For Toneca Riley, every day started and ended with a kiss.
In the morning, her 15-year-old son, Jaywan, would wake her up, check on her and kiss her forehead. It was the last thing he did when he told her goodnight.
“The hardest thing that I’m facing is that he’s not here,” Riley said. “He was loving, very protective, outgoing, never in fear, happy — he was an amazing son. I just love him and miss him.”
The fatal shooting of Jaywan Riley, a freshman at George Wythe High School, was one of eight killings over an eight-day period in the city beginning Easter Sunday. The spate of violence has brought to 24 the number of killings in Richmond this year, three more than there had been at this time last year.
The teenager’s slaying on April 8 in South Side also highlights a disturbing trend that has grabbed the attention of residents, community leaders, city officials and others: Increasingly, the victims of homicides in Richmond are under age 18, and law enforcement officials say they are seeing younger and younger perpetrators as well.
Since Easter, two of Richmond’s eight slaying victims were age 17 or younger, and at least three others were age 20 or younger. So far this year, four people under 18 have been slain, including a 10-year-old in March. In 2020, the city saw nine victims under age 18 — the largest number of any year since 2017.
“This is what we feared,” said Charles Willis, who organizes prayer vigils for the families of homicide victims in the Richmond area. “Not only are younger people being murdered, but it’s younger people doing the murders.”
Willis, the executive director of United Communities Against Crime, believes the recent surge in killings of teenagers and very young adults stems in part from the disadvantages of virtual learning. Kids are missing out on normal socialization that comes with interacting with classmates and teachers in person, he said, and replacing it with negative messages on social media platforms and in other media.
“People come out into the community and act out what they have seen — whether it’s through social media, unpleasant conversations over the airways,” he said. “A child left to his own brings destruction. You can’t leave a child to his own.”
“We have to engage our youths in conflict resolution and violence prevention on a consistent basis,” Willis added.
During a prayer vigil on Wednesday for 18-year-old Vinshaun Johnson, who was shot and left to die in Richmond’s North Side on April 7, Willis lamented how busy the recent killings have kept him.
“Since Easter Resurrection Sunday, I’ve been to 12 families, I’ve had to visit eight of them that have dealt with homicides in one day,” Willis told a crowd of more than 150 mourners, many of them young people, at Forest Hill Park.
“Somebody please put me out of the prayer vigil business,” Willis pleaded. “I don’t want to do another prayer vigil.”
Colette McEachin, Richmond’s commonwealth’s attorney, said she recently spoke with a program director at the Bon Air Juvenile Correctional Center who relayed the concerns of young inmates at the facility.
“They were horrified at what was happening in their communities,” said McEachin, adding that these are young people, up to age 20, who are incarcerated for shootings or other violent offenses.
“It used to be us,” some of the older boys told the program director at Bon Air, McEachin said. “Now, it’s our little brothers.”
Similar to Willis, McEachin said school no longer serves as much of a distraction, or deterrence, as it was when students were attending in-person.
When students acted out or stopped attending classes regularly, educators and sometimes law enforcement could intercede as trouble loomed, but the new virtual landscape makes that intervention harder, McEachin said. Couple that with the prevalence of guns and the normalization of gun violence, and a lack of conflict resolution techniques, and the result is often deadly, she said.
Deputy Commonwealth’s Attorney Learned Barry, who heads most of the city’s homicide prosecutions, said petty arguments have turned into death investigations because the parties involved couldn’t, or didn’t know how to, resolve the issue without resorting to a gun.
“It’s a momentary beef, and they both have guns because they all have guns,” Barry said.
He said arguments account for about a quarter of homicide motives. Robberies are the largest motive in most killings, Barry added.
The Richmond Police Department has reported only 16 homicides so far this year, with another eight slayings listed as death investigations. In many of those death investigations, Barry said there was a gun pulled by both sides, so it takes police and prosecutors a while to sort out if the killing was self-defense or justified. Police are not required to count justified homicides or death investigations among the homicide count they report.
All but four of the 24 slayings so far this year have been committed with a gun — and in two cases, the cause of death is still pending.
