Thursday, May 26, 2022

Woman says she was harassed, assaulted, and then put on trial, sparking 15-year court battle

The pier leading to the boat dock at Avenel, where Virginia Radcliffe claims she was assaulted in 2004. (Port City Daily photo / Benjamin Schachtman)
The pier leading to the boat dock at Avenel, where Virginia Radcliffe claims she was assaulted in 2004. (Port City Daily photo / Benjamin Schachtman)

NEW HANOVER COUNTY — Nearly twenty years ago, Virginia Radcliffe moved into Avenel, a neighborhood just north of Wilmington with tree-shaded houses, a pier onto a floating dock onto the intracoastal, and a homeowners association.

Radcliffe had recently completed her studies at Yale University where she had earned a four-year graduate degree in divinity. Radcliffe moved to the Wilmington area looking forward to a career as a minister; she had become a certified candidate for ordained ministry in the United Methodist Church and had also worked as a volunteer Guardian Ad Litem (an officer of the court representing the “best interest” of children) and in the chaplain’s department of a men’s medium-security prison.

A year later, that HOA informed Radcliffe her property was in “non-conformance” with the association’s guidelines, a violation that came with the potential of daily fines. What followed was a series of disputes between Radcliffe and the HOA’s other members, including the HOA president, who Radcliffe claims sexually harassed her. According to Radcliffe, what began as arbitrary violation letters escalated into harassment, threats, and ultimately physical assault.

Over the next several years, the situation would go far beyond a dispute between neighbors, ultimately involved law enforcement – but it was Radcliffe who found herself facing criminal charges.

Despite having considerable evidence, including medical records of injuries – including three broken ribs and a completely torn ACL – sustained during what Radcliffe claims was an unprovoked assault by her neighbor, Radcliffe would face trial for trespassing and communicating threats – even after being told by the district attorney’s office that charges would be dropped. The issue was further complicated when her public defender apparently quit the case while Radcliffe was in court — something that, despite being documented in the court transcript, was later denied by the attorney involved.

Meanwhile, Radcliffe’s attempts to file her own charges against her attacker, and other men she claims harassed her, were futile. The investigation of Radcliffe’s claims, carried out by the New Hanover County Sheriff’s Office (NHCSO), eventually dead-ended, although it collected evidence of several incidents, including threats and a home invasion. At the same time, her attempts to get assistance from the Sheriff’s Office were featured in a front-page Star News article about misuse of the county’s 911 system, where then-Sheriff Sid Causey specifically named Radcliffe, characterizing her calls as a “waste of taxpayers’ money and our time.”

Radcliffe was ultimately exonerated in front of a jury, but the criminal charges against her would have lasting damage, costing her several job opportunities and, according to Radcliffe, a position in the North Carolina Conference of the United Methodist Church, where she was a certified candidate for ordained ministry.

Over the last fifteen years, Radcliffe has continued to pursue the issue in civil court – both with attorneys and, when there was no money left, self-represented as pro se plaintiff. Claiming that much of the harassment was based on her gender and her Christian faith, Radcliffe also filed her cases with various county, state, and federal agencies responsible for enforcing civil rights, fair housing, and other anti-discrimination laws.

Nearly every person involved in the case has declined to comment on the record for this story, including current and former district attorneys, sheriffs, and the plaintiffs in the criminal case (now the defendants in Radcliffe’s current civil case). Several others said only that they have no memory of the situation in Avenel. In court and affidavits, all have denied wrongdoing.

So, what happened to Virginia Radcliffe?

What follows is a timeline of events taken from court and law enforcement records, including several hundred pages of notes from the detective who investigated much of the case, as well as emails, recorded phone conversations, and other public documents.

Harassment

Avenel, a small, tree-lined development just outside Wilmington, sits on the intracoastal waterway. (Port City Daily photo / Benjamin Schachtman)
Avenel, a small, tree-lined development just outside Wilmington, sits on the intracoastal waterway. (Port City Daily photo / Benjamin Schachtman)

February 2001 – Virginia Radcliffe purchases a house in the Avenel development. Radcliffe will later describe this time, in federal court filings in the Eastern District of North Carolina, as relatively peaceful.

She attends a Christmas party that year with her neighbors, Stephen Murray and Carmelo “Tony” Buccafurri, who brought her flowers after she undergoes a surgical procedure. She is friendly with her fellow Avenel residents including neighbor Richard Progelhof. As late as November 2002, Radcliffe attends an oyster roast held by HOA president David Hull.

“Initially, Plaintiff and her neighbors tolerated, and in some instances were friendly toward, each other, and Plaintiff was very happy living in Avenel,” according to a memorandum issued in federal court, where Radcliffe would face these men, a decade later.

