Ex-Sheriff Gets 8 Months for Cover-Up

By Fredrick Kunkle
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Former Henry County sheriff H.F. "Frank" Cassell was sentenced yesterday in federal court to eight months in prison for covering up widespread corruption in the small rural Virginia department he controlled for 15 years.

Cassell, 69, was also directed to pay a $15,000 fine for lying to investigators who were looking into drug dealing and money laundering among members of the sheriff's office. Cassell will serve his term at the federal minimum-security prison complex in Butner, N.C.

U.S. Attorney John L. Brownlee said he was pleased with the outcome.

"Communities need to have public servants that are honest," Brownlee said after the sentencing hearing in Roanoke. "Frank Cassell was a crooked cop, and that's why he's a convicted felon and why he's going to prison."

Saying that nothing is more pernicious to a society than corrupt law enforcement, federal prosecutors said in court papers that Cassell deserved to spend at least five years in prison. Sentencing guidelines called for a sentence of six months to one year. U.S. District Judge James C. Turk said he saw no reason to depart from the guidelines.

"We think it's a fair sentence," John E. Lichtenstein, Cassell's attorney, said in a telephone interview.

Yesterday, Cassell appeared in a packed courtroom for sentencing. The former sheriff was accompanied by his wife, Margaret, and two grown daughters.

Lichtenstein argued that Cassell deserved leniency because of his many years of service before he was indicted. Cassell was not charged with any of the underlying offenses and did not benefit financially, Lichtenstein said.

Lichtenstein said Cassell offered to help a former deputy, a leader of the criminal enterprise, only because the deputy, James A. Vaught, approached him with a hard-luck story after being arrested and dismissed from the force. But Brownlee said Cassell fell easily.

"It didn't take much for James Vaught to persuade the sheriff to participate in this criminal activity," Brownlee said, adding that Cassell offered to tip Vaught to anything the sheriff learned about the investigation.

The 48-count indictment, handed up in October, deepened a mood of despair in a region that has shed jobs in recent years.

The case began in March 2005 when Drug Enforcement Administration agents in Philadelphia mailed a package to Henry County containing ketamine, an animal tranquilizer that is linked to date-rape cases. Agents set up a sting for the intended recipient, who was renting a house from Vaught and acting as a middleman for him in drug deals.

After being arrested, Vaught agreed to cooperate with investigators and began secretly taping conversations with Cassell and others.

A federal grand jury charged 20 people, including Cassell and 12 current and former employees of the sheriff's office. In addition to dealing cocaine, marijuana, ketamine and steroids, the defendants took money and property seized in investigations, including firearms, according to the indictment.

Of the 20 defendants, 17 have pleaded guilty, including Cassell and Vaught, Brownlee said. He said two defendants facing less-serious charges have been placed in programs that allow them to clear their records after periods of probation, and one defendant will stand trial in October.

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