The Columbus Dispatch

Testimony at bond hearing details threats, escape plans in arson plot

Saturday, April 26, 2003
NEWS   01A

By Randy Ludlow

Illustration: Photo

After hearing recordings of apparent threats to kill witnesses and testimony of a possible plot to flee, a federal magistrate yesterday ordered Fairfield County Municipal Judge Don S. McAuliffe held without bail.

McAuliffe appeared in U.S. District Court after he was indicted Thursday on federal charges of conspiring to set a fire that destroyed his Buckey Lake home and fraudulently obtaining a $235,000 insurance settlement.

Magistrate Mark R. Abel ordered the judge jailed without bond because of "evidence of at least the beginnings of a plan to flee . . . and testimony that Mr. McAuliffe made threats against witnesses.''

Testimony revealed that Daniel "D.J.'' Faller, who tilted a halogen lamp against a wall to start the March 2, 2002, fire in the judge's home, and Beth Westminster, the judge's girlfriend, were cooperating as witnesses.

Faller and Westminster, who were wired by federal agents to record conversations with McAuliffe, have been granted immunity from prosecution, a U.S. Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms agent testified.

"If I'm able to verify anyone is cooperating, I'll have them killed,'' ATF Agent Daniel Ozbolt quoted McAuliffe as saying. Faller and Westminster are under federal protection, authorities said.

Clad in prison-issued olive shirt, blue drawstring pants and pink flip-flops, McAuliffe sat expressionless as the tapes were played, periodically leaning over to whisper to his attorneys. He entered and left the courtroom in handcuffs.

The 58-year-old judge, who has been disqualified from the bench, could face 12 1/2 years in prison if convicted of using fire to commit a felony, conspiracy, two counts of money laundering and two counts of mail fraud.

According to often-garbled recordings played in the courtroom and testimony from Ozbolt:

On Jan. 17, Faller and McAuliffe spoke of their shared distrust and fears that one would harm the other: "How do I trust you? . . . You got me scared, Don,'' Faller said.

The judge replied: "You need not worry about me, but if you're asking me if I could kill somebody, hell, yes.''

McAuliffe, who Ozbolt said was in possession of a handgun owned by Faller, also told the man: "It's ironic. . . It would be a shame if I had to shoot you with your own gun.''

On March 25, after agents searched his new Millersport home and seized a .38-caliber revolver and also removed a .22-caliber handgun from his court chambers, McAuliffe talked to Westminster about waiting for him until he was released from prison.

"Look into my eyes. Look at me. If you (expletive) ever leave me, I'll kill you. . . . I'll go to jail for you. I'm going to jail anyway.'' The judge also talked of buying new guns since the "feds'' had taken his weapons.

Ozbolt testified that Patty Wilson -- who married McAuliffe on July 5, 2002, and left after three days to seek a divorce granted March 11 -- said her ex-husband talked of having witnesses against him killed.

Ozbolt also testified that McAuliffe and Westminster, the judge's former probation officer, talked March 16 of an escape plan to be activated with the code word "none'' or the numbers "6663.''

Westminster was to retrieve their passports and meet McAuliffe at an undisclosed location in Ohio or Iowa if it appeared the judge soon would be arrested, Ozbolt said.

Defense attorney Sam Shamansky argued his client should be freed on bond. McAuliffe has known the identify of the witnesses and knew he was close to being indicted and arrested but did not flee, the attorney said.

"Certainly he would have fled long before yesterday,'' Shamansky said, adding that McAuliffe had "no violent tendencies'' and is a "respected jurist.''

Bill Meeks, McAuliffe's other attorney, said they may appeal the magistrate's ruling to U.S. District Judge Algenon Marbley.

A federal grand jury alleges that five days after McAuliffe increased the insurance coverage on his Buckeye Lake home, Westminster removed family photographs and antiques and a natural gas line was broken in a futile attempt to start a fire. On March 2, a halogen lamp started the fire that destroyed the house.

The judicial and political fallout from McAuliffe's arrest continued yesterday.

The Ohio Republican Party asked McAuliffe to drop out of the May 6 primary ballot in his race against Fairfield County Administrator Pat Harris and withdrew its "logistical and financial'' support of the judge.

The state party spent about $10,000 on two mailings for McAuliffe to Fairfield County voters, with the second delivered to the post office on Thursday before McAuliffe's arrest, said GOP spokesman Jason Mauk.

The party notified the postmaster in hopes of halting the mailing and was awaiting word whether it could be retrieved, he said.

A campaign-finance report McAuliffe filed before his arrest Thursday showed the judge contributed $15,000 to the state GOP in $5,000 and $10,000 checks issued on Monday and Tuesday.

The party has "frozen the contribution'' and will not spend the money, Mauk said. "We don't know the origin of the money or whether these are ill-gotten gains. That's for a court to decide.''

McAuliffe was barred from continuing to act as a judge once he was served with the seven-count indictment.

Ohio Supreme Court rules disqualify a judge from taking the bench while under felony indictment.

He will continue to receive his $101,100 annual salary. The judge would be removed from office if he pleads guilty or is convicted of a felony.

Franklin County Municipal Judge Charles A. Schneider was appointed to assume McAuliffe's duties in Lancaster next week. James Luse, a retired Fairfield County Common Pleas judge, will preside from May 5 to July 5.

Judge Don S. McAuliffe faces federal charges in connection with a 2002 arson fire at his home.

All content herein is 2003 The Columbus Dispatch and may not be republished without permission.