Sparse Resources Meet Exile Convicts' Return; Dog Packs Go on Pet-Killing Spree; Fight Over Footage Almost Derailed Debate; 6th Street Moves On, Sneed Starts Moving In; Mayor Finds Himself in a Tight Spot 

Street Talk

Sparse Resources Meet Exile Convicts' Return

The program that Police Chief Jerry Oliver extolled in 1999 as the follow-up to Project Exile has fallen off the Richmond Police Department's to-do list.

This doesn't mean it won't materialize, officials say; it simply means not now. According to a police spokeswoman, there haven't been the time, manpower and money to develop Project Embrace.

Though Project Exile started four years ago, some convicts have already served their time in the program, which touted its five-year minimum. It turns out that many criminals prosecuted under Exile did not receive five years in federal prison.

Even though federal sentencing guidelines are typically more stringent than the state's, some of the first offenders prosecuted under Exile received more lenient sentences of two to three years. By now, they've already done their time and come home.

Under Embrace, former Exile offenders would have been given resources to help them find a job, a place to live, perhaps even the tools needed to start their own business. It was the linchpin in Oliver's plan to reintegrate offenders by turning them into entrepreneurs.

Since Project Embrace hasn't materialized, the U.S. Probation Office is tackling the job. And this is presenting a new set of challenges for U.S. probation officers, says that office's Deputy Chief Jeff Gill.

Before Exile, there hadn't been a sudden influx of criminals getting out of federal prisons at once and moving into Richmond. Gill says his office is working to collect statistics on the number of criminals sent away under Exile and the number of those released.

Though he doesn't have specific data — his office is working to gather that information — Gill says the federal probation office has felt Exile's impact. "We've already received a sizeable number [of cases]," says Gill.

In Exile's first three years from 1997 through 1999, Gill says, there was a spate of cases being prosecuted. "Now," he says, "those cases are coming out at a pretty good clip."

There are 11 U.S. probation officers in Richmond and 13 in Colonial Heights. The office is in the process of hiring two more probation officers. "In part because of Exile, we're seeing unprecedented growth," says Gill, who hopes two new hires will be enough.

Those returning from federal prison under Exile are proving to be some of the toughest probation cases to supervise, Gill says. "Already there are recidivists," he says. He likens his probation offices to a referral agency that aims to provide ex-offenders with the help they need.

"What we are lacking seriously here is a halfway house," he says. The closest one for former federal prisoners is in Newport News. That's not good enough, says Gill.

"They need tie-ins to local employment and residence," Gill says. "One way or another they're going to come back here. They should have some resource development." — Brandon Walters

Dog Packs Go on Pet-Killing Spree

A recent spate of cat killings in Richmond's North Side has sickened animal lovers and sent city animal-control officers on a mission to stop the attacks.

Packs of dogs are to blame for the cat killings, and animal-control officials say they are behind a number of recent, nonfatal attacks on small dogs, too.

"We're dealing with quite a few incidents of attacks," says Alvin Jones, senior animal control officer with the city, "particularly in one area." He says one of the cats killed had belonged to its owner, an elderly woman, for 12 years.

How many attacks occurred in all, Jones says, is not known.

In recent weeks, packs of dogs have killed at least eight cats throughout Ginter Park in Richmond's North Side, Jones says. At first, animal control officers thought the culprits were stray dogs; some hypothesized that wolf-hybrid dogs were responsible.

But after investigating the scene of several attacks and finally catching an attack in progress, Jones learned the dogs were not strays at all but were domestic dogs — like Labs, setters and shepherds — that in most situations are docile.

"They may be sweet dogs at home and around the kids, but when people come home and let their dogs out just to roam around, they form packs and it's a problem," says Jones. "Their normal hunting instincts can take over."

Jones blames the attacks on owner laziness. It's why he says the animal control office is going after the owners of such pets. In June, a new leash law went into effect in the city. There are now nine different charges that can be brought against the owner of an unleashed dog that attacks another pet or a person.

If convicted of some charges under the new leash law, a negligent pet owner could face a misdemeanor charge and up to one year in jail.

"We're not playing around," says Jones. "I feel like we're the FBI and we're going after terrorists." — B.W.

Fight Over Footage Almost Derailed Debate

As late as 48 hours before the scheduled final gubernatorial debate, organizers feared the event wouldn't happen at all.

The Mark Warner and Mark Earley campaigns were clashing over Warner's insistence on a no-use agreement that would prohibit the use of televised debate footage in campaign ads.

