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Two dead, one wounded in continuing violence in Tri-Cities

Two men were killed and a third was wounded late Saturday in what Petersburg police believe are related shootings.

Earlier Saturday, a house was shot up — for the second time in less than a week — in nearby Prince George County, just days after federal, state and local law enforcement leaders held a summit meeting hoping to stem violence in the Tri-Cities area.

Police could not immediately be reached to comment on Sunday about whether the Petersburg and Prince George incidents were believed to be connected, but both police departments are asking the public for help in their investigations.

A spokesman for the Petersburg Police Department said officers were called at 10:21 p.m. to Courthouse Street for a report of a person shot. Officers found a man with a life-threatening gunshot wound at the scene, and he was sent to a hospital, where he died.

While officers were at the hospital, a man with a non-life-threatening gunshot wound showed up for treatment. While the second victim was being treated, a third victim arrived with life-threatening injuries and later died.

“Police are currently working a death investigation into both deaths and the shooting, which are related, and are asking for help from the public,” police in a tweet.

Anyone with information is asked to contact Petersburg/Dinwiddie Crime Solvers by calling (804) 861-1212 or by downloading the P3 Tips app or by going to P3tips.com.

At 3:37 a.m. on Saturday, numerous shots were fired into an occupied house in the 12000 block of Johnson Road in Prince George. Police had responded to the same home just before 11 p.m. on Tuesday and recovered about 11 casings from shots that were fired into the house.

People were inside the home both nights, but no injuries were reported either time.

A neighbor fired several shots into the suspect’s vehicle in the road on Saturday, police said. The vehicle was described as a black pickup truck, and the driver quickly fled the area.

Police said it’s unclear whether the vehicle or anyone inside it was struck by the gunfire.

Prince George detectives did not have a suspect identified as of Saturday afternoon and were asking anyone with information to contact the Prince George Police Department at (804) 733-2773 or Crime Solvers at (804) 733-2777 or through the P3 Tips app.

Just last week, top law enforcement officials met in Petersburg to address Tri-Cities gun violence, the opioid epidemic and human trafficking.

In attendance were representatives from Petersburg, Hopewell and Prince George and Chesterfield counties, as well as the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives; the FBI; the Drug Enforcement Administration; the Department of Homeland Security; U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement; the U.S. Marshals Service; the U.S. Postal Inspection Service; the Virginia State Police; the Virginia Alcoholic Beverage Control Authority police; and the Virginia State University police.

Last year, Petersburg was the most murder-prone locality in Virginia, per capita. The city had 17 homicides in 2018 — a record for the city of 32,000 — which equates to about 53 killings per 100,000 people. Petersburg consistently has ranked in the top three statewide in per capita homicides since at least 2013.

Five people were slain in March and April, two people were killed in July and four people were shot during a six-hour period in late August in Petersburg.

Hopewell, a city of about 22,000, ranked third in the state last year in per capita homicides.

Helping the broader community since 1849
Jewish Family Services celebrates 170 years in central Virginia

Twenty-six years ago, Russian immigrants Anna Cherkis, her husband and their son stepped off an airplane at Richmond International Airport to start a new life.

“How was it when you got off the plane?” Sydney Fleischer, director of clinical services for Jewish Family Services, asked Cherkis on Sunday, handing her a microphone.

“I was very sleepy,” Cherkis replied, explaining that she had been on a plane with her family for 11 or 12 hours. Since then, it has been a nice life, she said, adding that she was astounded by her first trip to a grocery store. “So many choices,” she recalled. “So many everything.”

Jewish Family Services threw itself a 170th birthday party at the Virginia War Memorial in Richmond on Sunday, capping a yearlong celebration of the nonprofit organization born in 1849 as the Ladies Hebrew Benevolent Association.

In attendance were immigrants like Cherkis and others who have been helped by JFS over the decades, as well as volunteers, professional staff, supporters and friends. They listened to speakers like Cherkis, looked at historical photographs, read the organization’s timeline, reminisced, laughed, applauded and ate birthday cake.

JFS officials said it has evolved from a volunteer-driven organization aiding Richmond’s Jewish community into a comprehensive service organization serving the broader community.

Over its long history, the organization has provided care to wounded Civil War soldiers, assisted victims of the tuberculosis and influenza epidemics, and helped families struggling during the Great Depression.

It also has helped to resettle four waves of European Jewish immigrants fleeing persecution since 1890.

The Rap Center, a JFS initiative aimed at combating drug abuse and homelessness among young people in Richmond, spun off to become the Daily Planet, which this year celebrated its 50th anniversary.

Wendy Kreuter, the chief executive officer of JFS, said Sunday that last year, the group provided 130,000 hours — up from 50,000 hours in 1999 — of care for more than 1,400 clients.

