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Two gunshots, one murder and an unanswerable question: Why did he kill his teammate?

Jaquan Anderson played football for Norfolk State and graduated in 2017. He worked as a security officer after graduating.

NORFOLK

Ruth Ackies gathered a black leather baseball mitt and a navy blue No. 77 football jersey, and placed the memories of her son in a cardboard box.

She has lived almost two years without her son Nick, and now as she prepared to move, she packed his possessions into about 20 boxes and stacked them along the wall. The items that brought her joy, like the glass-cased baseball marked “home run,” she kept. The ones that brought sadness, like the Lucky Brand blue jeans Nick was wearing when he was discovered by police, still stained with blood, she threw in the garbage.

During the past month, Ruth has relived the memories of her son’s life and death as Jaquan Anderson, 24, the man who shot him, went on trial for first-degree murder.

Anderson had been a Norfolk State football player, too. Although they didn’t play on the team at the same time, Anderson knew Nick and they thought of each other as teammates. He said he loved Nick, just as he loved all his teammates.

It was self-defense, Anderson claimed. He had no choice. So at 6:01 p.m. on Oct. 27. 2017, as Nick lay there on the floor, Anderson picked up his phone and dialed 911. Anderson told the dispatcher he had just shot and killed his friend in a Norfolk apartment.

“It’s me. It’s me, and I had to do it. Yeah, I had to do it. He tried to rob me. … He tried to rob me, I had to take him out, and he’s on my floor, dead. He’s my friend.”

The dispatcher, a young woman, asked what Anderson had used to kill Nick, 18.

“I used a gun,” Anderson responded. “I had to take him out with my gun.”

Then the dispatcher asked if he was sure the man on his floor had died.

“Yeah, yeah, yeah, because he’s not breathing,” Anderson responded.

Probing for more details, the woman asked if Anderson would attempt CPR.

“No, because I shot him in the head, and I’ve seen enough movies, and he has blood in his mouth, and he’s just on my carpet, and he has blood in his mouth, and I love him,” Anderson said, his voice resigned to the fact that Nick was gone. “He’s turning blue. … He’s dead.”

Within five minutes, Norfolk police officer Duong Phan was pounding on the apartment door, his gun drawn, shouting at Anderson to come out. Wearing a black hoodie and black backpack, Anderson emerged, squeezed through the doorway and was arrested.

The door was left slightly ajar, and Phan could see a motionless hand on the carpet. But he couldn’t shove the door open any farther. The man lying on the other side was big and heavy, and his torso was pushed against the door. So Phan turned sideways and shimmied through the opening. He checked each room, his gun still in hand, and found the others empty.

Soon, medics were in the living room, kneeling over the man, checking for a pulse or a breath. Finding neither, a medic pressed the button on his radio and reported a 150 — a suspicious death.

The man lying motionless on the floor was Nick Ackies, a freshman football player at Norfolk State University, a promising young defensive lineman with an array of talents. To the shooter, he was a friend, a brother in the family of football, his successor on the Norfolk State defense.

And now, Nick’s blood was pooling on the living room carpet.

***

Nick Ackies sprouted early, growing to 6-foot-2, 280 pounds by the time he started freshman year at Douglas Freeman High School in Henrico County. Ray Moore, the school’s baseball coach, remembers seeing Nick play middle school baseball at Tuckahoe, and Nick was twice the size of the other kids. When Moore met him, he discovered Nick’s monstrous hands.

“His hand completely ate my hand,” Moore said. “It looked like a man with little children on the field.”

Nick played defensive line, and by the 10th grade, he was promoted to varsity. He was unbelievably quick, exploding off the line of scrimmage, and he was nimble enough to serve as the team’s punter. He excelled on the baseball field, too. His right arm was a rocket, firing the ball across the plate at 90 miles per hour.

People who knew him called him happy-go-lucky. They said he had a big smile, the kind that makes other people smile when they see it. The worst trouble he got in was sometimes arriving late to school — Ruth said he was dealing with a concussion from football at the time. He didn’t start fights or steal from people. His grades weren’t stellar, but they weren’t bad enough to cost him a scholarship either.

He was always close with his mother, who attended all his games, snapping photos from the stands. His father wasn’t present in his life, divorcing Ruth when Nick was a child and leaving her to play the roles of both mother and father. He died of cancer when Nick was a senior.

It was undeniable that Nick was one of the most talented athletes in the building. His football coach, Mike Henderson, has coached high school football players for 23 years, and none of them has become a professional athlete. But if any of his players had that chance, it was Nick.

“I’ve never coached anybody like that,” Henderson said.

Some Division I college football programs offered Nick a scholarship, including N.C. State. Boston College and Penn State offered, too, his mother said. But often the recruitment didn’t last long. Nick made it clear he wanted to play both football and baseball in college, and for most schools, that proposal was a no-go. They shot it down immediately. Most football teams told him they couldn’t afford him missing time in the weight room each spring. If a school told him it wouldn’t let him play baseball, Nick crossed it off his list.

Football was his better sport — it was the one that would open doors for him — and it was the one that could offer a full scholarship. But if he had his choice of playing either sport professionally, he would have picked baseball. Generally, its players make more money, their careers last longer and they suffer fewer damaging injuries.

There was one school that would allow him to play both football and baseball, and that school was Norfolk State. By allowing Nick to play baseball in the spring, the football team had the chance to land a supremely talented defensive lineman, the kind of player who’d typically go to a bigger program.

