5.14.2003

Looking for Trouble

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.
by Lisa Antonelli Bacon

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."

More

Style Weekly stories by Lisa Antonelli Bacon 

8.31.2016

The Front Line

Lt. John Venuti and the Richmond Police Department’s Violent Crimes Division fight the rising tide of homicide
by Lisa Antonelli Bacon

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. 

So?

“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, everyone 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 to 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.

8.31.2016

Full Bore All the Way

Inside the wingspan of Richmond's new gold-medal olympian Townley Haas
by Lisa Antonelli Bacon

General Mills, dust off the old Wheaties box. Take us back to the time when the sports icons on the front represented ideals like dedication, honesty and humility, when love of sport outweighed endorsements, before Lance Armstrong was a doper and Ryan Lochte was a liar, before Dennis Rodman was, well, Dennis Rodman.

Townley Haas is the kind of sports icon you want looking into your kids’ eyes every morning.

Coaches and commentators have proclaimed Haas the future of USA swimming. He hasn’t been packaged yet, stuffed with bland nonquotes, or glammed up by stylists. He hasn’t had time to get comfortable with celebrity. When a crowd applauds, he tucks his chin and halfheartedly raises his fists to about ear level. Prepared quotes? Forget it. When a reporter serves up a softball question, the answer is spontaneous and from the heart.

“What’s it going to be like returning to UT with a gold medal?”

“I hope it’s like last year,” he says of his freshman days at the University of Texas. “I had fun.”

The future is now. At 19, Haas is the same age as Michael Phelps — the most decorated Olympian ever — when he won his first gold. And in Brazil, he beat the times of every swimmer — including Phelps — in the men’s 200-meter freestyle. You might say he out-Phelpsed Phelps.

Haas, pronounced “hahs,” isn’t exactly sure what it means to be the future of United States swimming. He is sure it brings a new level of pressure. “It’s kind of an honor that people think that,” he says, characteristically understating things a tad. “I guess I have a lot to live up to.”

The immediate observation upon meeting Haas is that the lighting at swim meets is horribly unflattering. Everyone looks a little pasty, monochromatic. In person, Haas is blonder, tanner, with bluer eyes. Only the huge smile is the same. He is calm, poised. He makes and holds eye contact.

Back in Richmond on Aug. 15, with only a week between Rio and his return to Texas, he’s making appearances such as throwing the opening pitch at a Flying Squirrels game. When he isn’t pulled in those directions, he’s spending time with people who are important to him.

On this steamy afternoon, he’s returned from visiting the monks of Mary Mother of the Church Abbey at Benedictine College Preparatory, where he graduated two years ago. He pours himself a glass of milk and sits down at his mom’s kitchen counter, careful not to crowd Roxie, the family’s puggle.

“I’ve been through three gallons of milk in three days,” his mother, Lori, shouts over a whirring mixer. 

The 6-foot-5 athlete is on his third day of R&R at his parents’ Short Pump home. Four more and he’ll be back at UT, getting up every morning for pre-dawn practices, diving into core classes and preparing to tackle his major in kinesiology. At UT, he says, even the guy with the gold has to keep up his schoolwork.

Other than the odd fraction of a second, what’s the difference between a great swimmer and an Olympian? “You can be technically perfect,” he says, “but if you don’t have the drive to want to do it. …”

And another thing. “Something you learn from your parents: hard work. My parents did a good job of that. It’s also something you pick up. If you look at someone like Michael Phelps, I mean he’s incredibly dedicated to the sport and incredibly hard-working. And he’s the most decorated Olympian of all time.”

In any conversation about Olympic swimming, it’s impossible to avoid the P-word. “Every young swimmer wants to be Michael Phelps,” says Haas, who settled for being a tight teammate. In Rio, their rooms were next door to each other in sort of a milk-and-cookies frat house. “There were nights where we were all watching TV together. We played spades some nights.”

Haas doesn’t count beating Phelps’ time in the relay as an achievement.

“He swam 15 minutes before that, and he won the 50 fly. He asked me and Conor [Dwyer] to get him a lead. He was tired, and he was not 100-percent sure of what he could do.”

