Lynchburg family flying to Puerto Rico in search of…

Lynchburg’s Lydia Simerly has called her 90-year-old parents, Angel Ortiz Rivera and Bengina Rivera Rivera, every night for the past two weeks.

The couple, who live in the mountains of Puerto Rico with their daughter Wilma Rivera, hasn’t answered since Hurricane Maria hit the island.

“I waited, I waited. I called my sisters, and we all got in a conference call … to see what the plan was, but no one had a plan. We were just gonna wait,” said Lydia Simerly, 60. “I can’t wait no more.

“I can’t. I’m not that type of person.”

So the Simerlys and a family friend are headed to the island, a U.S. territory, to find them Saturday.

Ron Simerly, his two stepdaughters Sonia Huebner and Madalena Phelps and friend Christina Kline will fly out from Washington Dulles International Airport on Saturday morning.

They will land that afternoon at the Luis Muñoz Marín International Airport, which reopened Sept. 22. It is about an hour away by car from their destination in Aibonito, Puerto Rico.

Or about 14 hours by foot, Ron Simerly, 59, said Wednesday — but that’s a last resort.

The crew is hoping to have a rental car ready, but they won’t know if there are any working cars at the rental company until they arrive, Ron Simerly said. They’ll land at about 4:30 p.m. Eastern time, with just a few hours to get to Aibonito before Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló’s curfew goes into effect.

“Otherwise they’ll be sleeping in the car,” Lydia Simerly said.

With a week of meals strapped to their backs and dozens of “humanitarian packets” — including water purification tablets, waterproof matches, collapsible water bottles and gas cans in tow — the group is on a mission to find “proof of life” for their family members while also helping anyone else in need.

“It’s not just about finding my family,” said Phelps, 39. “It’s about trying to ease somebody’s suffering while all this is going on.”

Unlike many others on the island who live in “shanties” — improvised homes made out of wood or recycled metal — the Riveras lived in a concrete home, Ron Simerly said.

In previous storms, flooding was common, and it wasn’t unusual for the family to stack furniture as high as they could before opening the doors to let the water run through.

“And then once it’s gone, you squeegee out the house and dry it out,” he said. “That’s during a normal storm.”

But this storm, considered a “potentially catastrophic” event by the National Hurricane Center, was different.

The roads in Aibonito often are washed out during regular-strength rainstorms, Lydia Simerly said. She’s not sure what they’ll find.

The Riveras’ backyard was flooded, and they lost their roof, power and running water after Hurricane Irma hit, but they were fine, Lydia Simerly said.

She received the last status update Tuesday, Sept. 19, the day before Hurricane Maria made landfall south of the Yabucoa Harbor in Puerto Rico. That is about two hours east from Aibonito.

The family has called the Red Cross, the Federal Emergency Management Agency and several other organizations, but they haven’t been able to get help or an answer, Ron Simerly said. So the group decided to take it upon themselves to find their family, he said.

The week before Maria hit the island, Angel Ortiz Rivera had a pacemaker installed, Lydia Simerly said, and the couple has other health issues that make her worried about access to medication and access to money to buy supplies.

“In my heart, I know my parents are okay,” Lydia Simerly said. “… but we got to fill their needs now. Can you imagine two 90-year-olds carrying water?”

“Or standing in line at Walmart for hours?” Phelps said.

Ronald Simerly is taking a generator and homemade water purification system to give to his in-laws. The hope is Angel Ortiz Rivera and Ron Simerly stay in Aibonito, as to not leave the home unattended for fear of looting, while Bengina Rivera Rivera, Wilma Rivera and the rest of the rescue crew come back to Lynchburg.

Lydia isn’t sure where her parents will be, but the group is ready to look for them at area shelters. They expect to fly back to Virginia on Oct. 13, but the group is expecting delays, Ron Simerly said.

“We don’t mind sitting and waiting,” he said. “We’re there to help family.”

People in Puerto Rico are waiting in line to leave, and others are stranded, hungry and hot, he said — a sharp contrast to his previous description of the island as “the closest thing to heaven and home that I have personally experienced.”

“I’ve never seen [Lydia] cry more in my life than in the past week,” he said.

Lydia Simerly was standing in front of her kitchen sink Monday night.

She said just turning on the sink reminds her of them.

“I just thought of them not having water, nothing to drink and you know? Their age, they’re standing in line.”

She cried and went to bed right after.

But she called her parents first.

Publication: The News and Advance

Drug use breaking up families, overwhelming foster care

An increase in hard drug usage in Virginia has led to a spike in the number of local families permanently losing custody of their children.

In Lynchburg, the Department of Social Services has had 15 children enter foster care this year specifically due to parents’ use of meth or opioids as of Sept. 27, more than any year in the past, April Watson, the department’s foster care supervisor, said.

Typically the department only takes in three to five children, she said.

“This year already, we’ve had tons of babies come in, which usually, babies don’t come into foster care,” Watson said. “But this year, we’ve had baby after baby after baby coming in, [and] a lot of them are having withdrawal symptoms and things of that nature.”

Andy Crawford, director of the Bedford County Department of Social Services, said Bedford County started seeing the same pattern a few years ago: an increase in hard drug usage, in families losing children, in demand for foster homes.

He said the department began noticing the increase due to meth and opioid drug use about two to three years ago and about one or two years ago for heroin. In that same span, he said fewer children have been able to return home.

In Fiscal Year 2017, which runs from July 1, 2016, to June 30, 2017, Bedford County DSS took in a total of 27 children.

Between July 1, 2017, and the end of August, Bedford County DSS has already taken in 19 kids, Crawford said Wednesday.

In Virginia, families usually have 12 to 18 months to get their kids back after the children are removed from the home due to drug use. An increasing number of families don’t succeed because parents are unable to overcome their addiction.

Brent McCraw, director of Centra’s Pathways Addiction and Recovery Services, said addiction is a disease not unlike cancer or diabetes.

“One of the features of a dependence of any sort is a compulsive use, and from a cognitive standpoint, a very strong obsession,” McCraw said. “… In the later stages of addiction, people are either thinking about using, going through the motions of getting drugs, preparing to use, using or recovering from use. It’s just consuming.”

If people could stop, they wouldn’t have a disorder, he said.

“No one wakes up and says, ‘I want my kids to go in foster care today; I’m going to neglect them,’” Watson said. “Nobody ever grows up and wants to be that parent. People genuinely love their children; they just don’t have the coping mechanisms and the tools — and a lot of times, they have such significant trauma from their childhood that they can’t overcome — that leads to these situations.”

But social workers are on a tight schedule.

“We have 12 months to find permanency for children,” Watson said in a June interview. “So we are not seeing parents able to conquer that substance abuse in 12 months, so a lot of those kids are not returning home to their birth parents. They’re either going to relatives or adoption.”

Twelve months probably isn’t long enough to kick a substance use disorder, she said, noting that the department expects relapses.

“That’s just a part of recovery. It’s going to be a lifelong struggle … but for a child, a year is forever. It’s a long time, and it’s not really fair to make a child wait for something that might never happen.”

Bedford County requires parents to make marked progress, usually measured through reports from court-ordered substance abuse treatment programs and family therapy, to be “constantly” in treatment and demonstrate the ability to parent, Crawford said.

Lynchburg requires parents to be sober for six consecutive months, Lynchburg DSS Senior Child Protective Services Supervisor Tiffany Vassar said in June.

“If there’s a relapse, that [timer] starts over,” she said.

A July 1 state policy change regarding substance-exposed infants also has affected the number of children being taken in by the foster care system, Vassar said.

“Policy [changed] on July 1, where even if the mother has received treatment or is receiving treatment for substance abuse, normally that would not be validated because she’s in some kind of treatment program, and they’re working with her,” she said. “Now, that will be valid. So we will open that [case] even if she’s in treatment or if she’s prescribed prescription medicine and the baby’s positive.”

Another policy change went into effect July 1 that requires each department to respond to calls for children younger than 2 years old within 24 hours — something Crawford said he saw maybe once or twice per month in Bedford previously but has seen almost five times per day since the change.

As a result of the new policies, each social services department across the state received additional funding to hire more staff or rearrange resources from the Children’s Services Act, Crawford said, adding increased demands still are spreading the department thin, even with additional help.

The act is a 1993 Virginia law that created a single pool of funds allocated by the state to purchase services for at-risk youth and their families, according to the Virginia Office of Children’s Services website.

Regardless of cause, area social services departments are seeing a marked increase in drug-related foster care cases.

As of Thursday, Watson said Lynchburg had about 145 children in foster care. That same day, Bedford had 68 children in care, Crawford said.

In Amherst County, methamphetamine use is the biggest problem for the county’s department of social services, Director Susan Mays said.

Lynchburg used to mostly see marijuana cases in parents of kids in foster care, Vassar said. Now it’s PCP, meth, cocaine and opioids in the form of the illegal drug heroin and prescription pills, she said.

“A lot of times, [we’d] find that those [drugs] are connected to cases, but it’s not the reason for removal,” Watson said. “Nowadays, that is the reason for removal.”

In fiscal year 2017, 21 children entered the agency’s care because of drug use in the home, 13 specifically related to the use of opiates and meth, she said.

And the increases have led to a shortage in available foster care homes, Watson said.

The shortage especially is noticeable when it comes to placing teens and adolescents, Crawford said.

Though Lynchburg currently has about 90 foster care homes and Bedford has about 30, each department says it’s not enough for the demands it’s seeing.

“For us, a lot of these homes, they’ll adopt the children,” Watson said, adding that once the homes adopt children, they often leave the foster care program forcing social services to recruit new foster parents. “Whereas back in the day, we would cycle through [foster] family after [foster] family; nowadays kids are coming and staying, and so they’re being closed, and we need more families to open their doors.”

Foster care is the last resort, Watson said, so most social services departments offer preventative services such as parenting classes to give parents the tools they need to reunite with their children.

“The problem is when parents struggle with behaviors and substance abuse that puts children at risk of abuse and neglect,” Crawford said.

That’s when the department gets involved and tries to get parents any services or treatment while the children are placed somewhere else, Vassar said.

Watson said ideally the department will return children to their birth parents, but that’s not always possible with the current trends in drug use.

