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Morning Notes

Suit alleging admissions discrimination at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology moves forward — “More than 70 percent of the student body at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology is Asian American; Black and Hispanic students have been woefully underrepresented there for decades. At a hearing Friday in Alexandria, lawyers for the Fairfax County School Board urged a judge to toss out the lawsuit. They argue that the new admissions policies are race-neutral. But the judge ruled that the parents’ group made a compelling claim that the board’s true motivation was to increase Black and Hispanic representation at the expense of Asian Americans.” [WAVY.com]

Alexandria Symphony Orchestra extends contract for Maestro James Ross — “The Alexandria Symphony Orchestra (ASO) announced that Music Director James Ross received a contract extension through the 2023-24 season. Ross has been at the helm of ASO since 2018. He is the fifth music director in ASO’s 78-year history.” [Zebra]

Commonwealth’s Attorney’s office tackling workplace stress with wellness challenge — “May is National Employee Health and Wellness Month. For the first time, my office has fully embraced that designation by implementing our ‘Mindful May Wellness Challenge.’ In addition to providing our employees with advice on mindfulness, we have constructed a month of activities and events designed to focus on employee wellness.” [AlexTimes]

Alexandria Drive-In announces June movies — “Tickets are $40 per car, and food trucks will be on-site each night providing delish, savory, and sweet concessions with online ordering through Goodfynd! Proceeds from the movie series will benefit local Alexandria charity, ATHENA Rapid Response Innovation Lab.” [Alexandria Living]

New sign unveiled in Del Ray for hero Rocky Versace — “Alexandria’s Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Del Ray bears Versace’s name and now, through the efforts of the Friends of Rocky Versace and the City of Alexandria, that narrative was unveiled May 15 during an Armed Forces Day ceremony at the local landmark.” [Gazette]

Local businesses struggle adapting to new mask guidance — ‘”My fear is that people will say they’re vaccinated when they’re not vaccinated and then just walk around unmasked,’ said Nicole McGrew, owner of the clothing and accessories boutique Threadleaf in Old Town Alexandria.” [NPR]

This Friday is the deadline to request a ballot by mail — “Last day to request a ballot by mail for the June 8 Democratic Party Primary Election. Applications must be received in the Voter Registration Office by 5pm. Applications may be submitted online (http://elections.virginia.gov) or by mail, fax (703.838.6449) or email ([email protected])” [City of Alexandria]

Today’s weather — “Overcast with rain showers at times. High around 70F. Winds E at 5 to 10 mph. Chance of rain 50%… Rain showers early with overcast skies late. Low 59F. Winds SE at 5 to 10 mph. Chance of rain 50%.” [Weather.com]

New job: Surveillance investigator — “DigiStream Investigations, a fast-growing private investigations firm, seeks a full-time Surveillance Investigator to work under general supervision, investigating suspicious worker’s compensation claims from various corporate clients in the state of Virginia. This autonomous position is both journalistic and investigative in nature, and centers around obtaining quality video footage and detailed report rendering on the activities captured by the investigator.” [Indeed]

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A 27-year-old Texas man was sentenced to three-and-a-half years in prison today for his role in calling in a bomb threat to Alfred Street Baptist Church, as well as other “swatting” incidents against a U.S. Cabinet member, journalists and Old Dominion University.

John Cameron Denton of Montgomery, Texas, a leader with the Atomwaffen Division neo-Nazi group, participated with three others in at least 134 swatting attacks around the country between October 2018 and February 2019. He pleaded guilty last year after being arrested in a sting operation to committing an offense against the United States and interstate threats to injure.

Alfred Street Baptist Church was targeted on November 3, 2018, because it has a mostly Black congregation. A then-U.S. Cabinet official living in Northern Virginia was also harassed in 2019, as well as two swatting incidents at Old Dominion University in 2018.

Swatting is a harassment technique where the caller deceives first responders at targeted locations.

“In each instance, conspirators selected the targets and called emergency dispatchers with false claims of pipe bombs, hostage takings, or other violent activity occurring at the targeted locations,” according to the DOJ. “As a result of these swatting calls, police were dispatched to Old Dominion University and the Alfred Street Baptist Church, and individuals in each location were required to shelter in place while the bomb threats were investigated.”

During the sting operation, Denton admitted to personally choosing to “swat” the New York City office of ProPublica and an investigative journalist at the publication who published information on his identity and connection to the group. Denton also told the undercover officer that he used a voice changer when making the calls and that he hoped to be “raided”, because his arrest would be good for the image of the Atomwaffen Division.