During the winter of his senior year, Nick toured the school’s campus, met its coaches and walked the halls of the dorms. And he met a man who wasn’t too different from himself. Like Nick, he was from the Richmond area, he played defensive line, and he was a standout on his high school team. He was about to graduate, and Nick would replace him on the Spartans’ roster. His name was Jaquan Anderson.

***

On the last day of his life, Nick wasn’t scheduled to play football. He had been taken out of the lineup and placed on concussion protocol — thanks to an injury he had suffered not on the field but in the locker room.

Another Norfolk State football player had borrowed a Toyota Tacoma pickup truck belonging to long snapper Zac Denton and disappeared with it for several hours, Ruth said. Nick made it clear to the player that that kind of behavior wasn’t acceptable. He and the player exchanged words, and when Nick turned and walked away, the player decked him, throwing his fist into Nick’s head, causing Nick to fall into a cinder block wall.

While the rest of the team was at a Portsmouth hotel, preparing for a game the next day, Nick was on his own. He borrowed Denton’s truck and drove to an Old Dominion University dorm, where he would break up with the young woman he had been dating, Rachel Cooper. He returned a long-board skateboard that belonged to Rachel, and she gave back a Pandora ring Nick had given her.

Some time after 5 p.m. he arrived at the apartment of Jaquan Anderson, located in a high-crime neighborhood two miles north of campus. Nick had bought weed from Anderson at least twice before and watched game film with him once. Placed on Anderson’s bed was a black Hi-Point 9 mm handgun he had purchased three days earlier at Bob’s Gun Shop. It was loaded — seven bullets in the clip, one in the chamber.

***

Anderson never played football before his sophomore year of high school at L.C. Bird in Chesterfield County. So when he joined the varsity team as an 11th grader, he was so raw, his coaches figured he’d never see a minute of playing time. But Anderson took that as a challenge, and during the offseason, he kept working and working.

Early in his junior year, a starting defensive end suffered an injury, Anderson took the starting spot, and he never relinquished it the remainder of his high school career.

“Jay took everything personally,” said Sal Camp, who was an assistant coach at L.C. Bird.

When he was a senior, Anderson sprained his ankle in the first round of the playoffs, and the injury was so bad he struggled to walk. The following Monday, coaches kept him out of practice to rest him for the next Friday. But Anderson objected to the decision. To him, sitting out practice wasn’t OK.

“He didn’t talk to me for like two days,” Camp said.

Anderson returned to the field the following Friday and had perhaps the best game of his high school career. At one point, the running back for the opposing team, Hermitage, took a handoff and ran to the other side of the field, away from Anderson. But Anderson sprinted laterally across the field, chased him down and tackled him. Bird won the state championship that year, its first of three consecutive rings.

His father was absent, and Anderson was the man of the house, Camp said. He worked jobs in the offseason, giving the money he earned to his mother, who was raising two younger daughters. He took advanced classes and maintained a 3.6 or 3.7 GPA, balancing work, football and a passion for creating rap music.

Only one college, Norfolk State, offered him a scholarship, and Anderson jumped on it. He played four years for the Spartans and graduated in 2017 with a degree in communications. Having trouble finding a full-time profession, he took security jobs each weekend that paid $10 an hour.

Armed security officers could earn more money, so he bought his first gun and prepared to earn a concealed carry license. On the last normal day of his life, he would later testify, he was packing his suitcase to visit his mother in Richmond and his girlfriend in Washington, D.C.

But he never made it off the block, cuffed on the apartment landing and walked to the back of a police car. Officers later found the 9 mm handgun stashed in his suitcase — the 911 operator told him to put it away — along with 16.5 grams of low-quality marijuana and $137 stuffed in his sock and pockets. He would spend the next year and 10 months in and out of jails and Central State Hospital.

In January 2018, he had stopped talking and eating, and he was deemed unfit to stand trial. Transferred to Central State, he spent roughly the next four months being evaluated and treated. The onerous life of prison had gotten to him, said his mother, Tamika Williams. Anderson had never been incarcerated before.

“I think it just took a toll on him,” Williams said.

He was prescribed olanzapine, an anti-psychotic medicine, and his condition improved. Evaluated again, he was considered fit for trial and sent back to jail. He was released on bond in February 2019 as he awaited trial, because the prosecution wasn’t ready to begin. But it was revoked when he missed a hearing in July. The week before the trial began, Anderson was accidentally released, the result of a miscommunication between state prosecutors and the Department of Corrections, but he turned himself in the next day.

Anderson spent the majority of his five-day trial seated in a wooden chair, barely moving, never talking, gazing forward. To the close eye of a mother, he hasn’t been the same since Nick died.

“He’s still not the son he was before this incident happened,” Williams said.

***

By the time the trial began in Norfolk Circuit Court, one year and 10 months had elapsed. Thirty-eight witnesses were called — mostly by the prosecution — in an effort to shed light on what happened that evening at 815 Hayes St. On the fourth day of the trial, the 24-year-old Anderson testified for two hours, finally unraveling his side of the story, which he had kept hidden almost two years.

He was packing that Friday afternoon, he said, preparing to visit his mother in Richmond and girlfriend in Washington, D.C., when Nick showed up at his door. The two men were friends, and they’d never had a fight, but this time Nick had come over uninvited. Nick saw the gun on Anderson’s bed and asked why it was there.

