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Attempted murder downgraded to assault of officers in veteran's case in Pulaski County

An Alabama man who last year threatened the president and started driving north, then ran into a state trooper’s car during an attempted traffic stop in Pulaski County, had his charges amended downward in a sudden plea agreement Wednesday. The commonwealth’s attorney said the case showed a need for a special court for those who served in the military.

Operation Desert Storm veteran Kenneth Roy Williams, 55, of Meridianville, Alabama, was arrested on April 22, 2020. A federal agency had contacted law enforcement in Pulaski County to say that a relative of Williams reported that he had threatened then-President Trump, according to Commonwealth’s Attorney Justin Griffith.

Griffith declined to discuss the specifics of the threat.

When Virginia State Police tried to pull over Williams’ vehicle on Interstate 81, he collided with a trooper’s car before being stopped. Williams was charged with two counts of attempted murder of law enforcement officers, among other offenses.

By last fall, Williams was determined not to be mentally competent to stand trial and months of restorative care began in Virginia’s mental health care system. In August, with Williams found to be restored, his case was certified to a grand jury, which on Tuesday returned a series of indictments against him.

Wednesday’s hearing in Pulaski County Circuit Court was listed as a calendar hearing to set the schedule for the rest of his case, but instead became a plea hearing, with an agreement worked out between the commonwealth’s attorney’s and public defender’s offices. In a statement issued after the hearing, Griffith said that his assistant who handled the case, James Crandall, wanted Williams to be able to enter his pleas as soon as possible after his indictment.

Court records showed that the two attempted murder charges were amended to two counts of assault and battery of a law enforcement officer, and that Williams entered no contest pleas. Judge Brad Finch imposed two five-year sentences, then suspended all but one year and three months of it. Finch said that Williams is to be supervised by the probation office for three years after his release.

Williams also was convicted of destruction of property, eluding, and failing to stop, with a three-year sentence for each charge and all of the time suspended.

After the hearing, Griffith called for a veterans treatment docket to be established in the region’s courts to handle such cases.

“This case is a reminder of just how many veterans struggle to reintegrate out of the service and there is no set time line for when their struggles may lead them down this path,” Griffith said.

The New River Valley already has special courts for certain drug offenders. In Montgomery County, there also is a docket for some cases involving mental health issues. These courts were spearheaded by specific judges.

A veterans court “could make a real difference in ensuring other veterans like Mr. Williams can receive specialized services, and individualized treatment plans,” Griffith said.

The prosecutor said that the state troopers who tangled with Williams immediately saw that he was not mentally well. Some of the troopers were veterans and “were able to relate to him” better after they learned that Williams was honorably discharged from military service, Griffith said.

Griffith said that he thinks veterans have earned a right to a special court. “We owe them everything we can do,” he said.

Social Security checks getting boost

WASHINGTON — Millions of retirees on Social Security will get a 5.9% boost in benefits for 2022. The biggest cost-of-living adjustment in 39 years follows a burst in inflation as the economy struggles to shake off the drag of the coronavirus pandemic.

The COLA, as it’s commonly called, amounts to an added $92 a month for the average retired worker, according to estimates Wednesday from the Social Security Administration. It’s an abrupt break from a long lull in inflation that saw cost-of-living adjustments averaging just 1.65% a year over the past 10 years.

With the increase, the estimated average Social Security payment for a retired worker will be $1,657 a month next year. A typical couple’s benefits would rise by $154 to $2,753 per month.

But that’s just to help make up for rising costs that recipients are already paying for food, gasoline and other goods and services.

“It goes pretty quickly,” retiree Cliff Rumsey said of the cost-of-living increases. After a career in sales for a leading steel manufacturer, Rumsey lives near Hilton Head Island, South Carolina. He cares at home for his wife of nearly 60 years, Judy, who has advanced Alzheimer’s disease. Since the coronavirus pandemic, Rumsey said he has also noted price increases for wages paid to caregivers who occasionally help him and for personal care products for Judy.

The COLA affects household budgets for about 1 in 5 Americans. That includes Social Security recipients, disabled veterans and federal retirees, nearly 70 million people in all. For baby boomers who embarked on retirement within the past 15 years, it will be the biggest increase they’ve seen.

