ALEXANDRIA, Va. (WRIC) — Central Virginia’s top prosecutor sat down in a one-on-one interview with 8News on Wednesday, addressing her office’s priorities for 2023 following a year of record seizures of illegal guns.
Jessica D. Aber became the U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia (EDVA) in 2021, supervising the prosecution of all federal crimes and the litigation of all civil matters in the area spanning from Alexandria down to Richmond and out to Norfolk and Newport News, encompassing more than 6 million residents.
“I applied for this job because I believe that the trust between law enforcement and communities is really what we need to have a functioning criminal justice system,” Aber said. “We all really do want to prevent crimes. If we could be put out of business, it would be fantastic.”
However, the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of Virginia was kept busy in 2022.
Collecting millions in criminal and civil actions
During fiscal year 2022, the office collected more than $25 million in criminal and civil actions, according to a spokesperson.
“That $15 million collected for victims in restitution will go back directly to them,” Aber said. “As for the other funds, the $25 million I referenced, those are penalties paid from criminal defendants and civil litigants for crimes against the United States, for civil actions against the United States. Those funds go to a variety of different places within the government, but it’s fair to say that it all eventually ends up benefitting the American taxpayer.”
In February, for example, after pleading guilty to fraud charges in connection with a 12-year bribery scheme with former Norfolk Sheriff Robert McCabe, Chief Executive Officer of Correct Care Solutions Gerard Boyle was sentenced to three years in prison. According to a release, the EDVA also secured a court order for Boyle to forfeit $2.7 million, in addition to a $35,000 fine, both of which Boyle has paid in full.
In November, a spokesperson noted that EDVA secured a civil resolution with Raley and Advance Spine and Pain, PLLC, owned by Thomas Raley, Jr, at the time, where the parties jointly paid over $3.1 million to settle civil claims under the False Claims Act, the Virginia Fraud Against Taxpayers Act and common law remedies. Prosecutors said that Raley was writing and referring compounded drug prescriptions in return for illegal kickback payments and sentenced to three years in prison after pleading guilty to criminal charges.
Aber told 8News that such collections remain a priority in 2023, especially as cases of COVID-19 fraud continue.
“Frankly, I don’t see it as a crime that’s going to go away, given the amount of money that was dispersed across the United States,” she said. “Any time there’s an opportunity for criminals to get easy money, they will take advantage of it. But what makes this all the worse is that these were funds meant for the most vulnerable among us; for distressed businesses, for individuals who lost their jobs at such a difficult time in our country’s history.”
As of Dec. 19, 2022, according to a release, EDVA had charged more than 50 defendants in at least 26 cases of fraud schemes connected to the COVID-19 pandemic since the start of 2022. The cases reportedly involved attempts to defraud nearly $125 million from the U.S. government.
Record number of firearm seizures
Throughout 2022, Aber said that the EDVA forfeited more than 164 illegal firearms that were removed from communities in Central Virginia. As of Dec. 19, 2022, a spokesperson noted that the office had charged approximately 250 defendants with federal firearms offenses since the start of 2022. These offenses included possessing a firearm in the furtherance of drug trafficking, possession of a firearm as a convicted felon and straw purchasing of a firearm, wherein an individual purchases a gun legally on behalf of someone who cannot do so legally.
“One-third of all the firearms cases prosecuted in the Eastern District of Virginia came from Richmond,” Aber said. “I think that demonstrates our commitment to trying to reduce violence in the city, where we, as federal prosecutors, can be good partners.”
One such partnership has been with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives’ (ATF) National Integrated Ballistic Information Network (NIBIN). The network offers technology that allows for the capture and comparison of evidence from shell casings to aid in solving and preventing violent crimes involving guns. Although the network was established several years ago, its usage has significantly improved more recently, according to a study conducted on behalf of the Office of Justice Programs (OJP).
“It is the ability of law enforcement to take a shell casing and put it into a system and identify certain attributes about that shell casing that make it unique,” Aber said. “From that information, it can potentially track what firearm it came from, because every firearm has, basically, fingerprints where those shell casings have also been found, and so using that information, you can connect shootings. You can connect to the purchaser of a firearm and sort of tell the story of the gun.”
Project Safe Neighborhoods
Launched in 2001, the Project Safe Neighborhoods (PSN) program is a nationwide initiative that brings together federal, state, local and tribal law enforcement officials, prosecutors, community leaders and other stakeholders to identify violent crime problems in a community and develop solutions to address them. Specific to Central Virginia, Aber said that her office is working with local law enforcement agencies to reduce accessibility and possession of guns among minors and convicted criminals, as well as dismantle violent gangs.
“The Eastern District of Virginia, through our program, Project Safe Neighborhoods, has provided $500,00 in grants to community groups,” Aber said. “Those include a basketball program for youth in Richmond, and includes a call-in program that includes other community groups that seek to deter violence among young people and folks reentering the community.”
But do such programs and funding actually make a difference?
