Alexandria, VA

An Alexandria teenager was arrested on May 13 for illegal possession of a firearm and possession with the intent to distribute marijuana.

On May 13, Alexandria Police were called to the 300 block of Tancil Court in Old Town after receiving multiple drug complaints. Officers observed a group of known and unknown individuals “loitering in the area,” noted a search warrant affidavit.

One of the young men is a minor known to police, and police saw him with a group “repeatedly using his right elbow and forearm to tap his right hip,” according to the affidavit.

Police confiscated the firearm and a Ziploc bag containing “11 individually wrapped baggies of marijuana weighing 51.1 grams (1.8 ounces),” in addition to $150, a digital scale and an iPhone, according to a search warrant affidavit.

The minor told police that he was under 18 years of age, and admitted to “trading marijuana to an individual in exchange for the firearm,” according to the affidavit.

The incident occurred less than a mile from where a 17-year-old was shot in the back while playing basketball on the evening of March 31. That incident is still under investigation, and police believe it was a targeted attack.

Map via Google Maps

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Morning Notes

Noah Lyles Relieved Olympics Postponed — “It was a little relief to see that it’s been decided to postpone the Olympics because my first concern was that everybody would be healthy and everybody would have a fair place to compete.” [Running Magazine]

Former Medical Employees Plead Guilty to Running ‘Pill Mill’ — “Two women pleaded guilty yesterday [March 30] for their respective roles in helping run a “pill mill,” which led to the fraudulent dispensing of thousands of prescription opioid pills.” [DOJ]

Trader Joe’s in Old Town is Hiring — “At Trader Joe’s we are working diligently to support our communities and ensure our customers have access to food and necessary household staples during this time. To those who have found their hours limited or jobs placed on hold, we invite you to apply to join our Crew until your employer is able to welcome you back.” [Indeed]

‘The People’s Drug’ Makes Lunches For Industry Workers — “40 bag lunches – GONE! We’re doing our part to feed as many laid off industry folks that we can. Stay tuned for more info on how to grab a bag lunch in the coming days. Not posting this for a “thank you”…but more so to alert our industry fam in need! In the meantime – yes we’re open for curbside pick up and delivery via @UberEats.” [Facebook]

Scholarship Fund of Alexandria Gala Canceled — “The kids in Alexandria who come from families with financial need will feel the greatest economic impact from the COVID-19 crisis. Graduation and College are Coming. They need YOUR Support Now More than Ever!” [Facebook]

Free Parenting Therapy and Support Group Launches — “This is a free therapist-led group, but donations are graciously accepted for those volunteering their time to lead thoughtful discussion, provide support, and even some light-hearted distractions. 25% of all donations received will go to small businesses in need from the Alexandria community.” [Facebook]

Beverley Hills Residents Adorn Homes With Art — “Every Wednesday, neighbors decorate their windows, porches and front yards with artwork based around a specific theme. Then, throughout the day, kids and their parents can walk the neighborhood to admire the displays and hunt for hidden art.” [Alex Times]

Where/When Seniors Should Shop For Groceries — “Vulnerable customers should avoid shopping in person at all and make use of delivery services or volunteers when possible. If in-person shopping is necessary, customers and staff should stay six feet apart from each other, wash hands frequently, and disinfect shared surfaces like shopping cart handles.” [Zebra]

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As Alexandria grapples with the COVID-19 pandemic, the Commonwealth Attorney’s office is figuring out how to keep running the city’s Treatment Court.

The Treatment Court is an alternative to jail for individuals with substance abuse issues, and most participants have been to jail multiple times. There are currently eight participants in the court, which launched in August and usually meets every Thursday in the Alexandria Courthouse. But the building at 520 King Street is largely shut down now due to COVID-19.

“The program was just running fantastically until this hiccup,” Assistant Commonwealth Attorney David Lord, the Treatment Court coordinator, told ALXnow. “Ultimately we don’t know what it will mean for our participants, but we’ve provided the structure that if they are motivated will get them through it. They are all individually very motivated in their recovery.”

At the courthouse, all jury trials have stopped, multitudes of cases have been continued between 30 and 60 days, and the clerk’s office is doing business by appointment only.

