But even as his manners and clean-cut looks impressed adults, he expanded his drug business. By the time of the murder almost two years later, Justin was known as Chantilly’s “top gun” for chronic, according to court testimony; he had dozens of regular customers and made as much as $10,000 a month. He took exotic vacations and often dropped $2,000 or $3,000 at clubs buying booze and drugs for friends.
Justin also was doing harder drugs—cocaine as well as ketamine, a veterinary tranquilizer that’s a popular club drug. Large doses of ketamine produce a euphoria that’s described as an out-of-body experience. Justin, who injected the drug, called it going into a “K-hole.”
Manhunt for a Murderer
Danny Petrole’s murder looked to be an execution: ten bullets fired at close range from a 9-millimeter Smith & Wesson semiautomatic, shattering the passenger-side window of Petrole’s Honda Civic. Nine found their mark, cutting through his lungs, liver, and kidney and severing his spine.
More than 1,000 people attended Petrole’s memorial service. Friends called him Grin because he was always smiling.
It didn’t take Prince William County investigators long to identify a suspect. The night of the murder, police found a gun by the side of the road not far from Petrole’s townhouse. The serial numbers had been filed down but were raised through chemical analysis; the gun was traced to its owner and eventually to Owen Merton Barber IV.
Owen Barber and Justin Wolfe had known each other since freshman year at Chantilly. They’d met through Justin’s cousin, who lived near Owen and shared his love of skateboarding and tinkering with cars. Owen and Justin both sold marijuana, but Justin made more money because he peddled the high-grade chronic.
Owen wasn’t among the friends who slept over at Justin’s house after nights out partying. He kept his distance. When Owen’s mother died, Justin says, Owen never talked about it.
Justin’s mother didn’t like Owen. “He seemed shady to me,” she says. “But Justin said, ‘Mom, he’s harmless. Nobody likes him, but what are we supposed to do? Be mean to him?’ ”
Days after Danny Petrole’s murder, Owen Barber fled Northern Virginia. He was the subject of a nationwide manhunt for nearly three weeks before US marshals arrested him April 5 at a beachfront hotel in San Diego. His girlfriend, Jennifer Pasquariello, unknowingly led police to the fugitive when she drove cross-country to join him. The two had been making plans to go to Mexico.
Justin Wolfe also left the area days after the murder, catching a ride to Florida with a friend. But he returned within a week and went to Prince William County police headquarters for questioning.
According to a police transcript of the interview, four officers spoke with Wolfe, along with Rick Conway, an assistant commonwealth’s attorney. Police knew that hours before the murder Wolfe had met Petrole for a drug buy. Conway offered Wolfe limited immunity on drug-dealing charges in exchange for information about the murder. A lawyer Wolfe had retained asked for a broader agreement, but Conway, a gruff former Falls Church police officer, refused; the motive for Petrole’s murder, he said, might lie in Wolfe’s drug dealing.
Wolfe was evasive, particularly when it came to questions about Owen Barber and the gun.
“If this is all the cooperation we’re getting out of him,” Conway finally told the lawyer, “we’re going to try to bring as much as possible down on him, as much as possible.”
A few weeks later, police called: A warrant for his arrest had been filed in connection with Petrole’s murder. Wolfe, who had been headed to the gym, asked a friend to drive him to police headquarters, where he turned himself in.
Wolfe’s prosecutor, Paul Ebert, has been the commonwealth’s attorney for Prince William County since 1968. Born in Roanoke and raised in Falls Church, the son of a dentist, Ebert got his law degree from George Washington University, taking classes at night.
Ebert’s rumpled suits and folksy charm play well in a county that until recently was too rural to consider itself part of Washington. He likes to hunt and fish, and he talks warmly to jurors as if he’s hosting a barbecue.
Ebert is the state’s ace when it comes to capital cases. He has won 13 convictions—more than twice as many as Robert Horan, the 40-year Fairfax prosecutor who retired in 2007. Four of the 16 inmates on death row—including sniper John Muhammad—were prosecuted by Ebert.
In Virginia, capital charges can be filed only in cases of premeditated murder that meet certain qualifications—when the murder involves rape or robbery, for example, or when it’s murder for hire. Some local prosecutors seek the death penalty frequently, others not at all.
Ebert goes for the death penalty often. But he says he reserves it for “the worst of the worst.” Justin Wolfe, he says, craved the money and attention that came with being a big-time drug dealer and wanted more of both. The night after the murder, dozens of his friends gathered in the VIP section of Bohemian Caverns, a DC nightclub, to celebrate his birthday. It was March 17—St. Wolfie’s Day, his friends called it.
“He fancied himself a little Al Capone,” Ebert says. “That’s how we looked at it.”
“We Got to Shoot Him”
Justin Wolfe’s trial opened in the Prince William County Courthouse in Manassas on the morning of January 7, 2002, ten months after the murder. Threatened with capital-murder charges, Owen Barber had agreed to cooperate with prosecutors and fingered Wolfe, who faced three charges: conspiracy to distribute marijuana, commission of a felony with a deadly weapon, and murder for hire.
The court seated a jury of three men and 11 women, including two alternates. Three had college degrees. One ran a public-works roads-and-projects crew. Another was a substitute teacher married to a baker for Vie de France. Several were housewives, including one whose husband was an assistant manager at Safeway.
“I like blue-collar workers on my juries,” Ebert told a reporter before the Muhammad case. “They know what happens on the street. But the egghead, the guy that lives in an ivory tower—he thinks about the philosophy of things, as opposed to the practicality.”
Ebert was joined in the prosecution by his assistant Rick Conway, the prosecutor who had first interviewed Justin. Before presenting any evidence, the two lawyers warned prospective jurors that they would hear lurid stories of teenagers acting like gangsters.
“Everybody was in total disbelief,” says Myles Ganley, the jury foreman. “We all said, ‘Jesus Christ—prove it.’ ”