A week after Charlottesville police admitted they’d mishandled an investigation into a pre-Christmas Downtown Mall assault that brought national attention of the wrong sort, details of what sparked the incident are foggier than ever. Surveillance video from a nearby bank has proved useless, and neither victims nor police are making further statements citing the ongoing investigation—the same reason police are withholding a recording of a single 911 call made in response to the violent altercation.
What is clear is that the incident has raised questions about safety on the Downtown Mall as well as stirring racist sentiments sparked especially by photos the white victims claim show their three black assailants in the act of the attack. News of the reported assault first spread on Facebook after the victims posted their accounts and then photos. C-VILLE’s subsequent online report was picked up by the conservative news aggregation website The Drudge Report on Monday, December 30, and quickly went viral, landing on several white supremacy sites. Some of those readers appear to have then bombarded the C-VILLE website with racist vitriol and personal threats, leading the paper to shut down the comments under the story, which was read by more than 400,000 people in less than 24 hours.
Some of those who work in the trenches of Charlottesville race relations aren’t surprised by the simmering racial resentment that poured out online, even before the story went national.
“There’s very little we know about how it started, but the amount of vituperative racial mudslinging screams, that’s a whole ’nother story in itself,” said Walt Heinecke, a member of the city’s Dialogue on Race volunteer task force and one of the original proponents of Charlottesville’s newly formed Human Rights Commission. “The whole thing about race in Charlottesville is nowhere near over,” said Heinecke.
Wes Bellamy—an African American community leader who narrowly lost the Democratic primary for City Council in 2013— echoed Heinecke’s sentiments.
“We need to have honest dialogue,” said Bellamy, the founder of Helping Young People Evolve (H.Y.P.E.), a nonprofit which provides low-income local youth with homework help, mentoring, and boxing instruction aimed at increasing their confidence and self-discipline. “Some of the e-mails I’ve been getting afterwards say, ‘Young, black kids may be this, may be that, they’re making it unsafe, they’re hoodlums.’”
As previously reported, the December 20 incident occurred around 1am as musician Marc Adams and his girlfriend, Jeanne Doucette, were walking from Miller’s restaurant to Rapture and suffered what they say was an unprovoked assault by three black males that resulted in serious injuries to Adams, who lost a tooth and suffered cracked ribs and a fractured ankle. Doucette, who said she was also struck, took photos of the men as other people appeared to be calling 911.
According to Kathy Richardson of the Emergency Communications Center, a single 911 call was placed to that location on December 20. C-VILLE’s FOIA request for that phone call was denied pending completion of the investigation.
Following the attack, Doucette offered a statement to police, but Adams refused to speak with the responding officers or to receive medical assistance, something he attributes to a head injury, noting he’d been briefly knocked unconscious and repeating what he said Doucette has told him, that he was trying to go home. On Saturday, December 21, he called police to add his statement to Doucette’s.
While Doucette and Adams hoped surveillance video from the bank would bolster their claims, police did not formally request the video until a week later. When Doucette called to check on the status of the investigation on Sunday, December 29, she was told it had been suspended due to a lack of information and had not been assigned to a detective. Frustrated, she posted her photos to Facebook that evening, and the following morning, Charlottesville Police Chief Tim Longo released a statement announcing two detectives had been assigned to the case and promising an internal investigation into the “breakdown” that had prevented that from happening earlier.
Police spokesperson Lieutenant Ronnie Roberts declined to offer any details about the content of surveillance videos or any other evidence collected thus far in the investigation, but according to a Wells Fargo spokesperson, the bank’s surveillance won’t help. The only camera on the building’s exterior is aimed parallel to the Mall, pointing at the ATM in the glass vestibule next to the bank’s main entrance. It does not capture footage of what is taking place feet away on the bricks of the Downtown Mall, which means Doucette’s photos may be the only evidence that corroborates her account of what occurred. Since Adams said he was knocked unconscious and has no memory of the attack and its aftermath, Doucette may also be the only eyewitness.
