Press Club
Screenshot from video of a fight at a cafeteria in Arlington Public Schools (courtesy anonymous)

Over the last four days, fights involving kids and weapons broke out near Gunston and Thomas Jefferson middle schools, while Wakefield High School had multiple trash cans set on fire.

Those are the most recent incidents in what some parents — mostly to middle schoolers — say is a rash of fights, threats of violence and other concerning behaviors happening in the public school system.

Earlier this month, for example, a mother told the School Board her daughter at Gunston Middle School was attacked by other students.

“My daughter’s eye is messed up,” Shana Robertson told the Arlington School Board on March 10. “She was jumped by two boys and two girls, and nothing has been done.”

A parent, Shayna Robertson, speaks out about unsafe conditions in Arlington Public Schools (via APS)

ARLnow spoke to multiple parents who say these issues are happening across the school system. We also reviewed several videos of brawls on school grounds, or near them, recorded by students this year.

Arlington Public Schools confirms to ARLnow that the school system has, in fact, noticed an increase in the number of reported fights and incidents this school year.

“This rise in concerning behaviors follows the national trend that is not unique to Arlington, as students re-acclimate to being back in school and face increased stress and anxiety, as well as other mental health and social-emotional challenges due to COVID and the trauma students experienced as a result,” APS spokesman Andrew Robinson said.

The trend has prompted some parents to call for more disciplinary actions for students and a renewed conversation about whether to reinstall Arlington County Police Department School Resource Officers, who were removed over the summer out of concern for racial disparities in juvenile arrests.

Opinions on reinstalling SROs are mixed. Some say this would help keep students in line and some say they may help — but they will not address the root cause. Others say SROs would not only fail to address the root cause, but they would also needlessly drive up the number of arrests.

“This is happening across the country, even at schools with police officers,” says Symone Walker, a member of the Arlington branch of the NAACP’s education committee and a former ARLnow columnist. “You really have to start addressing the emotional needs, the physical needs, the academic needs. Of course, there’s stuff going on at homes where families are stressed. Parents are angry and the kids are soaking it all up — it’s a much deeper problem.”

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Columbia Gardens Apartments at 5309 8th Road S. (via Google Maps)

(Updated 10:45 a.m.) Nearly 60 residents and families on Columbia Pike are scrambling to find new housing options under the shadow of a looming redevelopment project.

The impacted tenants live at Columbia Gardens Apartments (5309 8th Road S.), a collection of market-rate affordable garden apartments. Some families have lived there for upward of 20 years, but now, 62 units will be replaced with townhouses through a by-right development project.

Residents have about 50 days to find new homes. Last weekend, they received letters via certified mail giving them until March 31 to vacate, listing nearby complexes with openings and local movers, and offering $200 in rental assistance. The complex owner had transitioned them to month-to-month leases before giving them the notice, which would have been 120 days by law if they had renewed for a year.

“Everybody’s stressed,” says tenant Maria Torres, 31, who has a daughter at Campbell Elementary School. “They want to stay in the same area because they want their kids to stay in the same schools. We’re in the middle of the pandemic and the school year, and some people don’t have the money to just go and give a deposit and a month of rent.”

Tenants knew eventually the apartments would be torn down, since the property owner is also redeveloping the property it owns nearby at 843 S. Greenbrier Street, a separate project that received County Board approval in November 2020. But, she says, management didn’t indicate when notice would come for them.

“We thought they were going to give us time,” says Torres, a 15-year Pike resident. “We didn’t imagine it’d be only 45 days.”

Now, the 58 households will be competing for affordable housing in Arlington, which is grappling with a shortage of options as well as habitability concerns, such as rodents and mold, at some complexes with units set aside for low-income residents. This bottleneck could drive longtime residents out of the county, tenant advocates say.

“We have a shortage of affordable apartments,” said Elder Julio Basurto, a community leader working with the tenants. “Where are they going to go?”

A tenant meeting outside Columbia Gardens Apartments (courtesy photo)

Advocates and some local elected officials say the notice is unjust and poorly timed, and are trying to buy tenants more time to resettle. Long term, they aim to reform the state housing codes to require longer notice periods for month-to-month renters and enact local policies to support low- and moderate-income communities at risk of displacement as the Pike redevelops.

