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Iran vows revenge for US attack that killed powerful general

BAGHDAD — Iran promised to seek revenge for a U.S. airstrike near Baghdad’s airport that killed the mastermind of its interventions across the Middle East, and the U.S. said Friday that it was sending thousands more troops to the region as tensions soared in the wake of the targeted killing.

The death of Gen. Qassem Soleimani, head of Iran’s elite Quds Force, marks a major escalation in the standoff between Washington and Tehran, which has careened from one crisis to another since U.S. President Donald Trump withdrew from the 2015 nuclear deal and imposed crippling sanctions.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo argued the U.S. case with allies in the Middle East and beyond, asserting that Friday’s drone strike killing Soleimani was a necessary act of self-defense. He asserted that Soleimani was plotting a series of attacks that endangered many American troops and officials across the Middle East.

In brief remarks to the nation, Trump said the Iranian general had been plotting “imminent and sinister” attacks. At the Pentagon, Army Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the U.S. had “compelling, clear, unambiguous intelligence” of Soleimani plotting violent acts.

“Oh, by the way, it might still happen,” Milley said, referring to the planned attacks.

Almost 24 hours after the attack on Soleimani, Iraqi officials and Iranian-backed militias in Iraq reported another deadly airstrike.

An Iraqi government official reported a strike on two vehicles north of Baghdad but had no information on casualties. Another security official who witnessed the aftermath described charred vehicles and said five people were killed. Both officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media.

Iraqi state television and the media arm of the Iran-backed militias known as the Popular Mobilization Forces also reported the strike. The group said its medics were targeted.

An American official who spoke on the condition on anonymity denied the U.S. was behind the reported attack.

The targeted strike against Soleimani and any retaliation by Iran could ignite a conflict that engulfs the whole region, endangering U.S. troops in Iraq, Syria and beyond. Over the last two decades, Soleimani had assembled a network of heavily armed allies stretching all the way to southern Lebanon, on Israel’s doorstep.

“We take comfort in knowing that his reign of terror is over,” Trump said of Soleimani.

Virginia’s U.S. senators, Democrats Mark Warner and Tim Kaine, said Soleimani was responsible for the deaths of thousands of people in the Middle East, including many Americans. But they said Trump should have consulted with Congress, and they raised concerns about an escalating conflict.

Warner, vice chairman of the Senate intelligence committee, said in a statement: “Presidential administrations of both parties have traditionally consulted with Congress before conducting strategically significant military actions.”

He said they have done so “not only because it is constitutionally appropriate, and not only because doing so provides the opportunity to secure bipartisan congressional support — but also because that process allows for the airing of outside perspectives that might not otherwise be considered, and ensures that tough questions get answered.”

Kaine, a member of both the armed services and foreign relations committees, said: “As I have warned for years, Trump’s decision to tear up a diplomatic deal that was working and resume escalating aggressions with Iran has brought us to the brink of another war in the Middle East.”

The United States said it was sending nearly 3,000 more troops to the Middle East, reflecting concern about potential Iranian retaliation. The U.S. also urged Americans to leave Iraq immediately following the airstrike at Baghdad’s international airport that Iran’s state TV said killed Soleimani and nine others.

The State Department said the embassy in Baghdad, which was attacked by Iran-backed militiamen and their supporters earlier this week, is closed and all consular services have been suspended.

Around 5,200 American troops are based in Iraq to train Iraqi forces and help in the fight against Islamic State militants. Defense officials who discussed the new troop movements spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss a decision not yet announced by the Pentagon.

A Pentagon official who was not authorized to speak publicly said the U.S. also had placed an Army brigade on alert to fly into Lebanon to protect the American Embassy. U.S. embassies also issued a security alert for Americans in Bahrain, Kuwait and Nigeria.

The announcement about sending more troops came as Trump said Soleimani’s killing was not an effort to begin a conflict with Iran.

“We took action last night to stop a war. We did not take action to start a war,” Trump said, adding that he does not seek regime change in Iran.

