Gaithersburg ‘puppetmaster’ sentenced to 37 years in jail -- Gazette.Net


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It was all a game for Gaithersburg resident Michael Eugene Donati, until Montgomery County Park police and drug detectives arrested him for witness intimidation and drug charges last year.

Donati, 58, already has spent more than a decade in prison for two rapes, three indecent exposure incidents and one conviction for perjury in Prince George's County, Fairfax and Prince William counties in Virginia and Custer County, Mont.

On Sept. 7 he was sentenced to another 37 years behind bars by Montgomery County Circuit Court Judge Marielsa A. Bernard after he was found guilty at trial in March of distribution of marijuana, two counts each of obstruction of justice, making a false statement and intimidating a witness, as well as 15 counts of email harassment, according to court documents.

Donati was arrested April 10, 2011 by county police responding to a disturbance at the Growler's Brewery and Restaurant in Old Town Gaithersburg. Donati, who had been arguing with restaurant security, was holding of a fourth of an ounce of marijuana upon his arrest and was charged with one count of possession of marijuana with the intent to distribute, which carries a maximum penalty of five years in jail.

Within 10 days of his release, Growler's staff began receiving emails with homophobic and ethnic slurs, as well as accusations that the staff was involved in the illegal drug trade, the court documents state. On April 20 of that year, Donati began sending emails to then chief of the Montgomery County Park police Darien Manley claiming several Growler's employees were growing marijuana in Seneca Creek and Black Hills parks, according to the documents.

Ultimately Donati sent dozens of emails with such claims to Manley as well as the county's Gaithersburg district police commanders and drug detectives. In several of the emails, Donati offered the police information about specifics of the supposed drug activity in exchange for charges against his "friend," Michael Donati, being dropped or $50,000, the documents state.

"In some of your emails you called yourself 'Mr. Fox' do you remember that?" Bernard asked Donati during his sentencing, recalling the accusations made against him at trial. "... You were the master manipulator. This whole operation that was put into effect, it was all done by you."

Bernard went on to accuse Donati of attempting to play off the police onto the restaurant staff who originally had him arrested, calling him a "puppetmaster.”

Donati maintained his innocence through his trial in March and announced his plan to appeal last week's sentence during a brief statement to Bernard, in which he accused Montgomery County State's Attorney Lynn Nixon and others of deleting emails sent to her office proving his innocence. Alex Foster, Donati's defense attorney, confirmed his client's intent to appeal.

"Mr. Donati is very eager to file his appeal regarding a number of errors he believes were made at trial and in his case," Foster said.

Donati was only arrested after he attempted to frame Growler's staff of drug cultivation by placing marijuana plants in front of their house and calling the police, Nixon told Bernard. Officers responding to the call pulled over a van being driven by Donati when they noticed it was driving back and forth near the house suspiciously, police said. When the Growler's staff was questioned about Donati, they said they remembered having confronted him.

Despite learning this information, Donati's emails to police continued through October 2011, culminating in Donati offering to use a trail of blue ribbons to lead detectives to drug grows in area parks. After determining Donati was using a police scanner to listen in on their transmissions, police set up a sting near his house and confiscated several ribbons in a search warrant after his arrest, the documents state.

"I guess the irony for him is, if he had simply been convicted of the possession with intent to distribute marijuana charge, he would only be facing a maximum of five years," said State's Attorney John McCarthy after hearing the sentence. "Now he's serving 37 years."

Donati has a history of violent sexual offenses and a penchant for perjury that Bernard also considered in her sentence. Donati exposed himself to two women and a 13-year-old girl in three separate indecent exposure convictions from 1979 to 1998 in Maryland and Virginia, serving a total of a year and 10 months in jail, according to his criminal history report.

Two more convictions, both for rape and weapons charges, kept Donati in jail from about 1982 until 1992 in Montana and Virginia, when he was released on parole. Donati also was charged with perjury in Fairfax in 1999 when he denied being the man shown in a video taken of him exposing himself to one of his victims, court records state.

To close out the state's evidence during his sentencing hearing, Nixon played a recording of Donati's telephone conversation with his wife from jail before his March trial. In the recording, Donati mentions several people associated with his case, including Bernard, and discusses his plans to appeal after his sentencing.

"They always listen to me," Donati said in the recording, talking about his chances on appeal. "Because they're stupid."

jarias@gazette.net