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Advocates take to the streets for gun control reform

putdown

 

warzone

STORY AND PHOTOS BY BRI PARK
STAFF WRITER
THE CAPITAL NEWS SERVICE

For Tafon Grant, a senior at Thomas Jefferson High School, the gun-related violence that he has seen in his neighborhood was what inspired him to become an advocate for gun control.

“I know what it’s like to see people get shot and die right in front of me,” Grant said. “I know what it’s like to see a gun pointed toward my own head.”

Grant is just one of the hundreds of Richmond-area students who walked out of school on Friday,  which marked the 19th anniversary of the Columbine High School shootings, to advocate for gun control at the local, state and federal level.

Grant said he believed that gun violence in communities was a factor that lead to gun violence within schools.

“Don’t you know that whatever affects our communities, affects our schools?” Grant asked. “The time is now for gun control.”

The students were joined by parents, legislators and community members during the walkout, which began at Brown’s Island. After hearing remarks from several students and legislators, the demonstrators then marched to the Capitol for the second portion of the rally.

India Williams, a sophomore at Armstrong High School, said that although her school had several security measures in place, she did not believe that the measures would be enough to keep the school safe.

“My school has security guards, metal detectors, police officers and more, but that is not enough to keep a school safe,” Williams said.

Like Grant, Williams said her advocacy for gun control was also inspired by the gun-related violence she has witnessed in her community.

“As a resident of Richmond, Virginia, gun-related deaths are worse here than they are in other parts of the country,” Williams said. “Our homes should be homes instead of warzones.”

Gun violence has increased in Richmond over the past few years. By the end of 2016, that year was labeled as the deadliest year in Richmond in a decade. By July of 2017, more than 130 people had been shot in Richmond.

Del. Debra Rodman, D-Henrico, said that she had been working with some of her colleagues in the House of Delegates this past session to create legislation that would address gun-related violence in the city, but all of their proposed legislation failed.

“We tried to put up 70 bills for gun-safety reform, but they all died this year in the House of Delegates,” Rodman said.

U.S. Rep. Donald McEachin, who represents Virginia’s 4th Congressional District, commended the students for their advocacy, and said that the students should vote out the legislators who oppose gun-control legislation.

“Gun safety is the Civil Rights Movement of the 21st century,” McEachin said. “If we can’t change their mind, we can change their seats.”

Other city officials, including Liz Doerr, who represents the 1st District on the Richmond School Board, Osita Iroegbu, the senior policy advisor to Mayor Levar Stoney and Attorney General Mark Herring commended the students for their advocacy and expressed their support for gun control.

Gov. Ralph Northam also commended the students, and criticized politicians who he said have failed to pass gun-control legislation to help make schools safe.

“After years of politicians failing completely to keep our young people safe in their own schools, our students are taking matters into their own hands,” Northam said. “As the gun lobbyists and the hacks on cable news try to shut you down, you are standing up taller, speaker louder and sending a message that this issue is not going away.”

Sarah Dabney, a junior at Deep Run High School in Henrico, said that the threat of a school shooting affected her personally after a student threatened to bring a gun and shoot students in her high school.

Dabney said that police officers found text messages and social media posts from the student, in which he explained in detail his plan to bring the firearm into the school. She said that this experience left her afraid not just for herself, but also for other younger students.

“I’m marching today because I’m angry, but most importantly I’m marching because I’m scared,” Dabney said. “I’m scared that one day my little brother will come home from school in a body bag instead of on a bus.”

Jury recommends life following murder conviction

BY KAY TRULASKE
STAFF WRITER
THE CAPITAL NEWS SERVICE

A Henrico County jury recommended a life sentence Thursday after convicting a woman of murdering her now-former boyfriend’s 19-year-old son.

The conviction came on the fourth day of trial for Henrico resident Denise Gay, 49,  who was accused of murdering 19-year-old Martre Lamonte Coles.

A jury convicted Gay and her daughter, LaToya Shantice Gay, 22, on conspiracy to commit murder in December, but the murder charge resulted in a deadlocked jury and mistrial.