Radcliffe claims that although much of her first year at Avenel was peaceful, Hull himself would make inappropriate sexual remarks to her while intoxicated; Hull has denied these claims in his court testimony.

December 2002 – Almost two years later, Radcliffe is now divorced after a brief marriage and living alone.

The change in living situation, she said, coincided with the first signs of harassment from the homeowners association. Another factor instigating hostilities appears to be that Radcliffe challenged the HOA.

At the end of the year, Radcliffe receives the first of several letters from Community Association Management Services (CAMS), the Wilmington-based company hired by the Avenel Homeowners Association to manage the neighborhood. The letter notifies her of “alleged non-conformance” with HOA regulations, which incur fines of up to $50, eventually leading to a $300 fine. According to a 2009 affidavit from Hull, after the departure of her husband, Radcliffe routinely let her yard become overgrown and also failed to pay her HOA dues on time. Radcliffe acknowledges that her landscaping was not perfect, but disputes that they should have incurred fines.

The letters state that she was using “non-uniform mulch,” despite the apparent absence of such regulations in the Avenel Declaration of Covenants (which describe the scope of HOA rules). In fact, the covenants don’t appear to allow the HOA to issue fines in the first place.

During this time, Radcliffe claims verbal harassment escalated, including an incident where HOA President David Hull allegedly harasses her during a December 3 HOA meeting. During the meeting. Radcliffe along with other residents complain about notices they received. Hull states in his affidavit that he told Radcliffe he heard her “bragging” about paying for her house, boat, and car in cash, and asked why she “could not afford to maintain her landscaping.”

After back-and-forth letters with CAMS, Radcliffe allegedly places a “for sale by owner” sign in her front yard on Dec. 11, 2002, according to an incident narrative submitted by Hull.

On Saturday, Dec. 14, Radcliffe then mounted a sign on her lawn reading “Liberate Hullsville, Dump Board.”

At the end of December, Hull – who lived next door — files a self-initiated warrant against Radcliffe, claiming she made a threatening phone call. Minutes before the phone call, Hull alleges in an incident narrative Radcliffe “pounded” on his front door and tipped over a Christmas tree on his front porch.

She told Hull to stay off her property, according to Hull’s narrative, and accused him of tearing down the “Liberate Hullsville” sign he said was removed by “one of the ladies” who was attending an open house he was hosting. Over the phone call, Hull claimed she said, “Stay off my property or I’ll do to you what you did to that cat.” Hull “took that to mean she would shoot me,” Hull wrote in his narrative.

The incident being referred to is recorded in the notes of a NHCSO deputy; on December 15,  2002, Deputy Bellamy wrote in his investigation report notes that Hull told him he shot a “feral cat with a BB gun.” Hull would later deny this in court.

(The case is heard months later, that following August by Judge James Faison in New Hanover County District Court. In his courtroom testimony, Hull says Radcliffe threatened him from his doorstep, not by phone. Progelhof also testifies to this. Faison dismisses the case. According to Hull, the reason was that her threats were “conditional,” that is, she threatened Hull if he came on her property again.)

Spring 2003 – Over the next several months, Radcliffe continues to receive HOA fines for her lawn. Radcliffe complies with some of the letters, but in court filings, said they grew increasingly “arbitrary, confusing, and self-contradictory.” Radcliffe receives one letter ordering her to clean up a pile of brush on her property – the pile is nowhere to be found, she says.

A subsequent letter orders her to remove dead trees from the creek, located behind her house but not on her property. Radcliffe again complies, although she says she seriously injured herself while doing so.

Escalation

Throughout the rest of 2003, Radcliffe alleges that the previous harassment escalates and takes on a more physically threatening tone.

On March 27, 2003, Radcliffe alleges that neighbor Ron Zanzarella drove his SUV at her, with Progelhof as a passenger, and nearly struck her. The men shouted insults at her and told her to “get out of the neighborhood,” she claims. Radcliffe called NHCSO to complain; Progelhof denies the incident occurs.

Radcliffe alleges that on May 25, 2003, Buccafurri and Murray directly threaten her. She claims that they corner her at a gazebo near the Avenel boat ramp and tell her, among other things, they plan to ruin her career, run her out of the neighborhood, and drive her to suicide. According to Radcliffe, they have also begun taunting her based on her faith, using the refrain “what would Jesus do” followed by obscene and sexual threats. Buccafurri and Murray deny making these comments.

