Year in Review: Judges, Juries Rule on 5 Fatal Cases in 2020

During a year when the county’s courts complex was largely closed to the public several months as part of the COVID-19 response, several high-profile cases reached their conclusion. In cases surrounding the deaths of seven people, juries and judges handed down 144 years of combined active prison time to five men, and also handed down 41 years to a man convicted of attempted capital murder and one life sentence to a man who crippled another man for life.

In February, a jury sentenced Hassan Gailani, now 37, to 77 years in prison for two first-degree murder convictions and another nine felony convictions.

Gailani’s trial focused on events that occurred in May 2018, when he shot and killed two men in Sterling’s Pharaoh Café. Gailani testified that he had no recollection of the shooting, however prosecutors presented evidence of a carefully planned attack that including the purchase of and training with a handgun and the renting of a car he used to stake out the café from the parking lot until his victim showed up.

In August, a judge sentenced Bradford Cellucci, now 28, to life in prison for an aggravated malicious wounding conviction. Cellucci in July 2015 struck an employee at the Ralph Lauren outlet store in Leesburg in the back of the neck with the claw of a hammer, which severed that man’s spinal cord and left him paralyzed from the lower torso down.

In September, a judge sentenced Zachary Frye, now 21, to 12 years in prison for a January 2019 crash on Morrisonville Road that killed Lauren McDarby who was out on her morning jog. According to testimony during the Sept. 21 sentencing, Frye was traveling about 60 mph and had a blood-alcohol level that was nearly three times the legal limit when he struck McDarby. He pled guilty to a DUI and aggravated involuntary manslaughter.

Also in September, a Circuit Court judge formally sentenced Douglas Johnson to 41 years of active prison time for convictions on attempted capital murder after injuring two Sheriff’s Office deputies in a Christmas Eve 2017 shooting. The sentence followed objections made by the NAACP, which argued the court did not adequately consider the Army veteran’s struggle with PTSD, that the verdict in the August 2019 trial should be discarded because all of the jurors were white, and that the jurors were unaware of the sentence they were recommending.

The Dec. 24, 2017 incident involved three deputies who responded to a domestic dispute call at Johnson’s home. When they informed Johnson, now 42, they would arrest him, Johnson jumped into his closet, grabbed a.45-caliber handgun and fired it three times, injuring two of the deputies.

In November, a judge sentenced Frank Price to 42 years of active prison time for the first-degree murder of his wife in their Chantilly home. Price, now 50, slit the throat of his 36-year-old wife, Winsome Marie West Price, after their children went to bed in October 2017. According to testimony from the woman who adopted the Price’s three children, West Price had attempted to leave her husband that night. A jury trial was not held in the gruesome case because, according to Commonwealth’s Attorney Buta Biberaj, the agreed-to plea deal avoided the trauma and uncertainty of a trial and precluded any chance of Price appealing his sentence.

Also in November, a judge sentenced Martin Chavez, now 57, to 10 years of active prison time for convictions on two counts of felony involuntary manslaughter stemming from a Christmas Day 2019 car crash in which Chavez was drinking and rear ended a car at a stop light, killing a 79- and an 80-year-old passenger.

And in December, a judge sentenced 19-year-old Bryce Thomas to three years in prison for a conviction on felony possession of a firearm by an adjudicated delinquent—a charge Thomas accrued when he shot at and killed a Maryland man in a March 8 drug deal gone bad. According to his defense counsel, Thomas was acting in self-defense upon being attacked.

Noteworthy Preliminary Hearings

Multiple preliminary hearings were held for defendants charged in cases centered on murder and manslaughter.

The most notable occurred in November for Gavin Collins and Joshua Hunter, the 22-year-olds charged with the July 8 first-degree murder of 24-year-old Jose I. Escobar Menendez.

Evidence connecting Collins and Hunter to the fatal shooting includes text messages sent from an IP address located at the Sterling Sheetz along with surveillance footage showing Hunter’s Dodge Charger at that gas station the same time the texts were sent; surveillance video allegedly showing that same car in the apartment complex near where Menendez’s body was found; testimony from a nearby resident that she heard cars pull up to the complex, people talking, and a “pop” sound at 2 a.m.; and Menendez’s phone found off the side of the highway along Rt. 7.

Hunter faces a jury trial from March 15-26 and Collins faces a jury trial from April 6-15.

In February, 32-year-old Brian Foleypleaded not guilty to the felony involuntary manslaughter of a 31-year-old Maryland woman. In November 2019, Foley was allegedly driving along Ashburn Farm Parkway in the early morning hours when he lost control of the car and crashed on the side of the road. He and his passenger were ejected. According to testimony during that Feb. 14 preliminary hearing, Foley had been drinking that night.

Foley will stand trial July 26-30.

Double Murder Case Set to Proceed

With a nod from the Virginia Supreme Court to resume jury trials, dockets in 2021 are filling up close to the levels they were at the start of 2020.

Brian Kuang-Ming Welsh, the 41-year-old mancharged with two counts of first-degree murder for the January 2018 shooting deaths of an Aldie mother and her adult son, will face a jury trial stretching from Jan. 19 to Feb. 12.

Welsh was initially charged with the murders and arrested in March 2018, 48 days after Mala Manwani’s body was found with four gunshot wounds in the head and Rishi Manwani’s body was found with seven gunshot wounds in the head.

In August 2018, when a ballistics report showed that nine bullets found at the crime scene did not match the barrel of the gun found in Welsh’s possession, prosecutors dropped the charges and Welsh was released from jail.

Using evidence that the shell casings found at the scene matched Welsh’s father’s handgun, a grand jury in October 2019 indicted Welsh on the two counts of first-degree murder. Welsh was re-arrested and has been held at the Adult Detention Center since then.

pszabo@loudounnow.com

Leave a Reply