8News Investigates: Crime victims victimized again across the Commonwealth

RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — Beaten and battered by her ex, a victim of domestic abuse thought her abuser had stopped paying his court-ordered restitution.

That was until she heard from 8News.

“I didn’t know how much, I didn’t know if I would ever get it,” the woman said. “He broke my nose, did some damage to my eye; I was out of work for about three, four weeks.”

Court records obtained by 8News show her abuser continued to pay his restitution, to which she is owed nearly $700. The Fredericksburg Circuit Court, however, claimed it couldn’t locate her. So, her money was listed with dozens of others as “unclaimed” restitution.

8News, however, found her in a matter of minutes by simply typing her name into Facebook. Even more puzzling, she lived in Fredericksburg for years and still lives within the tri-county area.

“I never received anything,” she said. “No notification.”

Her story is similar to the story of  Gertha Cleveland. You may remember, an 8News investigation back in May found her and her money the very same way.

We found she was owed $1,525. She no idea.

“No, I did not,” she emphasized.

The Chesterfield Circuit Court claimed it couldn’t find the Army Staff Sergeant, although she was serving in Virginia at Fort Lee.

“In my opinion, they put forth no effort at all,” Cleveland said.

8News has now found this to be a systemic problem statewide. Victims are not getting the money they are due, even when the bad guys pay up.

In the past three years, 8News found nearly $44,000 that was never passed on to victims in Williamsburg. In Chesapeake, more than $110,000 never made it to victims and in Prince William County victims are missing out on $231,000.

8News spent months combing over unclaimed restitution data for every circuit court in the Commonwealth. We found about million dollars in money owed to thousands of crime victims, and we’re still counting. We are waiting for some courts to comply with our Freedom of Information Act request.

“It makes me heartsick,” the anonymous victim said. “People are struggling, every little be helps.”

8News went to some clerks to get answers.

Mona Foley, the clerk for Williamsburg/James City County Circuit Court, tell us clerks aren’t given enough contact information.

“Not good addresses, people move and they don’t contact us and we are limited in how we can search,” she explained.

When a victim is owed restitution, all clerks are obligated by law to send a notice via snail mail to the last known address. If no response, it’s then considered ‘unclaimed restitution.’ So in most cases, no one’s actually looking for the victim.

When 8News first shared our findings with lawmakers back in May, Senator Ryan McDougle said, “That’s a real concern.”

McDougle said the General Assembly was working on a fix in the form of a new restitution form.

But Sonya Ragsdale, Lunenburg’s Deputy Circuit Court Clerk, and the Honorable Foley told 8News that since it went into effect in July, not much has changed.

“It is just the victim’s name, address and it has a spot for a phone number,” Ragsdale explained.

Foley added, “I think we need more information than just an address. I think we an email address, a cell phone number.”

Meanwhile, Gordon Erby, Lunenburg County’s Circuit Court Clerk, thinks some of the problem is the rush to get the money out of the local courts and to the state. By law, court clerks have to report the unclaimed restitution annually and send it to the Virginia Victim’s Fund where the money is held.

“I think we lose connection with the victims,” Erby said.

When 8News asked if clerks feel pressured to get that money to Richmond, Erby replied, ‘Why hell yes, we certainly do. The pressure comes from the bureaucrats in Richmond who want that money.”

Erby said if the money stayed in the jurisdiction, he believes the clerks would have a better opportunity to find people.

“Once you get it to Richmond, that is another level of bureaucracy,” Erby said.

Still, clerks are legally limited in how much searching they can do.

“I don’t know that a clerk by state code can actually go out and hunt people down so to speak,” said Erby.

While Facebook and background check sites were a big help to 8News in locating victims, most courthouses prohibit the use of social media sites.

“I would rather give them money to the person than the Victim’s Fund, people don’t know to look there,” Foley said.

And because of that, Foley actually takes some of her work home with her.

“If I have monies I will take a few names home. And see if I can find them on Facebook,” she explained.

“I will reach out to the victim, witness, coordinator and sometimes our local probation officer to see if they have any updated information,” Ragsdale added.

But not every court has the time or resources for those extra steps. Erby thinks the state should hire someone — perhaps a part-time officer — to track people down.

“This money belongs to the people not to Commonwealth, not to the County of Lunenburg, and I think it should be returned to the people,” he said.

“I think it is sad,” Foley said. “I think everybody deserves to be paid what they are owed.”

In Fredericksburg, 8News walked the unidentified victim into the courthouse to start the process of getting her money. Gertha Cleveland, meanwhile, told us she got her check in the mail.

“I didn’t know it was there, and if you hadn’t told me it would still be there without me knowing.”

Overall, 8News found the system is disjointed and practices vary from clerk-to-clerk even to how the unclaimed money is reported to the state. We have reached out to lawmakers, the Victim’s Fund, the State Attorney General and the Crime Commission and have been told the problem is on their radar.  The crime commission is trying work on a solution.

If you were the victim of a crime and wonder if you are owed money, you can check the databases that are linked in this story. Don’t see your locality? Email kobrien@wric.com.

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