“My understanding is that the number of people allowed in the courtroom is significantly reduced,” Commonwealth Attorney Bryan Porter said. “Inside courtrooms, provisions are being made to keep appropriate social distances. Hearings are going to be as brief as possible.”

Porter added, “The courts have significantly reduced active cases. They basically have continued multitudes of cases 30 to 60 days. There’s definitely going to be some type of layering of cases that is caused by this situation, but it’s an unprecedented crisis, and there’s no other way around it.”

Treatment Court participants, who have agreed to an increased level of supervision by a probation officer and weekly court appearances, are now being visited by police making home visits — from a distance. The five-phase program also requires group and individual therapy sessions and frequent drug testing, all of which is not possible at this time.

“Our focus has been what do we need to put in place to make sure our participants’ recovery doesn’t fall apart,” Lord said. “Participants are meeting with therapist remotely, through an app, to receive individualized therapy and substance abuse counseling twice a week… Even though many participants are not economically well off, everybody has a smartphone.”

The participants are also being provided with information on online therapy groups since all in-person Narcotics Anonymous and Alcoholics Anonymous meetings have been canceled.

“There’s a huge problem when you have someone in recovery when accountability and structure are not in place,” Lord said. “We don’t want them to have to start at square one after everything they’ve accomplished. That would be devastating to their lives.”

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Morning Notes

Half of Popular Duo to Perform at Birchmere — “On the evening of June 24, 1964, Washington was engulfed in Peter and Gordon-mania. Midway through the British duo’s performance at the Alexandria Roller Rink, a desperate Jack Alix, DJ at WEEL radio, halted the music and begged the crowd to please stop pushing. ‘I do remember it was a good gig, where the audience was crazy, with screaming girls throwing themselves at the stage and all that stuff,’ said Peter Asher, calling from his Malibu, Calif., home.” [Washington Post]

Alexandria Man Charged in Arlington Incident — “A 69-year-old Alexandria man is facing a felony charge after police say a minor, two-vehicle crash led to a physical altercation along Lee Highway… [The man] punched a window on the other car several times, then ‘produced a knife and allegedly attempted to strike the victim,’ according to Arlington County Police.” [ARLnow]

City’s Opioid Plan Finalized — “The City of Alexandria has finalized the Opioid Work Group Strategic Three Year Plan (2020 – 2023) to eliminate opioid misuse and its harmful effects in Alexandria. The plan, which is now available at alexandriava.gov/opioids, was formed through several years of extensive engagement and collaboration with community members and experts.” [City of Alexandria]

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The Alexandria Commonwealth’s Attorney believes that the Virginia General Assembly will pass measures to decriminalize marijuana this session, but that doesn’t mean he will stop prosecuting simple possession charges.

In fact, while Bryan Porter introduced a diversion program in the summer that would allow people to be treated more leniently, that’s not stopping him from prosecuting such cases.

“In other words, the diversion program is my response to the community’s desire to have simple marijuana possession treated more leniently,” Porter told ALXnow. “I support marijuana decriminalization and I suspect that it will pass in some form during this Assembly.”

It seems like a natural conclusion — that the Commonwealth’s Attorney for the City of Alexandria will follow the letter of the law — but that’s not the case in Arlington and Fairfax County. Steve Descano, the newly elected Fairfax County Commonwealth’s Attorney, as well as Arlington and Falls Church Commonwealth’s Attorney Parisa ­Dehghani-Tafti, have stated that they will not prosecute simple marijuana possession charges. Both have moved to dismiss simple possession cases since taking office at the beginning of the month.

Porter said that his diversion program allows people charged with marijuana possession to avoid conviction, fines, and court costs and allows them to have the charge expunged.

“The program is prospective, meaning that someone charged today (or tomorrow) would have the opportunity to have their charge dismissed and expunged,” Porter said. “Furthermore, citizens will be allowed into the diversion program even if they have previously had a charge diverted. My diversion program has been looked to as a model by other prosecutors around the state.”

Sen. Adam Ebbin’s (D-30th) bill to decriminalize marijuana, which is working its way through the state Senate, proposes a maximum $50 civil fine for a simple possession charge. Virginia State Police reported that there were 29,000 marijuana-related arrests in 2018, accounting for 59 percent of total drug arrests.