Anderson picked it up and made a joke, saying he worked security so he might need it for big guys like Nick. Nick joked back, saying he would take it and use it on Anderson. The joking continued.

“You’re gonna shoot me?” Nick said, according to Anderson. “Go ahead and shoot me.”

Then, Nick reached for the gun with his left hand. Anderson pulled back, and Nick’s hand grabbed Anderson’s arm. As the two jostled, the gun went off, and Nick fell backward, landing on the floor near the front door.

Dazed by what had just occurred, Anderson wasn’t sure if the bullet had pierced Nick, himself, or anyone at all. He would later learn it had entered Nick’s left central chest, cut through his carotid artery and stopped in the flesh of his back, creating a partial exit wound. Nick sat up, his chest rising, his torso stiff, which Anderson interpreted as a threat, as if Nick would get up and charge him. A medical examiner testified that Nick could have lived several seconds after this shot. Anderson pointed the handgun at Nick’s head and fired.

“I got scared, and I just shot him,” Anderson testified. “I thought he was going to attack me again.”

The second bullet tore a hole in Nick’s left bottom lip, splintered his spinal cord and lodged itself at the base of Nick’s skull. This shot, the medical examiner testified, would have killed him instantly and was fired from a distance of somewhere between 9 inches and 2 feet. When a gun is discharged, it also ejects burning gunpowder that can leave marks called stippling on a victim’s flesh. Where the stippling lands can indicate the distance at which the gun was fired.

Anderson testified that maybe 30 seconds elapsed between shot one and shot two. The upstairs neighbor said she heard two loud bangs 15 minutes apart, but the medical examiner insisted that the gun was fired with much less time in between. Both shots hit Nick when he was alive, she said.

When Anderson dialed 911, he did something that confused investigators — he reported two different addresses. He first gave his real address, 815 Hayes St. When asked to repeat the address, he stated 843 Page St., a road that doesn’t exist in Norfolk. Realizing he had given the wrong location, he hung up on 911. When he called back, he did it again, stating 815 Hayes St. and then 843 Page St., again hanging up on 911.

Anderson later testified that he was trying to give the address of his next door neighbor, because he was afraid if police saw Nick on his floor and a gun in his hand, the officers would kill him.

His story sounded more like an accident than a robbery, the reason he gave 911 for shooting Nick. When the prosecution questioned him, Anderson said Nick had tried to steal the gun. When police apprehended Anderson, he was wearing his black Norfolk State backpack and his suitcase was placed beside the door — Anderson said he didn’t know how the suitcase got there. Among his packed items, in addition to the marijuana and a digital scale, were nine pairs of underwear, evidence the prosecution used to argue he was trying to flee.

Primer residue was located on Anderson’s hands, suggesting he indeed fired a gun. Two Luger 9 mm bullet cartridges were discovered on the floor, one under the coffee table and one near Nick’s body up against the wall. Also found was a gun box for a Smith & Wesson pistol, but the gun itself was never found. A low concentration of marijuana was found in Nick’s system, a forensic toxicologist testified.

What police didn’t find, however, were the indicators of a fight or a break in — no broken furniture, no pry marks on the door, no broken lock, no mask, no foreign skin under Nick’s nails, no cuts or bruises on either man’s hands.

The prosecution told the members of the jury they would never know Anderson’s true motivation for shooting Nick. It wasn’t a robbery, it wasn’t an accident and it wasn’t self-defense.

“This was murder, and you know it,” Deputy Commonwealth’s Attorney Trish O’Boyle told the jury in her closing statement. “Somewhere deep down, he knows it, too.”

***

In the days following Nick’s death, Ruth was in shock. It was as if a voice deep in her soul was crying out, and none of it seemed real. She used coffee, cigarettes and later counseling to number the pain, with which she was familiar. It’s a heartbreaking coincidence that Nick wasn’t the first of Ruth’s four children to die.

Erika, Nick’s half-sister, was a teenager when Nick was born. She was an honor-roll student, but she suffered panic attacks. Doctors prescribed Paxil, but it altered her personality, leading her to turn to alcohol and whatever pills she could obtain on her own. Once, she swallowed a fistful of Klonopin in a parking lot outside a Williamsburg Fresh Market.

It was around this time that Nick’s father, Terry, abandoned the family. Erika was placed in Central State hospital, the same hospital where Anderson would be sent years later, where she was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and where doctors continued adjusting her dosages. Five months after her arrival, in the spring of 2005, not long after medical staff took her off suicide watch, she took her own life. She was 19 years old. Nick was 6.

Blaming herself for Erika’s death, Ruth felt overwhelming guilt. But Nick kept her from crawling into a hole. She learned to find joy in all aspects of his life, from football and baseball to how easily he made friends.

“Nick literally saved my life,” Ruth said. “I had to get up every day.”

Even Nick’s death brought her small morsels of joy. While most of his organs were unsalvageable, his dark brown eyes were donated, one to a woman in Norfolk, the other to a woman in Long Island. Ruth hasn’t met them, but she imagines them as grandmothers now able to see their grandchildren.

Her newest grandchild was born this summer, and because of Nick’s trial, all her grandchildren were located in the same room for the first time.

***

The jury had deliberated more than three hours when it presented its verdict. Its foreperson, who stood in the center of the front row, read from a sheet of paper and pushed back tears.

The seven women and five men found Anderson guilty of second-degree murder — but not first-degree — and the use of a firearm in the commission of a felony. Anderson was still as the verdict was read. The families of Nick and Anderson, seated on opposite sides of the room, were in complete silence.

