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Crime

Fatal shooting on Chamberlayne Avenue

Just after midnight (Saturday), officers were called to the 3900 block of Chamberlayne Avenue for the report of a person down.

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UPDATE 8/22/16:

Richmond Police Department detectives have identified the victim in Sunday morning’s homicide as Desmond L. Holmes, 32, of the 7900 block of Tamarind Place, Henrico.

ORIGINAL POSTED 8/20/16 RPD:

Just after midnight, officers were called to the 3900 block of Chamberlayne Avenue for the report of a person down. Officers arrived and found a male down and unresponsive in the parking lot of an apartment building.

The male had suffered an apparent gunshot wound and was pronounced dead at the scene.

The Medical Examiner will determine cause and manner of death.

Detectives have opened a death investigation for this incident and are interviewing residents of the apartment buildings in the area for details about the circumstances of this shooting.

Anyone with any information about this incident is asked to call Major Crimes Detective Amira Sleem at (804) 646-3871 or Crime Stoppers at 780-1000. Citizens can also text Crime Stoppers at 274637, using the keyword “ITip” followed by your tip or submit a tip online at www.7801000.com.

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Richard Hayes is the co-founder of RVAHub. When he isn't rounding up neighborhood news, he's likely watching soccer or chasing down the latest and greatest board game.

Crime

Editorial: Dogwood Dell: a massacre foiled or a tale too good to be true?

“The story seemed almost too good to be true. Now, a month later, a city prosecutor has given us reason to believe it’s not true.”

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By Bob Lewis

If you don’t live near Richmond and get your news from its regional media market, the last time you probably heard of a place called Dogwood Dell was a little over a month ago when Virginia’s capital city made national news for boldly claiming to have foiled a mass shooting.

The claim by Richmond’s police chief and mayor came on the heels of atrocities in Uvalde and Buffalo. Just two days earlier, a rooftop gunman indiscriminately mowed down spectators lining a Fourth of July parade route on the streets of Highland Park, Illinois.

As Chief Gerald Smith and Mayor Levar Stoney explained to a phalanx of television cameras on July 6, a tip from a “hero citizen” allowed police to apprehend two Guatemalan men illegally in the United States and foil their plot to take high-powered firearms to Dogwood Dell, a bandshell and amphitheater in a city park, and unleash hell on hundreds attending an evening Independence Day concert and fireworks display.

The story made network evening newscasts, an upbeat counterpoint to the fresh horror from suburban Chicago. Smith did cable news interviews with outlets like CNN, spreading the word. The publicity was a perfect balm for a police department whose community relations had been strained mightily by its heavy-handed response in the summer of 2020 to demonstrations along Richmond’s Monument Avenue triggered by the broad-daylight police murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis.

Stoney was forced to fire the police chief at the time, William Smith (no relation to the current chief), after officers in riot gear teargassed, maced, cursed and kicked protesters gathered peacefully at the since-razed statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee. It took the city two years, prodded by the settlement of a citizens’ lawsuit, to formally apologize for those police actions.

But this summer, in the first week of July, buoyed by national headlines of a police triumph and lives spared, the city seemed to have made notable strides toward restoring faith in its leadership.

The story seemed almost too good to be true. Now, a month later, a city prosecutor has given us reason to believe it’s not true.

Asked directly in open court by Richmond General District Court Judge David Hicks last week if there was any evidence of plans to attack Dogwood Dell on July Fourth, Assistant Commonwealth’s Attorney Clint Seal gave a clear, unequivocal and crushing response: “No.”

But that moment wasn’t the first time cracks in the city’s story had appeared. Troubling questions began surfacing as early as the upbeat July 6 press conference itself.

Why, if there was a known threat of a mass shooting, were the Dogwood Dell festivities allowed to proceed as scheduled, particularly with one of the two suspects not yet in custody?

Why was one of the suspects – at a minimum, a person illegally in the country – granted a low $15,000 bond on the same day Smith and Stoney announced his arrest? Five days later, another judge thought better of it and revoked the man’s bond, meaning both suspects are now being held without bail.

Why, if the alleged plot was so ignominious and worthy of the bold assertions unambiguously trumpeted by the city’s top officials, has neither man been charged in connection with it? Why is it not mentioned, even obliquely, in any of the charges currently pending against them? (Both are being held on federal immigration and firearms charges and facing deportation.)

