Call it the case nobody wanted.
Fairfax County Circuit Court clerks groaned when they saw it coming. Sheriff's deputies rolled their eyes when they got word the papers were on the way. And the county attorney's office can't wait to get it off their hands.
It's the case that will dispose of the final remnants of the stolen loot confiscated two years ago from the home of convicted thief Bernard C. Welch Jr. And it promises to be one of the biggest free-for-all property disputes ever filed in Fairfax court.
Assistant County Attorney Robert M. Ross has spent months poring over computer printouts of hundreds of names--many of them claiming they each own the same silver spoon or gold chain. And then there's Uncle Sam who just wants to sell off all the left-over loot and use the proceeds to help pay off Welch's debts to the Internal Revenue Service.
Ross filed documents this week asking the Circuit Court to take over the colossal headache of playing referee to the 427 individual disputes over the $1 million worth of jewelry and other precious items in a Fairfax police warehouse. He says the federal goverment could step in and order that the case be heard in federal court because the IRS is a claimant.
"We have no objection," says Ross. "That would take it out of our hands. No one would mind except the people in the clerk's office in federal court . . . And it wouldn't make the federal marshals too happy either."
Now it's the clerks in the county court office that are bearing the brunt of the case's workload. After Ross dumped the two huge cardboard boxes of computer printouts on the office counter, three clerks spent all day punching the names and addresses into the courthouse computer system. In most cases, the job can be done by one clerk in under two minutes.
"It's unbelievable," said one clerk. "We knew it was coming and we've just been dreading it."
"We have our hands full," said June Attmanspacher, supervisor for the clerks who feed the computer system.
And the work has only just begun. Of the 427 claimants for the estimated 1,400 pieces of property--424 individuals, the federal government, the state of Virginia and Welch himself--more than one-half live outside of Fairfax. That means they will have to appear at the clerk's office in person to stake their claims.
"We're just doing this to help the county out," said Attmanspacher, saying the court has never handled a case before that involves so many people making personal appearances at the clerk's office. "It should be their headache, not ours."
Today much of the workload will shift to the Fairfax Sheriff's Department, which must deliver individual summonses to the estimated 150 people on the list who live within the county.
"We're gonna have to hustle," said Capt. Donald B. Harrison, chief of security and services for the department. Harrison, who said his road deputies serve an average of about 560 court papers a day, predicted he may have to call in a few extra deputies to help distribute the additional summonses.
The last stop for the complex case--unless the federal government intervenes--will be the chambers of Chief Judge Barnard F. Jennings, who must decide if the court will accept the cases on behalf of the county and how the court will referee the hundreds of individual claims.
What if Jennings says the Circuit Court won't take the case and orders the county to handle to entire matter? "That would effectively destroy my doing anything but this case for an indefinite period of time," said Ross, groaning at the prospect.