After the Soleimani killing, Pompeo announced that he was placing the Iran-backed Iraqi militia Asaib Ahl al-Haq on the State Department’s “foreign terrorist organization” blacklist, which blocks any assets the group may have in U.S. jurisdictions and bars Americans from providing it with material support.

Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, vowed “harsh retaliation” after the airstrike, calling Soleimani the “international face of resistance.” Khamenei declared three days of public mourning and appointed Maj. Gen. Esmail Ghaani, Soleimani’s deputy, to replace him as head of the Quds Force.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani called the killing a “heinous crime” and said his country would “take revenge.” Iran twice summoned the Swiss envoy, the first time delivering a letter to pass to Washington.

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif called the U.S. attack a “cowardly terrorist action” and said Iran has the right to respond “in any method and any time.”

Thousands of worshipers in Tehran took to the streets after Friday prayers to condemn the killing, waving posters of Soleimani and chanting “Death to deceitful America.”

However, the attack could act as a deterrent for Iran and its allies to delay or restrain any potential response. Trump said possible targets had been identified and the U.S. was prepared.

The killing promised to further strain relations with Iraq’s government, which is allied with both Washington and Tehran and has been deeply worried about becoming a battleground in their rivalry. Iraqi politicians close to Iran called for the country to order U.S. forces out.

The U.S. Defense Department said it killed the 62-year-old Soleimani because he “was actively developing plans to attack American diplomats and service members in Iraq and throughout the region.” It also accused Soleimani of approving orchestrated violent protests at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad.

The strike, on an access road near Baghdad’s airport, was carried out early Friday by an American drone, according to a U.S. official.

Soleimani had just disembarked from a plane arriving from either Syria or Lebanon, a senior Iraqi security official said. The blast tore apart his body and that of Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, deputy commander of the Iran-backed Popular Mobilization Forces. A senior politician said Soleimani’s body was identified by the ring he wore.

The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to reporters.

Others killed include five members of Iran’s elite Revolutionary Guard and Soleimani’s son-in-law, Iranian state TV said.

Supporters of the strike against Soleimani said it restored U.S. deterrence power against Iran, and Trump allies were quick to praise the action.

“To the Iranian government: if you want more, you will get more,” South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham tweeted.

“Hope this is the first step to regime change in Tehran,” Trump’s former national security adviser, John Bolton, wrote in a tweet.

Others, including Democratic presidential hopefuls, criticized Trump’s order. Former Vice President Joe Biden said Trump had “tossed a stick of dynamite into a tinderbox,” saying it could leave the U.S. “on the brink of a major conflict across the Middle East.”

Trump, who was vacationing at his private club in Palm Beach, Fla., said he ordered the airstrike because Soleimani had killed and wounded many Americans over the years and was plotting to kill many more.

“He should have been taken out many years ago,” Trump added.

While Iran’s conventional military has faced 40 years of American sanctions, Iran can strike in the region through its allied forces like Lebanon’s Hezbollah, Iraqi militias and Yemen’s Houthi rebels.

Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah called on “the resistance the world over” to avenge Soleimani’s killing. Frictions over oil shipments in the Gulf also could increase, and Iran’s Revolutionary Guard has built up a ballistic missile program.

Iran’s Supreme National Security Council said Friday that it had made “appropriate decisions” on how to respond but didn’t elaborate.

Killer of state police special agent accused of stabbing inmate at Northern Neck Regional Jail

A Richmond man sentenced to 36 years in prison for killing a Virginia State Police special agent in 2017 allegedly stabbed another inmate a week before Christmas at the Northern Neck Regional Jail in Richmond County, where he is being held on a federal gun charge.

Travis Aaron Ball, 30, is accused of using a shank to stab another inmate Dec. 18 during a disagreement between the two men in a day room at the facility, said Ted Hull, superintendent of the Northern Neck Regional Jail.

The victim suffered puncture wounds to his hand, scalp and neck and was hospitalized for three days, Hull said. He was released Dec. 21 and returned to the jail.