“This is a horrible situation in the middle of winter, in the middle of a pandemic, with kids going to local schools having to potentially move out of school,” said Del. Alfonso Lopez, whose district includes most of Columbia Pike. “Everything about it is horrible, and it needs to be addressed immediately.”

Columbia Gardens’ owner, Merion Companies, says it’s doing what it can to help — but ultimately, the old buildings need to come down.

“There is no good time to [give notice],” said managing member Ryan Bensten. “We’re completely sensitive to that fact and have tried to do the right thing by our tenants to minimize heartache and impact.”

He said Merion provided a list of 13 locations where the group found vacancies and are trying to place some families in other units on the Columbia Gardens property not yet slated for development. He has three staff members dedicated to answering calls and working with tenants.

“These buildings have lived beyond their useful life,” Bensten said. “We’re moving on with a redevelopment — the project is complex with a lot of moving parts and we’re doing our best to be responsible to our tenants as we can.”

On short notice 

At the core of this saga is a frustration with Virginia code, which requires landlords to provide 30 days of notice to tenants on month-to-month leases in the event of a renovation project, as opposed to 120 days of notice for year-long leases.

It’s a provision that dates back at least to 2005, says Lopez, but was most recently clarified in 2015 as part of a law providing protections to residents of mobile homes.

Merion acquired the property around four years ago, and as tenants’ year-long leases expired, they transitioned to month-to-month arrangements, Bensten says.

“Typically, in Virginia, the month-to-month lease automatically kicks in once your lease has expired and if the landlord doesn’t make an attempt to renew the normal lease,” says Kellen MacBeth, who chairs the Arlington branch of the NAACP’s Housing Committee and is Vice-Chair of the Arlington Housing Commission.

Both tenants and landlords can terminate a month-to-month lease with 30 days of notice, which is convenient for landlords and can sometimes benefit tenants, he said.

“But in the case where the tenant has a family and has established themselves in this neighborhood — this is their home and they’re not looking to make major changes — it can be really challenging, as we see here,” MacBeth said. “Thirty days is not a lot of time to pack up your family and move.”

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McDonald’s in Bluemont (file photo)

A video purporting to show two people attacking an employee inside the Bluemont McDonald’s has been obtained by ARLnow.

The attack happened around 11 p.m. Monday, at the restaurant on the 5000 block of Wilson Blvd. Police say two suspects, a man and a woman, were “involved in a verbal dispute with an employee after receiving an incorrect order through the drive-thru.” The incident then allegedly turned violent.

“Suspect One allegedly threw a water bottle through the window, before parking the vehicle and entering the business,” said the Arlington County Police Department. “Suspect One continued the dispute with the employee before the two suspects began physically assaulting and striking the employee.”

The grainy video, below, shows two people holding down the victim, who’s lying on the floor next to the drive-thru window.

“Call the police,” employees could be heard saying.

“Get off her head,” another says.

“What the [expletive] is wrong with you,” an unidentified person says, before the pair leave the restaurant.

The person who sent the video said the incident started when “the woman wanted free food” and the employee refused. The victim closed the drive-thru window after being splashed with water, but the suspects then went inside, according to the person.

The person alleged that the suspects made negative remarks about the victim being Latina.

The allegations could not be immediately confirmed by police. ACPD also declined to say whether they had the video below in their possession.

“As a result of the investigation, two individuals have been arrested and charged and the case will be processed through the court system where evidence and facts will be presented,” said police spokeswoman Ashley Savage. “To ensure the integrity of the ongoing prosecution, there are no additional details to provide at this time.”

Two suspects were taken into custody after police say they initially ran several red lights in the Ballston area before pulling over. A search of their vehicle turned up a gun, according to ACPD.

“Justice Bridges, 26, of Washington D.C., was arrested and charged with Malicious Wounding and Eluding Police,” said an ACPD crime report. “Michael Ritch, 24 of Capitol Heights, Md., was arrested and charged with Assault & Battery and Felon in Possession of a Firearm.”

The person who sent the video said the victim suffered injuries to her torso and her face but is feeling better.

Note: the following video contains strong language and is not safe for work.

Unanswered questions remain after a security contractor was killed at the U.S. State Department’s National Foreign Affairs Training Center in Arlington.

