Gilmores Eye Former Cornwell Home; Richmond Rabbi On "Weakest Link"; ACLU Victory May Give Brother Hope; Strip-Club Signs Can Stay; City Deems Green Space Surplus 

Street Talk

Gilmores Eye Former Cornwell Home

Novelist Patricia Cornwell's home at 10250 Cherokee Road may have new residents soon — Gov. Jim Gilmore and his family.

The white brick French provincial two-story, overlooking the James, has been vacant since Cornwell, now in the spotlight for her research on Jack the Ripper, moved to Greenwich, Conn., in the fall. No moving vans have shown up yet, neighbors say, but they've heard Gilmore — out of the Executive Mansion soon — may be the new kid on the block.

"That's what the buzz is," says Dr. Joe Niamtu III, who also lives on Cherokee Road. "I think it's gonna happen. I've talked to a couple of people who've told me that" — reliable sources, he adds.

Molly Shepherd, spokeswoman for Gilmore, confirms Cornwell's house is an option. "The Governor and Mrs. Gilmore are looking at a number of locations to lease, including that one," she says, adding that the couple has made no final decision.

The house, assessed at $731,600, seems ideal for someone seeking a little privacy. It's entirely fenced in, with motorized gates and exterior halogen lighting — all additions that Cornwell installed to keep fans and the press at bay.

The governor's family would likely be welcomed, however. Cornwell, author of 14 best-selling novels, became fast friends with Roxane Gilmore while living in Richmond. She was also a generous donor to the state GOP, giving more than $300,000 to mostly Republican Virginia candidates since 1997.

Niamtu adds that he's heard the move may not be permanent, lasting only until the Gilmores' two sons, 17-year-old Jay and 13-year-old Ashton, finish the school year.

Neither Cornwell nor Gilmore could be reached for comment. Niamtu says although he keeps in touch with Cornwell a few times per week via e-mail, she hasn't mentioned selling the house in recent conversations.

"Dunno," he says. "From what I hear, it's gonna happen." - Melissa Scott Sinclair

Richmond Rabbi On "Weakest Link"

Rabbi Zvi Ron has hit the pop-culture-trivia circuit big time. Recently, he flew to L.A. where he taped an episode of the syndicated version of "The Weakest Link."

The syndicated show, a counterpart to the Anne Robinson version, is hosted by a comedian named George Gray. The air date of Ron's TV debut, billed as "a special all-clergy episode," hasn't been determined, but it likely be on in February, during ratings sweeps week, on WTVR TV-6 at 7 p.m. Competing alongside the 33-year-old Ron (pronounced "rone") will be another Virginian, Fort Lee army chaplain Barry Bowden.

Since the summer, "Link's" syndicated version has held auditions nationwide. The crew came to Richmond a few weeks back, and of more than 100 people, Ron and Bowden won over the casting director.

Ron won't divulge the outcome of his game — like all contestants, he signed a confidentiality agreement — but he can say this: "My part came out fun." He adds that the crew graciously agreed to schedule a recording date that would not conflict with his Sabbath observance. The whole experience was a plus, he says, and he gives a thumbs-up to the new host. "I think he's better," he says. "Anne Robinson is just pretending to be what she's not."

Ron — an orthodox rabbi and head of congregation Keneseth Beth Israel who served several years in the Israeli army as a rifle instructor — is known for his sense of humor. In the past few years, this father of four has penned a couple of comic strips for Punchline; one was about a video-clerk-girl-turned-superhero, the other about the severed arm of Stonewall Jackson.

Talk to him and you'll see that his grasp of pop culture is, shall we say, extensive. "I just saw 'Rush Hour II,'" he says on a recent morning in his synagogue office, where he alternates now between reading the Jewish Week newspaper and highlighting source material in Hebrew for that day's class on the nature of evil. "They had a lot of kosher-food references."

Bowden, 49, is less forthcoming — because of that confidentiality clause, he says. Reached at this Fort Lee office, he asks cautiously, "Who am I speaking to?" Eventually he warms. He says his game-show experience meshes with his theology. "As a Christian," he says, "I believe we need to be in the world and to stand out as a shining example of faith and values." — Lisa Singh

ACLU Victory May Give Brother Hope

Two months ago, Ashland resident Henry Jones wondered if he would ever see justice done in his brother's death.

