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Evan Jones

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Photo: Bedford Fire Twitter

UPDATE: Investigators say there is no question that the fire at the former Bedford Middle School was the work of an arsonist – and they have discovered an accelerant in one of its rooms. Officials say it appears the fire was set in more than one part of the building. Police are using a specially-trained dog to assist in the arson investigation, and as more parts of the building are deemed safe, the dog will head there in efforts to find more evidence.
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PREVIOUS: Bedford Police Chief Todd Foreman says the fire was intentionally set.

PREVIOUS: A massive cleanup awaits at the former Bedford Middle School, this after an overnight blaze caused extensive damage to the building. Officials say floors collapsed as the fire spread from one end of the structure to the other, and the building’s cupola came down as well. There is no word yet on what have started the fire in a building that was set for renovation into apartments. Town Manager Bart Warner says it is not clear yet whether that is still possible:

01-23 Bedford Fire Bite-WEB

Fire officials say extensive overhaul will be required before fire investigators are able to enter and begin their probe into the cause. There are no injuries reported.

PREVIOUS :Crews continue to battle a massive fire at the former Bedford Middle School that broke out this morning around 3 on Longwood Avenue. The main building has sustained heavy damage, and the spire on top has collapsed. The fire has not reached the “Old Yellow” building or any of the other school buildings. There is no official word on what percentage of the fire is under control. In April, Bedford town council approved a deal to renovate the vacant school and turn it into apartments.

PREVIOUS:Emergency Crews are responding to a reportedly large fire this morning at the old Bedford Middle School on Longwood Avenue. The road is blocked off at Peaks Street and North Bridge Street. When asked, sheriff’s deputies told WSLS-10 they have been at the scene of the fire for so long they lost track. In April, Bedford town council approved a deal to renovate the vacant school into apartments.

Photo: BCSO

A Vinton-area woman is charged with stealing funds from the Christian school where she worked. The Bedford County Sheriff’s Office says the investigation started in December when Mineral Springs Christian School reported a possible embezzlement. That led to the arrest this week of 44-year-old Christi Gray on eight felony counts. There is no word on how much money may be involved.

NEWS RELEASE: On December 12, 2019, the Bedford County Sheriff’s Office received a report from the Mineral Springs Christian School reference to a possible embezzlement.

On January 22, 2020 after an intensive investigation, Christi Gray, age 44, of Vinton was arrested and charged with four counts of Felony Embezzlement and four counts of Felony Obtain Money by False Pretenses. She was released on an unsecured bond. At the time of the crimes, Gray was employed by the school.

The investigation continues into this case.

MGN

Bills that would undo several Virginia abortion laws have now advanced from both House and Senate committees, and full passage appears all but certain. Among other things, the bills would overturn past requirements that included an ultrasound and 24-hour waiting period before an abortion. WLNI’s Evan Jones has more:

01-23 Abortion Laws Wrap-WLNI-WEB

RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — With a newly empowered Democratic majority at the Virginia General Assembly, abortion-rights advocates say the state has a chance to roll back decades of restrictions and become a “safe haven” for women in neighboring conservative states.

Pro-choice groups laid out their legislative priorities this week, emphasizing a measure to undo Republican-backed laws including a 24-hour waiting period before an abortion, as well a requirement that women seeking an abortion undergo an ultrasound and counseling. A Senate committee passed that bill on Thursday morning, a day after a House committee advanced that chamber’s version.

“These laws have been about shaming women, stigmatizing abortion, shutting off access, discouraging doctors from providing this care. And we say, we’ve had enough, the voters in Virginia have had enough, and now we’re going to act on it,” Tarina Keene, executive director of NARAL Pro-Choice Virginia, said at a press conference Wednesday.

The bills, which are part of Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam’s legislative agenda, would also roll back the requirement that an abortion be provided by a physician, allowing nurse practitioners and physician assistants to perform them, and undo strict building code requirements on facilities where abortions are performed.

Pro-choice groups say those restrictions injected politics into a decision that should be made by a woman and her doctor and made obtaining an abortion overly burdensome. Abortion opponents argued the laws protect pregnant women’s health and safety and are prudent given the gravity of the decision to obtain an abortion.

“There is no other procedure we deal with that ends the life of another person,” said Republican Sen. Stephen Newman, who opposed the bill.

The bills are advancing at a time when pro-choice advocates are increasingly worried the nation’s highest court could overturn or chip away at the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision that established a nationwide right to abortion. The U.S. Supreme Court is scheduled in March to hear its first major abortion case since the addition of two justices appointed by President Donald Trump.

