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Good Neighbors Fund: Giver gets support in a pinch

In the early 1970’s, the Vietnam War was very unpopular with some citizens at home and also with some of those who were being sent overseas to fight. Yet Tracy Hyatt, 67, couldn’t wait to go.

“Everyone said that was crazy,” Hyatt acknowledged, but his brother, a Marine, had been killed there, and Hyatt said he felt he had a score to settle.

“I had just a little attitude,” he explained, and he thinks that’s probably why he spent his three-year military hitch from 1972 to 1975 in Europe instead, serving with a heavy artillery company. In fact, he said, he’d had some trouble with the law, and “the police offered me a choice of prison or the military.”

After the war, he returned to his home in Seattle, Washington, where he lived until 2008, when he was offered a scholarship to Liberty University to study for the ministry. He had to quit a few years into the program “because they started charging me,” he said.

Before Hyatt left Seattle, he had been put on disability due to PTSD. Until the mid-1990s, he said, he was usually able to hold down a job, but “then the PTSD kicked in.”

The condition was not the result of his wartime experiences, he said, but from his childhood, which was so violent, the memories of it have interfered with his ability to work. He also has dealt with substance abuse, and has devoted his adult life to learning how to help others who have the same conditions.

When he left Lynchburg, Hyatt came to Roanoke, and has spent his time volunteering at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Salem. Because he doesn’t drive, Hyatt uses a subsidized transport service to get there. He visits and ministers spiritually to the patients, and escorts them from their rooms to their appointments. In one four-month period, he said, he racked up 74 volunteer hours.

Hyatt said that because of his abusive childhood, he has a special place in his heart for children and their needs, and he has volunteered with the Ronald McDonald House, collecting snacks and toiletries for the guests.

“If they need it, I find it,” he said. He also performs similar services for the veterans he meets at the hospital.

Hyatt manages to live fairly well via his disability checks, but in June and July, after they were deposited into his account, somehow most of the money disappeared.

“I haven’t figured out what happened yet,” he said, but is working with his bank to discover what happened.

The loss of the money meant he was unable to pay rent on his efficiency apartment in July. So he turned to Roanoke Area Ministries, and applied for a grant from the Emergency Financial Assistance Program, which is supported by the Roanoke Times’ Good Neighbors Fund.

“They’re good people here,” he said, about RAM’s caseworkers, and he believes donations to the fund are very much needed.

“If you look in your heart, you’ll know what the right thing is to do,” he said about potential donors. “There are so many people out there in need.”

Since the COVID-19 pandemic began, Hyatt’s activities have been curtailed. He spends most of his time in his apartment, but he stays busy by reading, studying and exercising

He also is enjoying being clean and sober for the past five years, though he noted that his all-time record is 18 years.

“It’s a different level of sobriety,” he said about this period in his life. “I know I’m working with God and He’s working with me.”

Families struggle with how to hold 2nd pandemic Thanksgiving

Back in the spring, Pauline Criel and her cousins talked about reuniting for Thanksgiving at her home near Detroit after many painful months of seclusion because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

But the virus had a different plan. Michigan is now the nation’s hot spot. Hospitals there are teeming with patients, and schools are scaling back in-person learning. A resurgent virus has pushed new infections in the U.S. to 95,000 daily, hospitals in Minnesota, Colorado and Arizona are also under pressure, and health officials are pleading with unvaccinated people not to travel.

Criel’s big family feast was put on hold. She is roasting a turkey and whipping together a pistachio fluff salad — an annual tradition — but only for her, her husband and two grown boys.

“I’m going to wear my stretchy pants and eat too much — and no one’s going to care,” she said.

Her story reflects the Thanksgiving dilemma that families across America are facing as the gatherings become burdened with the same political and coronavirus debates consuming other arenas.

As they gather for turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes and pie, they are confronted with a list of questions: Can they once again hold big get-togethers? Can they gather at all? Should they invite unvaccinated family members? Should they demand a negative test before a guest is allowed at the dinner table or a spot on the sofa for an afternoon of football?

“I know that it might be overkill that we’re not sharing Thanksgiving here with my cousins, but better be safe than sorry, right?” said Criel, a 58-year-old data administrator for a finance company.

Jocelyn Ragusin, an accountant from Littleton, Colorado, is taking a different approach by prioritizing family time over COVID-19 concerns even as rising case counts and overwhelmed hospitals triggered new mask mandates in the Denver area this week. Ragusin, whose husband contracted the virus and spent four days in the intensive care unit in October 2020, said she is willing to accept a certain level of risk to have a sense of community back.