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As Virginia starts making progress towards the decriminalization of marijuana, one local business is working to make it easier to connect people to medical marijuana licenses.

Veriheal, based in Old Town, educates clients about medical cannabis and connects them to doctors who can get them approved for a medical marijuana license. The company works in 23 states with its structure changing based on state laws. Anthony Dutcher, marketing director for Veriheal, said they’re working to get started in Virginia.

For $200, Veriheal will book an appointment with a licensed marijuana doctor. The cost includes the consultation fee, physician copay, medical evaluation and approval recommendation. If approved, the client will receive a medical marijuana card that can get them access to dispensaries. The company’s website says they offer a full refund if the client is not approved for medical marijuana treatment.

The company also charges an annual $200 fee for wellness appointments and follow up medical appointments necessary in places where medical marijuana cards must be renewed annually.

In Virginia, Dutcher said that the process is a little more tricky. While some medical marijuana use is approved with heavy limitations, possession of marijuana is a misdemeanor charge, and even those approved could still be arrested. The law currently only allows those with epilepsy to use medical marijuana.

“There’s a lot we can’t do in Virginia… there are not a lot of dispensaries, but we’re expecting them to open soon,” Dutcher said.

So far, Dutcher said the main work of Veriheal in Virginia has been laying the groundwork, like getting patients pre-registered to be able to legally use marijuana as soon as its legalized. Dutcher said that in many areas of Virginia, having a medical marijuana card could open up a little leeway with law enforcement if they are found to be in possession. In Alexandria, Commonwealth Attorney Bryan Porter has been taking steps to offer alternatives to prosecuting marijuana cases, though Porter has also acknowledged that his powers there are limited until the state legislature decriminalizes marijuana possession.

Simultaneously, state Sen. Adam Ebbin (D) has been leading an effort to decriminalize marijuana use — though some say those efforts don’t go far enough.

Dutcher says Veriheal also pushes for Virginia to open up telemedicine — accessing doctors via phone or computer rather than in-person visits — to help people in areas of the state without immediate access to doctors who can grant medical marijuana licenses.

“We really push that telemedicine helps open that up,” Dutcher said. “Virginia doesn’t have that yet.”

As marijuana laws continue to change, Veriheal also walks a line of tenuous relevance. In some states that are starting to open up to medical marijuana, full legalization is already on the horizon, which would eliminate the need for a medical marijuana card.

“That’s something we think about every day,” Dutcher said. “We’re diversifying, which is why we’re taking the wellness approach as well. So even if it does go recreational we can still help those people with a wellness plan.”

Photo via Veriheal/Facebook

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Morning Notes

APD Launches Safety Campaign for Officers — “Commuters often hear about the importance of safety on the road, but a new police program in Alexandria, Virginia, seeks to help officers keep themselves out of harm’s way on the road. Through its newly-launched, 12-month ‘Safety First — Every Shift, Every Call’ campaign, Alexandria police will provide officers with monthly safety tips throughout 2020 on topics like safe driving tactics, traffic stops and driving while fatigued.” [WTOP]

Drug Take-Back Day Coming Soon — “Alexandria encourages residents to safely dispose of prescription and over-the-counter medications, including those prescribed by veterinarians, during National Prescription Drug Take-Back Day. A special collection will take place on January 25, from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., although medications may also be taken year-round to one of the permanent drop box locations.” [City of Alexandria]

High School Basketball Team Eyes Playoffs — “Last year, the St. Stephen’s and St. Agnes boys’ varsity basketball team won the Virginia Independent Schools Athletic Association state tournament for the first time since 1990. This year, they’re going for a repeat.” [Alexandria Times]

Al’s Donating in Honor of Anniversary — “Al’s Steak House, 1504 Mount Vernon Avenue, is celebrating 65 years as the ‘King of Cheesesteaks’ by giving back. To celebrate the milestone, Al’s is donating 65 cents for every sub sold during the month of January to Community Lodgings.” [Zebra]

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Alexandria is offering free Narcan training, which teaches members of the public how to spot and reverse an opioid overdose, starting tomorrow.

Narcan is a prescription medicine that can reverse an opioid overdose through injection or intranasal mist. Last year, Alexandria Police Department Lt. Mike Kochis was credited with saving the life of an unconscious man in Carlyle with a Narcan dose.