“The reprehensible conduct in this case terrorized communities across our Nation, as innocent Americans simply tried to attend school, practice their faith, and exercise their First Amendment rights,” said Raj Parekh, Acting U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia, in a statement. “The defendants caused irreversible trauma to the victims of these hate-based crimes. This case sends an unmistakable message that those who target individuals because of their race, religion, or any other form of bias, will be identified, apprehended, and brought to justice.”

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An Alexandria man has pleaded guilty to two counts of producing child pornography, according to the U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia.

Abel Amcrocio, 54, was arrested last year, and after pleading guilty, is scheduled to be sentenced on August 4. Amcrocio faces a minimum penalty of 15 years in prison.

The press release said the child pornography started when Ambrocio, who is a Mexican national, developed an online relationship with a woman in Honduras over an unnamed social media platform.

“From around October 2018 through at least February 2019, Ambrocio instructed the woman to record and send him over 100 images of herself sexually abusing her two children — an approximately three-year-old boy and an approximately ten-year-old girl,” the U.S. Department of Justice said in a press release. “Ambrocio instructed the mother to engage in specific sex acts with her children and record herself doing so on multiple occasions, even when she told Ambrocio that one of the children was in pain and crying from the previous sex act.”

In March 2019, Ambrocio distributed images of the woman abusing her three-year-old on a social media platform.

“The defendant’s conduct, which caused the sexual abuse of two young children by their own mother, is both horrific and heartbreaking,” said Raj Parekh, acting U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia. “The production of child pornography inflicts devastating and lifelong harm to society’s most vulnerable victims. [The Eastern District of Virginia] is committed to working with our law enforcement partners to bring child sexual predators to justice.”

The press release noted that the case was brought forward as part of Project Safe Childhood, an initiative launched in 2006 to combat child sexual exploitation and abuse.

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An Alexandria woman pleaded guilty to money laundering as part of a scheme to defraud investors in a church-related investment business.

The fraud involved Brenda Millender and her husband, Pastor Terry Millender — leaders of the Victorious Life Church — soliciting themselves as leaders of a Christian organization brokering Nigerian oil sales. The pair were convicted in 2017.

Today, Millender pled guilty to money laundering for using access to bank accounts to receive checks written fraudulently.

Last February, Terry Millender was sentenced to eight years in prison.

According to a press release from the Department of Justice:

Brenda Millender, 60, was the wife of Pastor Terry Millender and the First Lady of Victorious Life Church in Alexandria. Terry Millender created a company called Kingdom Commodities Unlimited (KCU), which marketed itself as a Christian organization that was looking for investors to provide financing to help facilitate and broker Nigerian oil sales. Individual investors provided money to Terry Millender from 2013 to 2016 based on his false and fraudulent representations about how their money would be used, as well as material omissions about how funds would be disbursed.

Millender had access to various KCU bank accounts and she received cash from those accounts which had the effect of concealing the source and use of those funds. In some cases, checks written from KCU accounts had false and misleading descriptions on the memo lines, such as referencing the repayment of loans or office expenses, when in fact the person receiving the check had not loaned any money to KCU, was not an investor to KCU, and was not involved in KCU’s operations.

Sentencing is scheduled for April 21, with a potential maximum sentence of 20 years in prison, though the actual sentence is likely to be less.

Photo via Google Maps

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A 34-year-old Washington D.C. man labeled the Beltway Bank Bandit by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, pleaded guilty to three counts of brandishing a firearm during a series of bank and shoe store robberies in and around Alexandria in 2018 and 2019.

Freddie Lee McRae will be sentenced on February 23, 2021, and faces up to life in prison and a mandatory minimum of 21 years in prison. On November 13, 2018, McRrae robbed a Wells Fargo Bank in Alexandria, handed the teller a note and demanded money, indicated that he had a gun and said he would “kill all bankers” if his directions were not followed. He then pointed a handgun at two tellers and ran out of the bank with $8,750, according to prosecutors.

The following month, McRae robbed a Burke & Herbert branch in Alexandria. He walked up to a teller and said, “Gimme your money,” and then pointed a gun at the teller.

“As the teller gathered money, McRae racked the slide on the pistol and demanded all large bills,” according to United States Attorney G. Zachary Terwilliger of the Eastern District of Virginia. “McRae fled with approximately $1,366 in cash.”

McRae was arrested after robbing the Legend Kicks & Apparel in Arlington on April 21, 2019. After a brief police chase on the George Washington Memorial Parkway, McRae jumped out of his moving car before it crashed and sank in the Potomac River, and then unsuccessfully tried to escape by jumping in the river.

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The Alexandria Sheriff’s Office on Thursday confirmed that suspected ISIS terrorists Alexanda Amon Kotey and El Shafee Elsheikh are being held in the city jail.

