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Police radios go digital …

Street Talk

So Long, Scanners: Cops Go DigitalSchool Set To Be LoftsApril Showers Bring Stick-UpsDesperately Seeking Santa PicturesAfter Media Flap, Chicken Finds a Roost

So Long, Scanners: Cops Go Digital

The legendary hum and crackle of the police scanner is fading away.

The police and fire departments in Chesterfield, Henrico and Richmond will soon be digital and their old-fashioned radio communication will be silent.

Its advocates say digital radio allows departments within jurisdictions to communicate with each other, and also makes it easier for them to communicate with their counterparts on the other side of the county line.

Henrico went digital in fall 1999. Chesterfield switched over April 16; the city of Richmond will go digital on May 14.

But the changes will be a loss for some hobbyists and news-gatherers. "It sucks," says Steven Lindquist, founder of the North American Monitoring Association, a 984-member organization based in California.

Unlike analog communications systems, which can be monitored with relatively inexpensive scanners, the digital systems make it virtually impossible for outsiders like Lindquist to listen in as police, firefighters and ambulance workers go about their work.

Lindquist says he understands why police would use digital radio to keep criminals from listening as the police close in. But he doesn't like the changes. "But you know," Lindquist says, "one bad apple."

Richmond Police Captain Larry Beadles praises the system's advantages. He says the system enables the three localities to be coordinated when dealing with situations that cross jurisdictional lines.

"The greatest thing is the interoperability," Beadles says. "It is wonderful for citizens and public safety."

Doug Middleton, deputy chief of police for Henrico, says the localities are working with the media to ensure news-gathering isn't hindered. Portable radios can be purchased and programmed into the primary dispatch system. Each system costs between $2,000 and $2,800, Middleton says, and permission to tap into the communications system must be given by the municipality.

While the new system can cut off access to anyone listening in — even people using approved portable radios — city engineer Fred Hughes says that won't happen very often. The media will have access to normal dispatch channels, Hughes says. A radio could be disabled if it were stolen or misused, Hughes adds, and "once a radio is disabled, it's useless."

Besides, the police will control access to its communications. "The police department wouldn't authorize anyone to have access if they thought it would be a problem," Hughes says.

— Alice Smith

School Set To Be Lofts

After more than a year spent in limbo, Robert E. Lee Elementary School on the corner of Park and Belmont avenues in the Museum District has accepted its next incarnation.

Lofts! Lots and lots and lots of lofts. OK, maybe 40.

City Realtor Constance Schwartz tells Style the three-story Colonial-revival-style school will be turned into apartments. For now, the city is shy on details while it waits to seal the deal.

But the ubiquitous developer Robin Miller is happy to talk.

"We've had verbal conversations and we're negotiating with the city," says Miller. In most respects, he says, it seems like a sure thing. Miller is one of five potential developers who submitted proposals for the building's future use.

Miller's most recent Richmond project was the total renovation of the old Kensington Gardens into Kensington Court luxury apartments. Just a few blocks away from the Robert E. Lee School, that project was completed in October and already the place is 80 percent occupied.

Miller says he plans to "retain the architectural features" of the school including its high ceilings.

The project seemed the right fit for Miller who, oddly enough, has renovated an old school before. Recently Miller renovated the old Albuquerque High School in, well, Albuquerque, N.M. It was such a success, he says, he thought the idea would translate nicely here.

Miller aims to catch the interest of young professionals. And that, he insists, is anyone in their 20s, 30s or 40s. And empty-nesters, too. The 40-unit complex initially will include apartments — no word yet on rental prices — but Miller hopes to convert them to condominiums after five years or so.

If all goes as planned, says Miller, the old school could get the beginnings of its facelift in September. Renovations will likely be completed by summer 2002.

Brandon Walters

April Showers Bring Stick-Ups

These days spring gestures like a fairy in a dream to come outside. And folks just can't seem to deny that nice weather beats all.

Except perhaps, armed robbers.

In certain pockets of the city, especially the Fan and the Museum District, the number of people robbed at gunpoint has risen as spring has sprung.

