The police chief was already on the scene of the two-car crash in Strasburg, Va., last weekend when the patrol officers arrived. But he wasn't there to oversee the investigation. He was the suspect.
Police Chief Roger Ashley, from neighboring Middletown, was charged with drunken driving after the officers concluded he had slammed his unmarked cruiser into a car on Route 11. Five hours later, and on the same six-mile stretch of Route 11 that links Strasburg and Middletown, Ashley was pulled over again -- on a drunken driving charge. This time, the police chief was jailed.
Now Ashley, 41 -- awaiting trial on two drunken driving charges and undergoing a psychological evaluation -- is facing an uncertain future at the helm of the five-person police force in Middletown, a town of about 1,000 that lies a dozen miles south of Winchester.
On Monday, the Middletown Town Council suspended Ashley, pending a hearing it will hold once he is released from police custody, said investigator Phil Breeden, who was named acting police chief.
Meanwhile, Ashley has become the talk of this part of the Shenandoah Valley.
"A lot of my customers and I, we've had a few good laughs about it," said Strasburg hairdresser Melanie Weddle. But she noted that little is funny about a police chief driving while drunk, if true. "What a nice role model, you know?" she said.
And like others in the area, Weddle raised the question: Was Ashley allowed to leave after the first arrest because of his badge?
Not according to Deane Allen, the local magistrate. Ashley appeared before Allen after his first arrest March 12, a Saturday. Ashley was charged with drunken driving and his driver's license was suspended for one week. But Ashley seemed to have his wits about him, Allen said, so the magistrate let one of Ashley's officers drive him home. But there was one condition, Allen said: that Ashley sober up and stay home until 8 a.m. the next day.
"I was impressed at how well he handled himself," Allen said. "He talked very eloquently. He did not slur or anything."
Ashley's blood alcohol content was 0.29, nearly four times the legal limit, said Todd Gilbert, an assistant commonwealth's attorney for Shenandoah County. No one had been injured in the crash.
Allen said he does not often release drunken driving suspects. After all, he said, "the public does not want to see somebody staggering away from the police station." But his decision was legal, and he had no reason to doubt a man in uniform, he said.
But then, when Ashley strode in again a few hours later, Allen was not so lenient -- in part, he said, because Ashley had an "attitude." Along with getting his second drunken driving charge of the day, Ashley was charged with driving on a suspended license and failing to take a breath test and was held without bail, Strasburg Police Chief Marshall A. Robinson said.
Ashley appeared Monday in court, where he was denied bail and ordered to undergo a psychiatric evaluation at the prosecutors' request, Gilbert said. A trial was scheduled for April 11.
For now, locals are trying to make sense of it all. Ashley's arrest came as a shock to some, who said he was not known as a drinker. At a 2003 meeting in Winchester launching a drunken driving prevention campaign, Ashley spoke about the night his brother was killed by a drunk driver and pledged his support in the campaign, according to the Winchester Star.
"I've had two brothers killed like that," he said at the event.
Robinson said Ashley is a good person and faithful public servant. The arrests, he said, are a signal that something is "seriously wrong" in Ashley's life. Breeden, the acting chief, said members of the force are struggling with mixed emotions.
"The fact that he had this problem and we didn't know anything about what was occurring" has saddened officers, who consider Ashley a friend, Breeden said.
"And now we've got this stigma, and we need to get over that."