Darrell D. Rice, the Maryland man whom law enforcement authorities once pegged as the Route 29 Stalker, avoided a life sentence and any additional prison time yesterday by entering a plea to a reduced charge of wounding a female motorist near Manassas nearly 10 years ago.
Even with his plea, Rice, 37, who must finish serving a federal prison sentence for an unrelated conviction of trying to abduct a bicyclist in Shenandoah National Park, vigorously maintained his innocence.
"I am not guilty of the crimes I was indicted for and other activities I've been associated with," said Rice, speaking publicly for the first time about the charges. "This is all for strategy reasons. My best interest is to return to my family."
Prince William County Circuit Court Judge William D. Hamblen accepted Rice's plea and sentenced him to 14 months in prison. The sentence will run simultaneously with his current federal term, meaning he will serve no additional time and will be released in July 2007. Rice entered an Alford plea, meaning that he did not admit guilt but acknowledged that prosecutors had enough evidence for a conviction. The plea came on the third day of Rice's trial on more serious charges of abduction with intent to defile.
The deal brings at least a partial resolution to Rice's long and tangled history with the criminal justice system, during which he had faced a possible death sentence and then life in prison. In April 2002, then-U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft personally announced Rice's indictment on charges of killing two female hikers in Shenandoah National Park. But those charges were dropped last year after DNA evidence failed to implicate Rice.
Shortly after the dismissal of those charges, in June 2004, Prince William authorities charged Rice, a Howard County resident, in the February 1996 attack against Carmelita B. Shomo, who was abducted and beaten while she was driving home from work along Route 234 near Manassas. Prosecutors tried to link the crime to a series of incidents in rural Virginia in which the so-called Route 29 Stalker tricked -- or tried to trick -- more than a dozen women into pulling off to the side of the road by flashing his truck lights and telling them they had a mechanical problem with their car.
"It was allegation after allegation that was about nothing," said Deirdre Enright, one of Rice's three attorneys, who worked the case free of charge.
Lead attorney Claire Cardwell, who also helped defend Rice in the Shenandoah hiker case, was a bit more caustic: "Some people go their whole lives without being falsely accused of two crimes." Rice's attorneys also said that Prince William prosecutors felt pressured to pursue him after federal authorities were embarrassed that their double murder case fizzled out.
Prosecutors acknowledged yesterday that they had gauged the reaction of a skeptical jury and lacked enough compelling evidence to proceed with the more serious abduction and robbery charges.
Their main witness, Shomo, took the stand and could not remember that she had initially told investigators conflicting details about the attack. She even denied that she had been charged with writing bad checks years ago in North Carolina, even though defense attorneys produced records proving otherwise.
Shomo pointed to Rice in court as her attacker, but defense attorneys yesterday called to the stand a retired police detective and a private investigator who said they were with Shomo when she identified two other people as her attacker.
And yesterday morning, prosecutors amended the most serious charge -- abduction with intent to defile -- to abduction, which carries a lesser sentence. During a long break in the afternoon, prosecutors offered numerous deals to Rice that he kept turning down, defense attorney James G. Connell said.
Assistant Commonwealth's Attorney James A. Willett said that Shomo was being truthful but acknowledged that she was "skillfully cross-examined" by Cardwell. Still, he was adamant about Rice's guilt. Willett said that he made a "difficult decision" on a plea deal and that he is "very concerned" about Rice's pending release.
Cardwell said: "My question for Mr. Willett is, then, why did he not allow the case to go to a jury?"