Lisa Antonelli Bacon

Selected Works

Hirji Adenwalla has saved thousands of impoverished Indian children from ostracism and even death.
Lt. John Venuti and the Richmond Police Department's Violent Crimes Division fight the rising tide of homicide.
They arrive in hobnail boots and tattered uniforms, lugging vintage rifles and worn blankets, ready to fight. On both sides of the Mason-Dixon line they come, without hope of winning, without fear of losing.
Style Weekly
From The New York Times, Published: January 16, 2005
Kate Spade Goes to Washington
Designer Opens Store in DC
A beautifully illustrated chronicling of the birth and development of commerce in America

Selected Works

LIP SERVICE....................... from CNN Traveller, July 2004
Lisa Bacon travels halfway around the world to shine a light on the extraordinary work being done in a tiny mission hospital in southern India.
From CNN Traveller, July 2004


Style Weekly 5/​14/​03

For nearly five years, he's been running — toward the sirens, toward the shots, and into the midst of some of the city's shadiest characters. Almost 262 columns later, Pulitzer finalist Mark Holmberg seems to be hitting his stride.
From behind, it looks as if an Irish setter has taken over Holmberg's chair. But it's Holmberg, his unstyled, over-the-collar hair sticking out at various angles. "Three highway fatalities," he reports of the night so far. "Just usual stuff. Kids not wearing seat belts."

Saturday nights are the bread and wine of Holmberg's existence. They're the bread, because he works the night police beat on Fridays and Saturdays, so he's always got a news piece or three to write. They're the wine, because he finds plenty of grist for his weekly columns as he cruises across Richmond from street corner to train trestle.

On his police beat, Holmberg wheels around the city until early morning, tethered to two portable police scanners the size of 1950s walkie-talkies. It's a great gig for a young reporter looking to learn some chops and get a crash course in life at the same time. By 46, though, most reporters have lost their taste for this kind of adventure, at least to the extent that they'd rather spend their weekends with family, on vacation or anything other than roamin' with the homies.

But Holmberg thrives on the human detritus that most people with a full-time job and a decent income have long ago weeded out of their lives. Holmberg doesn't just embrace it; he soaks it up, swills it around and regurgitates it weekly for his legion of readers. He could be writing a light feature on an animal handler who had an eye pecked out, or a commentary criticizing City Hall. But Holmberg approaches every story as if a simple newspaper piece could change a city that has achieved a national reputation for being mired in backward tradition. Noble aspirations aside, Holmberg has softened some of the edges that keep the sides from coming together. And he's done it with straight talk and a fair view of both sides, tempered with common sense.

In a little less than 20 years, Holmberg has gone from full-time bricklayer to freelance rock critic to a finalist for this year's Pulitzer Prize in the commentary category. The last time the Times-Dispatch won a Pulitzer was when the venerable Virginius Dabney landed one 55 years ago. Most reporters are fulfilled if they've made an impact on someone's life or shaken up the status quo. Holmberg has made a career of doing both in a way that slices somewhere up the middle of most issues. Typically, he does so with sympathy and compassion, usually for the kinds of people who are easy targets for contempt.

In Holmberg's world, there are no winners or losers, only people who deserve a chance. "He has an ability to project a voice in a different way," says veteran T-D reporter Bill McKelway, one of Holmberg's toughest critics. "His voice is as strong and identifiable as Charlie McDowell's ever was. For different reasons. But they're both so distinctive. That's why people want to pick the paper up."

Getting to that point hasn't come without great effort. Holmberg writes the kinds of columns that pluck nerves, trigger consciences and force his bosses to vet the content for lawsuit potential. "I'm glad the paper has stood behind Mark on some difficult columns," McKelway says. "I hope we don't lose him."

Not likely, says Holmberg. "There's plenty to do here," he says. Holmberg's columns don't always change a life or sway public opinion. But some do. After he wrote about a pastor's son who played drums in church, Jay Leno called the boy for an appearance. Another column took city officials to task for telling a Church Hill resident to remove the rosebushes he planted on the public side of the sidewalk. Today the roses are bigger than ever. And just after the Sixth Annual Black Entertainment Television College Hip-Hop Fest, when an attendee was murdered outside the new $170 million downtown convention center, Holmberg wasn't accusatory; he wasn't apologetic. What a shame, he wrote, that this event, which had the potential to be great for the city, so quickly cast the stain of blood on its newest symbol of hope.

That Holmberg caught the eye of the Pulitzer panel seemed inevitable to some, unexplainable to others. "Do you believe that his column on Black Dog was one of the entries?" a colleague asks, incredulously. Well, face it. He wrote about a nasty, scruffy, stray dog in a way that turned a homeless cur into a national legend with seemingly magical powers.

Although he's known to lead with his ego, Holmberg can be self-effacing. He shucks off the notion that his voice has been a beacon of sorts to finding a reasonable, middle line in many of the issues that hold back Richmond's evolution. The way he sees it, Richmond's emergence as a forward-thinking Southern leader is imminent, and he doesn't want to be anywhere else when it happens. "The Rubik's Cube that is Richmond is almost lined up. Its rebirth is going to be noted across the country," he says. "I want to be part of that."

