Murder-for-hire trial begins

MANASSAS — Justin Michael Wolfe pleaded not guilty Monday to charges of capital murder and marijuana distribution, beginning a trial in which his life will be at stake.

Members of a substantial drug trafficking operation in Northern Virginia are expected to testify against Wolfe, 20, who faces the death penalty if convicted of the March 15 shooting of Daniel Robert Petrole Jr. in Bristow.

Wolfe’s trial in Prince William County Circuit Court is expected to last three weeks.

Dressed in a blue sport jacket, dress shirt and striped tie, the Centreville man paid close attention to Monday’s jury selection process, which will continue today.

Owen Merton Barber IV, an associate of Wolfe’s, has admitted shooting Petrole, 21, outside Petrole’s town house on Hadrians Court after following him there from Fairfax County.

Prince William prosecutors allege Wolfe hired Barber, 21, to kill Petrole so they could profit from taking Petrole’s high-grade marijuana without paying him.

Murder-for-hire is the only crime in Virginia in which the defendant can be charged with capital murder without being the killer.

Prosecutors expect Barber, who is being held at the Prince William-Manassas regional jail along with Wolfe, to testify against his former drug-trade associate and longtime friend from Chantilly High School.

Prosecutors also expect Barber to plead guilty to first-degree murder under terms of the agreement. He will face a maximum life in prison.

Wolfe, Barber and Petrole, who graduated from Centreville High School in 1998, were involved in a major drug-dealing operation, said Prince William Commonwealth’s Attorney Paul B. Ebert.

The drug ring is under investigation by the Drug Enforcement Administration. Federal investigators plan to bring forth charges, a spokeswoman for the agency’s Washington, D.C., district said Monday.

Barber testified at a preliminary hearing in June that he and Wolfe decided over drinks at a Fairfax County bar that they should kill Petrole, who supplied Wolfe with highly potent marijuana, referred to on the street as “chronic.”

Early this year, Wolfe told Barber he “wanted to get his chronic man,” said Barber, who thought Wolfe was planning a robbery.

“He said, “No, we can’t rob him. He knows too many people,'” Barber testified in June. “We’d have to shoot him.”

Barber said he fulfilled his part of the deal after receiving information from Wolfe on Petrole’s schedule. After Petrole stopped his car outside his home just after 11 p.m., Barber got out of his own car and fired 10 rounds from a 9 mm Smith & Wesson pistol at Petrole while the victim sat in his car.

The payment, Barber said, was a half-pound of chronic, 4 pounds of regular marijuana and $10,000. Wolfe also planned, he said, to forgive $3,000 Barber owed him.

Wolfe will present evidence during the trial showing he did not hire Barber for the shooting, said defense attorney John Partridge.

Inside Petrole’s town house, police found 50 pounds of marijuana, 2,000 Ecstasy tablets and $120,000 in cash. The drugs were valued at more than $300,000.

Petrole’s involvement with drugs came as a shock to his family, who said he had many friends, cared about his relatives, was active in church and attended Northern Virginia Community College.

One man involved in the drug trade has been convicted of a felony — Walter Paul Gunning, 23, who lived with Petrole at the town house in the Braemar subdivision.

Gunning pleaded guilty in August to possession with intent to dispense marijuana, and awaits sentencing in February.

In addition to the charges of capital murder and conspiracy to distribute more than 5 pounds of marijuana, Wolfe also is charged with using a firearm during the commission of a felony.

Attorneys on Monday asked questions of potential jurors to determine if they had any biases in the Wolfe case.

Two people who said they were morally opposed to the death penalty were removed from the jury pool. Virginia law states that jurors on a capital case must be able to consider imposing the death penalty or life in prison depending on the evidence.

Another man was removed after he said, in response to a question from Ebert, that the person who hires a killer should not be sentenced to death if the actual gunman is not.

Staff writer Patrick Wilson can be reached at (703) 368-7449.

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