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11 people killed in Virginia Beach shooting; suspect dead

VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. A longtime city employee opened fire at a municipal building in Virginia Beach on Friday, fatally injuring 12 people before police shot and killed him, authorities said.

Four other people were wounded in the shooting, including a police officer whose bulletproof vest saved his life, said Virginia Beach Police Chief James Cervera. The city’s visibly shaken mayor, Bobby Dyer, called it “the most devastating day in the history of Virginia Beach.”

The shooting happened shortly after 4 p.m. when the veteran employee of the Public Utilities Department entered a building in the city’s Municipal Center, and “immediately began to indiscriminately fire upon all of the victims,” Cervera said. He did not release the suspect’s name.

Police entered the building and got out as many employees as they could, then exchanged fire with the suspect, who was killed, the chief said.

The shooting sent shock waves through Virginia Beach, the state’s largest city and a popular vacation spot in southeastern Virginia. The building where the attack took place is in a suburban complex miles away from the high-rise hotels along the beach and the downtown business area.

The White House said President Donald Trump had been briefed and was monitoring the situation.

Megan Banton, an administrative assistant who works in the building where the shooting happened, said she heard gunshots, called 911 and barricaded a door.

“We tried to do everything we could to keep everybody safe,” she said. “We were all just terrified. It felt like it wasn’t real, like we were in a dream. You are just terrified because all you can hear is the gunshots.”

She texted her mom, telling her that there was an active shooter in the building and she and others were waiting for police. Banton works in an office of about 20 people that is part of the public works department.

“Thank God my baby is OK,” Banton’s mother, Dana Showers, said.

Five of the injured were being treated at Sentara Virginia Beach General Hospital and a sixth was being transferred to the Trauma Center at Sentara Norfolk General Hospital, Sentara Healthcare tweeted.

At a nearby middle school, friends and relatives were reuniting with loved ones who were in the building when the shooting happened. They included Paul Swain, 50, who said he saw his fiancee from across the parking lot, clearly in an agitated state.

“I think she knew some of the people,” he said.

Cheryl Benn, 65, waited outside the middle school while her husband, David Benn, a traffic engineer with the city who was in the building where the shooting happened, gave a written statement of what he saw to detectives.

She said her husband initially called her from a barricaded room and said it sounded as if someone had been working with a nail gun. Then he saw the bodies.

“This is unbelievable for Virginia Beach,” Cheryl Benn said. “Nothing like this happens in Virginia Beach. By and large, it’s a pretty calm and peaceful place to live.”

Business 40 work doomed business, owner says

Patti Hamlin opened her antique shop in September of 2017, and started making a profit in her second year.

Then Business 40 closed in November of 2018, causing her all-important Christmas sales to drop off a cliff.

Now, her shop, Repeat Offenders, is closing. Today is her last day, so customers will have to get there before closing time at 3 p.m. to take advantage of the 40% off deals. Either that, or take part in a June 15 “tag sale.”

The shop is at 315 S. Liberty St., within sight of the mound where workers are building a new bridge to take Liberty Street over the new Business 40.

“In retail, you make all your money in the six weeks before Christmas,” Hamlin said. “There was no way to get down here at Christmas, so Christmas was a complete bust. And there’s been no business since. I had a total of $190 in sales in the month of March. There’s no end in sight.”

Hamlin said she operated on the belief that Business 40 would close in January of 2019. Although state highway officials announced a timetable in September of 2016 calling for a closure in November of 2018, Hamlin said that she never heard that.

State officials say they did plenty to get the word out in advance of the closure. They point to over 500 business owners being personally informed about the plans and an equal number of presentations given about the closure.

Through 2018, highway officials were saying publicly that Business 40 would close that November or fall. State officials say they met with business owners in and around the Liberty Street and Brookstown Avenue areas before the demolition of the old STEAM Academy building in January of 2018.

Hamlin said she only learned of the November closure on Oct. 29, 2018, when she heard the announcement on a local television station. That, and a Department of Transportation flyer hand-delivered on Oct. 31 was all she got, she says. As it worked out, Business 40 closed on Nov. 17 last year.

“It could be they didn’t make a good enough effort to get to me,” she said. “I was not the only person who thought (the closure) would be in the beginning of January. The point is, the closing of the street caused me to go out of business.”