The incident happened the evening of Tuesday, Nov. 16, at the 65-acre campus near the intersection of Arlington Blvd (Route 50) and N. George Mason Drive.

Arlington’s 911 dispatch center received multiple calls shortly after 6 p.m. for a pedestrian struck on the P2 lot of the campus. Callers were asked to start CPR on the victim, who was then rushed via ambulance to Virginia Hospital Center in cardiac arrest, according to fire department radio traffic.

The exact circumstances around who struck the victim and with what type of vehicle remain unclear. The dispatches reference a large amount of blood on the scene.

Arlington County police and fire department spokespeople deferred comment to federal authorities.

The State Department confirmed that the victim, a security contractor, died.

“We can confirm the death of a uniformed protection officer (UPO) with the Diplomatic Security Service (DSS) on November 16, 2021,” a spokesperson said in a statement, in response to an inquiry from ARLnow. “The officer was assigned to the National Foreign Affairs Training Center in Arlington, Virginia. The officer was a contractor whose job duties included domestic facilities protection. The Department of State extends its deepest condolences to the family and loved ones of the deceased.”

The State Department’s Diplomatic Security Service arm, which is based in Rosslyn, is leading the investigation.

“We do not comment on ongoing investigations due to privacy and law enforcement sensitivity considerations,” the State Department spokesperson said. “There is no further information we can provide at this time.”

The spokesman did not respond to a question seeking more clarity on what exactly happened.

ARLnow is told that the contractor who was killed was a 22-year-old former high school football player from Waldorf, Maryland. His funeral was held earlier this month.

The National Foreign Affairs Training Center is one of several locations of the Foreign Service Institute, which trains U.S. foreign affairs personnel.

Airbnb logo on a former office space in Clarendon (file photo)

Airbnb is the only major homestay platform not paying a tax levied on third-party lodging providers in Arlington County, ARLnow has learned exclusively.

On Sept. 1, a new Virginia law went into effect requiring businesses that facilitate homestay transactions to collect and pay a locality’s Transient Occupancy Tax (TOT). Previously, individual hosts collected the tax.

Taxes under the new system were due on Oct. 20, and so far, Airbnb — the platform with an outsized share of Arlington’s short-term rentals  — has yet to comply. Homestay platform Vacation Rental By Owner (VRBO), by contrast, appears to be complying.

“As of now, Airbnb is the only major homestay platform operator that has not complied with the new state law,” Susan Anderson, the communications director for the Office of the Commissioner of Revenue, tells ARLnow. “We are aware that other localities are also experiencing the same issue.”

Arlington has 840 active homestay rentals listed on either Airbnb and VRBO, and Airbnb listings comprise 82% of rentals, with another 10% listed on both platforms, according to short-term rental data company AirDNA. That means the county could be losing out on significant tax income each month.

The tax comes out to 8.25%, including a 5% county TOT, a 0.25% local tourism TOT and the state’s 3% regional TOT.

Active Airbnb and VRBO rentals (via Airdna)

Anderson said the office cannot disclose how much Airbnb owes due to a state law that prohibits the release of such information about individual taxpayers. However, we are told the office continues to assess Airbnb for the tax each month and is working to bring the lodging company into compliance.

A back-and-forth between county tax collectors and Airbnb appears to have been going on since at least Oct. 11, when the county notified Airbnb of its obligations in writing, per a copy of the letter obtained by ARLnow.

“The Commissioner of Revenue’s legal counsel has advised the company of its obligations and staff continues to follow up to ensure compliance,” Anderson said.

The Commissioner of Revenue has the power to determine how much should have been collected and can assess Airbnb for owed taxes, said William J. Burgess, the deputy commissioner and legal counsel for the Office of the Commissioner of Revenue.

The Arlington County Treasurer’s Office, meanwhile, “has the power and responsibility to collect payment of delinquent amounts,” he added.

Airbnb claims it hasn’t paid the TOT tax yet because of “ambiguity” in the state law. The company says it does not have the authority to collect this tax and has just started having conversations aimed at reaching a “technical solution” allowing it to collect this tax.

