Henrico Promotes Exile Brand; Shark Attack Panel Prepares to Report; New Group Fights for Felines; Holiday Bonus for Homelessness Fighters; Terrorism Expert Comes to Richmond 

Street Talk

Henrico Promotes Exile Brand

Five months ago Henrico County started its own version of Virginia Exile. And it hired Jose E. Aponte as a special prosecutor to handle the cases.

Since then, 30 arrests have been made under Henrico's Virginia Exile. That's 30 active cases that Aponte must work with the help of Henrico police.

Aponte has another tough job. As the county's only "Exile prosecutor," not only must he worry about trying a slew of the county's firearms cases, he also must launch a kind of public-relations campaign.

The reason is simple: successful advertising and marketing is a big part of what made the original Exile program a success.

Begun in 1999 and modeled after Richmond's bolder Project Exile, a partnership between Richmond law-enforcement agencies and the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Eastern District, Virginia Exile is designed to curb handgun possession by drug users and dealers.

The Exile programs aim to send the public and potential criminals a strong antigun message through ads on television, billboards and city buses.

Gov. Jim Gilmore claims on the Virginia Exile Web site: "Virginia Exile gets straight to the point: a gun associated with drugs, felons or school gets you five years in a Virginia prison. You will be going away — exiled — for a long time. No suspended sentence, no probation and probably no bail."

In its inaugural year Virginia Exile boasted an 84 percent conviction rate for 111 cases that were tried. Since then, however, critics have contended that it lacks the muscle and motivation that have been keys to the success of the federal program.

It's taken just five months for Aponte to get his Exile office up and running, with resources in place. He says he's been building good communications with Henrico police. Next month he plans to start going to police roll calls to brief officers on Exile cases.

He plans to pass out business cards to them all, he says, to show he's accessible 24 hours a day.

"The question is, To whom do we need to get the word out?" he asks. "Who else can benefit?" — Brandon Walters

Shark Attack Panel Prepares to Report

A special panel created by Gov. Jim Gilmore in response to two fatal shark attacks hopes to soon shrink fears that sharks make Virginia's waters unsafe.

The seven-member shark task force plans to release its report to the public in early December.

"We've had three meetings and are in the process of reviewing draft materials," says Elwyn Darden, state assistant secretary of natural resources.

Darden says the findings will shed light on everything from shark populations and feeding habits to how medical-response teams a re prepared to handle future attacks. The panel also aims to educate people on how best to protect themselves from sharks.

Specifically, the report points out that the number of large sharks off Virginia's beaches has declined by 25 percent in recent years. It also concludes that much speculation about why recent attacks occurred — like fisheries being overfished — is simply not true. But it is considering increased signage at beaches to warn of the possibility of sharks.

Ultimately, says Darden, the purpose of the task force is twofold: get experts together in one room and provide an opportunity for public input.

The public's attention to the once-hyped shark situation has waned since Sept. 11. Darden says a public meeting in Virginia Beach on Oct. 21 "wasn't terribly well attended," but he expects that will change.

Still, he says, the panel takes sharks seriously. And vacationers to Virginia's beaches need to be informed.

The task force was formed in early September after a spate of attacks — including the death of a Richmond boy vacationing near Sandbridge and the death of a Ukrainian man at Nags Head — turned fear into near-hysteria.

The seven-member shark panel is headed by Virginia Secretary of Natural Resources Ron Hamm. It comprises Del. Terrie L. Suit, R-Virginia Beach; William Pruitt, commissioner of the Virginia Marine Resources Commission; David Brickley, director of the Department of Conservation and Recreation; John Musick of the Virginia Institute of Marine Science; Maylon White, of the Virginia Marine Science Museum; and Bruce Edwards, director of emergency medical services in Virginia Beach.

Darden assures the panel is reviewing every aspect of sharks and public safety. The tragedy in Sandbridge was the first shark fatality in Virginia in 395 years.

"If something happens even rarely you should try to think about it," Darden says. "That's all we're trying to do." — B.W.

New Group Fights for Felines

A new animal-rescue group in Richmond thinks it's time for cats to get their due.

Cat Adoption and Rescue Efforts Inc., or CARE, is a nonprofit volunteer group that formed in September to end unnecessary euthanasia of cats. The group plans to adopt them from shelters, provide them with medical care and find them homes.

"I hope that one day there will be no need for our services, and we will get put out of business," says Terry Wagoner of CARE. But for now, she says, there is a severe overpopulation of cats and an extremely high euthanasia rate in Richmond's overcrowded tax-supported shelters.