“If ever there is a time to protect a woman’s bodily autonomy, that time is now,” said Sen. Jennifer McClellan, the sponsor of the Senate bill, who discussed her personal experiences during her pregnancies while advocating for the measure.

Keene said if “the worst-case scenario happens,” Virginia needs to be “a safe haven” for women in bordering states that are moving to ban abortion outright the moment Roe is overturned.

The Guttmacher Institute, a research group that supports abortion rights, rates Virginia’s current laws as “hostile.”

Data from the Virginia Department of Health show the number of facilities providing abortions has fallen from 20 in 2012, the first year in which the department began licensing the facilities, to 14 this year. The facilities are all located in populated areas, and the one furthest west is in Roanoke, according to the department.

Rachel Scruggs, a 25-year-old from Manassas, said Virginia’s current laws were a “demeaning” stumbling block when she sought an abortion after finding out she was pregnant with a partner who she said was emotionally and verbally abusive.

“Having an abortion was the best decision for my family, and I’ve never once regretted that decision,” said Scruggs, who was already a mother to a son with a developmental disability. “But being forced to go through a medically unnecessary ultrasound, mandated biased counseling and unfortunately to come back at another time due to the 24-hour waiting period was demeaning to me and a huge burden for my family.”

Republican Sen. Siobhan Dunnavant, an OB-GYN, said Thursday she did not object to the provision removing the ultrasound requirement. But she called the 24-hour waiting period an “incredibly prudent” intervention.

Dunnavant described what she called the “painful” experience of counseling patients who acted quickly to have an abortion because they were facing pressure to do so, only to later regret their decision.

There is no harm in giving a woman a day to consider the decision, she said.

So far, abortion-rights advocates haven’t made loosening restrictions on late-term abortions a priority.

Debate over such a bill last year erupted into all-out political warfare after a video went viral of Democratic Del. Kathy Tran acknowledging that her legislation would allow abortions up until moments before birth.

Northam’s attempts to defend the legislation in a radio interview led to accusations from prominent Republicans that he supports infanticide.

“They learned their lesson last year,” said Victoria Cobb, president of the conservative Family Foundation.

Fire destroyed a Rustburg home this morning. Investigators say it started as the woman living there without electricity was sleeping with a kerosene heater on. The call was sounded to the Mountain Lane home around 7:00 am, but firefighters were unable to save the home. There are no injuries reported.

From the Campbell County Fire Marshal:

  • 1 adult female was home at the time of the structure fire.
  • No injuries have been reported with this incident.
  • With no electric power service to the home, a kerosene heater was being used as a heat source. At this time the cause of the fire is still under investigation.
  • Agencies responding include: Rustburg Volunteer Fire Department; Concord Volunteer Fire Department, Lyn-Dan Volunteer Fire Department, Campbell County Sheriff’s Office and Campbell County Department of Public Safety.
  • The Red Cross is assisting the displaced resident.

Republicans and Democrats have differing views on what Monday’s gun rights rally in Richmond says about support for or opposition to proposed gun-related laws. Republicans say it demonstrates widespread opposition to many proposed restrictions, but Democrats say Virginians elected them to majorities in both the House and Senate in large part to reduce gun-related violence. WLNI’s Evan Jones has more on the continuing debate:

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One of the General Assembly’s biggest tasks this year is to develop and approve a two-year budget — where will the money come from and how will it be spent. The process begins with a lot of predicting, with hopes it will be right, or at least very close. WLNI’s Evan Jones has the story:

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Virginia’s Secretary of Finance Aubrey Lane appeared this week before the Senate Finance Committee, where he presented his department’s best sense as to how much tax revenue Virginia can expect to come in over the next two years. Factors include things like job numbers, revenue now coming in through Internet sales taxes, and defense spending in Virginia. Lane says revenue estimates are conservative in efforts to avoid state deficits should tax collections fail to meet expectations.

Virginia House and Senate Republican leaders say they have not received any information about threats to public safety Governor Northam cited in declaring a state of emergency ahead of Monday’s gun rights rally. They ask Northam for a meeting to brief them on the information he has. The GOP has questioned whether Northam had sufficient reason – or the right – to ban guns in the capitol area for five days.

Here is the full text of their letter:

Dear Governor Northam:

We respectfully write to you today regarding your Executive Order of Wednesday, January 15, 2020, declaring a State of Emergency on and around Capitol Square.

Chapter 44-146.15 of the Code of Virginia states that the Governor does not have the “authority to in any way limit the right of the people to keep and bear arms…except to the extent
necessary to ensure public safety…in any place or facility used… as an emergency shelter or for the purpose of sheltering persons.”