“Airbnb believes in helping our community pay taxes, and we have been collecting and remitting Virginia state sales tax on behalf of our Hosts since 2019, like we do in thousands of jurisdictions around the world,” said Laura Rillos, an Airbnb spokeswoman. “Unfortunately, as written, SB 1398 does not legally authorize Airbnb to collect and remit local transient occupancy taxes.”

“We are committed to working with lawmakers and stakeholders to find a technical solution so that all platform businesses have a basis to collect under the law,” Rillos continued. “We remain committed to working with communities and stakeholders across Virginia to support tourism recovery and help deliver these important tourism dollars.”

One local host who has been following this issue closely, reaching out to the county and Del. Patrick Hope (D-47) to see what is being done to get Airbnb in compliance, told ARLnow that the county could be getting shortchanged by hundreds of thousands of dollars.

“Airbnb was actually not collecting TOT from my guests, or guests in Arlington in general, as the company should have been,” said Diane Page, who has been letting out a suite attached to her Arlington Forest house since 2017. “I knew this because I saw my guest invoices, and when I randomly looked at other private (not corporate) Airbnb listings in Arlington, saw that Airbnb was not charging TOT.”

Using AirDNA data, Page estimates that the county could be missing out on more than $100,000 a month in taxes from Airbnb.

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Police at Peace Officers Memorial Day ceremony in 2019 (file photo)

(Updated at 3:30 p.m.) The number of sworn police officers on the streets in Arlington has dipped below 300 amid retirements and officers leaving for more lucrative positions, including at Amazon’s HQ2.

Multiple sources within the department have expressed concern about the shrinking police force, telling ARLnow that officer morale is low and stagnant wages have led many to consider leaving. Among those departing is a deputy chief, said to be among a number of officers who have taken security jobs at HQ2.

“There is a mass exodus from within the Arlington County Police Department,” said one of several people inside the department who have reached out to ARLnow, on the condition of anonymity. “Many officers are leaving for better paying positions in the private sector, including Amazon HQ2… the county hasn’t provided a pay raise in roughly three years.”

“The police department is currently severely understaffed,” said another tipster. “Morale is extremely low. Based on survey results, another 40+ officers plan to leave before the end of the year. I hate to say it, but the police department is a sinking ship right now.”

ACPD spokeswoman Ashley Savage acknowledged that while the overall number of officers is little changed since a 2018 restructuring prompted by staffing challenges then, the number of sworn officers actually out on patrol is, in fact, down at the moment — and below the 300 mark.

“ACPD’s authorized strength is 376 sworn officers with 10 of those positions frozen during the FY 2022 budget,” Savage said. “Currently, our on-board sworn staff is 346 officers. Functionally, we are operating below this number as approximately 45 members are in a training status to become a solo police officer and 10 are on light-duty assignments due to medical needs.”

Arlington County Police Department staffing (via ACPD)

Savage noted that police departments across the country are facing staffing challenges amid the pandemic and in the wake of anti-police-violence protests last summer following the killing of George Floyd.

“Law enforcement agencies across our region and the U.S. are struggling to retain qualified police officers and finding it equally challenging to recruit new members to the profession,” she said. “Here in Arlington, the police department completed a strategic restructuring in 2018 due to a significant reduction in our workforce. Since then, we have been successful in hiring larger classes of recruit officers, but this has not offset the number of departures due to attrition, retirements and officers seeking other opportunities.”

Police departments in Alexandria, Baltimore and elsewhere have reported similar issues with low staffing levels.

“The department continues to prioritize core services by responding to in-progress crimes and emergency calls for service where there is an immediate threat to life, health or property; investigating crimes against people and serious property crimes; and engaging and building community partnerships with those we serve,” Savage said. “There are currently 23 recruit officers in training who will be released to solo patrol at the beginning of November. At that time, we will review our allocation of resources to determine if they meet current staffing requirements.”

But officers are continuing to leave the department, sources tell ARLnow.

At least two officers announced their resignation since Wednesday night, we’re told. A recent survey conducted by Arlington’s police union found that nearly 100 officers — about 40% of respondents — are planning to leave ACPD within a year.

One department source called the figure “staggering.”

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A now-former Arlington elections official is facing charges after police say she improperly removed someone from the voter roll.

