VIRGINIA BEACH, Va.
A longtime city employee opened fire in a municipal building in Virginia Beach on Friday, killing 12 people on three floors and sending terrified co-workers scrambling for cover before police shot and killed him following a “long gun-battle,” authorities said.
Four other people were wounded in the shooting, including a police officer whose bulletproof vest saved his life, said Virginia Beach Police Chief James Cervera. The city’s visibly shaken mayor, Bobby Dyer, called it “the most devastating day in the history of Virginia Beach.”
The shooting happened shortly after 4 p.m. when the veteran employee of the Public Utilities Department entered a building in the city’s Municipal Center and “immediately began to indiscriminately fire upon all of the victims,” Cervera said. Authorities did not release the suspect’s name, instead choosing to focus on the victims during a news conference.
Police entered the building and got out as many employees as they could, then exchanged fire with the suspect, who was armed with a .45 caliber handgun, the chief said.
Police initially said the gunman shot and killed 11 people, including one who was found inside a vehicle outside the municipal building. Cervera later said one more died on the way to the hospital.
The shooting sent shock waves through Virginia Beach, the state’s largest city and a popular vacation spot in southeastern Virginia. The building where the attack took place is in a suburban complex miles away from the high-rise hotels along the beach and the downtown business area.
Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam said in a statement he was devastated by the “unspeakable, senseless violence,” and is offering the state’s full support to survivors and relatives of the victims.
“That they should be taken in this manner is the worst kind of tragedy,” the governor said during the news conference.
The White House said President Donald Trump had been briefed and was monitoring the situation.
Megan Banton, an administrative assistant who works in the building where the shooting happened, said she heard gunshots, called 911 and barricaded herself and about 20 colleagues inside an office, pushing a desk against a door.
“We tried to do everything we could to keep everybody safe,” she said. “We were all just terrified. It felt like it wasn’t real, like we were in a dream. You are just terrified because all you can hear is the gunshots.”
She texted her mom, telling her that there was an active shooter in the building and she and others were waiting for police.
“Thank God my baby is OK,” Banton’s mother, Dana Showers, said.
At a nearby middle school, friends and relatives were reuniting with loved ones who were in the building when the shooting happened. They included Paul Swain, 50, who said he saw his fiancee from across the parking lot, clearly in an agitated state.
“I think she knew some of the people,” he said.
Outside the school, Cheryl Benn, 65, waited while her husband, David, a traffic engineer with the city who was in the building where the shooting happened, gave a written statement to detectives.
She said her husband initially called her from a barricaded room and said it sounded as if someone had been working with a nail gun. Then he saw the bodies.
“This is unbelievable for Virginia Beach,” Cheryl Benn said. “By and large, it’s a pretty calm and peaceful place to live.”
The Jackson Street façade of the former General Motors plant, one of the last structures still standing on the enormous brownfield site, was demolished Friday.
An excavator worked from the brick wall’s southern end, inching toward the three-story main entrance in the center.
That entrance had seen thousands of GM employees come and go until the last SUV rolled off the plant’s assembly line on Dec. 23, 2008. GM eventually sold the 300-acre property to Commercial Development Company in 2017.
The unannounced façade demolition drew a handful of folks eager to capture photos. Some flew drones, while others took cellphone shots through the cyclone fence.
One man stood on the fence’s concrete base and extended his camera over the top to get an unimpeded shot of the scene.
Andrew Sigwell, owner of Zoxx 411 Club adjacent to the old plant, said demolition started at about 7 a.m. By 11:30 a.m., crews had razed about half of the long, brick wall.
Sigwell flew his drone over the site Friday, continuing his project of documenting redevelopment progress.
Brandon Swan got a text message Friday morning from his mom, a former GM worker, asking him to go get photos of the site. He had previously taken some photos from the neighboring VFW post using a camera, but he decided to use his new drone Friday.