And why have city government and police officials steadfastly stiff-armed persistent media requests to answer those questions and elaborate on the case?

The response from the police chief and the mayor? Double down on their claim and insist that it’s valid, the prosecutor’s contradictory statement in court under pain of perjury notwithstanding.

The basis for the chief’s belief that the two men planned specifically to shoot up Dogwood Dell? Essentially, his gut. And probability.

It came “from the experience and knowledge that your police department has and dealing with situations every day; of studying what happens in mass shootings, mass casualty incidents,” Smith said after the court proceeding in an on-camera interview with WTVR-TV in Richmond. “It comes from just your police department knowing what it’s doing.”

“It’s Richmond. Fourth of July celebration. It’s at the Dogwood Dell,” he said.

There’s no paucity of Independence Day observations in Richmond, a city with its own significant contributions to the nation’s struggle for independence. Arguably better known than Dogwood Dell is the annual fireworks display after the final out of the Richmond Flying Squirrels game at The Diamond, a minor league ballpark at the opposite terminus of Arthur Ashe Boulevard from Dogwood Dell. The city’s suburbs have their own numerous public celebrations and pyrotechnics extravaganzas.

As it turns out, we’ve been shown no more evidence for a plot targeting Dogwood Dell than we have for any other potential venue, though we’ve been implored to believe the claim absent any publicly shared substantiation beyond a conversation overheard by an earnest citizen tipster.

None of this is to suggest that these suspects don’t need to be sent away. They do.

Rolman Alberto Balcarcel had been deported twice from the United States and had returned a third time when he was arrested last month. His housemate, Julio Alvarado-Dubon, is charged with illegal possession of a firearm by a person illegally in the country. He had purchased two assault-style rifles, a handgun and multiple high-capacity ammunition magazines at a yard sale near Fredericksburg.

Richmond Commonwealth’s Attorney Colette McEachin last week asked the U.S. Department of Justice to take over prosecution of the men because they are “two illegal aliens with guns so we wanted them prosecuted at the highest level possible.” There was no reference to a mass shooting.

Did Balcarcel and Alvarado-Dubon plan to carry out a bloody assault on U.S. soil – perhaps Richmond soil? I don’t know. Clearly, they had an arsenal capable of it. The chief and the mayor say that was their intent, but nobody in authority has yet put one word of it in writing, made such a claim in a legal proceeding, or shared a shred of corroboration beyond because we say so!

We should not lose sight of the fact that law enforcement performed a great service by taking these two into custody based solely on the armaments seized and the wanton immigration violations alleged in court documents. They deserve our thanks.

The problems come not from the work officers did but from city leadership building so fantastical a narrative and announcing it so broadly yet sharing no proof to support it.

The press may not be the juggernaut it once was, but there are still a lot of journalists out there who are really good at skeptically listening to a claim, methodically vetting and finding holes in it, and asking those responsible to explain the discrepancies. When those officials can’t – or won’t – the whole thing unravels pretty fast, particularly after scenes like the one in Judge Hicks’s courtroom.

What, for a few weeks, seemed like a much-needed PR breakthrough for city leadership in general and the police in particular has instead put both on the defensive again as Smith’s and Stoney’s sensational account falters on the verge of collapse.

Chief Smith, Mayor Stoney – if you’ve got the goods that you say you do tying these two guys to a mass murder plot at Dogwood Dell (or any place else), it’s time to stop stonewalling legitimate inquiries and back your claim with some verifiable proof.

At stake is the public trust and confidence necessary to govern.

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Crime

Richmond prosecutor objects to bail decision for suspect in alleged mass shooting plot

In a petition filed Wednesday, Assistant Commonwealth’s Attorney Brooke E. Pettit asked the Richmond Circuit Court to overrule bail conditions a lower court set for 52-year-old Julio Alvardo-Dubon, one of the two men facing weapons charges in connection to the alleged shooting plan.

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Richmond prosecutors are appealing a court’s decision to grant $15,000 bail for a man police claim was involved in a plot to carry out a mass shooting in the city on the Fourth of July.

In a petition filed Wednesday, Assistant Commonwealth’s Attorney Brooke E. Pettit asked the Richmond Circuit Court to overrule bail conditions a lower court set for 52-year-old Julio Alvardo-Dubon, one of the two men facing weapons charges in connection to the alleged shooting plan.

