Hunters find body in Plainfield, 7th suspicious death in Vermont this month
Hunters on Friday afternoon discovered a body in a remote area in Plainfield, and Vermont State Police say the death “occurred under suspicious circumstances.” It marked the second time this week that hunters found a body in central Vermont.
Since Oct. 5, Vermont State Police have reported seven deaths considered to be suspicious. By comparison, there were only nine reported homicides in the state for all of 2021, although that number spiked to 25 reported homicides in 2022.
No arrests have been made in any of the seven recent cases.
Col. Matthew Birmingham, who leads the Vermont State Police, called the rash of killings in such a short period of time “a little unprecedented” in Vermont.
Until this month, Vermont’s homicide rate had been trending lower for the year, Birmingham said on Saturday. Prior to October, he said, nine homicides had been recorded. If all seven suspicious deaths this month prove to be homicides, the year-to-date total would be 16.
“As far as we can tell, they are all isolated incidents with no corresponding trend that we can identify at this point,” he said.
Some of the recent death investigations are also proving very complex, he said.
“To have so many in such a short period is very unusual — and not just so many, but these are very complicated homicides,” he said. “No one is in custody yet and that is what is making it very upsetting to us and very challenging.”
“I can say with great confidence that none of them are tied together. We don’t have a single person responsible,” he said. The nature of the homicides also differs with each case, so there appears to be no singular pattern or motivation, he added.
In the most recent case, hunters in Plainfield discovered the body in woods along Gore Road around 4:30 p.m. Friday. Gore Road runs along the southern edge of the L.R. Jones State Forest, where the popular Spruce Mountain hiking trail is located.
“Evidence gathered on scene indicates the death occurred under suspicious circumstances,” state police said in a press release issued late Friday night.
Police said an autopsy was planned “to determine the cause and manner of death and help determine the victim’s identity.” State police encouraged the public to contact them with tips related to the crime.
On Wednesday afternoon, hunters discovered the body of a 23-year-old Barre woman in a remote area of the town of Washington. On Friday, police identified the woman as Tanairy “Tanya” Velazquez Estrada, whose mother reported her missing to police in Fitchburg, Massachusetts on the same day her body was discovered. Police said the cause and manner of death was pending but it was also labeled suspicious.
Also on Wednesday, the bodies of two Massachusetts men who were recently reported missing were discovered in a remote area in Eden. Autopsies found that Jahim Solomon and Eric White, both 21, had died of gunshot wounds and their deaths were ruled homicides, state police said.
On Oct. 16, 27-year-old Gunnar Watson was shot and killed at his home in Wheelock. Police have released few details about the death. Watson was a member of the Vermont National Guard since 2020, according to WCAX.
On Oct. 14, a 27-year-old man was shot and killed in Newport Town. Wilmer Rodriguez, 27, of Hartford, Connecticut, died from multiple gunshot wounds and his death was ruled a homicide, state police reported.
On Oct. 5, Honoree Fleming, a highly regarded retired college dean, was shot to death while walking on a rail trail near her home, just a short distance from the Vermont State University campus. Police released a sketch of a “person of interest“ in the case.
Birmingham said the investigations into all seven deaths remain very active, with some expected to be resolved sooner than others. But the demands of so many investigations at once, often requiring detailed forensic work, are testing the limits of his agency, he said.
“We are being challenged on the resource side of the house,” he said. “Without question it is taking a toll on our resources.”
Birmingham said state police are receiving help from federal agencies. The state police Major Crime Unit, which includes detectives, a technology unit, crime scene search teams and victim services, is being augmented by other units within state police to help in the investigations, he said.
“Everybody is assisting. It’s not just the criminal division,” he added. “We are making progress on a few of them. Some are just going slower. But I am confident we will make significant progress towards resolving them.”
A manhunt involving at least 100 law enforcement personnel was underway in Maine early Thursday morning in the wake of mass shootings in Lewiston that left at least 16 dead and dozens wounded.
Details continue to remain fluid. A news conference is scheduled for 10:30 a.m.
Here’s what we know as of 7:30 a.m.:
The Associated Press reported there were 16 deaths. But earlier, Androscoggin County Sheriff Eric Samson put the figure at as many as 22 people died.
State Police have identified 40-year-old Robert R. Card II as a person of interest in the shootings that rocked the city of Lewiston Wednesday night. The Bangor Daily News was the first to report the identity.
