The Bobbitt incident — The end of innocence

“It didn’t happen in Manassas!” proclaimed a media advisory released by the City of Manassas’ then-Director of Community Development Roger W. Snyder. He was referring, of course, to Lorena Bobbitt’s amputation of her husband’s penis.

Not since the Civil War had Manassas seen so much national and international attention. Ten years ago Monday, John Wayne Bobbitt’s penis was sliced off in an apartment in Prince William County. Lorena Bobbitt dumped the offending organ out her car window on county land.

“I thought, ‘no way,’ they were busting my chops, as detectives are wont to do,” said Kim Chinn, Prince William County Police public information officer. “I didn’t believe it until I saw the report.”

“The celebrated reattachment took place at the very fine Prince William Hospital which is located in Manassas. Of course, the two trials have been held at the joint Prince William County/Manassas Courthouse in downtown Manassas,” Snyder wrote Jan. 10, 1994. “Does anyone outside Manassas care about exactly where the world-wide publicized event took place? Probably not. But we do in Manassas …”

Snyder’s media advisory got more publicity than he could have imagined: His hand drawn map, along with excerpts from the advisory, were printed in full color in Time magazine. The New York Times wrote an article about it. Paul Harvey discussed it on his nationally syndicated radio show.

“What I did ended up on all the local TV shows, German TV, Italian TV …” Snyder said in a recent telephone interview. Snyder said he got “really angry” about the negative publicity the incident was creating and wanted to advertise Manassas positively with the press.

More Incorrect Datelines

The Bobbitt trial is not the only infamous incident to be incorrectly datelined from Manassas by reporters. Similarly, when the Washington, D.C., area sniper struck at the Sunoco gas station on Va. 234 in October 2002, Harold Dean Meyers’ death was date-lined Manassas. The station where Meyers was shot is two miles north of the city.

The mistaken identity goes farther.

When covering the January 2002 trial of Justin Wolfe, convicted of murder for hire in the shooting death of his marijuana supplier, news crews reported the drug dealing and death occurred in Manassas.

They didn’t.

Wolfe lived in Centreville. Daniel Petrole Jr., the murdered drug supplier, was shot outside his Gainesville town house. Only the trials of Wolfe and the shooter, Owen Merton Barber IV, took place in Manassas.

Even the Civil War battles took place outside city limits. The First and Second Battles of Manassas, in 1861 and 1862, took place 3 miles north of Manassas, on a site now memorialized by Manassas National Battlefield Park.

Reporters Everywhere

“There were people in every corner, the courthouse was full of spectators, the courthouse lawn …” Manassas-area auctioneer Frank “E.” Bolton said. “Everybody couldn’t believe it: the guy lived.”

At the height of Lorena Bobbitt’s trial, about 150 reporters worked out of the Courthouse Station building across Va. 28 from the courthouse, Circuit Court Administrator Robert Marsh said. The trial was broadcast to them from the courtroom, and a huge number of phone lines were fed into the building so their stories could be filed. Reporters were everywhere.

First Sgt. Chinn’s pager went crazy with calls.

“Within two days, I was getting calls from China, Japan, London, South America. That wasn’t as bad as the funny morning deejays,” Chinn said. “Those were a couple of rough days.”

Olde Towne Inn manager Don Coleman remembers the Inn was booked overnight.

“We were booked out with reporters. … We tried to get everybody as many rooms as they needed. Sometimes it was hard to do,” Coleman said.

A Jan. 20, 1994, Potomac News article reported that the Inn was 85 percent booked at a time of year when it was usually at a 45 percent capacity.

“When you have that much media attention, there’s a constant questioning for information,” said Commonwealth’s Attorney Paul B. Ebert. Ebert prosecuted both John and Lorena Bobbitt. “It’s hard to escape the pressure of constant inquiry. I had people in my driveway every morning.”

Even the Manassas Journal Messenger compared the army of invading reporters to the Civil War, declaring the Bobbitt trials the “Third Battle of Manassas” in a Jan. 13, 1994, editorial.

“Given the attachments that the community has with those violent encounters [First and Second Battles of Manassas,] it is curious that a number of local government leaders are shying away from the Third Battle of Manassas, which sustained far fewer casualties but every bit as much media attention,” the editorial read, though it added the statements were made tongue-in-cheek.

Some of those involved in the Bobbitt trials were not so interested in garnering media attention. Defense attorneys for John Bobbitt filed a motion to change the trial’s location, because of the media coverage.

“Because of the unusual facts present in this case, this matter has received the most extensive press coverage of any criminal trial ever held in modern times in Prince William County,” John Bobbitt’s attorney wrote in a motion to move the trial.

Everything in Manassas soon became a story: when the Olde Towne Inn had a fire Jan. 21, 1994, during Lorena Bobbitt’s trial, firefighters couldn’t get reporters to stop filing stories to leave the building, Coleman said.

“Firemen tried to get reporters off the balconies, and they were getting a story,” Coleman said.

A Problem for the Press

Before the Bobbitts, the word penis was not known to be used in print or on the air. Editors at the Potomac News referred to an assault upon John Bobbitt’s “member” for two days before printing “penis” for the first time.

“On Channel 4, Jim Vance said ‘castrated.’ Another [broadcast reporter] said ‘sex organ,'” Chinn said of going home to watch the evening news. “They did not know what to call it. But they’ll say ‘breast’ all day long. I think it was a hoot.”

Manassas on the Map

When telling international reporters where Manassas was geographically, Chinn told them it was a suburb of Washington. When describing it for national press, Chinn used the Civil War battlefields and Quantico Marine Corps base.

