Police chief: Charlottesville’s toxic climate thinning ranks

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CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. (AP) — Officials in the Virginia city that endured a deadly white nationalist rally in 2017 say people are cursing police officers and it’s thinning the department’s ranks.

Charlottesville Police Chief RaShall Brackney told The Daily Progress on Sunday that the climate has been toxic since before the Unite the Right rally.

Brackney says video shows people cursing officers and calling them names. Brackney says it’s a top reason officers are quitting in large numbers. The department is down nearly two dozen officers and vacancies are getting harder to fill.

Other reasons include pay, officers’ inability to take home patrol cars and what Brackney called “vocal and biased” civilian review board members.

The rally saw white nationalists clash with counterprotesters. A woman died after a man drove his car into a crowd.


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Medicaid expansion in Virginia set to begin in the new year

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RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — Thousands of uninsured, low-income Virginians will have new health care coverage starting in the new year.

Virginia is joining more than 30 states that have expanded Medicaid, a key part of former President Barack Obama’s health care overhaul.

The state’s Medicaid office has been working with hospitals, advocates for the poor, insurance companies and others to help enroll the newly eligible into Medicaid.

Coverage starts Jan. 1 and the state said in mid-December that more than 180,000 people have been enrolled.


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Police: Officer shot at burglary suspect who raised his gun

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LYNCHBURG, Va. (AP) — Police in Virginia say an officer fired his gun at one of two suspected armed burglars who raised his gun at the officer.

Capt. Nick Leger of the Lynchburg police said in a statement that no one was injured in Sunday’s shooting. The officer was responding to a report of a violent trespasser outside a home.

Leger says the man who raised his gun fled, but was arrested 20 minutes later after officers used a stun gun. One officer’s hand was injured.

Police didn’t identify the officer who fired, but say he’s on restricted duty while Virginia State Police investigate.

Police say 22-year-old Malik Andrews is charged with brandishing a firearm, grand larceny and fleeing from a law enforcement officer.

Police didn’t release the races of Andrews or the officer.


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Developer quits city council over conflict of interest

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ROANOKE, Va. (AP) — A Virginia city councilman has announced he intends to resign in response to a conflict of interest related to his job as a real estate developer.

The Roanoke Times reports John Garland notified Roanoke officials Thursday that he’d resign in light of the conflict with the Redevelopment and Housing Authority. He was elected in 2016.

City councilmembers aren’t allowed to own property housing tenants who receive Section 8 housing vouchers. Garland co-owns rental properties whose tenants do use the vouchers.

That left Garland with three options: release the tenants form their leases, divest from the properties or resign.

Garland said it was “too difficult” to be a developer and councilman at the same time, and he thinks he can have a better effect on the community as just the former.


Information from: The Roanoke Times, http://www.roanoke.com


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Virginia senior complex sued after fire that killed 3

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CHESAPEAKE, Va. (AP) — An apartment complex for seniors has been named in a wrongful death lawsuit following the deaths of three people in a fire last year.

The Virginian-Pilot reports that the aunt of 30-year-old Lydia Somerville sued Chesapeake Crossing Senior Community Apartments in December.

The lawsuit alleges the complex and owner Boyd Corporation “negligently failed” to maintain and repair the complex, rendering it unsafe. Fire officials say a lightning strike sparked the fire.

Somerville lived at the complex with her mother, 64-year-old Saundra Somerville, who also died.

Somerville’s family’s attorney, Ellen Porter, says the complex had a “serious responsibility” in caring for the elderly. She says other clients plan to sue, too.

Boyd Homes President David Rudiger declined to comment to the newspaper, citing ongoing litigation.


Information from: The Virginian-Pilot, http://pilotonline.com


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Fairfax officials to host forum on W. Falls Church development plan

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Fairfax County officials will hold a community meeting Jan. 15 from 7 to 9 p.m. at the Northern Virginia Center, 7054 Haycock Road in Falls Church, to discuss proposals submitted by the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) and Virginia…

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More Metro trains at your stop could hit roadblock over Va. funding

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WASHINGTON — Metro’s proposals to provide better service to riders could lead to a funding cut, the group that appoints Virginia’s representatives to the Metro Board warns in a draft letter — which means the group would block those improvements if there are no changes.