If the T-D's late patriarch emeritus Tennant Bryan could see his prize writer today, he'd likely gasp, and then fire him. The genteel Mr. Bryan was a coat-and-tie kind of guy, and he expected his male reporters to be the same. Holmberg hasn't worn a tie in years, despite admonishment from management. Some years back, while visiting one of the unsavory areas that draw him like Sherlock Holmes to opium, someone tried to use Holmberg's tie as a handle. He hasn't gotten much heat about his attire since, other than some grumbling from colleagues who think it's just plain wrong for a man to wear a sleeveless T-shirt in the newsroom or tennis shoes to an interview with a public official.

On a recent temperate spring evening, he came straight to work from watching his 15-year-old son Rudy's band play (and wound up onstage singing with local musician/​wild man Coby Batty). He's wearing typical attire: dark grey hoodie, jeans, black T-shirt with the name of a punk band on it.

These days Holmberg writes his own ticket. He trolls Richmond in a company vehicle, finds interesting people and writes about them. So far tonight, he has been trying to flesh out a scrap of info he heard over the police scanner. Something about a robbery and a man in the trunk of a Cadillac, suspected dead. It hasn't gone well so far. He's called his best police contacts, and they're either unavailable or in the dark. "It could be nothing," he says. "I'm going to wait before I jump the gun."

Around 7:30, the call comes in. "Robbery? Somewhere on Huguenot?" He's scribbling, left-handed, in a reporter's notebook that looks Lilliputian in his hand. He hangs up and gives a terse breakdown: "Two victims put in a car. One killed and put in the trunk. The other bailed out of the car on Jeff Davis Highway." He mashes both scanners into one hand, his 6-foot, 9-inch, lean frame striding toward the elevator.

In less than a minute, he's in the car, looking for a blue Cadillac with a body in the trunk. Wending through the streets of Blackwell, knees straddling the steering wheel, Holmberg brushes off the notion that his job takes nerve. His secret: He's become a master of never letting anyone see him sweat. He's got a look that, on someone less physically intimidating, might seem indifferent at worst. But from that high in the air, his look is enough to stop a charging boar. It says: "You don't know what I got for you. Do you want to risk it?" Most don't. But there was that time on Second Avenue in North Side, when a guy ordered Holmberg to give up his police scanner.

"I don't think so," Holmberg said, backing it up with "the look."

"I'm going to take it from you," the man told him. Just when Holmberg was ready to let his tennis shoes do the talking, someone yelled, "Yo, that's Slim. He OK."

"Yes, I would've run," he admits today.

Another close call came after he followed a call to an open-air drug market on East Clopton Street. A girl celebrating at her Sweet 16 birthday party was shot and killed. The next night, Holmberg went to the victim's home, hoping to get a picture of the girl in happier times.

"Her mom answers the door, cracked out," he recalls. "I tell her what I need, and she says to wait while she gets herself together, and she closes the door. Suddenly, I'm surrounded by six or seven guys. They get behind you; that's what they do. So you're just waiting for the shot. You can feel it. The head guy was almost as big as me. He rolled on up and got right in my face." Neither said a word. "He stared at me for a full minute. Then they all just walked away."

Tonight, Holmberg can't find the Cadillac, and there's no action at the last location given over the scanner. At a green light, he waits midintersection while two giggly teenage girls salsa their way across the street. "You ever talk to John on the street?" he asks. He parks, and steps out toward the southeast corner of Belvidere and Broad. A homeless man with a shaggy beard is sitting cross-legged at the base of a light pole, reading a hardback copy of "Murder, Inc.," and trying to light the stub of a filterless cigarette. He's leaning into the leeward side of his hand-lettered signs, which say "Bush is Hitler." "Be careful," Holmberg chides him, folding into a crouch. "You're going to light your beard on fire."

"Congratulations, man," John says, pumping Holmberg's hand. Everyone, it seems, knows about his near miss at the Pulitzer. Before they get too far in conversation, a man in an older-model blue sedan stops at the light and rolls down the window. "Are you Mark Holmberg?" he asks. Holmberg nods. "Don't go away," the man says, then turns the corner and parks. Holmberg calmly watches the man approach.

"I've been wanting to meet you," the man says, reaching for a handshake. "I really look forward to your column." Pleasantries are exchanged, congratulations offered. The man walks back to his car, and Holmberg is beginning to think the body in the trunk is bogus.

"It wouldn't be unusual for, say, a drug deal to go bad, and someone gets back at the other one by telling police the guy's got a dead body in his car," he says. But it's barely 8, so he isn't ready to give up the bone yet.

The first time Jean Smurthwaite laid eyes on the young man she had agreed to take in, she was aghast. "He was 15," she recalls, "and 6-foot-8. No one had told us."

