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With new CEO, RRHA readies aggressive push for demolition and redevelopment of public housing

Richmond’s public housing agency has spent years grappling for solutions as conditions have deteriorated for residents of the city’s poorest neighborhoods.

Now, a new CEO is promising swift action to achieve a goal city leaders have long discussed as federal support for public housing has dwindled and needs have mounted.

Damon Duncan, the fifth person to lead the Richmond Redevelopment and Housing Authority in a decade, has vowed to raze and replace the aging apartment complexes that thousands of people call home — beginning with Gilpin Court, the city’s oldest and largest.

“I’m looking at this like I got a big plot of land, which is what I’m going to have. I’m not going to let nobody convince me to rehab [Gilpin], put a new facade, a new canopy over the doors,” Duncan said. “No — we’re not doing none of that. We’re tearing it down.”

Late last month, RRHA issued a “request for qualifications” to line up private developers to replace its biggest properties with mixed-income neighborhoods. A new market analysis the housing authority commissioned shows how the existing communities could be carved up to make way for young singles and empty-nesters, capitalizing on new residents moving into the city who pay higher rents.

Public housing agencies across the country are partnering with private companies to replace their deteriorating buildings, which the federal government estimates have a cumulative backlog of nearly $26 billion in maintenance needs.

RRHA last month applied for a $350,000 federal grant to chart the redevelopment of Gilpin and North Jackson Ward. The prospect has met skepticism from some residents and advocates who say the opinions of those living there deserve more consideration.

Duncan, who came from Elgin, Ill., in March, isn’t the first to set his sights on Gilpin.

In early 2009, Richmond leaders promised to knock down the 781-unit complex just north of downtown. In its place would rise a mixed-income community with thousands of new apartments and homes where Gilpin residents could live side by side with newcomers. The $503 million revitalization would breathe new life into a neighborhood at the doorstep of downtown — prime real estate.

Today, Gilpin stands unchanged; the plans shelved as the housing authority cycled through leadership and city officials switched focus to other projects.

An overhaul of Creighton Court, a 504-unit complex in the city’s East End, took precedence. Under construction now are the first 105 apartments of a 256-unit development rising at the old Armstrong High School site on North 31st Street.

The housing authority has also shepherded a slow-going overhaul of the former Dove Court complex, not far from Gilpin. The first 128 homes built in the new community, Highland Grove, opened in 2013. Plans to build up to 155 more homes there cleared the City Council earlier this year.

Richmond leaders have long said large public housing communities cut off the city’s poorest residents from services and opportunity in communities suffering from crime and violence. The condition of the housing itself is also a concern; most is more than 50 years old.

“We’ve really run out of time with this housing stock,” said Bob Adams, chairman of the RRHA board of commissioners.

At Gilpin, roofs sag and windows leak in apartments worn down by time. Families use kitchens and bathrooms that are obsolete. The foundations holding up some of the 98 buildings that make up the complex are cracking; some date to before the end of World War II.

It would cost $130.5 million, or about $167,000 per unit, to rehabilitate the complex, according to an assessment RRHA submitted to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development as a part of the recent grant application.

Bulldozing the complex would do more than give Duncan a plot of land. It would bring upheaval for a community of more than 2,000 people.

Annie Mahdee has called the neighborhood home for nearly half a century. Her one-bedroom apartment on St. Peter Street could be demolished if the plans move forward.

Mahdee, Gilpin’s tenant council president, said she thinks redevelopment could bring good things, including better housing, access to jobs and less crime. But a concern eats at her, one that she has heard others express as talk of a transformation ramped up after Duncan’s arrival.

“If they tear this down, where am I going?”

For some families, the answer will be elsewhere. Duncan said he envisions a denser, mixed-income neighborhood replacing the Gilpin community, but he cautioned that all current residents wouldn’t necessarily end up there.

“Some folks would live in the redeveloped properties. Some folks will take vouchers and live somewhere else. Some folks may not make it at all because they’re not in good standing,” he said, referring to criteria the housing authority uses to determine its residents’ eligibility for placement in new housing.

Fear of displacement looms large in Gilpin and at the other large public housing communities because of past housing authority-led redevelopment efforts.

Demolition of 440 public housing units in the late 1990s scattered families from the Blackwell neighborhood. Some ended up moving to other RRHA properties. More recently, the housing authority has taken a different approach. Family transition coaches have worked with Creighton residents to prepare for the eventual demolition of the complex.

