How a Fairfield County municipal judge and a low-life pal cooked up a plan to frame his lover for a Buckeye Lake fire. “They were like evil Seinfeld characters who all turned on each other.”
Editor’s note: Six months after this story appeared in Columbus Monthly, Fairfield County Municipal Court Judge Don McAuliffe was sentenced in December 2004 to 17 years in prison in connection to a fire at his Buckeye Lake home.
It seemed D.J. Faller was always running some scheme, or running his mouth. Either one was equally likely to land him in a bind, as his rap sheet indicated. Fairfield, Franklin and Licking counties each had a book on Faller, filled with the kind of ticky tack charges that painted him with a broad swipe of the brush labeled "trouble:" open container, assault, menacing, disorderly conduct, criminal damaging, along with an assortment of traffic violations and "D.J.-screwed-me" civil suits.
In January 2003, Faller was attempting to sell a mini backhoe, a Bobcat ’dozer and a bevy of attachments to L.E. King and Son Excavating in Granville—nearly $100,000 worth of equipment.
Licking County sheriff's deputies were called out when questions arose concerning ownership of that equipment. What they ultimately unveiled, however, was far more interesting. Deputies learned that Faller had been spouting off about helping a man burn down his own house at Buckeye Lake. The man was a judge, Faller said. Faller had told some former co-workers at Bobcat of Columbus that he'd become a confidential witness and now had this judge all wrapped up and ready to deliver to the feds.
Though it sounded like a lot of hot air from a cornered fast-talker, Licking County detectives called the Fairfield County Sheriff's Office and found enough truth in Faller's story to take note: Deputies confirmed that a Fairfield County Municipal Court judge's house did burn down near Buckeye Lake on March 8, 2002, and that the Ohio Bureau of Criminal Identification & Investigation was looking into it.
It had been six months earlier that BCI agent Dave Meyer and his boss, Steve Schierholt, first met with former court employee Beth Westminister. The story she told them was captivating, almost to the point of unbelievable. She said she was afraid her boyfriend of four years, Judge Don McAuliffe, was about to frame her for an arson she said he and his business partner D.J. Faller had set. She and the judge had broken up since then, she said, and now he was sending her threatening letters, demanding some $5,000 for credit-card bills he said she owed him, dropping lines on her like, "considering your fascination with fire....' Figuring she faced a blame-or-be-blamed decision, she turned to the authorities.
Now BCI had a chance at Faller, too. Notified by the Licking County Sheriff's Office, agents Meyer and Gregg Costas raced out to Newark and asked the folks from both L.E. King and Son and Bobcat of Columbus to place recorded calls to Faller. If he was spouting off about the fire, BCI wanted it on the record. They didn't have to wait long. Soon they had Faller on tape telling Creston King of L.E. King and Son that he was working with an ATF agent named Dan. Meyer called the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives’ Columbus office and was patched through to agent Dan Ozbolt, who replied, “Yep. We know him. We'll be right there."
Within hours the pieces of a full-scale investigation against Fairfield County Municipal Court Judge Don McAuliffe fell into place. BCI and ATF began working together, sharing what they'd already learned. Faller and Westminster both agreed to be wired during conversations with the judge in exchange for immunity, providing evidence that ultimately led to McAuliffe's arrest in April 2003.
The three-week trial that ensued portrayed a man who seemed an unlikely candidate to be entrusted with upholding peace, order and justice. Jurors listened to hours of undercover tape that included a story about the judge running naked around the block on a dare and sounds indicating that Westminster was having sex with McAuliffe even while covertly trying to trap him. There was testimony from Faller including a description of an almost slapstick home-repair incident involving McAuliffe and a story about the exorcism of a rocking chair. "In 15 years with ATF, I've worked the bottom of the barrel," says Ozbolt. “But I have never seen a crew of folks this bizarre. Like they say, conspiracies hatched in hell don't have angels for witnesses."
Defense attorney Larry Thomas called it, "Sex, lies and audiotape."
Ultimately, however, the tapes also revealed enough evidence to send McAuliffe to jail. “Don was our best witness," says Ozbolt. “Just push 'Play.’ ”
McAuliffe, 59, was convicted in February on all counts, including two counts of mail fraud, two counts of money laundering, committing felony by fire and conspiracy to use fire to commit mail fraud—all felonies. Shortly after the trial, McAuliffe's attorneys filed a motion asking U.S. District Court Judge Algenon Marbley to acquit McAuliffe—notwithstanding the jury's verdict—on the basis of insufficient evidence. As of early May, Marbley had not ruled on the motion and McAuliffe was awaiting sentencing.