Card, a resident of Bowdoin, is a firearms instructor trained by the military, according to a police bulletin viewed by the Associated Press, and was committed to a mental health facility for two weeks this past summer.
“The document also said Card had reported hearing voices and had threatened to carry out a shooting at the military training base in Saco, Maine,” the AP reported.
The Lewiston Sun Journal reported that police, fire and rescue personnel descended on Sparetime Recreation, which was recently renamed Just-In-Time Recreation, on Mollison Way about 7:15 p.m. during a youth bowling night.
Shortly afterward, reports came in that there was another shooting four miles away at Schemengees Bar & Grille on Lincoln Street.
Seven deaths were reported at Sparetime Recreation bowling alley, and an unconfirmed number at Schemengees Bar & Grille Restaurant, the Bangor Daily News reported.
It appears to be the worst mass shooting in Maine history. The Associated Press reported that the shooting was the country’s 36th mass killing this year. The AP and USA Today maintains a database with Northeastern University. At least 188 people have died in those killings, which are defined as incidents in which four or more people have died within a 24-hour period, not including the killer — the same definition used by the FBI.
A lockdown has been called across Androscoggin County, with police asking people to shelter in place, lock their doors and stay inside late Wednesday evening. People are asked to stay off the streets so police can defuse the situation.
Authorities in Lisbon and Bowdoin also issued shelter in place orders.
A vehicle of interest was located in Lisbon Wednesday night, according to a notice distributed to The Maine Monitor, and law enforcement is asking Lisbon residents to shelter in place as authorities work in the area to locate Card.
Those who notice anything suspicious are asked to call 911.
In Auburn, Maine Monitor reporter Emily Bader reported that Mayor Jason Levesque said that at least 40-50 people were reunified with their worried loved ones at Auburn Middle School shortly after midnight Thursday. They had been brought over by a city bus after giving statements to police. More people were likely to be brought to the school as the night went on.
“At this point, there is a significant amount of shock going on with people that were actually witnesses…,’’ Levesque said. “Obviously when I was bringing people in that were looking for their loved ones, there is fear, there is panic, there’s worry. Understandable.’’
“But the people that were actually there tonight, it was what I didn’t hear. It’s shock. It’s hard for me to explain,’’ Levesque said. “I just want people to home and hold their families.’’
One man told the Monitor that his adult daughter had started her first night at a bowling league at Sparetime Recreation. He said his daughter was next to the shooting suspect at the bowling alley when he burst in. She bolted out of the bowling alley and into the nearby woods.
“I have four daughters and she’s the toughest but this destroyed her,’’ the man said.
Melinda Small, the owner of Legends Sports Bar and Grill, told the Associated Press that her staff immediately locked their doors and moved all 25 customers and employees away from the doors after a customer reported hearing about the shooting at the bowling alley less than a quarter-mile away around 7 p.m.
“I am honestly in a state of shock. I am blessed that my team responded quickly and everyone is safe,” Small told The Associated Press. “But the same time, my heart is broken for this area and for what everyone is dealing with. I just feel numb.”
Lewiston Mayor Carl Sheline, in a post on Facebook, said “I am heartbroken for our city and for our people. Lewiston is known for our strength and our grit and we will need both in the days to come.”
This story will be updated as more information becomes available.
Statements and reaction to the shootings:
Central Maine Medical Center: “Central Maine Medical Center is reacting to a mass casualty, mass shooter event.”
Maine Medical Center: “Maine Medical Center has alerted on-call staff and created critical care and operating room capacity in anticipation of potential patient transports coming from the Lewiston shooting this evening. At this time, MMC can confirm it will receive one patient transport from Central Maine Medical Center. Other MaineHealth facilities are also standing by and preparing to provide care.”
White House: “The President spoke by phone individually to Maine Governor Janet Mills, Senators Angus King and Susan Collins, and Congressman Jared Golden about the shooting in Lewiston, Maine and offered full federal support in the wake of this horrific attack.”
Gov. Janet Mills: “I am aware of and have been briefed on the active shooter situation in Lewiston. I urge all people in the area to follow the direction of State and local enforcement. I will to continue to monitor the situation and remain in close contact with public safety officials.”
U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland: “The Attorney General has been briefed and will continue to closely monitor the situation. Federal law enforcement agencies are assisting our state and local law enforcement partners in Lewiston, Maine.”
Sen. Susan Collins: “As our state mourns this horrific mass shooting, we appreciate the support we’ve received from across the country, including the call I received from President Biden offering assistance.”