Holmberg, the son of a renowned environmentalist and former Marine colonel, had shown an early rebellious streak. Growing up in Falls Church, he had gone the way of many kids from affluent families with ready access to cash — drinking, drugging and staying unfocused. After his junior year in high school, his parents sent him to live with his Uncle Rudy in Oregon. There, he lived the clean life, buckin' hay from sunup to sundown, riding horses, and generally getting a solid grip on life. "By the end of the summer, I was a man," he says. "I learned to work hard. It was spiritually full, too. I just woke up."

But when he came back to Falls Church that autumn, his grip on the good life got a little shaky. "If I'd stayed there, I would've gotten in so much trouble," he says now. So off he went to South Carolina where he lived in a trailer on the property of one of his dad's Marine buddies. When it became apparent that a little more supervision was in order for a willful 15-year-old, a church pastor who was a family friend found a home for him with Jean and Mac Smurthwaite in Irmo, S.C. He went to school at Irmo High and worked construction after school.

Although he views his four months with the Smurthwaites as life altering, it didn't happen at once. A month or so before graduation, he was kicked out of school for smoking in the boys' bathroom. Jean Smurthwaite talked to the principal and got Holmberg back in. Then one night he went drinking with the guys he worked construction with and didn't come home until 8 the next morning. "He said he and some friends had gotten into a bottle of tequila and gone to sleep," Smurthwaite says. "He was looking very sheepish."

The situation called for extreme measures. Smurthwaite sat him down on the stairs so she could look him in the eye. "I was middle-aged and was going to grad school with younger people, and I had learned some good words," she says. "I said, 'Mark, I'm not going to take any shit from you. Get yourself cleaned up, and I'll see you after church.'" Weeks later, he had his high-school diploma, and he wasn't looking back.

"He says we gave him safe haven," Smurthwaite says. "He's been overly gracious about the little we did."

Holmberg moved to Richmond in 1979. He worked as a bricklayer and, on off hours, built his home with his own hands. As a Times-Dispatch reader, he wasn't happy with the coverage of the local rock scene, which largely was the work of a variety of freelancers.

"He came in one Sunday while I was working," says Meredith Homer, then assistant Lifestyle editor for the Times-Dispatch. "He had on his bricklayer clothes, tennis shoes, T-shirt, with a review he'd written about a heavy metal band." He wanted his review published. "He wanted to know why I couldn't run it," Homer recalls.

"I told him no one knew him from Adam, and he didn't have credentials. We talked for a long time that afternoon. I found out he was a college graduate who was laying bricks. I read the review, and he was as good as anybody we had." More to the point, though, it was different. "I've thought about it many times, and I don't know exactly what it was I liked about his writing. He couldn't spell." But she recognized raw talent and added him to the list of freelance critics.

At Homer's suggestion, T-D staff music critic Clarke Bustard III worked with Holmberg on his writing, and soon he had a regular Sunday gig writing stories for Monday's typically thin newspaper. Homer wanted him on-staff. "I felt like he was in touch with the common man," she says.

Executive Editor Alf Goodykoontz wasn't a fast fan of the idea. "Goody liked his writing, but he couldn't stand to see him come in in dirty clothes," Homer says. "Goody stayed after me, he stayed after Jim Berry [her boss], he stayed after Mark. Mark didn't have any discipline."

Still, Holmberg had initiative. "He would go places other reporters wouldn't and do things other people wouldn't do," Homer says. "I felt like he had a viewpoint that no one else had." After a year of writing reviews and weekly features, Homer extracted a promise from Goodykoontz to let Holmberg fill the department's next opening.

He'd barely organized his desk when the backlash began. Times-Dispatch Managing Editor Louise Seals remembers a direct quote from someone in the newsroom. "Someone said we were doing 'intellectual slumming' when we hired Mark," she recalls. "I'm sure he felt tremendous pressure and hostility in some corners."

As the newsroom chief, Seals had her own issues. "My friction with Mark was over deadlines," she says. April 7, Seals noted at the newsroom celebration of Holmberg's Pulitzer nomination, "Slim never met a deadline he couldn't push." Homer concurs. "There were many Sundays that I wondered if we were going to make it." Holmberg pleads guilty. "If I didn't have deadlines, my total output to date would be postcards."

Soon, his laissez-faire approach to deadlines became a sore point among colleagues. Homer brushes it off. "Lots of people were resentful of his talent." That aside, Holmberg's self-assured brashness translated to colleagues as overblown hubris. And when he became a regular contributor to the newsroom's computerized inside comment network, now called Water Cooler, hackles stood at attention. Holmberg routinely took apart other reporter's stories, both in Water Cooler and in newsroom chat. The way some staffers saw it, it wasn't constructive criticism, just an ego out of control.

"Turf" was a term that didn't mean much to Holmberg in the beginning, either. Professional courtesy dictates that if you want to do a story that falls under someone else's beat, you ask first. It's also an acknowledgement of respect, like asking your neighbor before borrowing the lawn mower. Holmberg's view is that if there's a story out there and no one's doing it, it's fair game, a sentiment shared mostly by reporters who have never had a story poached.