Out of the botched Blackwell effort sprung a guiding principle that city leaders ultimately embraced for future projects: one-for-one replacement of each public housing unit with a new unit reserved for residents of public housing. The pledge resulted from work led by a community strategist, Lillie A. Estes, who lived in Gilpin before her death in January.

But comments Duncan made at a meeting with Gilpin residents in late May indicated he may break with the practice. He demurred when asked at the meeting whether they would all receive an apartment in the revitalized neighborhood.

The statement was a red flag to Victoria Horrock, a staff attorney with the Legal Aid Justice Center.

Duncan said that in lieu of a replacement unit, RRHA may offer residents a voucher, a portable housing subsidy that limits rent to 30% of a family’s income, same as they pay for a public housing unit. Vouchers pose different challenges, Horrock said. Chief among those: finding landlords who will accept them.

“It doesn’t come with the level of stability that a brick-and-mortar unit of subsidized housing would,” Horrock said. “That may be great for some families, but I think the guarantee of an actual apartment needs to be there.”

The firm has closely monitored a five-year agency plan RRHA must submit to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development later this year. The plan solidifies the housing authority’s intent to pursue demolition and redevelopment of its properties.

Horrock worries the plan hasn’t been adequately vetted by residents. She cites a sparsely attended — and she contends sparsely advertised — meeting held in Gilpin Court in June to gather input. Few residents attended. None spoke.

The public comment period on the five-year plan ends Monday. Residents can submit comments in person at the RRHA offices at 901 Chamberlayne Parkway.


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Thursday was Richmond's wettest 4th of July on record, and its wettest day of 2019

When it comes to rain on Independence Day, the timing tends to be more important than the amount.

This year, we struck out in both regards: a record total from storms that didn’t taper off entirely until after sundown.

Every part of the metro area saw rain and heard thunder during the late afternoon and early evening, causing some fireworks shows to be called off, but the intensity of the rain varied greatly across local neighborhoods.

On the low end, some pockets within Chesterfield County got away with just a few hundredths of an inch. Observers measured nearly 3 inches around Lakeside and East Highland Park, while radar estimated that 3 to 4 inches fell near Chester and Mechanicsville.

Technically, it was the city’s wettest July 4 on record based on the official total at Richmond International Airport.

Its 2.05-inch catch on Thursday made for several statistical feats:

  • It beat the previous daily rainfall record of 1.57 inches from 1981. It’s worth pointing out, however, that this was a case of low-hanging fruit. Prior to this, every other date in the month of July had a higher rain record, with most in excess of 2 inches.
  • It was the wettest day at RIC so far in 2019. We have to go back to Tropical Storm Michael last October to find a higher daily total. Another caveat: Some towns to the north and west of Richmond had an even bigger deluge in early June. Location often makes all the difference.
  • It’s the first daily precipitation record there so far this year.
  • 1.84 inches fell in an hour alone, which is high but not an hourly record.

***

When we set that previous Independence Day rain record in 1981, the wet weather departed in time for a nice evening.

“Skies Clear, Events Go On” read the front page headline of The Times-Dispatch on July 5, 1981.

If only we were so lucky.

Fortunately, Thursday’s thunderstorms didn’t bring damaging wind or hail reports to metro Richmond.

Why the impressive rain totals, and why the lack of predictability leading up to the holiday?

The winds aloft were very light, but the atmosphere was loaded with a high level of water vapor.

The super-high dew point of 76 on Thursday afternoon, while fittingly patriotic, allowed a temperature of 91 to feel like a heat index of 103.

That heat, moisture and lack of wind made for disorganized and slow-moving thunderstorm cells with prolific rainfall rates.

Luckily, our area has been rather dry over the past couple of weeks, which probably kept flash flooding from being a more serious issue on Thursday.

That takes the year-to-date precipitation at RIC up to 26.96 inches through Friday afternoon, which is a surplus of 5.63 inches.

It’s been a wet year, but nowhere near as wet as 2018 had been up to this point: we’d picked up just over 35 inches by July 5, 2018.

On the bright side, there’s a 60% chance that July 4, 2020, will stay dry.


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Three years after fatal boating accident, state game department faces questions about conduct

On the eve of Independence Day three years ago, a 17-year-old North Carolina woman died in a boating accident at Smith Mountain Lake, a tragedy that now has raised doubts about the conduct of Virginia conservation police in an investigation and criminal trial that resolved nothing but left a Martinsville family publicly scarred.

