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House panel backs assault weapons ban. Then police clear the room.

A House of Delegates committee on Friday backed the most controversial bill of Virginia Democrats’ gun control package, a vote that led to gun rights supporters being escorted out of a committee room.

The House Public Safety Committee voted 12-9 to send a revised version of an assault weapons ban proposed by Del. Mark Levine, D-Alexandria, to the full House of Delegates. The House will have to act on the measure, House Bill 961, by Tuesday — the deadline for the Senate and House to vote on their own bills so approved measures can cross over to the other chamber.

“These assault weapon laws have been shown consistently to reduce mass murder,” Levine said of the measure, which is one of the eight gun control bills that Gov. Ralph Northam backs. “We’re not banning guns … but we will reduce the incidents of mass murder and we will reduce, in particular, the fatalities from mass murder.”

The original version of the bill called for people who already own an assault weapon to register it with state police. The amended version of the bill gets rid of that requirement.

The substitute bans high-capacity magazines that hold more than 12 rounds while also outlawing bump stocks. The shooters in the Virginia Tech and Virginia Beach mass shootings each used high-capacity magazines.

Secretary of Public Safety Brian Moran said that assault weapons “are not protected by the Second Amendment” and that the court system will uphold the legislation. A federal assault weapons ban was in place from 1994 until 2004.

“You just need to pass it,” he said.

The committee, in its final meeting before crossover, agreed, advancing the bill on a party-line vote.

The endorsement came during a tense early morning meeting at which gun rights proponents — many of whom came to Richmond on Jan. 20 for a rally that drew an estimated 22,000 people — said the bill would infringe on their Second Amendment rights.

“They’re not listening to massive numbers of people saying, ‘No, you’re not going to violate my constitutional rights,’ ” Philip Van Cleave, the president of the Virginia Citizens Defense League, said in an interview.

Immediately after the vote, gun rights supporters, who wore VCDL’s “Guns Save Lives” stickers, started yelling at committee members, saying things such as: “We will not comply.”

The crowd, which filled the House Committee Room in the Pocahontas Building and had overflow supporters in the hallways, was then forced to leave the room under threat from Capitol Police that people who did not leave would be arrested. (In the opening days of the session last month, Democrats approved a prohibition against carrying firearms either concealed or openly into the state Capitol and the Pocahontas Building. Members of the public must now go through metal detectors.)

Del. Patrick Hope, D-Arlington, the committee’s chairman, stood behind the decision to have Capitol Police clear the room.

“I just thought just for the safety of the committee, safety of the public, safety of the staff that have to be here, we made the best decision,” he said in an interview after the meeting.

The meeting continued after the incident, with only committee members, police and media present.

The proposed ban on assault weapons is the only bill of the Northam-backed package that hasn’t yet cleared the House of Delegates.

Even with the changed version of the bill, which Levine described as a compromise so current assault weapon owners can keep their guns without registration, supporters of the bill say it will save lives.

“These guns were never, ever designed for civilian use,” said Del. Jeff Bourne, D-Richmond. “They are military assault rifles designed to kill as many people as possible.”

Opponents say it infringes on the Second Amendment.

“We have a right to protect ourselves,” said Del. Tommy Wright, R-Lunenburg.

NRA spokeswoman Catherine Mortensen called the proposed ban “egregious.”

If the House approves the bill, it will go to the Senate, which does not have its own bill to ban assault weapons.

Senate Majority Leader Dick Saslaw, D-Fairfax, had proposed an assault weapons ban, a measure that did not include a “grandfather” provision for current owners of weapons deemed assault weapons. That prompted concerns from gun rights supporters about confiscation. Saslaw withdrew his bill the first week of the session.

Hope, chairman of the House Public Safety Committee, said he’s optimistic about the bill’s future if it gets to the Senate.

“We want to do something about this. Our House members feel very strongly about leading in this area,” Hope said. “It’s a strong bill, and I think the Senate will be supportive.”

Also Friday, the committee voted to remove the option for people trying to get a concealed handgun permit to demonstrate their competence by completing an online test. The Senate has already approved that measure.

'It was a mess out here': Storm damages Shockoe Valley homeless encampment

Heavy rain overnight Thursday and high winds Friday damaged tents, soaked belongings and left the homeless living at an encampment in Shockoe Valley picking up the pieces.

Several tents partially collapsed, leaving the people huddled inside, their bedding and other possessions unsheltered from the downpour. Ankle-deep puddles formed on the rain-soaked plot where the 91 tents are clustered. Many flooded.

