Virginia Beach, with its 450,000 people, typically boasts of its stellar public schools, miles-long sandy Oceanfront, high median household income and the Navy’s East Coast master jet base. Native son and entertainer Pharrell Williams put the place on the global map just a few weeks ago, when he hosted a jam-packed, widely lauded festival.
This is the region where I live. Virginia Beach is a comfortable place, blessedly sheltered – especially by degree – of problems that plague many large cities.
The biggest points of contention recently, at least among the locals, were whether to extend a much-debated light rail system from Norfolk (they didn’t); new problems with flooding in several neighborhoods; and controversies over elected officials actually living where they claimed to reside.
None of that ever gained much notice outside the 249-square-mile city.
Virginia Beach’s relative prominence changed Friday – for terrible reasons.
That’s when a city employee went on a murderous rampage, fatally shooting 12 people – mostly co-workers – and injuring four others before Virginia Beach police shot and killed him.
To understand the devastation: The loss of life in that single incident nearly equals the number of slayings over 12 months. The police chief had said earlier this year the total has been 14 to 22 criminal homicides annually for the past 15 years.
As I write midday Sunday, police say they still don’t know the motive behind 40-year-old DeWayne Craddock’s shooting spree. The city did acknowledge, however, that Craddock had submitted a resignation letter the morning of the shootings. City Manager Dave Hansen said Sunday the city engineer hadn’t faced ongoing disciplinary actions and hadn’t been fired, The Virginian-Pilot reported.
Craddock entered his office building Friday afternoon at the Beach’s sprawling Municipal Center armed with two .45-caliber handguns. He then unleashed terror, often firing indiscriminately.
He also used a sound suppressor, often called a silencer, that may have prevented some employees from being immediately alerted to the bloodbath.
The fact that he did so in the same complex that includes police headquarters meant Craddock knew he probably wouldn’t survive.
I’ll leave it to others to debate the wisdom of allowing people to have extended magazines, or what rational purpose that serves. It’s troubling that Craddock got both guns legally, according to news reports. He used them for evil, for terror.
Instead, I’d like to focus on how Virginia Beach, a huge place that often feels much smaller than its size, has now joined a grisly list across the nation.
We know many of these killing fields, almost in shorthand: Sandy Hook, Columbine, Las Vegas, the Pulse nightclub, Virginia Tech, and Fort Hood, Texas. They include elementary schools and colleges, fast-food joints and social clubs, post offices and a brokerage house, places of worship and community centers.
The only common denominator is someone with a grudge decided to kill as many people as possible. Many times, the victims were complete strangers.
It is cruel that Virginia Beach has been added to the roll of those places, something incomprehensible for most people before Friday. That’s the case, even though these killings keep happening with mind-numbing frequency. It’s difficult to keep track.
The city is a place of farms in Pungo, the tucked-away beaches in Sandbridge, the burgeoning commercial district of Town Center and residential neighborhoods throughout.
And now, something else.
“This is the most devastating day in the history of Virginia Beach,” Mayor Bobby Dyer said Friday at a news conference.
“It’s senseless. It’s tragic,” said Dr. Janelle Thomas, Sentara Virginia Beach Hospital’s attending emergency department physician Friday, according to The Virginian-Pilot. Some victims were taken there.
“As much as Virginia Beach is a city, it has a small-town heart,” Thomas added. “This is taking a toll on our community.”
A banner on the city’s homepage Sunday begins: “#LoveForVB. Thank you for the outpouring of support we’ve received from around the world.”
Sadly, the city is not so innocent, or anonymous, any more.