O Brother, Where Art Thy Keys?; Oregon Hill Lot Remains a Park; Richmond Police Post Cold Cases Online; Shake-up in Charlottesville Leads to New Magazine 

Street Talk

O Brother, Where Art Thy Keys?

It turns out the Henrico County Jail is no Big Rock Candy Mountain, where convicts' dreams of escape are as easy as walking out the door.

On Oct. 1 a set of keys mysteriously disappeared from jail. For more than a month sheriff's deputies combed the building, searching high and low to find them.

The question was: Had the keys simply been lost, or had they, somehow, been snatched? Naturally, there were plenty of suspects in the building who might have had a use for them.

At last, on Nov. 6, the keys to "some of the inmates' cells and doorways" were "retrieved," says Henrico County Sheriff's Deputy Chief Merle Bruce.

Where were they? "They were located in the cell of an inmate," Bruce says.

The inmate, Thomas Patrick Melnyczyn, 32, was serving time at the jail for a series of breaking-and-entering and grand-larceny convictions. "He's hit every county in the greater Richmond Metropolitan area," Bruce says.

As a result of the missing-keys incident, Melnyczyn was charged with obstruction of justice and receiving stolen property. Last week he was convicted on both counts in Henrico County General District Court.

Now, it appears freedom will elude him for a long time. Melnyczyn's sentence now stands at 54 years. He awaits transfer to a state prison as a ward of the Virginia Department of Corrections.

But, in light of the incident, questions abound. Does this bode well for security at the jail? After all, how easy is it for inmate get hold of keys in the first place?

"We think [the keys] were picked up off a desk in the deputy station," Bruce says.

Melnyczyn maintains he didn't take them and that the keys merely ended up in his possession.

When asked what led sheriff's deputies to suspect Melnyczyn, Bruce replies flatly: "We had reason to search his cell."

Bruce insists the keys would not have set the inmate free. "He couldn't have gotten off the second floor," he says.

It's likely Melnyczyn had discovered this soon enough and realized that sooner or later authorities were going to find the keys.

"When he couldn't use them for much he figured he better hide them," Bruce speculates. — Brandon Walters

Oregon Hill Lot Remains a Park

It turns out it didn't take a fight by Oregon Hill residents to convince the city not to sell the vacant lot at 401 S. Laurel St.

It took an old ordinance.

As Style reported Jan. 1, a developer had expressed interest in building apartments on the site, which recently had been placed on the city's surplus-property list. The site is smack in the middle of the neighborhood where residents, especially kids, play football and hang out.

Oregon Hill residents, still bruised from the Dominion deal, braced themselves for another protest. Then they turned up something that thwarted the city's plans.

With the help of some neighborhood residents, Todd Woodson, president of the Oregon Hill Neighborhood Association, discovered a 1970 city ordinance that clearly articulated the need for a public park at that location and authorized the city to procure land so there could be one.

Subsequently, the city purchased the land specifically for use as a park. It used a federal grant from the Department of Housing and Urban Development, under a HUD program called "Parks in the Cities Open Spaces."

This is good news for fans of the Oregon Hill site. There is a city moratorium on selling park property that went into effect after the recent Bandy Field incident that caused neighbors to vehemently protest its sale.

"I have to say we couldn't have written more convincing conclusive evidence of the existence of a park at 401 Laurel," Woodson says. "Within two hours of briefing [people at] Parks and Rec, the mayor's office called offering to meet with me."

It looks like the park is there to stay. Angela Jackson-Archer, spokeswoman for the city's Department of Parks, Recreation and Community Facilities, confirms that the city has withdrawn plans to sell the land.

"I'm very grateful," Woodson says. "Although I find it unconscionable that the city would even consider selling this plot from under us." — B.W.

Fan Group to Restore

"Gateway" Houses

After weathering years of vandalism and neglect, three vacant buildings on North Harrison Street and Grove Avenue have finally found a caring owner. The Historic Monument Avenue and Fan District Foundation plans to buy the ramshackle properties this week.

"This was our number one target because it's in such a visible location. It's really the gateway to the Fan," says foundation treasurer Janice Hall Nuckolls. "I think there's not a person in Richmond who hasn't wondered, 'What's the story with these buildings?'"

The foundation has worked on the deal for almost a year and will pay $500,000 for the properties. "We're sinking every penny that the foundation has to buy this property," Nuckolls says. After covering such costs as marketing, cleanup, and purchase premiums, the foundation expects to lose $250,000.

But the foundation sees the purchase as an investment in the community. "It's worth it to us because it's going to have such a positive impact on the neighborhood," says Nuckolls. "It's the most exciting project we've ever done."

According to city records, the previous owner, Bellona Arsenal Farm Associates, bought 206 N. Harrison St. for $65,000 in 1980. In 1999, the group purchased the property at 1100 Grove Ave./204 N. Harrison St. for $400,000. Peter Balas, the previous owner, had bought that property in 1979 for $68,000.

