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Chesterfield police chief, Commonwealth's Attorney butt heads over sex sting case: 'There's a lot of mystery'

Posted at 6:29 PM, Jan 16, 2023
and last updated 2023-01-19 11:06:00-05

CHESTERFIELD COUNTY, Va. -- In a situation referred to as "rare" and "unusual," two top leaders in Chesterfield County are publicly butting heads over a case involved in a sex sting operation.

The disagreement lies between Chesterfield Police Chief Jeffrey Katz and Chesterfield Commonwealth's Attorney Stacey Davenport. Neither official has yet agreed to an interview request from CBS 6, but both have released their own written statements.

At the center of the debate is a case involving the pastor of a Virginia Beach megachurch, John Blanchard. In 2021, police said Blanchard was one of 17 people to be arrested in a prostitution sting. At the time, Chief Katz said the suspects were soliciting sex from minors after communicating with individuals they believed to be underage and then meeting them at a location for sexual relations. The "minors" were actually undercover detectives.

Investigative files released to CBS 6 through a Freedom of Information Act request showed Blanchard first made contact with the "minor" through a known sex-worker website. According to police records, an ad on the website indicated a 19-year-old was available for sexual favors. Prices were listed.

In text messages between Blanchard and the undercover investigator, Blanchard requested a "qv" which police said means "quick visit" among sex workers.

Less than an hour before Blanchard said he arrived to meet the subject, the undercover cop texted, "ok im 17 if thats not cool i get it." Blanchard did not acknowledge the subject’s age in texts but continued engaging in conversation.

He eventually arrived at a hotel room where he was met by officers and arrested.

Dr. William Pelfrey, a policing researcher and professor of criminal justice at Virginia Commonwealth University, said he didn't note anything unusual about the operation.

"Prostitution stings are really common police investigative procedures. They have it down. They very rarely make mistakes," Pelfrey said. "Police stings involve misinformation, and they work very carefully on a misinformation script. They usually have a set pattern of what they're going to say, and they communicate that. And that pattern has been used in previous prostitution stings."

Police charged Blanchard with solicitation of prostitution from a minor 16 or older and using a vehicle to promote prostitution or unlawful sex.

But in the fall, Davenport's office dropped the charges against Blanchard. Davenport ruled the case nolle prosequi, meaning she did not believe there was sufficient evidence to find Blanchard guilty.

In January, Blanchard's attorney filed to have criminal records expunged, which CBS 6 legal analyst Todd Stone said was an expected move.

"Anybody who has charges, especially of this nature, dropped, you're qualified for an expungement. It doesn't mean you're entitled to get one, but you're qualified to ask for one, and so you'd be crazy to not try to expunge the record," Stone said.

Davenport did not oppose the motion to seal the records, but Chief Katz took issue with it on social media, calling it "bewildering."

"I believe a jury of Chesterfield County residents deserves to weigh in on the matter of criminal culpability," Katz said in a statement. "The decision to nolle prosse this case has made such a deliberation impossible. But I want to be clear; this is NOT due to a lack of evidence or a substandard investigation. We know what we are doing, we do it very well, and we will continue to proceed with such investigations in the future."

Katz then called on Davenport to provide a public explanation of her decision to dismiss the charges against Blanchard.

"Despite numerous convictions on cases with similar - and in some cases less compelling evidence - we have not been given any guidance as to where this investigation fell short of prosecutorial expectations. Moreover, the public has not been provided an explanation," Katz said.

Several days later, Davenport released her own statement seemingly responding to Katz's remarks, but her statement did not offer specific reasoning for withdrawing charges.

"The decision was based solely upon the law, the facts of the case, and the professional experience and ethical duties of the prosecutors. Any assertion to the contrary is offensive to every prosecutor in this office and is patently false," Davenport said.

Noting that her office prosecuted over 10,000 cases in 2022, she said her office will inevitably disagree with the Chesterfield Police Department occasionally.

"However, my staff and I take great pride in always discussing those disagreements privately and not allowing them to affect our working relationship," Davenport said.

Pelfrey said this kind of back-and-forth is "very rare" to see between a police chief and Commonwealth's Attorney.

“It's highly unusual. They work together really closely. It's like a quarterback calling out their coach and saying you called all the wrong plays. That's why we lost," he said.

Pelfrey added Commonwealth's attorneys have a lot of discretion in deciding how to prosecute cases but that it doesn't always align with public expectations.

"They can sometimes go too far. Sometimes that's in a good way, and sometimes it's in a bad way. This looks like the prosecution is being handled in a way that's inconsistent with public expectations but also inconsistent with police expectations," Pelfrey said.

While acknowledging that it's important for elected officials to be transparent, Stone pointed out what he believes may be the hesitation of the prosecution in the case.

"Probably the areas of concern that I see in the reports would be that [Blanchard] didn't acknowledge the text about the age of the subject that he was going to visit," Stone said. "And then possibly that there was no money that actually was put on the table. There has to be an act in furtherance of the solicitation."

Despite those potential concerns, Stone said the case still could've moved forward.

“I think that there's a reasonable argument that it's a prosecutable case. One you might lose, but still a prosecutable case," Stone said.

Pelfrey agreed, saying, "I expect that if the Commonwealth's Attorney wanted to prosecute this, they could move forward irrespective of what was acknowledged or not acknowledged in text messages."

"There's a lot of mystery," he added.

Of the 16 other cases part of Chesterfield Police's operation, the Virginian Pilot reported that prosecutors chose to fully prosecute all the cases except Blanchard's and one other case.

Davenport, who is up for re-election later this year, said she took exception to the "attempted politicization" of the case and that her office is not motivated by politics.

Erin Barr is running against Davenport for Commonwealth's Attorney as an independent. She said she's prosecuted child sexual assault cases for more than a decade and believes Blanchard's case is prosecutable.

"These were the cases that we went forward on and were very serious about and worked with the police department to do because they were a chance to get a predator without having to put a real victim through a trial," Barr said.

Barr said she worked in Davenport's office in 2020 as the deputy who oversaw adult sexual assault cases and human trafficking cases but decided to leave after six months on the job.

"One of the reasons I left the office, and this case is a perfect example of the issue that has driven me to run, is how victims are treated, how sexual assault cases are handled, and some of the policies and mismanagement of those cases," Barr said.

Adding that she understands the frustration expressed by Chief Katz, Barr said a prosecutor's lack of communication and inability to work with other agencies are "detrimental" to public safety.

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