Newsroom dust-ups between Holmberg and McKelway are legendary. Although Holmberg is a few inches taller, the two stand almost eye to eye and have done so on many occasions, with nothing but 2 inches of heated air space between them. McKelway doesn't want to rehash old news but, when pushed, recalls one fairly benign exchange that could've gone over the top. "Mark came over and was saying something to me about something or other I should do," he says. "I told him to go back to his desk. It got a little heated."

McKelway, also known for his contributions to Water Cooler, says no harm, no foul; it's all about making a newspaper better. "I know how hard it is to do good work," he says. "Anything I've ever said starts with that presumption. Feelings get rubbed the wrong way sometimes because of frankness."

Overall, McKelway admits, he and Holmberg are guided by a similar ethic. "Some people regard the T-D and its management as too genteel, too comfortable with the way things are. The effort to break out of that mold is to be more direct than might be the case in the past. We all get our wrists slapped from time to time in that effort."

Homberg's midnight deadline is closing in. He spots a policeman on the street and pulls over. "Anything about that robbery?" he asks. The cop looks scared — perhaps of what his bosses will say if he talks and, sizing up the guy behind the wheel, scared not to.

Holmberg presses. "Was he Hispanic?"

No answer.

Holmberg pushes. "Just shake your head, this way [nod] or this way [shake]." Eventually, he cajoles a nonanswer out of the cop that allows him to conclude there were no Latinos involved. "[Richmond Police Chief Andre] Parker's changed a lot of things," Holmberg says. "It's not like the old days. When you'd come up on a scene, it'd be like a party. Cops, reporters — everybody knew everybody, and everyone knew what they had to do. Now it seems like nothing but new guys."

Back in the newsroom, Holmberg sits with the balls of his feet under his chair like a runner on starting blocks. Even though he's got very few confirmed details, his gut tells him the story could grow after deadline, so he decides to write what he has. The clock on the desk says 11:49. His massive hands cover the keyboard as he hunts and pecks with three fingers on each hand.

When he hands the story over to Associate Metro Editor Ed Kelleher just around midnight, he still isn't sure of the story's scope. He tells Kelleher that it could be more complicated than it appears, but not necessarily the kind of complicated that would make a good story. "More the kind of complicated that occurs when a handful of people of below average intelligence and even less moral fiber get pissed off at one another," he says. "More pointlessly confusing than complex."

While he double-checks a spelling in a city directory, his phone rings. "That's me," he yells, and picks up for the transfer. "He jumped out of the vehicle in handcuffs?" Holmberg scribbles, left-handed, on a piece of scrap paper.

He goes to Kelleher with the new information to see if he can push that deadline one more time. He manages to squeeze in a few details, but in the next 24 hours, other media will get the bones of the story that Holmberg so badly wants. The story unfolds over the next two days while Holmberg is off. But when he comes in Tuesday, he's still hanging onto that bone. He makes a few phone calls, and gets the entire, definitive story, laying out details of what turned out to be a murder — where it occurred, who died and who probably did it.

He's not running out of steam, but Holmberg is coming up on the fifth anniversary of his column. In July, he'll reach his goal of never missing a column in five years. Like Cal Ripken, he's always there and ready to play. But the five-year mark, he says, will loosen him up a little. "My plan is to keep doing it for a while longer," he says, "but maybe I'll miss a week or two then." S

by Lisa Antonelli Bacon

Eleven o’clock on a bitter January night, and John Venuti is going back to work.

Never mind that he wrapped a nine-hour day just a little while ago. Never mind that it’s the coldest night of the year to date. Someone’s been murdered.

When someone is murdered in Richmond, Venuti puts on a tie and heads to the scene, day or night, freezing rain or stifling heat. There was a time when it was rare for a lieutenant to go to every homicide scene. But that was before Venuti.

By the time he gets to the scene in the East End, a phalanx of detectives is scrambling back and forth across the street, looking for evidence, possible witnesses, or any clues to why a 54-year-old nip-joint owner was shot to death in his apartment. Standing under a streetlight, a young assistant commonwealth’s attorney is trying to take notes with stiff, frozen fingers. Although it’s pushing midnight and the street is fairly empty, patrol officers are stationed around the perimeter, protecting the crime scene from the curious. As an unmarked van pulls up with the forensics team, a mobile command unit the size of a rock-star tour bus is making its way up Church Hill. Soon the area is buzzing like a bank lobby on a Friday afternoon.

A year ago, the scene would’ve been different. With the Richmond Police Department’s Violent Crimes Division overworked and undermanned, the murderers were winning. “We were floundering and overwhelmed,” says Learned Barry, deputy commonwealth’s attorney and a veteran murder prosecutor. “There were too many killers and too few homicide officers to solve an ever-increasing backlog of murders.”

In a town where some years have seen well over 100 killings, last year’s final count of 94 was still alarmingly high. Now Richmond police officers believe they have just the plan to bring the tally down. It’s a simple idea: find out who’s behind the killings, and remove them from the street using any means necessary.