Tyra Baker turned herself in on August 26, according to Arlington County police, after arrest warrants were issued in connection to an incident last fall involving Baker’s service in the elections office. She was released on bond but is due to be arraigned in court today (Thursday) on charges of voter intimidation, a misdemeanor, and election official corrupt conduct, a felony, according to court records.

A person with knowledge of the situation, who wished to remain anonymous, tells ARLnow that it started with a dispute over money at Baker’s family-run funeral home in Green Valley.

Baker managed the Chinn Baker Funeral Service on S. Shirlington Road, which was owned by her father until his death in 2018. Family members accused Baker of financial impropriety, leading to a physical confrontation last summer, the person said.

Baker was arrested after that alleged incident and charged with assault.

“At approximately 3:10 p.m. on June 27, 2020, police were dispatched to the 2600 block of Shirlington Road for the report of a domestic dispute,” said Arlington County Police Department spokeswoman Kirby Clark. “Tyra Baker, 51, of Arlington, Va., was arrested and charged with Domestic Assault and Battery. As the incident was domestic in nature, further details are protected under Virginia Code.”

Baker pleaded not guilty to the assault charge in Arlington General District Court. Her next court appearance in that case is set for May 2022, according to court records.

At the time of her arrest, Baker was still a part-time worker in the Arlington elections office.

Baker “worked as a seasonal Assistant Registrar since 2008,” Arlington Director of Elections Gretchen Reinemeyer said via a county spokeswoman, adding that she has also “served for several decades as an election officer on Election Day.”

The person familiar with the situation said the individual Baker is accused of subsequently removing from the voter roll was the assault victim. Police declined to confirm that, citing the need to “best protect the identity of the victim in each case.” The person removed from the roll only became aware of it after trying to vote in the pivotal fall 2020 general election.

“In October 2020, the victim attempted to vote in Arlington County, but was informed she was previously removed from the voter roll and unable to cast a ballot,” Clark tells ARLnow. “The victim subsequently filed an official complaint with the Arlington County Office of Elections. In December 2020, the Arlington County Police Department was contacted by Special Prosecutor Tony Kostelecky of the Prince William County Commonwealth Attorney’s Office regarding the case and began to investigate.”

“Follow-up investigation by detectives determined that the suspect was working as an Assistant Registrar in the Arlington County Office of Elections when she removed the known victim from the voter roll without proper authorization and without completing adequate documentation,” Clark continued. “Warrants were obtained for Tyra Baker, 51, of Arlington, Va., for § 24.2-607 Prohibited conduct; intimidation of voters; disturbance of election; how prevented; penalties and § 24.2-1001 Willful neglect or corrupt conduct. Baker turned herself in at the Office of the Magistrate on August 26, 2021, where she was served the warrants, and subsequently released on an unsecured bond.”

Reinemeyer described the incident as “isolated” but declined to provide specific information about the allegation. Generally, she said, voters who cannot cast a standard ballot at the polls are allowed to cast a provisional ballot pending further investigation.

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On a quiet residential street near Arlington Blvd, cars can be heard accelerating as they turn a corner, with their aftermarket exhaust giving off a loud “roar.”

Meanwhile, near Columbia Pike, cars rev up and drag race on S. Columbus Street by Wakefield High School.

“I’m eight stories up — not at street level, so to speak — so maybe you expect the noise to dissipate,” Betsy Thomassen tells ARLnow. “It’s Wednesday, and it’s happened five to six times… it’s just incredibly loud and a nuisance. In my condo, my furniture sometimes vibrates. That’s kind of incredible really.”

According to residents who have spoken to ARLnow, and who’ve posted on social media sites like Facebook and Nextdoor, there been a surge in modified cars speeding through neighborhoods. Some residents say the uptick is particularly bad along the Columbia Pike corridor and in the Clarendon area, and along the highways that crisscross the county.

“Anywhere there’s a corridor, you have high performance cars,” said Clarendon-Courthouse Civic Association President David Cheek, who even compiled a video, below, of modified cars roaring through his neighborhood. “It’s really rude to accelerate in an area with a lot of people, in a loud car, but there’s a ‘do whatever you want’ mentality.”

After nearly a year of receiving more complaints than usual, the County Board is preparing to take a number of steps to mitigate noise in Arlington and enforce noise maximums on cars and motorcycles, according to Board member Takis Karantonis.