A day later, on Aug. 16, the jury sentenced Anderson to 27 years in prison. While he isn’t eligible for parole, eventually he could be released on probation after serving a vast majority of his sentence. Prosecutor Kat Taylor later commented on how uncommon a trial it was — how two young men with no histories of crime or violence, who were seemingly liked by everyone they knew, could end up in a situation like this, one dead, the other off to prison for several decades.

While Anderson will earn his rehabilitation in prison, it’s less clear if he’ll ever earn Ruth’s forgiveness. She isn’t ready for that yet, though she wants to be, if not for Anderson, then for herself. After all, she says, it’s God who will handle his ultimate justice.

“I don’t want bad things to happen to him,” Ruth said. “He’s somebody else’s child.”

She considered Anderson’s mother, how she could still talk to him and watch him grow, even if it’s in a prison visitation room. For Ruth it’s as if her child is still off at college, frozen in time in his freshman year. Nick would be 20 years old if he were alive today, and Ruth wonders what life would be like. Would he still play baseball? Would he continue majoring in criminal justice? There are some questions she can’t let go.

Though she’s never spoken to Anderson, Ruth would like to one day, just to ask one simple question, the one the prosecutors said we’d never know the answer to: “Why?” It’s the kind of question that keeps her from sleeping, that keeps her from wanting to eat. It’s hard to keep the sadness at bay.

Sometimes, like when she’s at work, she can compartmentalize her thoughts and focus on things other than Nick. She keeps her mind pointed in one narrow direction, distracting her from reality. Then a sight or a smell will remind her of Nick, pulling her back to him.

When he was a senior at Freeman, Nick starred in his own homemade movie shot in the halls and classrooms of the school. In the first sequence, he turned to the camera with a debonair grin and introduced himself: “I’m Nick Ackies. Be prepared to witness the strength of Nick knowledge.”

Throughout the next five minutes, he gave viewers advice for everyday life (“You just have to know what to say and when to say it”), shook hands with and hugged teachers and students, handed a rose to a female teacher and told a young woman walking by that she looked nice today. In one snapshot, you could see all of his personality traits together: confidence, silliness, friendliness. This is the Nick that Ruth will remember.

In the days that followed the trial, she moved out of her apartment in Henrico, the rent raised beyond what she could afford. The past month had been an arduous reliving of her son’s life and death, packing up the good memories into boxes, listening to detectives recite the horrific ones from the witness stand.

A dozen or so of her family and friends were seated beside her in the pews to cry with her. When the trial had ended, some of them squeezed together into an elevator and road it down six stories to the ground floor.

It was the evening now, and the court building had closed, the revolving doors locked and the foyer empty. Ruth wasn’t sure how to feel. There was solace in a guilty verdict, but not the overwhelming sense that justice had been done — 27 years in exchange for a lost life. She didn’t crave revenge, but she couldn’t offer forgiveness either. While the prosecution had won, it didn’t feel like a victory to her.

What lay ahead was a life without Nick, and it was her job to figure out how to cope. She pushed on the crash bar of the door, exited the building and stepped into the warm, humid air.


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Tension between Chesterfield police and reform-minded prosecutor is local example of nationwide ideological clash

Chesterfield County Commonwealth’s Attorney Scott Miles has riled members of the county’s law enforcement establishment, who say he has acted unilaterally in implementing his own drug diversion program without any buy-in from county judges, the police, the sheriff’s office or the administrator of the county’s existing Drug Court program that’s been in place for nearly two decades.

Miles, who is acting on his campaign platform of criminal justice reform, argues that he is well within his authority as the county’s top prosecutor.

Chesterfield law enforcement officials say Miles failed to consult them about the program and did not alert them when it went into effect. They contend he’s acting without regard to the other stakeholders in Chesterfield’s criminal justice system.

“The complete absence of collaboration is unprofessional and more akin to a rogue operation than one predicated on reform,” Chesterfield Police Chief Jeffrey Katz said in an email when asked for comment. “Cornerstone principles of criminal justice reform, as I understand them, involve transparency and accountability. This program lacks both.”

***

Legal experts say Miles appears to be acting within the bounds of his prosecutorial discretion and that he is an example of how reformed-minded prosecutors being elected throughout the U.S. are butting heads with the law enforcement establishment as they seek to decriminalize certain offenses and upend the status quo.

But the transition has created concern and confusion in police and sheriff’s departments across the country because the sudden changes are going against decades of practice, and are being implemented over police objections or without their knowledge, the Washington Post recently reported.

“Our legislators write the laws; the police and prosecution take an oath to enforce them,” said District of Columbia Police Chief Peter Newsham. “What makes them [prosecutors] think they can unilaterally decide they can decline to prosecute certain crimes?”

All but one of the chiefs and one of the prosecutors of the 10 largest American cities gathered in Washington in June to hash out their differences in a national summit sought by the chiefs. The participants drew up a “statement of principles” on which they achieved some consensus in an effort to smooth the path to certain reforms.

“I understand the frustrations of police officers who go out on the streets, make an arrest and the prosecutor says I’m not going to prosecute that,” Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr. told the Post. “The answer is we just may have to agree to disagree. I have constituencies that may be different from theirs, and sometimes the police don’t recognize that.”

***

Under Miles’ program, dubbed the Chesterfield Recovery Initiative, he has nearly complete control over the criminal cases of defendants charged with felony possession of a vast array of narcotics — such as heroin, cocaine, PCP, oxycodone and methamphetamine — without oversight by the county’s judges.

