Emails reveal deal Chesterfield's top prosecutor struck with pastor accused in sex sting

Police chief: 'We're clueless. We don't know. We don't understand, and we still don't understand.'
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Posted at 6:12 PM, Feb 03, 2023
and last updated 2023-02-04 13:35:25-05

CHESTERFIELD COUNTY, Va. -- Newly released documents revealed the details of a deal that was made between the Chesterfield County Commonwealth's Attorney's Office and the defense attorney for a megachurch pastor accused of soliciting sex from a minor.

John Blanchard, the pastor of Rock Church in Virginia Beach, was arrested in a 2021 sex sting operation. Chesterfield Police said he travelled two hours to meet an underage girl, whom he found through a sex-worker website, at a Chesterfield County hotel.

However, the "minor" was actually an undercover detective working the operation, and Blanchard was arrested by officers when he arrived at the hotel.

Blanchard was one of seventeen suspects police charged in the sting. But Blanchard was one of only two whose charges were set aside by the Commonwealth's Attorney's Office, and the only case in which the outcome left police puzzled.

Chesterfield County Police Chief Jeffrey Katz said one suspect's charges were dismissed due to a diminished capacity situation, which he said the Commonwealth's Attorney's Office clearly communicated to him and he understood. That wasn't what happened with Blanchard's case, he said.

"We're clueless. We don't know. We don't understand, and we still don't understand," Katz said in an interview with CBS 6.

On Friday, Republican State Delegate Tim Anderson, who represents the Virginia Beach area, released emails he received through a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request with Chesterfield Police.

Anderson said the records answer two big questions he and the police have had since charges were dropped: Why were charges set aside? And what's the new evidence against Blanchard?

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Why were charges dropped?

Emails showed Assistant Commonwealth's Attorney Alexander Michev initially told detectives there's no reason for them to be present at Blanchard's status hearing set for October. Then, on October 11, 2022, charges were nolle prossed with no detectives present.

When asked by a member of the police department, whose name is redacted in the FOIA response, Michev said a reason for dismissing charges was because Commonwealth's Attorney Stacey Davenport had conversations with Blanchard's defense attorney Noel Brooks, and they reached a deal that Blanchard would agree to a psychosexual evaluation and sex offender related counseling.

CBS 6 legal analyst Todd Stone said statistically speaking, it's unusual for the elected Commonwealth's Attorney to personally be involved in cases, but he added it could definitely happen with a case that's expected to receive media attention.

"They have more of an administrative role. They have assistants and deputies who carry out the day-to-day tasks in the courtroom, so it's a little unusual that a Commonwealth's Attorney would be involved in that, but it's certainly her prerogative and within her discretion to do that," Stone said.

The deal took police by surprise. A member of the department responded to Michev's email saying, "I don't understand. The majority of those arrested will have to do those things plus be convicted. What was different about him? Not at all blaming you, I just want to understand."

Stone said striking a deal isn't uncommon, especially if there are questions about the evidence. In Blanchard's case, Stone said prosecutors likely had concerns that Blanchard never acknowledged or responded to a text message in which the subject in the prostitution sting revealed they were 17-years-old.

The age of the subject is what elevated Blanchard's charges to a felony. However, Stone said misdemeanor prostitution charges could've still been on the table.

"It's probably a little more routine to see a case like this be reduced to a misdemeanor when they have a problem proving a felony, so long as they can prove the misdemeanor charge," Stone said. "But it's always within the discretion of a prosecutor, and they have the right to come to whatever agreements they think are appropriate under the circumstances."

Chief Katz, who has publicly called on Davenport to explain her decisions in this case, said he didn't understand why the charge wasn't at least bumped to a misdemeanor in addition to what was agreed upon in the deal.

"In our experience with similar situated individuals in these types of cases, it is almost exclusively what we see happen, so this one was definitely handled differently," Katz said.

Del. Anderson said he was surprised see the details of the deal, considering Davenport had only ever announced that the reason for dropping the charges was due to a lack of evidence.

"That is completely inconsistent with every public statement Stacy Davenport has made on the record in this matter," Anderson said.

Brooks, Blanchard's attorney, provided CBS 6 the following statement regarding the deal:

"No money changed hands, no favors were called in by political heavy weights. The result was derived from an analysis of the legal merits of the case."

Chesterfield County Commonwealth's Attorney Stacey Davenport
Chesterfield County Commonwealth's Attorney Stacey Davenport

What's the new evidence?

In January, Davenport announced she became aware of new evidence that could potentially push the case forward again, but she moved the court to appoint a special prosecutor to review it. Davenport said she could not ethically make any prosecutorial decisions due to "political attacks" from Chief Katz and Delegate Anderson.

