Michael Gardner, a longtime City of Falls Church resident and political activist, pleaded guilty last Thursday to all counts in two child sex abuse cases, the trial for one of which began just the day before, and the other slated for late November. The high profile nature of the cases has resulted from the prominent roles locally in Falls Church of Gardner and his wife, former mayor Robin Gardner.
In what was a plea bargain deal, Gardner’s attorneys recommended a sentence of 20 years in prison, which was agreed to by the prosecution and so ordered by Arlington Circuit Court Judge Louise DiMatteo.
Gardner’s trial last week was set to involve a niece of his who was 12 at the time she was molested by Gardner, but is now 18. She came forward with her story last year after a conviction in another case against Gardner involving two girls, ages 9 and 10 at a slumber party in his home in the summer of 2011, was reversed by a higher court.
In addition to the role of his wife, Robin, who served on the Falls Church City Council for three four-year terms from 2000 to 2012 and as mayor from 2006 to 2010, Michael Gardner served for a time as chair of the Falls Church City Democratic Committee and was known as a sharp-tongued blogger on local and regional political matters, and for a time as a volunteer contributor to the News-Press until the time of his arrest in the June 2011.
Gardner, now 51, entered guilty pleas last Thursday, Sept. 24, to one count of object sexual penetration and four counts of aggravated sexual battery. Gardner was sentenced to 40 years, 20 of those suspended, and supervised probation for life.
According to his attorney, Gardner is expected to serve 13 and a half years from this point. Once released, he will be required to register as a sex offender and will not be permitted unsupervised contact with minors, the victims, or their families.
The plea agreement was reached on just the second day of a trial for sexually assaulting his niece when she was 12. A retrial was set to begin in November for Gardner’s sexual assault of two 10 year old girls at his daughter’s slumber party; that trial is negated with the guilty pleas.
Alejandra Rueda and Nicole Wittmann of the Commonwealth Attorney’s Office received the proposal for an agreement during the trial. “We are pleased that the victims have closure and finality,” said Wittmann in a City of Falls Church press release. “I’m confident that other children will be protected based on this result.”
“I am very proud of all of stakeholders in the Criminal Justice System particularly the victims in this case” said City of Falls Church Police Chief Mary Gavin in the press release. “The four little girls displayed tremendous courage and strength.”
Chief Gavin added, “The Falls Church Police Department is grateful to all mutual aid law enforcement partners from Federal, State and Local organizations. Det. Sonya Richardson, the lead investigator, as well as peer detectives and supervisors throughout the past four years worked diligently and often to exhaustion to ensure a comprehensive and thorough investigation. The Loudoun County Commonwealth Attorney’s Nicole Wittmann and Alejandra Rueda worked tirelessly to ensure justice was served for the four victims, their families and the entire community.”
A press release was issued last Friday by Gardner’s attorney, Bradley Haywood, included the following:
“Michael Gardner entered pleas of guilty yesterday to criminal charges pending against him in Arlington County, Virginia, in exchange for a sentence that will require him to serve an additional 13 and a half years prior to his release. Based on a series of in-court rulings, Michael concluded that he could not receive a fair trial and that continued proceedings risked unfair attention and potential legal action against his family.
“His guilty plea therefore represented an effort to protect his wife and children, and moreover reflected a hope that finality will provide all parties involved a sense of closure and an opportunity to heal. For a man who has been maligned as unfairly as Michael, when the time came to make the right decision, he made that decision, and he made it for the right reasons.”
Echoing Haywood’s statement, Robin Gardner and Gardner’s sister Maya Jerome continued to maintain Gardner’s innocence even after the guilty plea in statements to the News-Press last Friday.
Then this week, in a statement delivered in response to a request from the News-Press, a parent and spokesman for the families of the victims in the cases wrote, “Justice for the four strong, brave girls so unconscionably attacked by Michael Gardner has been served by the guilty plea, which includes an indisputable proffer of facts for each charge. We feel well served by the Falls Church Police Department, the prosecutors, and the court, very much less so by city leadership, and the local paper.”
The negotiated outcome last week included immunity and additional protection provided for Gardner’s wife, Robin, and their two children.