While the Northern Virginia Transportation Commission supports efforts to increase ridership, including cheaper unlimited-ride passes, the letter — due to be approved next month — warns proposals to extend trains to provide more service at stations along the Red, Yellow and Green Lines without significant savings elsewhere would run up against a new legal cap on cost growth.

“NVTC appreciates the intent of the new initiatives to drive ridership growth, but Virginia would be required by law to reject any initiatives that would trigger the withholding of state funds under Virginia law,” the draft said.

Maryland and federal representatives on the Metro Board have expressed similar cost concerns. The Metro Board rejected across-the-board fare increases to cover costs, but is considering some targeted increases at certain times.

The stations that would see more service are largely in Maryland, although Yellow Line riders in Virginia would find it easier to reach stations like College Park.

“We formally request that you look for additional management efficiencies and/or additional revenues that would enable the most effective of these ridership growth initiatives to move forward, thereby staying within the three percent cap,” the NVTC letter continued.

The letter also supports an expected upcoming deal with companies like Uber or Lyft to replace Metro during off hours.

Ridership was down another 2 percent at Northern Virginia rail stations in November 2018 compared to November 2017 amid Blue and Yellow Line track work. While the weekday average was down 1 percent, Saturday ridership dropped 15 percent. Metrobus ridership fell 8 percent, and weekday parking usage is down a bit.

The commission includes each of the local governments that foots the bill for Metro in Virginia. In Maryland, the state pays.

“We are fundamentally concerned that without offsets to the operating budget, the proposed new initiatives to drive ridership growth are beyond the 3 percent cap instituted in Virginia’s recently legislation … and would trigger a withholding of state funds that our jurisdictions use to pay their obligations to WMATA,” the NVTC draft letter said.

Beyond the concerns about withheld funding, the local governments also worry that breaking the three percent cost cap in the first year it applies “could imperil the dedicated capital funding itself.”

“Any decision to withhold funding so soon after the introduction of dedicated funding could damage the regional political consensus that resulted in the landmark dedicated capital funds for WMATA,” the letter said.

It is due to be sent to Metro as part of the public comment process for the budget that begins July 1. The Metro Board expects to approve the budget in March.

The budget includes funding that is not part of the three percent cost cap to prepare for additional service in Northern Virginia with the launch of the Silver Line to Dulles International Airport and Ashburn, which is now targeted for late 2020.

With Metro service extending into Loudoun County for the first time, the NVTC is scheduled in January to make a Loudoun representative a Metro Board alternate for the first time.

Supervisor Matt Letourneau is expected to be appointed to the alternate role through Jan. 3, 2023.
Letourneau will fill the alternate spot being left by Paul Smedberg, who has been appointed by Gov. Ralph Northam as Virginia’s voting member on the Metro Board. Arlington County Board member Christian Dorsey is Virginia’s other voting member. Fairfax County Supervisor Cathy Hudgins is Virginia’s other alternate.


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How Va. prosecutors got 2 high-profile murder convictions, despite lack of human remains

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During the 1980 murder trial of Stephen Epperly in the death of Gina Renee Hall, Epperly and Pulaski County, Virginia jurors visited the railroad track near where Hall’s car was found. (Photo: Chris Owyoung)

Gina Renee Hall, a freshman at Radford University, was last seen June 28, 1980. (Photo: Chris Owyoung)

Former Virginia Tech football player Stephen Epperly acknowledged leaving a nightclub with Gina Renee Hall, and going to a lake house, but denied harming her. Her remains have never been found. Epperly was the first person convicted in Virginia of a “no body” murder case. (Courtesy Chris Owyoung)

Stephen Epperly admitted driving Gina Renee Hall to this lake house at Claytor Lake in June 1980. She was never seen again. (Courtesy Ron Peterson)

Investigator John Preston and his tracking dog, Harass II, provided compelling testimony in the murder trial of Stephen Epperly. (Photo: Chris Owyoung)

During the jury’s visit to the railroad trestle, Pulaski County Commonwealth’s Attorney Everett Shockley (left) stands near defendant Stephen Epperley (light suit) and his defense attorney. (Photo: Chris Owyoung)

Stephen Epperly, in a prison photo, is serving a life sentence for the 1980 murder of Gina Renee Hall. (Photo: Chris Owyoung)

‘Under the Trestle’ author Ron Peterson tells the story of Virginia’s first ‘no-body’ murder conviction.

