Looking Back: Defining moments of 2019 in Dinwiddie

By: Michael Campbell | Twitter: @itsthesoup
Posted: January 6, 2020 | 1:45 p.m.

DINWIDDIE – As 2019 and the 2010s decade concluded yesterday, many, including The Dinwiddie Monitor, took time to reflect on the moments that defined Dinwiddie during the now-completed year of 2019. 

From the grand opening of the county’s new center of local government, to the community and family of a beloved businessman finding justice after his senseless 2018 slaying, and incumbents facing few challengers at the polls, these are some of the big stories from 2019 as reported by your community newspaper, The Dinwiddie Monitor.

Dinwiddie County Heralds Opening of New Government Center

Even though the new Dinwiddie County Government Center opened in the waning days of 2018, officials in the county have expressed openly that they wanted to have a special event to herald the building’s completion and opening that allows the community to be part of the celebration, with January 17 being the culmination of that effort.

Inside the new county boardroom, it was standing room only with overflow seating in a neighboring community room Dinwiddie’s seated board, department heads, community leaders and others all gathered to formally dedicate a building that has been nearly a half-decade in the making and part of an ongoing effort to modernize county facilities.

“Over the past 20 years, Dinwiddie County has been busy with facilities,” Board Chairman William Chavis said during his remarks, listing off some of the construction achievements the county has had, including the Dinwiddie County Courthouse, mere steps away from the new center, two new schools, the nationally recognized Dinwiddie Sports Complex, new manned waste sites, along with the recently completed Ragsdale Community Center in McKenney, and Dinwiddie Public Safety Building.

“All of you have made it possible for us to be here today,” Chavis commented. “We have accomplished these great things together and today is our day.”

The Dinwiddie County Government Center represents one stage of a four-stage project that serves to transform the Village of Dinwiddie into a true governmental center for the county, bringing together almost all county services under one roof and at one complex.

Following a space needs assessment, the concept that has been brought to reality was born – a new state-of-the-art public safety building to house the sheriff’s office, fire and EMS, and emergency communications, a new facility solely for the county’s information technology department, renovating the Pamplin building to become the new home of the county school division, and the construction of a building that will house a vast majority of county offices and departments under the same roof for the first time in county history.

While the needs were real and present, officials with the county stressed the need for patience if the county were to complete this effort within the constraints of not impacting the tax rate. 

As interest rates fell and debt came off the books in the county through the midpoint of the decade, the opportunity presented itself where the county could finance the project over 15 years at a mere two-percent interest rate, missing the historic lows by two weeks, according to county officials. 

“With the opening of this new center, we are well on our way to accomplishing our goal, which was creating a more efficient and more responsive municipal complex for all of our citizens,” Dinwiddie County Administrator Kevin Massengill shared. 

He continued, “Good things come to those who wait. And that was very true in our case. In 2017, we borrowed the $25 million and we just missed those lows. We could tell we were beginning to be blessed and that these things were outside of our control but waiting seemed to work.”

Following the completion of the government center, in June, Dinwiddie County Public Schools moved into their new space inside the former Pamplin Administration Building, which now serves as the nerve center for the school system, featuring renovated office spaces and a dedicated boardroom for the school board to host their meetings. 

Convictions handed down in 2018 murder of businessman Umar Salaam

2019 saw the family and friends of Umar Salaam, a Petersburg father and businessman who was murdered outside his place of work in the summer of last year, find some semblance of justice and closure as the three suspects charged in his robbery and murdered were all convicted and sentenced to stints behind bars throughout the year.

Following Salaam’s slaying along U.S. Route 1 near Ritchie Avenue in June of 2018, Dinwiddie Sheriff’s Office detectives arrested Jhanae Short, Caleb Smith, and Thornhill Sledge, charging them with first-degree murder and felony robbery, among other charges.

In March, Short opted to enter an Alford plea in court, meaning the defendant believes the evidence likely to be presented by the Dinwiddie Commonwealth Attorney Ann Cabell Baskervill is strong enough that a jury would find them guilty. As part of that plea, prosecutors dropped two counts of using a firearm to commit a felony and conspiracy charges. 

She would later be sentenced to a total of ten years in prison after part of a 40-year sentence were suspended. 

Alberta resident Thornhill Sledge plead no contest in Dinwiddie Circuit Court last summer, resulting in the judge sentencing him to two decades behind bars.

Smith was the only suspect of the three charged who opted to allow his case to go before a jury, which saw the Newport News native convicted of first-degree murder, robbery, and using a firearm in commission of a felony. He would also receive the longest sentence of the three suspects as the presiding judge sentenced Smith to life in prison. 

In November, lead prosecutor Baskervill talked about the case following Short’s sentencing.