A four-day trial of Drew Hall, who drove the boat that collided with a jet ski on the lake on July 3, 2016, ended with his conviction on a reduced misdemeanor charge that a Pittsylvania County judge threw out this year when it became clear that the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries had withheld evidence that was critical to his defense.

The evidence — suggesting that the jet ski driver, not Hall, might have been at fault in the fatal collision — also was an unhappy surprise for Pittsylvania Commonwealth’s Attorney Bryan Haskins, who questioned whether it would have changed the outcome of the trial but acknowledged that it should have been provided to defense attorneys.

“It chafes my rear end [that] this information was withheld,” Haskins told General District Judge George A. Jones Jr. at a hearing in March, almost 18 months since Hall’s conviction for improper boating in the death of Gabrielle “Gabby” Ayers of Pfafftown, N.C., a passenger on the jet ski.

The outcome has cast doubt over the conduct of game department conservation officers, who have broad law enforcement powers, and their accountability for depriving Hall of his constitutional right to a fair trial, including access to all evidence and the ability to cross-examine accusers.

“They did withhold evidence — the question is whether it was intentional or negligent,” said Bill Stanley, a Republican state senator and defense attorney who represented Hall.

Game department officials defended the officers but acknowledged a previous lack of uniform training and professional standards for its statewide law enforcement division.

“Our intent was to comply completely,” said Maj. Scott Naff, assistant chief of law enforcement operations, who said the department began establishing uniform standards and creating a major incident investigation team in late 2016, independently of the fatal boating accident less than six months earlier.

However, Naff said he is confident that if the charges were tried again with the additional evidence, “it would not change the outcome of the case.”

Jones, the judge who had presided over the trial, said during the March 18 hearing that he couldn’t say whether the evidence would have changed his verdict, but he agreed that its absence had deprived the former Hampden-Sydney College student of his constitutional right to a fair trial. The judge threw out the verdict, clearing Hall’s record but leaving him disillusioned about a criminal investigation he said wrongly targeted him from the moment it began.

“We’re in the same position right now we were in the day the accident happened, as to who was at fault,” Hall, now 23, said in a telephone conference call at McGuireWoods Consulting, which is representing his family in an ongoing quest to hold the game department accountable for its actions in the investigation.

“Many simple things could have been done to clear this up,” he said. “Everybody overlooked it as if it didn’t matter, when it really did matter to me, my family, my entire future.”

Traumatized by his involvement in a fatal accident and vilified by some on social media, Hall dropped out of Hampden-Sydney soon before the trial in 2017. A year later, his mother, Sallie, died of a heart attack at age 53, days before she was scheduled to give a deposition in a multimillion-dollar civil lawsuit the Ayers family filed against Hall and the jet ski driver, Rentz Brandt of Danville, over the wrongful death of their daughter.

“She was very stressed about it,” said his father, Richard Hall, whose Freedom of Information Act requests ultimately uncovered two sets of notes by conservation police that weren’t provided to the prosecution or defense for trial.

Those notes would have been crucial evidence for the defense, said Stanley, who represented Hall with Tom Cullen, now U.S. attorney for the Western District of Virginia.

“This wasn’t little stuff that didn’t make a difference,” Stanley said in an interview. “This was big stuff that could have made a difference.”

***

On July 3, 2016, a crowd had gathered for celebratory fireworks on the bank of a cove around the Anthony Ford Boat Ramp. Hall, then 20, was piloting a power boat, accompanied by Capers Zentmeyer, 22, that began to pick up speed as it left the cove for the main channel of the lake.

A jet ski driven by Brandt, then 19, collided with the boat, and Ayers, who was riding on the back of the jet ski, was fatally injured. Hall jumped into the lake fully clothed in an effort to rescue both of them and bring them to shore, but Ayers could not be revived. Brandt, who had minor injuries, was taken to a hospital.

“From the best of my knowledge, there was nothing more I could have done personally,” Hall said. “I literally was willing to drown to make sure that no one else drowned while I was there. I knew that was something I couldn’t live with.”

The game department investigation concluded that the angle of impact showed that Hall’s boat had overtaken and run over the jet ski because he had been inattentive, possibly because of a beer he acknowledged drinking with dinner almost two hours earlier.

The prosecutor also presented witness testimony that the jet ski was barely moving when it collided with the boat, although Zentmeyer said the collision was so hard it knocked the boat off course.