Ellen Qualls, president of the Virginia Capitol Correspondents Association, a co-sponsor of the debate, says Warner's camp sent the message that he wouldn't show up unless the agreement was signed.

Earley's side resisted, calling the contract unnecessary. "We could care less," says Earley's press secretary, David Botkins. "The Warner campaign complained bitterly," he adds. "They had a lot of heartburn about it."

Such a contract is "pretty standard, as far as I know," says Warner spokeswoman Amanda Crumley.

Qualls says she was reluctant to intercede. "I wasn't going to negotiate something for them [the Warner campaign] that didn't matter to us," she says. Qualls adds that Larry J. Sabato, the debate moderator, was "tired of the campaigns trying to control every aspect of how they appear in public."

Nonetheless, Qualls says she was negotiating with both camps when the debate was postponed because of U.S. military action in Afghanistan. When the debate was rescheduled for Oct. 11, the conflict over the contract continued.

The Warner campaign "started calling me and pressuring me to get it signed," says Sabato, the director of the University of Virginia's Center for Governmental Studies. It took "dozens, literally dozens of calls," he says, and a full Monday of tense negotiations before both parties agreed to sign the no-use contract.

"I've never, ever been through something like this," a weary Sabato says the day before the rescheduled debate.

In 30 years of organizing similar events, he hasn't had to intercede in negotiations over a no-use contract, Sabato says. The contract is a standard feature in debates, and typically candidates arrange it well in advance.

"I'm a First Amendment absolutist," says Sabato, who says he personally opposes the no-use contract because "it only benefits the campaigns."

But, he adds, "It was either that or the greater evil of having no debate." - Melissa Scott Sinclair

6th Street Moves On, Sneed Starts Moving In

In the shadow of the wrecking ball, local chef Jimmy Sneed says he is still going to open a new restaurant in the doomed 6th Street Marketplace.

Sneed is undaunted by the decision of city officials to demolish the failing retail center downtown. "I've offered to go in and operate a restaurant for as long as it's still standing," he says.

Warm smells of cornbread and fried chicken may begin wafting across Grace Street next month. That's when Sneed, former owner of the Frog and the Redneck, plans to use the space formerly occupied by The Vine to introduce his latest project: The Southern Grille.

"I'm gonna do the kind of restaurant I love to eat in," Sneed says. That means Southern soul food he hopes will attract a diverse — and hungry — crowd of locals and tourists.

And despite the decline of the marketplace, Sneed sees potential. "You've got the convention center, you've got Grace Street, which is beautiful, you've got 90,000 office workers in a six-block area," Sneed points out.

The city supports the move, he says, and has offered him "a great rent deal" for the space The Vine used to occupy, complete with equipment and furnishings. There's no term on the lease, so he could be forced to leave anytime, Sneed says. But, he adds, "If I've got the business I think I'm going to have, I can move to another location." — MSS

Mayor Finds Himself in a Tight Spot

In 1849, Henry Brown escaped from slavery by cramming his 5-foot-8, 200-pound frame into a wooden crate and getting mailed from Richmond to Philadelphia.

"If someone told you a story about it, you'd say 'No way. I couldn't believe it,'" says Mayor Rudy McCollum.

The mayor ought to know.

Last week, McCollum and a crowd of Richmond VIPs gathered around a 4,500-pound bronze replica of Brown's 2-by-2-by-3-foot crate and watched two actors re-create the beginning of Brown's journey at the dedication of the new "Box" Brown Plaza on the Canal Walk, near 15th Street.

After the performance, Sen. Henry Marsh whispered in the mayor's ear. It was a last-minute dare. McCollum took it. He walked over to the box and announced that Brown's tenacity and determination had inspired him to follow in the former slave's footsteps.

Did he hesitate? "Not at all," the mayor says. "I believed I could do it."

With only minimal maneuvering, the mayor wedged himself into the box. He grinned as the audience broke into disbelieving laughter.

Unlike Box Brown, McCollum didn't have to stay in the box for 27 hours, tumbling through the 19th-century mail system. After about a minute, the mayor announced he'd had enough. Two people rushed to help extricate him.

A few days later, the mayor admits he did a few mental calculations before taking the challenge. Re-enactor Wally Brandon, who had played Box Brown a few moments before, is 6 foot 1 — two inches taller than the mayor.

"I check these things out," McCollum says. But he still knew he'd have a harder time than Brown or Brandon, he adds: "I figured I could beat both of them in the weight class." — MSS


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