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Jail officials failed to announce death … Dogs star in research at new VCU center … Election heats up; heart of issue: signs … Children's Festival loses sponsor … Richmond wins Harley rally.

Street Talk

Jail Officials Failed to Announce Death

After Richmond City Jail inmate Stephen Stevenson died from bacterial meningitis last Monday, jail officials released a statement to news media about the illness that Stevenson had contracted.

There was only one little detail they failed to mention in the press release: Stevenson was already dead.

Stevenson, 24, had been jailed on July 23 for not paying child support for four children he had fathered with four different mothers. He was treated for flulike symptoms on Aug. 10, according to jail officials. When his condition got worse, he was taken to the Medical College of Virginia on Aug. 11.

Stevenson died Monday morning, Aug. 13, an MCV spokesman says. Citing medical records confidentiality, neither MCV nor the state medical examiner's office released a specific time of death; the MCV spokesman refers to the time of death as the "early morning."

But a press release sent by the jail to local news media was faxed in the midafternoon, around 3 or 3:30, jail officials confirm.

Then why didn't the release say that Stevenson had died?

"We were responding to all the calls we were getting to his death," replies Lt. Col. Alan Roehm, who oversees jail operations with Maj. Michael Minion. Several reporters already knew Stevenson had died, Roehm says.

Good thing. Because they certainly wouldn't find out in the press release.

The release describes Stevenson's symptoms, when he was transferred to MCV and the treatment he underwent. But it leaves his condition unclear. It reports he was "evaluated … and diagnosed with Neisseria Meningetis [sic]." And it concludes this way: "No additional information is available at this time."

So what about those who didn't know that Stevenson had died? "Again, what we were responding to is all the inquiries from the news media," Roehm says.

Sheriff Michelle Mitchell was out of town and unavailable for comment.

Because of the incubation periods for meningitis, Stevenson most likely contracted the infection while incarcerated. Since he died, Roehm says, "Everybody has received medication as a result, for precautionary measures. And we haven't had a problem since." — Jason Roop

Election Heats Up, Heart of Issue: Signs

On a recent Saturday night just after 10, Pete and Linda Trost stood aglow in the moonlight on their dew-soaked lawn and waved goodbye to friends, thinking not about bandits but birthdays.

Their 4-by-6-foot campaign sign had been standing since that morning — plainly, and on private turf.

"Earley, Governor," it said. It was one of the bigger placards that now can be seen around town for gubernatorial candidate Republican Mark Earley, and similar to ones for his Democratic opponent, Mark Warner.

But after only a day, the Trosts' sign was gone. Anchored in their ample yard facing the Country Club of Virginia on River Road, it was stolen in the night.

"It sure seemed to be a planned thing," Linda Trost says about the disappearance. "We had literally just been in the front yard for [my husband's] birthday party."

The Trosts haven't called the police. "They are long gone now," she says. "There's nothing we can do."

The same evening around the corner from the Trosts a similar caper had just occurred. Eugene Sydnor, a former state senator and delegate who served in the General Assembly for 20 years, had Earley campaign signs swiped from his yard, too.

"I particularly want to get [another] sign up soon," he says. "Ninety-five percent of the people that go to the country club pass the house. They tend to be smart people and they should be voting for Earley," he says.

Places that are good locations for campaign signs are precisely the ones that get stolen from the most.

Just ask the folks at the Warner campaign. Since their placards started going up around town the first week in August, a number of their 4-by-8-foot signs have been damaged or stolen, too, according to a campaign spokeswoman.

So who's stealing the signs? Not campaign workers, the campaigns insist.

"We have strict orders," the Warner spokeswoman says. "That's not the way we play the game. It's a waste of resources."

"It's an unwritten rule of politics that you don't mess with the other guy's signs," says an Earley spokesman. "It's high-schoolish and prankish."

And risky. Real-estate developer Ed Lacy nearly caught some perpetrators, he says. He saw a young man and a woman walking along River Road shortly after 10 on Aug. 4. The man was dragging a heavy flat object behind him. Lacy says he knew immediately it was the sign from the Trosts' yard. When he questioned them, the two dropped the sign and ran off into a wooded area.

And if any more signs go missing and the perps are caught, Lacy says, "I'll be able to pick those Democrats out of a lineup." — Brandon Walters

Children's Festival Loses Sponsor

The long-running, wildly popular Richmond Children's Festival has lost its 14-year sponsor. The Arts Council of Richmond, which has run the Byrd Park festival since 1986, has decided to take a year off.

"An event that attracts 80,000 people is not an easy thing to do," says Richard Toscan, president of the Arts Council's board of directors.