According to crime statistics listed on the Richmond Police's Web site, 13 robberies and attempted robberies have taken place in those neighborhoods since April 3. That's more than any other pocket in the city. Every one of them has included the use of a gun.

Those figures are relatively normal, says Richmond Police spokeswoman Christy Collins. She says there's no complicated explanation for why it is so. Some crimes just spike in the spring and summer when more people are out and about, she notes.

Still, the news is likely to be a cautionary tale to Fan and Museum District residents. And those venturing into the neighborhood for a visit or a bite to eat should be mindful that stick-ups can happen anywhere.

In most cases, the suspects appear to be a young males working alone or with one or two accomplices. Men and women of all ages and ethnicity are victims. At presstime none of the suspects had been arrested.


Desperately Seeking Santa Pictures

A lot of people remember jumping in cars, driving hours to Richmond and going to Miller & Rhoads. Their mission: to see the real Santa Claus.

Kristin Thrower, a local author, is trying to recapture that feeling. She is writing a book about the Legendary Santa and what he's meant to children and adults since 1942. And she needs your help.

"This is the true story of how the real Santa Claus chose Richmond to reside in since 1942," Thrower says. "This is the only place in the world where Santa resides in the holiday season."

Though Thrower has done extensive research and interviews for the book, she's desperately in need of pictures. She has tons of photos of the store windows and children sitting on Santa's lap, but still seeks photos of the set, the Tea Room, the Rudolph cake and the store during Christmas.

"I'm trying to capture the spirit of what it was like, about how important it was for families," Thrower says. "If I have a book about Santa but no pictures of him handing out the cake, they'll hang me from a tree."

Thrower says all pictures are welcome and will be returned in their original state. Photo credits will be given in the book. Most importantly, though, you'll be helping to create what Thrower hopes to become a sort of family heirloom.

"It's not just a Christmas book," she says. "It tells the story of the store, Santa Claus and your family."

Kristin Thrower can be reached at 739-7052, or e-mail Correspondence can be sent to 13606 Buck Rub Dr., Midlothian, Va. 23112.

— A.S.

After Media Flap, Chicken Finds a Roost

In the barn at Maymont, a quiet night is about to be stirred.

A pickup truck pulls up close and parks, headlights striking the outside of the building. A cow moos in the distance. A gray cat that has the run of the place saunters around to peek into the bed of the truck, where a trap is sitting. The trap emits clucks.

The Expressway Chicken has arrived.

It is Sunday, April 22. Kate Peeples, director of public relations and marketing for the Maymont Foundation, leans against the truck and dials her cell phone. "We have a beautiful female chicken," she tells Beth Wright. Wright is relieved.

February was turning into March when Wright, a corporate communications officer for SunTrust, saw the Expressway Chicken fall from the back of a Tyson truck, land on the pavement and, impossibly, roll across the road and dart into the median near the Sheppard Street overpass. In the following weeks, Wright checked on the chicken often, feeding it cracked corn.

Other Richmonders were giddy when they saw the chicken, too, living in the median's brush, standing there inches from the deadly traffic. They called Style Weekly, which first reported the survival story on April 3.

Then it turned into a mini-media event. As the Expressway Chicken defied the odds week after week, she found herself in the pages of the Richmond Times-Dispatch. The local NBC affiliate, Channel 12, assigned a reporter and photographers to cover Maymont's rescue attempts. After the Expressway Chicken was finally captured, using a trail of grapes, cracked corn and water, there were more news stories. Channel 12 even held a live call-in segment during the evening news to find a name for the hen. About 600 people called immediately with suggestions.

But the glare of news media seems far away as the Expressway Chicken is carried into the Maymont barn. Zoologist Debbie Rea pulls the chicken from the trap and holds her up to see 10 other chickens, two roosters and some baby chicks in a pen. Her new family. They cluck. Nearby, groups of goats and geese chatter.

Peeples looks at the Expressway Chicken and sighs. "You are going to have such a nice life," she says. The chicken does not reply.

Jason Roop

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