The plan offers “individuals facing certain criminal charges in Chesterfield an opportunity for recovery instead of conviction,” according to Miles’ memorandum on the initiative.

Miles would forgo indictment of drug offenders whose cases already have been certified by a judge to the grand jury if they agree to waive their preliminary hearings and successfully complete a drug treatment program that’s outside the parameters of the county’s existing Drug Court. The initiative currently has six defendants facing felony drug possession charges actively participating, with the goal of a dozen during its pilot phase, which is set to end Dec. 1.

Miles said he is not seeking the court’s input about his program because he has discretion to proceed or discontinue prosecution of criminal cases; his initiative, he added, is “currently designed to operate independently of judicial approval.”

“It’s not a secret program, but I haven’t consulted with the bench,” Miles said. “Chief Katz and I have discussed our shared philosophy that, once the case is charged, it becomes our office’s case.”

One law expert says Miles’ program — which on its surface closely resembles the goals and purposes of established state drug courts — appears to fall outside the boundaries prescribed by Virginia law for drug court programs, which operate with judicial oversight and whose participants are supervised by probation or other supervisory officers employed by a local community corrections program.

The Chesterfield Recovery Initiative “does not bespeak compliance” with the state’s legislatively prescribed requirements, said Norman Thomas, a former Norfolk commonwealth’s attorney who served as a general district and circuit court judge, and wrote advisory law opinions as a member of the Virginia Attorney General’s Office from 2012 to 2014.

State law mandates that no drug treatment courts can be established after March 1, 2004, unless the jurisdiction intending to establish such a court has been specifically granted permission under the Code of Virginia. The memorandum outlining the Chesterfield Recovery Initiative documents no such approval, Thomas said.

“With so many of its attributes emulating those of a Drug Treatment Court, it would appear to be very difficult, if not impossible to qualitatively distinguish the program anticipated by the Chesterfield Recovery Initiative memorandum from a Drug Treatment Court requiring General Assembly approval,” he said.

Miles acknowledged there is no statutory authority for his program, but he said it’s not needed because the various functions performed by the program’s partners “fall within our respective areas of activity and authority.”

John Douglass, a former federal prosecutor who now teaches law at the University of Richmond, said Miles’ reform policies are similar to the practices of a number of prosecutors across the U.S.; many have policies of nonprosecution of simple marijuana possession cases, as well as with simple possession of other drugs. And many favor broadening their pretrial diversion programs and expanding the use of drug treatment in place of incarceration.

Douglass said the power of prosecutors to choose not to prosecute a particular case, or even not to prosecute a particular category of crime, has been recognized in the law for decades. If a criminal statute is still on the books, police have authority to arrest for the crime, regardless of the prosecutor’s policies. So when prosecutors adopt nonprosecution policies, it is important that they coordinate with police, he said.

***

Chesterfield’s sheriff, Karl Leonard, who emphasized he’s not opposed to new ideas and supports innovative programs that will help people achieve long-term recovery, said it was unfortunate that county law enforcement officials “were not brought into the loop” before Miles implemented his program.

“For any program to reach a level of success, you have to do that through cooperation with all of the stakeholders, all the partners,” said Leonard, who has implemented several drug abuse recovery programs at the jail. “And when you get that buy-in, it really makes it easier for these programs to take off.”

Leonard said he had to temporarily ban from the Chesterfield Jail the person designated as the point person for Miles’ program who, without Leonard’s knowledge or approval, had begun screening and recruiting participants from the inmate population. “It caught me by total surprise,” he said.

Leonard said Courtney Nunnally, with Recovery Unplugged, eventually was allowed back into the jail “after we got to the bottom of it,” but she is not allowed to continue recruiting efforts for Miles’ initiative. Leonard said Nunnally has been involved in the jail’s existing substance abuse recovery efforts as a coach and she can “continue the work she’s been doing with us.”

Miles has distanced himself from Nunnally’s recruiting efforts. “I wasn’t involved in any presentation that may have occurred at the jail, nor was any member of my staff,” he said in an email.

The Chesterfield Recovery Initiative involves assigning defendants to treatment at one of three private recovery organizations Miles selected — the McShin Foundation, REAL LIFE and Recovery Unplugged. Chesterfield Mental Health Support Services is involved from a treatment perspective, but the services provided are available to all residents of Chesterfield, county spokeswoman Susan Pollard said.

McShin Foundation President John Shinholser donated $1,500 to Miles’ campaign between September 2018 and May 2019, according to the Virginia Public Access Project. Shinholser is one of Miles’ top donors.

Miles said there’s no conflict of interest in Shinholser’s donation.

“I’m happy to have Mr. Shinholser’s support for my campaign,” he said. “It’s axiomatic that people who agree with a campaign’s platform are the ones who contribute to the campaign. His contribution hasn’t influenced my invitation to his organization to partner in this [program].”

Miles said McShin has pledged two scholarships during the program’s pilot phase. “It’s hard for me to imagine that this will be particularly profitable for McShin, but I can’t predict that with confidence.”

Miles won last year’s special election to fill the remaining year of former Commonwealth’s Attorney Billy Davenport’s term after he retired, and now is running for a full, four-year term against Republican nominee Stacey Davenport. His platform then and now is based on a progressive platform of criminal justice reform.