Since the historic foundation's formation in 1976, its mission has been to acquire neglected properties and find buyers who are willing to renovate and live in them. In the late '70s, it purchased four properties in the 1800 block of West Grace Street, and in 1995, it purchased the "white elephant" at 2023 Monument Ave., which had been vacant for 15 years. The properties have since been restored and house single-occupancy owners.

Lacy says that finding the right buyer is the cornerstone of the foundation's success. The foundation wants "to find owners who are willing to renovate and live in and invest well in these properties so they become a credit to the city," she says.

As for the foundation's current project, Nuckolls says, there has been interest from potential buyers. "We're prepared to hang on to these properties until we find the right person." — Ernie Dettbarn

Richmond Police Post Cold Cases Online

On Aug. 29, 1996, Heather Johnson, 7, and Cynthia Johnson, 34, were murdered in their home on Junaluska Drive in South Richmond. The home was torched, much evidence eliminated. The crime was one of the city's most horrific murders.

Richmond police believe the victims knew the killer, or killers. And the police have compiled scads of information on the case, but not enough. After more than five years the killer(s) remain at large.

Now Richmond police have a new tool that they hope will lead to the Johnsons' killers — and to other murderers on the loose. But they are asking for the public's help to do it.

Recently, cold-case information was added to the Richmond Police Web site. The unsolved homicides are anywhere from several months to several years old.

"We believe someone knows who the suspects are and can help solve this case," the Web site says about the Johnsons' killers. Anyone with information about this case — or any of the other 28 victims posted on the site whose killers remain at large — is urged to call 646-6781 or 780-1000.

The idea for the Web page came after frustrated detectives encouraged the department to get cold-case information out to the public.

Last year the city reported 70 victims of homicide. Of those, says police spokeswoman Christy Collins, 52 were solved, giving the department a 74 percent clearance rate.

But the cases that are often most difficult to solve are the ones in which the most time has elapsed. Posting information about old unsolved homicides online for the public could turn up new clues.

"We're hoping that people will see the photos and read the details and remember something that could help us," Capt. David Martin says in a released statement. Additionally, he notes: "The information may not seem important to the person but he or she should still call us because it could be the missing link that we need."

To view cold cases on the Web site go to www.RichmondGov.com. — B.W.

Shake-up in Charlottesville Leads to New Magazine

After Hawes Spencer's business partners fired him a month ago as editor of C-Ville Weekly, the news and arts magazine in Charlottesville he founded 12 years ago, Spencer reacted the only way he knew how.

"New paper in town," Spencer says. "It's called The Hook."

At least five of C-Ville's key full-time staffers — including the art director, associate editor and photographer — are quitting to join Spencer in his newest venture, "a feisty weekly in the spirit of C-Ville," bankrolled by local investors.

Like C-Ville, The Hook will be free, and Spencer, a Richmond native, hopes to quickly match C-Ville's current circulation of 20,000. The first copies are scheduled to hit the stands Feb. 7, he says — one month after he was told he'd be ousted.

Spencer says publisher Bill Chapman walked into his office on Jan. 7 and told him "you have two hours to quit or be fired." Chapman offered him $5,000 severance pay to resign quietly, Spencer says, with the condition that he sign a gag order and an agreement not to compete with C-Ville.

"It was not a very hard decision," Spencer says.

C-Ville's publisher, Bill Chapman, refuses to comment on Spencer's firing, saying the company considers it an internal personnel matter. He confirms that C-Ville now has a new editor, former staffer Cathy Harding. As for the future of the magazine, "there will be changes," Chapman says.

As roommates, Spencer and Chapman started C-ville Weekly in 1989, creating the publishing company Portico Publications Ltd. After two years, Chapman left and moved to New York, but returned to Charlottesville in 1994. Chapman asked to rejoin the company, along with his friend Rob Jiranek. Spencer agreed.

A couple of years later, Portico began publishing the free monthly magazine Blue Ridge Outdoors. In 1996 Portico acquired the Richmond weekly The Richmond State, closing it less than 10 weeks later. Tensions developed between the three over Portico's business practices — most recently Chapman and Jimanek's proposal to spend $100,000 to expand the struggling Blue Ridge Outdoors, says Spencer.

The last thing Spencer did before being forced out was to call a mediator to talk with the three partners, he says. But no mediation ever occurred. Spencer was officially fired from the paper via e-mail on Jan. 14, and Chapman and Jiranek voted him out of Portico, the parent company.

The news spread fast, along with rumors that Spencer would start a new paper, but he wouldn't confirm that until last week. "The Hook" is a little-known nickname for Charlottesville, Spencer explains: "The town is habit-forming and so is the paper." — Melissa Scott Sinclair

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