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Ebersole takes stand in fraud trial

June 18, 2003|by KEVIN KILLEN/Northern Virginia Daily

The owner of a Stephenson, Va., business that trains dogs to detect drugs and explosives testified in U.S. District Court on Tuesday that the operational test given to his canines in California was a setup by the federal government.

Russell Ebersole, who is being tried in U.S. District Court on 28 counts of wire fraud and making false statements to government agencies, was the sole defense witness to take the stand Tuesday. He recounted concerns he said he had with a government video that shows his canines failing an odor-detecting test, which caused his detector dog business to lose a federal contract in 2002.

Ebersole, 43, of Washington County, is accused of charging more than $700,000 for the use of his drug- and explosives-detecting dogs by various government agencies after the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks. He markets the dogs as being trained to detect explosives, drugs and weapons for the Federal Reserve Board of Governors in Washington, the Federal Emergency Management Agency Disaster Field Office in New York and the IRS Service Center in Fresno, Calif.

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Ebersole said he noticed certain actions taken by the test administrators that might have caused his dogs to fail.

The April 2002 test was administered by James "Marty" Pigeon of the Sacramento (Calif.) Sheriff's Office, who gave the test to two of Ebersole's employees who had been assigned to the IRS Service Center.

Amy Sandy and Chris Schultz had been sent to the center as bomb dog handlers for Ebersole's company, Detector Dogs Against Drugs and Explosives, while working for the government. Pigeon testified that on each of the three tests, the canines failed due to improper detecting methods, and one dog, named Woody, began to tear up boxes that contained explosive scents.

"The administrators did things like place odors in too high of a place for a dog to detect it," Ebersole said.

Ebersole said that in reviewing the videotape, he noticed that Pigeon did not use fresh explosive powder to test the dogs. "You always have to use fresh powder, or the chance for cross contamination is too great," Ebersole said.

During cross-examination, U.S. Attorney Thomas McQuillan asked Ebersole about questionable dog training certifications that Ebersole has said were caused by a computer glitch. The government alleges they are forged.

"Those don't mean that much to me, because they don't show my talents as a trainer," Ebersole said.

"They don't matter that much?" McQuillan asked. "It must have meant a lot for you to have sent them to various government agencies along with your business proposal."

McQuillan pressed Ebersole about an $11,000 invoice sent to FEMA for a trip to New York shortly after Sept. 11, 2001. Pete Cheston, a DADDE dealer from Maryland, made the trip, but was sent back the next day.

"Why does this invoice list expenses for two DADDE handlers if one went?" McQuillan asked.

"I billed for expenses incurred, because I was supposed to go but didn't," Ebersole replied. "I was on my way up, but was called back."

During the afternoon recess, Judge Leonie Brinkema disclosed that the boyfriend of one of the jurors was represented by Ebersole's attorney, Spencer Ault, in another matter. Brinkema asked the juror some questions and decided the trial could continue.

Both sides were to give closing arguments today, and the jury was expected to get the case by mid-morning, Ault said.

Ebersole faces two more trials this year, including another federal trial in the U.S. District Court in Harrisonburg in August on six counts, including federal witness tampering.

He also is scheduled to appear in Richmond Circuit Court on July 14 for further action on a perjury count that stems from testimony before a hearing officer with the Department of Criminal Justice Services last year on charges of falsifying documents.

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