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As Coronavirus Spread, Dozens Of Law Enforcement Agents Raided Virginia Housing Projects Over Alleged Small Drug Deals

Despite distancing warnings, more than 80 state and federal agents fanned out in an anti-drug operation that, The Appeal has learned, was based on a series of retail-level drug sales.

Photo illustration by Elizabeth Brown. Photo from Getty Images.

On March 19, more than 80 local, state, and federal agents stormed a public housing community in Richmond, Virginia, as the novel coronavirus began ravaging the United States. 

The raid—which put dozens of law enforcement members in contact with a highly vulnerable population—came barely a week after the World Health Organization called COVID-19 a pandemic and the Trump administration declared a national emergency. 

Despite the fact that the massive raid risked spreading coronavirus among the Richmond community, its jails, and law enforcement, prosecutors were defiant.

Lest there be any doubt, crime doesn’t self-quarantine, and our brave law enforcement partners will not allow the rule of law to disintegrate amidst this pandemic,” said G. Zachary Terwilliger, U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia. The March 19 raid resulted in the arrests of six people. In total, eight men were hit with a range of federal charges including conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute a controlled substance and cocaine distribution. 

But according to previously unreported documents reviewed by The Appeal, none of the men arrested are accused of dealing more than $320 worth of heroin  in a single purchase. The massive resources poured into the March 19 raid—which involved ICE, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF), the Drug Enforcement Administration, FBI, Richmond Police Department, Virginia State Police, and the Virginia Attorney General’s Office—stand in stark contrast to the resource-deprived, historically segregated public housing communities, Creighton Court, Mosby Court, and Whitcomb Court, that were targeted in the case.

According to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, an average family living in Creighton Court made $9,735 in the last year.  In March, the Richmond Times-Dispatch profiled one woman who has lived in a Richmond Redevelopment and Housing Authority-owned apartment that has not had working heat for the last six years. 

A spokesperson for the U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia did not respond to repeated requests for comment from The Appeal, but told the Richmond Times-Dispatch that the 80 members of law enforcement agents involved in the raid were split into small law enforcement teams to limit the spread of coronavirus.

But Leo Beletsky, Professor of Law and Health Sciences at Northeastern University, told The Appeal that the raid was a waste of resources that actively put both arrestees and law enforcement members in danger during the pandemic.

“Even in normal times, this would be an absurd amount of government resources to deploy on something like that,” Beletsky said. “Federal law enforcement likes to spread this narrative that they’re going after ‘kingpins’ and are focused on ‘dismantling’ international drug trafficking organizations, but if you drill down and look at what they are doing, typically they’re arresting and prosecuting people who are very low down on the supply chain.”

He added: “But in the context of the pandemic, this makes even less sense. It flies in the face of the idea that the federal government is doing all that it can to address the crisis.”

According to court documents, agents with the ATF began working with a confidential informant to monitor three Richmond men—Estee Washington, Japorium Straughter, and Keantry Vaughn—in December 2019. (Attorneys  for the three men did not respond to requests from The Appeal.) In a March 17 affidavit, ATF Special Agent Anthony Brock Newton said that confidential informants observed the three men making a total of seven alleged drug sales between December 12 and March 10.

On December 12, the ATF alleges that a confidential informant called Vaughn, who allegedly directed the informant to a Creighton Road address. When the informant arrived at the residence, the ATF says the 29-year-old Washington exited a housing complex and sold the informant just 0.69 grams of heroin for $100.

Ten days later, Richmond police pulled Vaughn over for a broken taillight. Officers claim Vaughn was carrying marijuana and a scale, and that 28-year-old Straughter sat in the backseat next to a jar of marijuana. The officers also claim that a gun sat at Straughter’s feet.

On January 7, the ATF set up a new confidential informant with a wired surveillance device. The informant arrived at an address on Nine Mile Road, where a person allegedly drove the informant back to Creighton Road building that was allegedly the site of the December 12  purchase. Once there, the informant allegedly purchased 0.3 grams of heroin from Washington for just $20.

The agency alleges that they observed the three men engage in at least five more heroin sales between January 10 and mid-March. But the alleged sales were similarly small, and included one sale of 2.1 grams of heroin for $90, another for 2.6 grams of heroin at $200, and a 2.9 gram heroin sale on January 22.

The confidential informants didn’t buy any heroin in February. But they restarted their buys in March as the coronavirus infections began to spread widely. On March 9, a confidential informant allegedly called Washington to buy heroin. The informant said he was “trying to get a ball.” Washington simply replied, “OK.” The pair met the next day and the informant allegedly bought one gram of heroin from Vaughn.

Nine days later, the ATF conducted the gigantic March 19 raid, in which the agency says it recovered unspecified amounts of marijuana, crack cocaine, and heroin, as well as four guns and $1,500 cash. Straughter, Washington, and four others were later hit with federal drug distribution charges. Any of the men who lived in public housing  could now also face eviction due to the charges.

On April 8, Terwilliger filed a motion for an extension of time to indict the men because of a coronavirus-related order suspending all grand jury proceedings from March 31 until at least May 1. On April 10, a federal magistrate judge granted the motion. As they await indictment, however, both Washington and Straughter remain incarcerated in a regional jail in Virginia that has been releasing people over COVID-19 concerns. If convicted, the men will be sent to the coronavirus-plagued Federal Bureau of Prisons, which as of April 14 reported 446 incarcerated people and 248 staff members with COVID-19 nationwide.

Beletsky said that the coronavirus could theoretically kill the detained men before they ever face a trial. 

“This is a routine, non-urgent, nonessential government activity,” Beletsky said. “If we need to triage law enforcement activity, I’d say ‘low-level drug crimes’ are at the top of that list of things we need to take a much more flexible approach on. ‘Practicing social distancing’ and ‘doing enforcement of bullshit crimes’ do not mesh.”