“Our highest goal is adoption right now, and it’s never been before,” she said.

Nelson, Appomattox and Campbell counties’ social services departments did not respond to requests for comment.

Rachel Mahoney contributed the quote from the Amherst County Department of Social Services. 

Restoration projects popping up on Daniel’s Hill as more…

Grace Fletcher starts every morning by cleaning up trash in front of her Cabell Street home. Dressed in all purple, Fletcher shook her head as she explained it’s not the residents who make the mess, it’s the people passing through. Fletcher lives in Daniel’s Hill, which spans from A Street to H Street and from Rivermont Avenue to the James River. It grew out of about 757 acres of land owned by Dr. George Cabell, a physician to patriot Patrick Henry in the 1800s and Cabell Street’s namesake, said Doug Harvey, director of the Lynchburg Museum System.

The area was established in the 1840s and annexed into the city in 1870, according to The Lynchburg Historical Foundation.

Fletcher’s mother, Gladys Smith, was born in 1898 on Daniel’s Hill. She lived on the hill for most of her life and mothered 14 children, of which Fletcher was number 13. She was born on Dabney Street in 1937 and so has seen most of Daniel’s Hill’s evolution first hand, she said.

“When I was growing up, everybody knew everybody,” Fletcher said. “But now it’s so much different; we don’t know anybody.”

Fletcher walked the D Street Bridge every morning to go to school, as she wasn’t allowed to walk down Cabell Street, she said. In fact, no blacks were allowed on Cabell Street at all.

Blacks were segregated to the bottom of the hill, while rich whites lived at the top in large homes, she said.

Those homes — mid- and late-nineteenth century mansions with styles ranging from Federal to Queen Anne — line most of Cabell Street, according to the Historical Foundation.

“We weren’t even allowed at the Point of Honor when we were coming up,” Fletcher said. “We weren’t allowed there, that’s why I don’t care for it now.”

Cabell built Point of Honor, the two-story focal point of the southern end of Daniel’s Hill, in 1815. After a series of deaths, Point of Honor was inherited by Judge William Daniel, Sr.; Cabell’s relative by marriage and the inspiration for the hill’s name.

“When Point of Honor was built, it was a plantation that stretched from Blackwater Creek to what is now Randolph College,” Harvey said. “So a great deal of what we know as Rivermont is actually part of the Point of Honor property.”

During the early days of Point of Honor, the Cabells owned slaves, he said.

“And until 1865, that was the life in Lynchburg, Virginia,” Harvey said. “After the Civil War, you basically move into the Jim Crow era, which is where slaves have been freed but haven’t been fully integrated into society and the laws changed to basically keep them very segregated. “Even in my youth — you’re in Lynchburg in the 50s, 60s and 70s — Lynchburg was still a segregated society.”

Echoes of segregation and the sharp income disparities between residents on the hill still can be seen today.

Over the years, the Daniel family broke up the Point of Honor property, Harvey said, which allowed the area to develop into a mixture of factories, foundries and worker homes.

“But it wasn’t until the River – mont Bridge was built that it actually comes into the city and you get an actual urban [area] with lots of houses and lots of people,” Harvey said. “They had to build that bridge over that huge Blackwater Creek gully first.”

That bridge brought Daniel’s Hill “into the fold” in 1891, Harvey said.

But the area’s growth didn’t last long.

“In my youth growing up here in the 50s and 60s, Cabell Street and Daniel’s Hill was no longer — many of the more affluent people had moved further out to other parts of town … so a lot of wealthy families had left,” Harvey said.

The rich white residents began to move to Boonsboro, allowing blacks to move into the area, Fletcher said.

“I guess we were moving too close for some people,” she said. “So they got out.”

Daniel’s Hill always has been a varied neighborhood, Harvey said.

“You’ve got some of the large wealthy families that built houses on Cabell Street but you also had on some of the side streets and further out Rivermont, you got some workers’ homes — people who worked in the foundries and factories of Lynchburg,” he said.

“Most of these simpler dwellings were erected around the turn of the century to accommodate laborers in the factories lining the James [River] below the hill,” the district’s United States Department of Interior application for the National Register of Historic Places reads.

Harvey said he remembers about 10 to 12 factories on the riverfront when he was a child.

“The word in town then was you could go on any given day, if you were an able body person, you could go down the hill and get a job,” Harvey said. “… Those days, unfortunately, are done.”

Fletcher said she lives on the poorer side of the hill, next to the historic district.

“Now, nobody got nothing,” she said, explaining the aging population on Daniel’s Hill has left many residents on social security without money to restore their homes or move. That’s why many of the houses appear run down, she said.

Richard Morris, a city historic preservation commissioner and advocate for Daniel’s Hill, first saw the hill in 2000.

“My opinion of Daniel’s Hill back then was … that neighborhood had great potential, but I would never live there,” he said.

The district’s NHR application was submitted in 1983, defining the neighborhood as “almost completely a working class one.”

“Most of the mansions are deteriorated and are either vacant or divided into rental units,” it reads. “Efforts towards the rehabilitation of the neighborhood are underway through both the city and the local redevelopment and housing authority.”

A drug problem started to appear in the neighborhood in the 1980s and 1990s, and continues in parts of the community, Fletcher said.

Morris said many homes were converted to apartments during the mid-twentieth century.

“I’d say in the 70s and 80s, there were crack houses there,” he said. “It was terrible. And so, that is turning around now. I think the neighborhood got to the point where it couldn’t get any worse … I remember when I was selling my house on C Street — a young couple was buying it — an old timer from Lynchburg said ‘Oh, you don’t want to buy that house, that’s a real bad neighborhood down there.’”

Point of Honor was donated to the city in the 1920s and became a recreation center, which ran until the 1960s, Harvey said.

“Then it kind of sits there, vacant and forlorn,” he said. “And the American bicentennial of 1976 is on the horizon and that created a lot of historic sites and historic houses across America. So a group of people in Lynchburg got together and decided they would restore the Point of Honor to its historical condition as a bi – centennial project.”

After a substantial donation, Point of Honor opened to the public in 1978, Harvey said.

“I’d say beginning in the 1970s, you have the beginnings of people coming in and taking those large, old houses and starting to restore them,” he said. The historic Rivermont House — named for its view of the river; as in the James, and mont as in “high ground” — lies behind Point of Honor and was built by the Judge William Daniel Jr., Harvey said.

Morris bought the property 10 years after first laying eyes on the area.

“In that 10-year span, it obviously cleaned up enough for me to want to buy there,” he said. “… I just remember the neighborhood being really derelict, trash.”

He said he considered Rivermont House to be in “dire straits. It wasn’t habitable when I started.”

Restoration began about three years ago, Morris said. The floors were destroyed and there was stench that pervaded the entire home.

“When you find a house that has gone through hard times, usually the neighborhood has gone through the same hard times,” he said.

Morris is working on restoring the outside before winter weather arrives. He’s also planning to build a four-car carriage house.

“So I’m really going to transform that whole landscape,” he said, adding he wouldn’t have bought Rivermont House if he didn’t think the neighborhood was improving.

From a plantation to a collection of homes divided by income to now, Daniel’s Hill has evolved, Fletcher said.

She said part of the change is due to the influx of people restoring homes and part to young couples moving into the area looking for affordable housing. Deborah Pringle, 23, and her husband Ian Pringle, 24, decided to buy a home in Daniel’s Hill almost a year ago because they heard the neighborhood was “on the up-and-up.”

“The price was right,” she said. “We’re just getting started in life.”

The couple moved into their $54,000, three-bedroom home this past October. The family plans to live in Daniel’s Hill for another five years and then sell the house at a profit, she said.

“We’re kind of doing some renovations,” she said, explaining they might end up staying a longer than planned.

Buying low and selling high in Daniel’s Hill is a step toward their dream of owning a self-sufficient farm one day, she said.

Fletcher said the restoration of downtown Lynchburg is drawing people to the hill.

“It’s going to be all right after a while, I guess,” she said. “People are moving downtown, and this is the downtown area so it might become something.”

Daniel’s Hill still is a neighborhood of transition, Harvey said.

“You got a number of restored homes and bed and breakfasts, and then you have a number of homes that need rehabilitation,” he said.

The growing appreciation for the architecture and natural beauty of the James River is why Harvey returned to Lynchburg after 25 years away, he said.

“My crystal ball is as cloudy as everybody else’s but I think, what I’m seeing, I think Lynchburg is going to continue to grow and prosper — and for multiple reasons; it’s not going to be tobacco, it’s not going to be railroads, it’s going to be the quality of life from the natural beauty of the trail system, the river,” Harvey said. “It’s going to be from young people who maybe come here for the colleges and decide to stay.

“We’re also seeing a good increase in tourism … and I think that peoples’ interest in restoring old houses is going to continue to grow,” he said. “And those young people that maybe have more energy and time than money will be doing sweat equity, and you can see that on Daniel’s Hill and other neighborhoods where young people are returning — and people in general — are returning.”

Young couples seem to be popping up all over the hill, Morris said, and the neighborhood appears on the upswing.

“Some people don’t believe it, but it’s a nice place to live,” Fletcher said. “It really is if you get to know the people.”

Across the street, Pringle stood near her 6-day old son Alistair and peered out the window. She’s seen the neighbors pick – ing up the trash each morning.

“I’ve never lived in a place where people care so much they clean up after other people,” she said.

Publication: Discover Magazine

Liberty University student petitions for release of father from…

“I will be back within 24 hours.”

That was the last thing Liberty University student Chongyu Xia recalled his father saying as security officials escorted him out of their Beijing home.

That also was the last time Chongyu Xia saw his father.

It’s now been 900 days since his father was taken, according to Chongyu Xia’s recently released petition meant to urge the Embassy of China in Washington, D.C., to broker the release of his father, Xia Lin, a human rights lawyer.

Xia Lin was arrested Nov. 8, 2014, accused of “gambling and fraud,” according to the Chinese Human Rights Defenders (CHRD), a coalition of Chinese and international human rights non-governmental organizations dedicated to the promotion of human rights through peaceful efforts, according to its website. According to a CHRD letter to the United Nations, Xia Lin was accused of defrauding $1.5 million to pay off debts incurred through a gambling addiction.

