In front of a packed courtroom Tuesday morning, Judge Thomas Padrick granted a motion to discontinue prosecution for eight charges against former church deacon and businessman Richard Murray Coe, including the rape and strangulation of a preteen girl.
The case, previously set for a late October-early November trial, will no longer continue. Speaking with The Daily Progress on Wednesday, the family of the alleged victim did not detail any plans to pursue further legal action.
The 36-year-old Coe faced a total of 13 charges in the Charlottesville Juvenile and Domestic Relations Court and Charlottesville Circuit Court for a series of sex crimes against a minor, including rape, aggravated sexual battery and strangulation.
The charges were related to events alleged to have occurred between 2012 and 2016 involving a minor whose family had close contact with Coe, The Daily Progress previously reported.
Those charges were declared “nolle prosequi” Tuesday after the prosecution conceded the available statements could not be used as evidence in a trial, including what the defense called “hypnotic-induced” accusations from the alleged victim.
The commonwealth had no reason to doubt the girl’s version of events, according to the state’s motion to discontinue the prosecution filed last Thursday.
“This conclusion does not alter the Commonwealth’s belief in the credible disclosures made by the victim,” the motion said. “However, the Commonwealth must also comply with its ethical duties and not pursue a prosecution for which, at this time, the Commonwealth cannot present evidence in court to sustain any criminal conviction.”
The sole evidence for the case was a “post-hypnotic” accusation from the alleged victim, according to a statement from the defense. The minor was hypnotized at the now-closed therapeutic boarding school Greenbrier Academy for Girls, where she was held against her will for 10 months and “hypnotized,” the statement continued.
The minor attended the school "precisely" because of her experience of abuse, where she received "scientifically valid" and "personally beneficial" therapies, the minor’s family wrote to The Daily Progress in a statement on Wednesday after the hearing.
"The claim that the victim was held against her will is not only false in substance but also grotesque in effect," the family said.
After consulting experts in hypnotherapy and psychology, the commonwealth conceded that some therapies employed by Greenbrier Academy were “indistinguishable” from hypnotic practices, Nina Antony, deputy commonwealth’s attorney, said in court Tuesday morning.
Accusations that could be used as evidence in a trial would have had to be collected prior to hypnosis, according to case law on the matter.
“The issue is that the commonwealth does not have prior disclosure,” Antony said in court. “The case is what it is.”
"Given the current state of Virginia case law, we understand the commonwealth’s decision to stop prosecution in this case," the family said in its statement. "Even so, we are sickened — both for ourselves and for sexual assault victims across the state — by the tragic way that this law functionally silences the credible claims of those who most need to be heard."
After multiple meetings and conversations, the minor’s family is “well aware” of the motion to discontinue the prosecution, Antony told the court.
“This is a case that has been important in the community in many ways,” Antony said, gesturing to the packed courtroom. “[The family] understands the law and its limitations at this point, and they understand the reasons the commonwealth cannot proceed at this time.”
In response to the commonwealth’s motion, the defense said it agreed with the decision not to proceed.
"[The] Defendant has steadfastly denied any wrongdoing and maintained his innocence from the moment he was arrested," reads the response.
Coe, a former deacon at Trinity Presbyterian Church and owner of the now-closed laundromat the Mother Load in Charlottesville, was originally arrested in April 2021. Former pastor Walter Kim previously told The Daily Progress that the charges were in no way related to the church itself, a church event or Coe’s position at the church, and would have had to have occurred before he became a deacon.
“The leadership of Trinity Presbyterian Church is aware of the commonwealth attorney’s decision to drop the charges against Trey Coe,” current senior pastor Christopher Colquitt told The Daily Progress in a written statement. “This has been a heartbreaking season for our church family, and we will continue our commitment to care for the individuals and families involved in this case. We pray for all involved.”
During the hearing Tuesday morning, the judge acknowledged the unusual nature of the case, during which the trial was delayed after one of Coe’s attorneys died and the deputy commonwealth’s attorney prosecuting the case, Areshini Pather, became a judge.
“This case carries a certain degree of notoriety,” Padrick said. He complimented the counsel on both sides and granted the prosecution’s motion, effectively ending the case.
As Coe stood up to leave that morning, more than two dozen people in the courtroom followed him out the door.
"This ruling is simply one more tragic demonstration of what survivors know all too well: that the laws of this state — and of many other states — make it incredibly difficult for survivors of childhood sexual assault to be vindicated in criminal proceedings," the family said in its statement. "It is a tragedy and must be addressed."
This story has been updated to include the commonwealth’s motion to discontinue prosecution and statements from the alleged victim’s family.