One avenue members are pursuing is via the state legislature. The Board aims to have something on their legislative agenda for the next regular session in January, Karantonis said. They’re also looking to train police officers to engage drivers in conversations and get them to change their attitudes.

“I think that the County Board as a whole is interested in a way to enforce and discourage overwhelmingly noisy motoring in Arlington, especially in neighborhoods,” he said.

Diagnosing the problem 

A lot of the especially noisy cars are running aftermarket exhaust systems made for racing, Cheek said. He theorizes that with extra time on their hands during the pandemic, more folks got interested in car modifications.

There is an entire, sophisticated industry around these mufflers, but there is very little regulation, Karantonis said, adding that he understands that modified cars sell like hotcakes in motoring and touring fairs.

One reader told ARLnow that the new noise isn’t always associated with higher speeds.

“They often ‘sound’ as though they are also speeding, yet I’ve seen several that are loud, but didn’t appear to be speeding,” one said. “I suspect that those nature of the modifications.”

As a car and motorcycle enthusiast, Cheek said he understands the appeal of modifying a vehicle and wanting to enjoy it.

“I feel for them,” he said. “But they have to understand there are a lot of people who’re upset about it — on Columbia Pike and in  Clarendon — and that it’s not fair to everyone else.”

He added that noise pollution “isn’t just annoying — it impacts your mental health, and it actually affects your life.”

Considering legislation

Karantonis said there are a few paths on the table, from enacting legislation to educating drivers.

Legislative action will be somewhat tricky, in part because a new state law went into effect in March that says police officers cannot initiate a traffic stop for, among other things, loud mufflers. The code still allows drivers to be ticketed for noise if they were pulled over for a violation such as speeding.

The law, sponsored by Del. Patrick Hope (D-Arlington), was passed to reduce racial disparities in traffic stops, as some police officers historically used pretextual reasons — such as a loud car or expired tags — to pull over residents and search their cars.

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(Updated at 11:10 a.m.) A pair of Columbia Pike businesses say they’re planning to leave when their leases are up due to parking challenges at a county-financed garage.

Lost Dog Cafe and Joule Wellness Pharmacy both tell ARLnow that relatively high and confusing parking fees in the garage are costing them thousands of dollars a year in customer business. The owners of both say they will not be renewing their leases when they expire come 2023 and 2024, respectively.

“This parking issue has made it so untenable,” says Lost Dog Cafe franchise owner Jim Barnes. “We link this to our sales and our sales are not good. There’s a correlation with this parking lot.”

The parking garage, located at the corner of Columbia Pike and S. Walter Reed Drive, is owned by Ballston-based apartment developer AvalonBay. However, it was built based as part of an unusual 2006 agreement with Arlington County.

The county contributed $2.96 million to its construction with the promise of receiving 45% of parking revenue as a form of payback every month going forward, according to the “public parking development agreement” obtained by ARLnow.

It is one of only two parking garages in the county that has an agreement of this nature, county officials confirm, with the other also along Columbia Pike, at Penrose Square.

The agreement does not specify a duration for which the county will continue to receive the parking revenue and county officials declined to provide an “interpretation” of whether that could mean into perpetuity.

They also didn’t specify how much revenue the garage generated for the county in 2020.

The parking garage is owned by AvalonBay and was acquired by the company with its $102 million purchase of the since-renamed Avalon Columbia Pike apartment building — formerly the Halstead Arlington — in 2016.

While this agreement had been in place for a decade and a half, initially signed by a different developer, a majority of the issues for the businesses started in March 2020, just days before the pandemic began to hit Arlington.

That’s when, according to Lost Dog and Joule Wellness, the parking machines were turned on and enforced for the first time in years.

Lost Dog Cafe, a franchisee of the original in Westover, moved into 2920 Columbia Pike in May 2009. At the time, Barnes said that parking was free after 5 p.m. and on weekends, which he says was an adequate compromise. A large portion of their customer-base came when parking was free anyway, with the garage able to earn revenue at other times, he says.

When AvalonBay purchased the building, notes Barnes, those restrictions went away and the parking machines were turned off. Enforcement also stopped.