In an interview with The News & Advance on Tuesday, Chongyu Xia said his father didn’t have a gambling addiction: “It’s not real.”

“Mr. Xia’s detention on financial charges is a blatant pretext used by the government to punish him for being a human rights lawyer,” the CHRD letter reads. “Xia Lin has practiced law for over two decades and during the second half of his career, he founded a pro-bono legal service firm to take on public interest cases and represented individuals from marginalized groups. Xia had gained prominence for defending sensitive cases that were widely reported by Chinese media, which led to harassment from authorities.”

After the arrest, Xia Lin wasn’t questioned about fraud — he was questioned about his cases, Chongyu Xia said.

“We’re pretty sure this is political persecution,” he said.

Radio Television Hong Kong (RTHK), the government-funded public broadcasting service in Hong Kong, reported about a dozen people marched Monday to protest the jailing of Xia Lin.

“Civic Party lawmaker Kwok Ka-ki said the accusations against Xia amount to ‘character assassination,’” the article on the RTHK website reads. “Kwok said [China] President Xi Jinping is getting more heavy handed with dissidents and the Communist Party is sending out clear warnings that it will not tolerate any freedom of speech or calls for human rights.”

Chongyu Xia, 21, said he came to the United States in August 2015 to escape the Chinese government, which he said is known for capturing families and using them to force confessions from prisoners. Currently a sophomore majoring in public health, Chongyu Xia started at LU in the fall of 2015.

“We are afraid about that,” he said. “They could come [for] me or my mom, so they sent me to America, and now I’m a student here … we know they are coming after us, so I escaped before they came.”

An only child, Chongyu Xia said his mother, Ru Lin, still is in China working to get his father freed. He said “they won’t touch her” because she’s in the spotlight.

“She works with scholars and law professionals to get their opinions … on how they view this case … they all think it’s not [fraud],” he said. “… We tried to [put] pressure on the court and the Chinese government to try and give him a fair, just trial, but it didn’t work.”

Attempts to reach officials at The Embassy of China in Washington, D.C., on Tuesday were unsuccessful.

Rebekah Yanping Yu met Chongyu Xia in 2015 during his first semester at Liberty University. When she learned he was Xia Lin’s son, she said she immediately knew he was “the lawyer Xia Lin’s son” because she pays close attention to human rights lawyers who are caught by the Chinese government, some of whom are her friends.

“I think Xia Lin is innocent. He helps a lot of vulnerable groups [get] their rights then [the] government gets angry for what he does,” she said. “… [They are] not just angered by Xia Lin, they [are] angered [by] anybody who disagreed [with them] and disobedience.”

Xia Lin was sentenced April 20 to 10 years in prison, after he initially was sentenced to 12 years last September.

Chongyu Xia and said he and his mother tried to negotiate Xia Lin’s release, but nothing came of it. So that’s why he started the petition.

“I don’t have much idea with it now,” he said. “I’m just going to do the petition, collect [many] signatures and then deliver it to the Chinese embassy located in D.C. and see how that works. I’ll figure out after that what I will do because I’m not sure yet.”

While his original dream to attend college in China and move to Japan was derailed by his move to the United States, Chongyu Xia said he wishes he could go back to China.

“Honestly, I want to go back ’cause that’s where I come from, that’s where I belong, you know? But it might be risky for me so I need to think about it carefully,” he said.

Publication: The News and Advance


Courtesy Chongyu Xia

LU student testifies before congress on father’s plight in China

On Wednesday, Liberty University student Chongyu Xia took his fight for his father’s freedom to the United States government.

The rising junior, fighting for the release of his father, Xia Lin, a human rights lawyer currently imprisoned in China, spoke before American legislators Wednesday in Washington, D.C.

“I am not alone,” Chongyu Xia said in a statement to the Congressional-Executive Commission on China (CECC). “As a rising nation, China’s deteriorating human rights record is unacceptable. When a human rights lawyer cannot secure his own fundamental rights, I believe every member’s rights in the society are threatened.”

Chongyu Xia was one of four people to testify at the hearing titled “Gagging the Lawyers: China’s Crackdown on Human Rights Lawyers and Its Implications for U.S.-China Relations.” The others were Terence Halliday, co-director of the Center on Law & Globalization at the American Bar Foundation; Teng Biao, Chinese human rights lawyer and co-founder of the Open Constitution Initiative and China Human Rights Accountability Center; and Li Xiaorong, an independent scholar formerly with the University of Maryland Institute for Philosophy & Public Policy.

U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., chairman of the CECC, and Rep. Chris Smith, R-N.J., co-chair of the CECC, led the hearing.

“Chinese officials repeatedly tell me that I should focus more on the positive aspects of China and not dwell so much on the negative,” Smith began, according to video of the event. “ … That is an extremely difficult task when you read the horrifying and sadistic accounts of torture and enforced disappearances experienced by lawyers and rights advocates.”

Xia Lin was arrested Nov. 8, 2014, and accused of “gambling and fraud,” according to the Chinese Human Rights Defenders (CHRD), a coalition of Chinese and international human rights non-governmental organizations dedicated to the promotion of human rights through peaceful efforts, according to its website.

Renee Xia, international director at CHRD, said Xia Lin’s arrest was related directly to his work as a lawyer, where he handled high-risk cases defending human rights activists, lawyers, and ethnic or religious minorities.

“We believe the unfair trial and harsh prison sentence against Mr. Xia [Lin] is the government’s retaliation for his lawyerly work defending his clients’ due process rights, in violation of Chinese law and international human rights law,” Renee Xia said.

CHRD researcher Frances Eve said Xia Lin is a victim of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s oppression of dissenting voices and lawyers.

“The ‘fraud’ case was clearly pre-determined from the beginning and an act of revenge for his professional work as a lawyer,” Eve said, calling Xia Lin’s case a “mockery of justice.”

Chongyu Xia agreed and previously has told The News & Advance the fraud and gambling charges against his father were fake.

“We’re pretty sure this is political persecution,” he said.

Xia Lin was sentenced April 20 to 10 years in prison, after initially being sentenced to 12 years last September.

After the sentencing, Chongyu Xia began fighting his father’s charges with renewed vigor, starting a petition that quickly garnered thousands of signatures from all over the world, with more than 95,320 names sitting on the list as of Thursday night.

Less than a month later, on May 9, Chongyu Xia marched up the steps to the Embassy of China in Washington, D.C., to deliver the letter featured in his petition.

His case was not heard by the embassy that day, Chongyu Xia said, and so he read his letter aloud outside the building before retreating down the steps.

But that setback didn’t stop him or his mother, Ru Lin, who is in China fighting for her husband’s release, Chongyu Xia said.

“I refuse to accept this illegal and unjust verdict,” Chongyu Xia said.

During Wednesday’s hearing, Rubio said July 9 will mark the two-year anniversary of the “709” crackdown, which was the start of what has been described as an unprecedented nationwide crackdown on human rights lawyers and legal advocates in China.

“While perhaps unprecedented in scale and coordination — nearly 300 rights advocates were detained, summoned for questioning, or disappeared — the crackdown began much earlier,” Rubio said according to transcripts.

Halliday said the “709” crackdown occurred due to the quickly intensifying economic and social problems in China lawyers had been drawing attention to in highly visible ways.

“Clearly, China’s leaders felt vulnerable to activist, die-hard and ordinary lawyers’ enhanced powers to mobilize publics,” he said, explaining Chinese activist lawyers have increased in number and united on social media platforms to mobilize and inspire others.

Biao detailed a chain of events that involved multiple kidnappings by China’s secret police, being disbarred and ultimately torture in a “black jail,” defined by NGO Human Rights Watch as secret, unlawful detention facilities, for 70 days.

“Dozens of lawyers were severely tortured, including beatings, electric shocks, sleep deprivation, prolonged interrogations, death threats, months or years of solitary confinement, humiliation, forcible televised confessions, so on and so on,” he said. “Notably, it has been confirmed that many lawyers and activists were force-fed with medicines which caused them muscle pain, blurred vision and other physical and mental harm.”

Biao, Chongyu Xia and the other members ended their statement with a plea for the U.S. government to increase its involvement with human rights cases in China and hold China accountable through means such as expulsion from the UN Human Rights Council.

“A powerful and autocratic China will bring calamities to mankind,” Biao said. “Supporting democracy and human rights in China not only corresponds to American declared values; it will also benefit American politics, society and economics in the long term.

“Please stand on the side of Chinese people, not on the side of Chinese Communist Party.”

Chongyu Xia said human rights lawyers are the cornerstone of society, and by taking a clear stance, the U.S. Government would communicate to the world that human rights violations will not be tolerated.

Date: June 29, 2017

Publication: The News and Advance


The murder of Raymond Wood

Publication: The News and Advance

On March 27, 2017, a motorist called the Bedford County Sheriff’s Office to report that they had found a body on Roaring Run Road in Goode, Virginia around 9:30 p.m.

These are the stories that followed:

Divers search Big Otter River amid flurry of police activity in Bedford County, Lynchburg

By Alissa Smith and Rachel Mahoney
March 28

Bedford County Public Schools announced a lockdown Tuesday morning of five schools that lasted for several hours soon after a business owner near Forest Road said he saw a “standoff” on Cottontown Road.

The lockdown was part of a flurry of police activity in the Forest, Goode and Lynchburg areas that started Monday night with a 911 call about a dead body and extended into Tuesday evening as divers searched the Big Otter River.

Bedford County, Lynchburg and Virginia state law enforcement officials would not say if the events were connected.

The 911 call came in at about 9:30 p.m. Monday regarding a dead person on Roaring Run Road in Goode, according to a brief news release Tuesday from the Bedford County Sheriff’s Office.

Deputies could not find identification on the body, according to the release. The remains were sent to the Chief Medical Examiner’s Office in Roanoke to determine an identity and cause of death.

The Bedford County Sheriff’s Office is heading the investigation into the body found on Roaring Run Road and is being assisted by U.S. Marshals, the Virginia State Police and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

In a Facebook post shortly after 9 a.m. Tuesday, Bedford County Public Schools announced Forest Elementary, Thomas Jefferson Elementary, Otter River Elementary, Forest Middle and Jefferson Forest High schools were on lockdown “while an investigation is taking place in the Forest zone.”

