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Testimony: Trump demands of Ukraine came down to 3 words

In Nation & World | National study finds most school shooters showed warning signs | Page A12


Plus
Man who terrorized two ex-girlfriends sentenced to 6.5 years in cyberstalking cases

A man who used the internet to terrorize two former girlfriends, sending nude photos of the women to their parents and their friends — and in one case, her church — was sentenced to 6½ years in prison Thursday.

Satyasurya Sahas Thumma, 23, pleaded guilty to cyberstalking two women, computer hacking and aggravated identity theft in July and faced up to 17 years in prison when sentenced Thursday by U.S. District Judge John A. Gibney Jr.

“It was an ongoing and inescapable, 21st-century nightmare to these victims and it was horrible,” said Gibney, who imposed a sentence above the federal guideline range. The torment involved “revenge porn,” attempted extortion and threats of violence from purportedly dangerous people — a scheme as cruel as it was complex.

Both former girlfriends were in court Thursday. One of them and her mother addressed the judge.

“I was scared to go home because I thought they were really going to hurt me,” one of the victims said of threats she received from individuals created online by Thumma. “I was scared for my parents.”

Relations with her father, who had been the pastor of a church, remain strained, she said. Her mother told Gibney that her husband stepped down as pastor and has taken a secular job. The family is moving, she said.

There were nights, the victim’s mother said, when the family stayed locked inside their house and armed out of fear. “It just really destroyed our lives,” she said.

Gibney told them, “This could have happened to anybody. You should not hang your heads.”

Brian R. Hood, an assistant U.S. attorney, told Gibney that “when these young ladies had the audacity to break up with him, to just want to be friends, he went on a ... campaign to ruin them, ruin their families.”

“It was a burning hate. How else would you describe leveraging the church?” said Hood, who asked Gibney to impose a 10-year prison term. In a sentencing memorandum, Hood wrote: “From April 2018 until his arrest on April 25, 2019, the defendant manipulated, tormented and terrorized two former intimate partners and their families.”

In pleading guilty, Thumma admitted that in 2018, while he was a student at Virginia Commonwealth University, he began dating a high school senior in Northern Virginia. The girl sent Thumma six to eight nude photos of herself via Snapchat, which Thumma saved.

She broke up with Thumma in April 2018 and he tried to persuade her to stay in a relationship, warning her there would be unspecified consequences to their break-up.

The young woman started receiving threatening text messages from telephone numbers she did not recognize. Several of the messages, which were all sent by Thumma, included nude photos of herself that she had sent Thumma. The sender demanded more nude photos and threatened to post ones he had on the internet unless she complied.

She and her mother reported the texts to Culpeper police. While the victim and her mother were meeting with investigators, the victim was receiving texts and Snapchat messages from Thumma. She later received more anonymous demands sent by Thumma for nude photos.

Thumma anonymously sent nude photos to both of her parents and threatened to send their daughter’s nude photos to her church.

The second victim started a relationship with Thumma in the summer of 2018. At the end of the summer, she returned to college in another state and the relationship continued via Instagram and Apple’s FaceTime app.

She also sent Thumma nude photos of herself before ending the relationship that November. Thumma threatened to post the nude photographs online and send them to the woman’s father, a Baptist minister.

Thumma, hiding his telephone number, sent the woman text messages from an unidentified number. On Dec. 26, she was sent an email by Thumma from “GhostFlex@protonmail.com” that contained two nude photos of her along with her family’s home address.

From last December to February, she received emails written by Thumma from “GhostFlex@protonmail.com” and some from “hesh@ctemplar.com.” Hesh@ctemplar demanded $25,000 and that the payment should be made via bitcoins, a type of digital currency.

In February, Thumma accessed her Twitter account and changed the email address for her account to “hesh@ctemplar.com.” He also sent 10 messages containing nude photos from her Twitter account to various friends associated with her account.

In March, the woman and her mother received text messages that contained a selfie taken by Thumma who was in a hospital bed wearing a patient gown with red marks that appeared to be blood.

It turned out that Thumma, apparently intoxicated, had crashed his car in the 900 block of West Cary Street. He was taken to the VCU Medical Center for treatment of his injuries.