Sen. Angus King: “Senator King is deeply sad for the city of Lewiston and all those worried about their family, friends and neighbors. He’s receiving regular updates, awaits further details from local authorities, and will be headed directly home to Maine once the Senate’s final vote is held tomorrow afternoon. Given the shelter in place currently underway, he asks all in Androscoggin County to allow first responders to address the threat, stay indoors, and report any suspicious behavior to the local authorities.” (Later): “President Biden just reached out to Senator King directly and offered any federal assistance he can provide to help the people of Maine. Senator King expressed his deep appreciation to the President for the outreach and support. Given the horrific nature of the events in Maine, Senator King will now be headed to Maine on one of the first flights available — he wants to be home to support Lewiston in any way he can.”
Rep. Jared Golden: “Like all Mainers, I’m horrified by the events in Lewiston tonight. This is my hometown. Right now, all of us are looking to local law enforcement as they gain control of the situation and gather information. Our hearts break for those who are affected and we encourage everyone to follow the directions of the authorities as they conduct their work.”
Rep. Chellie Pingree: “I am closely monitoring the reports of mass shootings in Lewiston. The unfolding violence is shocking and I am holding the affected communities in my prayers.”
Tribe bans Dupree educators from reservation over child abuse allegations
Man gets two years in prison for using Covid-19 relief funds to start alpaca farm in Vermont
A former Massachusetts pizzeria owner has been sentenced to two years in federal prison for fraudulently using more than $600,000 in pandemic relief loans for personal expenditures, including founding an alpaca farm in Vermont.
Dana L. McIntyre, 59, now living in Grafton, Vermont, and previously of Beverly and Essex, Massachusetts, was sentenced Wednesday in U.S. District Court in Boston.
Judge Denise J. Casper ordered McIntyre to serve two years in prison and three years of supervised release, according to a press release from the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Massachusetts. The judge also ordered McIntyre to pay $679,156 in restitution.
McIntyre’s attorney argued for a lesser sentence of one year, court records show. He had earlier pleaded guilty in April to four counts of wire fraud and three counts of money laundering.
According to federal prosecutors, in March 2020, at the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, McIntyre used the names of two of his adult children to file false applications to the U.S. Small Business Administration for loans for businesses that did not exist.
Prosecutors also charged McIntyre with misrepresenting information about a pizza shop he owned in Beverly, Massachusetts, in a federal Paycheck Protection Program loan application in April 2020, claiming to have almost 50 employees when there were actually fewer than 10.
The Paycheck Protection Program was created by Congress to help businesses retain employees during the pandemic.
Charging documents stated that McIntyre sold the Rasta Pasta Pizzeria after receiving the $660,000 loan. He then used the money to buy the farm in Vermont and eight alpacas, the court records show.
McIntyre also used the funds for other personal expenses, including buying two vehicles and airtime for a radio show focused on cryptocurrency, according to court documents.
Attempts to contact McIntyre by phone and email on Thursday were not successful.
The New York Times, in a story published Wednesday, reported that McIntyre opened the Houghtonville Farm in 2021, with its website stating that it offered people the chance to hand-feed and stroll with the animals at the property.
McIntyre told the New York Times that when he first bought the property he did not intend to turn it into a farm, saying he bought two alpacas as “lawn ornaments” but decided after the animals attracted attention to start up a business.
“It wasn’t this mastermind program to steal money from the government and go up and start this alpaca farm,” he told the New York Times. “No, it unfolded and it took on its own life form.”
A Black Man Was Elected Mayor in Rural Alabama, but the White Town Leaders Won’t Let Him Serve
NEWBERN, Ala. — There’s a power struggle in Newbern, Alabama, and the rural town’s first Black mayor is at war with the previous administration who he says locked him out of Town Hall. After years of racist harassment and intimidation, Patrick Braxton is fed up, and in a federal civil rights lawsuit he is accusing […]
Grabbing a female officer’s breast during a bullet-proof vest fitting. Voicing public opinions about breastfeeding at work. Asking an officer about her sex life.
These accusations led to the resignation in 2019 of former Wausau Police Lt. Andrew Hartwig after an internal investigation found he violated department policy regarding sexual harassment.
Hartwig, a lieutenant who supervised others, denied groping the officer, and some of the other accusations, but admitted to using language and topics that violated department policy, according to the investigation. He did not respond to a message seeking comment.