“No amount of bond nor combination of pretrial release conditions can sufficiently ensure the safety of the community,” Pettit wrote in the appeal.

Commonwealth’s Attorney Colette McEachin did not immediately respond to a request for comment on how the suspect was granted bail this week, over prosecutors’ objections, given the gravity of the accusations against him.

Richmond police have said a tip from a “hero citizen” helped them foil the plans of Alvardo-Dubon and Rolman Balacarcel, 38. They have provided few specifics so far about why they believe the men were planning a mass shooting at a Fourth of July celebration held in Dogwood Dell, an outdoor event space in a city park.

“We do know that they were coming to do a mass shooting at the Dogwood Dell at our Fourth of July celebration,” Richmond Police Chief Gerald Smith said in an appearance on CNN Wednesday night. “We have no idea what their motive is as of yet. I don’t know if they’re really speaking to investigators at this point in time.”

The announcement has made national headlines, coming days after a mass shooting at a Fourth of July parade in Illinois that left seven people dead.

As of Thursday, the two men have only been charged with possession of a firearm by a non-citizen. Alvardo-Dubon’s arrest warrant indicates he was not “lawfully present” in the country. Local media outlets have reported both suspects are from Guatemala.

Richmond police officials seem to be presenting differing accounts about the specificity of the threat. 

Smith has said Dogwood Dell was the intended target, but WRIC, a Richmond TV station, reported an RPD spokesperson “said the tip did not specify a specific location for the threat.” The initial news release from police also did not mention a specific target.

Richmond police spokesperson Tracy Walker did not immediately respond Thursday to an emailed inquiry seeking clarification on that point.

Online jail records indicated Alvardo-Dubon remained in custody as of Thursday afternoon. His attorney declined to comment.

A bond hearing in his case has been scheduled for Monday morning, according to court records.

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Crime

New website aims to help untangle Virginia’s unsolved mysteries

The website, maintained by the State Police, is the result of a bill the General Assembly passed in 2020 at the request of Del. Danica Roem, D-Prince William, a former journalist who says she pushed for it out of a belief in “aggressive” public outreach and transparency.

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In 1982, Virginia Department of Corrections administrator Rodolfo Felix Guillen was shot to death one morning right after getting to his office in Suffolk. The shooting occurred just as other employees started to arrive at the building, but there were no signs anyone had broken in.

In 1984, off-duty Virginia State Police trooper Johnny Rush Bowman was killed after being stabbed 45 times in Prince William County, with the unknown assailant leaving behind a hardhat and a wig.

In 2003, then 20-year-old Rachel Nicole Good drove off in her Dodge Neon from a parking lot near a Shenandoah Valley laundromat, never to be seen again.

All three stories are among the dozens of unsolved murder and missing-person investigations listed in Virginia’s newly launched public database of cold cases.

The website, maintained by the State Police, is the result of a bill the General Assembly passed in 2020 at the request of Del. Danica Roem, D-Prince William, a former journalist who says she pushed for it out of a belief in “aggressive” public outreach and transparency.

“The cold case database will only work as intended if the public uses it, if the public shares it, if the public is engaged with it,” Roem said in an interview. “I am imploring people at large from all across the commonwealth and really across the country… to please give this thing a look over. See if there’s a story in your community that you know something about.”

The new site currently lists several dozen State Police cases, but it’s expected to grow once more information is gathered from local law enforcement agencies. 

The legislation creating the database passed unanimously two years ago after Roem told her colleagues the only thing it would do is potentially solve murders.

“These are people,” Roem said of the names and faces listed in the database. “People whose killers were never brought to justice, who had remains without a name attached to them, who went missing and haven’t been found. These are human beings. Let’s treat ’em like that. Let’s bump up some of these stories the public has forgotten about.”

A note on the website says cases are displayed randomly “to ensure all victims are publicized equally.” The legislation defined “cold case” as “an investigation into a homicide, missing person, or unidentified person case that has remained unsolved for at least five years.” The page for each case includes contact details showing how people who might have useful information can contact investigators.

“Because of the public accessibility of this,” Roem said, “you are quite literally empowering the public to help solve these crimes.”

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We need your help. RVAHub is a small, independent publication, and we depend on our readers to help us provide a vital community service. If you enjoy our content, would you consider a donation as small as $5? We would be immensely grateful! Interested in advertising your business, organization, or event? Get the details here.

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