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WASHINGTON — Almost four decades before Lloyd Lee Welch pleaded guilty in 2017 to two counts of first-degree murder in the 1975 deaths of Sheila and Katherine Lyon, the disappearance of an 18-year-old Radford University freshman led to Virginia’s first “no body” murder conviction.

The remains of the Lyon sisters have never been found, nor have the remains of Gina Renee Hall — the young woman voted “most popular” in her senior class at Coeburn High School, in southwestern Virginia — but prosecutors in the Lyon case were armed with something prosecutors in the Hall case never had:

A confession

Even today, prosecutors are often reluctant to try “no body” murder cases. The extra challenge presented by lack of human remains complicates their ability to convince jurors, beyond a reasonable doubt, of a defendant’s guilt.

While prosecutors in the Welch case benefited from his admission, the defendant in Virginia’s first-ever “no body” case, Stephen Epperly, maintained — and continues to maintain — his innocence.

Almost 40 years after 12-year-old Sheila and 10-year-old Katherine were last spotted at Wheaton Plaza, Welch admitted to leaving the mall with the girls. That confession came in a series of interviews with detectives from Montgomery County, Maryland.

“With a lack of physical evidence, the Lyon sisters case would have stayed dormant,” without the breakthrough from Montgomery County detectives, according to Wes Nance, the Bedford County, Virginia prosecutor who convicted Lloyd Lee Welch.

“The statements they elicited from Welch developed over time into a series of partial confessions,” Nance said. “Without those statements, Bedford County never would have been in a position to charge him, period.”

Bedford County prosecutors alleged Welch burned at least one of the sisters’ bodies in a fire on the property of his family members on Taylor’s Mountain, in Thaxton, Virginia.

During more than eight interviews with Montgomery County detectives, Welch never acknowledged killing the girls, but he is still held responsible for their deaths under a 2017 plea agreement to felony murder.

Welch was sentenced to 48 years in a Virginia prison for the Lyon sisters’ murders, and later pleaded guilty to an unrelated series of sexual assaults of a Prince William County, Virginia, girl. He is currently serving time in Delaware for attacking the same girl while she lived in that state.

The former carnival worker will likely be eligible for parole after 25 years, when Welch will be in his 80s, although Nance said his likelihood being granted parole is “very slim. If nonexistent.”

In 1980, prosecutors in Pulaski County, Virginia, in the southwestern corner of the state — without any admission of responsibility from the defendant — succeeded in the commonwealth’s first “no body” murder conviction, only the fourth in U.S. history.

On June 28, 1980, Gina Renee Hall went out for a night of dancing at the Blacksburg Marriott Lounge, to celebrate completing her midterm exams at Radford.

She met and danced with 28-year-old Stephen Epperly, a former Virginia Tech football player. He left the club with Hall around midnight and drove her, in her car, to a secluded cabin at nearby Claytor Lake. She was never seen again.

“There was speculation he might have tricked or deceived her into thinking that a group of people from the nightclub were going to the lake house, when in fact his intention was to take her there in a one-on-one situation,” said Ron Peterson, Jr., author of “Under The Trestle: The 1980 Disappearance of Gina Renee Hall & Virginia’s First ‘No Body’ Murder Conviction.”

Peterson said Hall’s 1975 Chevrolet Monte Carlo was found Monday morning, abandoned under a railroad trestle.

“Gina was not in the car. The trunk of the car had been left open. Inside the trunk was blood and hair evidence, both of which were matched to Gina’s type,” said Peterson, although it was years after they recovered the evidence before forensic DNA testing became available.