Greg Harrison, who owns Outtasight Window Tinting off Cottontown Road about five miles east of the high school, told The News & Advance he pulled into his business just before 8:30 a.m. Cars zipped past as he turned onto Cottontown Road from Forest Road, stopping near the bridge close to his business.

“When I got here, it looked like somebody was laying in the road, and that’s what got my attention,” he said, adding he thought it was a car crash.

“As I made it about to the guardrail, I realized it was a standoff,” then retreated to the parking lot, he said.

He said people had gathered in the area to watch the incident, and he urged them to keep away.

“Nobody’s been able to figure out what was going on all day long,” he said.

Bradley Kent, who works at Outtasight, said he was at the business taking out trash when he heard tires screeching on Cottontown Road.

“I see a white car parked and a black unmarked vehicle pull up behind them,” he said. “Three doors open up, guns start flying out, some dude hops out of the back with an AR-15 and they start screaming back and forth.”

He described seeing one man lay on the ground on his stomach about three to four minutes after the incident started.

The situation went on until about 9:15 a.m., Harrison said. He and Kent said they saw two men handcuffed and put into unmarked vehicles.

“I don’t know what’s going on. I would never expect to come to work here on Cottontown Road and see something like that,” Harrison said.

On Facebook, a school official wrote that as part of a perimeter lockdown, doors were locked and being guarded. Bedford County Sheriff’s Office vehicles and personnel could be seen outside those schools Tuesday morning.

Ryan Edwards, Bedford County Public Schools spokesman, said the schools took cues from law enforcement and enacted the lockdowns on that advice.

“I can say that there is an investigation that is going on in proximity to these schools that resulted in the lockdown,” he said.

The lockdown was lifted shortly after 11 a.m., according to another Facebook post from the division.

Several hours later, Lynchburg Police Department investigators entered a Lynchburg home that was cordoned off with police tape for around 12 hours.

Officers on the scene at 1052 Coronado Lane said a missing-persons call was made at about 4 a.m. Tuesday, and the perimeter was established at the residence shortly after.

No one was inside the residence Tuesday afternoon, one officer said. The entire property was taped off, including two vehicles.

Crime scene investigators with the Lynchburg Police Department were on scene at about 3:20 p.m. and started moving equipment inside the residence shortly after. Investigators began questioning neighbors door-to-door at about 3:40 p.m. One neighbor said they were asked about a teenaged male at the residence.

Officers would not comment on details of the investigation or if it was related to events in Bedford County.

A vehicle arrived at the residence before 5 p.m. A young male and a woman who left the vehicle spoke with officials outside the residence for about a half hour, while a third person, a man, entered the residence with investigators and re-emerged later.

All vehicles with officers and investigators left the scene by 5:30 p.m., and investigators declined to comment on proceedings at the residence before leaving the scene.

At the same time, law enforcement officials were monitoring the Big Otter River area along Roaring Run Road on Tuesday afternoon.

Officials with the Virginia State Police Search and Recovery team arrived at about 5:30 p.m. Two individuals exited the vehicle and were seen donning orange dry suits, gathering rope and later checking netting that had been in the river.

Two individuals wearing red shirts arrived in separate black sedans hours later. VSP officials and an undercover sheriff’s deputy spoke to them briefly before the two men piled back into their vehicles and left the scene.

As of 9 p.m. Tuesday night, officials still were checking the area of Big Otter River. Multiple undercover deputies with the sheriff’s office monitored the search.

Officials would not say why the river bank was being searched or provide details about the case.

Frank Schermer, a supervisory deputy U.S. Marshal at the Department of Justice, said he has sent out representatives to assist with the investigation but didn’t know any details about the case as of Tuesday.

Photo: Rachel Mahoney

Two in custody amid investigation; detainment of Salvadorans comes as homicide probe continues

By Alissa Smith and Rachel Mahoney
March 30

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement revealed Thursday two Salvadoran men have been transferred to its custody and are now held at a detainment facility in Farmville after they were picked up by the Bedford County Sheriff’s Office.

“On March 28, ICE arrested 19-year-old Victor Arnoldo Rodas and 23-year-old Lisandro Posada-Vazquez, both citizens and nationals of El Salvador. They are currently detained at Farmville Detention Center in Farmville, Virginia,” Carissa Cutrell, Public Affairs Officer with ICE said in an email Thursday.

According to the Bedford County Circuit and General Court websites, neither face charges in Bedford; Maj. Ricky Gardner, of Bedford County Sheriff’s Office, said Thursday night he knows of no charges pending against Rodas and Posada-Vazquez.

The detainment comes amid a string of notable law enforcement activity in Bedford and Lynchburg this week, leaving anxious residents seeking answers following the death of 17-year-old Raymond Wood.

On Tuesday, Jose Coreas-Ventura, 21, believed by Maryland law enforcement to be an MS-13 gang member, was arrested by Bedford County authorities, according to a warrant of arrest for extradition. According to the FBI, criminal gang MS-13, also known as Mara Salvatrucha, is mostly made up of Salvadoran nationals or first generation Salvadoran-Americans, as well other Central and South American immigrants.

The Bedford County Sheriff’s Office would not answer questions about Coreas-Ventura’s arrest, including if it is connected with Wood’s death. Online court information lists one fugitive charge for Coreas-Ventura in Bedford County courts.

Coreas-Ventura is wanted in connection to a June 17, 2016 homicide of an 18-year-old male named Cristian Antonio Villagran Morales in Montgomery, Maryland.

He is the fifth person arrested in the connection with the case.

According to a Montgomery County Police Department news release, detectives considered the homicide to be gang-related and believe that all five suspects were associated with MS-13.

The FBI website states the Southeast and Northeast are seeing the largest increase in MS-13 membership.

Stepped-up police activity in a neighborhood near Peaks View Park in Lynchburg Wednesday night has added to some residents’ concerns.

The Lynchburg Police Department assisted the Bedford County Sheriff’s Office in executing a search warrant on an apartment in the Woodbine Village area just before 8 p.m.

Sgt. Gary Fink, with the Lynchburg Police Department, said the warrant was for 1422 Tunbridge Road, Apartment 3.

Sarah Norman, who lives with roommates close to the searched residence across Tunbridge Road, said she heard loud sirens that kept blaring just before 8 p.m. She and her roommates went outside to watch, along with many other neighbors. She described seeing two tank-like vehicles, many uniformed men surrounding the residence, hearing police dogs constantly barking and seeing handlers needing to yank their leads.

“There was like 10 of the men, and they just sat there and smashed all [of] the door out and all the [window] out and then they all went inside really slowly,” she said.

Norman said the investigators were in the residence 30 minutes or more, followed by other men in suits. She said no residents left the apartment.

Some neighbors noted a lack of official information on the incident.

In search of answers, Norman said she looked online into the death of 17-year-old Raymond Wood, whose body was discovered in Bedford County late Monday in what officials have announced is a homicide investigation.

“There’s barely any information, like there’s none about the way that they found him or his death,” she said. “… I was really fearful when I found out all this stuff is happening, but we don’t need to be fearful, we don’t need to live in fear…because if we have that information, then I think people would be more apt to feel more safe and more comfortable.”

On Thursday, the Roanoke Medical Examiner said the autopsy of Wood’s remains to determine cause and manner of death was complete. The office of the Chief Medical Examiner referred questions to the Bedford County Sheriff’s Office, which has released no information about the death.

Speculation on the circumstances of Wood’s death has angered his family.

Michael Wood, who claims on his Facebook page to be the brother of Raymond Wood, said he was tired of all the rumors flying around in a post Wednesday.

In a post Thursday, he told Heritage High School students to stop sharing “‘pictures’ of my brother holding ‘drug money’ or smoking marijuana.”

Photo: Lathan Goumas

Timeline of law enforcement activity in Bedford County, Lynchburg this week

By Alissa Smith and Rachel Mahoney
March 30

There has been flurry of notable law enforcement activity in Bedford and Lynchburg this week.

Following the death of 17-year-old Raymond Wood, the Bedford County Sheriff’s Office has declined to publicly acknowledge if any of the activity is connected to the death. 

9:30 p.m. Monday: A driver reports a dead body on Roaring Run Road in Goode. In a news release, the Bedford County Sheriff’s Office said “there was no identification located on the body,” which is taken to the Chief Medical Examiner’s Office in Roanoke.

4 a.m. Tuesday: Lynchburg Police Department cordons off a Coronado Lane residence in response to a missing person’s call. Officials leave in the afternoon.

8:30 a.m. Tuesday: According to Outtasight Window Tinting owner Greg Harrison, multiple cars pull up close to his business on Cottontown Road. He describes a “standoff” and said he saw two men handcuffed.

9:04 a.m. Tuesday: Bedford County Public Schools posts on Facebook that five Forest-area schools are on lockdown, which spokesman Ryan Edwards said was prompted by “an investigation that is going on in proximity to these schools.” It’s lifted around 11 a.m.

Tuesday: ICE arrests 19-year-old Victor Arnoldo Rodas and 23-year-old Lisandro Posada-Vazquez after being alerted by Bedford County Sheriff’s Office.

Tuesday afternoon: The Chief Medical Examiner’s Office in Roanoke identifies the body found on Roaring Run Road as Raymond Wood, 17, of Lynchburg, according to a Bedford County Sheriff’s Office news release.

Tuesday afternoon: Virginia State Police vehicles and personnel search along Big Otter River in Bedford County with metal detectors. The search continues into Thursday.

11:09 a.m. Wednesday: The Bedford County Sheriff’s Office announces a homicide investigation into the death of Raymond Wood, stating “no arrests have been made at this time but it is not believed there is any danger to the community.” Sheriff Mike Brown states that the LPD abduction case is related to the homicide investigation.

1:31 p.m. Wednesday: Juan Coreas-Ventura is set for a hearing in Bedford in connection with being a fugitive wanted for first-degree murder in Montgomery, Maryland. The Montgomery County Police Department stated that he was arrested in Bedford on Tuesday. Coreas-Ventura waives extradition.

7:52 p.m. Wednesday: LPD assists the Bedford County Sheriff’s Office by serving a search warrant at an apartment on Tunbridge Road. Neighbors describe personnel and vehicles surrounding the apartment and police dogs barking.