Last spring, when Venuti took over the Violent Crimes Division, he took a crack at restructuring the responsibilities of the unit. He added a layer of sergeants to lead the five detective teams (two to cover homicides, one for aggravated assaults, one for malicious woundings and one for robberies). That layer eased the load on detectives who previously had to track down enough evidence to take cases to court, keep witnesses alive and, oh yes, arrest killers.

Then Venuti began to reach out to any and every agency that could make life miserable for the bad guys. Eight months later, police say that results are beginning to show. The numbers vary. December 2002’s body count was 12; December 2003’s count was 3. January 2003 saw 9; in January 2004, the count was 10.

Since late last summer, the office of Commonwealth’s Attorney David Hicks has tried and convicted more than 20 murderers, Barry says. “We’ve got 10 more in the pipeline now,” he says. “Nobody in the state does 30 murder cases in less than six months.” More importantly, Barry says, the new plan likely is preventing murders. Although the homicide division’s clearance rate (the cases resulting in arrests) was around 50 percent last year, “the percentage of getting known murderers off the street is much higher,” Barry says. “That has a huge impact on the murder rate.”

Around police headquarters, the plan is informally referred to as Murderer Removal. “We don’t worry about clearance, we don’t worry about conviction,” Barry says. “Our sole goal is to get them off the street, one way or another.”

According to Venuti, the difference is in the quantity and the quality of the resources at his disposal. True enough. But if you trace all the tentacles back to the center, you’ll find Venuti working the phones, calling in favors, inviting any and everyone who can make a whit of difference to get in his game. Although he denies it like a guy facing triple murder, observers and participants say that Venuti is the mastermind of the strategy that might make a dent in Richmond’s reputation as a murder capital.

Venuti deflects credit for Murderer Removal’s success to Police Chief André Parker and Detective Division Capt. Peggy Horn. But if you look at Venuti’s career path, you have to notice that he is the common denominator among the resources pooled for the program. As a Richmond detective, he’s been attached to the Commonwealth’s Attorney’s Office and the U.S. Attorney’s Office. He’s also worked for the FBI and the Drug Enforcement Administration. So when Venuti can’t drum up enough evidence to make a murder charge stick, he calls in adjunct team members from those places to close the deal.

“People don’t realize that even if we can’t catch the murderers, we often know who they are,” Barry says. “And if we can’t get them on murder, someone else can get them for something.” He recalls a case when detectives were convinced that five drug dealers were responsible for at least one murder. Evidence was hard to come by. “We reached out to the federal authorities, and they were able to put together a drug conspiracy case,” he says. All five went to prison. It’s the strategy that Murderer Removal is based upon. “Venuti brings every arm of law enforcement to bear on a problem,” Barry says. “That’s the key: putting groups together.”

Under the Murderer Removal plan, options aren’t limited to traditional law enforcement. Now it’s routine to begin an investigation with Community Assisting Police, known as CAPS, a program designed to eliminate nuisance slum housing.

If a house is a continual problem as a drug nest or a criminal refuge, explains Sgt. Emmett Williams, whose team is working tonight’s murder, officials can shut it down for code violations. “I can lock up everybody in the house,” Williams says. But such a solution is usually temporary, because people get out of jail, or new scofflaws move in. “CAPS has the authority to bulldoze the house,” he says.

Barry recalls a situation last year in which CAPS investigated a building known to be a criminal hideout. After citing it for neglect and fire code violations, CAPS razed the building. “They actually physically took the house down,” he says. “Suddenly those people were on the street and visible again.”

By 12:30 a.m., the CAPS report is in: The apartment was leased to the victim, and the utilities are in his girlfriend’s name. Although the apartment is a known nip joint, with the guy who poured the drinks dead, the building won’t be a problem any time soon.

By 1 a.m. on this January night, three suspects have been apprehended. Shortly after a description of the getaway car went out over the radio, a Henrico patrolman spotted it at a Citgo gas station and notified Richmond police. Within 30 minutes, Richmond police cars have surrounded the vehicle and are headed back downtown, suspects in tow. When news of the apprehension spreads to the crime scene, tension at the scene drops a notch.

“You can feel the difference,” Venuti says. If the suspects weren’t in-hand, his chilled-to-the-bone detectives would be going door to door, waking neighbors, hoping someone had seen or heard something. Now, they’re crammed into a couple of cars, trying to stay warm while they wait for the medical examiner.

Every square inch of floor or ground around the body is part of the crime scene for Venuti’s team. But the body itself is the medical examiner’s crime scene, and someone has to protect it until the examiner gets there. But the whole team? When they could be doing just as much or more in well-heated offices?

“The team is here,” Venuti explains.


“The team is here.” That’s how they work. End of conversation.

Even though it’s closing in on 2 a.m., a visibly drunk, mildly cantankerous upstairs neighbor of the recently deceased hollers from a second-floor porch.

“Hey,” she calls to Venuti, who doesn’t hear her at first. “HEY!” she yells, getting his attention. “Can I go?”

“You have to wait a couple of minutes, OK?” Venuti tells her.

For all the bodies he’s seen, for all the professional bad guys he’s mixed with, he isn’t inclined to raise his voice, and he doesn’t take offense.