Hall was charged with reckless boating, underage alcohol consumption and possession of fake IDs.

An expert hired by Hall’s family said the jet ski had approached the boat at a 45-degree angle, meaning it was crossing the vessel’s path.

The defense said its argument was bolstered by evidence that was withheld during trial — notes of one conservation officer suggesting that the jet ski approached the boat at a 45-degree angle and a recording, discovered suddenly during the trial, in which Brandt said that when he saw the boat to his right, “like I tried to swerve but I hit it.”

Conservation officer Dallas Neel, who led the game department investigation, acknowledged the existence of the recording in response to defense lawyers’ requests to Haskins. The prosecutor immediately shared the recording with defense attorneys, who said they listened to it with astonishment in a room behind the courtroom in Chatham.

“We said, ‘Holy cow! That’s a big difference!’ ” Stanley recalled. “At the moment of impact, the vessels had changed their positions.”

Stanley said that change of positions was fatal to Ayers, who suffered multiple injuries to her right side as the back of the swerving jet ski collided with the boat. “She became the point of impact.”

The recording had not been provided to the prosecutor or the defense as evidence, but instead investigators had provided a summary of Brandt’s interview, conducted in a Franklin County hospital by a conservation officer who had forgotten his recorder and borrowed one from another officer.

“This was not something that we intentionally withheld,” said Naff, who blamed the confusion on “a switcheroo in the field.”

Stanley was skeptical of the explanation. “They had it at their fingertips,” he said.

Hall’s lawyers were able to cross-examine Brandt again, based on the recording. Ultimately, the judge convicted Hall of a reduced charge of improper boating and fined him $300, along with $441 in court fees and a requirement of 20 hours of community service.

What the judge, prosecutor and defense team didn’t know was that Neel had taken notes in conferring with another officer. The notes suggested that the jet ski driver was at fault and that both Brandt and Hall should be charged with reckless boating.

The notes came to light after Hall’s father, a former Orion Capital executive with experience in due diligence research for investors, devoted the next year to a dogged pursuit of information to exonerate his son. He filed roughly a dozen Freedom of Information requests and a series of complaints against Neel and other officers involved in the investigation.

“I thought that the system would work,” he said in an interview.

Game department officials said they had turned over a large volume of documents to the prosecutor, who has an open file policy for defense lawyers to review all evidence that could be used in trial.

“If he gets it, we get it,” Stanley said of Haskins, who declined to comment on the case.

Game officials attribute the absence of the field notes and other missteps to confusion in the field, with multiple conservation officers involved at the scene of the accident and in its aftermath.

“It was not a clean scene,” Naff said. “It was a bloody scene. It was just chaos.”

Hall and his family say the investigation targeted him unfairly from the beginning. A field sobriety test showed his blood alcohol level at .015, well below the level for intoxication even for a minor.

Conservation police initially included alcohol as a cause of the accident, because of a series of tests they said showed he was impaired but Stanley contends were improperly administered. Ultimately, the department dropped alcohol as a primary cause of the accident on its report to the U.S. Coast Guard, over Neel’s objections.

The judge also dismissed an underage possession charge against Hall under the state’s first offender statute and the fake ID charge because it cited the wrong law.

Hall’s attorneys said the same conservation officer who forgot his recorder also failed to bring his alcohol test kit to the hospital to test Brandt, who showed no sign of alcohol more than 3½ hours after the accident.

Hall’s defense also raised questions about whether Brandt had used marijuana the day of the accident. On cross-examination by Hall’s lawyers, he said he would prefer not to answer the question.

Brandt has filed a civil lawsuit against Hall that is pending. Early this year insurers settled the suit filed by Ayers’ family, although Richard Hall said he had wanted the insurers to wait until the decision on vacating the criminal verdict.

Ayers’ family did not respond to a request for comment through its lawyer in North Carolina, Richard Keshian. Carter Keeney, a Richmond-area lawyer representing Brandt, said, “We’re not commenting.”

***

The judge’s decision to vacate Hall’s improper boating conviction came as a surprise to Gary Martel, acting executive director of the game department, who said he learned of it when the Richmond Times-Dispatch contacted him in early June.

Martel, a longtime game department official with a background in fisheries management, will relinquish the interim leadership role on Monday, when Ryan J. Brown, a former lawyer in the state attorney general’s office, will become executive director of the agency.

