FAIRFAX COUNTY, Va. - A Virginia man who confessed to sexually abusing an 11-year-old boy was offered a plea deal and able to go free on time served after a judge ruled that prosecutors missed an evidence deadline.
The victim’s mother says she wants answers on why the Fairfax County justice system failed her son.
In July 2021, Fairfax County police arrested a man known to the victim’s family, Ronnie Reel, accusing him of child sex assault. Reel, 35, was later indicted on charges of sodomy and aggravated sexual battery.
The victim’s mother asked only to be identified as Amber to protect her son. She said what happened has been hell on her family and especially her child.
"He’s been through counseling. We’ve been through counseling. He started struggling in school," she said.
As Reel’s trial approached this month, she said she was ecstatic that justice would finally be served. She said she had complete faith in the prosecutor’s office and knew evidence in the case included Reel’s confession, not only to police but also to her in a recorded phone call.
"He was confessing every little detail that he did, and it was making me sick to my stomach," Amber said. "It was horrible. He literally confessed to me why he did it."
She said the call was 18 minutes long and as difficult as it was, she knew how important it was to the case.
The case was before Judge Penney Azcarate, the chief judge of Fairfax County Circuit Court. As is typical, the judge ordered the Commonwealth’s Attorney’s Office to turn over its evidence to the defense. A deadline was set for April 29.
But when the case went to trial this month, the judge ruled the prosecutor had missed the deadline and therefore the confessions, other evidence, and most witnesses were barred from the trial.
"My prayers and hopes for it just dropped right there," Amber said.
The case was left hinging on her son’s testimony. In a statement Ben Shnider, Chief of Staff for Fairfax Commonwealth’s Attorney Steve Descano said:
"Ultimately, once on the stand, the victim denied that one of the charges had taken place and contradicted their prior testimony regarding the circumstances of the remaining charge. Unfortunately, young victims often have difficulty recalling the details of such significant trauma – which is why prosecuting these crimes is uniquely challenging. Following this testimony, we consulted with the family, who agreed that guaranteeing accountability through a plea deal was the right move at that point given how the case had evolved."
Descano refused an interview to talk about the case.
Reel, who was facing life in prison, instead plead guilty to misdemeanor assault and battery and agreed to a one-year prison sentence. He was freed on time served.
When asked about the evidence issues, Shnider disputed the deadline has been missed, stating that evidence had already been shared earlier in the case.
"With regards to the discovery in question, the ruling that discovery was shared too early with the defense – which was done as part of our office’s effort to go above and beyond in pursuit of equal justice – was indeed confounding to us and inconsistent with precedent," Shnider said.
Judge Azcarate didn’t respond to a request for comment Monday.
Dawn Butorac, the public defender representing Reel, disagreed that evidence was adequately provided.
In an emailed statement she wrote: "The Commonwealth was ordered by the court to provide discovery. They were required to provide all of the information they had about the case such that the defense would be on notice of what the Commonwealth intended to use as evidence at trial; this is done so that every defendant's due process and other constitutional rights are protected. We simply cannot have equal justice when one side controls all of the information and utterly fails to comply with the orders of the court."
Meanwhile, Amber was left trying to explain to her son what happened.
"I was really upset. This is my child, this is my baby," she said through tears. "And he got no justice. So he continues to see me cry and everything. He held his own, he stayed strong. He’s always trying to be strong for mom."
She says her son practices martial arts, and he has a punching bag in the basement. His anguish was obvious when they got home from the courthouse.
"He wasn’t even out of his court clothes. He went downstairs, and he just started kicking and punching," she said. "He was heartbroken, I think."
FOX 5 met Amber at her attorney’s office Monday. She said her fight for justice isn’t over and the family has started a GoFundMe to handle legal expenses.
She said she feels the case fell apart because people weren’t doing their jobs properly.
"I want them to answer for the mistakes they have made," she said.
Reel has a long criminal past and is on probation in an unrelated case in Fredericksburg, according to a spokesman for the Virginia Dept. of Corrections.
The misdemeanor conviction could put him behind bars on a probation violation; however, the new case information out of Fairfax has not yet been processed, according to the spokesman.