Hartwig began working for the Wausau Police Department in 2007. He was promoted to patrol lieutenant in April 2016. The allegations were made after the promotion, Wausau Police Department Chief Benjamin Bliven wrote in an email to The Badger Project on Wednesday.
Due to the accusations, Hartwig was placed on administrative leave, and later “voluntarily” resigned from the police department, according to the resignation agreement. He agreed not to sue the city, and he received a final payout of nearly $12,000, most of which was unused vacation time and administrative paid leave, according to City of Wausau Human Resources Director James Henderson.
After Hartwig’s resignation, Bliven said he “advised all supervisors to train on the harassment policy” and met with employees to discuss the policy and ways an employee can make a complaint if there is harassment in the workplace. “The best way we can make sure employees feel safe at work is to take these types of complaints seriously and investigate them thoroughly,” Bliven said.
Hartwig repeatedly denied the sexual misconduct allegations during the investigation. “I did not sexually advance, request ‘any sexual favors or other verbal, visual or physical conduct of a sexual nature,’ ” he said. “I consider anybody [at the police department] like brothers and sisters.”
A female officer who is redacted in the investigation document said Hartwig “grabbed her right breast and briefly squeezed it” when assisting her with fastening the Velcro straps on her vest. He “kind of laughed about it” and did not discuss the incident, she said. For fear that Hartwig may lose his career, she said she did not report the incident to the police department.
However, his employment should have been terminated, she said, adding “if it was not me and happened to someone else, then bring the hammer, because it is totally unacceptable.”
Even if the name were unredacted, the Badger Project does not identify the victims of sexual assault.
Hartwig said he could not recall the time he assisted the female officer with her vest. But calling himself “the nicest guy in the world,” he said he would have helped anyone with their vest if asked. He denied the allegation and said he “would have immediately apologized and reported the accident to [his] supervisor” if he thought he had touched her breast.
During the investigation, a different female officer, who is also redacted in the investigation, said Hartwig sexually harassed her by making sexual comments toward her daily. According to the officer, the comments included telling her “how good [her] makeup looked,” discussing with her his frustration with his sex life, and making inappropriate comments about her personal life with her partner. In the investigation, she described those comments as “disgusting” and “creepy.”
The female officer also shared with the investigation that she felt she was treated “differently” and “more favorably” than male officers. She said the tone of his voice when speaking to her made her “uncomfortable.” One of the witnesses said during the investigation Hartwig spoke “the way an adult male would talk to a young girl, as in a fatherly way” when the female officer called in sick.
The female officer said she did not tell Hartwig to stop his behavior because “he was [her] supervisor.”
Stating that Hartwig and the female officer had “a working relationship,” he denied these accusations. “I take pride in treating everyone fair and equal,” he said.
In addition, other employees at the police department shared during the internal investigation that Hartwig often initiated and was part of sexual conversations. According to the witnesses, those conversations included topics of losing virginity, breastfeeding – in which he allegedly said women should not breastfeed in public because it is “very sexual” and “gets guys thinking” – and females in tight clothes. In regard to these conversations, he said “guys will be guys.” Hartwig acknowledged this behavior, saying, “I would consider [the conversations] unprofessional and in violation of [the Wausau Police Department’s] Standards of Conduct Policy.”
When The Badger Project requested the internal investigation records that described Hartwig’s sexual misconduct allegations, the Wausau Police Department redacted large swaths of the text. After The Badger Project won the open records lawsuit against the department. Marathon County Circuit Court Judge Suzanne O’Neill wrote in the decision, “law enforcement officers, like all public employees, should expect some level of public scrutiny.”
The redactions were necessary to protect the victims and Wausau’s “right and opportunity to retain competent law enforcement personnel” as well as “to avoid a loss of morale” within the police department, Wausau City Attorney Anne Jacobson said.
The judge agreed that the victim and witness identities could still be kept confidential while allowing more of the investigation’s details to be public.
In 2020, Hartwig went to work for the Cadott Police Department as a law enforcement officer, but left in 2021 to work full-time in construction, according to Cadott Police Chief Louis Eslinger. Hartwig now works as a tattoo artist in Wausau.
How Danville has drastically reduced its crime rate since 2016
In 2016, 336 violent crimes were reported in Danville.
That year saw 17 homicides, 76 robberies, 211 aggravated assaults.
