Driver on trial: Waste authority witness faces extortion charge
The star witness in the Rivanna Solid Waste Authority lawsuit against recycling entrepreneur Peter Van der Linde will appear in a Fluvanna County courtroom on Thursday to face an extortion charge that grew out of the lawsuit. Despite a lengthy felony record that's put him behind bars for about two of his life's five decades, the accused man says he has faith the justice system will exonerate him this time.
"I have no doubt in my mind that I am going to win this case," says Richard Wade Kendrick of Palmyra. The 50-year-old former driver for Van der Linde Containers and Recycling says he's no extortionist–- that he was merely trying to get enough money for the legal fees he was expecting to pay when he found out his boss was denying he'd asked the drivers to lie.
The inside of a courtroom may be a familiar if an unwelcome setting for Kendrick. By his own admission, after serving nearly 12 years of 178 years worth of sentences for felonies including multiple grand larcenies, he was released in September 2003 and went to work the following year for Van der Linde's Fluvanna County facility–- "the longest I ever held a job," he says–– until last April, when he was fired days after sending his boss a letter demanding $90,000 in exchange for keeping silent about an alleged conspiracy.
Rather than paying the money, Van der Linde took the letter to Fluvanna authorities, who charged Kendrick with extortion.
"He was trying to get money from his boss," says Fluvanna Commonwealth's Attorney Jeff Haislip. "He threatened Mr. Van der Linde."
But the criminal charge hasn't swayed the Authority away from Kendrick as a witness.
Kendrick's testimony remains a key piece of the Authority's ongoing suit against Van der Linde, as Kendrick appears to be the only one of over 20 company trash drivers willing to testify to what Authority director Tom Frederick alleges: that over a period of approximately two years, Van der Linde dodged around a million dollars in Authority service fees by having drivers lie about the origins of refuse.
The Authority board has supported Frederick in initially pressing the lawsuit as a $3.5 million debt-collection action, but the body recently cranked it up to a $20 million action under the civil portion of RICO, the federal Racketeer Influenced Corruption act.
Since then, while some wags suggest that the Authority is out of control, Frederick and Kendrick insist that Van der Linde is the one who needs a rein.
Van der Linde has publicly admitted that not paying the service fee "saved" his business in the beginning, when BFI (now Republic Services)–- the company running the Authority-sponsored station in Zion Crossroads–- charged a total tipping fee of just $46 per ton. He insists he never instructed his drivers to lie and points to the Authority's own documents which show multi-year periods when BFI didn't collect the fees, a clear violation of BFI's Authority contract.
Van der Linde's attorney, Lamar Garren, notes that three other Van der Linde drivers have been deposed, and allegedly none have supported Kendrick's "extremely suspect" story.
While RSWA attorney Jonathan Blank did not return a reporter's call, legal analyst David Heilberg doubts that Kendrick's extensive history of "lying, cheating, and stealing" crimes will go over well in a courtroom.
"He had no credibility before he allegedly committed extortion," says Heilberg. "Why would he be the only one to be coming forward?"
Kendrick, however, says his felony record shouldn't blind anyone to his concern, not only for himself, but for his fellow drivers.
"We were doing what our bosses told us to do," says Kendrick, noting that with 153 years of a suspended sentence hanging over him, he became frightened when Van der Linde said in a Hook article that he hadn't instructed drivers to lie.
"Now," he says, "23 drivers have committed fraud for Peter Van der Linde."
The undated, rambling typewritten letter (p.1, p.2) Kendrick sent to Van der Linde in late April mentions a need for an attorney and demands the $90,000–- tax free–- "to cover any legal fees that may come on me."
His second demand appears more altruistic: "You will give each of the employees of the container rental company a job till 2012."
Under Virginia law, demands don't constitute extortion unless coupled with a threat. And Kendrick's letter might seem to issue one in its final lines.
"For I will ask my attorney to call and set me up an appointment with the United States District Attorney. So Tom Frederick and I can set down with the government for a long talk. And with my mind and mouth, they can take container rentals and the recycling away from you."
Considering his new role as the Authority's star witness, Kendrick might appear to have delivered on the vow, but he remains steadfast in his assertion that he did nothing wrong.
"How am I extorting something from this man," he asks, "when this man has put my life and freedom in jeopardy?"
Kendrick's case will be heard in Fluvanna County Circuit Court on Thursday, December 10. He has subpoenaed nine witnesses including Hook reporter Dave McNair (who has been asked only to "stipulate" that what he has previously written about the case is accurate).