Over the next several months, Radcliffe alleges her car and home were both vandalized, causing thousands of dollars of damage. Radcliffe’s lawn and shrubbery are poisoned, according to reports provided by the North Carolina Department of Agriculture; she alleges her hostile neighbors are to blame.

Radcliffe also alleges that her neighbors – including Murray, Zanzarella, and Buccafurri – are banging on her windows and doors, and possibly entering her house. She will eventually hire a private investigator to install a security camera, but first files complaints with the NHCSO, which advises her to post no-trespassing signs.

Radcliffe posts the signs and promptly receives an HOA letter fining her, claiming that home-security and no-trespassing signs are forbidden.

Photos of the large sign facing Virginia Radcliffe's house in 2003. (Port City Daily photo / Johanna Ferebee)
Photos of the large sign facing Virginia Radcliffe’s house in 2003. (Port City Daily photo / Johanna Ferebee)

December 2003 – Several months later, Buccafurri and Murray hang a sign of strung lights, about over ten feet across, on the side of their house that faces Radcliffe’s driveway, reading “WWJD.” According to Radcliffe, the sign goes up in December and stays up for four months.

In late December, the HOA authorizes Wilmington-based law firm Ward and Smith to place a lien on Radcliffe’s house (which she owned, outright) for non-payment of fines; under the state law laying out the powers of homeowners associations, an HOA can auction property in court for unpaid liens. Radcliffe, who has retained attorney Alan Toll to deal with the HOA’s letters, threatens to fight the lien in court. The HOA drops the lien, but informs Radcliffe it has the right to place liens without documentation and declines to apologize. (Two years later, then-HOA President Hull denies any knowledge of the lien in court.)

In January of 2004, the HOA concedes it has no right to levy fines. According to Radcliffe, all fines and charges are dropped or reimbursed.

It seems like a victory for Radcliffe. It is not.

Violence

On February 24, 2004, during an HOA board meeting, board member Zanzarella allegedly threatens Radcliffe.

According to sworn court testimony from Radcliffe’s 2005 criminal trial in New Hanover County Superior Court, Zanzarella “violently” singles her out, saying “you don’t deserve to live in this neighborhood.” Radcliffe’s neighbor, Gary Sappenfield, testified that he’d heard similar insults at previous meetings, but “never severely as this.”

(In a 2010 affidavit in federal court, Sappenfield added that Murray also loudly announced his desire to “get rid of” Radcliffe. In the affidavit, Sappenfield affirmed that in 2006 he told NHCSO Detective William Crowningshield, who investigated Radcliffe’s claims, that Murray and Zanzarella “would have killed Virginia Radcliffe in an instant if other people hadn’t been around – it was that vehement and violent a scene.”)

According to Radcliffe, less than two months later, violence did break out.

The Avenel pier leading out to a gazebo and boat dock. (Port City Daily photo / Benjamin Schachtman)

On April 8, 2004, Radcliffe alleges she was physically assaulted and seriously injured by Murray.

While standing at the end of 350-foot floating dock, accessible via a 650-foot pier, Radcliffe says she spotted Murray. She says she tried to avoid Murray while leaving the area, but he follows her, issuing verbal threats. As the two approach a wooded area, Radcliffe claims that Murray knocked her down and then stomped on her back. Radcliffe claims she recorded additional threats made by Murray, captured on a small recording device – which she had been carrying on the advice of both Detective Crowningshield and the new Avenel HOA president; she claims Murray saw the recorder and threw it into the water.

Two joggers apparently hear Radcliffe’s screams. EMS then arrives, carrying Radcliffe to an ambulance. Radcliffe claims she told authorities where the recording device was, Crowningshield, in his supplemental case report after the incident, said he walked along the dock looking for the recorder but was unable to locate it.

Medical records indicating Virginia Radcliffe’s injuries. (Port City Daily photo / File)

According to Radcliffe’s medical records, she suffered three broken ribs, a torn ACL in her right knee, and extensive bruising. Subsequent X-rays reveal fluid buildup in Radcliffe’s right lung as she develops pneumonia.

Dr. David Espisito, Radcliffe’s orthopedic surgeon, wrote in a June 2006 letter about her medical treatment, “there is a strong relationship between the assault and her injuries.” Detective Crowningshield was CC’d on the email.

Shortly after the alleged assault, Murray takes out a self-initiated warrant on her. Murray, who did not apparently report any serious injuries, claims Radcliffe assaulted him by hitting him with the tape recorder, ripping his shirt, and scratching his face.

Radcliffe will ultimately require surgery for the torn ACL, an injury that affects her permanently.

