Top Ten News Stories of 2005

Top Ten News Stories of 2005

1. Outrage Builds Over Property Taxes

In May, the City Council passed a $563 million budget that increased spending by 6 percent — despite a citizen-led campaign to limit the spending increase to 3 percent. Anger at the City Council’s decision centered on property tax bills, with the average bill increasing 12 percent to $4,043.

“I realize that this is not the budget that everybody had hoped for,” said Vice Mayor Del Pepper when the final budget passed on May 2. “But we’re putting everybody on notice that we will have a leaner, meaner machine next year.”

Joe Fischer, who supported the 3 percent growth campaign, was in the council chamber when the council voted for the increase. He was wearing a red “3 percent” sticker that became commonplace at City Hall during the battle over the budget. Fischer was one of many residents disappointed by the council’s vote to increase the average property tax bill by $418.

“They voted tonight,” he said. “But we get to vote next spring.”

The city’s elections — when all elected city officials are up for reelection — are scheduled for eight days after the City Council is scheduled to adopt the budget for fiscal year 2007.

2. David Englin is Elected to the Houe of Delgates

When David Englin announced his candidacy to replace retiring Del. Marian Van Landingham (D-45), many said that he didn’t have a chance. After leaving the Air Force, he moved to Del Ray in June of 2003 — just 18 months before launching his campaign in a crowded Democratic primary with six candidates, some with decades of experience in local politics.

“Compared to the other folks, I was the new guy,” he said this month. “I think we had a team that worked hard, and it was the force multiplier of 300 volunteers working their tails off that made it work.”

In January 2005, the Englin team set a goal of identifying 2,040 supporters before the election. Englin received 2,092 votes — surpassing his initial goal, and winning the election by a margin of 366 votes. His campaign raised $102,793, spending about $50 for each vote in the primary. The November general election brought an easy victory, with Englin taking 68 percent of the vote against Republican challenger Chris Gregerson.

Englin will be sworn into office when General Assembly session convenes on Jan. 11. One of his major goals is to advocate for Virginia’s participation in the I-SaveRX initiative, a program that allows residents to take advantage of lower prescription drug prices offered in Canada, Ireland and the United Kingdom.

3. Dana Lawhorne Elected Sheriff

Police Detective Dana Lawhorne, a familiar face to many residents, won a close race against former Vice Mayor Bill Cleveland in November. Lawhorne graduated from T.C. Williams High School in 1976, becoming a police officer soon after. In 1986, he became a detective with the department, specializing in hostage negotiations. His law-enforcement background was an asset during the campaign.

“The sheriff’s office needs efficient and effective leadership management,” Lawhorne said shortly after the election. “I want to establish a better working relationship with the Police Department.”

One of Lawhorne’s major goals is to fix the overcrowding problem at the Alexandria Detention Center, which houses high-profile prisoners such as suspected terrorist Zacharias Moussaoui and American Taliban John Walker Lindh. Lawhorne wants to expand the jail into the former headquarters of the police department and increase security for the facility.

4. Old Town Goes Wireless

In August, the City of Alexandria launched the region’s first free, outdoor, wireless Internet zone, known as “Wireless Alexandria.” The service allows any user with a wireless device — such as a laptop computer or personal digital assistant — to access the Internet at no charge. It will also allow city workers to test the feasibility of using wireless devices for municipal operations.

“This is really a win-win situation,” said Alexandria Mayor Bill Euille at the time. “Rarely do we have the opportunity to let the public use the same equipment we will be testing for government use.”

The coverage area is centered along the King Street corridor in Old Town between Washington Street and the waterfront, including Market Square and the City Marina. The initial cost of the hardware for the service was about $14,000, with an ongoing monthly cost of $650 for Internet bandwidth. The project was funded by Alexandria’s Information Technology Plan, which is part of the city’s capital improvement program.

5. Police Kill Del Ray Man

On April 27, Lewis Barber was killed by Alexandria police officers in the front yard of his Del Ray home. Barber’s death happened after a tense, 20-hour standoff that was initiated when he kidnapped his 9-year-old son at gunpoint from the Rock-It-Grill on King Street.

Tensions between Barber and his estranged wife erupted after she filed a protective order against him and left with the couple’s 9-year-old son. He retaliated by kidnapping the boy and bringing him to Barber’s Wyatt Street house. There, hostage negotiators tried to reason with Barber using a sound system and a robot. Eventually, Barber emerged from the house with a gun, and two police officers shot him.