Epperly told investigators he had made romantic advances toward Hall, but when she declined, she drove him home and they parted amicably.

“All the evidence pointed to Stephen Epperly, and everyone involved in the case was convinced of Epperly’s guilt,” said Peterson, who added that ‘everyone’ included Everett Shockley, the Pulaski County Commonwealth’s Attorney.

However, all of the evidence against Epperly was circumstantial — evidence that is admissible in court, but which leaves open the possibility of an alternative explanation.

“A lot of [Shockley’s] peers, and even a judge in the area advised him not to press charges against Epperly,” said Peterson. “The fear was, without Gina’s body, it would be hard to convince the jury to convict.”

“First they’d have to prove she was dead, and then have to prove that Epperly had killed her,” said Peterson.

On the strength of circumstantial evidence alone, Shockley risked his career and decided to prosecute Epperly.

“In early September, Epperly was indicted for first degree murder,” said Johnson. “In trial, Shockley called 31 witnesses and presented over 90 pieces of forensic evidence.”

One of the most compelling witnesses was John Preston and his tracking dog. It was the first time in Virginia’s history that dog tracking evidence was allowed in court.

After being scented on a pair of Epperly’s underwear, the dog, named Harass II, led Preston — a retired Pennsylvania State Trooper — and detectives on a search for clues, starting at the spot where Hall’s abandoned car had been located.

“He followed the scent trail over the railroad trestle, across the river, followed a circuitous route through the town of Radford to the front porch of a house and stopped at the front door. When the dog handler asked ‘Whose house is this?’ investigators said ‘Our suspect, Stephen Epperly.’”

The jury deliberated two hours before finding Epperly guilty of murdering Hall and recommended a life sentence. Judge R. William Arthur concurred, and ordered Epperly spend the rest of his life in prison.

Thirty-eight years later, after several appeals of his conviction and the U.S. Supreme Court’s decline to hear his case, Epperly has apparently run out of legal avenues. Still, he maintains he didn’t kill Hall.

“He has never admitted his guilt and has enthusiastically insisted on his innocence,” said Peterson.

Epperly first became eligible for parole in 1994. “Every three years he’s come back up for parole and been denied by the Virginia Parole Board, in large part because this is a person who continues to punish [Hall’s] family by not disclosing what he did with her remains.”

Over the years, Peterson said there have been several false alarms in which discovered remains in Pulaski County turned out to be other people or large animals.

“About 10 years ago, a current Radford detective, named Andy Wilburn, reopened the search for her remains. He re-interviewed witnesses from the trial, talked to old friends of Epperly’s, pulled up old maps of the area, and even got the help of Radford University professors, one of which is skilled in the use of ground-penetrating radar to find clandestine graves.”

Recently, investigators dug a site on Radford University campus, where they had reason to believe Hall was buried.

“Obviously they did not find her, but they’re continuing to look,” said Peterson.

“I’ve come to hope there might be one person out there who has one bit of information that could come to lead to finding Gina’s remains,” said Peterson. “Having gotten to know Gina’s family, and Lt. Wilburn, who’s reopened the search, I think that they share that optimism.”


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Fancy to fast-casual: The best restaurants of 2018

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WASHINGTON — It was another banner year for D.C.’s dining scene.

Five local restaurants were nominated for Bon Appétit’s Best New Restaurants in America list (Maydan made it to No. 2), and 16 restaurants were awarded Michelin stars in the 2019 Guide (up from 14 in the 2018 Guide), including The Inn at Little Washington, which achieved the highest and most prestigious three-star rating.

The region also welcomed a number of new restaurants, many of which pleased the palates of the toughest culinary critics. Ann Limpert, executive food editor at Washingtonian, stopped by WTOP to share a short list of the best restaurants that opened in 2018.

Duck, vegan fare and Filipino fast-casual

WTOP’s Rachel Nania

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From slow-jams with Korean Barbecue to a punk-rock steakhouse

WTOP’s Rachel Nania

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