By James Hohmann
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, December 5, 2009
Michaele and Tareq Salahi, the alleged White House gate-crashers, brought the media circus to Front Royal, Va., on Friday morning.
The Salahis showed up at the Warren County Courthouse and Tareq left three hours later without his watch.
Last December, a judge ordered the couple to pay their onetime landscaper $925 for money they owed him, $900 in attorney's fees, $53 in court costs, plus 6 percent interest -- about $2,000. The Salahis never paid. So back they had to come to the courthouse, about seven miles from their home on the edge of town, compelled to answer questions under oath from the landscaper's lawyer about their finances.
Camped outside was a media circus of 20 reporters and photographers, so the pair shot quickly and silently into the building at 8:30 a.m., 30 minutes before they were scheduled to appear in the district court's single courtroom. He wore a too-tight jacket over a black shirt and a thin blue tie with crossed polo sticks on it; she wore a khaki coat and tan pantsuit.
David Silek, a 37-year-old Manassas lawyer who has represented the Salahis on a range of cases since 2002, initially declined to tell reporters even whether he represented the couple. "Apparently you don't understand English because I said, 'No comment,' " he said, brushing past reporters.
In the courtroom, a sheriff's deputy tried to make small talk with the Salahis while they waited. He talked about old headmasters at the Randolph-Macon Academy, from which Tareq Salahi graduated in 1987. Then the officer mentioned his own work. "You have good days and bad," he said.
"Trust me, we know," said Tareq Salahi, laughing a little at his own quip before becoming silent again.
A local reporter interrupted the solitude: "Is it nice to have some peace and quiet?"
Tareq Salahi stared ahead, lifted his left arm and pointed at his counsel.
"He has no comment," Silek said.
At 9:01 a.m., with Judge W. Dale Houff presiding, the couple were sworn in. J. Daniel Pond III, the lawyer for landscaper Mike E. Dunbar, placed the Salahis in two witness rooms and asked them individually about their ability to pay. Paper had been placed in the windows to prevent outsiders from peering inside.
Under the law, the landscaper could demand almost whatever valuables the Salahis had on them for the unpaid work. The couple offered a few payment plans, Dunbar said.
What the two parties settled on was this: Tareq Salahi was wearing a Patek Philippe watch. That watch would be sold to generate the cash.
While the lawyers negotiated, Warren County Sheriff Daniel T. McEathron strolled upstairs to check in with the gaggle of reporters. On the force for 27 years, he said, he knew the Salahis by name before the brouhaha. Almost every day since President Obama's state dinner for the Indian prime minister, though, his deputies have responded to three or four calls at the address with either the couple or neighbors complaining about media activity outside.
After the Salahis' lawyer walked between the two witness rooms several times, Dunbar decided that the best thing would be to sell the watch -- after its authenticity is verified -- then collect what he's owed from the proceeds. Patek Philippe, an expensive brand, is known for its quality and pedigree.
The two parties still couldn't agree on exactly how the sale would proceed. At 10:56 a.m., both lawyers went back into the courtroom.
The judge said there was no question that Dunbar, 43, of Front Royal, was entitled to the watch. The Salahis' lawyer said the watch would be worth more than the amount owed, but also said he had no idea how much it would fetch on eBay. (Patek Philippe watches can typically cost well more than $15,000.) The judge said the clerk's office could hold on to the watch until the lawyers worked out the best way to sell it.
"It makes a Rolex look like a Swatch," Silek said, as he rushed out of the courtroom.
At 11:13 a.m., Dunbar walked out to take questions from the assembled media. But when the Salahis walked out 90 seconds later, the reporters began running after them.
Michaele Salahi wore large sunglasses, and she walked a pace ahead of her husband as reporters shouted out questions. They responded to none, including a query about why the couple was jaywalking when a crosswalk was just down the street. One passing motorist slowed his car and jeered the couple once they stepped back on the sidewalk.
Michaele tugged on Tareq's hand as they walked briskly down Main Street and took refuge inside a law office.
Reporters dashed to the back parking lot, where the Salahis' 2006 Audi A8 -- with 60-day temporary tags -- was sitting. A watchband stuck out from the center compartment. Written in pencil on blue paper stuffed between the passenger seat and the center compartment were the words "security breach."
Meanwhile, in the law office reception area, Tareq Salahi played with his cellphone, picked up a recent issue of People and drank a couple of cups of water.
As reporters staked out the front and back entrances of the law office, a police officer came by -- and ticketed the Audi for an expired inspection sticker.
At 11:44 a.m., a Front Royal police officer came to escort the couple out. A minute later, the locks clicked on the car and the Salahis jumped in to drive away. Tareq Salahi looked peeved when he grabbed the $20 ticket from under his windshield wiper.
Dunbar, wearing cowboy boots and a polo shirt advertising his business, A1A Home Improvement, told reporters:
"Right here, right now, it doesn't feel like anything because I still don't have my money."