A police car in Richmond, Va. (Ned Oliver / Virginia Mercury)
If you don’t live near Richmond and get your news from its regional media market, the last time you probably heard of a place called Dogwood Dell was a little over a month ago when Virginia’s capital city made national news for boldly claiming to have foiled a mass shooting.
The claim by Richmond’s police chief and mayor came on the heels of atrocities in Uvalde and Buffalo. Just two days earlier, a rooftop gunman indiscriminately mowed down spectators lining a Fourth of July parade route on the streets of Highland Park, Illinois.
As Chief Gerald Smith and Mayor Levar Stoney explained to a phalanx of television cameras on July 6, a tip from a “hero citizen” allowed police to apprehend two Guatemalan men illegally in the United States and foil their plot to take high-powered firearms to Dogwood Dell, a bandshell and amphitheater in a city park, and unleash hell on hundreds attending an evening Independence Day concert and fireworks display.
The story made network evening newscasts, an upbeat counterpoint to the fresh horror from suburban Chicago. Smith did cable news interviews with outlets like CNN, spreading the word. The publicity was a perfect balm for a police department whose community relations had been strained mightily by its heavy-handed response in the summer of 2020 to demonstrations along Richmond’s Monument Avenue triggered by the broad-daylight police murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis.
Stoney was forced to fire the police chief at the time, William Smith (no relation to the current chief), after officers in riot gear teargassed, maced, cursed and kicked protesters gathered peacefully at the since-razed statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee. It took the city two years, prodded by the settlement of a citizens’ lawsuit, to formally apologize for those police actions.
But this summer, in the first week of July, buoyed by national headlines of a police triumph and lives spared, the city seemed to have made notable strides toward restoring faith in its leadership.
The story seemed almost too good to be true. Now, a month later, a city prosecutor has given us reason to believe it’s not true.
Asked directly in open court by Richmond General District Court Judge David Hicks last week if there was any evidence of plans to attack Dogwood Dell on July Fourth, Assistant Commonwealth’s Attorney Clint Seal gave a clear, unequivocal and crushing response: “No.”
But that moment wasn’t the first time cracks in the city’s story had appeared. Troubling questions began surfacing as early as the upbeat July 6 press conference itself.
Why, if there was a known threat of a mass shooting, were the Dogwood Dell festivities allowed to proceed as scheduled, particularly with one of the two suspects not yet in custody?
Why was one of the suspects – at a minimum, a person illegally in the country – granted a low $15,000 bond on the same day Smith and Stoney announced his arrest? Five days later, another judge thought better of it and revoked the man’s bond, meaning both suspects are now being held without bail.
Why, if the alleged plot was so ignominious and worthy of the bold assertions unambiguously trumpeted by the city’s top officials, has neither man been charged in connection with it? Why is it not mentioned, even obliquely, in any of the charges currently pending against them? (Both are being held on federal immigration and firearms charges and facing deportation.)
And why have city government and police officials steadfastly stiff-armed persistent media requests to answer those questions and elaborate on the case?
The response from the police chief and the mayor? Double down on their claim and insist that it’s valid, the prosecutor’s contradictory statement in court under pain of perjury notwithstanding.
The basis for the chief’s belief that the two men planned specifically to shoot up Dogwood Dell? Essentially, his gut. And probability.
It came “from the experience and knowledge that your police department has and dealing with situations every day; of studying what happens in mass shootings, mass casualty incidents,” Smith said after the court proceeding in an on-camera interview with WTVR-TV in Richmond. “It comes from just your police department knowing what it’s doing.”
“It’s Richmond. Fourth of July celebration. It’s at the Dogwood Dell,” he said.
There’s no paucity of Independence Day observations in Richmond, a city with its own significant contributions to the nation’s struggle for independence. Arguably better known than Dogwood Dell is the annual fireworks display after the final out of the Richmond Flying Squirrels game at The Diamond, a minor league ballpark at the opposite terminus of Arthur Ashe Boulevard from Dogwood Dell. The city’s suburbs have their own numerous public celebrations and pyrotechnics extravaganzas.
As it turns out, we’ve been shown no more evidence for a plot targeting Dogwood Dell than we have for any other potential venue, though we’ve been implored to believe the claim absent any publicly shared substantiation beyond a conversation overheard by an earnest citizen tipster.
None of this is to suggest that these suspects don’t need to be sent away. They do.
Rolman Alberto Balcarcel had been deported twice from the United States and had returned a third time when he was arrested last month. His housemate, Julio Alvarado-Dubon, is charged with illegal possession of a firearm by a person illegally in the country. He had purchased two assault-style rifles, a handgun and multiple high-capacity ammunition magazines at a yard sale near Fredericksburg.
Richmond Commonwealth’s Attorney Colette McEachin last week asked the U.S. Department of Justice to take over prosecution of the men because they are “two illegal aliens with guns so we wanted them prosecuted at the highest level possible.” There was no reference to a mass shooting.
Did Balcarcel and Alvarado-Dubon plan to carry out a bloody assault on U.S. soil – perhaps Richmond soil? I don’t know. Clearly, they had an arsenal capable of it. The chief and the mayor say that was their intent, but nobody in authority has yet put one word of it in writing, made such a claim in a legal proceeding, or shared a shred of corroboration beyond because we say so!
We should not lose sight of the fact that law enforcement performed a great service by taking these two into custody based solely on the armaments seized and the wanton immigration violations alleged in court documents. They deserve our thanks.
The problems come not from the work officers did but from city leadership building so fantastical a narrative and announcing it so broadly yet sharing no proof to support it.
The press may not be the juggernaut it once was, but there are still a lot of journalists out there who are really good at skeptically listening to a claim, methodically vetting and finding holes in it, and asking those responsible to explain the discrepancies. When those officials can’t – or won’t – the whole thing unravels pretty fast, particularly after scenes like the one in Judge Hicks’s courtroom.
What, for a few weeks, seemed like a much-needed PR breakthrough for city leadership in general and the police in particular has instead put both on the defensive again as Smith’s and Stoney’s sensational account falters on the verge of collapse.
Chief Smith, Mayor Stoney – if you’ve got the goods that you say you do tying these two guys to a mass murder plot at Dogwood Dell (or any place else), it’s time to stop stonewalling legitimate inquiries and back your claim with some verifiable proof.
At stake is the public trust and confidence necessary to govern.
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