“The injuries were serious but at no point did anybody feel they were life-threatening,” Hull added.

Hull said his staff conducted an internal investigation and those findings were turned over this week to Richmond County Commonwealth’s Attorney Elizabeth Trible for review. She will determine whether criminal charges are warranted, Hull said.

Ball has already been charged within the facility with assault and hindering an employee of the jail, Hull said. Those are institutional and not criminal charges. If found guilty, Ball could be placed in segregation for up to 15 days.

A jail investigation determined the assault stemmed from an argument between the men that Hull said was apparently triggered over what they were watching on television in the day room.

“It was strictly situational,” Hull said. “It wasn’t part of any premeditation. During the course of incarceration, oftentimes you get two people who have dominant personalities and sometimes conflict arises.”

In December 2018, Ball was sentenced to 36 years in prison in Richmond Circuit Court for the murder of Special Agent Michael T. Walter on May 26, 2017, while Walter was patrolling Mosby Court with a Richmond police officer.

The unexpectedly light sentences shocked then-Richmond Commonwealth’s Attorney Michael Herring and police in the courtroom when it was imposed. Herring had sought a 60-year term, the maximum allowed under a plea deal.

Herring said the plea deal guaranteed that Ball was convicted of a capital crime, typically punishable by death or life in prison.

If the case had gone before a jury, the defense planned to argue that the gun went off accidentally in the midst of a struggle between Walter and Ball, which could have led to a verdict of a lesser charge like first-degree murder or second-degree murder, Herring said.

Richmond Circuit Judge Beverly W. Snukals sentenced Ball to life in prison, which was suspended in accordance with the plea agreement, and then gave him 36 years in prison.

In September, Ball was indicted by a federal grand jury for possessing a .25-caliber firearm in May 2017. The maximum term for that offense is 10 years.

Ball is scheduled to appear Thursday for a hearing in the matter, and his trial date has been set for Feb. 25-26.

Ball had been held at Wallens Ridge State Prison before he was indicted on the federal charge. He was then transferred to the Northern Neck facility, where defendants facing federal charges are often held.

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Former UVA linebacker sentenced for second time to 40 years in $10 million fraud

A former standout football player at L.C. Bird High School and the University of Virginia was sentenced Friday to 40 years in prison in a $10 million fraud that cost 63 investors $9 million — some of them their life savings.

Merrill Robertson Jr., 39, of Chesterfield County was convicted by a jury in October of conspiracy, mail fraud, wire fraud, bank fraud and money laundering that victimized family, friends, coaches, teammates, churchgoers and even his Sunday school teacher.

U.S. District Judge John A. Gibney Jr. imposed a term above the roughly 20 to 24 years called for under federal sentencing guidelines, citing the egregiousness of the crimes that he said left victims serving life sentences.

Robertson and co-conspirator Sherman Carl Vaughn, 48, started Cavalier Union Investments LLC and Black Bull Wealth Management LLC. From 2008 to 2016, they solicited victims to invest in private funds and other investments.

Checks from investors were deposited into business accounts, and the two perpetrators took commissions off the top. Vaughn testified that they targeted retirement savings because that was where the money was.

Robertson also talked some investors into taking out shady loans in which much of the proceeds went to him and other conspirators, leaving some victims without retirement savings and also in debt with wrecked credit ratings.

He used relationships and contacts made through playing football at Bird, Fork Union Military Academy, UVA and briefly in the National Football League to identify potential investors. Vaughn, who pleaded guilty and testified against Robertson, was sentenced to 12 years.

Last year, a federal appeals court overturned Robertson’s convictions in his first trial, ruling that Gibney had not questioned jurors closely enough on whether they had read a newspaper account of the trial.

Robertson was retried in October and convicted again of the same crimes. On Friday, he received the same sentence imposed by Gibney in 2018.

A number of victims were in the courtroom Friday and heard something they had not heard before: an apology.

“I want to say that I am truly, truly, truly, truly sorry,” said Robertson, looking back toward the victims from the podium in front of the judge. Given a chance to speak before he was sentenced, he said he made some bad mistakes.