During the alleged assault, Virginia Radcliffe's ACL is torn, requiring reconstructive surgery. (Port City Daily / File)
During the alleged assault, Virginia Radcliffe’s ACL is torn, requiring reconstructive surgery. (Port City Daily / File)

Charges dismissed, never prosecuted

A colleague of Radcliffe’s attorney attempts to secure a warrant against Murray while Radcliffe is still in the hospital. They are told there are no “cross warrants,” according to Radcliffe, meaning that – in essence – whoever gets to the magistrate first gets the warrant.

Once out of the hospital, Radcliffe goes to the magistrate and is nevertheless able to take a warrant out on Murray.

Medical records indicating the extent of Virginia Radcliffe's injuries. (Port City Daily photo / File)
Medical records indicating the extent of Virginia Radcliffe’s injuries. (Port City Daily photo / File)

According to Radcliffe, when the case comes to court, the district attorney’s office tells her she has failed to bring a medical expert, and that a judge will not be able to hear her testimony regarding her injuries (because she is not an expert witness). Radcliffe claims that two assistant district attorneys – Charity Hicks and John Sherill (who would later serve as interim DA) – had both previously assured her that her medical records are sufficient. Assistant District Attorney Christie Hardie dismissed the case against Murray and, according to Radcliffe, assures her she has two years to refile as long as she has a medical expert.

However, in the coming months, Radcliffe is told by more than one district attorney that NHCSO had declined to prosecute. When Radcliffe turns to NHCSO, she is told – paradoxically – that the district attorney’s office had declined to prosecute. (Generally speaking, law enforcement agencies do not prosecute crimes — they investigate them and then hand them over to a district attorney’s office for prosecution.)

May, 2004 – Over the next month, Radcliffe claims that Buccafurri, Zanzarella, and others continue to stalk her. Radcliffe makes several calls to NHCSO – which she records with a new device – and takes out a restraining order against Zanzarella. Radcliffe makes another call to 911 on June 2, when Zanzarella violates that order (she later acquires an official copy of this call, as well).

May 12, 2004 – Minutes of the Avenel Board Member Meeting show Radcliffe was a main topic of discussion. “Old Business” included homeowner recommendations, including “being friendlier” and “leaving V. Radcliffe alone (ignoring her).” The “New Business” includes more aggressive options to prevent her from using the common areas until she is up to date on her homeowner’s fees, including:

  • “seeing if law enforcement will arrest her for trespassing
  • confronting her as a group to tell her “she is not welcome”
  • sending an additional notice from CAMS
  • seeing if her friends, including Sappenfield, will help intervene
  • contacting private security services to have her “physically removed”

May 29, 2004 – Radcliffe and her friend are walking to the Avenel pier and are approached by Tony Buccafuri, and are told to leave, because Radcliffe had not paid her HOA dues, according to a NHCSO incident report. NHCSO declines to investigate.

June 2, 2004 – Ron Zanzarella files a criminal complaint on behalf of the Avenel Homeowners Association against Radcliffe after seeing her “trespassing” at the Avenal Marina. He told NHCSO Radcliffe was forbidden from the marina due to her outstanding HOA dues. NHSCO declines to investigate.

The same day, Radcliffe files her own complaint, claiming she was harrassed by Zanzarella. She told NHCSO Zanzarella stared at her and followed her as she walked home from the Avenal Marina. NHSCO declines to investigate.

June 23, 2004 – Radcliffe claims she was at the Avenel gazebo when Hull and his wife appeared, ordering Radcliffe to leave. Radcliffe says that, at the time, she was still in a leg brace and walking with a cane due to her severed ACL.

In a 2009 affidavit, Hull would later allege that, at the time, Radcliffe had recently accosted his wife at a board meeting and that she felt uncomfortable. Hull claims he told Radcliffe he was leaving, but pointed out that she shouldn’t be there because she was behind on her HOA dues.

Hull then calls Zanzarella, who – along with Progelhof – come down to the gazebo. This medium-sized gazebo has just one exit and entry point, and is several hundred feet from where the dock meets the land. Hull states it is to make his wife more comfortable around Radcliffe, while Radcliffe alleges that Hull calls the men in an attempt to intimidate her.

Radcliffe, saying she feared for her life, barricades herself with rocking chairs and calls 911 (later acquiring a recording of the call). A 911 operator asks Radcliffe if she has any way to defend herself if things get physical; she responds that she has pepper spray. NHCSO sends a SWAT team to respond.

A magistrate later issues warrants for false imprisonment and communicating threats against Hull, Zanzarella, Buccafuri, and Progelhof. The District Attorney’s office dismisses all charges against the men.

Less than a week later, then-District Attorney John Carricker announces his retirement.