11:18 a.m. Thursday: The Bedford County Sheriff’s Office states in a release that “No arrests have been made related to this [homicide] investigation.”

Photo: Jay Westcott

Update: Three charged with second-degree murder in Raymond Wood’s death

By Alissa Smith and Rachel Mahoney
April 1

Three Salvadoran MS-13 gang members have been charged with second-degree murder in relation to the death of 17-year-old Raymond Wood, Bedford County Sheriff Mike Brown announced Friday afternoon.

Victor Arnoldo Rodas, 19; Jose Coreas-Ventura, 21; and Lisandro Posada-Vazquez, 24, have been arrested and charged with second-degree murder, Brown said during a news conference at Central Virginia Community College’s Bedford campus.

All three are undocumented immigrants and were arrested by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement on Tuesday after initially being detained by the Bedford County Sheriff’s Office, according to an ICE spokesperson. Rodas and Posada-Vazquez had been living in Lynchburg.

All three are members of the gang MS-13, Brown said, which is made up mostly of Salvadoran nationals or first-generation Salvadoran-Americans, as well as other Central and South American immigrants.

Brown said Wood’s death was not random and is connected to “narcotic-related activity.”

“It appears at this point in time, the 17-year-old, a Raymond Wood, did not leave voluntarily from the city of Lynchburg,” Brown said.

Brown said Bedford County 911 dispatch received a call from a motorist about a body at about 9:30 p.m. Monday night. The motorist reported “she had found a deceased person lying in the road.” She told dispatch she saw an older model Honda Accord head toward U.S. 221 at a high rate of speed, Brown said.

“Minutes later, a Bedford County sheriff’s deputy responding to the call on Roaring Run Road met the Honda near Virginia Memorial Park on 221,” Brown said. “… The driver of the car identified himself as Victor A. Rodas, age 19, of Lynchburg. While talking to this individual, the deputy learned that he was an illegal alien. He was contained and transported to Bedford County Sheriff’s Office.”

On Tuesday morning, the sheriff’s office received a report of two Hispanic males asking a citizen on Brookhill Road, off U.S. 211 in the Forest area, to make a phone call for them. Once the call was placed, a small sports car driven by another Hispanic male arrived, and the two piled in, Brown said.

“A short time later the same vehicle returned and two more Hispanic males appeared out of hiding and entered the same vehicle and left the area at a high rate of speed,” a sheriff’s office news release states.

The vehicle soon was stopped on Cottontown Road, where sheriff’s deputies determined they were undocumented immigrants. Coreas-Ventura was one of the three men inside the vehicle that then were transported to the sheriff’s office, Brown said.

The driver of the car was not detained, Brown said.

The sheriff’s office contacted ICE later Tuesday morning, Brown said. That incident led to a brief lockdown Tuesday of five nearby Bedford County public schools.

That same morning, the sheriff’s office learned of a missing persons report filed with the Lynchburg Police Department. LPD officers on the scene at 1052 Coronado Lane said a missing persons call was made at about 4 a.m.

In a Wednesday news release, the Bedford County Sheriff’s Department said, “It has been determined that the investigation conducted by the Lynchburg Police Department concerning abduction is related to this [homicide] investigation.”

Late Tuesday afternoon, the Roanoke Medical Examiner identified the body found on Roaring Run Road as that of Wood.

ICE lodged a detainer on Coreas-Ventura on Tuesday, asking local law enforcement for notification before his release, Carissa Cutrell, public affairs officer for ICE, confirmed Friday.

Bedford transferred Coreas-Ventura to the Blue Ridge Regional Jail, and ICE arrested him the same day.

The Salvadoran is wanted in connection to a June 17, 2016, homicide of an 18-year-old man named Cristian Antonio Villagran Morales in Montgomery, Maryland.

Coreas-Ventura is the fifth person arrested in connection with the Maryland case. That case also was determined to be related to MS-13.

A detainer also was posted on Rodas and Posada-Vazquez Tuesday, Cutrell said. They currently are being held at the Farmville Detention Center after being arrested by ICE on Tuesday.

Bedford County Commonwealth’s Attorney Wes Nance said the Juvenile Domestic Court for Bedford County has completed documents that will allow the two men to be tried in Virginia.

Officials would not comment Friday on where Coreas-Ventura would face charges in connection to the case.

“We anticipate [the trial] will occur sometime next week,” Nance said. “As this is a fluid and ongoing investigation, I will continue to consult with the numerous law enforcement agencies represented here today about the potential of additional charges, the upgrading of charges and potential charging of other additional individuals as this investigation continues to gel.”

Citing ethical obligations as his reason for not being able to share any evidence at this time, Nance said he’s “doggedly” determined to bring justice to the Wood family.

Brown said investigators have processed the crime scene, several different vehicles and numerous witnesses since the discovery of the body.

“Due to the fact that the subjects were undocumented illegal aliens and not locals, an inordinate amount of time and man hours was required to ensure the true identities of these individuals,” Brown said.

Agencies involved in the investigation include the Bedford County Sheriff’s Office, Bedford County Commonwealth’s Attorney’s Office; Lynchburg Police Department; Bedford Police Department; Virginia State Police; FBI; Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives; U.S. Marshals; Prince George’s County Police Department in Maryland; Montgomery County Police Department in Maryland; and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

In a joint statement, Brown and Lynchburg Police Department Chief Raul Diaz said there is no current concern for the safety of the general public.

Photos originally from the Bedford County Sheriff’s Office

Officials address gangs in Lynchburg area

By Alissa Smith and Rachel Mahoney
April 4

There are more than 40 identified gangs in Lynchburg, and MS-13, a criminal gang made up mostly of Salvadoran nationals or first-generation Salvadoran-Americans, as well as other Central and South American immigrants, was not one of them until last week, Sgt. Gary Fink, with the Lynchburg Police Department, said Tuesday.

Fink said there’s never been an incident involving MS-13, the gang suspected to be involved in the homicide of 17-year-old Raymond Wood, in Lynchburg before now.

“This is the first time that we’ve had any kind of members of MS-13 inside the city,” Fink said. “… I’ve been here 18 years in Lynchburg, and there is not one documented incident of an MS-13 crime being committed here until the other day.”

On Friday, the Bedford County Sheriff’s Office announced Victor Arnoldo Rodas, 19; Jose Coreas-Ventura, 21; and Lisandro Posada-Vazquez, 24, had been charged with second-degree murder in connection to Wood’s death, and Sheriff Mike Brown stated all were “known MS-13 gang members.”

All three are undocumented immigrants from El Salvador and were arrested by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement March 28 after initially being detained by the Bedford County Sheriff’s Office, according to Carissa Cutrell, an ICE public affairs officer.

Rodas and Posada-Vazquez both are being held at the Farmville Detention Center after their arrest by ICE on March 28.

At the Blue Ridge Regional Jail, where Coreas-Ventura is being held, Tim Trent, with the Blue Ridge Regional Jail Authority, said gangs are becoming more nondescript, encouraging members to forego tattoos, colors and symbols traditionally associated with their gang.

“They try to keep it low-key, low profile and we do what we can to be proactive,” he said. “If they don’t say anything or don’t have any markings, it’s just like processing any individual that comes into the jail. We can’t really assume that everybody is a gang member.”

Coreas-Ventura also has been charged with first-degree murder in Montgomery, Maryland, in connection with the June 2016 slaying of 18-year-old Cristian Antonio Villagran-Morales that occurred in the city of Gaithersburg.

Capt. Paul Liquorie, director of the Montgomery Police Department’s special investigations division, said gang violence recently has been on the rise in his area.

“Since June of 2015, we started to see a spike in gang-related violence in Montgomery County and … in speaking with our regional partners throughout the national capital region, I believe they’ve seen similar spikes,” he said.

He said Montgomery has seen 15 gang-related homicides since that time, seven of them tied to MS-13. The spike in gang violence seems to coincide with a crackdown on gangs in El Salvador, he said.

The homicides can be a “requirement to further one’s status in the gang” or the result of orders from higher-up individuals in the gang, Liquorie said.

Although Rodas, Coreas-Ventura and Posada-Vazquez lived in Lynchburg for a period of time, Fink said they never were identified previously as gang members because they weren’t doing anything illegal and weren’t drawing attention to themselves.

In a news release Tuesday, U.S Rep. Bob Goodlatte, R-6th District, said he is asking John Kelly, Department of Homeland Security secretary, to provide more information on Rodas, Coreas-Ventura and Posada-Vazquez, including their immigration and criminal histories.

The letter dated Tuesday requests “the complete alien file” of all three suspects be provided to the House Judiciary Committee. The letter requests any of the suspect’s criminal history, notices that they appear in court, records of their encounters with law enforcement, and information about when and why they may have been released from custody.

The letter also asks whether they applied for deferred action, a reference to Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals. DACA — an initiative by President Barack Obama’s administration in 2012 — allows certain immigrants who came to the United States as children, often referred to as “Dreamers,” to request a period of deferment from deportation and authorization to work.

“We are going to find out more information from their files, exactly how they got there, their status,” Goodlatte said in a brief interview Saturday before the Amherst County Republican Committee gubernatorial candidates forum.

Today there are 43 identified gangs in Lynchburg, and Fink said the only qualifications to be considered a gang are: three or more members, some type of shared symbol such as a color or hand sign and they must commit a criminal act either in the name of the group or that benefits the group as a whole. Fink said 98 percent of the 586 gang members identified in Lynchburg are adults, while the other 2 percent are juveniles.

“Based on the number of [permanent residents] and the number of gang members, it’s a .7 percent involvement in gangs as far as gang members identified, which is really low as far as Lynchburg goes,” Fink said, stating the levels of gang activity have decreased in Lynchburg since the early 2000s. “ … .007 percent [of the population] out of 80,000 people is very low.”

According to the National Gang Intelligence Center’s 2015 national gang report, half of federal, state, local and tribal law enforcement agencies reported an increase in street gang membership and gang-related crime during the past two years.

According to the FBI, MS-13 is a criminal gang that recruits by glorifying the “gang lifestyle” online and by absorbing smaller gangs.