In addition to volunteers, JFS has a full- and part-time staff of 145.

“Our mission has always been to serve the entire community, really, regardless of faith, or ethnicity, or even income level,” she said.

Kreuter said, “I think one of the things JFS has done so well over 17 decades is really work with the needs of the time. And right now, what we do in our three major programs is home care, and care management, and that’s important because there’s an age wave right now.”

In coming years, there will be more older adults than school-age children. The older adults want to be able to stay at home, and JFS is helping them do that, she said.

The group’s two other current main programs are counseling for all ages and adoption, Kreuter said.

A spokeswoman for the group said JFS’ adoption efforts recently merged with Connecting Hearts in VA.

Founded by local entrepreneur and philanthropist Debbie Johnston, Connecting Hearts raises awareness for adopting children in foster care and helping them find “forever” families.

Nearly 20% of the children adopted in central Virginia last year participated in Connecting Hearts, according to JFS.

In all its work, officials said, JFS is led by its mission to “transform lives and strengthen our community.”

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After narrow escape in 2017, Del. Roxann Robinson faces high-dollar rematch with Larry Barnett

Democrat Larry Barnett began the year nearly $94,000 behind Del. Roxann Robinson, R-Chesterfield, in raising money for a rematch to determine who will represent the 27th House District in the next General Assembly.

By the end of August, Barnett had almost $87,000 more in the bank than Robinson, a nine-year incumbent with a coveted seat on the House Appropriations Committee. In the most recent filing period, covering July and August, he raised nearly $159,000, while she received less than $45,000.

“My hope had been to pull ahead,” he said of the fundraising reversal. “I was surprised at the gap that opened up in the last filing period.”

Robinson, first elected in 2010 to complete the unexpired term of Del. Sam Nixon, R-Chesterfield, said raising money is less important than knocking on doors and meeting people in the district.

“Throwing money at it isn’t all that it’s going to take,” she said in an interview. “I think there is a lot to be said for the ground game.”

The closely watched contest in Chesterfield County could help determine which party controls the House. All 100 House seats and 40 Senate seats are on the ballot Nov. 5. Republicans hold a 51-48 edge in the House, with one seat vacant.

Buried in Barnett’s fundraising haul are 48 contributions of $128 each — a pointed reference to the 128-vote margin that allowed Robinson to survive Barnett’s first challenge two years ago and enabled Republicans to maintain what was then a two-seat margin in a House of Delegates transformed by a Democratic electoral wave.

In 2017, Barnett was a lightly financed, first-time candidate who almost won on a Democratic ticket that swept the top three statewide offices, including Ralph Northam’s win for governor.

Now, Barnett is better financed and known, but he’s running in off-year legislative elections that historically have lower turnouts and have favored Republican candidates, said Bob Holsworth, a veteran political analyst and public policy consultant.

“He almost won on Northam’s coattails,” Holsworth said. “This year, he has to win by himself.”

On the other hand, he said Robinson’s anemic fundraising performance coming into Labor Day “was one of the big shockers” in the campaign finance reports released in mid-September.

Barnett’s campaign is banking on big contributions from outside political action committees and major Democratic donors, led by Charlottesville financier Michael Bills and his wife, Sonjia Smith, who have given $20,000 each to the campaign.

He’s also counting on a huge advantage in small donations that Holsworth credits to the national ActBlue website that Democrats have used effectively in Virginia legislative races.

In contrast, Robinson has relied on donations from optometry and other trade groups — she’s an optometrist — and Republican political allies, including House Speaker Kirk Cox, R-Colonial Heights, and Del. Nick Freitas, R-Culpeper.

Freitas, who received a $500,000 contribution from major Republican donor Richard Uihlein of Illinois, has been giving money to GOP candidates and the state party despite having to run a write-in campaign in his own district after being left off the ballot.

“I can’t compete with the out-of-state money that is rolling into his campaign,” Robinson said of Barnett’s money advantage.

Robinson also is counting on a substantial legislative record to court independent and politically moderate voters. This year, for example, she sponsored legislation to protect gay and transgender Virginians from housing discrimination.

Her own party killed the proposal in subcommittee, but Robinson finally succeeded with legislation to repeal the so-called Kings Dominion law so local school divisions can begin the school year before Labor Day, an issue she’s tried to address for the past eight years.

“That was a big hurdle to overcome,” she said.

But her votes that matter most to Democrats were the ones Robinson cast last year against expanding Virginia’s Medicaid program under the Affordable Care Act. She voted against the budget compromise, fashioned by House Republican leadership but adopted with overwhelming Democratic support, to end a five-year political standoff and allow the state to expand the health care program on Jan. 1.

“That was really surprising to me,” said Barnett, a retired Chesterfield mental health official. “That was to me a sign of being out of step with her constituents.”