Shake-up in the DA’s office

June 24, 2004 – The day after the gazebo incident, the four men take out trespassing and communicating threat charges (over the pepper spray comments) against Radcliffe. However, in a phone call recorded by Radcliffe, then-Assistant District Attorney Jon David assures Radcliffe it is his decision whether or not to press charges.

August 2, 2004 – New Hanover County Sheriff’s Office Detective T.W. Wilson visits Radcliffe at home and issues her a Notice and Order to Abate Nuisance for allowing “grass and weeds to become overgrown in front, rear, and side yards.” She complies with the county ordinance violation within 10 days, as required.

July 30 – August 4, 2004 – At the end of July, Assistant District Attorney John Sherill is appointed interim District Attorney by then-Governor Mike Easley; the appointment comes after the official retirement of Carricker, who had recommended ADA Ben David as interim instead.

The following week, Ben David announces his candidacy for District Attorney as a Democrat alongside a Republican contender, attorney and public defender Jennifer Harjo.

The same week, Sherill and Jon David call Radcliffe, notifying her that now she will be facing charges.

August 11, 2004 – A week after being notified she will face trial, a front-page article entitled “911: What’s really an emergency?” appears in the Wilmington Star-News. The article, which will be cited by the judge several months later when Radcliffe faces trial, uses as the first of several examples of “nuisance” calls to 911.

This section of the article reads:

When it happens often enough, such calls can become nuisances that cost taxpayers money and waste resources, New Hanover County Sheriff Sid Causey said.

In the past 2 1/2 years, for example, the New Hanover County 911 Center has received at least 30 calls from or about an Avenel Drive resident.

Sheriff Causey said the calls stem primarily from a neighborhood squabble.

But Virginia Radcliffe, to whom the calls have pertained, said her neighbors have threatened her, men have told her they are going to kill her, and she was eventually assaulted in April.

I think there is something seriously wrong with the New Hanover County Sheriff’s Department” for not doing anything about the incidents, Ms. Radcliffe said.

Sheriff Causey said his detectives and deputies have followed up on her complaints and “they just find her accusations to be untrue.”

We’re just spending an enormous amount of time out there, and it is just a waste of taxpayers’ money and our time,” Sheriff Causey said. “It puts us in a bad position,” he said, adding that his department has many other criminal cases that need attention.

He said his department doesn’t get as many calls from the highest-crime area in the county as it does concerning Ms. Radcliffe.

(In a recent interview, Radcliffe noted that NHCSO had received evidence from her orthopedic surgeon and internist, as well as a nuclear bone scan, an MRI, and photos of her injuries.  Indeed, all of these documents appear in Detective Crowningshield’s case file. She also stated she only called 911 when she felt “genuinely threatened,” noting that in most cases she called an administrative number given to her by Detective Crowningshield, not an emergency number.)

October 18, 2004 – Radcliffe goes to court. According to Radcliffe, she was being represented by attorney Jennifer Harjo – then a candidate for District Attorney. Radcliffe claims that, on the day of her scheduled court appearance, Harjo abruptly recused herself from the case citing a nonspecific conflict of interest.

According to both Radcliffe and Sappenfield (who had been subpoenaed to testify), Judge Rebecca Blackmore denies Radcliffe’s request for a continuance in order to find new legal counsel; both allege that Blackmore went on to mock Radcliffe, referencing the August article in the Star-News.

In a 2009 affidavit, Harjo acknowledged that she had been in the courtroom that day and communicated “with some of the parties and court personnel” involved that day, but denies having agreed to represent Radcliffe (or having subsequently quit). Her affidavit sheds no light on what her role was that day, but denies Radcliffe was deprived due process in any way.

(Note: Harjo, who lost the District Attorney’s race by just over 2 percentage points to Ben David the following month, was eventually named chief public defender in 2008, a position she still holds. Harjo did not respond to emails or phone calls.)

Radcliffe quickly filed an appeal.

January, 2005 – Radcliffe says her lawn is poisoned again, a letter from the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services confirms this, but does not indicate who was responsible. The letter notes that Hull and Zanzarella denied involvement. The Avenel HOA Board informs her it will begin fining her again.

Letter from NCAG confirming test results on Virginia Radcliffe's plants. (Port City Daily photo / File)
Letter from NCAG confirming test results on Virginia Radcliffe’s plants. (Port City Daily photo / File)

February 2, 2005 – The United Methodist Church discontinues Radcliffe’s candidacy, effectively foreclosing her chances of becoming a minister. Radcliffe had previously appealed to Reverend Timothy Russel, then the head of North Carolina Conference’s District Committee on Ordained Ministry for a meeting, believing letters addressed to the Russel written by Buccafurri and others libeled her and swayed the committee against her.

