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Grief-stricken family mourns toddler killed by gunfire as questions remain about carjacking suspect

A Richmond man charged in a carjacking that police believe might be linked to Saturday’s shooting death of a toddler was supposed to be on home electronic monitoring while awaiting trial for a separate carjacking case, sources confirmed Tuesday.

The suspect, Antonio L. Harris, 21, was arrested Sunday and charged in Friday night’s armed carjacking of a Lyft driver in South Richmond — one of several incidents that authorities believe could be connected to Saturday’s death of 3-year-old Sharmar Hill Jr., who was shot while playing outside his home in Hillside Court.

As the police investigation continued to press ahead, Sharmar’s parents mourned the little boy who loved pretending to be Spider-Man, Catboy and other super heroes. Sharmar was supposed to go roller skating later on the day he was killed, and his father had just bought him a Spider-Man costume and was planning to bring him batteries for a toy truck.

“A nightmare — the worst thing you could probably ever imagine,” Sharmar Hill Sr. said on Tuesday, speaking softly as he sat with his son’s mother and two of his sisters in the child’s home in South Richmond. “I can’t even explain.”

In November, Harris was arrested and charged with carjacking and eluding police in connection with an incident on Nov. 20. Two weeks after his arrest, on Dec. 5, Harris was granted bond and he was placed on home electronic monitoring. A trial for those charges is set for June 17.

Harris, of the 1300 block of Evergreen Avenue in South Richmond, now is a suspect in a total of three carjackings in the city in less than three months, according to a law enforcement source. That includes the Nov. 20 case and Friday’s incident involving the Lyft driver, along with a third incident on Jan. 24. He has not been charged in the Jan. 24 case, the source said.

Tom Barbour, the attorney representing Harris in the November carjacking, said he could not discuss details of the case because a trial is pending, and officials with the Richmond Commonwealth’s Attorney’s Office could not be reached Tuesday to answer questions about the terms of the defendant’s bond.

Richmond Sheriff Antionette Irving said Tuesday night that the home electronic monitoring of Harris was managed by Adult Pretrial Services, a division of the Richmond Department of Justice Services. The website for Pretrial Services says that home electronic monitoring is “a highly restrictive form of supervision in lieu of jail confinement” that has a 24-hour surveillance capability.

Efforts to reach an official with the Department of Justice Services on Tuesday night were unsuccessful.

Harris appeared by video for an initial court hearing Tuesday for the most recent charges and was held in jail without bond. He had an attorney appointed and a court date set for March 5.

In addition to the two carjacking cases he faces, Harris also is charged with a misdemeanor alleging that he damaged a door belonging to a woman in July 2018.

According to a criminal complaint, the woman alleged that Harris kicked in her door, broke her grill and told her he was going to shoot her and her daughter and set her apartment on fire.

In 2016, Harris pleaded guilty to possession of heroin and was ordered to serve six months in jail, according to court records. In 2015, he pleaded no contest to possession of a sawed-off shotgun and underage possession of a firearm, and he was sentenced to serve one year behind bars.

Meanwhile, the authorities are continuing to investigate a number of incidents they think could be connected to Sharmar’s death.

On Tuesday, the police executed a search warrant for the 2018 white Kia Soul that was stolen from the Lyft driver. Investigators collected DNA evidence, three 9 mm cartridge casings and three .40-caliber casings, along with other items, according to an inventory of the search filed in Richmond Circuit Court.

On Friday, just before 10 p.m., officers were called to the 2400 block of Columbia Street for a reported robbery and carjacking. The area off Bellemeade Road is less than 2 miles south of Hillside Court.

A woman driving for Lyft told police that she picked up two male passengers and that during the ride, one of them displayed a handgun while the other went through her pockets, according to an affidavit for the search warrant. She fled on foot after she was robbed of personal items in the 2600 block of Berwyn Street, and the two males drove away in her white Kia.

A white car was seen speeding away from the area after Sharmar was shot in the 1700 block of Southlawn Avenue. Police were summoned at 4:09 p.m. for reports of random gunfire in the area and found the wounded boy. He was taken to a hospital where he later died.