Swan called it “irritating” and “depressing” to watch the former automotive plant slowly turn to dust over the past several months. His parents and grandparents all worked there, he said.
He wishes current property owner Commercial Development Company would have found a way to preserve the smokestack, which was knocked down in late April.
“The stack was the most iconic thing we had,” Swan said. “Everyone knew the stack.”
Bill Kutz, who spent nearly 40 years as an assembly line worker and skilled tradesman at the plant, was less nostalgic. He has occasionally driven past to monitor progress since demolition started last year, he said.
When asked if he was emotional watching the façade come down, Kutz paused and shrugged. The plant had a good run, he said, and he was lucky enough to retire before GM closed.
Those whose careers were disrupted might have stronger feelings, he said. But Kutz still felt enough of a pull to stop for a few minutes Friday morning and grab photos.
Swan lamented that his daughters, ages 9 and 7, know little about GM other than it’s where their grandparents used to work.
Shortly after Swan left, his mom, Millie Swan, came by to see the deconstruction herself. Millie noticed the work Friday as she drove past GM to check on her dad, who lives nearby.
That’s when she texted Brandon, knowing he would be able to arrive sooner, she said.
Millie said she did many jobs around the plant during her 12 years there. She initially filled in for other employees who were on leave until she was hired to a permanent position.
On some of her trips to care for her dad, she has almost started crying while passing the former plant. She said she wishes GM could have found a way to reopen.
“It’s got a lot of memories for me. My grandfather, my father, my mother, my husband and me, we’ve got a total of almost 100 years down there,” she said. “Aunts, uncles and cousins. It’s just a big family thing.
“It was my whole life growing up.”
In the next few months, the Ho-Chunk Nation could see a major regulatory decision on its proposal for a casino in Beloit, according to documents released Friday by the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs.
The bureau published a notice of availability of its final environmental impact statement, which is based on environmental studies the Ho-Chunk tribe submitted to the agency for its proposed Ho-Chunk Gaming Wisconsin casino.
Beloit officials say the notice starts a 30-day comment period, after which the bureau will decide whether the tribe can place 33 acres it owns off Colley Road in a trust to develop a $560 million casino. Projections are that the casino complex could create 1,500 jobs and have an annual economic impact of $500 million a year, Rock County officials have estimated.
If the bureau approves the casino proposal, it then goes to Gov. Tony Evers’ desk for final approval.
Beloit officials are optimistic that the federal and state decisions could roll out sometime in the next few months.
The environmental impact statement released Friday is a final draft. The bureau released an initial draft last November, and a public hearing on the first draft was held in Beloit last December.
Lori Curtis Luther, Beloit city manager, said the new 30-day comment period will give the bureau a chance to review new comments based “mainly on the accuracy of the final concept” of the project.
In a statement Friday, Beloit officials said the impact statement’s release was “another significant step in the process, which ultimately will allow for one of the most significant entertainment developments and job creators in the stateline region.”
Curtis Luther said if the timeline rolls out as she understands it might, the governor’s office could render a final decision in just a few months.
“We’re hopeful to receive final approval by the end of the summer,” she said.
In an email to The Gazette, Ryan Greendeer, a spokesman with the Ho-Chunk Nation’s legislative office, said the bureau has an additional 30 days beyond the public comment period to decide whether it will approve the final environmental impact statement.
That puts the bureau’s completion of the environmental approval process on a timetable of up to 60 days from now.
After the agency rules on the environmental impact statement, it will make a final “decision of record” on the project itself, Greendeer said.
He said there is no deadline for the bureau to make a final decision, and it’s not clear when Evers might make his own decision.
A staffer for Evers told The Gazette earlier this year that the governor “has said in the past he’s inclined to support the agreement, but he will be carefully reviewing the application and listening to all sides involved with the issue to ensure fair consideration.”
The Ho-Chunk tribe has been preparing since 2012 to move land it owns in Beloit into a trust that could allow its proposed casino to become a reality.