According to the National Crime Prevention Council, gangs recruit heavily from public schools, and members often join to feel accepted, protected or because they feel their “economic future are bleak.”

LPD currently works with the Boys & Girls Club of Greater Lynchburg, the Blue Ridge Regional Jail Authority, local school systems and citizens to proactively fight gang activity through identification of members, symbols, signs and more.

Fink said LPD works to prevent younger adults and children from joining gangs by partnering with the Boys & Girls Club to provide programs such as Badges for Basketball, Badges for Baseball and the StreetSMART Program, which seeks to counsel young people on how to effectively resist gangs and violence.

LPD Officer A. Khaja, a member of the LPD Community Action Team, which acts as a liaison between the police, the community and local agencies, said the StreetSMART Program works to educate attendees on how to handle their emotions, talk down aggressive individuals, recognize gang-related rituals or initiations, but most importantly, it teaches attendees to ask for help.

“We have ages 10 to 14, hopefully in the future we increase that age limit and go forward, but that is usually the age range where kids are like a blackboard,” Khaja said. “ … you can be recruited at any age, but I think at this age, like I said, they’re like a blackboard: they don’t know. So whatever you create on that blackboard, that becomes who they are.”

Fink said children in that age range are extremely open to outside influences.

On Tuesday, Richard Burge, director of personnel with Campbell County Schools, confirmed Rodas enrolled in Campbell County’s Cornerstone Learning Center in November 2015 and stopped attending in May 2016.

Maj. L. T. Guthrie, of the Campbell County Sheriff’s Office, said the schools have strict policies against graffiti and other gang-related behaviors, which he said helps law enforcement by not allowing such behavior to manifest.

“I don’t consider us to have a gang issue at all,” he said.

Infrequently, he said officials are led to believe suspects in crimes committed in Campbell County are involved in gangs. Sometimes those connections are disproved, he said.

“What issues we see … typically bleed over from larger areas,” he said.

According to The National Gang Report, increases in gang membership and violence stem from how fluidly gangs adapt to shifting circumstances so as to protect their interests, which the report lists as generating revenue and gaining control of the territories they inhabit.

Brown confirmed Tuesday he’d be holding a confidential briefing with Bedford County Administrator Carl Boggess, county supervisors and other officials about gang involvement in the area.

“Bedford County has gangs. Bedford County does not have a gang problem — yet!” he said. “But if we’re not proactive — which we are; the Sheriff’s Office has always been proactive — if we’re not proactive, then it’s going to get ahead of us like it has other jurisdictions around us.”

He said that after the briefing, officials likely would come forward with a generic overview of what could be done.

“I feel confident that they will agree with me that certain measures need to be considered,” he said.

Staff writers Christopher Cole and Alex Rohr contributed to this report. 

Photo by Lathan Goumas

Family, friends mark Raymond Wood’s birthday with memorials

By Alissa Smith

Stephanie Rogers carefully sliced into the two-tiered chocolate cake, splitting up the “Happy Birthday Raymond” that was scrawled across the top in white icing as she handed out pieces to the other memorial attendees.

Decked out in “Despicable Me” Minions gear, more than a dozen Panera employees had gathered at the Panera on Wards Road to celebrate the life of Raymond Wood, the Lynchburg teen who was found dead on Roaring Run Road in Goode in late March, and support their co-worker Marjorie Stagno, Wood’s mother.

Jose Coreas-Ventura, 20, and  Lisandro Posada-Vazquez, 24, face capital murder charges, and Victor Arnoldo Rodas, 19, faces a first-degree murder charge in connection with Wood’s death.

All three of the men, who are undocumented immigrants and allegedly associated with the international MS-13 gang, also are charged with several other crimes in connection with the incident.

Wood would have turned 18 Friday.

Ashley Sellers, one of Stagno’s co-workers, said she knew Wood from him coming in to visit his mom, but she also wanted to show Stagno she had the community’s support.

“There aren’t any words to describe it,” she said. “There’s no way to imagine what she’s been going through … Normally if someone passes away that’s close to you, you either expect it, or when it’s sudden like this, it’s a car accident — something you can wrap your mind around.”

Michael Holmes, another co-worker, wore Minions pants, shoes and a shirt. He came to support his “work mom,” he said.

“I think everyone can agree that she’s a very motherly figure,” he said. “Which means we’re her sons and daughters, which means [Wood] was basically our brother.

“So, although I didn’t know him … I still feel that connection. I miss him, even though I’ve never even seen him. I miss him, and I cried when I heard what happened, but seeing the support of the store is amazing. I’ve never seen anything like it.”

The group quieted down as Sellers gestured, holding a bundle of balloons, a few with Minion faces, and said it was time to sing happy birthday.

“We chose to do Minions simply because Marj loves them,” Sellers said. “I know Raymond’s brother Michael really loves them, and it’s something that as weird as it sounds, it’s something that’s sort of helped her get through it.

“I mean, how ironic is it that ‘Despicable Me 3’ came out today?”

Rogers and Sellers led the group in song before Sellers looked at the sky and released her hold on the balloons.

About an hour before the Panera memorial and 20 miles away on Roaring Run Road, Wood’s former classmates Molly Parrish and Sadie Newcomb had gathered to decorate the crosses marking the spot Wood’s body was found.

The two tied large, metallic silver balloons in the shape of a “1” and “8” to a wooden cross before sharing tales of Wood and releasing another batch of balloons.

The two had met Wood in sixth grade at Sandusky Middle School.

“We used to fight over him,” Newcomb joked.

She said the three of them had drifted apart since middle school but that the two wanted to remember him on his birthday.

“We were both really, really close to him when we were younger,” she said. “And no matter if we weren’t talking for a while, he was always there for us.”

Parrish said Wood was a great friend and goofy kid, which is why she made sure to release at least one smiley face balloon.

While those memorials were taking place, Stagno was celebrating with her family in New York.

Stagno said she and other family members released dozens of white balloons into the air Friday just before sunset.

She had spent most of the day crying, she said, but her family had comforted her and made it a special day.

“I am feeling different for sure,” she said. “And in a sense, I thought I would, that’s why I wanted to be with my family here in New York. Each day it’s becoming more real and real.”

Across the country, family of Raymond Wood had gathered to mark his birthday. Balloons were released in California, North Carolina, New York and Colorado.

Sellers said she hopes the memorials show Stagno she has a support system.

“I think it’s going to help her start to heal eventually and just start the process.”

TOP, from left: Jose Coreas-Ventura, Lisandro Posada-Vasquez, Victor Rodas
BOTTOM, from left: Kevin Josue Soto Bonilla, Cristian Jose Sanchez Gomez

Details in Raymond Wood slaying emerge in search warrant

By Alissa Smith 

A search warrant recently filed in Roanoke provides new insight into the homicide of a Lynchburg teenager authorities say was killed by MS-13 gang members.

In the documents, authorities relate details that place five men arrested in connection with the March 27 slaying of Raymond Wood, 17, in the same car in Bedford County

The warrant, filed Oct. 24 in Roanoke City Circuit Court, follows news of the arrests of two more men in connection with the death of Wood, whose body was found on Roaring Run Road in Goode by a passing motorist the night of March 27.

The Bedford County Sheriff’s Office announced Oct. 13 the arrests of Kevin Josue Soto Bonilla, 20, in New York on Sept. 19 and Cristian Jose Sanchez Gomez, 22, in Albemarle on Oct. 5.

Four days after Wood’s body was discovered, three Salvadoran MS-13 gang members were arrested and charged with murder. Jose Coreas-Ventura, 20, and Lisandro Posada-Vasquez, 24, face capital murder charges in Woods’ homicide, and Victor Arnoldo Rodas, 19, is charged with first-degree murder.

The search warrant, filed in connection with Soto Bonilla’s arrest, said the Bedford County Sheriff’s Office received a report early March 28 that two Hispanic males had come out of a farmer’s barn and asked to use his phone.

The farmer allowed the men to use his phone, and the two were picked up by a white, two-door Honda a short time later, according to the warrant filed by BCSO and Virginia State Police.

“The farmer advised that approx[imately] 3 to 4 minutes later the same vehicle returned to the property and two more Hispanic males jumped over hay bales and ran to the vehicle,” the warrant states.

By that time, BCSO knew Rodas had a white, two-door Honda registered to him.

According to the warrant, BCSO put out an alert for the vehicle, and it was stopped on U.S. 221 shortly after.

A Maryland resident “was identified as the driver, Jose Coreas-Ventura and L[i]sandro [Posada-]Vasquez was identified as passengers,” according to the warrant.

After being taken to the department for questioning, a witness said he had driven Posada-Vasquez, Sanchez Gomez and Soto Bonilla from Maryland to Lynchburg to meet up with Rodas and Coreas-Ventura, who already were in Virginia, according to the warrant.

Touch DNA and fingerprints were recovered from the Honda, which was seized and processed for evidence, as it was used to transport all the suspects and Wood, according to the warrant.

According to an October federal indictment filed on another case, Michael Eduardo Contreras, of Maryland, “arranged for members of the Sailors Clique of MS-13 to travel from Maryland to Lynchburg, Virginia and met up with other MS-13 members and murdered a victim in Bedford County.”

An earlier statement related to the federal indictment detailed the “Sailors Clique” as a subgroup of MS-13 members operating in Maryland; the statement said in the past three years, the group has been accused of drug trafficking, gun trafficking and extortion in that area.

Contreras was charged with conspiring to participate in a racketeering enterprise and conspiring to distribute cocaine between January and August 2017, according to the indictment.

Soto Bonilla and Sanchez Gomez could be indicted as early as Nov. 7, according to Bedford County Commonwealth’s Attorney Wes Nance.

A trial date for Posada-Vasquez has been set for May 29, 2018. Trial dates have not been set for Coreas-Ventura or Rodas as of Nov. 1.

My co-worker Rachel Mahoney covered some of this on her own. Here’s her story on the body being identified as Wood and her story on one of the murder suspects being arrested.

UCF alumna’s baby battles leukemia

Korbyn Martinez has the soul of an adventurer.

At a little less than 2 years old, he lugs a small, but important, backpack around and explores as much of the world as he can.

He can make the sound of dozens of animals. He loves to pretend his arm is an elephant trunk as he makes a loud trumpeting sound. Considered “rough and tumble” by his parents, he loves being active and playing ball.