Then four years later, with little notice according to the businesses, the machines were turned back on, enforcement restarted, and parking fees were being charged 24/7. The machines require drivers to pay for parking in advance, and anyone who fails to do so — or who overstays the amount of time they paid for — gets ticketed or towed.

A sign outside the garage advertises a parking rate of $1.75 per hour, which can be paid via a cash-only machine inside the garage. Barnes claims the machine “has never worked” and “steals people’s money.”

Drivers can also use the ParkMobile app, but poor cell phone reception in the garage makes that difficult, and the app charges $2.25 for the first hour.

“Customers cannot use their phones to access it infuriating them and they simply choose to no longer come to our business as a result,” Barnes said.

Paid street parking is available nearby, but is limited. Parking on surrounding neighborhood streets, meanwhile, often requires a residential decal, and nearby parking lots are restricted to other businesses and their customers.

AvalonBay, in an email to ARLnow, disputes Barnes’ version of events, writing that parking was being collected prior to March 2020.

“Equipment had been in place and parking revenue was collected prior to March 2020,” writes a company representative. “In March 2020, an updated parking system was installed with the County’s approval.”

Barnes, however, says that he received “no notice whatsoever” about the change or any updates.

The management of Joule Wellness Pharmacy, which opened its Pike location in early 2014, said they did receive notice, but it was only two to three weeks prior to the change. What’s more, they said there’s no mention of paid parking in their lease.

“There was not no mention of that in our lease,” says manager Alex Tekie. “And in fact, we’re told parking is free for us and our employees and for customers coming on the retail side.”

Tekie and pharmacy owner Winnie Tewelde tell ARLnow they now shell out nearly $800 a month in parking, mostly so employees can park in the lot.

They’ve talked a lawyer about the situation, but grew weary of paying even more money to fight the parking changes against a large, publicly-traded developer.

“We got exhausted. Drained,” says Tekie. “It’s David vs. Goliath.”

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U.S. Postal Inspection officer at the N. George Mason Drive Post Office on Oct. 13, 2020

One of five individuals implicated in a scheme to steal mail from Postal Service boxes around Arlington County has pleaded guilty.

Aaron Kyle Johnson pleaded guilty in Alexandria federal court on May 28 in connection to the scheme, which lasted more than a year, a spokesman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office tells ARLnow.

A statement of facts document entered with the guilty plea says that Johnson and his co-conspirators stole mail from blue mailboxes around Arlington, including those outside the post offices in Buckingham and on N. George Mason Drive, using a USPS master key known as an “arrow key.”

The document does not say how the suspects obtained the key and prosecutors did not provide additional detail after inquiries by ARLnow. In a discussion on an online forum among numerous residents who reported having their mail stolen, one resident reported having been told by law enforcement that the key was stolen from a postal employee at gunpoint.

The crime spree started in late 2019 and continued until March 2021, according to the document. There were numerous victims, including individuals and local businesses. ARLnow’s initial report detailing numerous reports of mail thefts, mostly from the George Mason Drive post office, was published in October 2020 after we photographed a U.S. Postal Inspection investigator kneeling besides one of the post office’s blue boxes.

The suspects, prosecutors say, would steal checks from mailed letters and fraudulently deposit them at local banks, using false identification and forgery. In one case, a $21,000 check from an Arlington business was stolen and “altered such that it was made payable to ‘John Martian,'” according to the document.

In early March 2021, Johnson and another defendant were found “in possession of approximately 150 personal checks and approximately 50 business checks drafted by individuals and businesses located in and around Arlington County, Virginia, many of which were stolen from the mail in or around Arlington County,” the document says. “Some of the checks were in the process of being altered.”

Johnson and another suspect also kept records of personally-identifiable information gleaned from stolen mail, prosecutors say.

The suspects “disposed of any mail that had no value to the defendant or his co-conspirators such that the mail” — which would have been anything from greeting cards to smaller bill payments — “could not reach its intended recipients,” the document said.

The scheme was perpetrated for financial gain, allowing Johnson to purchase “numerous luxury items,” among other things.

“Between no later than 2019 and in or around March 2021, the defendant used the proceeds gleaned from mail theft, bank fraud, and/or identity theft to enrich himself, including purchases of numerous luxury items, clothing, and apartment rentals,” said the statement of facts, which Johnson admitted to as part of his plea.