“My heart just sinks every time that I get a report from the chief of police, particularly when it involves our young adults, those in their teenage years,” Mayor Levar Stoney said Tuesday during his weekly Zoom briefing. “It robs them and their families of their dreams, it robs families of their loved ones, and it robs our community of residents who have a lot of life to live. Richmond has struggled for decades with the epidemic of gun violence.”
Stoney said he is working with Virginia Commonwealth University to roll out a gun violence prevention program. But advocates from RISC — Richmonders Involved to Strengthen our Communities — have criticized Stoney for taking too long to address the problem.
RISC represents a group of 22 congregations from Richmond and Chesterfield and Henrico counties that have been advocating for gun violence prevention and housing assistance programs since the start of the pandemic.
“It’s not Richmond, Virginia,” McEachin said. “It’s what made the United States the United States is gun violence. There is no quick fix.”
When everyone you know has a gun, she said, that implies it’s OK to use one. It’s up to the community to stand up and say it’s not OK, she said.
McEachin and Barry also pointed out that these shootings and killings are happening all over the city, not just in areas known for high rates of crime.
The eight killings since Easter have spanned neighborhoods from Carver, North Side and Church Hill to south of the James River in Bellemeade and Swansboro; one was in Gilpin Court, one of the six public housing neighborhoods.
“Every day, someone is shot,” McEachin said.
“And at least once a week, someone dies,” Barry added.
“That can’t become normalized,” McEachin said.
In 2019 and 2020, 290 people total each year were shot in the city, according to data from Richmond police. So far this year, 75 people have been shot — a 36% increase over this time last year.
On Friday, Richmond Police Chief Gerald Smith announced a slew of arrests: Four people were charged in three separate homicides, and nine people were charged in eight different shooting incidents.
“Holding the person responsible for those incidents is part of it,” Smith said at a news conference on Friday. “The biggest reward that we get, especially for the detectives, is to be able to tell the families this is what happened to your loved one. Hopefully, that helps them move a little further toward healing.”
Smith said he has “some ideas in the pipe” about how the department can better connect with young people, who are increasingly falling victim to gun violence in the city. He didn’t elaborate on the initiatives during Friday’s news conference, saying he’d reveal them soon.
“We need to find ways to connect with our youth,” Smith said. “Over a year, our youth have been stuck in the house. They’ve been away from their extended families, their friends, their schoolmates, their teachers, their role models, their mentors, their coaches. They’re just restless.”
At Wednesday’s vigil for Vinshaun Johnson at Forest Hill Park, his loved ones remembered a young man who liked new shoes and nice clothes, enjoyed spending money on nieces and nephews, and who definitely liked to have fun.
He was remembered as a family protector who also liked to tell jokes and “loved to pick with people.”
“He would just make me laugh when I was trying to teach,” recalled Sha’Cora Allen, who taught Johnson when he attended George Wythe High School. “He broke me into my first year of teaching.”
Quantrice Fields, one of Johnson’s sisters, said she is going to miss her brother asking her to cook spaghetti for him and always cleaning her house.
“He was a neat freak,” said Fields, drawing laughter from a quiet crowd. “Ever since he was little, he just cleaned, cleaned, cleaned.”
She said she’ll miss him playing Fortnite, an online video game, late into the night. She’d have to tell him to turn the TV down and be quiet.
“It’s been rough. The first night we left the game on, just waiting for him to come home,” Fields said. “I didn’t even sleep. I just knew he was coming. But he didn’t. And that’s when reality set in that he wasn’t coming back.”
“We’re just going to miss him yelling and being so loud,” she said. “It’s just too quiet.”
Fields said her brother had finally been getting his life on track.
“We all know where he came from, how he grew up and all of that, but he was really getting his life together,” she said. “He would have been the first boy to graduate high school. He was going to be so proud.”
“Our family’s really broken,” Fields said. “We’re just trying to be strong for each other.”
Johnson was shot about 4:30 a.m. on April 7 on Montvale Avenue just north of East Brookland Park Boulevard. He was pronounced dead on the scene. The police said a second victim, whom they described as “a juvenile male in his late teens,” also was shot but was expected to survive.