She said about seven or eight family members would be gathering for the holiday and that the group had not discussed one another’s vaccination status beforehand, in part because they “kind of know” already who got the shots and who has had the virus already.

“Getting together is worth it. And getting together and sharing meals, and sharing life,” Ragusin said while picking up her mother at the airport in Denver. “We’re just not made to live in isolation.”

The desire to bring family and friends back together for Thanksgiving was evident Wednesday in San Francisco, where the line at one grocery store stretched out the door and around the corner.

Mari Arreola was in line to buy ingredients to make tamales for a meal that will also feature salsa, ham, mashed potatoes and gravy. She sees the gathering of 12 family members this year as a symbol of hope that things are getting better. A year ago, she spent Thanksgiving only with her husband, mom and one daughter.

“We felt really disconnected, and we were all living our lives based on fear, and it looked like an apocalypse scene outside every time you left your house,” the San Francisco tech consultant said of last year. “It was really scary, but now things are different.”

Even in better times, Thanksgiving has always been a trying occasion for Nadia Brown, a political science professor at Georgetown University, who loathes the awkward and divisive conversations about politics, race and other hot-button issues. COVID-19 has only made the holiday worse.

She and her husband were hoping to have a big family gathering for Thanksgiving at their home near Silver Spring, Maryland, but the start of a winter surge and lingering concerns about breakthrough cases scuttled those plans. She recently told her father and his family — even if they are vaccinated — that they must be tested to prove they are virus-free or sit out Thanksgiving dinner.

With two of Brown’s three daughters, 2 and 4, unable to get vaccinated, she doesn’t want to take any chances — “because we don’t know the long term impacts of COVID on children,” she explained.

Her decision means her father, Dr. Joseph Brown, won’t be coming from his home about three hours away in New Brunswick, New Jersey. The dentist is vaccinated, but said he didn’t have time to get tested.

“It hurts me a lot. I want to see my grandkids,” said Joseph Brown, while adding, “I understand her situation. I really do.”

Riva Letchinger, who has seen the ravages of the pandemic firsthand as a medical student, set aside her worries to travel from her home in New York City to Washington to resume Thanksgiving festivities with her family. They skipped the gathering last year.

She said she has been reassured that everyone there has been vaccinated and received booster shots, but she is also worried about her own virus status, even though she is fully vaccinated.

“I have this consistent fear of hurting someone in my family or getting them sick because I see so many COVID patients every day,” she said.

Despite her trepidations, Letchinger is looking forward to the annual family ritual, which includes a generous complement of Jewish favorites — like the golumpkis, or stuffed cabbage, that her late aunt Susie used to bring to the Thanksgiving feast.

But the celebration will have somber undertones as well. The family lost two loved ones, both Holocaust survivors, after bouts with COVID-19 last year.

Member of Roanoke street gang admits to murder of 17-year-old


Shortly after shooting a 17-year-old in the back during a gang-related dispute in Northwest Roanoke, Demonte Rashod Mack took up the new nickname of “Murda.”

He made it official Wednesday, pleading guilty to a murder authorities say was part of an organized criminal enterprise called the Rollin’ 30s Crips.

Mack, 32, was the third defendant to plead guilty to involvement with the street gang, which prosecutors say was responsible for drug dealing, robberies, assaults and the shooting deaths of two young men.

One of them, Nickalas Lee, had recently joined the Rollin’ 30s Crips, but fell out of favor when he began to associate with the rival Bloods gang, according to evidence presented Wednesday in Roanoke’s federal court.

U.S. District Judge Michael Urbanski accepted Mack’s admission that he shot Lee twice in the back as he tried to escape a confrontation outside a Tuckawana Circle apartment complex the night of June 14, 2017.

He will be sentenced later, and faces a mandatory term of life in prison under federal laws that portray the Rollin’ 30s Crips — which emerged in Roanoke about four years ago as a chapter of a national gang based in Los Angeles — as part of a racketeering operation.

The only hope of a lesser sentence would be for Mack to testify against the leader of the gang, Sean “Denk” Guerrant, who is scheduled to go on trial starting next Tuesday.

Depending on how that turns out, federal prosecutors could file a motion for substantial assistance, which would then allow Urbanski to go below the mandatory life sentence.

No promises have been made to Mack, Assistant U.S. Attorney Matthew Miller said during Wednesday’s hearing.

On two additional charges, Mack faces a maximum of another life sentence, which is not required by the law, and up to 10 years as a part of the plea agreement.