Robinson said voters aren’t questioning her now on last year’s votes on Medicaid expansion.

“That has never been brought up to me when I go door to door,” she said.

Both candidates have health care backgrounds. Robinson has been a practicing optometrist for more than 30 years. Barnett is a licensed professional counselor who has worked for 31 years at Chesterfield County Mental Health Support Services, including 12 as director of emergency services.

They both emphasize expanding access to health care. Barnett features his experience in behavioral health, while Robinson touts her legislation adopted last year to allow experienced nurse practitioners to practice independently of physicians.

Education is a top issue in the campaign. Robinson is a member of the House Education Committee and, as a member of the Appropriations Committee, supported a 5% raise for teachers this year to bring their salaries closer to the national average. Barnett wants more state funding for school support staff, as well as teachers, and smaller class sizes.

They agree that local issues matter most to voters, despite the national political environment that almost cost Robinson her seat two years ago.

“People are a little more partisan because of the national issues,” she said. “I try to focus them back on what’s happening at the state level.”

The 27th has been in Republican hands since it became a Chesterfield seat in the 1991 redistricting, but it has become much more competitive in recent statewide contests, according to the Virginia Public Access Project.

Republican Donald Trump carried the 27th by 4 percentage points in the 2016 presidential race. In the 2017 contest for governor, Democrat Northam topped Republican Ed Gillespie in the district by 3 percentage points. Just 130 votes separated candidates for lieutenant governor in the district, and the candidates for attorney general were 91 votes apart.

In the end, the 27th District race — and perhaps, control of the House — is likely to come down to voter turnout in a suburban swing district that used to be reliably Republican, Holsworth said.

“The reality is the district has become a very competitive district — if the Democrats can turn out voters.”

New tool launched for tracking sexual assault evidence in Virginia

A system allowing sexual assault victims to follow the evidence recovered in a case as it moves from hospitals to investigators to a forensic lab was launched Friday by the Virginia Department of Forensic Science.

Attorney General Mark Herring said it is Virginia’s first statewide physical evidence recovery kit, or PERK, tracking system — a secure way to allow survivors, the DFS, law enforcement officials and hospitals to know the status and location of a PERK at any given moment.

PERKs are recovered from victims at hospitals and sent by police to a state forensic laboratory for DNA testing. After the analysis is completed and a report written, the lab returns the PERK to law enforcement.

Under Virginia law, sexual assault victims have the right to information from law enforcement about any evidence kit collected from them and submitted for forensic analysis, including the status of the analysis and the results — unless disclosing the information would interfere with the investigation or prosecution of the crime.

DFS officials stressed last year, when the system was under development, that it will not capture a victim’s name or any other identifying information.

The kits will be identifiable only by a PERK identification number or bar code.

If victims wish to report the assault and have it investigated by police, they will also need a personal identification number, or PIN, from police to be able to track the PERK. The police may not grant a PIN if it might jeopardize an investigation or prosecution, officials said.

Victims who do not wish to make a report — but who may change their minds — do not need a PIN to check on the status of their PERK, only the identification number they received at the hospital.

If the victim has reported the offense to police, they can then go to the tracking website and enter the PERK identification number and PIN. If the victim does not have a PIN, they will be told to contact the law enforcement agency investigating the case to obtain one.

In a prepared statement Friday, Herring said, “With this new system, survivors, as well as hospitals, labs and law enforcement agencies, will know exactly what’s happening with a kit, where it is physically located, and where it is in the testing process at any given moment.”

“In years past, survivors often had no idea whether their kit had actually been tested, and we found out it often hadn’t been, which is so disrespectful to a survivor and really undermined trust in the system,” he said.

Linda C. Jackson, the DFS director, said Friday that her department was excited about launching the system.

Jonathan Yglesias with the Virginia Sexual and Domestic Violence Action Alliance said, “This is a crucial step in the direction of establishing systems-based responses that are trauma-informed and healing-centered in their approaches to serving sexual assault survivors.”

In the new system, PERKs will be tracked at each step in the process, including their collection, transfer to law enforcement officials, submission to the forensic laboratory for analysis and the return to the law enforcement agency for storage, the attorney general’s office said.

All agencies handling kits will be required to update the status of each kit, and survivors may use the system to check the status of the analysis of their kits at any time.

The system will notify law enforcement users when collected kits have not been submitted for analysis in a timely manner and will provide law enforcement agencies and hospitals with a tool to manage their kits and inventories.

There are now five organizations or agencies using the system, and the DFS will conduct training with the remaining entities before use of the system is mandatory starting July 1.

The system will ultimately cost about $100,000, paid for out of a $2 million Sexual Assault Kit Initiative federal grant secured in 2017 by Herring and the DFS.