“You’d never know he has what he has,” said Hillary Martinez, Korbyn’s mother and a 2006 UCF alumna. The family currently lives in Oviedo.

Korbyn has a cancer of the blood and bone marrow, known acute lymphocytic leukemia or ALL. His small red backpack is filled with chemotherapy drugs, which he receives in a constant, 24-hour stream. Everything he’s learned about animals has been through a screen; he’s never been able to go to a zoo.

This is the most common type of cancer for those younger than 15, said Dr. Dennis Borrero Ramos, a pediatric oncologist trained in pediatric hematology and bone marrow transplants at Florida Hospital. According to the American Cancer Society, ALL starts from early forms of lymphocytes in the bone marrow. Lymphocytes cells protect the body from infection and are a major part of the immune system.

“Any of the blood-forming cells from the bone marrow can turn into a leukemia cell,” according to the American Cancer Society. “Once this change takes place, the leukemia cells no longer mature in a normal way. Leukemia cells might reproduce quickly, and not die when they should. These cells build up in the bone marrow, crowding out normal cells … where they can keep other cells in the body from doing their jobs.”

It started out small. When Korbyn was 3 months old, his mother and father, Hillary and Bryce Martinez, who are in their 30s, had enrolled him in daycare so they could both get back to work. Korbyn started getting ear infections like most of the kids, but something was different.

By July 2015, Korbyn had suffered more than three ear infections and was on antibiotics for another. Within a week of treatment, he was back in bed with a fever. Shuffling a feverish Korbyn between his bed and their pediatrician’s office became just another part of life for the Martinez family; he would have a fever, then get medicine, then the fever would spike, so they’d get another medicine, and so on and so forth. The family brought in another pediatrician who theorized that Korbyn had some kind of serious infection based on the swelling of his spleen and liver.

“He thought [Korbyn] had a virus like mononucleosis because [Korbyn] kept getting ear infections and the antibiotics weren’t working,” Hillary Martinez said. “So at that time, he had taken blood from Korbyn to run some more tests, and he wanted us to come to Florida Hospital to get ultrasounds done on his abdomen to check the size and see if they really were enlarged.”

The Martinez family checked into the hospital on Friday, July 17, 2015. After doctors saw the test results, Korbyn was admitted to the hospital that same day. The results showed that in addition to Korbyn’s enlarged spleen and liver, he also had a very high lymphocyte and white blood cell count.

That Sunday Korbyn was diagnosed with ALL. On Monday he had a port installed, and by Tuesday he had started chemotherapy.

“There was like no time to grieve … we had to act. We had to be proactive and just do what they were telling us, pretty much,” Hillary Martinez said.

The family stayed in the hospital for 40 days and 41 nights, Hillary Martinez said. She and her husband used all their vacation time during this period to the point where other employees began donating their time off to the family.

Korbyn received chemotherapy for nine months, three months for each step of chemotherapy including induction, consolidation and maintenance. According to the National Cancer Institute, induction is the first phase of treatment that kills leukemia cells in the blood and bone marrow. Consolidation is the second phase of treatment, started after remission, meant to kill any remaining leukemia cells in the body that could cause a relapse. Maintenance is the last phase of treatment, and it also aims to kill any remaining leukemia cells, only at a lower dosage than the previous phases.

Borrero Ramos said that significant improvements have been made in the survival rates of children and adolescents with cancer.

“For example, between 1975 and 2010, childhood cancer mortality decreased by more than 50 percent,” he said. “For acute lymphoblastic leukemia, the five-year survival rate has increased over the same time from 60 percent to approximately 90 percent for children younger than 15 years.”

Korbyn had been cancer-free since day 29 of his chemotherapy, Hillary Martinez said.

“We never anticipated he would relapse,” Hillary Martinez said. “All the doctors talked about how well he was doing, that his prognosis was really good, that his response to the chemotherapy was great — it was working. To hear that he had positive cells, it was the first time my husband and I were able to grieve.”

Martinez said doctors were unsure about continuing chemotherapy due to Korbyn’s age and the fact that only five leukemic cells had been found in his spinal fluid.

“Once you relapse, you pretty much have to start at day one with chemotherapy,” Hillary Martinez said. “Do induction again, do consolidation again, do maintenance again.”

Chemotherapy doesn’t know which cells are bad, it just kills everything including your own immune system. The family can’t wear shoes in the house, they can’t spend time with other children who have had vaccines, they can’t come home from work and immediately hug him without putting him in danger.

“We all technically have leukemia,” Hillary Martinez said. “Our immune system fights it off every day, cell by cell. It’s almost like his immune system doesn’t know how to fight off the leukemia so they keep killing it off and that’s why the chemotherapy works … it’s like a bomb that kills everything at once.”

Doctors found a chemical study a month after Korbyn relapsed that showed a treatment plan of three blocks of chemotherapy and then a bone marrow transplant to replace the immune system. Borrero Ramos said the new regimen is a constant, 24-hour infusion for “many days” which requires Korbyn to carry a pump with him at all times.

Once Korbyn’s grandmother, Cindy Ridgeway, 57, heard about Korbyn needing a bone marrow transplant, she began organizing Be The Match events. Be The Match is an organization operated by the National Marrow Donor Program that works to create an international bone marrow donor registry.

Bone marrow donation doesn’t have anything to do with blood type, Hillary Martinez explained, it has to do with DNA.

“There are 14 potential [DNA] matches,” she said. “They are looking for at least 10 out of the 14 in order for Korbyn to be able to use that person’s bone marrow.”

Hillary and Bryce Martinez are both five out of 10 matches, as they are his biological parents, but the low DNA match increases the risk of transplant rejection.

Borrero Ramos said that once a match is found, he does not expect there to be any major complications.

“I think this new treatment is going to cure him and he will be a good and important member of our society,” he said. “I know that God has a purpose with him.”

Korbyn’s family plans to take him to the Brevard Zoo as soon as they can.

“He’s just such a special boy,” Bryce Martinez said. “It’s been tough not to show him off to anybody, just how special his is because he’s a bubble boy.”

It’s been a long road, Bryce Martinez said, we just hope this is the right path for him.


Help Baby Korbyn

There is a Be The Match event on July 20 from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. outside the Student Union on UCF’s main campus. For those who want to donate but cannot physically attend the events, Be The Match will allow you to register as a donor from the comfort of your home.

This story was originally published on July 6, 2016.


Alissa Smith is the News Editor for the Central Florida Future. Follow her on Twitter at @thealissasmith or email her at

Publication: Central Florida Future

UCF alumna arrested at Pulse sit-in

A peaceful sit-in outside of Sen. Marco Rubio’s office left UCF alumna Ida Vishkaee Eskamani, and nine others, in jail on Monday.

Using the hashtag #SitInForThe49, more than 70 people sat outside of Sen. Rubio’s office on Monday to protest his lack of action regarding gun laws.

The sit-in was organized by was organized by Anna Vishkaee Eskamani, a UCF Ph.D. student and alumna, and her sister Ida Vishkaee Eskamani, a UCF alumna, and others. The protest started around noon on Monday.

“Today, residents of Orlando began a #SitInForThe49 to demand action of Sen. Marco Rubio and all elected officials who have contributed to the discrimination and violence that plagues our communities and nation,” Anna Vishkaee Eskamani said in a Facebook post. “As we approach one month since the massacre at Pulse nightclub and continue to be plagued with violence, it is clear that our elected leaders have failed us. In honor of the lives lost here in Orlando, and all victims of institutional discrimination and rampant gun violence, we are staging a 49-hour sit-in to demand action from Sen. Marco Rubio and all local, state and federal officials.

“We demand a comprehensive platform to address gun safety, equality and community violence and urge you to join in Orlando or stage your own sit in.”

The Orlando Police Department explained on its Twitter that 10 arrests were made for “trespass after warning, a misdemeanor.” Frederick Velez, the organizer of Latino Outreach for Organize Now, was one of the protesters who was arrested. Anna Vishkaee Eskamani said she and her sister both knew the risk of arrest was high, but it was one they were willing to take.

“[Forty-nine] lives were lost at Pulse one month ago and four people die each hour to gun violence,” she said. “Change will not come with a quick burst of energy — it will come with a consistent persistence for something greater than ourselves.”

OPD tweeted it was “[g]rateful to peaceful protesters who understand we have a job to do.” In an earlier tweet, OPD stated it had no issue with peaceful protesters but that the Downtown Orlando building was technically private property and that the owners wanted the protesters removed.

According to the OPD Twitter, all protesters were welcome while the building was open, but OPD would remove anyone who stayed behind to protest after the building closed at 7 p.m.

Anna Vishkaee Eskamani said that though the building closed, the protesters continued to rally outside the building until around 8 p.m.

“Sen. Rubio claims he is ‘deeply impacted’ by last month’s Pulse Nightclub Shooting, yet he continues to terrorize Orlando’s LGBTQ+ communities of color by adhering to a platform of so-called ‘conservative values’ which discriminates, dehumanizes and denies access to the American dream,” Anna Vishkaee Eskamani said in a press release on Monday. “Opportunist political leaders have offered meaningless platitudes and political pandering in response to unspeakable violence. At best, politicians propose ‘No Fly No Buy’ legislation that employs racial profiling and fails to address the most urgent needs of marginalized communities. We demand a comprehensive platform to address gun safety, equality, and community violence.”

Sen. Rubio is a staunch advocate of gun rights and has opposed adding restrictions on gun ownership, including an expansion of background checks, on several occasions.

“My position on guns is pretty clear,” Sen. Rubio said in a 2013 CNN interview. “I believe law-abiding people have a fundamental constitutional right to bear arms. And I believe criminals and dangerous people should not have access to guns. There are laws that protect those two things — but many of these [additional] gun laws are ineffective.”

All 10 of the protesters who were arrested Monday were released around 5 a.m. Tuesday morning. Ida Vishkaee Eskamani’s lawyer recommended she not speak about the specifics of her experience in jail. Velez said that he was treated fairly during his time in jail, but was shocked to see police with assault rifles when he was escorted from the building.