Police said in a statement Monday that they had responded to the 1600 block of Rosecrest Avenue — just around the corner from where Sharmar was shot — three times late Friday and early Saturday for reports of random gunfire.

No injuries were reported from the earlier shooting reports, but police said a vehicle and doorway were damaged in Hillside Court, which is off Commerce Road in South Side.

During Tuesday’s interview with reporters at Hillside Court, Sharmar Hill Sr. said a lot of the problems in the neighborhood are caused by people who don’t live there and come there to cause trouble or hide out.

“There are some beautiful, wonderful people in this neighborhood no matter what people say about the projects,” he said.

But because of the violence and his son’s death, the boy’s mother, Shaniqua Allen, wants to move from Hillside somewhere else and is hoping the Richmond Redevelopment and Housing Authority will help.

An RRHA spokeswoman, Angela Fountain, said that the agency’s public safety director is working with other law enforcement agencies, including the Richmond Police Department, “to address all the issues that are prevalent in our housing communities.”

United Communities Against Crime is holding a prayer vigil for the family on Saturday at 3 p.m. near the scene of the fatal shooting in the 1700 block of Southlawn Avenue. The family is asking attendees to bring blue, green and red balloons to be released in the air. The colors represent some of Sharmar Jr.’s favorite cartoon characters.

On Monday, a home-going celebration will be held at 12:30 p.m. at New Life Deliverance Tabernacle, 900 Decatur St. in South Richmond. Pastor Robert Winfree will give the eulogy.

UPDATE: Richmond backs more competition as House panel advances casino bill

Richmond changed the rules of the game for casino legislation that a House of Delegates subcommittee endorsed on Tuesday night.

Instead of two potential competitors for a lucrative casino license in the city — the Pamunkey Indian Tribe and Colonial Downs Group — the House General Laws subcommittee opened the door for more competition in the city and more participation by black investors in any gaming operation. It then endorsed the amended bill on a 6-1 vote.

Mayor Levar Stoney and Richmond City Council publicly supported a competitive process for the city to choose a casino operator, as three cities already have done and a fourth, Danville, is considering seven bidders.

“The mayor supports competition — that’s the way to get the best deal for the city of Richmond,” Stoney’s chief of staff, Lincoln Saunders, said in an interview shortly before asking the subcommittee to change a privately negotiated compromise that would have given the city just two choices.

Del. Jeff Bourne, D-Richmond, complained that the city had been left out of negotiations over the substitute bill that “as presented, handcuffed Richmond.”

The changes, proposed by Del. Schuyler VanValkenburg, D-Henrico, left the Pamunkey tribe and Colonial Downs with only an assurance that Richmond would give “substantial and preferential consideration” to the only Virginia tribe with federal gaming rights and the operator of the Rosie’s Gaming Emporium in the city’s South Side.

Colonial Downs

It came at the end of a marathon day of action that began with a Senate subcommittee removing provisions in the compromise that would have given Colonial Downs an additional 2,500 historical horse racing machines at its Rosie’s locations, including up to 1,800 in Dumfries, a Northern Virginia town that approved the gaming operation in a voter referendum in November.

The House of Delegates also advanced legislation that would ban so-called electronic “skill” games that have proliferated across the state without regulation, licensing or taxation. And a House Appropriations subcommittee approved legislation to allow the Virginia Lottery to sell its tickets over the internet and regulate a legalized sports betting business.

Del. David Bulova, D-Fairfax, chairman of the House General Laws Committee that will consider the casino legislation on Thursday, urged the House to endorse his proposed ban on skill games to allow the General Assembly to set policy for expanded gaming opportunities in the state.

“When you think about the future of Virginia, do you really want mini-casinos on every street corner and in every bar in Virginia?” he asked.

Skill game manufacturers claim their product is legal because players rely on skill rather than chance to win, but Bulova’s legislation, House Bill 881, would ban them entirely. The bill is scheduled for final House action on Wednesday. A Senate committee is considering bills to ban the machines, regulate and tax them, or open the state to all slot machines.