“There are plenty of studies that say it goes the right way, and some say it’s a waste of money,” Aber said. “If nobody believes in the criminal justice system, it starts to erode our institutions as a country, and we cannot have that. So I definitely believe that it makes a difference when we can hand tangible funds to a community group and say, you know, ‘We, the United States Department of Justice, believe in you and your mission, and we’re here to support you.'”
In 2022, for example, an EDVA spokesperson noted that the program yielded cases against Dequane McCullers and Anthony Brown, who plead guilty to brandishing firearms in a residential area. That area was The Belt Atlantic apartment complex off of Midlothian Turnpike in the City of Richmond, the site of several violent incidents in recent years. According to court documents, on July 23, 2021, police officers observed on social media that the two individuals were waving around those weapons at the complex, despite being convicted felons who were not permitted to have such guns in their possession.
Then, in 2023, Deshan Harris was sentenced to five years for possessing a semiautomatic pistol during a felony drug trafficking crime. Prosecutors said that another pistol was taken from him that had been used in a shooting at the Homewood Suites in the City of Richmond, and another shooting of a young man off Porter Street.
Silent No More
Aber highlighted Silent No More as another priority for 2022 and 2023, and a program on which her office is looking to expand to more schools in Central Virginia. This symposium brings together law enforcement, medical professionals and educators with those who have lost loved ones to fatal drug overdoses. Together, these groups warn students about the dangers of opioids.
“It’s a very moving presentation that explains to teenagers why opioid use can ultimately lead to great tragedy,” Aber said. “We have particular partnerships in the Richmond area with public schools where we really come and give the presentation, and, from all accounts, it is both moving and impactful on the teenagers.”
According to the Virginia Department of Health (VDH), fatal drug overdose has been the leading method of unnatural death in the Commonwealth since 2013, with opioids — specifically illicit fentanyl — known to be the driving force.
UnMasked and online crime prevention
In 2021, EDVA launched “UnMasked,” an outreach and prevention program dedicated to raising awareness about online sexual exploitation involving children and young adults. The initiative educates middle school, high school, and college students, along with parents, teachers, and the community, about the potential dangers of the internet.
“UnMasked seeks to educate students about the dangers of the internet,” Aber said. “It seeks to describe how the internet can be used by predators to prey on children in inappropriate ways, and it, too, is a very thoughtful program that tries to speak to children on their own level.”
The U.S. Attorney for EDVA noted that technology has made crimes easier to commit, but it also creates more, long-lasting evidence. That can present a challenge for attorneys sorting through additional information, especially when such a large so-called digital footprint is left behind.
Aber also noted that it was a priority of her office to target a younger demographic with many of its programs, in an effort to prevent crimes before they occur.
“By the time you come to federal court, it’s usually not your first instance in the criminal justice system,” she said. “Hopefully, they are making better choices and deciding not to participate in criminal activity or drug use, which is extremely dangerous these days.”
Moreover, Aber said the EDVA was committed to prosecuting cyber crimes to the fullest extent of the law, especially in cases of solicitation of prostitution and human trafficking.
“Oftentimes, criminals hop from jurisdiction to jurisdiction,” Aber said. “The challenges for us and for our federal, state and local partners is identifying the folks who’ve arrived in the Eastern District of Virginia and building the case fast enough to prosecute them.”
Project RECOVER predates Aber’s tenure as the U.S. Attorney for EDVA, but she told 8News that it is a program she supports.
Through grant funding, the program provides Certified Peer Recovery Specialists to support individuals in Henrico and Chesterfield Counties, as well as the City of Richmond, suffering with substance use disorders that result in emergency treatment or contact with law enforcement.
“After the EMTs administer Narcan to someone who is in an opioid overdose crisis and they emerge and are revived, that Peer Recovery Specialist — individuals in recovery — can meet with them and talk to them, give them an opportunity to explore recovery options in that very critical moment, instead of potentially returning to the street or jail,” Aber said.
According to a prior release on the program, those specialists are meant to provide a continuum of long-term support for the individual as they navigate through treatment and recovery. The Peer Recovery Specialists have also been tasked with providing education and training to Central Virginia community members, including law enforcement, about how to provide proper support for those suffering with substances use disorders.
Moving forward in 2023
Aber said that building community relationships and combatting gun violence continue to be two of EDVA’s priorities in the new year. But she said there is no singular solution to cutting down on firearm offenses.
“This is a conversation that I have with great frequency with other prosecutors, with federal and state and local law enforcement. We try to figure out what can we be doing to stop the violence, especially in a city like Richmond,” Aber said. “I believe that what we’re doing now and emphasizing our commitment to these efforts is a step in the right direction.”
There are 93 U.S. Attorneys throughout the country, tasked with enforcing federal laws in their respective regions. Aber is expected to retain her position through 2023, as the attorneys are presidentially appointed.
“I’m hopeful that we can continue to prosecute national security cases, domestic terrorism cases, civil rights cases, violent crime cases, firearm cases, financial fraud cases, and ensure that we build community trust in so doing,” Aber said. “Absent the trust between the community and law enforcement, we are unable to prosecute these crimes to the fullest extent.”