Katz said he does not reject the concept of criminal justice reform, but said reform involves bringing stakeholders to the table to brainstorm and collaborate.

“This is not a political stance,” the chief added. “Despite a number of standing meetings each month with Mr. Miles, I am disheartened by his complete lack of candor with respect to this program — and how this program may run counter to the efforts of every local and state officer who makes a felony drug arrest in Chesterfield County.”

The chief said his officers are “out on the street risking their safety, lives and reputations to enforce felony violations which may or may not be pursued by the people’s representative of the commonwealth.”

Miles countered that he would never minimize the risks taken by officers on the street. But he said he’s puzzled by the notion that pursuing convictions against nonviolent drug offenders — instead of helping them become healthy — “somehow vindicates the risk to the officer.”

Chesterfield’s general district and circuit court judges collectively declined to comment on Miles’ initiative.

***

Miles said the existing Drug Court is inadequate for his purposes based on the average number of participants it has historically served, the completion rate of those participants, and the time it takes for them to graduate.

When the Drug Court numbers are compared to the 500 to 600 people that Miles said are charged with felony drug possession each year in Chesterfield, “there’s an enormous capacity gap” that his alternative program could address.

“Even if I thought the [Drug Court] model was appropriate for every person in recovery, there’s no way we could achieve anything close to the scale of the problem,” he said.

The average number of Drug Court participants hovers around 40 people at any given time, and it could take them on average more than two years to complete the program, said Drug Court Administrator Melanie Meadows. An average of 90% of participants complete the program or remain actively engaged in treatment, she said.

Meadows said Miles’ program “does not provide anything close to the intensity of supervision, treatment and judicial oversight that Drug Court does,” which takes only high-risk or high-need offenders due to the intensity of the program.

The Chesterfield Recovery Initiative “does not use validated assessment tools when determining eligibility; therefore, it is unclear when they enter CRI what level of risk and need they are — which makes it difficult to match services with risk/need levels,” said Meadows, who attended the group’s planning sessions after being invited by a member.


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Democratic Party chair makes calls for gaming company in Charlottesville fight

When Queen of Virginia Skill & Entertainment wanted to know more about why a Charlottesville prosecutor was about to declare that its games violated state anti-gambling laws, the company turned to a politically well-connected member of its Virginia team to find out more about him.

Democratic Party Chairwoman Susan Swecker, a strategic consultant for the company in Virginia, called two state legislators for Charlottesville and a city councilman — all Democrats — on the eve of a public statement by Commonwealth’s Attorney Joe Platania that the company’s product violated state law.

In an interview, Swecker confirmed she made calls to Sen. Creigh Deeds, D-Bath; Del. David Toscano, D-Charlottesville; and City Councilman Mike Signer on June 6. But she said she wasn’t acting as party chairwoman and didn’t ask them to take any action to help Queen of Virginia.

“I was just trying to get the lay of the land,” she said.

Deeds and Signer confirmed her account; Toscano did not return requests for comment.

“She was just looking for information and giving me information,” Deeds said.

Swecker’s involvement shows the extent of connections Queen of Virginia has built in the state while setting up a “games of skill” venture that has gone unregulated and untaxed. That could change when a newly elected General Assembly convenes in January for a well-financed political battle on whether to legalize casinos, sports betting and other forms of gambling in a state that has barred them.

Queen of Virginia has contributed more than $224,000 to legislative candidates and political action committees since 2017, almost evenly divided between Democrats and Republicans. The company gave $11,000 to the Democratic Party of Virginia on June 11, four days after Platania’s letter, and was listed as a sponsor of the party’s fundraising gala on June 15.

The day after Swecker’s phone calls, Platania ordered the removal of the so-called “skill” machines, threatening business owners with prosecution if they did not comply within 30 days.

Queen of Virginia then sued Platania, arguing in a civil suit that the games are legal and that his announcement had hurt the company’s “ability to continue doing business.” The court case could determine whether the games are or aren’t legal. Charlottesville is the only locality in Virginia that has declared them illegal.

Swecker, who is not a registered lobbyist, said, “I very much separate those two worlds” — party leader and president of Dividing Waters Public Affairs. Her firm represents Queen of Virginia’s parent company, Pace-O-Matic, in Virginia and other states.

Tom Lisk, one of four lobbyists registered for Queen of Virginia, said lobbying is not Swecker’s role for the company, which he said recognizes the sensitivity of her position as Democratic chairwoman.

“We are very careful, given Susan’s role as state party chair, not to include her in anything remotely considered lobbying activity,” said Lisk, a veteran lobbyist at Cozen O’Connor.

The company says its machines do not violate the law because they are games of skill, not chance.

“The way we operate, we try to come in the front door,” said Michael Barley, spokesman for Pace-O-Matic, based in Atlanta. “We want to ask permission.”

Former Attorney General Tony Troy, who is part of the Queen of Virginia legal team, said the company met with local prosecutors across Virginia to find out if they saw potential legal problems with the machines.

“We wanted to be sure that they understood what this new item was that would be appearing on bartops,” Troy said.

When the company met with Charlottesville Commonwealth’s Attorney Dave Chapman, Troy said, Chapman indicated he had no issue with the games.

Platania took over for Chapman in early 2018. After some Charlottesville residents raised concerns in May about the machines having a negative effect on the poor, Platania looked into the issue and concluded they were not legal.

The company said it learned of the prosecutor’s pending announcement the day before he issued it.

“We asked our whole team to find out more about it,” Barley said.