Casino gambling

Tuesday’s main action was the long-awaited debate over legalizing casino gambling after a detailed report by the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission last year. In the end, gaming panels in both chambers endorsed a compromise that looked less like the JLARC findings, which recommended a state-run system for vetting and choosing casino sites, than legislation adopted a year ago that preliminarily designated Richmond and four other cities as potential sites.

“I believe in choice,” Sen. Louise Lucas, D-Portsmouth, told the House subcommittee. “Let each locality choose the project that is the right fit for them.”

Of the five cities, Norfolk already has an agreement to develop a $700 million casino resort with the Pamunkeys along the Elizabeth River. Portsmouth has chosen a site and a company to operate a casino there. Bristol has chosen a site and operator, despite a bid by a rival developer to build a casino resort outside the city limits in Washington County with the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians tribe.

Danville is the only one of the five cities to engage in a request for proposals, which Sen. Jeremy McPike, D-Prince William, complimented for its transparency compared with the others.

That left only Richmond, which could have chosen only between the Pamunkeys because of their ancestral claim and Colonial Downs because of its $300 million investment in four Rosie’s gaming parlors and a reopened horse track in New Kent County.

Colonial Downs and its supporters warned the Senate subcommittee on Tuesday morning about its decision to remove the provisions in Senate Bill 36, sponsored by Lucas, to compensate the company for an estimated 45% loss in revenues from competition by casinos in the five cities.

“You are damaging horse racing,” Colonial Downs lobbyist Myles Louria said.

The five cities — Richmond, Norfolk, Portsmouth, Danville and Bristol — are defined by demographic and economic status, such as poverty and employment rates, population loss, and amount of untaxed government-owned land. Each would have to hold a referendum on a casino operator on Nov. 3 before the lottery would begin the process of licensing them under the bill.

Gov. Ralph Northam has not taken a position on any gaming bill, but spokeswoman Alena Yarmosky said Tuesday that the governor believes “if we are going to expand gaming we must do so responsibly, and with full awareness of any unintended consequences.”

Specifically, Northam wants any gaming legislation to: “acknowledge and address gambling addiction”; ensure that “historically marginalized communities ... can participate fully and fairly in this potential economic development opportunity”; and protect public school funding provided by the Virginia Lottery, Yarmosky said.

Minority investment

Race emerged as a volatile issue in both subcommittee meetings. House Appropriations Chairman Luke Torian, D-Prince William, an African American minister, confronted the issue directly on Tuesday night.

“Any black folks going to have a chance on this?” Torian asked bluntly.

“It seems every time we put in a major project, folks who look like me get left out of where the real money is,” he said.

The House subcommittee amended House Bill 4, proposed by Del. Barry Knight, R-Virginia Beach, to require cities to consider minority investment in gaming partnerships that would operate in heavily African American communities.

One minority-owned company, Urban One Inc., expressed interest in competing for a license in Richmond, where it owns a number of radio stations targeted to African American listeners.

“We’d like to build a big tent to bring other people along with us,” said CEO Alfred Liggins. He said the company already has a $40 million, 7% stake in MGM National Harbor casino resort in Maryland.

Pamunkey Chief Robert Gray objected strongly in an interview to suggestions that a casino the tribe has proposed in South Richmond would not include minority investment and participation.

The tribe has proposed a $350 million casino resort in South Richmond that it said it could develop under a state commercial gaming license or through its federal gaming rights under the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act.

“This notion that the Pamunkey Tribe’s project in Richmond is leaving behind traditionally disadvantaged communities makes no sense to me and is, frankly, offensive,” Gray said. “We are people of color and Virginia’s first marginalized racial community.”

“I want to be clear that we are providing opportunities to all Virginians, with a strong interest in helping all minority communities,” Gray added.

Colonial Downs has an established interest in Richmond because of the Rosie’s Gaming Emporium it opened last year on Midlothian Turnpike, with 700 historical horse-racing machines allowed under legislation the state approved two years ago.

The company wants protection from casino competition through a proposal that would have allowed it to add 600 historical horse-racing machines for each casino license issued by the state, with a maximum 2,500 additional machines. Currently, the company is limited to 3,000 machines statewide, with no more than 700 in any location, and operates 2,150 collectively in Richmond, New Kent, Hampton and Roanoke County.

