|Justin Michael Wolfe listens to one of his attorneys during|
his 2002 capital murder trial in Manassas, Va.
After claiming his innocence for 15 years, Justin Michael Wolfe wrote a statement this month admitting that he is responsible for the 2001 death of fellow marijuana dealer, Daniel Petrole Jr.
“I am responsible for Danny’s death even though I didn’t pull the trigger,” Wolfe wrote in a letter filed this week in Prince William Circuit Court and first reported by Tom Jackman of the Washington Post. “If I had not been involved Danny would never have been killed.”
At a hearing before Prince William Circuit Court Judge Carroll A. Weimer Jr. on Tuesday, Wolfe, 35, pleaded guilty to first-degree murder, marijuana distribution and use of a firearm in commission of a felony. As part of an agreement with prosecutors, he faces between 29 and 41 years in prison when he is sentenced July 20. He will be credited for the 15 years he already has served.
Prosecutors also agreed to drop five other charges, including capital murder, in exchange for Wolfe’s guilty plea.
The plea deal means Wolfe will not face the death penalty. Under Virginia’s sentencing rules, he could be released in about 10 to 20 years, or sometime in his late 40s or early 50s, depending on his sentence.
The plea deal marked a surprising and dramatic end to the 15-year, high-profile legal saga that was seemingly resolved in 2002, when Wolfe was convicted on capital murder charges by a Prince William County jury.
But both the initial conviction and death sentence were thrown out in 2011 after a federal judge found that a team led by Prince William County Commonwealth’s Attorney Paul Ebert had withheld key evidence, resulting in the case being handed over to Fairfax County prosecutors.
Wolfe’s statement, dated March 19, 2016, marks the first time he admitted to any part of in the killing. He had always blamed the other man convicted in the crime, Owen Merton Barber IV, a fellow classmate at Chantilly High School.
“My attorneys asked me to write a statement about my involvement in Danny Petrole’s death,” Wolfe wrote at the start of the four-page, handwritten note. “This is hard for me to do but they also told me that Danny’s parents want to know what happened in my own words. I know that I can never make up for what I did, but I hope that this brings some peace to Danny’s family.”
Wolfe wrote that he met Petrole in high school and began buying marijuana from him and reselling it to his friends in 2000. Petrole began to front Wolfe the drugs and eventually Wolfe fell behind in the money he owed Petrole, he wrote.
“By early 2011 I had fallen behind and owed Danny a lot of money,” he wrote.
Wolfe said he did not remember exactly how much money he owed Petrole, but at his first trial prosecutors presented evidence that he owed Petrole about $66,000.
“I don’t have any reason to think that is not right but I don’t specifically remember the amount,” Wolfe wrote.
Wolfe wrote that as his debt mounted, Barber suggested robbing Petrole, which Wolfe said he “at first played it off as a joke but Owen took it as serious and I agreed that it would be okay.”
Wolfe and Barber at first planned only to rob Petrole but “eventually we both agreed that it would be necessary to kill Danny because he was probably going to resist the robbery or figure out who did it and have to get revenge.”
On the night of the murder, Wolfe said he arranged to buy marijuana from Petrole. Wolfe called Barber to tell him that Petrole would be coming to Wolfe’s friend’s house to sell him the drugs.
Barber called Wolfe and told him he was following Petrole. The two talked several times after that and met at a bar later that night, Wolfe said.
Petrole, 21, was found shot to death outside of his Bristow townhouse. An autopsy report filed in Prince William Circuit Court said he died of “multiple gunshot wounds.”
Wolfe was 20 when the killing occurred. He and Barber, then 22, were arrested soon after Petrole’s body was found. Barber admitted to shooting Petrole and agreed to plead guilty and testify against Wolfe, saying that he ordered the killing. In exchange, Barber received a sentence of 38 years in prison.
But the case took many legal twists and turns over the years. In 2005, Barber filed an affidavit saying he had lied in court, and that Wolfe hadn’t ordered the murder. In 2006, Barber took the witness stand during one of Wolfe’s appeal hearings and reversed himself again, saying Wolfe did order the murder.
Then in 2011, U.S. District Court Judge Raymond A. Jackson in Norfolk ordered a new trial, saying Prince William prosecutors withheld or ignored important evidence that could have helped Wolfe’s defense.
A federal appeals court upheld Jackson’s ruling in 2012, and Jackson ordered Wolfe released. But just hours before Wolfe was set to be released from Prince William-Manassas regional jail, an appeals court stayed that order, keeping him in jail.
Ebert removed himself from the case, and Fairfax County Commonwealth’s Attorney Raymond F. Morrogh took over the prosecution. The case resumed with Morrogh pledging to again seek the death penalty for Wolfe.
A new trial had been set to begin in January 2017.
In his written statement, Wolfe went on to say he is responsible for Petrole’s death and apologized to his family.
“Maybe it seems easy for me to say ‘I’m sorry,'” he wrote, “but it’s actually the hardest thing I have ever done because it means I have to admit what I did, which contradicts what I said at trial and the position that I have taken for all of my appeals and I am very afraid that I will let the people I love down.”
“I know writing this down can never take away all the pain I have caused you, but I hope it give you something to help you heal,” Wolfe wrote, addressing Petrole’s family. “I do not deserve your forgiveness but I want you to know the truth and that is why I am writing this. I am sorry for what I did to your son.”
Source: insidenova, March 30, 2016