Witnesses come forward to support Mark Weiner’s claims of innocence

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Mark Weiner has been in jail for two years and his lawyers are introducing new evidence they hope will get him freed. Photo: Jen Fariello Mark Weiner has been in jail for two years and his lawyers are introducing new evidence they hope will get him freed. Photo: Jen Fariello

Two new witnesses have come forward in the case of former Food Lion manager Mark Weiner to dispute the story of the young woman who claimed he abducted her. The woman, Chelsea Steiniger, testified Weiner incapacitated her with a mysterious chemical, then took her to an abandoned house on Richmond Road that she’d never been to before. According to the new witnesses’ sworn affidavits, Steiniger had been to the house multiple times before the night she accepted a ride in Weiner’s van.

Weiner was convicted of abduction with intent to defile in May 2013, and could be facing as much as 20 years in prison when he is sentenced on December 17. According to a December 8 motion to set aside the verdict, the new evidence further bolsters his claims of innocence.

Steiniger’s testimony at trial was “inherently incredible,” said the motion, and the new evidence “discloses a scheme of falsification” by her “concerning the creation of the ‘abduction’.”

Both Weiner and Steiniger agree that he picked her up at Lucky 7 on the cold night of December 12, 2012. Weiner said he dropped her off at her mother’s Carriage Hill apartment on Pantops.

Steiniger, then 20, claimed that Weiner put a cloth over her face that rendered her unconscious, that she awoke in a house on Richmond Road and heard Weiner tapping out taunting texts to her boyfriend on her phone, and that she leapt off a second-floor balcony with her cell phone in hand and walked home, but didn’t call 911.

At the trial, Steiniger testified that she had never been to the abandoned house at 2184 Richmond Rd. In the latest motion, Weiner asks the court to set aside the verdict based on new “evidence of perjury by Chelsea Steiniger from witnesses who were with Chelsea at 2184 Richmond Rd. prior to December 12, 2012.”

One of the witnesses, Michael R. Pesca, used to live at the house before it was sold in June 2009, according to the motion. When he read media accounts of an earlier attempt to set aside Weiner’s verdict, he realized the abandoned house was the one he used to live in and one to which he had taken Steiniger to hang out before she ever crossed paths with Weiner, according to his sworn affidavit.

Pesca, who is being held at Albemarle Charlottesville Regional Jail for a breaking and entering conviction, approached Weiner there in October and told him he’d become friends with Steiniger in 2011 and had taken her to the house. Pesca also named another witness, Stephanie Houchens, who had partied at the abandoned house with Steiniger. Houchens, too, swore in an affidavit that she had been at the house with Steiniger before the alleged abduction.

Steiniger’s phone number has changed and she did not respond to a Facebook message seeking comment. When contacted in 2013, however, she stuck by her story.

The case has had legal and law enforcement circles abuzz since the May 2013 trial, when Commonwealth’s Attorney Denise Lunsford successfully kept out cell tower data that showed Steiniger’s phone pinging off towers near her mother’s apartment, but not from the tower near the abandoned house.

Lunsford did not return a phone call from C-VILLE.

In April, Weiner’s Richmond attorneys, Steve Benjamin and Betty Layne DesPortes, filed a motion to overturn the verdict that cited prosecutorial misconduct in withholding exculpatory evidence and in allowing Steiniger to testify falsely; ineffective counsel from Weiner’s earlier attorney, Ford Childress, who filed an affidavit supporting the motion; and affidavits from two anesthesiologists who swore there was no such volatile anesthetic that would immediately render Steiniger unconscious as she’d claimed.

At a June 3 hearing, Albemarle Circuit Court Judge Cheryl Higgins denied the motion, claiming she didn’t have jurisdiction to throw out the verdict.

Could the new motion succeed where the previous one failed?

“A judge definitely has jurisdiction to grant a motion for a new trial after newly discovered evidence,” said C-VILLE legal analyst David Heilberg of the latest filing. “It does seem to fit the requirements. How would you have known about this beforehand?”

Heilberg, who didn’t attend the trial but read the transcript, said it’s clear Steiniger’s statements about never having visited the house were a big part of the prosecution’s case.

That Pesca has already been convicted and sentenced for his own crime could lend credence to his account on Weiner’s behalf. “What benefit is it for him to come forward for a fellow inmate?” asked Heilberg. “It’s the opposite of a jail snitch.”

And with Houchens corroborating his story, said Heilberg, “Two is always better than one.”

In July, Judge Higgins ordered a sex offender evaluation after Lunsford offered testimony of previous behavior by Weiner that included staring at a woman in Culpeper who became so freaked out she called police in 2005, following a woman to her home near Martha Jefferson Hospital in 2009 and being found with a woman previously convicted of prostitution on Cherry Avenue in 2010. No charges were filed in any of the incidents.

Defense attorney Benjamin declined to comment on the new motion, but after the July hearing, he called Weiner “an innocent man [who] remains in prison for something he didn’t do and something that didn’t happen.”

Weiner is scheduled to be sentenced December 17.