“It was a mess out here,” said Rhonda Sneed, a volunteer who has led outreach efforts with her faith-based charitable group Blessing Warriors RVA. First responders took five people from the site to the hospital, Sneed said.

With conditions deteriorating and rain forecast through the night Thursday, Sneed said she had pleaded with an adviser to Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney to open the city-owned emergency shelter next to the encampment on Oliver Hill Way. The shelter was not scheduled to open because temperatures were not forecast to drop to 40 degrees or lower, a bar set by City Council ordinance.

Not long after, Sneed said, staff members came and unlocked the doors.

Reggie Gordon, the city’s deputy chief administrative officer for human services, said a state of emergency Gov. Ralph Northam declared for flooding prompted the decision to open the shelter. The encampment is located in a flood plain.

About 40 people went into the shelter overnight, Gordon said. Dozens of others stayed in their tents. To Gordon, that demonstrated the complexity of the situation.

“I think this is a more complicated issue than just coming inside,” Gordon said. “Even on a night like last night, we were open to come in from the rain and a lot of people didn’t do that.”

Some people who slept in the tents overnight said they didn’t want to leave and risk getting wet. The shelter did not open until about 9 p.m.

“By that point, it kind of defeated the purpose,” said Bessie Fentress, a 68-year-old homeless woman who lives at the encampment. She said she stayed dry in her tent.

Sneed and other volunteers cleaning up the site Friday said they were barred from bringing dry clothes to drenched people who chose to go inside. That frustrated Sneed, but she said she was thankful the city opened the doors. The night before brought rain and even colder temperatures; the shelter remained locked.

Asked why, Gordon cited the council ordinance governing shelter use that he said tied the administration’s hands. He deferred questions to the council about whether the ordinance should be amended. Councilwoman Ellen Robertson, who represents the area, did not return a call on the matter Friday.

Robertson convened a meeting at the shelter on Wednesday that grew emotional. She and other city officials wanted to discuss a strategic plan aimed at ending homelessness by 2030. The people living in the tents and advocates for the homeless demanded immediate assurances the encampment would not be removed without first providing shelter for all who are living there.

The city asked Sneed to take the tents down at the end of December. No trespassing signs bearing city insignia were posted at the encampment last month.

City officials and Virginia Commonwealth University, which owns the property the encampment is on, privately discussed clearing out the encampment. They have since changed course, saying they will work to connect the people living in the tents with existing services and shelter.

The region’s homeless population grew this year for the first time since 2011, according to a biannual census conducted last month. The number of people who are sleeping in shelter beds or outside rose from 497 last year to 549, a 10% jump.

People who sleep outdoors have historically been scattered through the region. The encampment, dubbed Camp Cathy, has brought many of them onto a single plot, laying bare the scope of the problem.

On Friday morning, Sneed sifted through tents, determining what clothes and bedding needed washing. Other volunteers distributed socks, underwear and clothes.

Nearby, Kevin White sorted through his remaining possessions, tossing some that he said were either too worn, or too soiled from water that seeped in during the storm.

He did not go into the shelter Thursday night, nor does he intend to, regardless of the weather. A Marine, the 47-year-old said he can survive anything.

“I’ll wrap up in two trash bags and I’ll be OK,” he said. “For the ones that need [the shelter], let them have it. Sleeping on a quarter-inch mat under an aluminum foil blanket is not my idea of comfort when you’re trying to give a homeless person somewhere to sleep.”

White became homeless in November after losing his job. Since then, he said, he has tried to stay positive and trust that God put him at the encampment for a reason.

He said he had to be at work in two hours. Fortunately, he said, his boss agreed to help him with his laundry.

Wind damage and power outages reported on Friday

Friday’s burst of high winds sent trees crashing down, left tens of thousands without power, disrupted travel and caused some schools to close across central Virginia.

An area of low pressure that soaked the region on Thursday strengthened as it swirled off to the Northeast, causing high winds to rush through the state beginning during the morning rush hour and lasting through the afternoon.

Gusts ranging from 40 to 60 mph caused numerous trees and branches to fall on roads and power lines.

At the peak of the power outages, 36,401 Dominion Energy customers through metro Richmond and the Tri-Cities were in the dark at 9:36 a.m. Statewide, outages affected approximately 120,000 Dominion customers, but half of those had been restored by 5 p.m., according to a spokesperson.

Several thousand Rappahannock Electric Cooperative customers were also in the dark throughout the day.