At Wednesday’s vigil, Tiffany Harris took the microphone, in tears, and told Johnson’s family that her son is devastated by the death but couldn’t attend the vigil because he was wounded in another shooting in March and can’t walk.
After the vigil, Harris said her 18-year-old son, Dumonta Harris, a close friend of Johnson’s, was recovering from a midday shooting on Roanoke Street on March 12 that broke his femur and required three blood transfusions. Harris said that it was the second time her son had been shot in less than a year, and that she had been with him on both occasions and had narrowly escaped injury.
“Some boys came up behind us and shot like 30 times,” she said of the March 12 incident. “The violence in Richmond is off the chain.”
Editor’s note: A program director at the Bon Air Juvenile Correctional Center shared with Richmond Commonwealth’s Attorney Colette McEachin some of the concerns young inmates at the facility have about recent shootings of young people in Richmond. A previous version of this story incorrectly said that McEachin had spoken directly to the inmates.
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Senior staff members in Gov. Ralph Northam’s administration questioned the power of Virginia’s watchdog agency to investigate the Virginia Parole Board during an ongoing investigation and reprimanded Inspector General Michael Westfall for how many investigations his office was conducting during a tense meeting last summer.
A recording of the meeting obtained by the Richmond Times-Dispatch conflicts with the governor’s previous account that his team did not intimidate Westfall and his staff.
The 71-minute recording of the Aug. 14 meeting also shows that Northam’s chief of staff asked Westfall if the Office of the State Inspector General planned to investigate Republican lawmakers for releasing to the press a copy of an OSIG report that concluded the parole board violated state law and policies in releasing Vincent Martin, who was sentenced in 1980 to life in prison for killing a Richmond police officer.
Under questioning from the governor’s team, Westfall promised that his agency would not look into new complaints about the parole board but would instead forward them to the governor’s office.
“Well,” Westfall told his team after they left the meeting. “I’ll be honest with you, in the back of my mind — you know, no rumor starting — but this is the type of stuff that leads to me getting a new job. Against my will. And I’m fine with that. I knew that when I took the job.”
While the purpose of the meeting was to discuss OSIG’s handling of the Martin case, Westfall told the governor’s staff that OSIG already had seven other reports in the works related to parole board misconduct. The meeting took place about a week after the Martin report was made public.
Brian Moran, Virginia’s secretary of public safety and homeland security, said in the meeting that the governor’s office would not concede the parole board had done anything wrong in the process used to release Martin.
“I don’t think they’ve violated any policies, and this thing is entirely prejudicial,” Moran told the OSIG investigators of their findings. He later said: “You’re being used as a political tool, is all my conclusion is. I mean, you guys walked right into it.”
Moran declined to be interviewed for this story, referring an inquiry to Alena Yarmosky, press secretary to Northam. She said Friday that the governor maintains his staff did not intimidate or attempt to intimidate OSIG during the meeting.
Moran’s side, according to the recording, included one of his deputies, Nicky Zamostny; the governor’s chief of staff, Clark Mercer; and at least one other person whose identity in the recording is not clear. Westfall was joined by at least two of his investigators.
In Virginia, it’s legal to record a conversation as long as the person recording is part of it.
The Office of the State Inspector General was created in 2012 to investigate waste and “identify inefficiencies in executive branch state government.”
The office oversees a state fraud, waste and abuse hotline.
The parole board is now immersed in an ongoing scandal after OSIG found violations of policy and law not just in how the board handled the Martin case, but in at least seven other cases in which convicted killers were released on parole.
Additionally, OSIG has pending investigations of the parole board, including a look at the former chairwoman’s decision to unilaterally release more than 100 parolees from supervision without any recommendation from local parole officers.
Moran asked Westfall, who reports to the governor’s office and was appointed by Northam, how his agency had authority to examine something like whether the parole board had met the requirement to notify a commonwealth’s attorney that an inmate had been paroled.
“What is waste, fraud, and abuse about that?” asked Moran, referencing topics OSIG investigates. “In fact, it’s not in this report — waste, fraud, and abuse. You didn’t find any waste, fraud, and abuse.”