The former British citizens are accused of conspiring to kidnap and kill U.S. and western hostages between 2012 and 2015, including Americans Jim Foley, Steven Sotloff, Peter Kassig and Kayla Mueller. The British government reportedly allowed their extradition after the U.S. Justice Department agreed not to seek the death penalty.

Kotey, 36, and Elsheikh, 32, have British accents are accused of being members of the infamous ISIS group known as “The Beatles”.

“Alexanda Amon Kotey and El Shafee Elsheikh were placed into our custody this afternoon by the U.S. Marshals and are being held at the Alexandria Adult Detention Center,” said Captain Sean Casey of the Alexandria Sheriff’s Office.

The Justice Department announced Wednesday that the pair made their initial appearances at the Eastern District of Virginia federal courthouse in Alexandria.

Other notable figures who have spent time in the Alexandria jail include Zacarias Moussaoui, a conspirator in the 9/11 terror attacks, and former Taliban fighter John Walker Lindh.

See the full release from the Justice Department below the jump.

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A 34-year-old Alexandria taxi driver has been indicted for conspiring and attempting to provide material support to al-Shabaab, a militant group designated operating in Somalia and designated by the United States as a terrorist organization.

Alexandria resident Liban Haji Mohamed, 34, was charged Wednesday by a grand jury at the Alexandria Federal Courthouse.

Mohamed, a naturalized United States citizen, allegedly left the United States in July 2012 and planned to join al-Shabaab in East Africa, according to a U.S. Department of Justice press release. Al-Shabaab is responsible for orchestrating numerous attacks, like the 2013 shooting at a Nairobi shopping mall and the 2017 bombings in Mogadishu, Somalia.

The group has also actively worked to recruit Americans like Mohamed. Mohamed was working as a cab driver in Alexandria before he left the United States through Mexico to travel to Somalia, where he was detained by authorities, according to the Washington Post. The FBI added Mohamed to the Most Wanted Terrorists list in 2015.

“According to court documents, Mohamed allegedly attempted to recruit an undercover agent to travel to Somalia to provide combat training to al-Shabaab fighters,” the Justice Department said. “Mohamed also allegedly planned to use his own media skills to improve al-Shabaab’s propaganda machine, which it has used to recruit Westerners.”

Mohamed was allegedly a close associate of Zachary Chesser, who in 2011 was sentenced to 25 years in prison for attempting to provide support to al-Shabaab, according to the Justice Department.

The Justice Department said if Mohamed is convicted, he faces a maximum penalty of 30 years in prison.

“Individuals with information concerning Mohamed are asked to contact the FBI or the nearest American Embassy or Consulate,” the Justice Department said. “Tips can be submitted anonymously at https://tips.fbi.gov.”

Photo via FBI

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A 53-year-old Alexandria man was arrested today on charges of producing and distributing child pornography, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of Virginia.

Abel Ambrocio was arrested for allegedly instructing an adult woman on Facebook to send him more than 100 pictures of the woman sexually exploiting a three-year-old boy and an eight-year-old girl. He then allegedly sent the photos to another person, and the activities occurred over the course of several months, according to court documents.

Ambrocio faces up to between 15 and 50 years in prison if found guilty, although actual sentences for federal crimes are “typically less than the maximum penalties,” according to a U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of Virginia press release.

The case was investigated by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, Washington Field Office’s Child Exploitation and Human Trafficking Task Force.

File photo

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Morning Notes

APD Investigates Friday Night Robbery — “The Alexandria Police Department is investigating a commercial robbery in the 3100 block of Duke Street. Merchandise was taken and one minor Injury. Expect police activity in the area.” [Twitter]

Appointment for Former Fire Chief — “Former Alexandria, Va Fire Chief Robert Dubé has been appointed Deputy Director of the Virginia Department of Fire Programs, according to a press release issued Friday, January 10, 2020 from Governor Ralph Northam’s office.” [Zebra]

New Sephora Store Close to Opening — “Wood floors, lots of mirrors, and colorful walls are in place at the new Sephora makeup store in Old Town Alexandria. Sephora’s Alexandria store, at 810 King St., will open Jan. 24, according to the company.” [Alexandria Living]

Alexandria Holds Housing Summit — “Hundreds of residents and local leaders gathered in Alexandria, Virginia, for the city’s 2020 Housing Summit as local officials worked to take on the challenge of affordable housing. The full day event offered discussion on everything from housing for seniors and the 2013 Housing Master Plan to the development and preservation of affordable living.” [WTOP]

Federal Case Details Local Swatting Incidents — “Another false threat was called in to the Alexandria police last January; the caller claimed to have killed his girlfriend and taken her two children hostage. The address he gave was of a person protected by the U.S. Secret Service. A person familiar with the incident said it was resolved without fanfare after a call to the Secret Service” [Washington Post]

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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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