Excuse me, but isn’t that sort of like saying: “Guys, I’m feeling a little taxed. Mind carrying me?”

Haas responded by doing what he typically does: He didn’t think about it. He simply went full bore.

Haas wanted to swim before he could walk. He was 10 months old when his mother plopped him in the sand at Myrtle Beach, and then watched him make a beeline for the surf on all fours.

“He crawled right up to the water’s edge,” she says. “If we’d let him keep going, he’d have gone halfway to England.”

A few months later, he tested pool swimming — and his mother’s nerves — for the first time by spontaneously leaping into water deeper than he was tall. After that, it was hard to keep him out of the pool. His parents knew that if he didn’t learn to swim, he was going to drown trying, so they signed him up for swimming lessons at age 3.

By 4, Haas was competing for the Church Run Rockets, his neighborhood summer league swim team. Most of the neighborhood kids were on the swim team because most of their friends were doing it.
For Haas, it was a prelude.

By 7, he was serious enough to compete for Nova — not Northern Virginia, but a sort of swim farm in Richmond’s West End, where professional coaches help committed young swimmers maximize their potential. 

The dream almost ended there.

Haas was 8 and having difficulty with a flip turn. “It was a left-left, right-right,” he says. Judging by the name of the maneuver, it would seem essential to know left from right. “But somebody,” he says, cutting his eyes in his mother’s direction, “hadn’t taught me left from right.” (“He was my third kid,” Lori says.) “I would turn left and pull right or turn right and pull left.” His coach bit down.

“I remember getting to the point where I didn’t want to go to practice because it wasn’t fun. He just yelled at me.” But after some negotiation and conversation — “as real of a conversation as you can have with an 8-year-old,” Haas says — he worked through it. “I figured out that this is my left hand, and everything changed. I stopped getting yelled at, and I stayed.”

By high school, weekday practices began at 4:30 a.m. “Dad drove me before I had a license,” Haas says. “I think my alarm was set for 4:12, and his was set for 4:10. He would be on the couch when I came down. I’d walk by, not say anything, then when I came back out of the kitchen, he’d be standing up. Every day, same thing. They could’ve said, ‘I’m not getting up.’ I would’ve gone, ‘I guess I’m not swimming.’”

Drew Hirth, longtime mentor and Haas’ off-and-on coach since Haas was 5, says it was during that time that Haas first distinguished himself. At 15, he broke a meet record in the 400-meter freestyle at the USA Swimming Junior Nationals.

“He surprised himself,” Hirth says. The next year at the same event, he won the 100-, 200-, 400- and 800-meter freestyle events. “That’s when he burst onto the national scene,” Hirth says. “It’s pretty rare to be able to swim all the distances so well.” 

Some swimmers have complicated strategies. China’s Sun Yang, for instance, who won gold in the men’s 200-meter freestyle, tends to chill the first 100 meters and blast the second.

Haas’ strategy is sort of a nonstrategy. “I don’t know what I do,” he says. “I try not to think about it. I relax.” But in his head, he’s preparing to push with all he’s got.

“Your body can take a lot more than you think it can,” he says. “If you know that, you can push your limits. If in your mind you’re saying, ‘I’m done,’ your body’s going to say ‘OK, I’m done.’ But if in your mind you’re saying, ‘keep going,’ your body’s going to be like ‘aawwwwriight.’ It might not feel good, but your body’s not going to implode from swimming.”

Nerves are never an issue, he says. Swim meets are like Groundhog Day: “It’s always the same. You’re in the water. There’s a black line under you. The only thing that changes is the location where the meet is. When you’re in the water, you can’t tell.”

And while he stares at the ubiquitous black line, what’s in his head?

“It kinda depends. If the swim hurts, I’m like, ‘This hurts.’ It’s horrible, but I try not to think about it too much. I’m usually looking at other people, seeing where they are.”

Are they usually behind you?

“That’s the goal. If they’re not, I try to get in front and stay there.”

Full-bore all the way.