The National Weather Service said a tornado touched down in the town of Leesburg in Loudoun County about 7:20 a.m. Friday, damaging several homes and uprooting trees. The tornado, rated EF0, had an estimated maximum wind speed of 85 mph. The weather service was investigating whether other tornadoes touched down in Maryland.

In Chesterfield County, a tree fell onto southbound Interstate 95 at exit 62 around 8:20 a.m., which resulted in a three-vehicle crash. Three people were sent to the hospital with non-life-threatening injuries, according to Lt. Jason Elmore of Chesterfield Fire and EMS.

On Interstate 295, a tractor-trailer overturned across the southbound travel lanes of the Varina Enon Bridge at 11:14 a.m. The driver was unhurt after a strong gust caused the empty trailer to lose control. The crash remains under investigation, according to Virginia State Police.

A wind sensor on the bridge, 159 feet above the ground, clocked a gust of 65 mph near the time of the crash. Wind speeds are usually stronger over water or on surfaces high above the ground, because there’s less friction from the Earth’s surface to slow the air.

The crash and ongoing high winds prompted the Virginia Department of Transportation to close the Varina Enon Bridge and the Benjamin Harrison Bridge until sustained winds fell below 34 mph.

Several dozen roads in the Richmond region were closed on Friday due to high water, debris, fallen trees and power lines, according to VDOT.

Richmond International Airport registered a peak gust of 56 mph at 8:47 a.m., but sustained winds hovered between 24 and 32 mph through the day. The airport saw delays and 17 cancellations on Friday, mainly related to the storm’s wider effects from Charlotte to Boston. One arriving flight had to divert to Norfolk during the strongest period of winds in the morning.

Hanover County Public Schools closed early and canceled after-school activities due to outages that affected half of the district’s schools. Issues with power also affected some campuses of Henrico County Public Schools and Chesterfield County Public Schools.

Winds will be much lighter on Saturday, but seasonably cold air will return and bring a low in the lower 30s and a high in the upper 40s despite sunny skies. More showers are in the forecast for next week.

The James River is expected to rise above its 12-foot minor flood stage at the Westham gauge between early Saturday morning and Sunday evening, cresting at 14.1 feet on Saturday afternoon, according to the National Weather Service’s forecast from Friday afternoon. The City Locks gauge is predicted to crest at 9.1 feet early Sunday, about 1 foot above minor flood stage.

The storm’s total rainfall for Richmond was 1.95 inches between Wednesday and Friday morning. Daily precipitation records were not set. Amounts generally varied from 1.5 to 2.5 inches in the Richmond region. Statewide, up to 5 inches of rain fell in Patrick County and in the far southwestern corner from Wise County to Cumberland Gap.

Friday’s highest reported wind gust in the state was 73 mph at an offshore weather station between Norfolk and Hampton.

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Police say multiple shooters were involved in death of 3-year-old in Hillside Court, ask for tips

Despite the arrest of a man in a nearby carjacking, Richmond police say the killing of a 3-year-old boy, who was shot while playing outside his family’s Hillside Court apartment last Saturday, remains unsolved.

“We need more,” Detective Joseph Fultz, who is heading the investigation into Sharmar Hill Jr.’s slaying, said Friday, one day shy of a week since the killing. “There are others involved in this. This is more than one person.”

Fultz said his team of detectives believes there were two groups of people shooting at each other, and Sharmar was “just an innocent person, little person” struck by a stray bullet.

A lot of attention has centered on one man: Antonio L. Harris, who was charged with a carjacking in the area the day before the shooting. But Harris has not been charged in connection with Sharmar’s death, nor any of the three other reports of random gunfire in the hours leading up to the fatal shooting around the corner, near where Harris was supposedly staying while under home electronic monitoring for charges in a second, earlier carjacking. Fultz said at this point, it’s unclear what role he played, if any at all.

“He’s not exonerated from this,” Fultz said of Harris.

But Fultz said he worries that since news of Harris’ arrest made headlines, people might not come forward with information.

“When a person gets picked up, they think that it’s immediate that ‘Oh, he did that’ or ‘She did that,’” the detective said. “See, that’s not the case. We’re still investigating this.”

Police are not only hoping to locate multiple shooters, but also others who might have witnessed the exchange of gunfire. Fultz said there were many folks outside in the 1700 block of Southlawn Avenue in Hillside Court last Saturday around 4 p.m. when the shooting happened and he hasn’t heard from them.