Queen of Virginia said it was not able to arrange a meeting with Platania. Troy said Swecker was asked to use her contacts to try to find out more about the prosecutor and why his office’s position on the games had changed.

Signer, previously mayor of Charlottesville, said, “My understanding was that she was seeking information about how the issue had surfaced. And I advised that we heard from a constituent and we also heard from the commonwealth’s attorney about his decision to investigate. And that was all I knew.”

Platania declined to comment, citing the pending litigation against him.

Queen of Virginia and other gaming machine operators also have gotten the attention of the Virginia Lottery, the state’s top finance official and high-ranking state legislators as an unregulated threat to lottery gaming revenues that returned almost $650 million to the state for public education in the fiscal year that ended June 30.

The company said it would welcome legislation to regulate the business, especially with other companies deploying machines in Virginia that aren’t easily distinguished from those operated by Queen of Virginia.

“Our goal in every market we’re in is to get more of a regulated system,” Barley said.

He said Queen of Virginia also recognizes that revenue for the state is likely to be part of any solution.

“That’s a discussion we’re willing to have,” Barley said.

Swecker was hired as a consultant in part because of her experience as full-time chairwoman of the old ABC Board under then-Gov. Tim Kaine, Lisk said.

Barley, at Pace-O-Matic, said, “She has a knowledge of the industry. She knows what our machines do. She understands the market we’re in and the markets we’re trying to set up.”

ABC licenses and regulates all the businesses where Queen of Virginia is installing its machines, with the exception of truck stops.

In 2017, the company obtained a nonbinding letter from ABC saying the agency did not consider the machines to be gambling devices and therefore would not pursue disciplinary action against the businesses that installed them. The authority changed course last April, issuing guidance that it was up to local prosecutors to decide if the games are legal.

Virginia Lottery Executive Director Kevin Hall told state finance officials last month that the state agency’s sales had been hurt by the deployment of almost 4,300 “untaxed, unlicensed and unregulated machines,” many of them in stores that also offer lottery tickets.

Hall said the softening of lottery sales also coincided with the opening of three Rosie’s Gaming Emporium outlets by Colonial Downs under a 2018 state law that allowed use of “historical horse racing” machines that look like slot machines but operate on the results of actual horse races.

Lisk said the company believes the Rosie’s operations, including one in South Richmond and another at the Colonial Downs horse track in New Kent County, are the main reason for the apparent decline in lottery sales.

Queen of Virginia is commissioning Old Dominion University to conduct a study to determine whether its machines are hurting lottery sales, he said.

“We understand why there may be concerns over the impact we may or may not be having,” Lisk said.

The company also blames the proliferation of slot-like machines across the state on other unregulated companies that are deploying large numbers of machines that do not operate as games of skill.

“They have a hard time telling one game from another,” Lisk said of law enforcement. “It would benefit us to have some sort of regulatory structure.”

Queen of Virginia’s games generate what the company calls a “tic-tac-toe style puzzle” featuring spinning reels and a three-by-three grid with randomly generated symbols. Players can solve the puzzle by picking a “wild card” square to make a line of three matching symbols. Solving the puzzle doesn’t always result in a prize greater than the amount played. If the user doesn’t win back 104% of the money they played, they can proceed to a memory game that allows them to recoup their money by successfully repeating a 25-step sequence of lighted dots in perfect order.

Deeds said slot-like machines are even starting to appear in stores in the rural Allegheny Highlands.

“It’s something to be concerned about,” he said. “It’s a fine line between games of chance and games of skill.”


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Virginia Democrats like their odds to flip the state Senate. The House may be more of a tossup

At the unofficial kickoff of Virginia’s General Assembly campaign season, Democrats feel they have a strong chance to flip the state Senate, but the House of Delegates appears to be more of a toss-up.

If Republicans hold their thin majorities in the state legislature when voters go to the polls in two months, it will extend a stretch of divided government that dates to 2014. If Democrats take both chambers, they’ll have full control of state government for the first time since 1993.

That would give Democrats the power to pass their legislative priorities — such as anti-discrimination protections for LGBTQ people and stricter gun control laws — that have been blocked for years under Republican rule, just as Medicaid expansion was before Democratic victories pushed moderate Republicans to pass it last year.

In the early stages of the campaign, Republicans are emphasizing kitchen-table themes and their support for low taxes, college tuition freezes and teacher pay raises.

All 140 General Assembly seats are up for election on Nov. 5. Control of the legislature will likely be decided by about two dozen races in the suburban battlegrounds of Northern Virginia, Richmond and Hampton Roads, the same areas where Republicans lost substantial ground in the 2017 House races and 2018 congressional midterms after the election of President Donald Trump.

But in a lower-turnout legislative election year with no statewide races, Republicans may have a better chance of avoiding further losses.

Quentin Kidd, director of Christopher Newport University’s Wason Center for Public Policy, said both parties appear energized heading into the fall.

“Although I give Democrats an edge on intensity,” Kidd said. “Just because Donald Trump is an intensity engine for Democratically-inclined voters.”

Senate Republicans — who maintained a 21-19 majority in the 2015 elections, before Trump won the White House — have a narrower path to victory this year. The Northern Virginia district left vacant by retiring Sen. Dick Black, R-Loudoun, has voted Democratic in every statewide election since 2016, as has the Richmond-area district held by Sen. Glen Sturtevant, R-Chesterfield.