Defense attorney Tony Anderson said he and co-counsel Aaron Houchens agreed with Mack that a guilty plea was his best option.

Otherwise, Mack would have gone to trial next week along with Guerrant. Prosecutors would have contended that the leader of the Rollin’ 30s Crips first ordered Lee to kill another gang member for disloyalty.

At the same time, Guerrant instructed Mack to kill Lee if the 17-year-old did not go through with the plan, according to a summary of facts submitted in court Wednesday. When the first intended murder victim ran away, Mack took Lee’s gun, chased him to the back of the apartment complex and opened fire after he had fallen to the ground.

Lee was pronounced dead at the scene.

The next day, Mack changed his Facebook screen name to “Murda,” according to an indictment charging him and three others with gang-related crimes. The nickname also appears throughout other court documents.

The second murder attributed to the gang happened Feb. 9, 2018, when Markel Trevon Girty, a 23-year-old man not associated with the Rollin’ 30s Crips, was shot during a drug deal at the Lansdowne Park public housing complex in Roanoke.

Dressed in a green-and-white striped jail suit, Mack answered most procedural questions from Urbanski — such as whether the understood the plea agreement with a quick “Yes, sir.”

The judge later asked: “Did you murder N.L. [Lee] at the direction of a gang leader?”

“Yes, sir,” Mack said.

“And who was that?” Urbanski inquired.

“Guerrant,” was the reply.

Roanoke man faces federal charges after acquittal of murder in state court

One month after he was acquitted of murder, a Roanoke man is facing federal charges related to what he told a jury was an act of self-defense when the victim pulled a gun and tried to rob him of drugs.

Demarcus Shaiquan Glenn, 23, was arrested Tuesday on federal firearm charges.

“It is a federal crime to use, carry, brandish, or discharge a firearm during and in furtherance of a drug transaction,” U.S. Attorney Christopher Kavanaugh said. “My office is committed to playing a role with its federal, state, and local partners in addressing the gun violence in Roanoke.”

Glenn faces a mandatory minimum sentence of 10 years in prison if convicted of the latest charges.

He is charged with using a firearm during a drug-trafficking crime, possessing a firearm in furtherance of the transaction, and brandishing and discharging the gun.

At a trial last month in Roanoke Circuit Court, Glenn testified that he shot 16-year-old Tyler Polumbo in late May 2019 during a drug deal that quickly went bad.

“I was scared. I didn’t want to get shot,” Glenn told the jury.

He walked free after being acquitted of murder, attempted robbery and use of a firearm in commission of each of those crimes.

Glenn and Polumbo had never met one another before when an acquaintance connected them on a Friday night and helped arrange a meetup so Polumbo could buy a couple ounces of marijuana.

According to to court testimony, Glenn agreed to go to Polumbo’s home in southwest Roanoke, where they met on the front porch, for the sale. Both Glenn and Polumbo’s friend, Dylan Keith, who was 18 at the time, agreed what happened next went down quickly, with Keith estimating it all took a span of about two minutes.

Glenn testified that Polumbo began raising a gun to him and demanded his weed. He grabbed Polumbo’s right arm and pulled out his own gun as the two struggled. He felt his grip on Polumbo slipping and pulled his trigger.

Polumbo died on the porch before medics arrived, bleeding out as the bullet, which entered his shoulder, cut a diagonal path across his torso, hitting a lung, a rib and, most crucially, his heart, according to medical testimony. The injuries from the single shot were so catastrophic that he had virtually no hope of being rescued, officials said.

Glenn, who said he was panicked after the shooting, took off afterward on foot. He was arrested at his residence in Roanoke and charged 11 days after the incident.

Federal charges like the ones Glenn faces are unusual when there has already been a verdict in state court on the same set of facts, Kavanaugh said.

Chris Kowalczuk, a Roanoke attorney who represented Glenn in state court, said he had not seen such an action in 27 years of practicing criminal law.

“It is highly unusual for the United States to come behind a verdict of not guilty by jury in the commonwealth,” he said.

Approval by U.S. Justice Department officials in Washington, D.C., was required.

The question was whether there were federal interests that were left unresolved in state court. According to the U.S. Attorney’s office, those interests were addressing the recent increase in gun violence in Roanoke.

Under federal law, someone cannot make a claim of self-defense when a shooting is associated with a drug transaction.

Glenn appeared Wednesday morning before U.S. Magistrate Judge Robert Ballou, who ordered that he remain held without bond for now.