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Mark Weiner

Other Kidnapping Exonerations
On the night of December 13, 2012, 20-year-old Chelsea Steiniger told her boyfriend that she had been abducted and drugged by a man driving a white van who took her to a vacant house in Albemarle County, Virginia. Steiniger said she woke up and managed to escape.

Earlier in the evening Steiniger’s boyfriend, Michael Mills, kicked her out of his home. She later said she was walking home and was approached in the parking lot of a convenience store by 52-year-old Mark Weiner who offered her a ride to her mother’s home. However, she said that Weiner put a chemical-soaked cloth over her face causing her to pass out. When she awoke, Steiniger said she was in a vacant home she had never seen before. She heard Weiner using her mobile phone to send text messages. She said she managed to get away by jumping from a second floor balcony and went into nearby woods.

After Mills received several text messages on his mobile phone ostensibly sent by Steiniger’s kidnapper, he called police.

The following day, police went to the convenience store and employees there described Weiner as a regular customer who drove a white van. When police questioned Weiner , he freely admitted he had picked up Steiniger, but said he drove her to her mother’s house and then went home. Weiner, manager of a Food Lion grocery store, who was married, had a nine-year-old son and had no criminal record, was arrested and charged with abduction with intent to defile.

Weiner went to trial in Albemarle County Circuit Court in May 2013. Steiniger testified that she accepted Weiner’s offer to drive her to her mother’s home. But he passed up her mother’s home, she said. Then, after touching her leg and engaging in small talk, Weiner put a chemical-soaked cloth over her face causing her to pass out, Steiniger told the jury.

She said she awoke in a vacant house and heard him sending text messages with her mobile telephone. Steiniger said she managed to run to the balcony, jump down and escape into nearby woods. Meanwhile, Mills had called police after receiving the text messages. One said, “She’s so sexy when she’s passed out” and another said, “She’s in my house now, Imma warm her up.”

Weiner testified that he was a family man, was active in his synagogue, and supported his son’s Boy Scout troop while working as Food Lion manager during the day and taking night classes at Piedmont Virginia Community College.

Weiner told the jury that he saw Steiniger, whom he did not know, walking alone on a cold night and offered her a ride. He said that he obtained her phone number, which he wrote on a book of matches, to pass along as a possible hire at the Food Lion. He told the jury he drove her directly to her mother’s apartment.

No physical or forensic evidence linked Weiner to the abandoned home where Steiniger said she had awakened or to Steiniger’s mobile phone. Weiner’s defense attorney contended Steiniger’s mobile phone was too small for Weiner, who weighed 300 pounds and had size 16 fingers, to operate.

On May 24, 2013, the jury convicted Weiner of abduction with intent to defile. Prior to sentencing, Weiner obtained new attorneys, Steven Benjamin and Betty Layne DesPortes, who began re-investigating the case and ultimately filed a motion seeking a new trial in April 2014.

The motion cited Steiniger’s mobile phone records from the night of the alleged abduction, the location of area mobile phone towers and a six-page report by an expert on digital forensics that said Steiniger’s mobile phone was being used near her mother’s address at the time and not at the abandoned house which was 1.5 miles away. The prosecution had obtained the records, but had not disclosed the records to Weiner’s lawyer, who had not sought them independently.

A mobile phone tower 405 yards from the vacant house was not accessed by her cellphone, according to the report. At the same time, mobile phone records for Weiner’s phone showed him 17 miles away from the vacant house at the time of the alleged crime.

The motion said the phone records showed Steiniger falsely testified that her phone was dead for a while after she fled the house; falsely testified that her boyfriend did not call her; and falsely testified that she did not talk on the phone while she was in the woods walking to her boyfriend’s home.

The defense asserted that Commonwealth's Attorney Denise Lunsford "sought the advice of two respected detectives in the city and the county" to check the cellphone tower records to pinpoint from where the text messages came, and both detectives separately concluded the texts originated from an area close to where Steininger's mother lived, not the abandoned house.

A Charlottesville detective initially analyzed the records and informed Lunsford there was a problem with the case, the defense said. Moreover, during the trial, Lunsford conferred with another detective who concluded the same thing.

The jury heard neither detective's testimony.

The motion also contained affidavits from two anesthesiologists who said that Steiniger’s description of how she was rendered unconscious was impossible. Dr. John R. Janes Jr., said, “I know of no volatile anesthetic which will render an adult female completely unconscious in 10-15 seconds.”

In addition, the motion said that Weiner’s trial lawyer had discovered a matchbook in Weiner’s van with Steiniger’s mobile phone number on it, corroborating Weiner’s testimony, but he failed to introduce the matchbook into evidence at trial. Moreover, the defense lawyer had failed to do so even though the prosecution suggested during cross-examination of Weiner that he had lied about taking down Steiniger’s phone number.

Judge Cheryl Higgins held a hearing on the motion and refused to vacate the conviction. Weiner was sentenced to eight years in prison.

The defense continued to re-investigate and located three witnesses who said that they had partied with Steiniger in the vacant house on three occasions prior to the night she said she was abducted and taken to the house for the first time.

In addition, Steiniger’s boyfriend, Michael Mills , signed a sworn affidavit saying that Steiniger had admitted to him that she concocted the story against Weiner because Mills had ordered her out of his home and she thought he would take her back if she said she was the victim of a crime. By that time, Mills had been arrested on a charge of domestic violence after Steiniger told police Mills attacked her.

The defense also located a witness who said that Steiniger had admitted to the witness that she had lied about being attacked by Mills.

Despite the accumulation of evidence of innocence, Weiner’s conviction remained intact until July 2015 when the prosecution informed the defense that in February 2015, Steiniger had been involved in a $100 drug sale with a confidential informant. The Commonwealth’s Attorney, Denise Lunsford, said the discovery of the allegation against Steiniger was “the straw that broke the camel’s back.”

On July 14, 2015, Lunsford joined in a motion with Weiner’s attorneys to vacate the conviction. The motion was granted, Lunsford then dismissed the charge and Weiner was released.

In July 2017, Weiner filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against Albemarle County and the former chief prosecutor. The lawsuit was dismissed in January 2018.

– Maurice Possley

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Posting Date: 7/16/2015
Last Updated: 1/30/2018
Most Serious Crime:Kidnapping
Additional Convictions:
Reported Crime Date:2012
Sentence:8 years
Age at the date of reported crime:52
Contributing Factors:Perjury or False Accusation, Official Misconduct, Inadequate Legal Defense
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:No