More than two dozen supporters of Mark Weiner, the former Food Lion manager convicted of abduction with intent to defile, sat in Albemarle Circuit Court May 6 to hear testimony from three new witnesses and a motion argued to set aside Weiner’s guilty verdict. They were joined by several lawyers, curious about a case that stunned legal circles two years ago when Commonwealth’s Attorney Denise Lunsford successfully kept out cell tower evidence that Weiner’s legal team said would have cast serious doubt on the story of the alleged victim.
Weiner’s legal nightmare began on a cold December 12, 2012, night when he offered a ride to then 20-year-old Chelsea Steiniger from Lucky 7 on Market Street to her mother’s Carriage Hill apartment on Pantops. Weiner said he dropped her off there. Steiniger texted her boyfriend, who had not allowed her to stay at his place that night, that Weiner wouldn’t let her out of the car and drove past the apartment, according to court documents. She later told police Weiner put a chemical-soaked cloth over her face rendering her unconscious, that she woke up in an abandoned house she’d never been to before, and that Weiner, who allegedly had been sending taunting texts to her boyfriend, put her cellphone down beside her and left the room. She grabbed the phone and made her escape by leaping off a two-story balcony, while texting her boyfriend, “Im going out the window… hold on,” at 12:52am.
“The story told by Chelsea was incredible,” said Weiner’s attorney, Steve Benjamin, near the end of the four-hour hearing. He said the prosecution’s case against Weiner had hinged on the fact that she could describe the abandoned house at 2184 Richmond Road, therefore she must have been abducted. Benjamin presented an alternative story: Steiniger could describe the house because she had been there before, and he called three witnesses to testify to that.
Mike Pesca, 25, was serving time in Albemarle Charlottesville Regional Jail, and told Weiner he had once lived in the house on Richmond Road and he’d taken Steiniger up there “two or three times.” Pesca mentioned a couple of other friends who had been with Steiniger there, too.
Stephanie Houchens, 21, said she saw Steiniger a number of times in 2012 at the house, which was a popular site for underage drinking and smoking pot. She said she remembered seeing Steiniger with Pesca and described a seance in which they dressed in black and stood in a circle along with another friend, Stefan Jasionis.
Jasionis, 22, said he didn’t want to be in court, but he also testified he’d seen Steiniger at the Richmond Road house. In January, when Albemarle police officer Greg Anastopoulos asked him if he knew Chelsea or Stephanie, “I didn’t know who he was talking about,” said Jasionis. Later, when a defense investigator used Houchen’s nickname, “Emjay,” and showed pictures of both, he recognized them.
The young adults were unable to come up with exact dates they were in the house three years ago, although Pesca told Officer Anastopoulos that there had been a fire, and the investigator found the Albemarle Fire Department had responded to a structure fire there February 12, 2012. Pesca said he thought Steiniger was there, but her name was not among those police talked to that night. Jasionis said Steiniger was not there the night of the fire, but was there for the seance, and Houchens said Steiniger was there the night of the fire, but left before it got out of control.
Lunsford pointed out these inconsistencies when she told the judge the new witnesses’ testimony would not have resulted in a different outcome at the trial. And even if Steiniger had been there before, said the prosecutor, it was a dark night. “It was conceivable she didn’t recognize having been there before,” said Lunsford. “She was a credible witness.”
Weiner’s former attorney, Ford Childress, who has signed an affidavit saying he provided Weiner ineffective counsel, testified at the hearing. “It’s not often you see an attorney fall on the sword for a client,” said attorney Janice Redinger, who was sitting in the courtroom.
Childress said that he suspected Steiniger had been in the house before because she’d been homeless and the house was two miles from her mother’s apartment. He went to the house multiple times, and although Steiniger had described the interior to police as having a fireplace and a couch, there was no furniture in the house and a couch out in the woods. He also said he’d talked to homeless and transient people on the Downtown Mall and at the Haven to see if they had seen Steiniger at the Richmond Road house.
To set aside the guilty verdict, the defense must show due diligence was done and the new evidence could not have been discovered before the trial. Lunsford questioned Childress’ due diligence when he did not contact the house’s owners, information available through county property records. He would have learned Pesca’s stepfather rented the house, she said, and that would have been more reasonable than “going to the Haven and asking random people if they knew the house.”
Benjamin argued that if the three new witnesses had testified before the jury, it would have been a “quintessential Perry Mason moment,” when perjury is committed and confronted on the stand with witnesses who are friends. “The fact of the matter is, there was no abduction,” he said.
Judge Cheryl Higgins said she would take the new evidence and arguments under advisement, and issue a decision—either to set aside the verdict or sentence Weiner to prison—June 9.
“All we asked for today is a new trial because of new evidence the jury never got to hear,” said Benjamin. “An innocent man does not belong in prison. We look forward to June 9.”