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Email “Joke” Leads to Strip Search, Seized Computers 

click to enlarge Chris Hawkins, holding a sign at center, was among those arrested on the Capitol steps March 3. He now faces charges of impersonating a police officer and identity theft. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • Chris Hawkins, holding a sign at center, was among those arrested on the Capitol steps March 3. He now faces charges of impersonating a police officer and identity theft.

The fallout from the March arrest of 30 women's rights protesters at the State Capitol is still filtering through the court system nearly a year later.

The latest case revolves around an email. It arrived in Commonwealth's Attorney Michael Herring's inbox on March 13 and claimed to be from the head of the Capitol Police, Col. A.S. Pike. It contained a link to a Style Weekly Back Page opinion piece deriding the 30 protesters' arrests.

An accompanying note purporting to be from Pike read: "We're getting clobbered in the court of public perception. Let's end all this and drop all the charges," according to an affidavit sworn out by a state police special agent.

The email was sent through StyleWeekly.com, which allows readers to share stories through email by entering their addresses (in this case, the sender could simply punch in Pike's) and the addresses of chosen recipients.

But the email didn't come from Pike. According to the affidavit, agents traced the email to the computer of Virginia Commonwealth University student Chris Hawkins, one of the 30 demonstrators arrested March 3 and charged with trespassing and unlawful assembly. In April, agents showed up at Hawkins' off-campus apartment with a warrant and strip searched him before going through his and his brother's belongings, he says.

According to the search inventory filed with the court, authorities left with two laptop computers and two cell phones. Ultimately, Hawkins was charged with three misdemeanors: identity theft, making an unauthorized copy of computer data and impersonating a police officer.

Hawkins maintains his innocence. He says at the time he regularly let fellow protesters use his computer. He assumes a fellow activist sent the email as a joke.

But last week Hawkins says he was bullied by prosecutors into accepting a plea deal in exchange for not bringing felony charges against him. Hawkins, who has 10 days to appeal the decision, faces eight days in jail and three years of probation under the terms of the plea.

Meanwhile, Hawkins says police who investigated the email referred to the whole thing as a "joke" during interviews.

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