Coles was the son of Gay’s boyfriend at the time, Maurice Lamonte Coles. His body was found in a storage container hidden by brush near the Mondelez International Inc. plant on April 2, 2017.

“She planned it. She did it. She covered it up,” said Henrico Assistant Commonwealth’s Attorney Stacey T. Davenport in her closing remarks.

“Whatever her motive, she spun a web of lies. She suffocated him in his own bedroom, and discarded him like a piece of trash.”

The “mountain of evidence” presented over the past week was revisited by Davenport in her near 45 minute statement — such as a Google location report showing Gay visited Coles burial site various times on March 12 and 13, 2017, and footage of Gay holding a shovel at the site on April 7, 2017 — three days before she was arrested.

Gay was shown to be in conspiracy to commit murder with her daughter, LaToya Shantice Gay, 22.

Internet searches were also found on Gay’s phone that said, “How long does it take to suffocate someone with a plastic bag?” “and “What is lime used for on a dead body?”

Davenport said emails sent from Gay under the alias Shelia Crenshaw had led Coles to believe he would tour Full Sail University, an art school in Florida, at the end of March 2017. This was Gay’s planned excuse for Coles disappearance, she said.

Gay helped Coles in applying to the university and assisted him in making an art project for the application, the paper-maché mask he was likely suffocated with.

Coles sister, Michelle Coles, said the family didn’t know anything about Full Sail.

“It’s a shame that that’s where he thought he was going,” she said. “That he was being tricked into death — it’s really sad.”

Coles’ sister Michelle said she believed Gay did it because her father had been unfaithful to her.

Defense attorney Samuel Simpson said the large amount of evidence from the prosecution made the case very difficult. However, he stressed that Gay’s daughter, 13-year old Elena Gay, was a flawed witness.

Simpson pointed the blame away from Gay and onto her daughter, Elena, as well as her boyfriend at the time Maurice Lamonte Coles – the father of the victim.

Elena was an erratic, wild-child with a history of violence, Simpson said.

“As a mother – not having committed the murder but wanting to help her daughter – covers it up,” Simpson said in his rebuttal.

Simpson also said the lack of concern exhibited by Coles’ father when his son went missing was a suspect reaction, and as a parent he should have been more worried.

Henrico Commonwealth’s Attorney Shannon Taylor closed out the remarks before the jury left to deliberate.

“That a mother would blame her child — that’s shameful.” Taylor said as she looked at Gay in the eyes. “Denise Gay planned it. Denise Gay killed him. Denise Gay covered it up.”

A guilty verdict is what Coles’ sisters, Michelle and Marqweisha, hoped for as they waited for the jury deliberations.

“It would mean everything. Every day I want to make sure he gets justice,” Marqweisha Coles said.

LaToya Gay was also charged with first-degree murder. Her trial is set to take place next month.

Father testifies against ex-girlfriend accused of murdering his son

BY LIZA DAVID
STAFF WRITER
THE CAPITAL NEWS SERVICE

Assistant Henrico Commonwealth’s Attorney Stacey T. Davenport sighed before asking Maurice Coles her final questions on Wednesday morning as he testified against his ex-girlfriend, accused of murdering his youngest son on March 12, 2017.

“I’m sorry I have to ask you this,” Davenport said. “Did you kill Martre Coles?”

“Did you help kill Martre Coles?”

“Did you help cover up the murder of Martre Coles?”

Coles solemnly echoed “no” three times, once in response to each question, before defense attorney Samuel Simpson cross-examined the father of 19-year-old Martre Lamonte Coles, whose body was found in a plastic utility box on April 2, 2017 in eastern Henrico.

A jury convicted Denise Monique Gay, 49, and her daughter, LaToya Shantice Gay, 22, with  conspiracy to commit murder in December. Gay and her daughter are now being tried in Henrico Circuit Court for the first-degree murder of Martre Coles. Gay’s trial is set to end this week and her daughter’s trial is scheduled for May.