The city of 40,000 had the highest homicide rate per capita in the state that year. Property crimes, too, had reached a concerning level: 1,537 cases in that year alone.
But since then, the city has seen a drastic reduction in crime across the board.
A primary reason, according to local leaders: heightened collaboration among the city, the community and the police.
A new policing model has been implemented. Programming has been created for at-risk youth. The city has partnered with other localities and organizations to benefit from their expertise.
“Collaboration is the new currency,” said Robert David, the city’s youth and gang violence prevention coordinator.
“A lot of the success has to do with agencies working together. City council, law enforcement, community collaboration. And if you don’t work with the individuals living in the communities, you have no influence.”
A new policing model, and an apology
By 2018, crime in Danville hadn’t improved much. But that was part of the reason Scott Booth was attracted to the city. He wanted to work somewhere that provided a challenge, he said.
Booth became police chief that year, after a brief stint with the federal government and almost 20 years with the Richmond Police Department before that. Since coming to Danville, he has been working with city government and community members to lower the crime rate.
“[In 2018], Danville and the police department had no community policing model,” Booth said. “There were some things that we really needed to do. One of those was build a robust community policing model, and the other was focus on crime.”
A community policing model is a set of strategies to address conditions that lead to crime through partnership and problem-solving, according to the U.S. Department of Justice.
Danville has seen a 52% average annual reduction in violent crime since the policing model was implemented, according to data from the police department. From 2021 to 2022 alone, violent crime decreased by 21%.
In 2022, the city saw the lowest number of reported burglaries since data tracking began in 1985, with 76 total. It was the fourth year in a row that a new low had been set.
Homicides also decreased — to seven in 2022, down from 17 in 2016, a number that was “astronomical,” according to David Kennedy, a professor of criminal justice at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York.
“That’s a higher rate than Chicago, which is not unheard of for smaller jurisdictions,” Kennedy said. “They don’t get the attention that Chicago does, but on a per-capita basis, you can find relatively small places that have shockingly high homicide rates.”
Not only has the crime rate itself decreased in Danville, but the case clearance rate has increased. Cleared crimes are those that have been solved, or “cleared,” by arrests.
Of the 260 burglaries in 2016, only 38 were cleared. In 2022, 56 out of 76 burglaries were cleared.
In fact, the Danville police department has exceeded the FBI’s national clearance averages since the policing model’s implementation in 2019.
About 71% of homicides in Danville were cleared between 2019 and 2022, which is 17 percentage points higher than the FBI’s national clearance rate of about 54%.
This drastic reduction in crime wasn’t achieved by simply increasing police activity, Booth said.
“I truly believe that you can’t arrest a problem away when it comes to crime,” Booth said. “I don’t believe in over-policing neighborhoods. I don’t believe in just throwing officers out into entire neighborhoods and stopping everything that moves.”
Booth called that an “old way” of policing, saying that he believes in being more strategic.
The police department began to home in on violent offenders, Booth said, adding that a small percentage of people usually commit the majority of violent acts in any given community.
So the department focused on chronic violent offenders who had already been identified, as well as places in the city that were producing the highest numbers of criminal instances.
To do this, the Danville Police Department partnered with the U.S. attorney’s office in Charlottesville in 2018 to begin implementing a program called Project Safe Neighborhoods.
The goal was to identify violent offenders using data to create a comprehensive database of the most criminally active and violent people in Danville, said Maj. David Whitley, the department’s assistant chief of services.
The data came from criminal investigations, charges, street gang participation, violent crime convictions and other legally sourced information, he said.
“Each element was used in an objective scoring system to identify the most violent and active individuals committing crimes of violence,” Whitley said.
Once these people and places were identified, the police department and city government could address “systemic and societal challenges” that lead to crime in these areas, like “poverty, lack of resources, and family structure or lack thereof,” Whitley said.
At the same time, the department made an increased effort to build rapport and trust with the community, said Matt Bell, the police department’s public relations specialist.
Rebuilding the relationship was critical, Booth said.
Many residents harbored resentment for and distrust of the police, feelings that sometimes went back decades, to Bloody Monday, a series of attacks and arrests by Danville police in June 1963, during a civil rights protest.
Police attacked nonviolent protesters with clubs and fire hoses, injuring 47 and arresting 60, according to a historic marker outside the Danville courthouse.
The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., the U.S. Department of Justice and national media outlets condemned the actions of the police and court system in Danville.