A two-month investigation by Commonwealth's Attorney S. Randolph Sengel determined that Lewis Barber's death was a “justifiable homicide.” It explained how hostage negotiators devised a plan to lure Barber into the open and stun him with a non-lethal weapon — a plan that went wrong and left Barber dead. According to Sengel’s report, Barber never pointed the gun at police officers.

"Barber had already placed the child at great risk by his own conduct, which had prompted the armed standoff with police," Sengel wrote in the report. "To have allowed Barber to retreat into his home while wounded, intoxicated, probably suicidal and certainly able to re-arm himself, and permit him to still be in control of his son whom he feared losing, would have been reckless by any standard."

When the Police Department presented the result of its internal investigation to the city’s Human Rights Commission, the videotape was not presented as evidence. This prompted one member of the commission to vote against accepting the report.

“It led me to wonder if the shooting of Mr. Barber was justified,” said Commissioner Rodney Salines after the November hearing. “If the video proved their case, they should have presented it to the Human Rights Commission.”

The Federal Bureau of Investigations declined to take action on the matter, ending all official inquiries into the matter. But Barber’s friends still want an investigation.

“The fact that the Justice Department elected to not review Lew’s case is a moot point as far as I’m concerned because it would not take the place of a truly independent review,” said Tom Bijack, Barber's friend of 15 years. “I want to get closure to this tragedy, but I also want an unbiased, conflict-of-interest free look at the facts — and that hasn’t happened yet.”

6. Five Murders

The year’s first murder happened on March 8 in the 700 block of North Fayette Street, when Corey “C Bear” Hargrow, 21, was shot several times. At the funeral, Hargrow’s longtime friend Eric Jones, now 26, was arrested and charged with the murder. Jones’ first trial ended in a hung jury when one juror held out, saying that the commonwealth had not presented evidence of guilt. A second jury found Jones guilty of second-degree murder, recommending 13 years imprisonment.

The second murder happened on May 28, when bicyclist Mark Creasy, 48, was strangled by a man who later ran naked across the George Washington Memorial Parkway and bit a police officer. In November, Andre Dwayne Suggs pleaded guilty to second-degree murder. His sentencing is scheduled for February in United States Federal Court. The murder, which happened on federal property, is not counted in city homicide statistics.

On Sept. 24 in the 100 block of East Mason, Ronnie “Boo Boo” Lee, 18, was shot to death during a botched robbery attempt. Hours after the murder, Alexandria Police officers arrested Javon Burrows-Garvin, 23. He is currently awaiting trial.

The fourth murder happened on Dec. 7 in the 400 block of North Patrick Street, when David Murphy, 37, was shot while working on his truck. The incident happened during rush hour on one of Alexandria’s busiest streets, and the suspect fled on foot. No arrest has yet been made in the case.

David Murphy was the brother of Greg Murphy, who was indicted in 2000 for the murder of an 8-year-old boy in Del Ray. Greg Murphy has been found incompetent to stand trial, and police suspect that a David Murphy may have been targeted.

“On its face, it does not appear that it was a random act of violence,” said Capt. William Johnson, the department’s liaison to the Inner City neighborhood.

On Dec. 27, Lawrence Sims was the area's fifth murder victim. Sims, 22, was shot to death in the 800 block of Montgomery Street. He was transported to the Inova Alexandria Hospital, where he was pronounced dead a short time later. There is no suspect description, and police have yet to determine a motive for the murder.

7. City Helps Katrina Victims

In the days after the Hurricane Katrina, the City of Alexandria sent firemen, police officers and city workers to assist in the rescue and recovery operation. Now, months after the initial devastation, the city still has several employees working in the Gulf Cost region.

A team of eight police officers traveled to Picayune, Miss., to provide patrol service for the city, which was a destination for many of the evacuees. Two teams of 23 firefighters traveled to Hancock County, Miss., and Harrison County, Miss., to help during the humanitarian efforts there.

The New Orleans Emergency Management Center has several residents helping operations run smoothly, including two firefighters, two Information Technology professionals and one Parks and Recreation employee. Capt. John Crawford, commander of the Alexandria Police Department’s Public Information Office, set up a Joint Information Center to coordinate media relations in New Orleans. In November, City Councilman Ludwig Gaines presented a proclamation honoring those employees who helped during the crisis.

“I am very proud to offer a proclamation honoring those city employees — our first responders — who stepped up to the table and volunteered,” Gaines said. “Each and every member of our community is very proud of you.”

All over town, lemonade stands and car washes raised funds to send to the Gulf Coast. On Sept. 17, more than 3,000 people participated in the Gulf Coast Relief 5K Run Walk, which raised $114,000 for the Red Cross.