The documents made available Friday detail the “preferred” casino project along with three alternatives, including a smaller casino development, a retail center with no casino and an option not to develop the land.
The city, Rock County and the Ho-Chunk support the “preferred” alternative, and the city and county have struck an intergovernmental agreement on the project.
The project would include a 300-room hotel with a 40,000-square-foot indoor water park and a 175,000-square-foot retail development, according to a 2017 consultant’s report compiled for the Ho-Chunk.
The 7,845-member tribe has said it’s the only tribe in Wisconsin that doesn’t have a dedicated reservation area. It owns a fractured set of properties around the state and in Minnesota, with about 4,000 acres in trusts that allow developments such as casinos, according to documents filed by the tribe.
Ho-Chunk officials have said the tribe’s government faces the cost of caring for an aging population with stagnating revenues, and a new casino could provide a needed economic shot in the arm.
The proposal has Beloit’s support because it promises hundreds of millions of dollars in economic activity linked to the casino’s construction alone, along with future employment growth and annual tax revenues of $50 million.
Written comments already filed with the Bureau of Indian Affairs signal some opposition to a Beloit casino. Some comments focus on environmental impacts, and some don’t.
A Beloit minister wrote about studies that he says show casinos bring crime and higher rates of poverty and suicide to a community. He wrote that a casino “has a higher probability of disrupting what is now a sound economic turnaround in Beloit.”
The Ho-Chunk tribe has said it will work on ways to mitigate suicide risks among problem gamblers.
One Beloit woman wrote that she opposes the project because she believes it will snarl traffic around a nearby school at Colley and Willowbrook roads.
Curtis Luther said Friday that the city would widen portions of Colley and Willowbrook roads and add traffic signals as part of the project.
A lawyer for the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce of Wisconsin wrote that the Ho-Chunk had hired the group as a consultant after an internal audit showed the tribe’s workforce training and development program was “dramatically ineffective.”
The chamber said it spent “millions of dollars” on workforce training and development services, but the tribe rescinded the contract and for more than two years refused to pay $2.5 million for the services, according to documents filed with the bureau.
The chamber wrote that it believes the tribe broke an agreement and has relied on “sovereign immunity” to avoid paying its debt, according to the documents.
The Hispanic chamber has asked the bureau to consider its comments in its final decision.
Judith A. Hubbell
Patricia M. Missbach
Donald Matthew Newman
Wayne Audrey Shelton
Republicans who control the state Legislature have ruled out raising the gas tax but could increase fees to raise tens or hundreds of millions of dollars for roads, the head of the state Senate said Friday.
Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald said he believed GOP lawmakers would cut a deal on transportation next week and could finalize the state budget this month.
Before they pass the budget, Fitzgerald said he hoped to reach compromises with Gov. Tony Evers on how he will wield his veto powers.
He said he hopes to negotiate directly with the governor, in part because he doesn’t have a “comfortable” line of communication with Evers’ chief of staff, Maggie Gau. Evers and an aide have suggested Republicans are sexist for not wanting to meet with Gau—a claim Fitzgerald called ridiculous.
Evers proposed raising the gas tax by 8 cents a gallon initially and by about a penny a gallon annually after that to account for inflation. Under his plan, the gas tax of 32.9 cents would rise to 42.5 cents by 2021.
He has also proposed raising fees, primarily on heavy trucks. In all, Evers’ plan would raise $608 million over two years.
Fitzgerald, of Juneau, said GOP lawmakers were considering raising fees but not the gas tax.
“The gas tax has lost a lot of steam, and the speaker just drove a stake through it,” Fitzgerald said, referring to Assembly Speaker Robin Vos of Rochester.
The conservative MacIver Institute this week reported that Vos had said at a fundraiser that raising the gas tax was no longer under consideration.
In a statement Friday, Vos said those comments “reflect my belief that a gas tax increase would be tough to get done in this budget.”