“We only need to flip two seats to take control in the Senate and build on the momentum we’ve had over the last few years. At the very least, we have an opportunity,” said Sen. Mamie Locke of Hampton, chair of the Senate Democratic Caucus.

With a handful of other hotly contested races for GOP-held seats and few clear opportunities to go on offense, Senate Republicans will essentially have to pull off a perfect defensive sweep to retain power.

Asked whether Senate Republicans are worried about their odds, Senate Republican Caucus Chairman Ryan McDougle of Hanover said, “I could imagine my Democratic colleagues want everyone to believe that.”

“We’re talking about the same battleground seats as four years ago. At that time, Democrats said they were going to win with massive majorities,” McDougle said, referring to the seats held by Sturtevant and Sen. Siobhan Dunnavant, R-Henrico, and those left vacant by Black and former Sen. Frank Wagner, R-Virginia Beach.

Sturtevant is facing community college administrator Ghazala Hashmi, who would become the first Muslim American woman to serve in the Senate if she won. Nearby, Dunnavant is facing Del. Debra Rodman, D-Henrico.

In Northern Virginia, Black’s vacant seat is being contested by Del. John Bell, D-Loudoun, and Loudoun County Supervisor Geary Higgins, a Republican. In Hampton Roads, Wagner’s old seat is pitting Del. Cheryl Turpin, D-Virginia Beach, and Jen Kiggans, a former Navy pilot and nurse practitioner.

“We have two accomplished incumbents and two tremendous candidates running for open seats,” McDougle said.

Jeff Ryer, a spokesman for Senate Republicans, said Republicans will find strength in what he perceives as Democrats’ weakness. “The biggest difference between now and 2015 is that in 2015, there was a governor that was actively raising money, leading the charge,” Ryer said, referring to Northam’s stunted fundraising following the blackface scandal that dogged him earlier this year. “This breaks a precedent that goes back over 30 years.”

On Northam, Locke said: “The governor isn’t the only person who is fundraising. We’re all fundraising, and our fundraising has not been hamstrung.”

House contests

With 12 to 15 House districts potentially in play, more seats could flip in the lower chamber.

House Democrats will be looking to expand their map and defend the 15 seats they flipped in 2017. That task got a little easier earlier this year when a federal court redrew portions of the House map after finding 11 districts had been racially gerrymandered. To address the constitutional faults, a court-appointed expert drew new district lines that added enough African American voters to several GOP-held districts to potentially tilt them in Democrats’ favor.

“Our polls look really, really good,” said House Minority Leader Eileen Filler-Corn, D-Fairfax. “And we’ve got great candidates focused on the issues.”

One of the top targets for House Democrats is Del. Tim Hugo, R-Fairfax, one of just a few Northern Virginia Republicans left in the legislature. After winning in 2017 by just over 100 votes, Hugo is being challenged by Democrat Dan Helmer, an Army veteran who last year sought the Democratic nomination for a U.S. House of Representatives seat now held by Rep. Jennifer Wexton, D-10th.

Democrats also see several prime pickup opportunities in Hampton Roads, such as the redrawn, Hampton-anchored district left vacant by the retirement of Del. Gordon Helsel, R-Poquoson, and the seat held by Del. David Yancey, R-Newport News.

Yancey — who won re-election in 2017 via a random tiebreaker that also gave Republicans their 51st House seat — is facing a rematch with Democrat Shelly Simonds, a former member of the Newport News School Board. In the district left open by Helsel’s departure, Democrat Martha Mugler, a member of the Hampton School Board, is running against Republican lawyer Colleen Holcomb.

House Republicans believe their larger playing field gives them more flexibility to defend their majority. Even if they lose some highly unfavorable districts, they think they have a chance to stay at 51 by winning seats back elsewhere.

Matt Moran, chief of staff to House Speaker Kirk Cox, R-Colonial Heights, said the House GOP has “the best slate of candidates that we’ve recruited in a decade.”

“We are very confident that the odds are in our favor,” Moran said.

Two of the House seats Democrats flipped in 2017 are coming open again after two first-term lawmakers — Rodman and Turpin — decided to run for the Senate. Former Del. Rocky Holcomb, a Republican who lost to Turpin two years ago, is running for his old seat against Democrat Alex Askew, a legislative aide.

In the Henrico-based House district Rodman is leaving, Republican Mary Margaret Kastelberg, an investment manager, is running against Democrat Rodney Willett, a technology consultant.

Republicans also see an opportunity in the suburban Richmond district represented by Del. Dawn Adams, D-Richmond, who is being sued by a former legislative aide who claims Adams made her perform unpaid work for the delegate’s health care consulting business. Adams has denied the claims. She’s facing a challenge from Republican Garrison Coward, a former aide to U.S. Rep. Rob Wittman, R-1st.

House Republicans are also playing defense at the top.

The districts represented by Cox and House Appropriations Chairman Chris Jones, R-Suffolk, both tilted toward Democrats under the redrawn map, forcing the two GOP leaders to campaign with a new level of vigor.

Their Democratic opponents — Chesterfield business owner Sheila Bynum-Coleman and Clint Jenkins of Suffolk, who manages a real estate company — are already attracting attention and dollars from national groups eyeing the opportunity to flip the statehouse.

Kidd, of Christopher Newport University, said both Cox and Jones are emphasizing their ties to their respective communities — Cox as a former teacher and coach and Jones as a pharmacist — over their political records.

“If they win, I think that’s going to be what saves them,” Kidd said.