Buckeye Lake has become an almost fashionable investment opportunity in recent years, slowly making a transformation from its rural middle-class roots to a vacation-resort weekend getaway. The lakeside lots are being snapped up and many of the meager stick-frame, post-WWII building-boom houses that once circled the 3,100-acre lake are being leveled to make room for large, modern homes. Perhaps that's the route Don McAuliffe should have taken when he purchased a lakeside lot and house at 3765 N. Bank Rd. on July 20, 2001, for $240,000.
The foundation had all but deteriorated. The floors and the ceilings sagged. An outmoded boiler system provided the heat. In fact, following an inspection, the home's seller, James Wilcox, had described the house as a "tear-down." Instead, McAuliffe tried to salvage the faded-yellow, split-level 2,400-square-foot home with help from his newfound friend, D.J. Faller. By all measures, it was a mistake.
Faller first approached McAuliffe in January 2002 about six months after the judge had purchased his Buckeye Lake home. Faller had heard McAuliffe wanted a building leveled to make room for a parking lot next to Smitty's, a bar/restaurant McAuliffe owned in Millersport. Faller promised he could do the job quickly and inexpensively. He delivered on both counts. “I thought he had a gift for, number one, talking, and, number two, operating the equipment," McAuliffe would later tell agents Ozbolt and Meyer.
The two hit it off almost immediately, though the pairing was extremely unlikely. "The judgeis this kind of soft-spoken, low key, mousy, nerdy kind of guy, and D.J. is this loud, obnoxious character who likes to party and be the center of attention," says Ozbolt. "Don loves it because D.J. is showing him a side of life he's never been a part of—topless bars, carrying on, carousing. And D.J. is loving it because now he's buddies with a big, powerful judge. These two knuckleheads just feed off of each other."
Barely two weeks after they met, McAuliffe loaned Faller $150,000 to buy excavating equipment and the two became business partners in a venture they called "Judge-R-Work." McAuliffe also handed Faller the reins on the renovation of his new fixer-upper on the lake. It was frustrating work. At the trial, Faller testified about ripping out the house's corroded upstairs plumbing one day, unbeknownst to McAuliffe, who came home and immediately used the second-floor bathroom. Faller realized it just in time to prevent the judge from flushing. He sent McAuliffe downstairs with a bucket, instructing him to hold it under the exposed line while Faller flushed. The bucket apparently wasn't sufficient for the job, and McAuliffe ended up wearing the result.
Given the circumstances, one can almost empathize with McAuliffe for one day musing, as Faller testified, "Wouldn't it be a shame if this house burned down?"
It would quickly become more than a musing. Within a week, McAuliffe called his Grange Insurance agent, Lou Postage,who also happened to be a councilman in and soon-to-be mayor of Pickerington, the city where McAuliffe spent two decades as the law director, to inquire about raising the coverage on his home. The coverage was raised from $124,959 to $204,368, though Postage would later testify that it was done mistakenly and that increases are not normally approved until renovation work is completed.
On the stand, McAuliffe—who denied OKing a plan to torch his house—would later explain away the insurance bump as "a unique coincidence." By McAuliffe's explanation, it was Faller who first broached the idea of setting fire to the house. He testified he was "flabbergasted” when Faller said, “You want me to burn your house down?" McAuliffe's admitted response, however, hardly exemplified dismay. “I said, 'D.J., let me think about it,' ” McAuliffe testified. He said he wanted to talk to Westminster first.
McAuliffe was at the peak of his professional career, a year into his first term on the Fairfield County Municipal Court bench, when Westminster walked into his life in the summer of 1998. A lifelong resident of Fairfield County, McAuliffe's career had been on the rise since graduating from Ohio State University and Capital University Law School. In addition to maintaining a private practice for years, McAuliffe did a stint at the Ohio attorney general's office, was an assistant Fairfield County prosecutor, served as either a prosecutor or legal adviser for the villages of Carroll, Thurston and Lithopolis and was the law director of Baltimore and Pickerington for 20 years before being appointed to fill a vacancy on the Fairfield County Municipal Court bench by then Gov. George Voinovich. When that term expired, he ran unopposed in 1999.
In June 1998, the court hired Westminster as McAuliffe's probation officer. Records indicate the two became lovers almost immediately, despite the fact they were both married. She, 39 at the time, was 14 years younger than her boss. The relationship continued off and on—mostly on—for the next four years.
Within months of being hired, Westminster began missing work excessively, blaming absences on her marital problems and a sick child. Current Fairfield County Municipal Court Judge David Trimmer, an assistant city attorney at the time, says, "She just became so doggone comfortable [as the judge's love interest] that she just stopped showing up."