Participants in the class will also receive a free medical kid with Narcan/Naloxone included. According to a press release from the City of Alexandria:

The Department of Community and Human Services hosts free REVIVE! training sessions to teach any member of the public about opioids, how opioid overdoses happen, the risk factors for opioid overdoses, and how to respond to an opioid overdose emergency using Narcan/Naloxone. If you or a loved one are prescribed opioid painkillers, or are taking opioids, you should take this training and have Narcan/Naloxone on hand.

No RSVP or registration for the class is required.

The program is offered twice monthly: on the second Tuesday of each month from 10-11 a.m. and on the fourth Thursday, from 5:30-6:30 p.m.

The classes will be held in the Department of Community and Human Services (2355 Mill Road).

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Richard Thomas has been sober for 50 days, and that’s his longest stretch away from PCP and marijuana since he was 14 years old.

The 42-year-old Alexandria native has been arrested more than 10 times over the course of his life. A 1995 graduate of T.C. Williams High School, Thomas has seen his life repeatedly go down the drain through intense struggles with homelessness, addiction and depression. But the Alexandria Treatment Court has given him a new lease on life.

“I don’t have to look behind my back anymore. It’s a second chance,” said Thomas, who has a new job as a dishwasher in Alexandria, and asked that his real name be withheld. “The Treatment Court has allowed me to keep myself accountable and be consistent and honest. The judge says the most important thing is to be honest.”

The Treatment Court, which launched in August and meets every Thursday, is still in its pilot phase. The court is an alternative to jail for individuals with substance abuse issues, and most participants have been to jail multiple times.

The Fairfax County and Arlington County drug courts are grant funded, and it has taken two years for the City of Alexandria to get to this point. There is no additional funding for the program and there are only eight participants — staff for the Commonwealth’s Attorney for Alexandria are seeking grant funding to accommodate up to 25 individuals and hire support staff.

Assistant Commonwealth’s Attorney David Lord is the Treatment Court coordinator, and said that the road to recovery is never easy.

“With no slip-ups, the entire program should take 14 months, but we understand that relapsing is part of the recovery process,” Lord said. “It should take 18 months to two years for most individuals to complete the program.”

Participants can still be kicked out of the program. On a recent Thursday, Judge Lisa Kemler had a tough decision to make. One of the drug court participants, who is currently serving time in the Alexandria jail, assaulted a Sheriff’s deputy. Of the eight taking part in the program, two have assaulted law enforcement officers, who in turn still recommended that they be included.

“You were given a lot of chances. How many chances do you think we should give you?” Kemler asked the man, who stood in a gray jail jumpsuit and handcuffs.

“One more. One more. Would you even just consider it?” he responded. “I still want to participate in the Treatment Court… I think the program is working for me. I just had a few slip-ups.”

Kemler ended up giving the man another chance, but if he does not cooperate then her decision will be easy.

“It’s not going to be exactly what you want, because nothing in life is exactly what you want,” Kemler said. “If you fail to hold up your end of the bargain you will face termination [from the program].”

There were nine opioid-related deaths and at least 50 non-fatal overdoses in Alexandria in 2017. That same year, there were 1,019 drug-related criminal offenses, which was an increase of 37% from the previous year. There were also 96 probation violations filed in Alexandria in between 2016 and 2017 due to participants failing drug tests.

Treatment Court participants have agreed to an increased level of supervision by a probation officer and weekly court appearances. They must participate in multiple therapy sessions every week and take frequent drug tests. The first phase of the five-phase program lasts for a minimum of 60 days, and participants must adhere to a 9 p.m. curfew. Each subsequent phase allows participants to stay out one hour later in the evenings.

Thomas, who has three children and another on the way, said that he has not had a single urge to do drugs again.

“I haven’t had any cravings. It hasn’t been hard at all because of what my consequences would be if I didn’t participate in the program,” he said. “If I get incarcerated again, the chances of my kids being raised without me is devastating.”