Moran added: “How did you even get into this?”
Westfall said OSIG received hotline complaints.
“So you think [state law] gives you the ability to review any agency’s policies, and whether or not they’re following it?” Moran asked.
“Per our counsel, yes, sir,” Westfall replied. He said he consulted with the attorney general’s office to make sure he had that power.
“Really? Wow,” Moran said.
Mercer, Northam’s chief of staff, said in the meeting that he had received a tip that employees at the parole board were unhappy about inmates being paroled, and those employees made complaints to OSIG.
Mercer said a person from a police association told him, “We’re gonna make this hell for you. And we’re gonna use someone in the parole board, on staff, to do so.”
Westfall said OSIG needed to do its due diligence and investigate regardless of who made the complaint. He said complaints are almost always anonymous.
But Westfall then said his agency would stop investigating new complaints about the parole board.
“At some point, piling on isn’t gonna do any — any good,” he said. “We’re not going to be taking on any more cases that folks bring in. We’ll be referring those over to your office.”
Moran then questioned the number of reports OSIG was already working on during its ongoing investigation.
“You think seven are sufficient, though?” Moran said. “One isn’t, three isn’t, six aren’t, but seven?”
The governor’s staff said some of the information about Martin appeared to make Martin look bad and was not relevant to the process under which he was paroled.
“The way it was written also speaks to the way that it was investigated, and brings into question, for me, whether you all were objective and unbiased in your report,” said Zamostny, at the time a deputy secretary of public safety under Moran. She is now policy director for Terry McAuliffe’s gubernatorial campaign. “I’m just putting it straight out on the table. I think that this is prejudicial, and it sets the tone for the rest of the report.”
And they asked why positive information about Martin’s record was not included.
“Anybody reading this immediately gets ‘this is a bad guy,’ ” Moran said.
Westfall said he respected their opinion, but OSIG’s actions were vetted by their legal counsel in the attorney general’s office.
“Could it be written differently?” Westfall said. “Yes, it could be written differently.”
“This was in the press,” Moran said. “And then just to write this, and the way it was written, knowing how it would be received, and the disservice it would be on the parole board and us. ... I don’t know how you can defend that, Mike.”
Mercer noted that Sens. Tommy Norment, R-James City, and Mark Obenshain, R-Rockingham, shared the report with the media.
“Are they gonna get dinged?” Mercer asked.
Westfall said in the meeting that investigating lawmakers would be outside his agency’s purview because OSIG investigates the executive branch.
The governor’s team and the OSIG team disagreed over OSIG’s findings.
“You all spent over 60 days researching [and] you got it wrong,” Moran said.
“I guess we’ll have a professional disagreement there,” Westfall said. “Again, we relied on our counsel.”
Moran replied, “Mike, come on,” and Westfall responded, “What do you mean, come on?”
The OSIG report in the case noted that the victim’s family scheduled a meeting with the parole board, “but neither Bennett nor any other representative from VPB honored this scheduled interview.” Adrianne Bennett was the chairwoman of the parole board until last spring, when lawmakers made her a judge in Virginia Beach. Many of the cases being investigated center on decisions that the board made during her final weeks as chairwoman.
Moran said the wording was unfair to Bennett. “That’s nasty,” he said.
He said the parole board tried to reschedule the meeting.
But a parole board staffer who was interviewed by OSIG did not tell them that, said Jennifer Moschetti, at the time OSIG’s lead investigator into the parole board. Bennett declined to be interviewed by OSIG. She has declined requests for interviews with The Times-Dispatch, as has Moschetti.
The governor’s team said they were upset over how a quote was attributed in the OSIG report. They accused OSIG of moving beyond process and making findings about decision-making by the parole board.
“You’re not reviewing policies and procedures anymore,” Moran said. “You’re getting into whether or not this person should have been released. And it’s obvious.”
Westfall replied: “I’ll respectfully disagree with that.”
