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Richmond police chief receives text before press conference that officers 'maybe' stopped mass shooting

Posted at 6:21 PM, Sep 15, 2022

RICHMOND, Va. -- Documents obtained by CBS 6 through government transparency laws revealed communications between police leaders and officers as they investigated an anonymous tip warning of a possible mass shooting on July 4.

Two days following a July 6 press conference in which Police Chief Gerald Smith announced officers thwarted the alleged attack, CBS 6 filed a request for communication records under the Freedom of Information Act.

The request was fulfilled by Richmond Police on September 13.

Among the records: a text from a police major that officers "maybe" stopped a mass shooting, an email that clashes with the time Chief Smith claimed to have received talking points for his press conference, and a message pointing to resources used on July 4 to scan large gatherings.

JULY 1:

An email sent from a police sergeant on July 1 gave insight into the call, which was in Spanish, that first alerted police of a threat.

"It was difficult to take as we were using the language line. No Spanish speaking officers at 2nd [precinct] at that time," the email read.

The sergeant said another officer called the complainant to get first-hand information and then report back.

The officer that called the tipster sent back information, but the email was completely redacted in the FOIA response, so it's unknown what the email said.

JULY 2:

The following day, on July 2, Smith's Chief of Staff, Spencer Cochran, sent Smith a text message about the tip and email.

"You might have been briefed... or read [the] email. The information was vague on Friday, but they worked it and at least got more guns off [the] street, but at most, maybe prevented [a] mass shooting," Cochran wrote.

However, during a one-on-one interview with CBS 6 in August, Smith said he was "absolutely" certain police stopped a mass shooting, no 'maybes' about it.

When asked about this text message, Deputy Chief Victoria Pearson said, "If I recall correctly, days transpired between those statements, a search warrant was executed in between that time and a second individual apprehended."

JULY 3:

RPD's public information officer Tracy Walker sent an email to Deputy Chief John Hayes with talking points for a July 4th press conference to discuss firework safety.

In the email, it appeared Walker referenced the guns confiscated from the home of the man accused by police of being involved in the mass shooting plot. She said it would not be discussed during Hayes' briefing.

"My understanding is that we're not talking about the arrest made and cache of weapons," Walker wrote.

JULY 4:

On the evening of July 4, as thousands were gathered for firework shows at Dogwood Dell and the Diamond, Lieutenant Ronnie Armstead texted the chief about surveillance of those events.

"Hey Boss. I also got confirmation that we have use of plane. It will be used to scan the footprint of the Carillon and the Diamond, rooftops or anything that looks suspicious," Armstead wrote.

The Carillon tower stands adjacent to Dogwood Dell.

When asked if the plane was used in response to the mass shooting tip, Pearson said, "We will not provide any further tactical or safety measures utilized."

JULY 5:

The next morning, Chief Smith alerted Mayor Levar Stoney's Office of "no noteworthy overnight events." He said the police department was planning a press conference that day on the mass shooting plot.

"We are planning a media stand-up today to go over an arrest that stopped a mass shooting. The FBI will be joining us," Smith said.

The mayor's chief of staff Maggie Anderson did not immediately respond with questions about the alleged mass shooting plot, but asked, "What time is the press conference?"

CBS 6 also received a call into the newsroom on July 5 from police about the press conference but was later told the briefing was called off due to "unforeseen circumstances."

The news conference was rescheduled to July 6, but the FBI did not show up. According to press conference talking points prepared by RPD's public information officer, the agency wanted to "take a back seat."

A spokesperson for Richmond FBI declined to comment to CBS 6 on why the agency was not involved.

But the FOIA showed an hour before the July 6 press conference, a spokesperson told CNN that Richmond FBI is "aware of this incident and postured to assist the City of Richmond Police Department in this investigation with our task force resources; but they remain the lead agency - and we will not be present at their presser."

JULY 6:

The communications manager for the City of Richmond, Petula Burks, distributed messaging intended for city council members to invite them to a 2 p.m. press conference.

"RPD will host a briefing to discuss a thwarted mass shooting intended to disrupt COR's [City of Richmond's] July 4th event at Dogwood Dell," Burks wrote in a group chat. It's unclear what time the message was sent, and a FOIA officer could not confirm with CBS 6.

The city's deputy chief administrative officer Sabrina Joy-Hogg reported back to Burks in a group chat that she passed the message along to Councilman Mike Jones but "got an earful from him about why he had to hear about it on Twitter first. We really need to work on our timing and getting info to council members before the media does it for us."

It's also unclear how Burks, who was filling in as Mayor Stoney's press secretary that week, received information that the alleged mass shooting was planned for Dogwood Dell.

According to Smith's own talking points for the press conference, a specific location was never mentioned by the tipster. Prosecutors would also later admit in court that no evidence existed tying Dogwood Dell to the mass shooting plot.

Still, Smith named Dogwood Dell as the target to the local and national press.

When his "location unknown" talking points were released publicly in August through FOIA requests submitted by other media outlets, Smith told journalists he did not review them because they were sent to him seven minutes before the briefing.

Those records showed public information officer Tracy Walker sent the talking points to other officers and department leaders earlier in the day on July 6 but did not send Smith the email until 1:53 p.m.

Smith gave a quote to the Richmond Times-Dispatch at the time saying, “As I stated in interviews last week, I never reviewed these talking points. As you state, they were sent to me seven minutes before the press conference. I did not have the opportunity to review or approve them prior to the press conference.”

However, CBS 6's FOIA response revealed the talking points made it to Smith's inbox nearly 50 minutes ahead of the news conference.

Civilian Deputy Chief Victoria Pearson forwarded the talking points email to Smith at 1:13 p.m.

CBS 6 asked police about this email and why Smith told the press about only a seven-minute notice, despite talking points that were forwarded 47 minutes in advance. You can read his statement here.

Richmond's Chief Administrative Officer Lincoln Saunders congratulated Chief Smith in a text message about three hours after the press conference.

Saunders attached news coverage from CNN saying, "Very nice."

FOIA Transparency:

CBS 6 filed a request for communication records on July 8 and an updated request on July 11 asking for emails and text messages sent and received among Chief Smith, his chief of staff, four deputy chiefs, and the head of public information.

The scope of our request aimed to include communication and information pertaining to the planning of the July 6 press conference, the mass shooting tip, Dogwood Dell, the Diamond, and potential involvement of the mayor's office between 7/1/22-7/7/22.

On July 12, RPD gave CBS 6 an estimate of $568.32 to fulfill the request and said payment must be received before work begins on compiling the records.

CBS 6's parent company, Scripps, mailed a check to RPD postmarked July 28.

RPD said the check was received almost a month later on August 25.

RPD sent the completed request to CBS 6 on September 13.

Under FOIA law, government agencies are allowed five business days to fulfill requests but can invoke an extension of seven additional business days.

RPD did not invoke an extension on our request.

Pearson said the legal office was dealing with numerous, voluminous FOIA requests over the same relevant time period in addition to their normal responsibilities.

RPD charged CBS 6 an additional $285.72 on top of the deposit due to the hours they said it took to fulfill the request.

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