However, Radcliffe says at her final interview in the ordainment process the main issue was her outstanding criminal charges, which she was in the process of fighting in court (a denial letter from the committee outlines the results of a criminal background report). The committee was unwilling to postpone their vote, apparently, despite Radcliffe’s assurances that she would be exonerated in court – which she was, just over a month later.

Asked about the decision, Rev. Russell, now the assistant to the bishop and director of ministerial relations for North Carolina Conference, stated only that “Our records indicate that Virginia Radcliffe’s candidacy as a certified candidate in the North Carolina Conference of the United Methodist Church was discontinued on February 2, 2005 by a vote of the district committee on ordained ministry.”

“M-U-R”

A photograph of Virginia Radcliffe's interior window from February 13, 2005. The letters 'm-u-r' are faintly visible, Radcliffe says. (Port City Daily photo / File)
A photograph of Virginia Radcliffe’s interior window from February 13, 2005. The letters ‘m-u-r’ are faintly visible, Radcliffe says. (Port City Daily photo / File)

February 13, 2005 – Radcliffe returns home from church around 4 p.m. to find the back door of her residence, which she said she left bolted and locked, open. She saw nothing was missing inside, called her attorney, who told her not to report the event.

Afterward, she calls her private investigator, who had installed a surveillance camera facing her back yard. The private investigator checks the footage. Just before 12:36 p.m. that the same day, a man appears, running through her backyard, away from her house and onto Murray and Buccafurri’s property.

(Video: Footage from Radcliffe’s security camera. You can find the video here, as well.)

Radcliffe claims she recognized the man as Murray.

Later that evening, she notices an aberration on her window as the sun sets. She sees something smudged or written and walks outside to see what it is, only to realize that the writing is on the inside of the glass.

When she returns inside, Radcliffe sees what was written.

The letters “M-U-R.”

Radcliffe takes photos of the smears, in which the letters “M-U-R” are visible. She believes the message to be a partial spelling of the name “Murray” or – more disturbingly – the word “Murder.” NHSCO later places Radcliffe’s photos in its evidence vault. However, the responding deputy reports not seeing the letters in their images, according to the NHCSO investigation report.

The deputy reports applying silk black dusting powder and a feather and fingerprint brush, and maintains the smears aren’t visible. Radcliffe’s private investigator collects a fingerprint sample, which he supplies to NHCSO.

From NHCSO Detective Crowningshield's field notes, indicating both the VCR recording and fingerprint from February 13. 2005. (Port City Daily photo / File)
From NHCSO Detective Crowningshield’s field notes, indicating both the VCR recording and fingerprint from February 13. 2005. (Port City Daily photo / File)

The cases initially went nowhere, until NHCSO agreed to re-investigate the following year.

Sword and shield

March 8 – 10, 2005 – Radcliffe gets a new attorney, Thomas Hicks, and goes to Superior Court to appeal the October ruling under Judge Blackmore.

This time, Radcliffe is able to present evidence, including that she is in good standing with her Avenel HOA dues and the Avenel Boat Facility Association, rebutting claims made by Hull and the other accusers that Radcliffe was trespassing. Based on this, the judge dismisses the trespassing charges.

A trial, during which Radcliffe’s attorney is allowed to enter the 911 call into evidence, ends when the jury finds her not guilty of communicating threats.

It remains unclear why the District Attorney’s office did not consider this evidence sufficient to dismiss the case against Radcliffe in the first place. Jon David, now district attorney for Bladen, Brunswick, and Columbus, said he had no specific recollection about the facts of the case. Ben David, district attorney for New Hanover and Pender counties declined to comment. Former interim district attorney John Sherill, now retired, did not return calls. Former Assistant District Attorney Jeff Ryan, now a magistrate, also did not return calls or emails.

In the months – and years – to come, some of the men Radcliffe alleged had harassed her move away, but those that stay, Radcliffe says, continue to harass her, along with the new HOA Board.

More damaging, perhaps, are the criminal charges against Radcliffe. Despite having the charges dismissed or having been found not guilty in court, the charges themselves have continued to show up on background checks. Radcliffe says she’s lost four job opportunities – not including a ministry in the Methodist church – due to these charges. This includes a position at the Boys and Girls Homes at North Carolina; the organization sent an email to Millie Hershner – who represented Radcliffe on behalf on the North Carolina Human Relations Commission in 2006 – stating that if not for the criminal charges on her background check Radcliffe would have been hired at $35,000 plus medical and life insurance and a retirement plan.

