Originally published Aug. 8, 2002, in the Metro section.
A 22-year-old Chantilly man who killed a major local drug distributor at the behest of his high school friend was sentenced to 38 years in prison yesterday for a slaying that exposed a vast network of young suburban dealers.
Owen Merton Barber IV could have received life in prison for the death of Daniel Robert Petrole Jr., 21, who was shot nine times as he parked his car in front of his Bristow townhouse in March 2001. In testimony over the past year, Barber said several times that he shot Petrole as part of a murder-for-hire scheme orchestrated by his friend Justin Michael Wolfe.
The slaying was designed to get Wolfe out of a significant debt to Petrole, who was at the top of a local drug ring that sold millions of dollars’ worth of high-grade marijuana and Ecstasy throughout Northern Virginia. Petrole, the son of a retired Secret Service agent, was returning home from making a large delivery to Wolfe when he was shot.
Prosecutors agreed to allow Barber to plead guilty to first-degree murder -- avoiding a possible death sentence -- in exchange for his testimony against Wolfe. Barber’s account of the slaying was the most important element of the case against Wolfe, with Barber telling a Prince William County jury that he was hired to get Wolfe’s “Chronic Man” -- chronic is a street name for the marijuana.
Chief Circuit Court Judge Herman A. Whisenant Jr. sentenced Wolfe to death in June, after jurors recommended capital punishment. Yesterday, Whisenant opted to sentence Barber to 60 years in prison, with 22 of those years suspended. Commonwealth’s Attorney Paul B. Ebert asked Whisenant to impose a life sentence at the hearing yesterday.
Under Virginia’s sentencing laws, Barber could be eligible for release before his 55th birthday.
“There is no question that what happened cannot be undone, and there’s no question of the seriousness,” Whisenant told Barber, who looked blank as his sentence was read. “We can only speculate as to why that happened. But someone is dead. He is dead because you pulled the trigger nine times. He is dead because someone hired you.”
William Pickett, Barber’s attorney, said yesterday that Barber’s life was spiraling out of control at the time he was hired to kill Petrole. After watching his mother lose a long fight with cancer, Barber suppressed his emotions, Barber’s father testified yesterday.
“Then came the alcohol, the drugs,” Pickett said in court. “That provided him with a temporary escape. None of this excuses what he did, but it provides some understanding, some explanation, of how this otherwise bright, intelligent man from a good family could be vulnerable to such a sinister suggestion from a man like Justin Wolfe.”
Barber’s father, Owner Barber III, said after the hearing yesterday that he agrees with the sentence.
“My son got his fair and just punishment, and that’s the way it should be,” he said.
Ebert said Barber’s help in the case allowed prosecutors to go to trial against Wolfe. Although Barber tried to escape to California immediately after the slaying, he ultimately confessed and gave authorities vital information about Wolfe.
Barber was linked to the crime because of his mistakes: He dropped the gun and a pair of gloves near the scene, and he let Petrole’s car hit the car Barber had borrowed for the plot.
Barber testified at Wolfe’s trial that they celebrated Petrole’s death with drinks at a Fairfax bar and held a massive party at a club in the District the next night to celebrate Wolfe’s 20th birthday.
“But for his testimony, Justin Wolfe never would have been prosecuted,” Ebert said. “He was given a significant break by not being charged with capital murder. . . . It was a heinous crime committed by people who had every opportunity in life. It showed a careless and total disregard for life.”
Barber’s sentencing was the last step in the prosecution of Petrole’s killers, although Wolfe’s family is preparing to appeal his conviction and death sentence. The case shocked many in the region, who came to realize that a large group of young men in their communities were selling drugs to their children.
“When you look at the people involved and the quality of the families, you have to wonder how this happened,” Pickett said. “These three young men -- and others involved -- were involved in something they were ill-equipped to handle, something that was destined to spin out of control. It had to end badly. Unfortunately, it ended in tragedy.”