In January, the court's administrative Judge Chris Martin fired Westminster seven months after hiring her. She promptly filed a wrongful-termination complaint with the state and eventually settled with the court for $12,500. Trimmer says, "McAuliffe wrote a letter justifying all of her absences. It left the city with a case that was much weaker to defend, since the plaintiff's own employer was supporting her. The city paid out."
In October of that same year, McAuliffe's wife of 33 years, Jane, filed for divorce. The bitterly contested battle dragged on for 18 months and included an allegation by Jane that McAuliffe had choked her during a confrontation in a car in 1999.
It wasn't long before McAuliffe and Westminster would have their own difficulties. One of their breakups occurred not long after Christmas 2001, and D.J. Faller may have been to blame. Westminster didn't like him one bit, and he didn't like her. "I know it's bizarre, but my theory is that Beth and D.J. were competing for Don's affection," says ATF agent Ozbolt. Both Faller and Westminster declined to be interviewed for this story.
Westminster was shocked when, according to assistant U.S. attorney Kevin Kelley, "Faller called her out of the blue one day [in February 2002] and said, 'Will you talk to Don? He really wants to see you?’ ” She agreed to see him.
"Don shows up at her door with a bottle of her favorite brandy, and they sit down and talk," Kelley says. She later told authorities McAuliffe was talking crazy, and she was concerned. "He was trying to pin her down to a day when she would come to his house and gather up some of her belongings," says Kelley, “but she wouldn't commit to a date. Finally he says, ‘Beth, you're fucking my plans. I'mntrying to burn my house down.’ ”
Kelley says Westminister and McAuliffe fought for the next two days over his plan to unburden himself of his home. “When he left that Wednesday, she felt she'd changed his mind," says Kelley: The next morning, as planned, McAuliffe drove to Pinehurst, North Carolina, on a weekend golfing trip with seven acquaintances. Before he left, Kelley says McAuliffe called Westminster and told her, "The meeting never transpired," which she said was code informing her the arson had been called off. Little did she know, as Faller would later testify, that only hours earlier Faller and McAuliffe had stomped on an exposed natural-gas line to cause a leak they hoped would eventually ignite.
Westminster and her niece drove to McAuliffe's house to gather her belongings the next day. When she got there, she found a pile of McAuliffe's stuff in the middle of the room, including family photos, a leather-bound family Bible, antiques and a grandfather clock. A note read, “Beth, here is my contribution toward furnishing our cabin. Love, Don,” referring to the small cabin he'd bought for her in the Hocking Hills. “She didn't know what to make of it," says Kelley. "She thought he might be thinking of killing himself, giving her things that he wanted her to have. She said he didn't act right, he didn't look right." She moved the items to the cabin.
"When she found out later that she'd walked into a house that could have exploded, she freaked," says Ozbolt. “She wondered if Don had tried to kill her."
The following day, however, Faller drove by McAuliffe's house. “He said even from the road he smelled so much natural gas that he was afraid the whole neighborhood would blow up," says BCI agent Meyer. “He decided to go in and shut the gas off."
Faller testified that McAuliffe, upon returning from Pinehurst, called him and asked why his house was still standing. The two of them met at the house that night, according to Faller's testimony, and they agreed to lean a halogen lamp against a wall, hoping the intense heat from the light would start a flame. McAuliffe then drove to a Port Columbus-area hotel, spent the night and boarded a plane for the Virgin Islands the next morning. Arson investigators say the lamp eventually did catch the wall on fire. However, there also was evidence that someone used an accelerant on the inside stairway, which, investigators reported, caused most of the damage. Faller denied reentering the house.
Five days later, on March 8, McAuliffe got the call he'd been waiting for. It came from a friend and neighbor, attorney Tully Rogers, who called to tell the judge his house had burned down. "Tully tells Don, 'D.J. is out here talking an awful lot about how it might have happened, saying things like, “Maybe one of Beth's kids tipped over a lamp,' " says Ozbolt.
Westminster would later tell authorities that McAuliffe promptly called her and said, “Happy birthday to me," and then told her about the fire. He'd turned 57 the day before. “She couldn't believe it," says Meyer. “She got in her car and drove to Buckeye Lake to see for herself. She said she really didn't think he'd go through with it."