CARE members regularly adopt cats and kittens from the shelters and then take them into their own homes or to local PetsMart adoption centers.

The group pays for all of the cats' medical care with money from its members' own pockets. Wagoner says she currently has a cat who has already lost one eye, but thanks to the nearly $1,500 she has spent so far, it will have full sight in its other ailing eye.

"Some people may wonder why we spend so much money on one cat when there are so many that need our help," Wagoner says, "but we're going to help them too."

CARE receives no federal, state or local tax support. It is funded by adoption fees and donations to Save Our Shelters, the animal rescue group with which CARE is officially affiliated "We are not going to shy away from expenses," she says. "We will find the money. We are a group of very determined people."

All cats can be adopted through CARE for an $85 donation, but the group has a strict, legally binding adoption policy and asks for an interview with prospective adopters to ensure that the cats go into a good environment, Wagoner says.

CARE will also continue to pay for medical expenses if necessary. The group's motto is "the animal is for life," Wagoner says; adopted cats can be returned to the group with no questions asked. — Lindsay Sterling

Holiday Bonus for Homelessness Fighters

Local services for the homeless celebrated Thanksgiving early with President Bush's Nov. 20 announcement of Housing and Urban Development grants. It's the largest sum given for homeless assistance in U.S. history — totaling more than $1 billion — and almost $2.7 million will go to Richmond-area organizations.

The city's slice of the funds will go mainly to Emergency Shelter Inc. and the Daily Planet. HUD grants are issued on a two-year cycle, so not all local providers were included this year.

The staff of Emergency Shelter Inc. was waiting with crossed fingers to hear what it would receive this year, says Janice Fatzinger, the organization's executive director. Rumors had been flying that money was tight and that starting new programs was out of the question.

But Richmond overall received more than expected — even more than Fairfax, for the first time in Fatzinger's memory. She attributes the increase not to greater need here, but to local organizations' success in pitching their programs to the HUD committee.

"Let's face it: We all have our own budgets," Fatzinger says of her fellow homelessness service providers. "There is competition, but, actually, huge coordination. We sit at the table and talk about what the gaps are." Thus, local groups, with the help of umbrella organization Homeward, divvy up their requests for grants according to whom they serve: families, men, single women or the unemployed.

Part of the approximately $1 million Emergency Shelter receives will help create a new transitional-housing program for single women; the rest will fund programs that already exist.

The Daily Planet will receive about $800,000 — the amount it had requested, says development director Susan Sekerke — which will help continue programs in employment, education and addiction treatment. The Daily Planet also plans to build a new "Safe Haven" house in the 2800 block of Hull Street for people who are chronically mentally ill as well as homeless. — Melissa Scott Sinclair

Terrorism Expert Comes to Richmond

Before Sept. 11, Steven Emerson sounded like a weary but dogged schoolteacher whose lessons went unheard.

Over and over, he repeated what he'd observed in years of researching terrorism. "There is a very extensive network in the U.S. of international Islamic fundamentalist groups that are raising funds, recruiting new members and mobilizing for potential violence," Emerson said on a Sept. 6 visit to Norfolk.

People scoffed. They asked why the media would even allow Emerson, an investigative journalist and author, to express his "irrational" ideas.

Then the World Trade Center towers fell, making Emerson seem prescient. He's now NBC's terrorism expert and a consultant for several branches of the federal government. Copies of his 1994 public television documentary on terrorist networks within U.S. borders, "Jihad in America," were given to every member of Congress before the anti-terrorism bill was passed.

There are many who criticize Emerson, 47, saying he tries too hard to cast suspicion on all Muslim groups. The Washington Post recently published an in-depth article on him, although Emerson's reticent about his background, religion and even the location of his Washington, D.C.-area office. He swears visitors to secrecy, the Post reported, and even blindfolds some.

But he'll be in plain view on Dec. 6, when he comes to speak publicly at the Omni Richmond Hotel. His mission is no longer to issue ominous warnings — "the American people are obviously painfully aware of the threat now," Emerson says.

The World Affairs Council of Greater Richmond, an educational organization, is sponsoring his appearance. How did the council convince this high-demand man to come to Richmond? "I'm not sure," says Executive Director Violet Dixon with a laugh — but the group's expecting hundreds to show up.

Emerson's speech begins at 5:45 p.m. on Dec. 6. Tickets are $8 for council members, $12 for nonmembers and free for students. Reservations must be made by Friday, Nov. 30 by calling (804) 644-0083. — M. S. S.


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