The Loudoun County Commonwealth’s Attorney’s Office annual Victim Services Award on Thursday celebrated some of the people who help their neighbors when they are their most vulnerable.
The awards recognized people in and outside of law enforcement who have gone above and beyond to help the victims of crime and tragedy. They were the people behind the scenes bringing justice and relief during some of Loudoun’s most high-profile crimes.
Sheriff’s Office Detective Mark Bush lead the investigation into what Commonwealth’s Attorney Jim Plowman called “one of the most horrific crimes I’ve ever been involved with as a prosecutor,” when two people were assaulted in Lansdowne. The husband was beaten to death; the wife was beaten and sexually assaulted, and Plowman called it a “miracle” she survived. Bush’s investigation and persistence lead to three guilty pleas seven years later.
“You could see how personally invested he was in this case,” Plowman said.
Leesburg Police Department Detective Dan Troxell was the lead investigator in the case of Heather Timbers, who was convicted of manslaughter after providing heroin to Dewitt Talmadge Black IV. Black, who had never tried heroin before, overdosed and died in a Leesburg hotel room he was sharing with Timbers. The conviction marked a landmark case for county prosecutors seeking to hold drug suppliers criminally liable in fatal overdose cases.
“It’s his efforts, his tenacity that let us even put this case on the table,” Plowman said.
Leesburg Detective Jesse Zappia was the lead investigator in two homicides. In one, Sergio Ramon Zuniga Robles was convicted and sentenced to 26 years in prison for fatally stabbing his half-brother at their home in Leesburg.
In the other, Diamante Travon Ellis was sentenced to 13 years behind bars for the death of his infant daughter. Zappia couldn’t attend the ceremony, because he was teaching a class in Texas.
Leesburg Detective Doug Shaw was the lead investigator in the case of Darrick Lee Lewis, who in 2016 fatally shot Christina Fisher, the mother of his two children. Lewis violated a protective order to go to her house after she told him she would not be at his birthday party and shot her with a civilian version of the AKM, a modern version of the AK-47 Kalashnikov assault rifle. Fisher, a mother of three, was flown to Inova Fairfax Hospital, where she died. Lewis will spend nearly 44 years behind bars.
“The real connection that Doug made was with Christina’s daughter, a 16-year-old high school student who just lost her mother,” Plowman said, noting Shaw was constantly available to the family.
Johanna Emory, a nurse with a wide range of experience in intensive care, emergency care, trauma, pediatrics and other disciplines in the U.S., Australia and the Middle East, was recognized for her actions on the day infant Tristan Schulz and his mother, Mindy, were struck in a Lansdowne crosswalk.
Emory, who coincidentally was on her way to the courthouse to testify in a different case, was at the intersection when the wreck happened. She tended to the Schulzes until ambulances arrived. Both were seriously injured, and Tristan died at the scene. She also testified in the subsequent trial of the driver, John Miller IV.
Plowman said “that type of selflessness and willingness” to help out a person in one of the darkest moments of their life “really makes our community tight, and makes the fabric of our community what it is.”
And Loudoun Master Deputy Mike Hall was the lead investigator in a series of more than two dozen property crimes in Loudoun, a crime spree that also reached into Fairfax and Maryland. Plowman said while it’s not the kind of case that usually nets a victim services award, “it’s about quality of life.”
“These are the kinds of cases that hit the average person,” Plowman said.
The ceremony featured a talk by Jennifer Knittig, who has worked to make something positive out of an incident in which her daughter, then nine years old, was sexually assaulted by a friend’s father at a sleepover. The Loudoun County Commonwealth’s Attorney’s office was called in to serve as special prosecutors.
Knittig said despite the allegations against him by three underage girls, Michael Gardner received an outpouring of support from the community. Gardner was a well-known figure and political activist in the community whose wife was a former mayor and a council member at the time. His first trial resulted in a conviction, but was overturned by the Virginia Supreme Court.
“The news was almost too much for us—and for a 17-year-old girl in New Jersey who we had never met,” Knittig said. After Gardner’s conviction was overturned and he was released, a fourth victim, his niece, came forward. Partway through a second trial, Gardner pleaded guilty in all cases, and information about the case began to be released into the community.
Since then, the Knittig family has spent a lot of time rebuilding, including helping launch a nonprofit advocacy group for victims. A Falls Church resident, horrified at the support Gardner had received, crowd-funded 400 red signs that read simply “We Support the Girls.” From that slogan, a nonprofit was born which works to raise child sexual abuse awareness, support efforts for age-appropriate abuse prevention education, and raises funds to provide care and comfort packages to children who have reported sexual abuse.
“From every horrible case, you hope good arises, and in this case it did,” Plowman said.