Prosecutors left the jury wondering Tuesday where Martre Coles’ father, Maurice, was when Coles went missing. Maurice Coles told the jury he went to work at Smithfield Foods at 6 a.m. on March 12, 2017, and stayed until his shift ended at 2 p.m. Angela Giscombe, the human resources manager for Smithfield Foods, confirmed that Coles clocked into work at 5:54 a.m. on March 12 and remained until about 2 p.m.

Coles said he went home, fell asleep and was awoken by the arrival of his two daughters, Michelle and Marqweisha. Coles said Gay displayed physical affection toward his daughters, which was unusual, adding that the women didn’t like each other.

“[Gay] was all jolly and all touchy-feely with ‘em,” Coles said.

The two women wanted to file a missing persons report for their younger brother, but their father thought it was too soon.

“I didn’t think he was missing at all,” Coles said. “He didn’t have anywhere else to go.”

Before going back to sleep that night, Coles cleaned his son’s room with the help of Gay and her 11-year-old daughter, Elena. Coles said if his children left their rooms untidy for too long, he would come in and clean it himself.

“If I have to do [the cleaning], they’re going to lose something in the process,” Coles said.

Coles also moved the sofa his son usually sleeps on to the back porch because he planned to replace it with a new futon, he said. He said he recalled a white arts-and-crafts mask on the floor, which he said he discarded.

“Denise had told me a few days before that Tre and Elena were in the house making a mask,” Coles said.

Coles didn’t worry about his son’s whereabouts until March 21, his late wife’s birthday, he said. Coles’ children traditionally gather each year on this date to remember their mother.


“If he would have run off with a cult, he wouldn’t miss his mother’s birthday,” Coles said.

Henrico Detective Rebecca L. Egan was called once again to the stand after she appeared Tuesday morning. Police issued a search warrant on April 4, 2017, but Egan couldn’t collect all relevant items from the residence until Dec. 11. Police collected a cobalt blue shovel, a Lowe’s receipt, a spring scholarship letter from Full Sail University and two cell phones in the December search. Egan showed the jury the shovel purchased by Gay, along with the Lowe’s receipt with the corresponding product number.

In their last conversation, Coles and his son talked about art school, three to four months before his sisters reported him as missing. Coles said he told his son he didn’t know enough about higher education to properly assist.

“That’s when Denise volunteered to help,” Coles said.

Coles also told the jury that he and Gay arrived at work together on April 7, but shortly after they arrived she told him she was going to visit the Smithfield Foods plant in North Carolina.

Mary Beth Wood, executive administrative assistant for Smithfield Foods, confirmed that Gay used her key fob twice on April 7, once to enter the basement of the building and once to exit into the parking lot.

Giscombe, who oversees employee assignments, said she hadn’t known of any authorization for Gay to travel to the plant in North Carolina on April 7.  

“Just because it didn’t appear in your records doesn’t mean it didn’t happen.” Simpson stated during his cross-examination of Giscombe.

Coles then recalled his reaction to Gay being arrested and charged with murdering his son.

“I was basically shocked,” Coles said of his reaction to the news. “That’s a call no parent ever wants to hear about their child.”

The trial is expected to last five days, with Judge Lee Harris Jr. presiding. Gay’s daughter LaToya Gay was also charged with first-degree murder. Her trial is set to take place next month.

Henrico murder trial highlights conflicting testimony, police evidence

BY CLAIRE COMEY
STAFF WRITER
THE CAPITAL NEWS SERVICE

Two dimes and one nickel.

Nineteen-year-old Martre Lamonte Coles had exactly 25 cents in his pocket when Henrico police officers pulled his body from a plastic utility box. His father’s girlfriend, Denise Monique Gay, 49, is accused of putting him in the box after killing him on March 12, 2017.

