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Man opts for trial in MELP break-ins

December 14, 1998|By BRENDAN KIRBY

A Hagerstown man charged with breaking into the former Municipal Electric Light Plant last March decided at the last minute on Monday that he wanted to stand trial rather than accept a plea bargain.

The Washington County State's Attorney's Office offered to drop trespassing, theft and property destruction charges against Victor Thomas Winegardner in exchange for a guilty plea to fourth-degree burglary.

But when Washington County Circuit Judge John H. McDowell asked Winegardner if he understood the charges against him and the rights he would waive by pleading guilty, Winegardner asked for time to talk with his lawyer.

Defense attorney Mary Riley returned with her client after a break and told McDowell that Winegardner wanted a jury trial.

A trial date will be scheduled. Assistant State's Attorney Lisa Hardy said it would likely be in early March.

Sean Edward Lawson, 28, a co-defendant in the case, pleaded guilty to fourth-degree burglary on Thursday and received a three-year prison term, according to court records.

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Hagerstown City Police officers charged two men on March 21 with breaking into the plant at the corner of Mount Aetna Road and Eastern Boulevard.

David M. Harshman, one of the partners in the facility's holding company, arrived at about 3:30 p.m. that day and saw two men in the area near Antietam Creek, according to charging documents.

When he returned at about 5:45 p.m., Harshman found that a window to the building had been broken and heard voices coming from inside, according to court records.

Harshman called police and when an officer arrived, they saw two men leaving the building, according to court documents.

About 1,800 pounds of copper that had been removed from the plant's power circuitry had been stockpiled in the plant, according to court documents.

In exchange for his guilty plea, charges of theft, malicious destruction of property and trespassing against Lawson were dropped.

According to a victim impact statement filed in court, the break-ins and thefts that began in January have significantly reduced the chances of putting the facility back to productive use.

The Partners Marketing L.L.P. holding company was created to find a buyer for the plant, which at one time was owned by the City of Hagerstown and used to generate power. One of the prime attractions was that a business would have easy start-up because the plant was intact, Harshman wrote in the statement.

Now that is no longer the case, he wrote.

Harshman wrote that 30,000 pounds of copper and brass have been stolen since January. Harshman estimated the value of the recovered material at $1,100. But the more significant cost was the damage caused - more than $1 million worth.

"The destruction and theft of the MELP property was not conducted on a spur of the moment thought," he wrote. "The current condition of the building was the direct result of weeks of destructive activity."

In an interview, Harshman said the partners discussed the possibility of hiring security guards but rejected the idea because it would cost too much.

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