1,800 machines

Northern Virginia senators reacted strongly to a provision that would have allowed Colonial Downs to add up to 1,800 machines at a Rosie’s it proposes to build in Dumfries, a town in southern Prince William County that would give the company a foothold in the state’s most potentially lucrative gaming market.

“You would super-size slot machines in Northern Virginia,” said McPike, the subcommittee chairman.

Torian, who lives in Dumfries, said later that he was sorry McPike hadn’t talked to him before striking the provision from the bill. He said the town’s mayor supports the project and “I don’t stand opposed to it.”

Lucas also objected to any attempt to change the terms of the compromise for any of the five designated cities.

“These five localities are welded together at the hip,” she said. “We will not be separated.”

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VCU Health shares details of plans that rely on Navy Hill project City Council is poised to reject

VCU Health released details on an expansion that would be part of the larger Navy Hill project on Tuesday, a day after the Richmond City Council took two steps signaling majority opposition to the project.

VCU Health said the plan — including offices for medical school faculty, retail shopping and dining, 1,500 parking spaces, and housing for the families of sick patients in need — is dependent on the $1.5 billion Navy Hill downtown redevelopment project.

Details of the health system’s plan were released less than 24 hours before VCU Health officials were scheduled to appear in court over their refusal to give related information to a group that asked for it in a Freedom of Information Act request filed in December.

City Councilwomen Kim Gray of the 2nd District and Reva Trammell of the 8th District said the added details won’t change their opposition to the Navy Hill project.

“I don’t care if they say the queen of England is coming down here to live, it isn’t going to change my mind,” Trammell said.

Melinda Hancock, chief administrative and financial officer for VCU Health System, said that the complex — which has been in the works for more than 1½ years but only made public Tuesday — would not move forward “without the full cooperation of the City Council and the mayor’s office.”

The Navy Hill proposal calls for a 17,500-seat arena that would replace the Richmond Coliseum; more than 2,000 apartments and condominiums; a high-rise hotel; 1 million square feet of commercial and office space; 260,000 square feet of retail and restaurant space; renovation of the historic Blues Armory; a new transfer plaza for GRTC Transit System bus riders; and infrastructure improvements.

It hinges on a special tax district that would use new tax revenues to pay down debt on the new arena.

VCU Health’s proposed complex would be built on the block between Ninth and 10th streets from Leigh to Clay streets where the Richmond Public Services building was previously located.

The complex would include 250 office spaces; replacement facilities for The Doorways, a nonprofit organization that provides housing for hospital patients and their families; a new Ronald McDonald House, which provides housing for the families of children in the hospital; child care; a pharmacy; shopping; dining; and 1,500 parking spaces, according to a VCU Health news release.

The land, which is currently owned by the city, would be sold to a private developer and leased by VCU, making the property taxable, the news release said.

“VCU and VCU Health System continue to strongly support redevelopment of the Navy Hill area that is critically important, especially with the current construction of the new children’s inpatient hospital and the adult outpatient pavilion,” Hancock said in the release. “Bringing together this partnership of VCU Health, The Doorways and [Ronald McDonald House Charities] Richmond enables us to leverage our resources and our missions to better serve patients and families from the Richmond area and beyond.”

The nonprofit collaborative news site MuckRock filed a FOIA request for any letter of intent or memorandum of understanding between VCU and NH District Corp., the development group led by Dominion Energy CEO Thomas F. Farrell II. VCU rejected the request until Tuesday, after it had made the details of its plan public and before a scheduled court hearing on Wednesday about whether it would have to hand over the documents.

Charlie Schmidt, who appealed VCU’s rejection, said the release of the letter on Tuesday means he will drop the case, but he’s disappointed it took this long. He is a board member for Richmond For All — the main group advocating against the Navy Hill project — and a VCU adjunct professor.

“I would have appreciated the details a long time ago,” Schmidt said. “This secrecy and operating behind the scenes is what’s been driving a lot of opposition to it in the first place.”

Stacy Brinkley, president and CEO of The Doorways, said the current facility, which is a couple of blocks from VCU Hospital, is at capacity and frequently has to turn away patients and families hoping to stay there.