On April 11, McAuliffe mailed his sworn statement and proof of loss to Grange, seeking $361,925—thus providing the basis for a mail-fraud charge. The insurance claim was denied six days later. "About this time, word comes in that SEA [the insurance company's fire investigator] was working the scene and were about to rule it an arson," says prosecutor Kelley. "Grange offers McAuliffe $220,000 and he says, ‘Done.’ He took the check, called D.J. and said, 'Tear it down.’ "
With the evidence bulldozed, McAuliffe apparently thought he was free and clear. And he may well have been if not for what Trimmer calls his "stupidity and arrogance." Over the months following the fire, McAuliffe foolishly alienated the two people who knew what he'd done.
McAuliffe lost patience with Faller's contribution to Judge-R-Work and began demanding his $150,000 back. Faller testified that McAuliffe called him a loose cannon and couldn't afford having him running around during the election. McAuliffe was up for reelection in 2003. (McAuliffe actually was the Fairfield County Republican Party's endorsed candidate in the May primary, but he was pulled from the ballot after his April indictment.)
In January, he filed a civil suit against Faller for recovery of his investment. “D.J. got hinked up, thinking things were going south," says Ozbolt. "He got scared and called his attorney [Kenneth Boggs] and unloaded. Boggs and I had worked together before and he trusted me. He calls and lays out this scenario, saying he has a client who helped a judge burn his house down. I get ahold of [assistant U.S. attorney Dave] DeVillers and tell him. He says, "Why don't we proffer him and see what he wants?’ ”
"We meet with Faller, and he lays out this wild story," says Ozbolt. “He comes across as a total BS artist. I tell Dave, ‘This sounds like bullshit to me.’ But the more we look into what he said, the more it kind of makes sense."
Neither Faller nor anyone at ATF knew BCI agent Meyer was working a similar confidential deal with Beth Westminster.
Westminster and McAuliffe patched things up briefly a few weeks after the fire, but another fight—a big one—put their relationship on the rocks again at the end of May. McAuliffe began sending letters to Westminster, demanding money he said she owed him, dropping hints that he might try and pin the fire on her.
Soon McAuliffe drove another stake into the relationship when he married a woman he'd known less than a month. McAuliffe met his soon-to-be wife at a charity event in mid June. They had boated together on Buckeye Lake a couple of times when, she later testified, McAuliffe told her, “ 'I want to live with you the rest of my life,' and I said, 'Yes! ” They were married July 5. According to her testimony, there was an argument a day after the marriage. McAuliffe "jumped up and grabbed me and shook me real hard and started hittirig me in the chest,” she said. Two days later, another fight erupted.When the movers arrived, she said, “I tell the drivers to turn the trucks around and head back to Columbus and I went home." Their divorce was finalized March 11.
By the time McAuliffe's impetuous relationship ended, however, Westminster had turned to the only person she felt she could confide in—David Trimmer, a Lancaster assistant prosecutor at the time.
"It was very weird," says Trimmer, who had been a vocal critic of McAuliffe a year earlier. In July 2001—the same month McAuliffe purchased his Buckeye Lake home—Beth Westminster's husband, Ricky, was charged with DUI, a crime for which he had three prior convictions. The arresting officer's report stated that Ricky Westminster angrily complained at the station that Judge McAuliffe was having sex with his wife. "McAuliffe did the right thing initially and recused himself,” says Trimmer. Westminster pleaded not guilty at the arraignment. “That was on a Friday," says Trimmer. "On Monday, out of the blue, Ricky Westminster shows up and says, ‘I want to plead.’ McAuliffe says, 'I can take your plea,' and sentences him to the mandatory minimum—a guy with three prior convictions. When I heard that, I immediately went to the papers and said, ‘This isn't right?’ "
When Beth Westminster called him a year later, Trimmer says, "I wasn't sure what her motives were. That first call, I think she was feeling me out to find out if I was friend or foe." He says "four or five more calls followed—calls he'd decided he'd better tape-record. She eventually told him of the fire. "It was a very difficult time for me," he says. “I was considering running against Don for his seat on the Municipal Court bench. I knew if I was running against him, and leading the complaint against him, it would look very self serving." (Last November, Trimmer won the Municipal Court seat held by Steve Jackson.)
Trimmer turned to the Fairfield County Sheriff's Office, which in turn—because of the conflict of interest involved in investigating a local judge—called BCI. Trimmer turned his tapes over to BCI deputy superintendent Schierholt and began trying to persuade Westminster to cooperate with the state agency. “After a few weeks of trying to ease her mind, we started with Beth," says Meyer. "She was incredibly nervous."
Westminster's cooperation fizzled, however. She became discouraged with BCI when the agency couldn't get a ring back from the state fire marshal's office. The ring, she said, was one exchanged with McAuliffe in a ceremonial service held during a visit to the Lizzie Borden House, now a bed-and-breakfast, in Massachusetts. “Then at some point about October or November, she gets back with Don," says Meyer. “We weren't actively talking to Beth anymore. We were exploring other things.”
