Jury verdict: RSWA's star witness convicted of attempted extortion
A controversial government-backed lawsuit against a recycling entrepreneur suffered a major blow Thursday when a Fluvanna County jury convicted 50-year-old Richard Wade Kendrick of trying to extort his former employer, Peter Van der Linde. In a separate action, Kendrick had been expected to serve as the star witness in the Rivanna Solid Waste Authority's lawsuit against Van der Linde, but now it appears that Kendrick might have to be plucked from jail if he's still needed to testify against his old boss.
Already, the Authority's case against Van der Linde–- although it has the support of such community notables as Albemarle Supervisor Ken Boyd and Charlottesville City Councilor David Brown–- has drawn criticism for using provisions of RICO, the federal Racketeer Influenced Corruption act, to punish a challenger to the Waste Authority's power.
A year ago, Van der Linde immediately captured the lion's share of the market by opening a facility that recycles construction debris, and late last month he opened an expansion that sorts and recycles household waste as well.
Waste Authority director Tom Frederick was subpoenaed by the defense but did not testify. If he were experiencing any qualms about building a legal case on the strength of Kendrick, he gave no indication at the December 10 trial. Or afterwards.
"Mr. Kendrick's verdict should not have an impact on the Authority's case against Mr. van der Linde," Frederick says in an email.
Kendrick, a career criminal–- whose 153-years of suspended sentences from a litany of past convictions for breaking and entering, burglary, and attempted kidnapping might be reinstated by the verdict–- tried to argue that his April 28 letter seeking $90,000 from Van der Linde was merely a request for anticipated legal fees in the ongoing case of Authority v. Van der Linde.
Kendrick testified that he and other Van der Linde drivers feared they could be held criminally accountable for failing to pay a $16 service fee each time they delivered trash from Charlottesville or Albemarle County. City Councilor Brown, for instance, points out that after waging a legal fight of his own against the fee, Van der Linde should not have avoided paying what might amount to a million dollars in fees. But Kendrick, although he called two former colleagues to testify, was apparently unable to find any corroborators for his story that Van der Linde lied–- the linchpin of the RSWA's RICO suit.
Under oath, Van der Linde vehemently denied the allegation.
"I never instructed anyone to lie about anything, ever," he exclaimed in response to prosecution's question, his previously soft voice rising to a near-shout.
In recent months, as details of the lawsuit have emerged, the Authority has come under fire for spending over $340,000 in taxpayer funds to pursue the case against a private competitor, but the Authority has steadfastly defended it as a mere debt-collection action. Ironically, Thursday's trial, though technically not involving the Authority, could end up costing the Authority at least $1,000 because there were two Authority attorneys present–- including Jonathan Blank, who bills over $500 an hour and who had been subpoenaed by the defendant.
"The verdict," says director Frederick, "does not change the fact that Mr. Van der Linde and his companies deposited tens of thousands of tons of waste at the BFI transfer station that originated in Charlottesville and Albemarle but were declared as coming from other jurisdictions, thereby avoiding the Authority's service contribution fee, and depriving the Authority, and by extension the taxpayers of our community, of at least a million dollars in revenue."
Fluvanna Commonwealth's Attorney Jeff Haislip got Kendrick to concede that at the time he hand-delivered the letter on April 28, he was not charged with any crime and had no concrete reason to estimate that representing himself might require such a large sum. Instead, Haislip said, Kendrick was simply "bitter" that Van der Linde had recently hired two new employees at a higher wage than the $18 an hour Kendrick testified he earned.
Kendrick admitted "frustration" with Van der Linde but denied he'd written the letter–- part of a 14-page package including letters to the RSWA and the Department of Justice that would "never see the light of day" as long as Van der Linde cooperated with his demands–- as a threat.
According to online records, Kendrick has filed at least 13 jailhouse lawsuits against public officials–- including claims against Doug Wilder, Jerry Kilgore, Bill Clinton, Janet Reno, and Federal Judge James Turk. There was no mention of those suits during the trial, but in his closing argument, Kendrick's court-appointed attorney Richard Harry attempted to push attention back toward the RSWA and its battle against Van der Linde.
"We're here because of a $3.5 million lawsuit," said Harry, insisting that if his client was guilty of anything, it was poor judgment and a lack of sophistication. "He's not the most educated person in the country. He may have been a little dumb about sending that letter, but that doesn't mean he had criminal intent."
Haislip, however, said that common sense dictated a guilty verdict. "He thought he had his boss over a barrel," said Haislip.
The jury of six men and six women needed just 50 minutes to deliver the guilty verdict, one of the fastest decisions, Haislip said, that he could recall.
"The facts of the case were very clear," said juror Pamela Ross. But reaching consensus on the jury's recommendation of a year-long incarceration, far less than the five-year maximum, dragged on for three hours.
Citing Kendrick's lengthy criminal history, including the attempted kidnapping conviction, Fluvanna County Judge John Berry denied Kendrick's request for bail until his sentencing hearing on February 12. Kendrick will remain in the Central Virginia Regional Jail in Orange until then. According to Haislip, reinstatement of the suspended sentences in Albemarle and Louisa County will be considered separately by those jurisdictions.
The Authority has a special meeting slated for Thursday, December 17, but Frederick doesn't appear to be backing down from the case against Van der Linde. "The Authority believes that its case should be judged in a court of law on the evidence and on its own merits."
–Story last updated at 1:25pm, Tuesday, December 14 (to include Frederick's response) –Correction: An early headline mentioned "extortion," but Kendrick was convicted only of attempted extortion –Correction: We incorrectly reported that Jonathan Blank, a lawyer for the Rivanna Solid Waste Authority bills "over $500" an hour. Actually, he bills just $475 per hour. (added February 2, 2010.)