Jason Thiel, the president of the Downtown Winston-Salem Partnership, said that the Business 40 closure “has been very hard” on many businesses downtown.

“It is a sad story,” Thiel said on learning the fate of Repeat Offenders. “The only thing we have to console ourselves with is that we had no choice. We have had people who are concerned about whether they are going to make it throughout downtown. It has definitely been a strain.”

Thiel said it is usual for businesses downtown to come and go.

“The question is, are we seeing more than usual, and the answer to that is that we are seeing more than usual,” Thiel said. “Thankfully, the road will be open sooner than expected. We are doing our best to do marketing and advertising on behalf of the businesses.”

Hamlin said she met with only frustration when she looked for ways to offset the impact on her business. When she complained that it was too hard for people to make their way to her business, “it took them three months to put up a sign that said Liberty Street is open,” Hamlin said.

“By that time, the nail is in the coffin,” she said. Similarly, Hamlin said, her appeal for the ability to put a sign on Research Parkway got no response. City officials told her they have promoted bus use as a way for people to get around the closure, she said, but she’s never seen a bus go by her shop.

Ed McNeal, the city’s director of marketing and communication, said he believes the city has done “a respectable job of educating the public on how to get around the project.” He said that he’s saddened that Hamlin’s business is closing, but doesn’t think the city bears the blame.

Hamlin herself said that she doesn’t want to come across as someone embittered. The more recent closure of Marshall Street may spread more woe to business owners on the south side of the Business 40 renovation, she said.

“The big frustration is that the city and state gave no consideration to the retailers downtown” by starting the Business 40 closure in November of 2018, Hamlin said. As Hamlin sees things, businesses on the north side of the closure have gotten more attention than the ones on the south.

Other business owners on the south side of the work zone told the Journal back in January of their difficulties with the downtown freeway closed.

Thiel said while a road project as massive as Business 40 has “no perfect solution” while under construction, the Repeat Offenders episode shows the need for people in Winston-Salem to give more support to local businesses downtown.

“We have the utmost sympathy for the businesses that are struggling,” Thiel said. “We really call on the community to support the businesses. There is a lot of information that has been provided by the state DOT. We would urge people to recognize that we have some businesses that are certainly dealing with hardship.”

McNeal pointed out that this spring, the city has done videos to emphasize good ways to navigate around the Business 40 work zone, with more in the works.

Hamlin said that if the new Liberty Street bridge “were to open tomorrow, I would reconsider” closing. But she doesn’t believe the bridge will be opened sometime in June, as planned. It will be more like August or September, she predicts.

Hamlin said she does think the new Business 40 will be a plus for the city when it is done.

“I can’t wait that long,” she said. “The stress of the business going bad beat me down. I would like to think that I would reopen at some time. I really think that everything they are doing as far as the construction, when it is done, will be great for the city. But not great for me.”

Newest otter dies unexpectedly at Kaleideum in Winston-Salem

Kaleideum’s newest river otter, who joined the museum at Thanksgiving, died unexpectedly Tuesday.

The female otter — who was named “Olive” following a community-wide online naming competition — appeared to be her normal, playful self on Monday, museum officials said.

The 1-year-old otter is thought to have died of a congenital heart defect, according to preliminary necropsy results.

“More often than not, we have no way of knowing that an animal, especially a wild animal, carries this type of defect until it’s too late,” said Mitchell Spindel, a veterinarian at Animal Ark Veterinary Hospital who tends to the Winston-Salem museum’s animals.

“By all appearances, Olive was a healthy and happy otter. She met her growth benchmarks, ate well, and played hard.”

Pathology results are pending, but no signs of infection or trauma were identified.

Olive, who was affectionately known as “Baby” to her caretakers, was rescued in April 2018 in Whispering Pines, N.C. as an 8-week old orphaned otter.

Olive was introduced to Kaleideim North, located at 400 West Hanes Mill Road in November during the museum’s “Otter Encounter” program.

She had previously met the museum’s 16-year-old male otter, Otto, in October after a three-year search by the museum to find him a companion.

The original female otter, Mollie, had been at the museum since 1992. She died of old age in 2015.

Otters typically live to about 20 years old in captivity.