One of those things was D.J. Faller, whom they found in January—already cooperating with the ATF. "Once the two agencies pooled their resources, things happened pretty quickly," says federal prosecutor Kelley.
ATF had managed to wire Faller during a settlement meeting with McAuliffe that netted what DeVillers would later call "perhaps the most damning piece of evidence we had.” Faller had pretended to have a tape of McAuliffe confessing to his role in the fire. McAuliffe admitted, “If you ever use the tape ... this is what I'm willing to do. If you want, I am willing to resign. I can still pay off the [insurance] claim and I'll take my punishment and just resign. And I'll still have plenty of money."
"We used that nugget plenty of times in the trial," says DeVillers.
Knowing, however, that a jury would question Faller's credibility, DeVillers wanted to wire Westminster, who was back with McAuliffe. “We decided it was time to confront her with the facts of life," says Ozbolt. “She removed items from McAuliffe's house before the fire. That makes her part of the conspiracy. We'd give her a chance to be part of our team or go down with him."
Meyer, whom Westminster already trusted, called her. She agreed to meet him at a McDonald's. "We got her ring back. I gave it to her. I asked her how things were. After about an hour, I told her, ‘There are other people here, they want to talk to you. They're from the federal government.’ She got up and I don't want to say ran, but walked briskly out of the restaurant. I followed her, and talked to her in the parking lot. That's when Dan [Ozbolt] walked up."
Over the course of the next two weeks, Westminster agreed to record conversations with McAuliffe. Unfortunately, the tapes were often inaudible. McAuliffe, who speaks in a low voice anyway, often was obliterated by background noise—dogs barking, hamburgers frying, a coat swishing over the microphone. In one tape, the movie “Papillon”was playing in the background. "It was frustrating," says Ozbolt. "We'd sit out there until 2 and 3 in the morning, waiting for the drop. We'd rush back to the office to hear what we got, and it would be like, 'Beth, you can take this to your grave ... khhhhrrrrr.”
In front of the jury, however, the tapes and the testimony revealed a disturbing and lurid tale, filled with foul language and inane conversation. There also were stories so peculiar, jury members couldn't help but question McAuliffe's character. In addition to the streaking, the sex and the sewage, Faller even treated members of the jury to a ghost story. Apparently McAuliffe told a handful of people he felt the house was haunted by a friendly ghost, says Ozbolt. Faller testified that after the fire, he and the judge went back inside the house. In one of the bedrooms was a rocking chair. "Everything else in the room was burned to shit except this rocking chair," says Ozbolt. “It's in pristine shape. So Don thinks the ghost must have been sitting in that chair."
Faller testified that McAuliffe decided he wanted to burn the chair—exorcise it. They removed it from the house and stored it briefly "while Don went out and found this sage or something; he said Native Americans used in their ceremonies," says Ozbolt. "They piled it around this chair down on the lot and lit it. I guess it wouldn't catch, though. D.J. says they ultimately just doused the thing in gasoline and torched it.”
In his closing argument, even McAuliffe's defense attorney, Larry Thomas, conceded that his client may have appeared "odd," though that in itself didn't make him guilty.
After deliberating seven hours, the jury found the tapes revealed guilt. "It wasn't the smoking gun, but there were eight, 10, 12 little portions that we played over and over that were damning and hard to explain away," says assistant U.S. attorney Kelley.
One of those included a conversation in which Westminster was pretending to be afraid of Faller's alleged tape, worrying aloud that she was going to go down for arson. McAuliffe replies, “If they're involving you, if there's a tape, they would know the tape said D.J. and I did this."
The last witness of the trial was McAuliffe himself. He didn't help his cause. For instance, he was asked why, if he'd told Faller not to set the house on fire, he didn't go to the police after it burned. DeVillers says McAuliffe answered, “I adopted President. Clinton's policy of 'Don't ask, don't tell.’ ”
"I assumed he'd already had nine months in a cell to prepare for cross-examination," says DeVillers. “But after the first 20 minutes of questioning, it was apparent he was going to sink himself. There wasn't much I had to do ... give him open-ended questions and let him hang himself on them."
McAuliffe now could receive the longest prison sentence ever issued to a sitting Ohio judge; Kelley says he expects federal Judge Marbley to hand down a sentence of approximately 15 years. Faller and Westminster both walked away, trading their cooperation for immunity—Westminster with total and Faller with partial.
"They were like evil Seinfeld characters who all turned on each other," says DeVillers.
This story originally appeared in the June 2004 issue of Columbus Monthly.
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