Doug Jones was a frail, 66-year-old man with a child's mind who lived for 58 years in the Central Virginia Training Center, the largest state institution for the mentally retarded. He died in a Lynchburg hospital of massive internal injuries in 1999.

Henry Jones says his brother, harmless and half-blind, couldn't have provoked those injuries or inflicted them on himself. The cause of his death is still obscure, despite state and police investigations. Henry Jones filed a wrongful-death suit against the state in September, aided by Norfolk lawyer William D. Breit, alleging that Doug Jones' caretakers failed to diagnose and treat the injuries that killed him.

For a while, the outlook for the suit didn't look good, as employees of state institutions are well-protected under Virginia law. But a recent victory by the American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia may boost Jones' case.

On Dec. 18, the ACLU got the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals to overturn a district court ruling that patients in state institutions may seek legal recourse only if they are treated with "deliberate indifference" by their caretakers.

"Deliberate indifference" means caretakers are aware that someone is ill and intentionally choose not to assist the patient, explains Kent Willis, executive director of the ACLU of Virginia. "That is about the lowest possible standard anyone under state care can receive."

Now, the court has ruled one must prove only that a caretaker "substantially departed from what is acceptable medical treatment" in order to show that a patient's constitutional rights have been violated, Willis says.

Getting the court to approve this change wasn't easy, he says. The Fourth Circuit Court is known to be resolutely conservative and, Willis says, "notorious for its lack of care about institutionalized individuals."

For some time, he says, "The ACLU has been generally aware of the level of poor medical care received by individuals in state mental institutions." The group cannot oversee every case, Willis explains, but does its best to improve laws protecting those who can't speak for themselves, like Doug Jones. "We choose our cases very carefully," Willis says, "because we want to make good law, not bad law." — M.S.S.

Strip-Club Signs Can Stay

Several Day-Glo signs advertising the shapely dancers at Shockoe Bottom's Club Velvet are still on display — more than a month after the city declared they would have to be taken down. What's up?

The signs can stay, because their combined surface area doesn't actually exceed city limits, says Robert Johnson, one of the city planners in charge of violations. "All legal — we measured them," Johnson says. "Unfortunately."

Some business owners and residents in Shockoe Bottom had complained to the city about the neon-colored signs, which feature silhouettes of voluptuous women and are posted at eye level at Main and 15th streets.

But city inspectors can't issue citations for questionable taste, only for instances when businesses fail to get permits or exceed the amount of signage they're allowed to have. Club Velvet's owner just got the required permits, Johnson says, so the signs are safe. — M.S.S.

City Deems Green Space Surplus

Oregon Hill residents may soon lose an informal neighborhood park.

The city recently placed a lot it owns in the middle of the neighborhood on its surplus property list. The vacant lot, a flat grassy field behind Pine Street Baptist Church at 401 S. Laurel St., measures 13,050 square feet and is assessed at $32,000. Children often play football there.

The land is the former site of a Methodist church that burned down 40 years ago. When the church was destroyed the land was sold to the city. Since then, says J.P. Vaughan, senior architect with the Department of Parks, Recreation and Community Facilities, the city has maintained it by having park maintenance workers cut the grass. A developer has expressed interest in the lot, Vaughan acknowledges, but that doesn't mean it necessarily will be sold.

In order for that to happen City Council must vote to put the lot up for sale.

That's precisely what Oregon Hill residents want to prevent. They insist the field should remain available for neighborhood use as a park. Already Oregon Hill residents have Linear Park that borders Belvidere Street and Holly Street Playground. But the small green space on Laurel is more significant and has more potential, some say, because it is located not on the periphery but in the heart of the neighborhood.

The neighborhood has offered to help out with some expenses in an effort to keep the green space and even improve it, says Todd Woodson, president of the Oregon Hill Neighborhood Association. The neighborhood group has asked for estimates on surplus stone and ironwork that could be used for landscaping and erecting a fence.

"My vision is to have a nice open space where kids can still play ball," Woodson says. Ultimately, he would like to see the land used for such events as an outdoor jazz concert series.

"Oregon Hill is changing so fast the ground is shaking," he says. "We're just trying to keep it artistic and diverse."

A public information meeting to discuss the lot's fate is scheduled for Jan. 7 at Pine Street Baptist Church.

"I think the city should acquiesce on this thing," says Woodson. "We're not going to let anything by us without a fight at this point." — Brandon Walters


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