April 21, 2005 – Radcliffe is visited by a NHCSO deputy after reporting construction crews working at 7 a.m. A deputy informs her crews can begin work at 7 a.m. per county ordinance.

May 21, 2005 – Hull files a nuisance complaint with NHCSO against Radcliffe for failing to maintain her landscaping. A NHSCO offer visits Hull at his residence; Hull tells the deputy that Radcliffe has intentionally failed to maintain her yard for a year and a half in order to negatively impact the property values of her neighbors. Weeks later, a NHCSO investigator visits Radcliffe’s property, determines the complaint was “unfounded,” and closes the case.

February, 2006 – After agreeing to re-investigate the alleged assault on Radcliffe and home invasion by Murray, Detective Crowningshield tells Radcliffe that NHCSO and the District Attorny’s office agree that alleged crimes against her cannot be prosecuted. Radcliffe said District Attorney Ben David asked NHSCO Chief Deputy Larry Hines to collect the alleged crimes against Radcliffe and investigate them as a single case. Apparently, this is not done: no witnesses are interviewed and David declines to convene a grand jury.

According to Radcliffe, she calls both Ben David and Assistant District Attorney Jeff Ryan. Her calls aren’t returned and, according to Radcliffe, David’s assistant hangs up on her.

March 29, 2006 – Radcliffe gets warrants issued against Buccafurri, Murray, Zanzarella, Progelhof, and Hull on assorted charges, including the physical assault on her.

Assistant District Attorney Charity Hicks-Wilson, who prosecuted Radcliffe during her successful March 2005 appeal in Superior Court, dismisses all charges against the Avenel men.

Two days later on March 31, Hicks-Wilson wrote Radcliffe a letter, stating “the appearance is that you are being vindictive and using the law as a sword, not a shield.”

She ends the letter, “I encourage you to call for law enforcement if you ever feel the need.”

April 2006 – Radcliffe requests Detective T. W. Wilson (who in August 2004 served Radcliffe a nuisance order for her grass) be removed from her case, citing a conflict of interest – namely that Wilson is the husband of Assistant District Attorney Charity Hicks-Wilson.

Crowningshield relieves T. W. Wilson from investigating Radcliffe’s cases.

Conspiracy, craziness, or cautionary tale?

An anonymous letter received by Virginia Radcliffe in late 2006. (Port City Daily photo / FIle)
An anonymous letter received by Virginia Radcliffe in late 2006. (Port City Daily photo / FIle)

December, 2006 – Radcliffe receives an anonymous letter, implying that Hull may have political connections.

“After being informed of your lawsuit involving [David] Hull, I want to make certain that you and your counsel know that he works at the of Dr. Frank Snyder (closely); Dr. Snyder is very close to Sheriff Causey. I believe he is Sheriff Causey’s doctor. In which I worry that the possible closeness may ‘infect’ your past/coming litigation efforts. Please make your counsel aware. I apologize for the anonymity of this note. I pray [for] your victory in this misjustice,” the letter reads.

Around the same time, Radcliffe’s case is taken up by the North Carolina Human Relations Committee (NCHRC). Attorney Millie Hershner determines that Radcliffe’s case, initially sent to the New Hanover Human Relations Committee, had not been properly investigated, with most of the witnesses never contacted.

As Hershner investigates the case, she comes across what she sees as additional evidence of Hull’s connections.

January 6, 2006 – Hershner meets with Radcliffe and representatives of the District Attorney’s office – identified as Assistant District Attorney Jeff Ryan in notes from Detective Crowningshield, who also attends the meeting. Hershner tells them Radcliffe’s “complaints against the persons who had assaulted her and who stalked her and then filed criminal charges against her, were not thoroughly investigated,” according to a 2009 federal court affidavit.

According to that affidavit, Hershner then speaks “with the attorneys who had represented her in the criminal cases filed against her by one or more of the defendants. I was told by persons working in the courthouse that defendant David Hull was personal friends with an Assistant District Attorney who was the former interim District Attorney [i.e. John Sherill], and that David Hull was possibly also a friend of then-Sheriff, Sid Causey, and that Virginia Radcliffe would not get justice in court in New Hanover County.”

In a recent interview, Hershner said the Assistant District Attorney she had been speaking with – Jeff Ryan – met her in the hallway after the meeting and told her that the men who had been feuding with Radcliffe were friends with Sheriff Causey. According to Hershner, Ryan told her that, because of this, Radcliffe “would never get justice in New Hanover County.” (Ryan did not respond to multiple request to confirm or deny this encounter.)

