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Questions arise about Richmond police claim of averted mass shooting

Police in Virginia’s capital generated national attention last month when they announced that they had foiled what they described as a plot by two men to carry out a mass shooting at a major July Fourth event at a Richmond amphitheater.

The dramatic announcement — which came just two days after seven people were killed and dozens more wounded in a high-profile attack on an Independence Day parade in Highland Park, Illinois — left city residents breathing a sigh of relief and wondering what might have been.

But since then, the picture of what happened has grown increasingly muddled.

Earlier: Police say tip helped foil July Fourth mass shooting in Richmond

Richmond’s Commonwealth Attorney Colette McEachin said in an interview Thursday that her office had no evidence that the specific target of the alleged plot was the Dogwood Dell amphitheater, as Richmond’s police chief has asserted. She said a tipster who alerted police about the potential mass shooting only told them the target was a “large event.”

Neither man arrested in the case has been charged with an offense related to plotting a mass shooting; they were initially charged with weapons offenses, and are now facing immigration and gun charges in federal court. Police and prosecutors have disclosed few details about the case and sometimes released conflicting information.

The contradictory and incomplete picture nearly a month after the arrests has led to questions about the Richmond police account. Experts said it illustrates the delicate nature of when and how to reveal possible threats to the public.

Steve Benjamin, a prominent defense attorney and Richmond resident, said police should have handled the announcement with more restraint.

“I can’t overstate the seriousness of the city’s police chief saying they had such a terrifying plot at a specific location,” Benjamin said. “To be charitable, you could say the chief blurred the distinction between fact and pure speculation.”

Richmond police posted a statement on Facebook saying the department stood behind its characterizations, following a court hearing Wednesday where the discrepancies in the accounts of police and prosecutors first emerged.

“As confirmed today, there is evidence that RPD stopped a mass shooting from happening in the city on July 4,” the statement read. “Our investigation led us to conclude that Dogwood Dell was the intended target.”

The case became public on July 6, when Richmond Police Chief Gerald M. Smith announced at a news conference that a “hero citizen” had helped thwart a possible mass shooting. He said the unidentified person overhead a conversation about the plot.

“There is no telling how many lives this hero citizen saved with this one phone call,” Smith said.

Police began investigating and seized two assault rifles, a handgun and 223 rounds of ammunition from the residence of Rolman Balcarcel-Bavagas, 52, and Julio Alvarado-Dubon, 38, Smith said. They claimed there was evidence in plain sight corroborating a plan to carry out a mass shooting, but Smith did not detail it. Alvarado-Dubon was arrested at the residence.

Smith said investigators watched Balcarcel-Bavagas through the July Fourth holiday and then arrested him later, when they had probable cause to do so.

The controversy over the conflicting accounts flared after Richmond General District Judge David Hicks asked one of McEachin’s deputies at a Wednesday court hearing about the location that police had claimed was a target. The judge said two of his sons had been at the Dogwood Dell on July Fourth, so he might have to recuse himself from the case.

McEachin said the prosecutor replied that he had no evidence to support Dogwood Dell as the specific target. “It is correct we have no evidence Dogwood Dell was the target,” McEachin said in an interview.

Prosecutors then dropped charges of possessing a firearm while in the country illegally against Balcarcel-Bavagas and Alvarado-Dubon, so the case could be pursued in federal court. Both men are from Guatemala.

Federal prosecutors in the Eastern District of Virginia filed charges this week against Balcarcel-Bavagas for entering the United States illegally. Alvarado-Dubon has been charged federally with possessing a firearm while in the country illegally.

Neither has been charged with a mass shooting-related offense in federal court, and their charging documents make no mention of any such plot, although prosecutors could add such counts later.

How to stay safe in a mass shooting

Federal prosecutors declined to comment on the case. lawyers for the men did not respond to messages.

Jaclyn Schildkraut, a professor at the State University of New York at Oswego who studies mass violence, said authorities often build a detailed body of evidence before announcing that they have warned of a potential mass shooting.

She pointed to a 2018 case at Syracuse University, where police announced a Chinese national who was a student was plotting a mass shooting.

Authorities recovered gun accessories, ammunition and messages from the suspect stating his intentions. They tracked his movements and got psychological records. He was deported back to China before they revealed the plot.

“You can’t look only at what people are saying,” Schildkraut said. “You have to look at, ‘Do they have the means to carry it out? What sort of planning has gone into it?’ Usually when you have an averted plot, there is a lot of investigation that has gone into it.”

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