Robertson said, “These people loved me, they cared about me and they trusted me, and I’m sorry.”

Gibney, however, was not dissuaded by Robertson or his lawyers from imposing the same sentence.

“This is not a mistake,” the judge said. “A mistake doesn’t last for eight or 10 years. A mistake doesn’t leave 63 people broke, or close to broke.”

Gibney said he found it particularly troublesome that Robertson used religion to fleece people.

“He prayed with people before he took their money,” he said. “That’s a way of getting somebody’s confidence ... that goes beyond the pale.”

Prosecutors wrote in a sentencing memorandum that Robertson “collected money from, among others, his brother-in-law, his childhood Sunday School teacher, his high school basketball coach, and the man who recruited him to play linebacker at the University of Virginia. The Court also heard numerous witnesses testify that the defendant preyed on people’s religious faith, often quoting scriptures or praying with investors to lead them to believe that their money was in honest hands. Fraud cases are always ultimately about lying to and stealing from others. But, the defendant’s willingness to harm those that have loved, supported, and mentored him is especially abhorrent.”

One victim had to sell his home, and others declared bankruptcy. An elderly victim who died following the first trial could not afford in-home care or assisted living because of her losses. The widow of another victim wrote that the sense of shame and financial strain contributed to her husband’s suicide, prosecutors wrote.

Katherine Lee Martin, an assistant U.S. attorney, suggested to Gibney on Friday that a sentence longer than the guidelines remained appropriate in the case.

One of several victims who addressed the court Friday was told shortly before her daughter’s wedding that the wedding was off because a check written by Robertson to pay the country club bounced. The wedding went on but only because a friend lent her $12,500.

Another victim, Danny Wilmer, the former UVA football coach who recruited Robertson and who lost nearly $500,000, has suffered a stroke since Robertson was sentenced two years ago.

“I’ve lost about everything, your honor,” Wilmer said Friday. “I worked hard for my money all my life.”

David Hulser, a special agent with the FBI, testified that authorities looked for the invested money but said, “Nothing’s left. ... Everything was spent.”

Robertson and Vaughn spent the money on mortgages for luxury homes, vacations, spas, a private suite at UVA football games, shopping, jewelry, charitable donations, private school tuition and other ways not authorized by the investors.

Robertson had been employed and trained as a financial adviser by the wealth management firm Merrill Lynch. Evidence showed he left that company to launch his career in fraud.

In court papers, his lawyers wrote that Robertson, who had no prior criminal record, “is a kind, generous, hard-working person, a dutiful son, a loving husband, and a devoted father.”

“The offenses for which he was charged and convicted are aberrations in what has otherwise been an honorable, law-abiding life,” they argued.

One man who lost $5,500 investing with Robertson testified on his behalf Friday, describing him as “a courteous, polite young man.”

Michael Hu Young, one of his lawyers, asked Gibney on Friday to impose a prison term within the guideline range.

Before adjourning court, Gibney said the case was a tragedy all the way around, not just for the victims but for Robertson, who had a promising life that is now ruined.

“It just makes me terribly sad,” he said.

After Friday’s hearing, Wilmer, asked if he believed Robertson was sorry, said, “He’s fooled me so many times I don’t know.”

Northam backs marijuana decriminalization, raising felony larceny threshold to $1,000

Gov. Ralph Northam said Friday that he would throw his weight behind the decriminalization of marijuana in Virginia this year but said he wants to study full legalization before going further.

Northam announced legislation Friday that would make possession of small amounts of marijuana a civil offense carrying a $50 penalty, instead of a criminal misdemeanor.

The proposal is part of a broader “criminal justice reform agenda” that includes changes to the state’s parole system, a higher threshold for theft to be considered a felony, and an increase to the age at which a young offender can be tried as an adult from 14 to 16.

Seeking to further a key 2019 win by his administration, Northam proposes to permanently eliminate the automatic suspension of driver’s licenses for unpaid fines, fees and court costs. Lawmakers had backed the reinstatement of licenses for 627,000 Virginians last year; Northam is proposing to end the practice permanently.