“We are saddened by Olive’s sudden and completely unexpected death,” said Kaleideum Executive Director Elizabeth Dampier.

“She was a favorite of the staff, especially the animal curators who have, since she first arrived as a baby, cared for her and celebrated each milestone, and she was loved by many of our members and visitors,” Dampier said.

Walt Unks/Journal  

Olive, a juvenile female otter, plays with a rock at Kaleideum’s Otter Encounter in November. The otter, named with the help of a community-wide competition, died Tuesday.

Possible sale for Crystal Towers; some hurdles remain

For now, it’s a waiting game at Crystal Towers as officials consider the sale of the public-housing building.

Last summer, the Housing Authority of Winston-Salem announced that it was putting the high-rise apartment building up for sale, citing escalating maintenance costs.

The announcement touched off fears that the elderly and disabled people who live there might be permanently displaced.

HAWS chief executive Larry Woods said that while HAWS has an offer for the property in hand, it is too soon to say if the sale will go through or when residents might have to move.

That’s because the sale and a plan to make sure the complex’s residents have a place to stay must be approved by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

And that takes time.

“We have not gotten any approval from moving yet,” Woods said. “Once we get the approval, we will first go to the tenants and have a public announcement telling them what to expect.”

Woods declined to name the potential buyer, saying he didn’t want to unduly disturb Crystal Tower’s residents since nothing has been approved. Asked to provide the legal grounds for not releasing that information, Woods said he would have to consult the HAWS attorney next week.

Fally Morris, a resident of the towers, said Friday that she hasn’t heard a word about when people might have to move.

“I know one thing about housing: They can’t get rid of us unless we have someplace to go,” Morris said. “And how are they going to find a place for that many people at once?”

Woods said he was hopeful something will come through from HUD in the next several weeks.

As for a timetable of the tenant relocation, Woods said it won’t be done in one fell swoop but stretched over time so that HAWS can work with the residents on what their best options might be.

The potential buyers of Crystal Towers plan to modernize the building, not tear it down, Woods said.

“They want the building as is,” he said. “They plan to renovate it. Part of the discussion that we negotiated with the buyer was to have a level of affordability as part of the purchase agreement. We are having a certain number of units set aside for certain income categories. The buyer was comfortable with having some conditions attached to it as part of the sales agreement.”

The Crystal Towers building, located at 625 W. Sixth St., came into being in the early 1970s and is a companion to the slightly older, slightly smaller Sunrise Towers apartment building on the east side of Winston-Salem. It’s located at 801 Martin Luther King Jr. Drive.

Architecture historian Heather Fearnbach said in her 2015 book “Winston-Salem’s Architectural Heritage” that the two buildings are the most distinctive ones in the Modernist style in the city. They were designed by Michael Newman of the Lashmit, Brown and Pollock architectural firm.

Though some people have labeled Crystal Towers an eyesore, Northwest Ward City Council Member Jeff MacIntosh, a real-estate agent who specializes in restoration projects, noted that everything comes around again in the real-estate world.

“It is a modern-style building and will have appeal from that standpoint,” MacIntosh said. “Everything going up downtown is not classical architecture. It is all modern. Fifteen years ago, you couldn’t give away a ranch house. People have rediscovered that style.”

While renovation is going on, Woods said, HAWS anticipates that most residents will find housing in the private market using vouchers. People having difficulty in finding a place to stay will be able to stay in other HAWS units, even if only temporarily if they are looking for other permanent housing, Woods said.

An essential part of HUD’s approval process is making sure residents of the towers have a home. Woods said that in addition to developing a plan for relocating residents, HAWS will be working with the city of Winston-Salem’s Human Relations Department to make sure the relocation plan meets all the city’s fair housing targets.

“We would then give a copy of the plan to the residents,” Woods said. “They could review it with family members. If there is something that we have not explained we can work with the tenants.”

Working with tenants involves interviews to see what kinds of special needs any might have, he said.

HAWS called the sale of Crystal Towers a “last option” last year when the sale was announced. With the building needed about $7 million in maintenance work, Woods said HAWS decided the money would be better spent renovating smaller complexes.

Residents of Crystal Towers said they liked the convenience of living downtown, even as Council Member James Taylor said he worried that the sale would take away the chance many elderly and disabled people have to live downtown.