“It was our claim to fame for the longest time,” Chinn said of the Bobbitt case.

“I worked hard all my life to be known as the penis prosecutor,” Ebert said with a laugh. “I went to Europe and people recognized me because of it. … It put Manassas on the map.”

Bolton couldn’t go to an international auctioneers’ convention without being questioned about the Bobbitt trial. After telling people he was from Manassas, Bolton said, their first question was about the Bobbitt trial. “Anywhere you went, people say, ‘That’s where the Bobbitts are from,'” Bolton said. “They ask if I knew [John Bobbitt.] I say I didn’t know him, but I knew about him.”

Local entrepreneurs were quick to capitalize on the Bobbitt saga. At booths outside the courthouse, locals hawked T-shirts emblazoned with jibes: “Virginia is for lovers. Manassas?” “Manassas: a Cut Above the Rest” or “You Snooze, You Lose.”

T-shirt vendor Arlene Banton recalled there was a big difference in the level of attention the Bobbitts’ trials received.

“The first time, we were the only ones there. It started very innocently, just started trying to sell a few T-shirts. … We hauled them around in red wagons,” Banton said in a phone interview. “The second trial was different. By then, a lot of people got on the bandwagon. … Everyone thought we’d be millionaires — that’s ludicrous. We made some money, but [nothing like that.] We were happy with what we did.”

Banton couldn’t recall how many shirts she and her partner sold. But the bandwagon grew to include the Oscar Meyer Weiner Mobile and camera crews literally camping outside the courthouse overnight. Over at the Deli at the Square, John Wayne Bobbitt Sandwiches made their appearance.

“We’re not trying to cash in on someone else’s misery — it’s just for fun,” deli owner Sam Qura said in a Nov. 5, 1993 Potomac News article.

The menu item featured a chopped up Italian sausage on a sub roll, covered in tomato sauce. Qura, who has since sold the deli, could not be located for this article.

“Nobody took the case very seriously at first. It took on a life of it’s own,” Ebert said, describing the frenzy accompanying the trials as a “circus act.” “Both John and Lorena had entertainment attorneys involved and they called a lot of the shots.”

Media Frenzy Round Two

At the courthouse, more than one employee has worried aloud that the murder trial of John Allen Muhammad, one of the sniper suspects, will generate the same frenzy that Lorena Bobbitt’s trial did.

“The sniper [case] will be very different in that regard,” Ebert said, noting there will be none of the Latin American cultural groups, women’s groups and men’s groups advocating outside the courthouse. “Maybe [there will be] some anti-death penalty folks. … There’s certainly going to be a lot of media attention. … It’s all part of the game.”

While the T-shirts, Oscar Meyer Weiner Mobile and penis-shaped candy sellers won’t come to town this time, everyone is expecting just as much media attention. Coleman is expecting the Olde Towne Inn to book out with international reporters. Snyder has recommended the City begin preparations for the press immediately.

“I think in October when the trial starts we’ll have a lot of foreign press and national press here like we did before,” Coleman said.

“I urged our city leaders to form a task force now or yesterday to put a positive spin on something that will have the world on our doorstep,” Snyder said.

Court Administrator Marsh and Chinn report that they are preparing for what Chinn described as the “media onslaught.” Chinn met with other public information officers in Montgomery County to discuss logistics. Marsh, drawing on lessons learned from the Bobbitt trials, has been coordinating with the Sheriff’s Office and Circuit Court Judge LeRoy F. Millette Jr., who will preside over Muhammad’s case.

“This case is much mores serious in some ways. Bobbitt was more of a novelty case — though I’m sure John Bobbitt thought it was serious,” Marsh said. “This trial is very different in nature, [though] the numbers [of reporters] will be there just like there were for Bobbitt.”

Where Are They Now?

Ten years after starring in the most infamous event of 1993, the Bobbitts have faded into relative obscurity, despite John’s repeated attempts to extend his fame.

After the Bobbitts’ 1995 divorce, Lorena Gallo withdrew from the national spotlight. She was living with her parents, Carlos and Elvita Gallo, in Lake Ridge in December 1997, when she was charged with domestic assault for punching her mother in the face. The charge was later dismissed.

No member of the Gallo family has a listed phone number in the Northern Virginia area, though Lorena still owns the house on Arabian Place in Lake Ridge. Lorena was interviewed this past spring on the Washington, D.C.-area radio station DC 101’s “Elliott in the Morning.” She donated a signed bra to DC 101 and the Washington Freedom women’s soccer team’s bra-uction, which raised $26,700 for the Lombardi Cancer Center. Bidding for Lorena’s bra started at $35 and ended at $70.

John moved on to a succession of seemingly unsuccessful pursuits. His 1994 porn film, “John Wayne Bobbitt Uncut” has been described as “among the all-time best selling porn,” according to ABC’s Wolf Files. But the 1996 follow up, “Frankenpenis” was “less successful,” also according to the Wolf files. John moved on to jobs with the Jim Rose Circus as a carnival sideshow performer, a bartender/chauffeur/handyman at a Las Vegas brothel, and comedian dressed in a giant penis suit, but none worked out.

According to a recent Associated Press article, John spent the past three years working for a moving company. He married for a second time in Las Vegas in 2002. But in March, he was convicted of battering his new wife, Joanna Bobbitt, nee Ferrell.

His probation for a 1999 attempted grand larceny conviction (John tried to steal $140,000 worth of clothes from a Fallon, Nev., store) was revoked. John is currently incarcerated in the Northern Nevada Correctional Center, a medium custody facility housing 1,200 inmates. He is eligible for parole Nov. 2.