The department said it thought it had settled the case and questions about its conduct last October, after an independent investigation of the Hall family’s complaints against Neel and two other conservation officers.

“The department is committed to conducting thorough administrative investigations to determine if there are problems with actions and performance of our personnel,” Martel wrote to Richard Hall on Oct. 17.

He said the department had made “appropriate corrections and additions to these investigation reports,” with 16 changes, including a reversal of the inclusion of alcohol as a cause of the accident.

The department has declined to release the findings of the investigation, conducted by former Capitol Police Chief Kimberly Lettner. Normally, the department would handle such an investigation administratively, but it sought outside help because the assistant chief for administration, Maj. Bryan Young, was part of the boating accident investigation and directly supervised Neel.

“We did not want any hint of bias,” Naff said.

Lettner would not comment on the investigation because it was about personnel issues. The department did not say whether it had taken any disciplinary actions, but said the officers involved remain in their positions, with the exception of one who transferred to another part of the state.

The outcome did not satisfy Richard Hall, who said he had met with Lettner during the investigation. He said she confirmed that she was aware the department had withheld potentially exculpatory evidence under the constitutional doctrine established by the U.S. Supreme Court in Brady v. Maryland in 1963.

“The seriousness of not addressing the Brady violations cannot be understated,” he said in an email message. “The failure to address the ethical fairness of a citizen’s rights at the agency’s highest leadership level compromises the integrity of the agency and leads to further questions of why the agency is protecting its own over the rights of the citizens it serves.”

The game department’s law enforcement division will be part of a pending study of the agency by the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission

Department leaders say they were already taking steps to improve the performance of its law enforcement division, with an emphasis on training, uniform standards across the state and staffing, including the creation of a major incident investigation team.

“It was a time of transition within our law enforcement division,” said Naff, who was promoted to assistant chief in late 2016.

The new major accident team will allow the department to focus on big investigations without other distractions, he said, “so hopefully things won’t fall through a crack.”

For Martel, the biggest lesson of the Smith Mountain Lake investigation was “training — the need for better, uniform training across the state.”

Drew Hall, back in school at Patrick Henry Community College in Henry County, wants to help others who don’t have the same financial means as his family to protect their rights under the law.

“I would like this to be an example of what not to do in the future,” he said.


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Parents of fatal overdose victim are hopeful new law in her name will save lives

McDougle

A new Virginia law that took effect Monday allows someone who is using drugs and reports an overdose to avoid prosecution for the possession or consumption of an illegal drug or the possession of paraphernalia.

The aim is to save lives by encouraging people who witness an overdose to call for help immediately.

“We’re hoping that it’s going to save another family from going through the hell we’ve been living,” said Ann McGhee, mother of Dillon McGhee, an Atlee High School graduate who died of an overdose in Chesterfield County in August 2017 at age 26.

Virginia’s prior “good Samaritan” law was criticized as one of the weakest in the country. It shielded someone who calls for medical help for an overdose from prosecution — but only if they “substantially” cooperate with law enforcement “in any investigation of any criminal offense reasonably related to an overdose.”

McGhee said, “That’s the fear — if someone does overdose and they call for help, they’re going to go to jail. Now with this new law, we’re hoping people will get people help when they need it.”

The new law drops the cooperation requirement, although the person who supplied the overdose drugs would not be spared from prosecution.

In addition to illegal drugs, the new law applies to the unlawful purchase, possession or consumption of alcohol, public intoxication and possession of drug paraphernalia.

Ann McGhee and her husband, Seward, do not know if their daughter’s life would have been saved had “Dillon’s Law” been in effect in 2017. But they are confident it will save other lives.

“We just want to get the word out,” Ann McGhee said. The couple were present last week when Gov. Ralph Northam signed the legislation — which passed both houses of the General Assembly unanimously — into law.

They credited state Sen. Ryan McDougle, R-Hanover, with getting the bill passed. McDougle and Seward McGhee are both former Hanover County prosecutors.

Ann McGhee said, “People have reached out to me from other recovery groups around the country ... trying to get the same law in their state because their loved was left to die with no one to help them because they were scared if they called for help that they would be arrested.”

In August 2017, a person visiting a house where McGhee appeared to have overdosed called police after leaving. When police arrived to investigate, the homeowner refused to allow a search of his residence and held the officers at bay for 17 minutes.

When police finally entered the home, they found McGhee’s body in the laundry closet, where the man — now serving five years in prison — had put her.