But the decision is about more than logistics, Toscan says. It represents a shift in how the council fulfills its mission — away from presenting events and toward a role as advocate for Richmond's arts organizations.

"A lot of arts organizations in town felt that the old Arts Council was trying to assist them," Toscan says, "but at the same time it was raising money to support all these events [the council] was holding. So the arts organizations saw the arts council as sucking money out of the till that should be supporting the arts organizations in town."

The council's new focus looks at the bigger picture of art in Richmond, including a strategic plan that addresses facilities, funding, arts and education, and the tie between art and economic development.

The reassessment began seven years ago when Stephanie Micas joined the council as its executive director. At the time, there was a national debate about funding for the arts, Micas recalls.

"I listened to the national conversation from the other arts councils and decided that the best way to serve the community was to be an advocate for the arts," Micas says. "I think that most people have concluded that the best way for a local arts agency to serve the community is to provide an environment where arts organizations can produce the best art that they can."

Still, the Children's Festival will be missed. The free event, which typically included music, food, storytelling, and hands-on arts and crafts projects, drew thousands of children and their families. The council funded the fall festival through corporate and private donations, as well as through a subsidy from the council's budget.

The council has been talking to a number of potential sponsors in the hopes of continuing the event in the future. — Carrie Nieman

Dogs Star in Research at New VCU Center

Some of the dogs walking around the campus of Virginia Commonwealth University these days may be on their way to work.

The new Center for Human-Animal Interaction at VCU's Medical College of Virginia is using the canines for a variety of research and service activities. The center will study the biological and psychological effects of animals on humans.

There are similar centers across the country that study the emerging field, but VCU's is the first to be incorporated into a school of medicine.

Already, the center's research is turning up results, says Dr. Sandra Barker, a professor of psychiatry at VCU and the director of the center.

For example, the center has shown that blood pressure and heart rate decrease after just brief contact with animals, Barker says. "Our research found anxiety levels [in patients] were significantly reduced after 30 minutes with an animal."

While the animal-human interaction field is relatively new, Barker says, there is plenty of research that makes a strong case for the health benefits of pets.

For example, she says, a study in California has shown that pet owners visit doctors less. One of the major goals of the center is to increase the public's awareness of such benefits, Barker says.

The center is designed to be interdisciplinary. Professors from several different departments will work together in the center; these include the fields of psychology, business, pharmacy, rehabilitation counseling and preventive medicine.

But the real stars of the center are the four-legged kind.

One of them is Barker's own. She uses her certified therapy dog, a Lhasa Apso named "H.I.," for some of the research and animal-assisted therapy, which includes contact with psychiatry patients and patients undergoing medical treatment.

But dogs may not be the only animals used in the future. "We welcome any certified animals," Barker says. "Different species add to the richness of clinical programs."

Beyond its walls, the center plans to teach, train and consult with veterinarians and health-care providers. It will also provide special services to the public, such as pet-loss counseling. "Anyone who's really in need is never turned away," Barker says. — Dan Wagener

Richmond Wins Harley Rally

They ride hawgs, with hard leather, shiny chrome and loud — really loud — engines. They're Harley-Davidson riders and they'll be descending on Richmond like a swarm of bees next summer when the Virginia Harley-Davidson Rally returns to Richmond.

More than 1,500 bikes roared into this year's rally, held in Lynchburg in June. And a greater turnout is expected for Richmond in 2002. That's what representatives at the Sheraton Richmond West are counting on. About six weeks ago, the hotel wrested the prized contract for the rally from the City of Chesapeake Convention Center after a bid presentation in Roanoke.

It was no easy feat. "When you're talking Central Virginia versus the beach, that's a hard hit," says Liz Parker, the Sheraton's director of sales and marketing.

Virginia Rally coordinator Troy Price says Richmond has a strong Harley Owners Group (H.O.G.) chapter and two good dealerships. That, and the fact that Richmond combines city atmosphere and scenic vistas, made the choice easy, Price says.

The riders have been here before. Richmond was the site of the 1996 rally, as well as the 1995 national rally. And if you remember that one, Price says, you don't need to worry about hearing loss this time. That's because the state rally will bring only about 2,000 bikers, who are mostly interested in the bike shows, vendors, seminars and ceremonies." You probably won't even notice it," he says.

Parker and all those involved with bringing the event to Richmond are buzzing with excitement. Why? These people know how to lay down some bread.

Judging from the Lynchburg rally, the weekend of June 27, 2002, will mean big revenues for the Sheraton, and, Parker says, "to the 7-Elevens, to the Fas Marts ... to Hooters, to everybody here in Richmond, one million dollars in revenue. Jack Daniels and Budweiser are going to make a killing that weekend." — Wayne Melton

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