8. Housing Bubble?

The real estate market may be slowing. At the City Council’s October retreat, assistant city manger Mark Jinks questioned whether Alexandria’s housing market is experiencing a bubble, tiny bubbles or — as Alan Greenspan said this year — “froth.”

Jinks said that unemployment numbers are low, and the Washington area has experienced a 3-percent growth in payroll employment in the past year. He pointed out that the vacancy rate in Alexandria was lower than the national average, creating a strong economy in the city that has been pushing up housing prices.

“Markets that have been adding jobs have seen a pushup in housing prices,” he said, comparing the Washington market to Los Angeles and Phoenix. “But this year will see smaller growth.”

Jinks said that the city now has a five-year supply of housing in the market pipeline, with 18,013 apartments and 47,075 condominiums cued up. He said that the past few years have seen a shift in the city — with new condominiums now outnumbering new apartments. As supply catches up to demand, Jinks estimated that the housing market would cool.

“I think you’ll see a lot of these condo conversions becoming rental properties,” he said.

9. 14 of 16 Schools are Accredited.

This year, the Virginia Department of Education granted full accreditation to 14 of the Alexandria’s 16 schools — that’s two more schools than last year, when the commonwealth accredited 12 schools. Superintendent Rebecca Perry credited the improvement to the dedication of teachers, parents and students.

“We have made significant improvements in the past four of five years,” said Perry when preliminary data was released in September. “Five years ago, only two of our schools were accredited. So this is a huge improvement.”

Maury Elementary School and Jefferson-Houston School for Arts and Academics are the two schools that are not fully accredited by the commonwealth. On federal No Child Left Behind standards, which gauge “adequate yearly progress,” six schools did not make the cut: Jefferson-Houston, T.C. Williams High School, Hammond Middle School, George Washington Middle School, James K. Polk Elementary School and Mount Vernon Community School.

10. Saying Goodbye

Mildred Fleming Councilor, 96, died Aug. 28. She was a long-time community activist and volunteer who was known for her work at the Nancy Flemming Dress Shop, her involvement in the local Republican Party and the nursery that she ran out of her Lee Street house in the 1930s and 1940s.

“She potty-trained half of Alexandria,” said daughter Joan Renner.

Jack Dahlinger, 75, died July 12. From 1965 to 1989, he was the band director at T.C. Williams High School, introducing generations of students to new forms of music. Dahlinger was a trumpet player, a lover of jazz and a talented teacher.

“He inaugurated the band pavilion at T.C. Williams when it opened in 1965,” said Tom Cunningham, a trumpet player from the class of 1970. “You can't open a drawer in that building without seeing his mark of distinction.”

Cooper Dawson, 96, died Oct. 13. He was a husband, father, Navy captain, underwriter, restaurateur, businessman, coach and director of Camp Alleghany for Girls in Lewisburg, W.Va. He was also the great-grandson of Confederate Gen. Samuel Cooper and the great-great-great grandson of George Mason of Gunston Hall.

“He ran Camp Alleghany with an iron fist,” said daughter-in-law Bonnie Dawson at the memorial service. “We can be sure that heaven will never be the same with him there.”

Rabbi Arnold Fink, 69, died March 28. He brought a human touch to Jewish life for generations at Beth El Hebrew Congregation on Seminary Road, serving as senior rabbi from 1969 to 2002. He was an 11th-generation rabbi.

“He loved to sing,” said Shirley Church, his secretary for 13 years. “Even if it was a bit off key, that didn't matter. He just kept singing.”

Alyce Gambal, 77, died Oct. 14. She was the former owner of Gallery Lafayette. She was also the first woman to sit on the board of St. Stephen’s School, which is now known as St. Stephen’s and St. Agnes’ School.

“She was an incredible photographer,” said Todd Healey, who bought the gallery from Gambal. “She loved art and frames and molding.”

Kathy Wilson, 54, died Sept. 1. She was the longtime director of the Abracadabra Preschool. In earlier years, she was a social science research analyst with the United States Department of Labor and chairwoman for the National Women’s Political Caucus, playing an influential role in the Senate confirmation of Sandra Day O’Connor and the vice presidential nomination of Geraldine Ferraro. Washingtonian magazine named her one of "Washington's Most Influential" people in 1985.

“She was a fantastic planner,” said Peter Chandler, admiring her determination to create a sensory integration playground at Abracadabra. “You don't get something like this without having a vision of what it could be. She was like that, and she knew what it would take to make something like this happen.”