E. Lee Stoffregen III, the former two-term Prince William County sheriff whose tenure was marked by clashes with the police department and several investigations into his financial management, has been indicted by a grand jury on embezzlement and grand-larceny charges, police said yesterday.
Virginia State Police officials said Stoffregen, 53, a Democrat who lost his bid for reelection in 2003, is charged with stealing more than $1,000 from a sheriff's office bank account at the end of his second term. They also said that when he left office in January 2004, he took one of 20 assault rifles that had been purchased to bolster security after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
"Since he was in law enforcement, you don't like hearing about something like that. We obviously need to have the respect of the public," said Sgt. Terry Licklider, a spokesman for the state police. "The rifle was government property, county property. He used the money for nonofficial things."
Stoffregen, who has known he was under investigation for almost a year, did not return a phone message left at his home. His attorney, Blair D. Howard, said his client, now a Re/Max real estate broker, was disappointed about the indictment but confident that he has committed no crime.
Stoffregen "has assured me that he did not engage in any criminal misconduct while he was in office, and I have absolute confidence in what he has told me," Howard said. "After a year-and-a-half-long investigation, they come up with charges that occurred in his last days in office?"
The investigation, overseen by a special prosecutor from King George County, is the fourth to examine Stoffregen's tenure as Prince William sheriff. He was exonerated in the first two probes. As of October 2004, a special prosecutor from Chesterfield County was investigating contributions to Stoffregen's campaign and a complaint that he did not comply with a state Freedom of Information Act request.
Neither the chief prosecutor in Chesterfield nor his assistant returned phone calls left yesterday at the office.
Stoffregen had been working his way up the sheriff's office hierarchy since the late 1970s when he was elected sheriff in 1995. He was extremely popular, winning two elections with well-funded campaigns and overwhelming public support.
But in 2003, he lost his perch to the jail superintendent, Glendell Hill, a Republican, after allegations of favoritism and ethical lapses surfaced. He already was mired in antagonism over his plans for a more aggressive sheriff's office.
His initiatives -- which included creating a SWAT unit, purchasing all-terrain vehicles and setting up speed traps -- angered county police officials, who said he was duplicating services and wasting taxpayer money. The new duties, police said, were well beyond deputies' established roles of protecting the county courthouse, serving subpoenas and transporting prisoners.
The investigation that led to his indictment began in January 2004, after Hill took office. Sheriff's deputies approached Prince William Commonwealth's Attorney Paul B. Ebert (D) with allegations of wrongdoing. Ebert then forwarded the complaints to the state police, and Matt Britton, the King George commonwealth's attorney, was appointed as a special prosecutor to avoid a conflict of interest or the appearance of one.
Britton did not return phone calls to his office yesterday. Ebert, who worked one floor above Stoffregen in the courthouse, said he did not know the details of the investigation. "Nothing surprises me," he said. "In my business, I see it all. This is my job. This is what I do."
Capt. Gary Jenkins of the state police said the FBI had also taken part in the probe.
One of the allegations that surfaced as part of the investigation, Jenkins said, was that Stoffregen had accepted political donations from residents in exchange for making them volunteer deputies.
"That was one of the allegations that was originally made, but we didn't find the evidence to prosecute," Jenkins said.
Mike Messier, who served as Stoffregen's second in command and is raising money to run for Prince William sheriff in 2007 (including $1,500 from Stoffregen), said the indictment does not reflect the character of his old boss.
"When we left office, we gave back everything. I know whatever Lee was issued, it went right back to inventory," Messier said, referring to the allegation of a stolen assault rifle. "Charges like this are saddening to hear about and unexpected. Everything I know about him is that he's an honest man, a great father, a hard worker for the community."
Stoffregen's trial is scheduled for Dec. 19. Together, the two charges are punishable by a maximum fine of $5,000 and two years in jail, police said.
Staff writer Nikita Stewart contributed to this report.