For months, both Katz and Anderson have made multiple public statements questioning Davenport’s handling of the case.

"I don't care about politics. I care about public safety," Katz said. "And when I have somebody who is accused of attempting to solicit sex from a minor, and that case gets dropped, and those records are going to be sealed, I believe that I have a duty to my community to speak out. And so I did. Now, if she wants to experience that as a political attack, she's the only one bringing politics into that.”

Katz said he could not get into detail about what the new evidence against Blanchard may be.

But in an email he sent January 17 to Davenport, Katz described the evidence as a video obtained through a search warrant that "incontrovertibly validates police assertions that Blanchard knowingly sought to engage in sex with an underage girl in a Chesterfield County hotel room on the day of the arrest."

Stone said the video would have to prove Blanchard was aware the prostitution subject was underage. Since the statute of limitations has expired for a misdemeanor, he could only be charged again with a felony.

“If there's video where he's admitting that he knew there was a minor on the other end, then that could be exactly the sort of evidence that's necessary to bring the charge back," Stone said.

Did Davenport's office notify police of what they felt was wrong with the investigation?

Chief Katz said his department has "no clarity" as to where its initial investigation fell short of Davenport's office's expectations.

"We've been told it's a lack of evidence, right, but as you can see from the emails, there's no discussion whatsoever about a lack of evidence. As you can see from the emails, there's no clarity from the detectives as to why this case was dropped," Katz said.

On January 20, following an interview Davenport gave on the Blanchard case to WRVA, Katz reached out to his Special Victims Unit to ask about a statement Davenport made. Davenport said during the interview that she provided SVU with guidance related to deficiencies.

A police department member, whose name is redacted in the FOIA response, replied that they spoke with Michev after charges were nolle prossed. According to the email, Michev told officers that Blanchard had a "built-in defense" because he claimed to be driving and didn't see the text message where the subject said they were 17.

The email went on to say that Michev advised a misdemeanor charge was not pursued because "we wouldn't get anything out of a misdemeanor conviction." The email added that police and the CA's office "agreed to disagree."

Another email from a police staff member, whose name was also redacted, showed that detectives were advised to state the age of the prostitution subject twice next time.

When asked by CBS 6 Friday about the feedback provided by the CA's office, Katz said, "When you conduct operations that are complex of this nature, you're always going to have kind of an iterative process where people who collaborate on these things say, 'hey, you know, this is what would be helpful in the future. This would help probably enhance our case,' that kind of thing. That's to be expected and normal, but nothing specific relating to this particular investigation."

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What comes next?

According to Davenport's office, the Brunswick County Commonwealth's Attorney’s Office has been appointed to the case. CSB 6 reached out to the Brunswick office Friday and was unable make contact with an attorney.

Before the new evidence was announced, Blanchard's defense attorney filed a motion to have his criminal record expunged, and Davenport agreed. However, Delegate Anderson filed an appeal to stop that from happening.

A hearing is scheduled for March 21, and Anderson said Davenport has not withdrawn her consent to have Blanchard's records sealed and made unavailable to the public.

"This guy, who I'm not saying is guilty, but this guy who has been accused... Say he applies for a job as a school counselor, there will be no record of that if the record is sealed," Katz said. "To me, that's a concern for public safety."

Stone said trying to seal the records is a reasonable effort from anyone accused of a crime and later had their charges dropped. He said if the criminal case moves forward, a judge would likely take that into consideration but that Davenport has a lot of influence over the decision.

"The most important consideration for a judge when a defendant requests an expungement is the position of the Commonwealth's Attorney, so if they are in agreement with it, I would expect that it will go through, but this case is obviously unusual," Stone said. "This one might be the exception to the rule."

Anderson said with the criminal case potentially moving forward, he believes there's "no way" an expungement is possible.

What is Del. Anderson's involvement?

Anderson, who has heavily criticized Davenport's handling of the case on social media, said one reason he's interested in the case is because Blanchard is from the community he represents: Virginia Beach. He also said Davenport's actions, as a republican, are offensive.

"We complain all the time about the progressive prosecutors and all of their nonsense, but that she's a Republican acting like this, is super personal to me," Anderson said.

Anderson admitted he does not want Davenport to be Commonwealth's Attorney and that he believed this case could sway voters' opinons of her. Davenport is up for re-election in November.

When asked if he was considering a run for Chesterfield Commonwealth's Attorney, Anderson said, "Maybe. That's a big ask for me to move my family, leave the House of Delegates to go do this, but I'm very interested in her not winning re-election."

CBS 6 went to the Chesterfield County Courthouse Friday to request an interview with Davenport. A staff member said she would not agree to an interview.

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