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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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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

Virginia police routinely use secret GPS pings to track people’s cell phones

‘It’s as if the police tagged them with a chip under their skin’

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Scott Durvin says he faced aggressive questioning from a Chesterfield County Police detective after his friend died of a drug overdose at the end of 2019. What he didn’t know at the time was that police had also begun secretly tracking his whereabouts by ordering Verizon Wireless to regularly ping his phone’s GPS and report his location back to detectives in real time.

“That’s kind of shocking, really,” Durvin said, reached by phone at the same number police were using to follow him virtually a little more than two years ago. “The detective would call me all the time and try to get me to give them information and he would threaten to lock me up. But I didn’t have anything to do with it and he finally left me alone.”

Police never described Durvin as a suspect in the search warrant application they submitted seeking permission to track him and court records show he has not been charged with any crimes in Virginia since police took out the warrant.

Instead, officers wrote that they had found voicemails from Durvin on the overdose victim’s phone and thought tracking his location might help them figure out who supplied the deadly dose of heroin, noting that Durvin had been with the man during what appeared to be a prior overdose in Richmond.

The case offers a glimpse into a surveillance technique that’s become commonplace for police but is mostly unknown among the general public: cell phone location tracking.

Public records requests submitted to a sampling of 18 police departments around the state found officers used the technique to conduct more than 7,000 days worth of surveillance in 2020. Court records show the tracking efforts spanned cases ranging from high-profile murders to minor larcenies.

A state law passed with little notice in 2015 authorizes the surveillance as long as police first obtain a search warrant from a magistrate or judge, but in practice, the bar for judicial approval isn’t particularly high. Officers simply have to attest in an affidavit that they have probable cause that the tracking data is “relevant to a crime that is being committed or has been committed.”

The warrants are limited by law to 30 days but can be — and often are — renewed monthly by a judge.

“I don’t think people know that their cell phones can be converted to tracking devices by police with no notice,” said Steve Benjamin, a criminal defense lawyer in Richmond who said he’s recently noticed an uptick in cases in which officers employed the technique. “And the reality of modern life is everyone has their phone on them during the day and on their nightstand at night. … It’s as if the police tagged them with a chip under their skin, and people have no idea how easily this is accomplished.”

In Durvin’s case, the justification police gave for tracking him came down to a single paragraph in the search warrant application asserting officers believed it might help their case.

“It is in your affiant’s experience that users of narcotics will associate with other users and suppliers of narcotics in the drug trade,” wrote Det. G. Hopkins. “Your affiant believes the real time location data … will assist in the on-going investigation into the supplier of narcotics.”

‘We will use all lawful tools at our disposal’

Records reviewed by the Mercury suggest Chesterfield police are among the more prolific users of the technology in Virginia.

The department makes no apologies for its embrace of phone tracking. “We exist to preserve human life and protect the vulnerable, and we will use all lawful tools at our disposal to do so,” Chesterfield County Police Spokeswoman Elizabeth Caroon said in a statement.

To assess how widely police in Virginia employ cellphone tracking, the Mercury submitted Freedom of Information Act requests to police departments around the state seeking billing records from telephone companies, which charge police departments daily or monthly fees to report their customers’ location to officers.

We found:

• At least nine of the 18 police departments sampled track cell phones, but how frequently varied considerably by department. At the high end, Chesterfield accounted for 4,500 days of tracking and 346 warrants, while Norfolk Police, at the low end, reported 63 days of tracking across six warrants.

• Two departments indicated they had relevant invoices but requested hundreds of dollars to provide the records to the Mercury: Loudoun County estimated it would cost $361 to fulfill the request. Alexandria requested $1,360 and ignored emails seeking an explanation for the high price tag.

• The remaining seven departments responded that they did not have any relevant billing records, indicating they don’t use the technique.

• Only one of the departments surveyed, Alexandria, indicated it had an internal policy governing how their officers use cellphone tracking, but a copy of the document provided by the city was entirely redacted.

To understand what kinds of cases police are using the technology to investigate, the Mercury also reviewed all unsealed search warrant applications filed in 2020 in the city of Richmond and Chesterfield County. The documents, which are presented to magistrates or circuit court judges to justify and obtain permission to conduct the surveillance, describe the crimes under investigation and the basic facts of the individual cases.

Drug investigations accounted for more than 60 percent of the search warrants taken out in the two jurisdictions. Larcenies were the second most frequent category. Major crimes like murders, rapes and abductions made up a fraction of the tracking requests, accounting for just under 25 of the nearly 400 warrants filed in the jurisdictions that year.

Phone companies charge police to surveille customers

Real-time location warrants in Virginia are addressed to telephone companies, ordering them to regularly ping a customers’ phone for its GPS location and share the results with police. All four major telecoms charge varying rates to surveille their customers on behalf of law enforcement.

T-Mobile charged $30 per day, which comes to $900 per month of tracking.

AT&T charged a monthly service fee of $100 and an additional $25 per day the service is utilized, which comes to $850 per 30 days of tracking, according to bills reviewed by the Mercury.

Verizon calls the service “periodic location updates,” charging $5 per day on top of a monthly service fee of $100, which comes to $200 per 30 days of tracking.

Sprint offered the cheapest prices to report locations back to law enforcement, charging a flat fee of $100 per month.

In Richmond, Maj. Ronnie Armstead said in an interview the department leaves it to individual detectives to determine when and how to use cell phone tracking. And he said officers don’t distinguish between major and minor cases — they just want to solve crimes: “These detectives do a thorough investigation,” he said. “They don’t care what size fish you are.”