“I did think it was a little bit ironic when we were escorted through the back [of the building] there were policemen with assault rifles, which was the thing we were trying to protest,” he said. “… We had told them we were going to be peacefully arrested if there is such a thing. And just seeing the policemen out there, three of them, with assault rifles just like, I couldn’t get past that.”

Ida Vishkaee Eskamani said that being released close to the time that news of Pulse had broken last month was an extremely moving moment and recommitted the group to honoring those lives through action.

“We spent about 10 hours in jail,” she said. “I want to note that the 10 folks who were arrested represented so many intersections of this movement, included black, latino, white, queer, straight, youth and seniors as well as victims of gun violence, discrimination and police brutality.”

She said that she and the other protesters were completely dedicated to completing the 49-hour sit-in, but when that couldn’t happen, they were willing to accept the consequences.

“The line has been drawn,” she said. “You either stand with us to end gun violence and discrimination in all forms or you’re against us. It’s our duty to turn up the heat. In the meantime, we’re urging everybody to please call and tweet Sen. Marco Rubio, tell him you support the sit-in for the 49 and demand he work to end gun violence and discrimination.

“We ask folks to stay tuned because this is just the beginning.”

Sen. Rubio has not responded to the Future’s request for comment.

The event has three platforms that it’s dedicated to including gun safety, equality and community violence.

#SitInForThe49 hopes to get lawmakers to refuse financial contributions from the NRA, implement universal background checks and make it a crime to knowingly import, sell, manufacture, transfer or possess a semi-automatic assault weapon or large capacity ammunition-feeding device.

This story was originally published on July 18, 2016.


Alissa Smith is the News Editor for the Central Florida Future. Follow her on Twitter at @thealissasmith or email her at

Publication: Central Florida Future

Gov. Scott declares state of emergency in Orlando

Forty-nine people are dead and 53 wounded after a shooting at Pulse nightclub early Sunday. It is the deadliest killing spree in United States history, authorities say.

The shooter was first identified by Congressman Alan Grayson as Omar Mateen, 29, from Fort Pierce.

FBI agent Ronald Hopper said Mateen pledged allegiance to the Islamic State in a 911 call just before the mass shooting, and the Islamic State has stated on Twitter that it takes credit for the shooting, but the investigation into this claim is still ongoing.

Hopper said Mateen had been investigated in 2013 for boasting to coworkers that he was connected to a terrorist organization and again in 2014 for possible ties to an American suicide bomber. The investigation conducted by the FBI found that “contact was minimal and did not constitute a substantive relationship or threat at that time.”

“Ultimately, we were unable to verify the substance of his comments and the investigation was closed,” Hopper said.

Florida Gov. Rick Scott declared a state of emergency for Orlando on Sunday, and President Barack Obama delivered a public statement Sunday at 1:30 p.m. decrying the shooting as “an act of terror.”

“Although it’s still early in the investigation, we know enough to say that this was an act of terror and an act of hate,” Obama said.

The president said that Homeland Security and the FBI are currently investigating any links Mateen might have with terrorist groups.

“We are still learning all the facts,” he said. “This is an open investigation. We’ve reached no definitive judgment on the precise motivations of the killer. The FBI is appropriately investigation this as an act of terrorism, and I have directed that we must spare no effort to determine what, if any, inspiration or association this killer may have had with terrorist groups.”

Gov. Scott asked for a moment of silence in the United States to be held at 6 p.m. Sunday.

“This is an act of terrorism. You just can’t imagine this happening in any community,” Scott said.

Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer said the shooting was “the most difficult day in the history of Orlando.”

“Today, we’re dealing with something we never imagined and is unimaginable,” Dyer said. “Since the last update, we have gotten better access to the building. We have cleared the building, and it is with great sadness that I share that we have not 20, but 50 casualties.”

Police Chief John Mina said the tragedy began at 2:02 a.m., when three police officers engaged the suspect in a gun battle outside the club. A hostage situation then took place inside, and a SWAT team was called in, Mina said. Police received updates from patrons trapped in the club and decided to storm the club at about 5 a.m.

“Our biggest concern was further loss of life,” Mina said. “We exchanged gunfire with the suspect, and he was dead at the scene.”

One officer was injured, 103 civilians shot and 30 rescued from the club. Many of the injured were transferred to Orlando Regional Medical Center, which was placed on lockdown.

Mina said 11 Orlando Police officers exchanged gunfire with Mateen and have since been temporarily relieved of duty. The Florida Department of Law Enforcement is conducting an independent investigation into the shots fired by police officers. The names of the police officers who have been relieved of duty will be released over the next few days.

The suspect’s father, Seddique Mir Mateen, told NBC News on Sunday that he was “in shock,” but that his son had recently expressed anti-gay sentiments. He said the attack “had nothing to do with religion.” He said he’s not sure why his son would’ve fired on a group of people but that he had become angry a couple of months ago when he saw two men kissing on a Miami street.

Mateen’s wife, Noor Zahi Salman, told the FBI that she suspected her husband was planning an attack, according to NBC News.

Grayson said he believes the shooting had religious motive but that it’s too early in the investigation to tell.

“There’s blood everywhere,” he said. “I spoke with someone on the scene and there’s an enormous amount of evidence.”

Club patrons say this was not Mateen’s first visit to Pulse. Two Pulse regulars, Ty “Aries” Smith and Kevin West, saw Mateen at the club least a dozen times.

Mina said Mateen was armed with a pistol, an automatic rifle similar to an AR-15 and some sort of unidentified device. A representative of Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives said that both weapons were bought legally within one week.

FBI Special Agent Ronald Hopper said the case was being investigated as a possible act of terrorism, either domestic or international.

Muhammad Musri, president of the Islamic Society of Central Florida, thanked law enforcement officials for their efforts and cautioned any rush to judgment.

“No one could have expected this, no one could have prepared for it, it could have happened anywhere,” a clearly shaken Musri said at a news conference. “It’s like lightning.”

He said the city and Muslim community “are heartbroken.”

Saturday night into Sunday, the club was celebrating Latin Night. Club patron Christopher Hansen told CNN he heard what could have been 20 or 30 shots, setting off a panic as people scrambled for cover or raced for the exits. He said he helped a couple people who were wounded.

“It’s just shocking,” said Hansen, who crawled to safety. “I just saw bodies going down.”

As the tragedy was unfolding, Pulse Orlando posted to its Facebook page, “Everyone get out of Pulse and keep running.”

Paul Valo, lead pastor for the Christ Church of Orlando, about two blocks from Pulse, said the church canceled services for the day to open its sanctuary for prayer and provide water and food for first responders.

Once street barricades have been cleared, the church plans to hold prayer services.

“This is, needless to say, tragic. But we’re here to bring hope to the community,” Valo said.

The UCF Police Department was among the agencies that responded to the shooting, said UCF spokeswoman Courtney Gilmartin. UCF’s Victim Services was at Orlando Regional Medical Center to attend to those who were hurt.

In a video statement, UCF President John Hitt expressed his condolences for the victims and their families today.

“I want everyone to know that our hearts go out to all of the victims and their families,” Hitt said. “It’s a terrible tragedy for all of Central Florida, and certainly for the university. I know that UCF Knights will want to be there to comfort and console and to assist. Again, our hearts and prayers go out to all of the victims and their families.”

“Today is a tragic day and we are making it clear anyone who attacks our LGBT community, anyone who attacks anyone will be gone after to the fullest extent of the law,” said Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi, who said she was bringing victims advocates from throughout the state of Florida here to Orlando.

“To anybody thinking about doing this to our state — our justice is swift and our penalties severe,” Gov. Scott said.

The shooting spree came just one day after The Voice star Christina Grimmie was shot and killed after a concert Friday night at the Plaza Live Theater in Orlando. That gunman, identified as Kevin James Loibl, 27, of St. Petersburg, fatally shot himself after the attack.

“The FBI has specifically asked me to say to the people of Fort Pierce, St. Lucie and the Treasure Coast: If you know something, please come forward,” State Sen. Bill Nelson said. “The only way that we can put the dots together to find out the complete picture is for you to speak out.”

Three hours of terror

» 2:02 a.m. Shots ring out as a police officer working as a security guard engages in gun battle with assailant Omar Mateen, who was armed with an AR-15-style assault rifle, a handgun and an unidentified device.

» 2:06 a.m. Mina Justice was sound asleep when, she told the Associated Press, she got a text from her son, Eddie, from inside the club.

“Mommy I love you,” the message said. “In club they shooting.”

» 2:09 a.m. About seven minutes after the first shot, the Pulse Orlando nightclub’s Facebook page zapped out a chilling message: “Everyone get out of pulse and keep running.”

» 2:17 a.m. @bjoewolf (Brandon Wolf), tweets: “Omg. Shooting at pulse. We hid in the bathroom. And we can’t find our friends.”

» 2 a.m. to 5 a.m. Law enforcement and the shooter engage in three-hour standoff, with the assailant holding hostages.

Updates and pleas for help from frightened patrons, many hiding in a restroom, trapped in the club were sent out to police, friends and the world via text messages and social media.

» Around 3 a.m. Orlando Fire Department calls in the bomb squad. SWAT teams were also called in.

» 3:58 a.m. Orlando police, via Twitter, warn public to stay away from the nightclub area.

Law enforcement officials say there was “some communication” with assailant, but would not provide details. “Once the initial shots stopped we were dealing with a hostage situation,” Mina said in a press conference.

» 5 a.m. About three hours after the standoff began, Orlando police chief John Mina says the decision was made to storm the club and “rescue patrons (hiding) in a bathroom” and others still trapped inside the club in an effort to minimize loss of life. The police, Mina said, used a BearCat armored rescue vehicle to “get through a club wall.” Cops also set off a “controlled detonation” around this time to distract the assailant. After the BearCat rammed the club, the shooter opened the club’s door, according to Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer, and that’s when cops took aim at the shooter.

» 5:53 a.m. About an hour later the Orlando police department confirm via Twitter that the assailant, Mateen, had been killed: “Pulse Shooting: The shooter inside the club is dead.”

Florida Today, Bernard Wilchusky and Caroline Glenn contributed to this report.


Alissa Smith is the News Editor for the Central Florida Future. Follow her on Twitter at @thealissasmith or email her at

Publication: Central Florida Future