson heard evidence not presented in 2002.

In his July 2011 decision to overturn Wolfe’s convictions and sentences, Jackson wrote that the commonwealth “failed to disclose evidence indicating Barber had a relationship with Petrole” prior to his death. This disclosure, he wrote – plus statements from a confidential informant that “Barber owed Petrole money [and] Petrole had a hit out on Barber” – could have impeached Barber’s testimony.

Then last month, the U.S. Court of Appeals, Fourth Circuit, in Richmond upheld that court’s ruling that Wolfe’s due-process rights had been violated and his convictions and sentences should be vacated.

In a document dated Aug. 16, Judge Robert B. King wrote that he’d based his opinion on “a written police report reflecting that – before Barber ever asserted that Wolfe hired him to murder Petrole – Prince William County Det. [Samson] Newsome advised Barber that he could avoid the death penalty by implicating Wolfe.”

King therefore concluded that “Barber had a motive to misrepresent the facts regarding Petrole’s death” and added that any evidence of Wolfe’s alleged drug-dealing is “inevitably tainted by the prosecutorial misconduct in this case.”

On Monday, Wolfe’s cousin, 1998 Chantilly High grad Jason Darne, spoke with Centre View about Petrole, Barber and Wolfe. “I grew up with Danny in Little Rocky Run and we went to Union Mill Elementary together,” he said. Darne later moved to Chantilly’s Pleasant Valley community, and Petrole, to Virginia Run.

“I was also very close to Owen and saw his decline in attitude after his mom died,” said Darne. “When all this – Danny’s death and the arrests – transpired, some friends and I asked him, ‘Why are you saying Justin asked you to do this?’ We knew otherwise.”

“We sent him letters saying, ‘Do the right thing,’ and last November, he testified in Norfolk and said he wanted to ‘do the right thing,’” continued Darne. “So all our letters finally hit home.”

He said Wolfe was “shocked” by Petrole’s death, but he didn’t “flee” to Florida afterward. “It was a planned trip,” said Darne. “Justin and I went to a Super Street car show in Daytona. He and his girlfriend and my friends and I were just hanging out at the beach. We were eating crabs and shrimp when the U.S. marshals showed up.”

Hopeful that his cousin will eventually be a free man, Darne said, “According to what I heard at the November hearing, based on public records, all the evidence that did not point toward Justin’s guilt was overwhelming.”