In practice, that means officers used the technique in high-stakes drug investigations as well as more run-of-the-mill investigations.

Court records show police used phone tracking extensively in the investigation that led to the arrest of Nikike Tyler, who authorities allege led a regional drug ring that imported and distributed large quantities of heroin, cocaine and marijuana. Search warrants filed by a regional drug task force in Richmond indicate officers tracked Tyler’s cell phone for more than a year, updating warrants as he regularly changed cell phone numbers, according to affidavits on file.

Records show police also turned to location tracking when a former employee of a Mexican food restaurant in downtown Richmond, Café Ole, was accused by an ex-girlfriend of stealing $200 from the register. According to the warrant on file, a Richmond officer received permission to track the man’s location for 30 days after a visit to his mother’s house in Goochland failed to turn him up.

Sometimes, police sought the warrants even in cases where officers weren’t sure who exactly they were tracking.

In one Chesterfield search warrant application, an officer wrote in their affidavit that an unnamed person he described as “a reliable confidential source” had given him the phone number for an alleged drug dealer named “Weedy” who his source had heard was coming to the Richmond area to sell heroin. A magistrate approved the warrant based on the officer’s justification that “real time location data collected during this investigation will assist in identifying ‘Weedy,’ potential co-conspirators and locations utilized for conducting drug transactions.”

‘I feel like my privacy was violated‘

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that warrantless cellphone tracking is unconstitutional back in 2012. Since then, there’s been limited public discussion or awareness of the kinds of tracking warrants the judiciary is approving.

When Virginia passed a law three years later setting out the warrant requirement in state code, it drew almost no notice in the General Assembly, passing unanimously on every vote. The bill’s patron, then-Del. Manoli Loupassi, a Richmond lawyer, said he had little recollection of the legislation and was surprised to hear how often police now use the statute to enable cell phone tracking.

“I think the original intent was to capture and ferret out extremely serious criminality,” Loupassi said. “Not just nothing cases. And this is one of the millions of examples of how the road to hell can be paved with good intentions.”

Police officials, meanwhile, argue it only makes sense to take advantage of technological advances. Dana Schrad, the executive director of the Virginia Association of Chiefs of Police, said departments often don’t have the resources to conduct physical surveillance. And even if they did, she said cell phone tracking is safer.

“It may be considered an intrusive way of gathering data on someone, but it’s certainly less dangerous than physical tracking,” she said.

Back in Chesterfield, police officials described their use of cell phone tracking as part of an effort to proactively investigate drug crimes, suggesting the effort had helped keep the number of fatal overdoses from rising in the county.

“We believe our continued robust enforcement efforts are part of why the numbers haven’t increased further in Chesterfield,” Caroon, the department’s spokeswoman, said.

Meanwhile, Durvin, who Chesterfield police tracked in the 2020 overdose investigation, counts himself among those who considers the technique intrusive. “It’s kind of f**ked up,” he said. “I feel like my privacy was violated. And who’s to say they ain’t still doing it?”

By the numbers

Use of real time location tracking varies significantly by police department, according to billing records and search warrants reviewed by the Mercury.

Chesterfield County Police: Conducted more than 4,500 days of cell phone location surveillance and obtained 346 real-time location search warrants in 2020, according to billing and court records.

Arlington County: Conducted an unknown number of days of surveillance across an unknown number of warrants, but provided purchase orders for GPS location surveillance totaling $86,000, which is the second highest amount reported of localities surveyed.

Hanover County Sheriff’s Office: Conducted 1,407 days of surveillance and obtained at least 71 real-time location search warrants.

Virginia Beach Police Department: 840 days of surveillance across at least 51 real time location warrants.

Fairfax County Police Department: An unknown number of days of surveillance across 56 real time location warrants.

Richmond City Police: Conducted an unknown number of days of surveillance across at least 31 real time location warrants.

Spotsylvania County Sheriff’s Office: 254 days of surveillance across at least 25 warrants.

Prince William Police Department: 76 days of surveillance across at least 4 warrants.

Norfolk Police Department: 63 days of surveillance across at least four warrants.

Two additional departments indicated that they utilize real-time location warrants but requested high fees to provide records documenting the surveillance: Alexandria Police Department and Loudoun County Sheriff’s Department. (Fairfax Police requested more than $550 to provide the invoices requested but voluntarily reported that they took out 56 of the warrants in 2020.)

The following departments either indicated through their responses to the Mercury that they do not use real time location warrants or a review of court records turned up no real-time warrants: Chesapeake Police Department, Hampton Police Department, King William County Sheriff’s Office, Portsmouth Police Department, Roanoke County Sheriff’s Department, Roanoke City Police Department, Stafford County Sheriff’s Department.

All figures are for invoices received in 2020 except in the case of Hanover, which provided figures for 2021.

The days of surveillance by Chesterfield County Police are partially estimated because the department was the only one to redact dates of surveillance on its invoices and one wireless carrier, Sprint, charges a flat monthly fee, making it impossible to calculate the number of days tracked based on invoice totals. However, the figure most likely represents an undercount because the department provided no receipts from Verizon despite filing warrants requesting tracking from the company.

Richmond Police Department was the only department that provided no response to a FOIA request for billing records and figures are based on a review of court records.

Virginia Mercury news intern Jackie Llanos Hernandez contributed to this report.

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