The FBI arrested him on April 25 when he arrived at court on the DUI charge. A search of his iPhone revealed multiple nude photos and videos of the second victim.

Thumma’s lawyer, Paul Gill, cited Thumma’s difficult childhood. Born in rural India, he lived in a one-room home with no electricity. His father moved to the U.S. for a job and his family joined them when Thumma was 4. He has lived in Virginia since then and is a naturalized U.S. citizen, Gill said.

As a child, Thumma witnessed domestic violence and was himself beaten by his parents, Gill said. Thumma had no significant legal problems growing up and graduated from VCU last year with a degree in finance.

“I’m not asking for probation,” Gill said. “I’m asking for, effectively, five years. ... It isn’t a wrist-slap,” he said. Gill said Thumma has psychological issues that can be treated, including his poor handling of rejection.

Given a chance to speak before he was sentenced, Thumma said, “I feel really bad for what I did.”

He told Gibney that his problems started when he started drinking alcohol and that he is trying to work his way through the steps of the Alcoholics Anonymous program.

“I’m glad I got caught,” Thumma said. He said he now has a chance to face and overcome his problems.

Gibney said, “It’s a devastating crime with real victims, very, very serious.”

After sentencing, the judge warned Thumma not to try and get in touch with any of the victims.

“If you get back in contact with them, you will be back in jail so fast your head will spin.”


Business
Sears closing its last remaining store in the Richmond region

Sears is closing its store at Chesterfield Towne Center — the chain’s last remaining location in the Richmond region.

The store is one of 51 Sears and 45 Kmart stores that will close in February, the chains’ owner, Transformco, announced Thursday.

Three other stores in Virginia — at the Spotsylvania Mall near Fredericksburg, the Manassas Mall, and the Apple Blossom Mall in Winchester — also are slated to close.

Going-out-of-business sales at these stores are expected to begin on Dec. 2.

The closures are part of the Transformco’s continuing efforts to restructure its Sears and Kmart businesses. Transformco was created earlier this year by Sears’ former CEO, Eddie Lampert, to acquire the assets of Sears Holdings Corp. out of bankruptcy.

Transformco cited a “difficult retail environment and other challenges” since it acquired substantially all the assets of Sears Holdings in February.

“We have been working hard to position Transformco for success by focusing on our competitive strengths and pruning operations that have struggled due to increased competition and other factors,” Transformco said in a statement.

“To support these initiatives, our owners (along with a third-party investor) have recently provided the company approximately $250 million in new capital. As part of this process, we have made the difficult but necessary decision to streamline our operations and close 96 Sears and Kmart stores.”

Following these closings, Transformco will operate 182 stores — significantly fewer than the 4,000 stores the former Sears Holdings operated at its peak in 2012. The company had 1,000 stores at the end of 2017 and 687 Sears and Kmart locations at the time of its bankruptcy filing in October 2018.

The beleaguered retailer closed the Richmond region’s last Kmart store in January 2018. It was on Nine Mile Road in eastern Henrico County.

The chain closed its Sears stores in Regency mall in Henrico County in September 2017, in Southpark Mall in Colonial Heights in January 2018, and in Virginia Center Commons in Henrico this past January.

“We will continue to evaluate our Sears and Kmart footprint, consistent with our overall retail and service strategy,” Transformco said in the statement.

Sears has operated a store in the Richmond region since at least the late 1920s. Its first local store was at 201 W. Broad St. — where the Quirk Hotel is now. Sears opened the two-story, 147,000-square-foot Chesterfield Towne Center store in April 1996.

It is one of the mall’s anchor tenants along with Macy’s, J.C. Penney, and T.J. Maxx/HomeGoods.

Lands’ End had announced last month that it was closing its store within that Sears location in January as part of Lands’ End’s strategic plan to be out of all Sears locations by the end of the fiscal year in late January.

The Sears locations in Virginia Center Commons and Southpark Mall remain vacant.

Demolition of the Sears store at Regency should take place by the end of the year to make way for a four- to five-story apartment building. The mall’s owners, which bought the Sears building in March 2018, are transforming the mall property into a mixed-use development that includes the 320-unit apartment complex where the vacant Sears store is now.