“That was a community trauma,” Booth said. “I’ve worked in larger cities, and I never could remember one incident really having a hold on a city like Bloody Monday did in Danville.”
While researching the event, Booth said he found that it was “a real deterrent” to rebuilding a relationship between the community and the police department. It was the reason many residents thought crime would never improve, he said.
This is textbook, said Kennedy.
“Homicide and gun violence are an American problem, and almost the overwhelming preponderance of that violence is felt by and occurs in historically damaged communities of color,” he said.
And a good relationship between a community and its police department is absolutely critical in remedying this, Kennedy said.
If the relationship is solid, then “when people are contemplating violence, they should understand that their own community rejects it, that they don’t want it to happen,” he said. “Then it’s not just the police saying it shouldn’t happen, but the community itself saying it shouldn’t happen. That’s way more powerful.”
And if there is a crime, the good relationship between the community and law enforcement can address that.
“There’s a community expectation that there will be accountability if violence occurs,” Kennedy said.
A step toward this good relationship is acknowledgement of any historical division, he said; other police outreach efforts will seem superficial without it.
“If you have historical division between the community and the police that goes back to police violence against community members in the civil rights struggle, and everybody knows it, and nobody’s ever acknowledged it or done anything about it, then sending police officers to talk to kids in schools or having community meetings or having barbecues or having basketball leagues or something like that, not only is that a shallow perspective, it’s insulting,” Kennedy said.
“Because it is the authority saying to the community, ‘We’re going to pretend that this never happened and we expect you to like us and work with us anyway.’”
In 2019, the Danville Police Department offered a public apology for police actions during the summer of 1963.
“I think for the community, it did speak that we’re willing to take steps in the right direction,” Booth said.
City programming for at-risk youth
Another effort to decrease crime was increased collaboration between the police department and the city government.
Local officials and law enforcement had a common goal of reducing crime, so working together was in everyone’s best interest, said David, the city’s youth and gang violence prevention coordinator.
David has been doing this kind of work for the better part of four decades, he said, starting when he volunteered at an alternative school in California. In 2017, when Danville was in the throes of high crime, the city created his position.
He runs a program called Project Imagine, which is targeted toward at-risk and gang-affiliated youth.
When the program first started in 2018, it involved a nine-week work readiness program to provide paid work experience and mentoring. Now, it’s more focused on life skills and support.
It takes a holistic approach, he said, and helps not only the youth but their families.
There’s a big focus on increasing stability in the lives of the young people they work with, David said, because lack of stability is often the impetus for an individual’s involvement with crime.
“If you’re 16 years old and you have a child, and that child is hungry, and you live with a parent and don’t have your basic needs, it’s hard to go to school,” he said. “But if we can create a level of stability in a youth’s life, they can move forward. That seemingly has nothing to do with gang violence or crime, but it does.”
Project Imagine works with local organizations and businesses to create job opportunities. But it also can help with problems at home, like getting a new refrigerator or fixing a broken air conditioner.
“We work with every aspect of the family, the girlfriends, the baby mamas, everybody,” David said.
Since it began, Project Imagine has graduated about 100 people.
An outreach worker continues to mentor each graduate for at least a year. And again, collaboration and partnership with the police department plays a role.
Sometimes instead of charging a young person, David said, police will refer them to Project Imagine.
He got emotional talking about the graduation ceremony at the end of each Project Imagine course.
“I cry almost every graduation, no lie,” he said. “I get teary-eyed because, like I tell them, you really didn’t have to be here. And I thank them for their time, I thank their parents for allowing them to be there. We applaud them for making that decision to change their lives.”
David said the work amplifies local voices that otherwise might go unnoticed.
“There was a population of people whose voices weren’t being heard,” he said. “All I did was turn on the mic.”
Project Imagine didn’t get formal funding until 2020. Before that, David said he tapped into community resources. There was some existing money in the city for youth jobs, he said, and he also built relationships with local business owners.
In 2020, Project Imagine got a grant from the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, part of the U.S. Department of Justice, and David used it to hire outreach workers.
The police department, too, has created programming to engage youth and community members. One event series in particular, called Pass the Perspective, invites kids to get an inside look at police work.
The new police department building, which opened last year, is a good place to hold events and community meetings, Booth said. Outreach has played an important role in bolstering trust in the police department.
“We started engaging the community with community walks, we built programs like our youth police academy and Pass the Perspective,” Booth said. “Anything that we can do to open our doors and let the community in.”
