LOUDOUN COUNTY, VIRGINIA — Loudoun County Public Schools’ top officials, testifying Wednesday in the felony perjury trial of a colleague, made potentially hard-to-believe statements of their own as they said, over and over again, that they had little familiarity with, or couldn’t remember details of, the scandal that captured the nation’s attention and has defined local politics for two years.
The attorney for now-suspended Public Information Officer Wayde Byard said while Principal Tim Flynn testified that he told Byard clearly in a phone call that a girl alleged she was raped in the bathroom — contradicting the sworn statement Byard made to a grand jury that he didn’t know about it until months later — one witness wasn’t enough for a conviction.
Byard’s boss, Communications Director Joan Sahlgren, and Deputy Superintendent Ashley Ellis might have been in a position to serve as corroborating witnesses; prosecutors said Sahlgren told a grand jury earlier this year that she believes Byard told her about the rape that day. But on Wednesday, she backtracked, saying she wasn’t so sure. In all, both women claimed to have virtually no recollection of anything beyond what prosecutors already could prove from subpoenaed emails and other papers.
An October 2021 Daily Wire story led to the indictment of both Sahlgren’s boss (Superintendent Scott Ziegler) and subordinate and, lawyers from both sides said, “propelled your school system into the hot white light of public concern.” Despite Salgren’s job being managing news about the school system, on Wednesday she contended to the jury that she didn’t remember receiving The Daily Wire’s email explaining the story it was about to break and asking for information, and claimed she did not know or could not recall what the story, which captured the nation’s attention for weeks, ultimately said. (Emails obtained through a subpoena show that the request for comment sent her into high alert, ordering Byard to “TAKE NO ACTION.”)
Ellis, the school system’s second-highest ranking official, told jurors she only “vaguely” recalled May 28, 2021 — the day of the rape — and some sort of “situation,” despite her own notes from the day showing she wrote down “anal penetration” and “police handling,” and acknowledging that those topics would stand out in her work.
Byard, Sahlgren, and now-indicted Superintendent Scott Ziegler drafted a statement that went out to parents that day that explained police presence at the school by saying the situation was simply an “angry parent” — without mentioning that the parent was angry because his daughter had just been raped — and stating that there was “no threat to the student body” even as a rapist was at large.
An email uncovered by prosecutors showed that on that day, Ellis wrote an email suggesting that they make the statement less misleading. “Can we say [the incident causing police to respond] was confined to the main office? No sure that was true,” she wrote, according to prosecutors.
Jennifer Leffler, Byard’s defense attorney, contended that Flynn didn’t tell Byard about the rape, but merely about an angry parent. However, evidence at trial suggested that Flynn had openly told other top officials about it, and that all the executives knew, including Sahlgren, who generally got information from Byard. “Flynn is telling everyone,” prosecutor Jason Faw said. “Why would Wayde Byard be the only person he didn’t tell?”
Faw said that Chief of Staff Mark Smith had been fired over his handling of the rape, and that Byard had a motive to lie for fear of being next.
Byard’s defense attorney set out a theory in which she suggested that Byard might have said under oath that he didn’t know about a rape because he didn’t believe the victim and thought it was merely consensual anal sex that the school system had asked the police to investigate. She did not explain how this would square with the way that Flynn found out about the incident: by the girl coming to the office in tears and reporting that she had been raped. Prosecutors said the theory also didn’t fly because Byard additionally responded in the negative to a question that called it a rape allegation.
Faw said that in grand jury testimony, Byard “acknowledges being told something about a boyfriend/girlfriend in a bathroom that ‘went sideways,’ which sounds a lot like a sexual assault to me, but then he goes into denial mode.” Byard told the grand jury he was told “really nothing” about a sexual assault.
Faw said Byard “slipped up” in his grand jury testimony by, despite claiming he didn’t know about the May rape until around October, also saying that he learned that Scott Smith was “the father of the victim” when Smith was arrested on June 22. That’s the day of the infamous school board meeting where Ziegler lied that there had never been a bathroom rape, while pushing a transgender policy, and Smith again became enraged and was arrested.
Prosecutors played video of the arrest in which Smith’s wife can be heard screaming, “my daughter was raped at school and this is what happens!” Byard did not testify at his trial on Wednesday, but prosecutors said he told the grand jury earlier this year that he was at the meeting and standing feet away from Smith’s wife at the time.
Prosecutors also pointed to another email that they said shows that Byard was aware of the rape, which school official Kevin Lewis contemporaneously noted could affect the school’s then-proposed transgender policy because the rapist was wearing a skirt. Byard sent Ziegler an email in August 2021 containing a local news article about Smith’s sentencing for disorderly conduct, at which his attorney explained that he was angry because her daughter had been raped. Also, in an email shortly after the rape, he refers to “the same family” from the earlier incident, indicating he knew why the father was at school and angry that day, prosecutors said.
Judge Douglas Fleming said that on Thursday, the jury will decide the outcome after weighing the credibility of the witnesses. “I don’t think Mr. Flynn left any doubt, if you believe his testimony, about what he said” to Byard, he said.
He said that a false statement about a school official’s knowledge of a rape, during a grand jury looking into a rape coverup, was far from incidental. “We’re here because it was very material. ‘It was bad.’ ‘It was unique.’ ‘Never dealt with it before,’” he said, quoting witnesses, some of whom simultaneously said they had little memory of the unusual and severe situation. “The jury can reach its own conclusion,” he said.