More than a year later, day two of Gay’s second jury trial began Tuesday morning in Henrico County Circuit Court with the testimony of Henrico Police Detective Rebecca L. Egan, who held the 25 cents in the air for the jury to see. The day was filled with law enforcement testimony and evidence introduced by prosecutors to lay the foundation of what they said was a thought-out crime.

A jury convicted Denise Gay and her daughter, LaToya Shantice Gay, 22, on conspiracy to commit murder in December, but the murder charge resulted in a deadlocked jury and mistrial.

Coles’ body was found in the container on April 2, 2017, near the Mondelez International Inc. plant at 6250 Gorman Road, Egan said.

When investigators didn’t find identification on Coles’ body, Egan said she sent an email out to law enforcement in the area with a description of the body. An officer called Egan 30 minutes later about a March 13 police report, filed by Coles’ older sisters. The description of the missing person in the report matched Coles.

Egan and a representative from child protective services interviewed Gay on April 4 because a juvenile, Gay’s daughter, had filed a missing person’s report on Coles. Gay’s daughter, now 13 years old, is set to testify against Gay this week.

During the interview, shown to the jury in a video presented by Commonwealth’s Attorneys Stacey T. Davenport and Shannon Taylor, Gay said she hadn’t been concerned about Coles’ absence from her home between March 13 and April 4 because he split his time between her home, shared with Coles’ father, and Coles’ sisters’ homes.

“He comes and goes,” Gay said. “He walks in and out as he chooses.”

During the interview, Gay said she guessed he was with his girlfriend, whom Gay said she didn’t know.

“His girlfriend said he hadn’t contacted her and he always tells her everywhere he goes,” Gay said.

Egan later described emails exchanged between Gay and Coles about Coles attending Full Sail University, a private, for-profit university located in Winter Park, Florida. Prosecutors then said Gay created and used an email address through which she pretended to be a Full Sail admissions representative, communicating with Coles.

The Commonwealth’s Attorneys called two staff members from Full Sail to testify. The first was Scott Lynch, director of security.

“We all have email addresses at the school,” Lynch said, adding that the addresses either end in “@fullsail.com” for employees or “@fullsail.edu” for students, which means the address used to contact Coles, ending in “@gmail.com,” couldn’t be from Full Sail.

Lynch also said he didn’t know of a Sheila Crenshaw, the name registered to the email account.

“We could not find anything from Sheila Crenshaw that ever was associated with the university,” he said.

The day ended with testimony from Special Agent Jeremy D’Errico from the FBI’s Richmond division’s violent crime squad.

After showing that the email account Coles had believed belonged to Full Sail originated at the IP address in Gay’s home, D’Errico showed the jury the movements of Gay on March 12 based on GPS and WiFi data. D’Errico highlighted a point of interest in the woods north of Ashland, the crime scene where the body was found, Gay’s home, Gay’s daughter LaToya’s home, and a few shopping stops along the way, including a Walmart, Goodwill and Lowe’s.

On March 13, D’Errico said Gay’s phone visited the crime scene.

The trial is expected to last five days, with Judge Lee Harris Jr. presiding. Gay’s daughter LaToya Gay was also charged with first-degree murder. Her trial is set to take place next month.

 

Changes help Richmond schools’ ESL program, but problems persist

BY BROOKE WARNER
STAFF WRITER
THE CAPITAL NEWS SERVICE

Fifty students squeeze into a classroom designed for 20 on the second floor of Huguenot High School. Their teacher Kirsten Buist shakes her head in frustration while they whisper to each other instead of doing their homework.

“No Spanish,” she snaps.

In this English-as-a-Second Language class, Buist knows exactly who the troublemakers are. But keeping the huge class on task is a full-time job, not leaving her a chance to identify those who are struggling the most.

Buist, an ESL teacher for Richmond Public Schools, described this scene from a year ago as she sat at her new desk at George Wythe High School. She was about to play a spelling bee game with her class of 11.

Buist taught at Huguenot in 2016, which had the only ESL program in South Richmond. Yet the region’s quickly growing Hispanic population made the ESL classes overpopulated and under-resourced.