The police department also began to put community members on its interview panels for police hires and promotions, as well as on a review board for use-of-force cases, Booth said.
Targeting gangs by empowering communities
Between 2016 and 2018, the majority of Danville’s 484 aggravated assaults and 41 homicides had direct ties to street gangs, Whitley said.
“In almost every community, gang participation is an issue due to systemic and societal challenges such as poverty, lack of resources and family structure, or lack thereof,” he said. “Danville has these challenges.”
Around 2017, Danville began implementing a comprehensive gang model, a program with some of the same strategies and goals as Project Safe Neighborhoods.
Once criminally active individuals and places are identified through Project Safe Neighborhoods methods, a community can use its comprehensive gang model to reduce or prevent youth gang violence.
It takes a multifaceted approach to address these issues, Whitley said.
“Criminal street gang activity still exists, but we have become much better at addressing the issues before violence occurs and stemming further violence after an incident has occurred,” he said.
The model that Danville employed was developed by social researcher Irving Spergel and tested by the DOJ’s Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, which now houses the National Gang Center.
The model has several components, said Sean Baldwin, a senior research associate at the Institute for Intergovernmental Research, which contracts with the National Gang Center.
It focuses on empowering communities that are plagued by violence and providing opportunities for their youth. It seeks to move youth away from gang violence — and to provide close supervision of at-risk kids.
And it requires organizational change, he said.
“We’ve found, with this model being developed over decades, that a lot of times it’s not enough to have a great program,” he said. “You’ve got to have a program that’s accessible and that is delivered with equity so that the people that need it most can get it.”
Collaboration and a sustained effort
In 2020 and 2021, 100% of homicides were cleared by the Danville Police Department. And between 2018 and 2022, seven previous cold cases were solved.
Between 2016 and 2018, before Danville implemented its new policing model, the city saw 41 homicides, with an average of about 13 per year. From 2019 to 2022, after the model was launched, there were 20 homicides, or an average of about six per year.
Baldwin has worked with both Booth and David in Danville’s implementation of the comprehensive gang model, and he said he thinks the city “has got a good hold on the problem.”
Danville has taken a long-term approach to many initiatives, specifically economic development and revitalization. And a long-term strategy is a game-changer when it comes to crime, too, Baldwin said.
“These types of strategies fail when they’re not sustained over time,” he said. “A community might have some early success until other priorities come up.”
Plus, many of the problems that Danville has been working to solve are intertwined. When there’s success in one area, it can help bring about success in another.
Education and poverty influence a city’s crime rate, for example, Baldwin said.
“Some of the risk factors for youth joining gangs include poverty, kids growing up in neighborhoods that have high rates of violence, and academic performance. Even how a child is doing in school can affect that,” he said. “So, anything that a community can do to improve economic and educational conditions for their residents … can reduce or eliminate those risk factors.”
Baldwin said he’s been to Danville several times, and he was a police chief in a community that had similar economic hardships.
“It is impressive, the sort of holistic approach that Danville seems to be taking to address not only the violence, but those things that may be leading, either directly or indirectly, to the risk factors,” he said.
One overarching thing that Danville has done well is focus on collaboration, Baldwin said. The communities that see the most success with crime reduction are those that focus on partnerships, he said.
“Regardless of how perfect or imperfect a model may be in implementation, we find that the most success comes from those partnerships,” he said. “It would be difficult for me to point out another community where the relationship between the police chief and the director of intervention and prevention is so strong.”
In 2020, in the wake of George Floyd’s murder and the deaths of other Black Americans at police hands, Booth and David collaborated to write a book expressing their two distinct perspectives with a central message.
“Bigger than Black and Blue: Candid conversations about race, equity, and community collaboration” was released in December 2020 and can be found on Amazon.
Both Booth and David have been recognized for their efforts to reduce crime.
In February, David was named among the Top 100 Influencers in Local Government by a nonprofit called Engaging Local Government Leaders. And in April 2022, Booth received the Excellence in Virginia Award for Innovation in Government from Virginia Commonwealth University’s L. Douglas Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs.
But both say there’s still work to be done to further decrease crime.
“Everything that we’ve done, we’re going to keep doing,” Booth said. “We don’t let up on anything.”
The change since 2018 is something that Booth said he’s very proud of. And Baldwin said that Danville can be a model to other communities that are also looking to lower crime.
“This really is an incredible story of success for Danville,” Baldwin said.