Doucette said she didn’t hear Adams say anything to provoke the assault, and she describes her boyfriend as “nonconfrontational.” Her recollection of the assailants hugging, high fiving, and laughing during the attack—something she appears to have captured in one of her photos—led both her and Adams to wonder if the assault might have been a form of the so-called “knockout game,” in which assailants attempt to knock victims unconscious with a single punch, then post a video online. However, they said they’d found no evidence online that the assailants had recorded the attack, and they also expressed doubt that the attack was inspired by race.
“People of any race can be jerks,” said Adams.
A victim of another high-profile Mall beating agrees.
Back in 1994, Baughan Roemer was assaulted on the Downtown Mall in an incident that bears eerie similarities to the recent attack and also created hysteria about racially motivated violence on the Mall.
Roemer was leaving Miller’s sometime around midnight one night in June of that year when he noticed a group of six young black males standing near the building that now houses Wells Fargo bank, where the recent assault took place.
Two teens in the group called out to him, telling him he owed them a dollar. Then they attacked, punching, kicking, and striking him with a broken bottle as he curled into a fetal position on the Mall, screaming and yelling for help until they fled.
Twenty years ago, cell phones were still a rarity, and Roemer, who lived on the Mall at the time, relates to what Adams has described as a post-assault desire to go home. Roemer, too, first began walking toward his apartment, but fear that he might bleed to death from the wound in his head caused him to turn and stagger back towards Miller’s, where patrons called 911 and he was transported to UVA hospital for treatment.
As with the recent attack, Roemer, then a Downtown business owner who was also a member of the Charlottesville Downtown Foundation, said the investigation into his assault was slow to start, although a witness reported seeing teens fitting the description of his attackers getting into a car nearby that night. Days after the assault, still bearing visible injuries, he appeared before City Council, and he credits subsequent heavy media coverage as critical to the successful apprehension of all six assailants within 10 days.
“A couple of them were on drugs that night,” he said, noting that testimony in his case revealed the teens—all of whom were convicted of assault related charges—had been in other city locations earlier in the evening looking for someone, anyone, to jump. “It was more like a crime of opportunity and anonymity,” he said. “I don’t feel I was targeted because I was white.”
Although the motives and details of the recent assault are still unknown, Roemer feels strongly that lessons from his own attack apply to Charlottesville today.
“We need to tone it down and realize that these types of crimes can happen anywhere, at any time,” he said. “Reckless, mean behavior is color-blind.”
In addition, Roemer hopes another outcome of the recent incident will be increased focus on keeping Downtown safe, including reassessing how the Mall is policed.
That’s a topic that Longo has brought to the attention of City Council several times over the past few years, including in 2012 when he requested additional funding for police kiosks, surveillance cameras, and added foot patrol at a cost of approximately $1 million annually, according to a January 2013 Daily Progress report. His request was denied.
Longo declined C-VILLE’s interview requests, but according to former Charlottesville Mayor Dave Norris, whose City council term ended in December, Downtown crime was down 40 percent in 2013 from 2012. In a Facebook post written on December 30, the day the story of the recent assault went viral, Norris warned against overreaction and expressed concern that the fear drummed up over the latest incident would lead not only to greater alienation between Charlottesville’s white and black residents but also would help create community support for surveillance cameras on the Mall, a move civil libertarians warn comes at another cost.
“I hope none of this comes to pass and that we in Charlottesville avoid the temptation to escalate and overreact,” Norris wrote.
Bellamy and Heinecke both agree that overreaction won’t help, and that finding and prosecuting those responsible for the assault is a priority. But no less important, they both said, is how the community responds.
“I’d like to see Town Hall meetings,” said Bellamy, “where people see each other as people. How powerful would it be if we could have people from Belmont and Friendship Court, talking with each other, building with each other, having honest dialogue. Not all white people are bad; not all black people are bad. Both sides need to begin seeing that, having those conversations, so we can begin to move forward. If you don’t talk to people, how are you going to know?”