From the Archives: Sears, Roebuck and Company

From the Archives: Sears, Roebuck and Company

Crime
Richmond authorities clear GRTC Pulse bus driver involved in fatal pedestrian crash last month

The operator of a GRTC Pulse bus that struck and killed a pedestrian on West Broad Street near Virginia Commonwealth University’s Siegel Center will not be charged with a crime, the Richmond Police Department said Thursday.

“After a full investigation from the Crash Team and after consultation with the Commonwealth’s Attorney’s Office, no charges will be filed in this incident,” said a news release from the police department.

At about 5 p.m. on Oct. 8, an eastbound GRTC Pulse bus struck and killed Alice E. Woodson, 32, near West Broad and Bowe streets. The operator and passengers on the bus were not injured in the crash, according to GRTC officials.

A police crash report on the incident says Woodson exited a vehicle that was stopped at a red light and stepped into the path of the bus. Authorities say the bus had the right of way.

In a statement Thursday afternoon, GRTC’s chief executive said she has requested that the transit company’s staff conduct an internal review of safety procedures to determine whether any procedural changes can be made or recommended to local officials to improve public safety.

“The GRTC family continues to mourn the loss of a beloved member of the community,” CEO Julie Timm said. “Our deepest sympathies are with her family and loved ones. We also continue to care for and support our bus operator and all our staff who witnessed and responded to the incident.”

“The entire GRTC team is dedicated to ensuring our own safety culture translates to a safer experience for everyone on the road, and I am proud of the service our operators deliver day-in and day-out.”

Woodson was the first person to be struck and killed by a GRTC bus since 2009. Teresa Jones, the operator of the bus in the incident 10 years ago, was convicted of reckless driving in the death of Prince George County resident Loucendia Reed Lambert, 55, who was on her way to work at the Virginia Department of Health.

At least one other person has been hit by one of the transit system’s new Pulse buses.

In November 2018, about four months after the launch of the 7.6-mile bus rapid transit line that travels between Willow Lawn and Rocketts Landing, a bus struck VCU student Hope D’Amico as she was crossing West Broad near the North Pine Street intersection.

D’Amico, who suffered minor injuries in the crash, was in a signal-free pedestrian crosswalk when she was struck. Video of the incident shows vehicle traffic had been stopped at a red light as the bus was coming through the adjacent Pulse bus lane.

A police department spokesman said no criminal charges were filed against the driver in that incident.

GRTC officials say there are records for 105 reported crashes and minor incidents involving the Pulse system.

Timm has said officials have been reviewing those records, but have yet to provide copies of them in response to a request made by the Richmond Times-Dispatch last month.


Plus
Prime opportunity: Northam signs grants for tech talent with 11 higher ed institutions

ETTRICK — Gov. Ralph Northam came to Virginia State University on Thursday with a pledge to colleges and universities “in every part of the state” that they will share in a $1.1 billion state investment in higher education to generate more than 31,000 additional degrees in computer sciences over the next 20 years.

“I underline the word ‘every,’ ” Northam told an audience of higher education officials at the historically black university here. “This is about the entire commonwealth.”

Virginia State is one of 11 colleges and universities, including Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, that have signed agreements with the state to step up production of degrees in computer sciences and related fields to produce talent for Amazon and other technology companies that are setting up shop in Virginia.

“This is probably going to be the greatest legacy of Amazon’s HQ2 project,” said Stephen Moret, president and CEO of the Virginia Economic Development Partnership, which negotiated the deal last year to bring at least $2.5 billion in capital investment and 25,000 new, high-paying jobs to the new company headquarters in Crystal City.

More than two-thirds of the state’s promised investment will go to two institutions — Virginia Tech and George Mason University. The money will help create new campuses in Northern Virginia that will help produce more than 15,000 master’s degrees, as well as more than 8,000 bachelor’s degrees, at the two universities.

Tech quantified the state’s investment at $545 million over 20 years, while Mason said its agreement will include $235 million in state support.

About half of the money going to those two institutions — $375 million — is investments the universities must match to create graduate-level programs at Tech’s planned Innovation Campus in Alexandria and Mason’s planned Institute for Digital InnovAtion and School of Computing in Arlington County.