Among them is Kitty Ruderman of Queens in New York City, who retired from a career as an executive assistant and has been collecting Social Security for about 10 years. “We wait to hear every year what the increase is going to be, and every year it’s been so insignificant,” she said. “This year, thank goodness, it will make a difference.”

Ruderman says she times her grocery shopping to take advantage of midweek senior citizen discounts, but even so price hikes have been “extreme.” She says she doesn’t think she can afford a medication that her doctor has recommended.

AARP CEO Jo Ann Jenkins called the government payout increase “crucial for Social Security beneficiaries and their families as they try to keep up with rising costs.”

Policymakers say the adjustment is a safeguard to protect Social Security benefits against the loss of purchasing power, and not a pay bump for retirees. About half of seniors live in households where Social Security provides at least 50% of their income, and one-quarter rely on their monthly payment for all or nearly all their income.

“You never want to minimize the importance of the COLA,” said retirement policy expert Charles Blahous, a former public trustee helping to oversee Social Security and Medicare finances. “What people are able to purchase is very profoundly affected by the number that comes out. We are talking the necessities of living in many cases.”

This year’s Social Security trustees report amplified warnings about the long-range financial stability of the program. But there’s little talk about fixes in Congress, with lawmakers’ consumed by President Joe Biden’s massive domestic legislation and partisan machinations over the national debt. Social Security cannot be addressed through the budget reconciliation process Democrats are attempting to use to deliver Biden’s promises.

Social Security’s turn will come, said Rep. John Larson, D-Conn., chairman of the House Social Security subcommittee and author of legislation to tackle shortfalls that would leave the program unable to pay full benefits in less than 15 years. His bill would raise payroll taxes while also changing the COLA formula to give more weight to health care expenses and other costs that weigh more heavily on the elderly. Larson said he intends to press ahead next year.

“This one-time shot of COLA is not the antidote,” he said.

Although Biden’s domestic package includes a major expansion of Medicare to cover dental, hearing and vision care, Larson said he hears from constituents that seniors are feeling neglected by the Democrats.

“In town halls and tele-town halls they’re saying, ‘We are really happy with what you did on the child tax credit, but what about us?’” Larson added. “In a midterm election, this is a very important constituency.”

The COLA is only one part of the annual financial equation for seniors. An announcement about Medicare’s Part B premium they pay for outpatient care is expected soon. It’s usually an increase, so at least some of any Social Security raise gets eaten up by health care. The Part B premium is now $148.50 a month, and the Medicare trustees report estimated a $10 increase for 2022.

Economist Marilyn Moon, who also served as public trustee for Social Security and Medicare, said she believes the current spurt of inflation will be temporary, due to highly unusual economic circumstances.

“I would think there is going to be an increase this year that you won’t see reproduced in the future,” Moon said.

But policymakers should not delay getting to work on retirement programs, she said.

“We’re at a point in time where people don’t react to policy needs until there is a sense of desperation, and both Social Security and Medicare are programs that benefit from long-range planning rather short-range machinations,” she said.

Plea agreement entered in Salem murder case

A man accused in a deadly shooting last year in the parking lot of a busy Salem shopping center appeared in court Wednesday and pleaded no contest to second-degree murder.

Zane Chandler Christian, 26, was facing charges for the death of his estranged wife’s fiancée. The shooting happened on a November afternoon outside Lakeside Plaza during a planned custody exchange of the two children, ages 3 and 4, that Christian shared with his wife, according to prior court proceedings.

Emily Christian, who said the couple had separated about two years earlier, testified in March that he had arrived at their meetup angry because his monthly child support payments had been raised. He keyed her SUV, she said, prompting 27-year-old Rico Allen Turner to step in.

Security footage played during a preliminary hearing showed Turner get out of the vehicle and push Zane Christian, who responded by rushing him with what appeared to be a handgun, according to prior newspaper coverage. The entire altercation spanned just around 97 seconds.

Turner was shot, and died at a hospital that night.

