On March 15, 2001, Centreville High grad Danny Petrole, 21, was shot and killed outside his Bristow townhouse. The crime involved drug-dealing and money, and the shooter – Chantilly High grad Owen Barber IV, 21, who pleaded guilty in court – received 38 years in prison.
Largely on Barber’s testimony, Chantilly grad Justin Wolfe was convicted of hiring Barber for the deed and, in June 2002, was sentenced to death. He was also given 33 years in prison for drug and firearm charges.
The murder uncovered a major drug ring that had been operating for some time in the Centreville/Chantilly area. Hundreds of thousands of dollars changed hands regularly, and Wolfe, Barber and Petrole were up to their eyeballs in it.
According to authorities and Wolfe’s confession, Petrole had fronted Wolfe some $65,000 worth of marijuana, but Wolfe, then almost 20, didn’t have the money to pay him back. Wolfe said he’d been spending his own drug-dealing proceeds on cocaine and alcohol. He also said he and Barber planned Petrole’s death and agreed that Barber would kill him, they’d split the drugs Petrole was carrying and Wolfe would forgive a debt Barber owed him.
Wolfe wrote that, on the night of Petrole’s death, Petrole sold him some marijuana and left. Barber then stalked him by car, while being in constant contact with Wolfe via cell phone. So when Petrole arrived home, Barber was waiting. He fired 10 shots from a 9 mm Smith & Wesson through Petrole's passenger-side window, with all but one bullet finding their mark.
Driving away, Barber tossed the gun into a nearby intersection, where it was quickly found. Both he and Wolfe then fled the state – Barber to California and Wolfe to Florida – but were arrested that April. Meanwhile, Petrole’s murder stunned the community because he was the son of a former Secret Service agent who lived in Virginia Run. And on the surface, he was just a college student who worked part-time delivering flowers.
But when police searched Petrole’s belongings following his death, 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. And during Wolfe’s first trial, much of the testimony came from young, self-admitted drug dealers and users in the local area.
In June 2002, Wolfe was sentenced to death and spent 11 years on death row. But because Prince William County prosecutors deliberately withheld information that would have impeached Barber’s testimony, in 2011 and 2012, two federal courts vacated Wolfe’s convictions and sentences.
Initially facing the death penalty, Barber testified he didn’t know Petrole, but killed him because Wolfe hired him. It was later revealed that prosecutors and a detective influenced Barber to say those things in exchange for his charge being reduced from capital to first-degree murder. And Barber, himself, later recanted his testimony implicating Wolfe.
During a November 2010 hearing in Federal Court in Norfolk, U.S. District Court Judge Raymond Jackson heard evidence not presented previously. Subsequently, in his July 2011 decision to overturn Wolfe’s convictions and sentences, Jackson said Wolfe’s due-process rights had been violated before and during his capital-murder trial.
In August 2012, citing “prosecutorial misconduct” by Prince William County prosecutors Paul Ebert and Rick Conway, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit upheld Jackson’s ruling. But with Fairfax County Commonwealth’s Attorney Ray Morrogh appointed as special prosecutor, Prince William County decided to retry Wolfe.
The proceedings remained in Circuit Court there and, this time, the charges included felony murder and engaging in a continuous criminal enterprise. And once again, Wolfe faced the death penalty – all the while maintaining his innocence.
However, justice moved slowly. With a slew of pre-trial motions, several changes in defense attorneys and a failed attempt at a Supreme Court hearing, the case dragged on for years with no end in sight – until Wolfe made a surprising confession. In a March 19 letter in which he spoke directly to Petrole’s parents, he apologized for his actions and admitted giving the go-ahead to Barber to kill their son.
Wolfe said he’d fallen behind in the money he owed Petrole for shipments of marijuana to sell to his own customers, and he realized the best way to end his debt was to get rid of Petrole. “I am responsible for Danny’s death, even though I did not pull the trigger,” wrote Wolfe. “If I had not been involved, Danny would never have been killed.”
Circuit Court Judge Carroll Weimer Jr. officially accepted the letter into evidence on March 29. Meanwhile, Wolfe’s attorneys made a plea deal with the prosecution, taking the death penalty off the table. Wolfe then pleaded guilty to first-degree murder, use of a firearm in the commission of a felony and conspiracy to distribute marijuana. And his sentencing range was set at 29-41 years.
Read more about the case here.