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Morning Notes

Temporary Parking Change for Rec Center — “Due to the closure of Chinquapin Road, parking for Chinquapin Park Recreation Center and Aquatics Facility and Chinquapin Park is being redirected to the parking garage at T. C. Williams High School (3330 King St.) on Thursday, December 26. Chinquapin Park Recreation Center and Aquatics Facility is open until 9 p.m. on Thursday, December 26 and all programs will take place as scheduled.” [City of Alexandria]

Assault Investigation in Landmark Area — “The Alexandria Police Department is investigating a felonious assault in the unit block of South Reynolds Street. The victim was transported to a local hospital. Expect police activity in the area.” [Twitter]

Local Real Estate ‘Hits Pause’ in Nov. — “The number of sales in Alexandria dropped significantly from year-ago levels, down 25.8%, with the median selling price down 2.5% to $539,000.” [WTOP]

Alexandria Drug Dealer Sentenced — “An Alexandria man was sentenced in federal court to 20 years in prison for drug dealing that caused at least one overdose death. George Addae, 26, was sentenced for conspiring to distribute more than a kilogram of heroin related to heroin trafficking from 2016 to September 2018. Addae was also ordered to forfeit $100,000.” [Patch]

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Morning Notes

Alexandria Among Most Festive Xmas Cities — Thanks in part of the Scottish Christmas Walk Parade and the annual boat parade, Alexandria has made Wall Street 24/7’s list of the Most Festive Christmas Cities in the U.S. [24/7 Wall Street]

City Warns of PCP Overdoses — “The City of Alexandria has responded to eight overdoses related to suspected phencyclidine (PCP) use in the past two months, one of which was fatal. City officials are concerned about the potency and deadly nature of the PCP being distributed and used in the region.” [City of Alexandria]

Confederate Statue Struck — “The Appomattox statue in Old Town commemorating Alexandria’s Confederate troops was struck by a vehicle last night. Its base looks like it was moved quite a bit by the impact.” [Twitter/@Drubaru]

Local Doctor Honored — “For Dr. Jennifer Lightfoot of Alexandria, hearing loss hasn’t held her back. In fact, it shaped her life’s work and recently won her a 2019 Oticon Focus on People Award… Winning the award in the practitioner category solidified the belief in her work with hearing impaired children.” [Patch]

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An Alexandria man accused of manufacturing and distributing anabolic steroids has been sentenced to prison time.

John Russell Kestel, 38, was sentenced to serve five years in federal prison for the illicit steroid business, which was run “in a clandestine laboratory in the basement of his home in Alexandria.”

Federal prosecutors say Kestel also “concocted homemade versions of pharmaceutical drugs intended to counter the side effects of long-term steroid abuse.” He allegedly conducted the business using a private Facebook group.

More from the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of Virginia:

An Alexandria man was sentenced today to five years in prison for manufacturing and distributing anabolic steroids and money laundering.

According to court documents, John Russell Kestel, 38, ran an anabolic steroid manufacturing and distribution conspiracy for at least three years. Kestel imported raw steroid powders from China and manufactured them into consumable steroid products in a clandestine laboratory in the basement of his home in Alexandria. In addition to steroid products, Kestel concocted homemade versions of pharmaceutical drugs intended to counter the side effects of long-term steroid abuse.

Kestel then distributed his homemade steroid products through social media sites including Facebook. After confirming the interest of potential clients in a private Facebook group, Kestel would direct them to a password-protected website where they could place orders and make payments.

Kestel utilized an elaborate money laundering scheme to conceal and disguise the nature of the proceeds of his steroid manufacturing and distribution operation. The money laundering scheme involved bank accounts that had been opened by the defendant in a multitude of names, including the names of real people known to the defendant and using their personally identifiable information.

G. Zachary Terwilliger, U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia; Jesse R. Fong, Special Agent in Charge for the Drug Enforcement Administration’s (DEA) Washington Field Division; Kelly R. Jackson, Special Agent in Charge, Washington, D.C. Field Office, IRS-Criminal Investigation (IRS-CI); and Mark S. McCormack, Special Agent in Charge, FDA Office of Criminal Investigations, Metro Washington Field Office, made the announcement after sentencing by U.S. District Judge Liam O’Grady. Special Assistant U.S. Attorney Jason Trigger and Assistant U.S. Attorney Dennis M. Fitzpatick prosecuted the case.

Photo by Analuisa Gamboa on Unsplash

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