Back at headquarters, Venuti heads for the break room. He’s about 6 feet tall and about 170 pounds, with fashionably buzzed hair and a mustache. He isn’t physically huge, but he’s got a big persona, with a quick stride and an unfiltered Queens accent. He pours the night’s first cup of Joe. Calm and determined, his jitters don’t show, even though he approaches coffee-drinking like it’s an Olympic sport. A sign over the coffee pot reminds users to clean up: “The public might call us pigs, but we don’t have to live like them.”

The three suspects are isolated in separate rooms. Since police believe the three might be responsible for a string of robberies over the last several months, robbery Detective Mike Nacy has stayed way past the end of his shift. Two of the suspects are brothers. The younger one is 16, an eighth-grader at Tuckahoe Middle School. A third suspect, known as “Blimp,” looks older and more experienced than the others. What the suspects don’t know is that their every move is transmitted to television screens in a nearby monitor room. The picture on the screens is so clear you can see a silvery thread of drool running from Blimp’s mouth to his lap.

After letting them foment a while, Williams comes into the frame and asks the juvenile what’s all the red stuff on his jacket. “Throw up,” the kid tells him, before going face down in his own lap. Meanwhile, the kid’s cell phone is ringing in the monitor room. Nacy is checking the phone numbers that come up.

Soon, Williams is back in the monitor room watching both screens at once, as detectives in the interviewing rooms continue the questioning. “That one,” Williams says, pointing to one of the brothers. “He’s the one that will crack. He’s leaning forward. He’s paying attention.”

Everyone, including Mike Jagels, the assistant prosecutor on duty tonight, hopes Williams is right. Jagels is one of Hicks’ pride of young lions in the Commonwealth’s Attorney’s Office. Until recently, commonwealth’s attorneys’ offices typically had one or two prosecutors who were murder-trial specialists, handling every murder that came over the transom. But last year, taking a page from Venuti’s playbook, Hicks sought ways to more effectively use his office in Murderer Removal. He quickly saw the obvious: train as many energetic young prosecutors as possible to win murder cases. “Hicks now has 12 young Huns that go after any murderer they’re assigned,” Barry says. Since Murderer Removal began to take shape, every one on the murder trial team has put away at least one murderer.

To Barry’s mind, there was one piece of the puzzle missing. The team needed funds to protect witnesses who testify — money for food, sometimes lodging, and security. “I’ve been screaming about this for 25 years,” Barry says. “If you don’t protect witnesses, you don’t win cases. Many times, we know who’s committed the murder, and when we go to the average citizen and ask them to testify in court, they literally laugh and ask if we’re crazy. They can’t live in their neighborhood and testify in court.”

Barry believed Murderer Removal “could make another dozen cases a year, if we could just convince witnesses to testify.” So following Venuti’s lead, Barry reached out to a former assistant commonwealth’s attorney. As Barry tells it, one phone call to City Councilman Manoli Loupassi was all it took.

From his days as a prosecutor, Loupassi knew the value of keeping witnesses alive to testify. “Witness testimony is a huge part of getting a conviction,” Loupassi says. By late last summer, City Council had dedicated $100,000 witness protection. The next piece of the puzzle was in place.

As morning bears down, Jagels heads for bed so he can face another day in court. In the monitor room, Nacy appears at Williams’ side with a trash can. Inside is a tissue one of the suspects used to blow his nose. The idea is to test the DNA to determine if this suspect can be connected to any pending crimes.

The door cracks and Venuti slides in, careful not to spill from the Styrofoam cup that seems glued to his hand. He lays a digital photo down in front of the monitors. It’s a picture of a woman’s watch resting on the red leather seat of the car in which the suspects were arrested. The victim’s girlfriend has just identified the watch as the one taken from her by the two young men who shot her boyfriend.

The pieces are finally coming together. Thanks to the first patrolman to reach the scene, detectives know that the suspect with the pistol fired first, followed by a few blasts from an AK-47 assault rifle by the other. “That officer did a really good job,” Venuti says of the patrol unit. “The witness was hysterical when he got there. He calmed her down and got a really good description of the suspects and what went down.” Don’t underestimate the power of patrolmen in Murderer Removal, he says. “We can’t do it without those guys.”

But murder cases aren’t built on eyewitness testimony alone. There has to be more. But even nuanced interrogation techniques aren’t getting cogent answers from these suspects. The guys are apparently drunk or stoned or both — or acting. Frustrated, the detectives and a couple of uniformed officers gather in twos and threes, in offices and in the hall. Everyone whispers, because the walls don’t block sound well.

“The gun has to be somewhere,” Williams says. In the brief period of time between the shooting and the arrests, “they had to go someplace not too far to get rid of the gun.” Someone notes that both brothers have said in questioning that they had been at Blimp’s earlier in the night. Without pause, Venuti dispatches a unit to search Blimp’s mother’s house for the gun.

Williams goes to his office to take a breather. Posted on a sheet of paper in the sightline of his desk is a list headed “Goals for 2004.” Williams is concerned with three:

— Robbery unit & FADE (Firearms and Drug Enforcement).

