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New records: Deputy told Chief Smith the location of any planned shooting was 'unknown' before Smith claimed otherwise

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Richmond Police Chief Gerald M. Smith addresses tip received about planned mass shooting for July 4th and the resulting arrests. (Source: Richmond Police Department)

Richmond Police Chief Gerald Smith has already acknowledged receiving information from his department prior to a July 6 news conference that contradicted his claim of a foiled Fourth of July shooting plot at Dogwood Dell amphitheater.

Talking points sent by the head of police public affairs to Smith seven minutes before the scheduled start of his news conference said police had received a tip about the threat of a mass shooting on July 4 in Richmond but a location was unknown.

Smith has said he didn’t have time to read those talking points ahead of his news conference.

New records obtained by WTVR-TV this week show that additionally, a deputy police chief sent Smith the information 47 minutes prior to his news conference.

Smith said in an email to the Richmond Times-Dispatch on Friday that on July 6, he was unaware Deputy Chief Victoria Pearson had sent him that email.

The public and some members of the City Council continue to ask questions about why Smith provided false information to the community at his news conference and in interviews with national media about the case.

To recap: Police have said they received a call July 1 from a man speaking Spanish who said two men had weapons and were planning a mass shooting on the Fourth of July. Police searched a residence on Columbia Street, seized weapons and ammunition, and charged one man that day, later arresting the second.

Chief Gerald M. Smith

At Richmond police headquarters on July 6, Chief Gerald Smith addressed the recent arrests and seizure of firearms that he said prevented a mass shooting at Dogwood Dell on the Fourth of July.

Smith erroneously claimed in his news conference that the tipster said Dogwood Dell, in Byrd Park, was the intended target. The department later clarified that the tipster did not know of any specific location.

And despite seizing the weapons, detectives were unable to corroborate if there actually was a plan for any shooting.

That was made clear to Smith on July 2, according to the records WTVR obtained from police through a Virginia Freedom of Information Act request.

On July 2, Smith’s chief of staff, Spencer Cochran, sent Smith a text message about the tip.

“You might have been briefed ... or read [the] email. The information was vague on Friday, but they worked it and at least got more guns off [the] street, but at most, maybe prevented [a] mass shooting,” Cochran wrote.

On July 6, a city spokeswoman, Petula Burks, wrote to council members to invite them to join the news conference, which Mayor Levar Stoney kicked off.

“RPD will host a briefing to discuss a thwarted mass shooting intended to disrupt COR’s [City of Richmond’s] July 4th event at Dogwood Dell,” Burks wrote in a group chat, according to WTVR’s reporting.

The new records also reveal that police initially had difficulty understanding the caller with the tip.

“It was difficult to take as we were using the language line. No Spanish speaking officers at 2nd [Precinct] at that time,” a police sergeant wrote in an email.

Richmond police charged WTVR $854.04 for the records. Virginia FOIA does not require government to charge, but allows them to charge for the time it takes to respond to a records request.

The public hasn’t been able to compare what police detectives actually found in the case with statements made by Smith. Richmond police have chosen not to release the investigative report, citing a discretionary exemption in FOIA that allows police to withhold most criminal records if they choose to.

Virginia State Police have a copy of the Richmond report but also declined to release it publicly, citing an “open and active” criminal investigation.

Federal authorities are now handling the case, in which one suspect was charged with an immigration violation and the second charged with a weapons violation. Neither has been charged with anything related to a planned shooting.

Had Smith actually seen the “location unknown” talking points ahead of his news conference, it’s unclear if they would have changed what he said. Asked that on Friday, Smith did not answer.

Smith has previously said in an interview that although no detective told him Dogwood Dell was an intended target, he concluded that on his own, in part based on his experience as a police officer.

Smith’s boss, Richmond Chief Administrative Officer Lincoln Saunders, has said that he, too, believes police neutralized a planned threat at the large Dogwood Dell celebration.

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