Inquiry supports Botetourt deputy
Officer was justified in entering home without warrant, state police say
BY REX BOWMAN
TIMES-DISPATCH STAFF WRITER Mar 10, 2007
A Botetourt County deputy being sued for $10 million for entering a family's home without a warrant was justified because he was responding to a 911 report of a possible burglary at the home, a prosecutor concluded yesterday.
A Virginia State Police report on the incident states Deputy J.A. Wood went to the home of Mark and Cheryl Hunsberger on Feb. 3 to investigate and instead interrupted a teenage drinking party, Botetourt prosecutor Joel Branscom said.
Branscom said the state police's reconstruction of the incident bears little similarity to the parents' allegation that Wood sneaked into their daughter's room and terrified her.
"Sergeant Wood, who has been publicly demonized, was simply doing his job, trying to protect the Hunsbergers' prop- erty and any children on the property," Branscom said.
Terry Grimes, the Roanoke lawyer who filed suit on behalf of the Hunsbergers, dismissed the official account: "That sounds like a post hoc rationalization to me. It's almost amusing."
Two weeks ago, the Hunsbergers filed a $10 million suit against Wood in federal court in Roanoke, alleging they awoke to their 10-year-old daughter's screams after 1 a.m. and found Wood and an unidentified man in her room. The suit says Mark Hunsberger found Wood shining a flashlight on the terrified girl while the other man tried to pull bed covers from her.
The Hunsbergers live in a Cloverdale subdivision with their daughter and two sons, ages 18 and 16.
After reading about the lawsuit, Branscom asked the state police to investigate. According to Branscom's five-page summary of their report, the investigation found Wood went to the home, where he ruled out burglary as the source of the noise and concluded teenagers might be inside drinking.
After ringing the doorbell 25 to 30 times, Wood went into the home with an unidentified man, referred to as "John Doe" in the lawsuit, because the man believed his 16-year-old daughter was among the teens inside. Her car was parked out front.
In one bedroom, according to Branscom, Wood pulled the covers below the nose of a girl lying in bed and asked the man if she was his daughter. He said no, and the girl said, "Turn off the lights, they're not here." Wood and the man told investigators the girl did not scream.
The state police investigation eventually confirmed Wood's suspicion that the 16-year-old was one of six teenagers in the house and all were drinking, Branscom said.
Yesterday, Grimes said the account of Wood's encounter with the 10-year-old is preposterous.
"That sounds like a bald-faced lie," said Grimes. "A 10-year-old girl is awakened in her bedroom by two strangers she's never seen before, and one is shining a light in her face, and she has this James Joyce-style conversation with them? On what planet does this 10-year-old live?"
According to Branscom's summary, events unfolded this way:
A neighbor called 911 at 10:17 p.m. Feb. 2 to report suspicious behavior at the Hunsberger house and kids being picked up and dropped off in the street. Wood went to the subdivision, where the neighbor told him she thought the parents were away and the cars parked in front did not belong to anyone in the neighborhood. Wood left.
Ten minutes after midnight, the neighbor again called 911 to report more noise, repeated her belief that the parents weren't there and said a burglary could be in progress.
Wood and another deputy arrived. They saw a young male run from the house to the attached garage and then back. They saw lights go on and off in the house, but no one came to the door after they rang the doorbell 25 to 30 times. Wood walked in an open garage door to knock on an interior door and saw a large number of beer cans.
Three vehicles were parked in front of the house, so Wood ran license checks on the vehicles, then called their owners and discovered that each had a teenage son or daughter using the vehicle. After Wood expressed concern to the owners that their teenagers might be drinking, the parent described as "John Doe" arrived.
Wood and John Doe heard a door shut in the garage stairwell. Wood knocked on the door, which led to a basement, and, receiving no answer, went in and announced loudly "Botetourt County Sheriff's Department."
Continuing through the house, Wood repeated that he was searching for the 16-year-old girl and called out her name. In a bedroom closet, he found a teenage boy in boxer shorts. Wood asked him where the girl was and he said he did not know.
In the next room, they found a young girl, apparently the Hunsbergers' daughter, in bed. After that encounter, Mark Hunsberger came out of his bedroom. Wood told Hunsberger he had been informed that the Hunsbergers were not at home and he was looking for a 16-year-old girl.
After Cheryl Hunsberger joined them, Wood explained three times the events that led him to enter the house. That account contradicts the lawsuit, in which the Hunsbergers claim they were never told why Wood was in their daughter's bedroom before they ordered him to leave.
Yesterday, Branscom said an internal sheriff's department investigation of the incident went nowhere because the teenagers involved kept to a code of silence. But after the lawsuit engendered headlines and the state police got involved, some of them started talking.
Branscom said state police concluded six teenagers were in the home: the two Hunsberger boys, a 15-year-old boy, a 17-year-old boy, an 18-year-old male and the 16-year-old girl. When Wood entered the home, two fled to a friend's home and the other four hid throughout the house, Branscom said.
When Wood left, Cheryl Hunsberger came downstairs and told the teens to come out, "the cops are gone," according to Branscom's written report.
Branscom's report said there is no evidence the Hunsbergers knew teenagers were drinking in their home or knew the 16-year-old girl was in the house.
The report concludes that Wood did the right thing. "His actions interrupted criminal activity (underage possession of alcohol; contributing to the delinquency of a minor) that was occurring in the Hunsbergers' house. All of these teens were a few steps from driving a vehicle home until Sergeant Wood intervened."
Branscom said if any of the parents "wish to explore criminal charges, I will advise them on how to proceed."
Grimes said the version of events put together by state police will not affect the Hunsbergers' lawsuit.