Bust up: Restaurateur faces felony charges stemming from dispute over bounced check

J.F. Legault faces felony charges relating to an August incident outside Escafé. Courtesy subject J.F. Legault faces felony charges relating to an August incident outside Escafé. Courtesy subject

A prominent local restaurateur and event planner is facing trial on two felony charges stemming from an August incident that began in a Downtown restaurant.

Jean-Francois Legault, owner of The Event Company and the now defunct Glass Haus Kitchen and X Lounge restaurants, has been charged with abduction and strangulation of a former customer after a late-night dispute erupted over a bad check.

At a preliminary hearing in Charlottesville District Court on Thursday, January 16, the alleged victim, Reginald L. “Reggie” Wells, offered his account of the altercation that led to the charges against Legault.

According to Wells, the incident began when Legault approached him inside Escafé restaurant on Water Street around 11pm on Saturday, August 18. Legault told Wells he was angry about a bounced $640 check Wells had written to The X Lounge—a matter that had already resulted in a larceny charge against Wells.

Wells, who has since been convicted of a misdemeanor for that offense and has served two weeks in jail, according to Charlottesville Circuit Court records, said Legault offered to subtract court costs from what Wells owed if he would pay the balance that night. Wells initially agreed to settle up that night, he testified, but then changed his mind because of the charges against him.

According to Wells, that’s when the interaction escalated. Legault said, “Let’s take a walk,” Wells testified. Legault put his arm around Wells’ shoulders and guided him out of the restaurant into the courtyard and beyond to the Water Street sidewalk where Legault’s arm shifted from Wells’ shoulders to his neck as the pair walked east.

“He tightened his grip all the way down the street,” said Wells, who explained he initially went outside with Legault hoping to defuse the situation. Wells demonstrated for the court the one-armed chokehold Legault allegedly used to propel him down the street, and Charlottesville Assistant Commonwealth’s Attorney Elizabeth Killeen presented photos of bruising on Wells’ neck as evidence of the injury he suffered from Legault’s grip. Wells said that while it became more difficult to breathe with Legault’s arm around his neck, his airway was never entirely cut off.

Wells’ friend Michael Lewis, who was also at Escafé that night, testified that when he got ready to leave the restaurant to go home, he couldn’t find Wells and went outside looking for him. He said he saw Legault a short distance down the sidewalk with his arm around Wells’ neck. When he approached Wells and Legault, he said, Legault made a threatening statement toward Lewis.

“He said, ‘Get the hell out of my face or I’ll hurt you, too,’” said Lewis.

Wells testified that Legault eventually released him, and he approached a passing police car to report the incident then returned to Escafé where he told the bouncer what had happened. Legault did not testify during the preliminary hearing, but in an e-mailed statement sent after the hearing, he vigorously denied Wells’ account and expressed appreciation for support from friends and family.

“We live in a world where it is very easy to accuse somebody of wrongdoing,” he wrote. “Unfortunately, I will now need to defend myself against these allegations in court. Given the facts and witnesses of this case I feel very confident in my ability to do that.”

The pending case is not Legault’s first scrape with the law. In 2004, he pleaded guilty to embezzling from another local event planning company, and he was convicted of misdemeanor assault in Charlottesville General District Court in May 2011. Court records show that conviction was amended to disorderly conduct on appeal in Charlottesville Circuit Court in November of that year.

Denying a motion by Legault’s attorney Jessica Phillips to dismiss the current charges against her client, or to drop the abduction charge and reduce the felony assault to a misdemeanor, Charlottesville District Court Judge Bob Downer certified the charges to grand jury. Legault is scheduled to appear in Charlottesville Circuit Court on February 18, when the case will be set for trial. If convicted of both counts, Legault faces a maximum sentence of 15 years in prison.

 Correction: The bad check was written to The X Lounge, not to The Event Company.