The scheme was almost foiled in February 2020 when the stolen key became stuck in a blue USPS collection box in Arlington. Johnson and his co-conspirators discussed what to do, and finally a few hours later one suspect was able to dislodge it, according to the document.

Prosecutors identified four other suspects in the case.

Keshawna Howard, who has a July 27 trial date; Jose Reyes, who is in law enforcement custody in Maryland; Malcom Ward, who was arrested this past Monday on bank fraud charges; and Miles Ward, Malcom’s brother, who died in March. The cause of Miles Ward’s death was not disclosed.

A U.S. Postal Inspection Service spokesperson declined comment when reached by ARLnow in late May, citing an “active investigation.”

Johnson’s sentencing is scheduled for Sept. 24.

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(Updated at 10:35 a.m.) A public-records request sheds light on how the Arlington County Police Department justified a change to what the public can hear via police radio channels.

The Freedom of Information Act inquiry by ARLnow uncovered documents about the department’s March change to encrypt more radio chatter. The documents cited safety and security concerns, including some related to last summer’s police reform protests and the Jan. 6 breach of the U.S. Capitol.

Whereas the public — including news outlets like ARLnow and local TV stations — used to be able to hear more details about a police incident in progress in Arlington, now in most circumstances only the initial dispatch and basic information from the scene can be heard.

“Once a call for service is stabilized, it may be moved to an encrypted channel to protect the personal and confidential information of members of the public interacting with law enforcement and for tactical, operational and investigatory security reasons,” Arlington police spokeswoman Ashley Savage said in an email.

Authorities drafted a policy and created a memo in February after a workgroup focused on police radio traffic hashed out details and the department’s now-permanent police chief, Charles “Andy” Penn, wrote that he expected “questions/complaints” about the encryption.

The Feb. 23 police memo gives information about why the department encrypted an administrative channel and details that other channels were encrypted, too, including special ops for presidential and dignitary escorts and other special events, a civil disturbance unit’s operational channel, a frequently-used “talk around” channel for officers on the scenes of incident to communicate with one another, and an outreach zone channel involving school resource officers.

Authorities shared their reasoning in wanting to encrypt more channels, noting police in Illinois and Texas heard on their radios the hip-hop group N.W.A.’s anti-police song — apparently transmitted by someone with access to a radio capable of broadcasting on police channels — amid nationwide protests following the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis in May 2020.

“During the summer of 2020, protests and civil unrest across the country highlighted the growing threat to public safety communications and exposed its loopholes,” one email said. “Factions in Dallas and Chicago targeted these vulnerabilities by playing music over unencrypted radio channels, preventing legitimate use. This sort of tactic threatens both public safety personnel, who rely on the radio to communicate with each other, and the general public, who are in potential danger during an incident.”

An Arlington County document also stated that the deadly Jan. 6 Capitol rioting also involved bad actors trying to gain access to police radio systems to cause disruptions. Additional details were not given in emails obtained by ARLnow, some of which were redacted.

“We also took into consideration the events of January 6 as we witnessed bad actors actively trying to gain access to radio systems to cause disruptions,” one email said.

When asked about the alleged Jan. 6 police radio incident, Savage said Wednesday in an email that they weren’t aware of this happening on ACPD’s own channels. In D.C., Metropolitan Police Department also noted they didn’t observe this.

But ACPD’s emails did cite unspecified incidents in which individuals used police transmissions to create disruptions.

“We have experienced numerous occasions where individuals created problems for first responders by having had access to information conveyed over unencrypted channels,” the department said in drafting its policy. “This includes but is not limited to people coming to scenes and disrupting or causing delays in the handling of the call.”

Without the added encryption, authorities say criminals could have advanced warning of police actions, citizens could arrive at a scene before emergency responders, and law enforcement tactics and movements could be compromised.

Savage said all dispatched calls for service, including emergencies such as an armed robbery or school shooting, are broadcast over the primary radio channel, which is not encrypted and available for monitoring by the media or interested members of the public, using either commercially-available scanner radios, online services or smartphone apps.

Savage noted the department shares information about some police incidents through daily reports, an online crime map, Arlington’s Open Data Portal, news releases and Arlington Alert for emergency notifications in the event of public safety threats and traffic disruptions.

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