Law enforcement officials have indicated they have identified “credible” threats against the events scheduled for Monday, January 20, and you have stated these as justification for your
declaration. While the safety of those on Capitol Square is paramount, the restrictions you have enacted place significant burdens on the First and Second Amendment rights of Virginians. We
have concerns about your authority for declaring this emergency.

We, as members of the General Assembly, have received none of the information you have referenced to justify these restrictions. As such, we request that your office conduct a secure briefing on the threats identified by the Virginia Fusion Center and the Unified Command for the leadership of the General Assembly at the earliest possible time. We understand the need for operational security and to protect intelligence sources and methods. As such, we would suggest this briefing be conducted in a secure location of your choosing, with only the leadership of the respective majority and minority caucuses of the General Assembly — the Speaker of the House, Majority and Minority Leaders of the House and Senate, and the Chairs of the Democratic and Republican House and Senate Caucuses. No legislative staff would be included in this briefing.

Considering the abridgment of the constitutional rights of Virginians your declaration has imposed, and because we have serious concerns about whether a governor has the authority to enact such restrictions, we believe it is imperative that leaders of the General Assembly – representing both majority and minority caucuses – are appropriately briefed as to the nature of these threats.

Time is of the essence, and we await your prompt response.

Del Danica Roem

One Virginia delegate speaking in favor of the Equal Rights Amendment Wednesday has a background unlikely any other Virginia lawmaker — or for that matter, like any state legislator in the country. The speech was anything but common either, as WLNI’s Evan Jones reports:

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Delegate Danica Roem represents a northern Virginia district .. with a background that includes singing in a heavy metal band, newspaper reporting and being the the first openly transgender person so serve in the General Assembly — or any state legislature. She used that part of her background in voicing her support for the Equal Rights Amendment. Roem says the ERA will protect rights of transgenders. Opponents say it opens the door to many consequences not intended or forseen when the amendment was passed in 1972. Wherever you stand, Roem’s speech had no precedent in the House of Delegates.

A House of Delegates committee — with its new Democratic majority — has advanced the Equal Rights Amendment. It comes from the committee that killed it last year and setting the stage for General Assembly ratification. More from WLNI’s Evan Jones:

01-15 Virginia ERA Wrap-WLNI

RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — Virginia moved a step closer to ratifying the Equal Rights Amendment on Tuesday, even as the measure’s future nationally remains in doubt.

A House committee approved a resolution to ratify the gender equality measure, which advocates hope will become the next amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

The 13-9 vote split along party lines, with all Democrats supporting it and all Republicans opposing it.

A Senate committee already advanced a similar resolution. The resolutions are now before the full House and Senate, where floor votes were expected Wednesday. Democrats control both chambers, and their legislative leaders have said their caucuses unanimously support the measure.

“Each action we take to move this resolution forward signals to the country that we’re more than ready to do our part in creating a world where women are treated as equals,” Del. Jennifer Carroll Foy, a sponsor of the House resolution, said in a statement. “I was proud to introduce this resolution and I look forward to voting to pass it in the House tomorrow.”

Each chamber will then need to pass the other’s resolution before ratification becomes final.

ERA advocates say the measure will enshrine equality for women in the Constitution, offering stronger protections in sex discrimination cases. Opponents warn it will erode commonsense protections for women, such as workplace accommodations during pregnancies. They also worry it would be used by abortion-rights supporters to quash restrictions on the grounds that they specifically discriminate against women.

Final passage would make Virginia the decisive 38th state to ratify the ERA, surpassing the three-quarters of states needed to add an amendment to the Constitution.

However, court battles are expected over a long-passed 1982 deadline set by Congress, as well as other legal issues.

MGN

The new General Assembly majority is moving quickly to advance gun-related legislation that the previous Republican majority has blocked for years. Some of the Democrats’ centerpiece proposals received committee approval Monday, as WLNI’s Evan Jones reports.

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Virginia lawmakers have taken the first steps toward enacting a series gun laws that supporters say will make the state safer — and opponents say will punish only law-abiding gun owners. The first step in the process is committee, in this case the Senate Judiciary Committee now chaired by Roanoke Senator John Edwards. The first of many proposals before it Monday was one to limit handgun sales to one per person per month, and it passed on a party-line vote. So did a separate measure calling for a limit of handgun purchases in Virginia to one per month per person and what is commonly called a “red flag” bill that would allow authorities to temporarily take guns away from anyone deemed dangerous to themselves or others.

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