— Reduce murders in public housing communities.

— Sustain clearance rates.

He’s beginning to elaborate on goals when Chris Moore, a bright, young detective who has been interviewing one of the suspects, seeks him out. Moore isn’t giving up, but he’s frustrated. “He’s driving me all over town,” he says of one suspect. Williams just smiles. “Walk him through the garden a few times,” he tells Moore. “Then hit him hard.”

On the monitor, Williams watches as Moore gives the suspect a bottle of water, the first step on the garden walk. In the monitor room, the sound is so good you can hear the suction of the kid’s lips on the bottle. Moore applies gentle pressure in his questions, then gradually turns up the heat. When it’s time to bring the hammer down, Levin White, another sharp young detective, joins Moore. When conversation stalls, Venuti, in the monitor room, sends instant messages to the interrogators via pager to take a different direction or try a new tactic.

“Your brother is telling me one thing, and you’re saying another,” White tells the kid. Then White moves his chair around so he’s sitting right next to the suspect. It’s hard to tell if White is acting concerned or just crowding him a little. Clearly, the kid can’t tell either, but it’s working. He’s becoming more talkative.

Before the water bottle is empty, the suspect’s initial story has begun to morph into something else. And the new story includes a couple of guns. He seems ready to cave. Then the garden gate closes. “I want to talk to the superintendent,” the kid says abruptly.

Williams takes the cue and comes into frame again. He lets it drop that they got a footprint at the murder scene. Then he leaves the room. In the monitor room, Venuti chuckles as the suspect lifts first one foot, then the other, to check the soles of his shoes.

White moves into frame next. He throws down the digital photo. “What is that lady’s watch in your car?” he asks.

The kid thinks for a second, but he doesn’t have the right answer. “I dunno. I ain’t shot nobody and robbed nobody.” No matter. The police have the footprint and the stolen watch, and investigators discovered the weapon in an abandoned car at Blimp’s. So there’s more than enough evidence to file murder charges.

By 3 a.m., the case is well in hand. As the guys bundle up to face the early morning freeze again, Venuti seems to be pondering that umpteenth cup of coffee for the ride home. But before coats are buttoned, another homicide call comes in. The guys resume buttoning up.

Venuti’s eyes sweep the faces before him. He’d love to tell them to go home. But since he can’t, he smiles tightly, tilts his head in an “Oh, well” fashion, and heads for the coffee pot. S

RE-FIGHTING THE CIVIL WAR WITH GOVERNMENT HELP------------------ from The New York Times Sept. 27, 2004
Published: The New York Times September 27, 2004--

They arrive in hobnail boots and tattered uniforms, lugging vintage rifles and worn blankets, ready to fight.

On both sides of the Mason-Dixon line they come, without hope of winning, without fear of losing. Weekend after weekend, the outcome is always the same as they live out scripts written in another century on the fields of battle.

They do it for the love of Civil War history, the camaraderie, the experience of living in another time. And typically . . . . .

John Boatwright III used to swagger into courtrooms like a lion entering a Roman arena: confident, brash and hungry. Whether it was in the heat of litigation or in the chilly brinkmanship of plea negotiations, his forthright manner often irked opponents. Some things change; others never do.

His walk is much slower. And whether he admits it or not, his softer side occasionally forces its way to the surface, only to be snatched back like a kid who shares his ice cream and immediately regrets it. In the old days, he could dish out a courtroom pummeling, and all it took to revive him was a cold beer and a cigarette. Now, there's no beer, no smokes; just Boat, in a tiresome battle that won't end.

There isn't much to say about hepatitis C, other than there is no cure, and it is a miserable, life-altering disease. Cigarettes are verboten when you're on the liver transplant list. And drinking, for Boat, ended in January '06. "I'd had 54 years to slurp up all I could. I had my share and some for others," he says. By that August, he could barely get out of bed. "Up to the summer of '06, I felt fine."

Now, barely more than a year later, he sits sock-footed in jeans and a flannel shirt in the living room of his home near Chippenham Medical Center, a dark red blotch from an iron transfusion swallowing his right forearm.

Boatwright is on short-term disability from his post as capital defender for Virginia's central region. Since the office first opened its doors in 2002 -- offering legal representation to those facing capital offenses — Boat has led it. Turnover has been a big issue, as it always is when the hours are long, the pay seems grossly inadequate, and the clients are people like Ricky Javon Gray (now facing the death penalty for murdering the Harvey family on Jan. 1, 2005).

He's paler, smaller, but he's lost none of his puckish bravado. His wife, Allison, a paralegal, comes home during her lunch break to check on him. "If you can think of it, I've had it," he says. "It" includes iron transfusions, colonoscopies and laser surgery for internal bleeding, to name a few. When his liver got frighteningly sluggish, doctors added a shunt to bypass the liver. In the process, they found he had a 40 percent blockage in one artery, so he underwent another procedure to place a stent in the blocked artery.

