Since 2006, the Villa family of Allentown, Pa., has tried to garner objective, outside-the-area media scrutiny regarding their fight to bring justice and closure regarding the death of their daughter Sheena.
Sheena Villa died tragically at the hands of a politically well-connected drunk driver in 2006. You may recall that the Eagle looked at this story, first, two years ago. It’s time for an update.
Why an update? Well, the Villa family’s sad, but important case has special import for Vermonters—we live in a small state that has an unusually high number of DUI-related accidents and deaths. Many of us wonder just how fair our legal system is when it comes to the victims—and their families—of DUI incidents.
For the Villas, outside-the-area media interest means that most outside editors and reporters just aren’t interested in their family story. It’s not unlike this newspaper’s account, last week, of the death of Middlebury-born Mason deVos in far-away Oregon. Who cares when something is happening so far away from your community?
In the case of the Villa family vs. Lehigh County, Pa., District Attorney James Martin (R), there’s a lot going on regarding the Villas’ landmark case that’s available in public court documents (which are available to reporters).
Regardless, the public would be shocked by much of this case, which perhaps explains why D.A. Martin and the Pennsylvania news media seem to be looking the other way.
No one deserves what Bill Villa and his wife Angie have had to endure since the defining evening of March 24, 2006.
I’ve known Bill, who lives in the Lehigh Valley of Pennsylvania, since elementary school and while we were never best friends, we have kept in touch over the years, now via Facebook.
I am unable to talk with Bill about his story due to legal restrictions relating to the case. But I have been able to piece together his story from various public venues—online news and Facebook accounts.
When I first heard about how Bill and his wife were being put through the ringer, both personally and professionally, since 2006, I felt powerless in what I could do to help as an old school friend, far removed from what’s happening.
On the night of March 24, 2006—on the occasion of Bill’s daughter Sheena’s 25th birthday—a politically well-connected drunk driver snuffed out her life.
Sheena Villa was an intelligent, vibrant, and promising young woman. I can’t imagine how the Villas endured her tragic loss.
Sheena was a passenger in a car driven by drunk driver Robert LaBarre, the son of a prominent Allentown, Pa., attorney who is a partner in a law firm that represents both the city’s only newspaper, and, on at least one documented occasion, the county’s district attorney—Robert LaBarre’s prosecutor. (The law firm’s principal partner, a Democrat, was involved in the Republican district attorney’s reelection campaign fund-raising committee.)
In a local T.V. newscast, the district attorney himself admitted that Sheena and another passenger had “cautioned” LaBarre to slow down. But the Allentown police crash reconstruction showed that LaBarre had ignored their warnings (he never braked) and he crashed, airborne, into a tree on the other side of the road at a minimum speed of 85 mph on a 35 mph residential street.
Following Sheena’s death, her father mounted a heroic attempt to bring the drunk driver to justice.
Eventually, Bill said on radio talks show, with so many people listening, LaBarre had no recourse but to plead guilty to vehicular homicide while DUI and he was sentenced to five-and-a-half to 12 years in state prison.
But Bill believed Lehigh County (Pa.) District Attorney James B. Martin had played favorites in the case from the start—albeit unsuccessfully, thanks to Bill’s vigilance.
And Bill has been telling his fellow citizens about it ever since at his website, Lehigh Valley Somebody, and on Facebook.
Bill has made guest appearances on the Bobby Gunther Walsh Show on News Radio station WAEB 790 in Allentown to talk about Sheena’s death and the D.A.’s alleged mishandling of the case.
In a Sept. 16, 2014, article in Philadelphia’s Legal Intelligencer, Max Mitchell wrote about what happened next:
“A critic of the Lehigh County (Pa.) district attorney has been asked by a lawyer for the D.A. not to destroy documents related to statements the critic made on a talk radio program… The letter did not say whether Martin intended to file a defamation suit or was considering any further legal action. It did, however, use the phrase ‘multiple false and defamatory statements’ to describe assertions apparently made by Villa… The letter requested Villa to preserve documents that were in use at any time after March 24, 2006, which was the day of the accident that resulted in the death of Villa’s daughter.”
The Aug. 1, 2014 letter from powerhouse Philadelphia law firm Sprague & Sprague did not cite any specific examples of Bill’s alleged “defamation.”
Since then, the radio station has kept Bill out of the studio; he’s not been invited back. Turns out the station manager and parent company received similar “threatening” letters from Sprague & Sprague and D.A. James B. Martin, too.
Pretty scary stuff coming from an elected official, if you ask me. And what’s most scary is that an elected official can muzzle a critic with the mere threat of a lawsuit, without having to cite any specific examples of wrongdoing. Seems like some new laws are in order here to prevent these kinds of shenanigans.
So far, D.A. Martin’s plan isn’t working all too well.
Max Mitchell’s exposé in the Legal Intelligencer got the attention of the Vermont Eagle and we hope other out-of-town editors will pay attention as well.
While it’s not every day that a district attorney threatens to sue a private citizen, a crime victim—and grieving father—for telling his daughter’s story on the public airwaves, the local news media in Bill Villa’s area—as far as we know—has not published or broadcast a single word about D.A. Martin’s “defamation” lawsuit threat. Curiously, mum’s been the word.