Under the agreements, Tech will receive $295 million and Mason $110.4 million in operating and capital expenses over the next 20 years to generate an additional 5,911 and 2,277 bachelor’s degrees, respectively. Tech has committed to producing an additional 10,324 master’s degrees, and Mason has agreed to produce an additional 5,328.

The two institutions already lead the state in awarding degrees in computer science fields. Tech produces an average of 346 bachelor’s and 96 master’s degrees a year, while Mason awards an average of 185 bachelor’s and 131 master’s degrees in those fields annually.

They are followed by the University of Virginia and VCU, with an average of 226 undergraduate and graduate degrees at UVA and 129 at VCU.

The new agreements will commit UVA to produce an additional 3,416 over 20 years, with $33.1 million in new state funding. VCU will receive $30.5 million in state money to produce 722 additional degrees, almost all of them for in-state students.

That will mean an additional 50 graduates a year and require a boost in enrollment, said John Leonard, executive dean and professor at the VCU College of Engineering. “To get that many, you have to have 200 to 250 in the pipeline.”

Virginia State, one of two historically black universities to receive state funding under the Tech Talent Investment Program, will receive $7.3 million over 20 years to graduate an additional 186 students with degrees in computer sciences. The other, Norfolk State University, will receive $5.3 million to produce an additional 126 degrees. The two schools currently produce an average of 41 and 33 degrees in high-tech fields each year, respectively.

The other colleges and universities that will receive funding under the new tech talent program are:

  • The College of William & Mary, about $29 million for an additional 930 bachelor’s degrees over 20 years, on top of the average 94 it produces annually now;
  • Old Dominion University, $29.2 million for an additional 765 degrees, on top of the annual average of 155;
  • James Madison University, $14.3 million for an additional 467 degrees, on top of an annual average of 101;
  • Radford University, $17.4 million for an additional 394 degrees, on top of an annual average of 58; and
  • Christopher Newport University, $15 million for an additional 392 degrees, on top of an annual average of 59.

The 11 institutions will receive their first payments on the commitments this year from $16.6 million included in the state’s two-year budget. Virginia Tech will receive about $5.5 million and George Mason about $2.3 million.

In this region, VCU will get almost $760,000 and Virginia State almost $173,000 this year.

“From the beginning, we have seen this as an investment in Virginia,” said Northam, who did not say how much he will propose for the tech talent program in the two-year budget he will propose next month for July 1, 2020, to June 30, 2022.

The current budget includes $168 million in capital funding for Virginia Tech’s new campus in Alexandria and $69 million for a related project in Blacksburg for construction of a Data and Decision Science Building.

Mason will receive $7.5 million in the current budget to demolish buildings for its new campus in Virginia Square, between Ballston and Rosslyn in Arlington. The university is asking the state for $84 million in capital funding in the next budget that it will match for construction of the graduate-level facilities, as well as about $15 million in capital funding for facilities to expand undergraduate degree programs in computer science fields.

The tech talent initiative grew out of mounting concern among General Assembly and state officials that Virginia couldn’t compete effectively for high-tech companies that require workers trained in computer sciences and related fields.

“We saw a deficit,” said House Appropriations Chairman Chris Jones, R-Suffolk, who is part of the legislative commission that helped craft the Amazon incentive package. “It was clear that if we didn’t do something dramatically different, we would not be able to move the needle and land the type of companies we need for the 21st-century economy.”

Jones, who lost his re-election bid on Tuesday, said colleges and universities should “repurpose” some of their funding to ensure they are producing students with the kind of degrees businesses want.

Those aren’t just big businesses, Northam said before asking a Richmond wireless entrepreneur to speak on Thursday.

Alejandro Otañez, chief operating officer at Shockoe, said he and the mobile design firm’s CEO, Edwin Huertas, are Ecuadorians who have settled happily in Richmond, but they need more highly skilled workers for their growing business.

“We rely on great universities to bring us the great talent that powers our engine,” Otañez said.


 

Jayme Taxin with Old Original Bookbinder’s Seafood & Steakhouse served Andrea Siler crab cakes Thursday during the Richmond Times-Dispatch’s A Taste of Richmond Holiday event on the Carpenter Theatre stage at the Dominion Energy Center downtown. See additional photos from the event on Page A5.