January 31, 2006 – Hershner and Radcliffe attend a second meeting, this time with District Attorney Ben David. Crowningshield tells Radcliffe that, without additional leads or witnesses, her cases cannot be prosecuted.

According to Hershner and Radcliffe, Hershner tells David she will go to the FBI for help.

In recent interviews, Both Hershner and Radcliffe both told Port City Daily that they received a call from a man later that day, identifying himself as FBI Special Agent Shane Taylor. Both say they were told by the man that he was a good friend of Ben and Jon David, and that the FBI would not intervene in the case.

Recently contacted for comment, Shelley Lynch, spokesperson for the FBI’s Charlotte division, declined to forward questions to Agent Taylor, but issued the following official statement:

“The FBI investigates national security matters and crimes that violate federal laws.  While we encourage the public to report suspicious or criminal activity to the FBI, not every report is a violation of federal law.  When a matter does not violate federal law, the FBI may inform the reporting person an investigation cannot be opened.”

(Port City Daily’s attempts to reach Taylor with questions directly were unsuccessful.)

In separate 2007 and 2006 affidavits, Ben David and Sid Causey deny any possible favoritism.

David states he disagreed “with each and every allegation indicating or inferring or alleging or concluding that I or any member of my staff performed my (our) duties as members of the District Attorney’s office improperly and/or with any bias, prejudice, favoritism or any improper conduction whatsoever for or against Virginia Radcliffe or anyone,” in his 2009 federal court affidavit. Causey makes a near identical statement, denying any improper conduct, bias, or favoritism.

Ultimately, Hershner’s attempts to get Radcliffe’s case moved to Wake County – away from what she perceived as political connections that made a fair trial impossible – were unsuccessful. NCHRC eventually dropped Radcliffe’s case and Hershner was later fired, leading to a high-profile wrongful termination suit (the suit lasted from 2009 until a $400,000 settlement deal was finalized in 2014).

So, what happened? Was there a conspiracy against Radcliffe?

Some have suggested that Radcliffe imagined this alleged conspiracy – and even some of the events that allegedly took place at Avenel – as a kind of delusion or paranoia. In a 2006 affidavit, Radcliffe’s former attorney Thomas Hicks pointed to the “widespread negative opinions in the community concerning Ms. Radcliffe, and she has developed the reputation of being ‘crazy,’ and not worthy of belief.”

Hicks, who won Radcliffe’s 2005 criminal appeal, told Port City Daily he found that reputation “undeserved,” but added that the “unjustified impression” that she was a “crazy lady” would mean she could not get a fair trial in New Hanover County.

It’s worth noting that Radcliffe has represented herself in many of her legal battles and – with a few exceptions – has largely been unsuccessful. When she did have legal counsel, she was able to push back against the Avenel HOA fines and later, as things got more serious, win her criminal case on appeal – although at the cost of at least $20,000 in legal fees. (Radcliffe has recently started a GoFundMe campaign to help handle the costs of continuing litigation.)

But without legal counsel, Radcliffe found herself fined, arrested, and convicted. In civil and criminal court she found herself buried – almost literally – in legal paperwork, bound to respond to countless motions on a deadline, a phenomenon she called “paper-boarding.” And she spent years filing cases with agencies that ultimately decided they weren’t the correct venue for her complaints.

For a pro se defendants and plaintiffs alike, the legal system is a bureaucratic labyrinth that needs no conspiracy – no Minotaur, no villains at all – to consume their lives.

As for Radcliffe, she continues to believe – as Hershner did – that the men of Avenel had political connections that allowed them to harass and assault her with impunity, having charges against them dismissed and, conversely, allowing them to press charges against her. For Radcliffe, there is no other explanation as to how the victim of an assault ended up arrested and put on trial, unable to successfully take her own case to court.

Those in power – now and then – have flatly denied this was the case, and David Hull denied ever boasting to Radcliffe, or anyone else, that the authorities would not help her because of his friendship with the District Attorney and Sheriff.

After nearly two decades, Radcliffe says she’s been physically, mentally, and financially exhausted. In October of 2007, she was declared totally and permanently disabled – the result of post-traumatic stress – by psychiatrist Walter Anthony Dietzgen; she remains on limited disability income today. However, she continues to press forward with her civil case.

Virginia Radcliffe, before nearly two decades of legal battles. (Port City Daily photo / File)
Virginia Radcliffe, before nearly two decades of legal battles. (Port City Daily photo / File)

Johanna Ferebee contributed to the research and writing of this article.


Send comments and tips to Benjamin Schachtman at ben@localvoicemedia.com, @pcdben on Twitter, and (910) 538-2001.

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