In 2017, a new ESL department opened just five miles down the street at George Wythe. Buist said that the new department, for which she works now, successfully relieved the pressure on Huguenot of being the only ESL hub.

Before, non-native English speakers had taken buses long distances to Huguenot from all around Richmond to be in the program. The School Board simply rezoned students to the correct school districts to balance out the populations, said Jonathan Young, the School Board representative who serves Huguenot.

Sheyli Gabriel, a recent immigrant from Guatemala, had been zoned to Huguenot High School but said that she is thriving at George Wythe.

“I like being here, at this school. I’ve learned a lot of English,” Gabriel said.

Buist said that the students learn better in the small-class environment because teachers can give more attention to each student.

“Because the population is smaller, the teachers have more of an ability to focus on the kids one-to-one,” she said.

Transfer students’ main complaint, Buist said, was that the facilities at George Wythe were worse than at their previous school. Huguenot rebuilt its main building in 2015, while Wythe’s structure has stood since 1951 with minor renovations.

“When you go to the same school for a while, you get used to it. Here, it’s older. It’s a little damaged,” said Hugo Cabellero, a sophomore transfer.

Buist said that families would try to avoid moving schools by changing their addresses into the Huguenot district but not actually moving.

“The reaction was horrendous at first,” Buist said. “It calmed down greatly once everyone adjusted.”

Jillian Goldenbaum, who has been an ESL teacher in RPS for 12 years, said that the move to Wythe was a tremendous improvement in terms of transportation, because the school is closer to students’ houses and bus logistics are simplified for RPS.

There were also students moved from Elkhardt-Thompson Middle School to Boushall Middle School as a part of the program expansion, which was voted on by the School Board in early 2017. 

Among the two schools, about 500 ESL students were transferred, Young said.

Young said he had mixed feelings about the process. He was told by Huguenot’s principal that the Hispanic population there was doing well there, but nonetheless Young is pleased to expand the program if it helps RPS better serve the Hispanic community.

“Irrespective of what building they’re in, they’re not performing,” he said. “It’s a total failure by RPS. We’re not providing them with resources or an appropriate learning style. We’re failing our students.”

Only four in 10 Latino students are graduating, Young said. WTVR reported in 2017 that Richmond had the highest Hispanic dropout rate in Virginia. This is partially because teachers at George Wythe and Boushall are not used to having low-level speakers in their classes, Goldenbaum said.

She is forming a proposal to adjust the master schedule so that ESL teachers do more collaborative teaching with mainstream teachers instead of having isolated classes.

I think with proper training and time, it will get better,she said.

Young is also working to create an academy for new arrivals to the United States instead of immediate admission to regular schools. He hopes to foster an intimate environment with a heavy focus on relationship building.

“That’s what we’re trying to do in Huguenot,” he said, “but we aren’t doing it very well.”

Recent immigrants to the United States struggle to learn English in their core classes, even with these improvements to the system.

Mitsy Luna, a freshman at Huguenot, said that her friends would ask for help from other Latino students who speak better English, but were too embarrassed to ask teachers. They are afraid they will fail the grade, she said.

Gabriel is more optimistic about her progress.

“It was quite difficult at first, but every day I’m getting better. I feel more comfortable. When I first came to the States, I knew nothing.”

An ESL teacher at Huguenot, who asked not to be named, said: “Teaching them is a challenge. A lot of ESL students are fresh to the US, and are put in ninth grade at age 18 because of their level of English. Some can’t even write in Spanish when they get here – they’re semiliterate.”

Most students work after school and have no opportunity to speak English at work or home, he said. Many also have fractured or dysfunctional families at home, all of which infringes upon their study time.

He also expressed concern that there is high social pressure for older high schoolers, who are often 21  when they graduate.

The ESL program exists to compensate for these obstacles.

“There’s a lot of resources available,” the teacher said. “It’s a matter of how well they can use them with their other circumstances.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

New delegate sees hope for change in Assembly

BY KAY TRULASKE AND CAROLINE QUEALLY
STAFF WRITERS
THE CAPITAL NEWS SERVICE

For freshman Del. John McGuire, R-Henrico, the biggest surprise during his first session of the Virginia General Assembly was getting things done.