One thing hasn't changed: Boat's insistence that all is fine, and he's still in the lead, although that has become a relative issue. "Two days after they put that shunt in, I hadn't felt that good in 20 years," he says.

Although his hands shake a little and his voice isn't as loud, it's the same strident one that was easily recognizable on the third floor of the John Marshall Courthouse. In the 1980s, Boat made his bones in criminal court working for attorney Michael Morchower, known then as "Magic Mike" for his ability to get acquittals and lighter sentences for many clients who might have deserved much worse.

In 1987, Boatwright struck out on his own and formed Boatwright & Linka with attorney Bill Linka, a partnership that lasted until 2002 when Boatwright was named Virginia's first capital public defender.

"You'll find as many who love him as hate him," says Linka, whose firm now practices under the name Richmond Criminal Law. "But regardless of what they think of him, he's always well prepared."

Although Boatwright has spent the last 25 years representing people who could've shared a myriad of diseases, from the common cold to HIV, he has no idea where he contracted hepatitis C. "The only way you can get it is through infected blood products," he says.

It's possible he got it through vaccinations while in basic training for the U.S. Army in 1972. "You lined up front to back, and you rolled up your sleeve. They came along with a [needle] gun and went 'bam' to you, 'bam' to the next guy, and the next guy. Some bled." Because the disease can incubate over years, there is no scientific way to determine where or how he became infected.

"I don't care how I got it," Boatwright says. "I feel good. I'm fine." S

Interior Design magazine
by Lisa Antonelli Bacon
Interior Design · May 1, 2004

To see all those people dashing around Capitol Hill, file-stuffed bucket totes slung over cardigan-clad shoulders, few fashion observers would have guessed that Kate Spade had no store in Washington, D.C. Such, however, was the case for many years—and many Saturday afternoons of boarding the metro or digging out the car for a shopping expedition to the suburbs. So it's easy to imagine how much the opening of a Georgetown boutique has improved the weekends of bevies of dedicated customers.

From an interiors perspective, the shop represents another kind of improvement: the latest refinement in a retail template that Rogers Marvel Architects has been adapting and perfecting since 1995. That's because virtually all of the handbag label's seven boutiques worldwide are freestanding, whereas the realestate in Georgetown leans to 18th- and 19th-century row houses—now home to shiny new branches of Starbucks Coffee and Häagen-Dazs. "It's like an outdoor mall," says principal Jonathan Marvel.

Boxed in on both sides, Rogers Marvel had only a single facade to draw in foot traffic. The solution was to clad the available surface in a running-bond pattern of Indiana limestone and bring the product to the sidewalk via an external vitrine, a new concept for the brand. "We had to address the issues of the site without veering too far from what we've done in the past," says project architect Eugene Colberg. "So we devised a way to take the storefront and pull it into the motif."

That motif has always incorporated an art-minded perspective—appropriate for architects whose past projects include New York's Studio Museum in Harlem and Tanya Bonakdar Gallery. Along three sides of the Kate Spade boutique, white display walls are divided into horizontal runs of boxlike compartments, each top-lit to showcase related products as if they were precious objets d'art. A single unit might hold a couple of bags, a few pairs of shoes, or bottles of Kate Spade's perfume Beauty, so there's absolutely no clutter.

Floating in the middle of one sidewall, a 27-foot-square mahogany-stained shelving fixture displays leather-bound notebooks and other writing accessories. Closer to the front of the space, mahogany also backs Kate's Closet, actually more of a mini-office where picture frames, note cards, and pencils keep company with a Dilbert-worthy metal desk and a vintage wooden chair.

The retro motif extends to the rear shoe salon, where a small black-and-white TV screen loops through the 1965 hit Darling with Julie Christie and Dirk Bogarde—a favorite of Kate Spade herself. A boudoir-curvy bench, a found piece reupholstered in lipstick-red wool, now comfortably seats four shoppers trying on mules or sling-backs.

The shoe salon's floor-to-ceiling mirror helped Rogers Marvel compensate for an uncharacteristically small space of 1,340 square feet, 350 of which are storage. In fact, the team managed to turn the modest footprint into an opportunity to try out new materials and applications. Six rectangular ceiling coves are illuminated by fluorescent fixtures in Kate Spade's spring palette. For flooring, which has evolved from wood to limestone in past stores, the architects chose carbonized bamboo for ecological reasons as well as for its fresh and distinctive coloration and striations.

Bamboo will be replaced by sturdier terrazzo in Kate Spade stores that Rogers Marvel is currently designing in Atlanta, Dallas, Houston, Las Vegas, and several other U.S. cities. At each, the evolution continues: The firm pushes design elements forward while maintaining the flirty Kate Spade imprimatur. "Each store is a new layer to the process," says Colberg. In moving from space-oriented freestanding stores to urban or mall-type settings, adds Marvel, "Georgetown was pivotal."

Virginia: A Commonwealth Comes of Age
Virginia: A Commonwealth Comes of Age takes a frank look at the emergence, devastation, and re-growth of the birthplace of American commerce, from Jamestown to the 21st century.