“If you saw what happened, I don’t know why you’re not already down here,” Fultz said. “Don’t do it for me. Do it for the little kid and do it for his family. ... That little kid was just out there playing. He wasn’t doing anything. He was doing what kids do.”

Anyone with information is asked to contact Fultz at (804) 646-3929 or contact Crime Stoppers at (804) 780-1000 or at www.7801000.com. The P3 Tips Crime Stoppers app may also be used. All Crime Stoppers methods are anonymous.

Watkins Nurseries' 342 acres in Chesterfield, Powhatan and Amelia slated for foreclosure auction

Properties owned by Watkins Nurseries Inc., founded in 1876 and run by the fifth generation of the Watkins family, are slated to be sold at a foreclosure auction later this month.

A total of 342.3 acres of land in Chesterfield, Powhatan and Amelia counties — with a combined assessed value of $2.314 million — as well as vehicles and equipment owned by a sister company are scheduled to be sold at four different auctions at three locations on Feb. 20.

The auctions will be held on the courthouse steps in Chesterfield, Powhatan and Amelia.

Foreclosure notices were placed on Page D5 in the legal advertising section of Friday’s Richmond Times-Dispatch.

Henrico County-based Dudley Resources is contracted to handle the foreclosure auctions on behalf of a bank that provided financing to the Watkins nursery and recycling businesses, said Tim Dudley, president of the real estate auction firm.

“The bank is foreclosing on it for lack of payment,” said Dudley, declining to name the bank.

Robert Watkins, the owner and president of Watkins Nurseries, could not be reached for comment.

His father, former state Sen. John Watkins, a Republican who represented Powhatan and Chesterfield counties for 34 years, said SonaBank has not sent a formal notice of foreclosure.

“We have not received any notice,” John Watkins said. “The law states you have to provide notice. My son is seeking legal advice.”

John Watkins said the two businesses — Watkins Nurseries and Virginia Resources Recycled LLC — have loans that are cross-collateralized, meaning the collateral for one loan also is used as collateral for another loan.

The original principal amount of the loan is $1.735 million that was recorded in a deed of trust dated April 28, 2017, according to the foreclosure notice.

“They have not been able to meet the notes. I think the nursery business is current,” John Watkins said about the loan.

Watkins Nurseries is open and continues to operate, he said.

The business was founded by J.B. Watkins as a small fruit tree farm in Powhatan County 144 years ago. It has grown to have more than 500 acres across central Virginia used in the production of field-grown, landscape-size plants, according to the company’s website.


The four auctions are slated to run starting at 10 a.m. on Feb. 20 with the last auction starting at 3:15 p.m. that day.

Here’s the auction lineup:

  • The first offering includes the property at 101 Dry Bridge Road in Chesterfield, where Watkins Nurseries has its headquarters. The property is about a half-mile from Midlothian Turnpike and is west of Westchester Commons.

That auction starts at 10 a.m. on the steps of the Chesterfield County Courthouse.

The 6.107-acre parcel includes a 6,230-square-foot office building, a 12,000-square-foot greenhouse and an 8,400-square-foot loading dock/material cover shed.

The property is assessed for $1.054 million.

The site is the current location of the company’s landscape contracting division as well as its business office and plant center.

  • The second offering includes the property at 4216 Worsham Road in Powhatan.

That auction begins at 1 p.m. in front of the Powhatan County Courthouse.

The 4.8-acre parcel includes a 2,640-square-foot office building and a 2,880-square-foot greenhouse. It is assessed at $267,000.

The farm is where the company’s greenhouse and propagation facilities are located as well as some field-grown resources.

  • The third offering is for the largest amount of land — 331.4 acres — in Amelia.

The auction is slated to start at 3 p.m. at the Amelia County Courthouse.

It includes two parcels at 11400 Winterham Road and 11601 Grub Hill Church Road. The properties, both off U.S. 360 about 15 miles west of the Brandermill residential community in Chesterfield, are being offered separately or together.

The assessed value of the combined properties is $992,800.

One parcel has numerous small storage buildings and a shed. The other has two houses.

The farm, acquired in 1998, is the primary production area for the nursery and its tree operation.

  • The fourth offering includes the equipment and vehicle assets owned by Virginia Resources Recycled, a commercial and residential land clearing, grinding, grubbing and logging business.

That auction will start at 3:15 p.m. at the Amelia County Courthouse.

The machinery and vehicles, including tractors and trucks, is valued at more than $1.5 million.