“The thing I feel horrible for is Mr. Martin,” Mercer said. “I mean, obviously, the first person I feel horrible for is the victim and their family. But ... Mr. Martin didn’t do anything.”
“He’s out there now under a cloud of — for the rest of his life — that there was a bunch of shenanigans to let him out of prison.”
“No infractions since 1988 while in there,” Moran added.
The meeting grew especially heated when the governor’s team criticized OSIG for how it investigated the parole board’s lack of meeting minutes.
“Mike, come on,” Moran said again.
“I say come on to you, sir,” Westfall replied. “I don’t have any problem with this one at all.”
Westfall added: “We can sit here and disagree all day. I stand by the work that our folks did.”
He said he wouldn’t have put his name on it if he didn’t feel the findings were appropriate.
“Reasonable people, you know, unfortunately disagree every day.”
Zamostny, the deputy public safety secretary, asked Westfall if the governor’s office could see OSIG’s draft reports.
Westfall said that work is confidential, but added, “I’ll run it by our counsel.” Zamostny declined to comment for this story.
As they were walking after leaving the governor’s office, an OSIG investigator said she wasn’t expecting what happened in the meeting.
“Where can we go to debrief real quick?” one said.
“A bar?” was one reply.
“We could have unleashed the kraken and we didn’t,” one of the investigators said. “I think there’s a lot more we could have said.”
Moschetti said, “That’s why I’m like, ‘Let’s pull out the original version.’ ” That was an apparent reference to a longer, draft version of the report that had more information in it about parole board misconduct on the Martin case.
Another investigator replied: “I was thinking of that, too, but they are convinced they did nothing wrong.”
Westfall shared his concern about being fired, then told his team not to let the meeting ruin their weekend.
Earlier this year, Moschetti provided records to lawmakers and filed a lawsuit asking for whistleblower protection. The reports show a pattern of violations that center on releasing inmates without first giving proper notice to state prosecutors or to victims’ family members, who are allowed to provide input on the impact a release may have on them or the community before the inmates are granted parole.
Westfall fired her before the lawsuit could be heard. He has declined requests for an interview.
Yarmosky, the governor’s spokeswoman, said there were several inconsistencies between OSIG’s findings and the law.
“Ultimately, this issue is too important for partisan games,” Yarmosky emailed Friday.
“That’s why Governor Northam introduced and passed legislation to strengthen transparency at the Parole Board, and why Governor Northam called for and funded an independent investigation.”
As approved by the General Assembly at a cost of up to $250,000, it will look at OSIG’s “policies, process, and procedures employed during the investigation of the Virginia Parole Board’s handling of the Vincent Martin matter.”
While Black and Latino residents make up 34% of the college-age population in the state, far fewer are enrolled in Virginia’s colleges, according to a report published last week by a Washington-based think tank.
Only three public universities in the state enroll Black and Latino students at a rate equal to the state population: Norfolk State University, Virginia State University and Old Dominion University. Norfolk State and VSU are historically Black universities.
The report by Education Reform Now used racial-identification and Pell Grant data from each university to determine that most of the state’s four-year universities have a smaller share of Black and Latino students than the state population. And five Virginia colleges have among the lowest rates in the nation at enrolling Pell Grant recipients, which are given to students from low-income families.
At Virginia Tech, 10% of undergraduates identify as Black or Hispanic. At James Madison University, 10% do. At Virginia Military Institute and the University of Virginia, it’s 13%, according to admission figures reported by each school from 2016 to 2018.
Altogether, Black and Latino students make up 25% of Virginia public college undergraduate populations, and 22% at private colleges. But they are concentrated at a handful of universities, leaving most of the state’s colleges below the average. At Virginia Commonwealth University, 19% of undergrads are Black and 9% are Latino, just below the state average.
The report found the same trend in the state’s private schools. Among those schools, the report singled out Washington and Lee University, where in 2020 the number of Black freshmen admitted from the state of Virginia was four. Two years prior, it was one.
The authors of the report — Michael Dannenberg, James Murphy and Katlyn Riggins — call this “de facto racial segregation.” They also found that students from lower-income families are underrepresented in many of the state’s colleges.