Vos added: “We have to have new revenue for transportation. I’m glad to hear Sen. Fitzgerald and the Senate agree.”
Evers’ transportation secretary, Craig Thompson, saw the emerging GOP plan as a positive development.
“It’s encouraging we’re talking about how to raise the money rather than whether to raise the money,” Thompson said.
But he noted under the GOP plan, Wisconsin wouldn’t be collecting additional sums from out-of-state visitors, as it would under Evers’ plan.
“The reason we put together the package the way we put ours is we thought it would be the most affordable and the fairest to everybody,” Thompson said. “If you do it via the gas tax, we get everybody that’s driving into the state that fills up to help pay for it. If we do it with registration fees, we’re only charging Wisconsinites.”
Fitzgerald said GOP lawmakers were considering raising registration fees, title fees and heavy truck frees, but he didn’t say by how much. Tolling could also be an option, but it wouldn’t raise money right away because it would take time to implement, he said.
Fitzgerald cast doubt on proposals from some Republicans to put more money raised by income taxes and sales taxes toward transportation.
“I don’t think it’s necessary,” Fitzgerald said.
Evers spokeswoman Melissa Baldauff did not immediately respond Friday to questions about Fitzgerald’s comments on the budget and his talks with the governor’s administration.
It’s not clear how much money the ideas Republicans are considering would raise.
To get as much money as Evers wants to collect through the gas tax, they would need to about double the state’s $75 annual vehicle registration fee. Smaller increases would generate less money and could require Republicans to delay projects or rely on more borrowing.
The budget-writing Joint Finance Committee will likely put together a transportation plan Thursday, Fitzgerald said. That will be folded into the budget that lawmakers hope to send to Evers before a June 30 deadline.
Fitzgerald said GOP lawmakers were considering cutting income taxes for the middle class as part of the budget. The Legislature passed such a tax cut in February, but Evers vetoed it because he wanted to offset it in part by raising taxes on manufacturers.
Some Republican lawmakers have lobbied for scaling back the personal property tax that is imposed on businesses for their equipment and furnishings. But Fitzgerald said that idea “doesn’t seem to have as much momentum right now” as it has in the past.
Republican leaders have had a rocky relationship with Evers, but Fitzgerald said he still sees a chance to reach agreements with him.
“I’m still holding out for the opportunity that maybe we can walk in there and kind of cut a few deals,” he said. “I think what we can do is go back in there and say … ‘Let’s talk about you keeping your veto pen off of this’ and then avoid the whole idea of vetoing the entire budget, which I’ve told the governor now three times in his office I think it would be a big mistake and put all of us kind of in no man’s land.”
Two weeks ago, a spokeswoman for Evers said Vos and Fitzgerald were “clearly uncomfortable or simply unwilling to work with a leadership team made up entirely of women.”
Days later, Evers initially declined to say whether he thought the GOP leaders were sexist but later that day issued a statement saying voters should “connect the dots” on why they weren’t meeting with Gau and other women in his administration.
Fitzgerald downplayed the exchange.
”I don’t think he feels that way and it’s ridiculous,” Fitzgerald said, adding that he believed Evers had “dismissed” what his spokeswoman had said.
The problem with the relationship between the governor and Republicans is “more about communication, truly like striking a line of communication that’s effective, (and) we just haven’t been able to do that,” Fitzgerald said.
Asked about his relationship with Gau, Fitzgerald said, “It’s just not—I don’t know why—it’s just not a comfortable kind of—you know, and everyone’s got their own way. We just can’t strike what that is right now. We can’t get that back and forth going that I think would be helpful.”
Vos has raised the prospect of splitting the state budget into two bills in an attempt to make it harder for Evers to veto portions of the budget. Fitzgerald said Republican senators were evaluating the idea but were “indifferent” to it so far.
“I don’t know if it will make sense,” he said.