“All Virginians deserve access to a fair and equitable criminal justice system,” Northam said Friday during an event at OAR Richmond, a nonprofit that helps rehabilitate people formerly incarcerated. “This is a bold step towards a more just and inclusive commonwealth.”

Easing the legal consequences for marijuana possession has for years been a goal of Democrats, who have been blocked by some Republicans in a formerly GOP-controlled legislature.

Northam and other Democrats have argued that enforcement is expensive as possession of the drug becomes widespread. They also say it disproportionately jails African Americans.

The measure might see some GOP support. Sen. Siobhan Dunnavant, R-Henrico, supports decriminalization and has expressed support for the use of medical cannabis.

Northam is proposing to do away with criminal prosecution for people arrested with up to a half-ounce of marijuana or about 14 grams. An average joint contains a third to a half of a gram, according to academic and federal estimates.

Right now, possession of that amount could result in a $500 fine and 30 days in jail. A second arrest could result in a $2,500 fine, driver’s license suspension and up to a year in jail.

Northam is also backing legislation that would expunge the records of individuals who have been convicted for possessing up to a half-ounce of marijuana.

He also wants to end the suspension of driver’s licenses for drug crimes, and for driving off without paying for gas at a gas station.

If the marijuana measures are passed, Virginia would join 26 other states that have passed decriminalization measures or eliminated the possibility of jail time for possession of small amounts, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Of those 26, 11 have fully legalized possession of small amounts of marijuana.

On Friday, Northam stopped short of supporting legalization. During a gaggle with reporters, Northam pointed to his career as a pediatrician and said he has concerns about encouraging drug use among young people.

Northam added that he wants to understand how other states are grappling with and implementing legalization, and that he is backing legislation that would call for a formal review of the issue. He said that if a piece of legislation to legalize marijuana arrived at his desk for signature, he would consider it.

Advocates may find a supporter in Attorney General Mark Herring, who wrote in a recent opinion column that Virginia should “start moving toward legal and regulated adult use.” No bills have been filed to fully legalize the drug for recreational use.

Bill Farrar of the ACLU of Virginia said Friday that the state should go further, and “move past incremental discussions about decriminalization.”

“Leaving a civil fine in place will continue to allow police to use a purported odor to disproportionately stop people of color for searches or to charge them with other crimes,” he said in a statement. “There is no reason to wait any longer to simply strike simple possession from the criminal code.”

Northam on Friday also said he will support legislation to make it more difficult for theft to be classified as a felony. In 2018, lawmakers raised the threshold from $200 to $500, the first time it had been raised since 1980. Northam is proposing to double it to $1,000.

It’s a strategy states are moving toward as criminal justice reform advocates note that thresholds set in the 1980s and before have not been adjusted for inflation. Felony convictions, they argue, can hinder offenders from obtaining work, and accessing public housing and welfare.

A 2017 study from The Pew Charitable Trusts found that raising the threshold did not affect downward trends in property crime and theft rates in the 30 states that made the change between 2000 and 2012.

Northam’s criminal reform package also includes bills that would expand the number of people potentially eligible for parole. Virginia abolished parole in 1995, but people sentenced before that are still eligible.

Northam said he would support legislation that would allow people sentenced by jury between 1995 and 2000 to also be eligible, given a court ruling that found jurors were not told parole had been abolished.

Northam also wants people with terminal illnesses and who are permanently disabled to be eligible for parole.

Farrar, of the ACLU, said the governor’s package “touches upon many important aspects of badly needed” reforms, but “falls far short of what is needed.”

Farrar praised the move to permanently end the license suspensions, but said an increase in the theft felony threshold up to $1,500 would be more appropriate. He also said he questioned how the terminally ill and disabled might be cared for if released on parole.

Virginia State Police  

Virginia State Police Special Agent Michael T. Walter, 45, was fatally shot in Mosby Court in May 2017.