“The best resourced institutions effectively shut out talented students of all races from working-class and low-income families,” the report states.
In Virginia, Black and Latino students are less likely to enroll in college than white students, according to the report; 70% of white students went to college within 16 months of graduating in the Class of 2018. But only 60% of Black students and 58% of Latino students made the same decision.
Black students more often head to for-profit schools that tend to offer certificates or focus on technical skills, and Latino students are more likely to choose community college, according to the report.
There are three private HBCUs whose student bodies are predominantly Black: Virginia Union University, Hampton University and Virginia University of Lynchburg. Those universities could reduce the share of Black students at other state universities.
But large, wealthy schools have the ability to draw Black and Latino students from all over the country and the world and could meet the share of the population if they wanted to, Murphy said.
Two Northern Virginia schools are the only ones in the state that enrolled more than the state average of Latino students, George Mason (14%) and Marymount University (18%); 12% of 18- to 24-year-olds in the state identify as Latino.
The report also looked at Pell Grants, which are typically given to students whose families make $60,000 per year or less, just below the median household income.
Virginia State, Norfolk State and Old Dominion enroll the most Pell Grant students. Five Virginia public schools are among the bottom 11 in the country for percentage of Pell Grant students as a share of the student body: William & Mary (12%), UVA (13%), Christopher Newport University (14%), VMI (15%) and JMU (15%). Those schools enroll fewer Pell Grant students than comparable colleges in other states, according to the report.
College in Virginia has become increasingly expensive. In the past decade, every public four-year school in the state has raised tuition 50% or more.
UVA covers tuition and fees for students from in-state families who earn less than $80,000. It meets 100% of the demonstrated financial need of undergraduates and offers admission to students without regard to their ability to pay, said university spokesman Wes Hester. Last year, UVA gave $133 million in need-based financial aid grants to undergraduate students through its financial program Access UVA.
Virginia schools do not always fare well alongside comparable institutions in other states, according to the report.
The University of Mississippi and the University of South Carolina have admissions standards similar to Virginia Tech. They also have three times as many Black students.
At the main campus of Rutgers University, where admissions are similar to JMU, 20% of the student population is Black and Latino.
Some Virginia schools are growing their share of minority students. At VMI, the number of nonwhite cadets has grown 48% in the past eight years, and it grows each year, said school spokesman Bill Wyatt. Gov. Ralph Northam has ordered an investigation into the culture of racism at VMI, which is being conducted now.
“VMI is committed to providing our unique educational experience and continues to invest in diversity, equity and inclusion efforts for our cadets, faculty and staff,” Wyatt said.
At UVA, the number of Black students enrolling as freshmen has increased 20% in the past decade, Hester said. The university’s admissions office hosts open houses specifically for Black and Latino students, and it waives application and enrollment fees for low-income students. Black UVA students graduate at among the highest rates in the country, the university has said.
“Last fall, the university welcomed the most diverse class in its history,” he added. “But we know we have more work to do and are focusing intently on strengthening the enrollment of Black students and others who have been historically underrepresented at UVA and other leading universities.”
One statistic that is not included in the study is the number of Black, Hispanic and low-income students applying. Those statistics aren’t published by the universities or state agencies, said Murphy, an author of the report.
That means it’s difficult to tell if the problem lies more in students not applying or not being accepted. But it doesn’t really matter, Dannenberg said. Universities shape their applicant pool by choosing where to recruit, where to offer financial aid, and the type of environment on campus.
“All of these things and more affect the socioeconomic and racial diversity of the student body,” Dannenberg said.
UVA made acceptance offers last year to about 1,100 students who identify as Black or African American, according to The Washington Post. But only 24% chose to enroll, according to university data, which is far less than the university’s yield for the entire class, which was 39%.
Increasing diversity has been a priority for the State Council of Higher Education in Virginia for at least the past two years, a spokeswoman said. In 2019, SCHEV started reviewing the way colleges are funded, following direction from the General Assembly.
Equity is the first of three goals the council lists for its universities, followed by affordability and a transformative experience for students. Its goal is for enrollment to reflect Virginia’s population.