Kerry Blumberg, executive director of the Richmond Ronald McDonald House, which is located in the Fan District, said the organization has been searching for an opportunity to expand to facilities within a mile of VCU Health’s campus for more than four years.

“Over the last four decades, Ronald McDonald House Charities of Richmond has provided comfort, support and resources for families with ill or injured children receiving medical treatment at area hospitals and medical facilities,” Blumberg said in a statement. “However, the needs of pediatric patient families in our region have grown to seven times the capacity of our current Ronald McDonald House.”

Hancock said the Navy Hill/VCU Health complex is urgently needed and that the health system made the announcement Tuesday because “there’s no need to not talk about it right now.”

The Richmond City Council will vote Monday on whether to strike consideration of the Navy Hill project from the agenda, essentially killing the proposal — and VCU Health System’s planned development along with it.

The council has also asked Mayor Levar Stoney to scrap the Navy Hill proposal and begin working toward a new plan for redeveloping the area.

Richmond region sees 10% increase in homeless population

A young man bundled up on a bench on East Broad Street.

A middle-age woman tucked in a sleeping bag outside of a church in the Fan.

Dozens sleeping in the city’s emergency shelter, and still more outside it in tents.

These and others were recorded in the biannual census of the Richmond region’s homeless population, conducted late last month. Preliminary data shows the number of people in the region who stay in shelters or sleep outside climbed for the first time since 2011.

The number jumped from 497 people in January 2019 to 549 last month. The 10% increase is an outlier for a region that has cut the number of people who are experiencing homelessness in half since 2009. That year, 1,150 people were recorded.

“The focus on serving households with more complex needs and higher barriers to housing is the primary driver of this increase,” said Kelly King Horne, executive director of Homeward, which coordinates the region’s homeless services.

In 2018, the region’s network of homeless service providers began targeting its efforts to people who had been living outside the longest, King Horne said. The aim is to get people into permanent housing while addressing other factors that sometimes accompany, or lead to, homelessness, like substance abuse or mental health issues.

The census, known as the point-in-time count, is federally mandated in the winter. Richmond’s network of providers also conducts a summer count on an annual basis. The results help determine the amount of money the region will receive from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to combat homelessness.

This year, Richmond received $4.5 million. Most of it went to a permanent supportive housing program, which targets people with long histories of homelessness or disabilities.

Participating in her 27th count, King Horne joined Taylor Garrett, an outreach worker from The Daily Planet, at 3:30 on a Thursday morning.

Theirs was one of several teams that fanned out across the city to check known spots where people sleep outside. Teams also canvassed Chesterfield, Henrico, Hanover, Goochland, Powhatan, New Kent and Charles City counties.

Cruising the deserted city streets, King Horne and Garrett scanned alleys, doorways and construction sites. When they spotted someone sleeping outdoors, they pulled over, attempted to wake the person and asked whether they would participate in a short survey.

The questions are meant to capture a snapshot of the person’s situation: When was the last time you were permanently housed? What caused you to lose housing? Do you have an ID? A disability? Children?

The approach typically has a high acceptance rate. It can nudge people toward help that they may not have known about in the past, King Horne said. It also gives the nonprofits valuable data to gauge whether existing services and funding are addressing the most critical needs.

One woman who agreed to take the survey shared that she did not have Medicaid. Garrett gave her contact information to the woman and told her she could help her apply. Before leaving, Garrett also gave the woman a bag that included toiletries, bus passes and hand warmers.

Some are unwilling to talk. A man sleeping on a loading dock in Scott’s Addition declined to speak with Garrett. Unless someone agrees to take the voluntary survey, they aren’t counted in the census.

The count took place on Jan. 23, one of the coldest nights of the winter so far. A person who stayed in a hotel room or with relatives for relief from temperatures in the mid-20s could have been missed. However, King Horne said the likelihood that group would drastically change the count is low.

“We certainly miss people, but I think we have a sense from providers and law enforcement that we’re not missing dozens of people.”

All told, 331 people at privately run shelters, 130 people sleeping outside and 88 people in Richmond’s cold weather overflow shelter were counted. Of those, 70 were children.