Originally published June 27, 2002, in the Metro section.
Justin Michael Wolfe was sentenced to death yesterday in Prince William County after a judge agreed with a jury’s recommendation that he face lethal injection for recruiting a friend to assassinate his marijuana supplier.
Wolfe, 21, of Centreville, was convicted in January of orchestrating the killing of Daniel Robert Petrole Jr., who was shot nine times as he parked his car in front of his Bristow townhouse. Petrole, 21, had just come from making a delivery of a large amount of drugs to Wolfe.
The March 2001 slaying led to one of the largest drug investigations in the region’s history and spawned a federal inquiry into the ring of young suburban men who were distributing millions of dollars’ worth of high-grade marijuana and the party drug ecstasy throughout Northern Virginia.
Wolfe was a powerful member of the expansive and lucrative ring, according to authorities and Wolfe’s testimony. Petrole, who had ascended to the top of the local crew, was regularly supplying Wolfe with dozens of pounds of marijuana. Much of the drug filtered down to high school students.
Jurors believed testimony this year that Wolfe hired Owen Merton Barber IV, a friend from Chantilly High School and a member of the ring, to kill Petrole as a way to make off with several pounds of marijuana and to erase a debt of nearly $80,000. Barber -- who reached a plea agreement and is scheduled to be sentenced to a potential life term in August -- testified at the trial that Wolfe hired him to carry out the plot.
The jury recommended a death sentence after finding that Petrole’s slaying involved more than necessary force and that Wolfe posed a future threat to society, even from prison.
Wolfe’s attorneys said yesterday marked only the second time in Virginia that a defendant who hired someone to kill had received a death sentence. In the other case, the defendant was present at the scene of the crime and helped in the killing, Wolfe’s attorneys said. Prosecutors said they couldn’t confirm those claims, but said murder-for-hire cases involving the death penalty are rare.
The jury’s foreman, who attended the hearing yesterday with his son, said that the jury had “absolutely no doubt” that Wolfe hired his friend to kill Petrole. “In my heart, I know that Mr. Wolfe is still a dangerous person,” said Myles Ganley. “I have visions of this guy sitting on his throne with all these people paying homage to him. With all the money and all the drugs, he was a very dangerous person. Our concerns were that he would still conduct his business from prison.”
Chief Circuit Court Judge Herman A. Whisenant Jr. confirmed the jury’s recommended sentence. Wolfe probably will be held in the Prince William County jail for the next three weeks before he is transferred to Virginia’s death row at the Sussex I prison in Waverly. He will join 23 other state prisoners waiting to be executed.
Daniel Petrole Sr., who has attended most of the hearings, said calmly that the case was simply “a senseless, senseless tragedy all around” and that his family’s prayers go out to Wolfe’s family.
“We lost Danny and we miss him tremendously,” Petrole said after the sentencing hearing. “The message here is that every choice has a consequence, and people are going to be held accountable for their actions.”
Commonwealth’s Attorney Paul B. Ebert said that it is never easy to ask for the death penalty but that it has its place. “These types of people can be far more dangerous than those they send out to do their dirty work,” Ebert said. “There was clear evidence that he was dangerous, and there’s no evidence that he has changed.”
Wolfe shook his head slightly when he heard the sentence, then swung around slowly to look at his mother, who was visibly shaken and crying. Wolfe’s eyes then welled, and he hung his head.
Just before hearing the sentence, Wolfe stood to speak briefly. “I feel sorry for what happened to Danny, and I want to thank my family for standing behind me 100 percent,” Wolfe said.
Benjamin Steinberg, Wolfe’s stepfather, said after the hearing that the judge’s decision didn’t come as a surprise. Steinberg testified at the hearing that Wolfe was a caring person who has expressed sorrow, privately, for Petrole’s death and for putting his family through chaos.
“We have to just keep going because it’s a long road,” Steinberg said solemnly. “Justin is keeping his eyes on the future.”
Wolfe’s attorneys said they are planning the mandatory appeal and are going to make motions in the coming days for a new trial. Yesterday, they argued that recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions regarding the death penalty should invalidate Wolfe’s original indictment and sentence.
“In Virginia, the death penalty is a lottery based on geography, not on the offenses or the offenders,” said Wolfe’s lead attorney, Marvin Miller, after the hearing. “The Virginia system is flawed. This is an unjust result from unjust means.”
The Supreme Court decision Monday in an Arizona case held that juries must decide on death sentences based on facts presented at trial and that judges can’t impose death on their own. In Virginia, juries must unanimously fix a sentence, and judges are only able to set aside a death sentence in favor of life without parole when “good cause” is shown at a subsequent hearing.
Whisenant -- presiding over such a hearing yesterday — said that Virginia’s system falls in line with the high court’s decisions.