“I got involved in politics because I was sick and tired of all the divide in our country,” McGuire said. “I know that a good leader brings people together, and the goal of any good leader is to bring people to a better place.”

McGuire is a representative for parts of Goochland, Henrico and Spotslyvania coutnties, as well as Louisa County. A former Navy Seal and father of five, McGuire was born and reared in Henrico County, Virginia, and was in foster care as a child.

Assembly-veteran Del. Steve Landes, R-Weyers Cave, served as McGuire’s mentor in the 2018 session.

“Obviously his background in the military and his experience with small businesses contributed to his success this year,” Landes said. “He takes advice well and applies all feedback in a very effective way.”

During his campaign, McGuire said he heard countless people tell him he wasn’t qualified or experienced enough to be a delegate, and that he would never get anything done.

 

McGuire knocked on the doors of independents, democrats and republicans – with whom he said he laughed and cried as he heard stories from their lives. McGuire sought to embrace people’s different passions and problems.

 

“I appreciate someone who has a different opinion, because through conversation it might change me or change them, so then we get to a better place.”

 

Del. David Reid, D-Loudoun, was a neighbor of McGuire in the General Assembly office building this session.

“It was a pleasure getting to know John and his staff,” Reid said. “We both served in the Navy and we were both adopted when we were young, so there’s a common bond in those areas.”

Reid was a co-patron of McGuire’s veteran ID bill, HB 737, and emphasized the broad support the bill received in the House this year.

McGuire was the chief-patron of nine total bills this session, with the veteran ID bill making it all the way to Gov. Ralph Northam. The bill would allow the DMV to issue driver’s licenses with a veteran indicator.

McGuire’s other eight proposed pieces of legislation, such as HB 739 on police animal cruelty and HB 1397 concerning small business’ government compliance, were killed in session.

“I was elected to solve problems,” McGuire stated. “Not push bills through and overlooking finding the simple solution.”

Landes was impressed with McGuire’s passion to solve issues.

“He was able to find solutions and create legislation on issues people have been trying to solve for years,” Landes said.

McGuire has even killed a number of his own bills because he said he was able to find a solution outside of the General Assembly. Examples include HB 1438 and HB 738, that looked to promote local drive-in movie theaters and lower the cost of milk respectively.

“Our number one goal is to find solutions,” he said. “We want to make Virginia the best place to work, live and raise a family.”

McGuire also discussed the recent Parkland shooting.

“You can imagine that I know a lot about weapons, and I am pro-second amendment,” he said. “However, some people are not. That doesn’t make me any better than them.”

McGuire said at the start of the session he surprised newspapers when he attended and spoke at pro-gun rally, and in the same day, attended a gun safety rally.

“How could you possibly be a good legislator if you don’t go to both and know both sides?” he said.

McGuire said the country needs to make a change about leniency of gun-regulation, especially when it comes to the safety of children. He is in support of stronger background checks.

“If our kids are number one — which they are– we need to protect our children. Make our schools safer,” he said. “It’s like what I said on the campaign trial. We are in a war on common sense. It shouldn’t be easy to harm children.”

Ron Sims, a veteran and constituent in Louisa County, said McGuire’s success thus far is thanks to his persistence.

“The way he ran for election, he stood on every street corner in this district personally holding a sign,” Sims said. “He’s very tenacious.”

During the months he’s not in session, McGuire travels around the country with his company SEAL Team PT, a physical training boot camp for athletic teams and corporations nationwide.

“We are celebrating 20 years of helping people become stronger, healthier and more confident.” McGuire said. “We help people believe in themselves.”

McGuire said he hopes to run for re-election for the 2019 General Assembly.

“I would hope that people would think that finding solutions and getting results is the best thing,” he said. “This is why I am really excited. I put my heart and soul in and am getting things done.”