“The tragic death of Umar Salaam was the worst possible collateral damage. The lethal ultimate tragedy is recognized by Virginia criminal law, and by plain common sense and morality, as blame and culpability for deliberate and premeditated murder, because the deliberate and premeditated robbery itself entails violence that is entirely unacceptable.”

She continued, “Here the perpetrators all had – and expressed in open court – difficulty understanding how they could be guilty of murder, when they so-called ‘only’ participated in the planning and execution of a robbery. That is not how Virginia criminal law works, and that is not how our community’s sense of morality, justice, and public safety works. It was and is important for me and our team to express and execute our values here, which align with Virginia criminal law and thus align with our zealous prosecution efforts under Virginia law.”

VDOT Plans for Courthouse Road, U.S. 460 Crossing Draws Concerns 

One year ago, Dakota Reid, a McKenney teenager and Dinwiddie High School student lost his life at the intersection of U.S. Route 460 and Courthouse Road in a crash that left several others seriously injured at an intersection that many believe is dangerous and in need of improvements.

Since February of 2018, the Virginia Department of Transportation have been actively pursuing plans to build a restricted-crossing U-turn at the intersection to reduce the number of angular and t-bone crashes at the intersection, adding that other solutions, such as traffic lights or a speed reduction aren’t warranted. 

The project was added to the county’s six-year road plan and funded and nearly constructed in August as a modified median-U turn, which would eliminate left-turn movement from U.S. Route 460 and through travel from Courthouse and require drivers to use installed u-turns in the median of New Cox Road, but, in September, VDOT said they wanted to garner additional public comments before moving forward.

That comment came through a special information session at Eastside Enhancement Center where officials showed the design to drivers and accepted responses from the community at the venue and through submitted statements. Those statements revealed the majority of respondents want something done to make the crossing safer, be it the MUT, a speed limit reduction, or traffic signal installation. 

While officials continue to refine the design, some drivers continue to express concerns about the design, including the logging and trucking community, along with others who drive larger vehicles through the corridor. With the winter now settling in, VDOT said they will continue to engage with all parties to further improve the design before a planned implementation in the early spring. 

The county has said they plan to hold a public hearing sometime next month to gather more feedback from residents. It was noted in November that county leaders can still opt to remove the project from their six-year plan, thus communicating to VDOT their desire for the MUT to not be installed.

Incumbents Return to Seats Following November Elections 

Dinwiddie County joined dozens of localities across the Commonwealth in November in voting for their local electorate as all of the county’s constitutional officers were on the ballot alongside the entire slate of the county’s board of supervisors and school board, with the vast majority of those offices seeing no challengers.

The November election saw the race for Sheriff between incumbent D.T. Adams and challenger Daryl Hayes as the only office on the ballot featuring a challenger to the seated representative, with Adams earning  over 5,100 votes to Hayes’ 2,745 votes and propelling him to a third term in office. 

“I am overwhelmed and humbled at the same time,” Adams, who was first elected to the position in 2011, remarked following the election. “I am overwhelmed that the citizens came out for me and I am humbled by all of the support that I had and I did something that hasn’t been done in over 50 years in Dinwiddie – I won every precinct, and that is an honor for me.”

The election served as the end of a months-long campaign for Adams and others running for local and state-level office, which requires knocking on doors and visiting with voters to glean what matters to them. As he removed his signs from the side of Dinwiddie’s roads, Adams shared some of his experiences from talking to residents during his campaign.

“People were so satisfied in Dinwiddie County,” he remarked. “Everybody I talked to said, ‘Your record speaks for itself.’ Crime has been down and has gone down since I have been sheriff and the communication with people is up because I have such an open-door policy. I am on social media and I give out my phone number and that is something people like. They like to be able to contact me easily when they need to.”

All five members of the county board of supervisors – Brenda Ebron-Bonner, William Chavis, Daniel Lee, Harrison Moody, and Dr. Mark Moor – were all re-elected for another term with none of the five members having challengers during the 2019 election. 

For the school board, only one candidate declared for Districts 2 through 5, with Betty Takis Haney serving to replace Bill Haney on the board, joining Mary Benjamin, Sherilyn Merritt, and Barbara Pittman on the board beginning in January of 2020 after being sworn in.

District 1, following Teresa Stump’s decision to decline a re-election bid, had no candidates formally declare to appear on the ballot by the June deadline, resulting in a write-in election for that particular seat, which eventually saw Dinwiddie Middle School resource officer Jerry Schnepf as the winner in that race. 

The county’s other constitutional officers – Commissioner of the Revenue Lori Stevens, Commonwealth’s Attorney Ann Cabel Baskervill and Treasurer Jennifer Perkins –  were re-elected after facing no challengers for their respective office.

All elected officials were sworn in during a special ceremony in late December.

Copyright 2019 by Womack Publishing
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