Christian, of Christiansburg, was arrested the next day in West Virginia after a search that included allegations that he carjacked a person in Blacksburg. He has charges pending in Montgomery County that are currently docketed for a plea hearing in December.

In Salem, he entered into a plea agreement Wednesday, pleading no contest to second-degree murder, use of a firearm in a felony and two counts of shooting into an occupied vehicle, according to court records.

The murder charge was amended from an original indictment of first-degree murder. The terms of the agreement noted the change dropped the contention that the homicide had been premeditated.

Two other charges of child neglect, stemming from the presence of children at the scene of shooting, were also withdrawn as part of the agreement.

No commitments about Christian’s sentence were included in Wednesday’s proceedings. The court will consider sentencing during a separate hearing scheduled for Jan. 27.

Richmond Fed President Tom Barkin says workforce issues are among top concerns as economy recovers

More than 18 months after the COVID-19 pandemic hit the United States, roughly 5 million Americans are still sitting out of the labor force.

It’s a development that can hold back economic growth and cause price increases, and a trend that worries Tom Barkin, president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond.

“The thing I am really interested in is this question of what is really going on in the labor market,” Barkin said this week during a question-and-answer session at the University of Richmond’s Robins’ School of Business.

“I really did think we would see stronger job growth in the last two or three months than we have seen,” said Barkin, who is a voting member this year of the Federal Reserve Bank’s Federal Open Market Committee, or FOMC.

The FOMC is primarily responsible for setting policy that heavily influences U.S. interest rates, or the cost of borrowing money, which has a major impact on overall economic growth. In September, the Fed held benchmark interest rates near zero, while indicating that rate increases could be coming.

On Tuesday, Barkin spoke more about underlying issues in the economy such as labor and supply shortages. Many employers have complained about difficulties finding workers as the U.S. economy has clawed its way back from the widespread shutdowns caused by COVID-19 in 2020.

Barkin said he thought more people who dropped out of the workforce last year would re-enter the labor market this summer and fall after enhanced unemployment benefits ended and students returned to schools.

“We have not seen it,” he said. “So why not?”

A key question is whether that remains a temporary issue—for instance, because people are still concerned about the risks of catching COVID-19. “Or, Is it something that is actually much more fundamental?” Barkin asked.

“That is what I am doing my research on right now.” He said “It’s these 5 million people. What will it take to get these 5 million people back in the labor market. What do we need to do?”

Barkin spoke at the Robins School in a taping of the radio and podcast show “Full Disclosure” hosted by Roben Farzad, journalist-in-residence at the University of Richmond. About 300 people listened to the interview either live or remotely through live streaming. Around 100 attended in-person.

In an interview that covered a wide range of economic topics, Barkin also said he thinks the commercial real estate market will face some disruptions as a result of COVID-19, as businesses and other organizations re-assess their office needs with more people working remotely or in a hybrid work model.

However, Barkin said he thinks the economy will adjust to that, and banks are well-capitalized against a downturn in commercial real estate.

“I think the office space will be occupied—the question is at what price,” Barkin said after noting that the market for industrial and warehouse space is “booming.”

“You are going to have organizations using less space,” in the office market, Barkin said. “I do think downtown commercial real estate space is going to be challenged from a rent and price perspective.”

Yet, “the economy is going to adjust,” he said. “That is creative destruction.”

“As best as I can tell – and we have certainly done the stress tests –the banks are well capitalized against that,” he said.

Barkin said he think the housing market will remain strong.

“I think this generation of Millennials wants a house,” he said. “I do think that more and more people working remotely are going to want a house or a little more house.”

“On the supply side, it is really, really hard to find construction workers right now,” he said. ‘There are houses going up, but I don’t see the building that we saw back in 2004 or 2006.”

Labor shortages and the potential long-term consequences of that are a troubling issue, he said.

Barkin said a large number of the workers staying out of the labor force are working-class families with children under the age of 10.

“A lot of them are dual career couples, and scraping to get by” he said. “It costs some amount of money to go to work. If you think your kids are going to be sent home and you don’t know, you might make a choice to just go on with low income, or make a little money on the side, or just forestall some spending.”

‘Whether this lasts or not is the big question we have in front of us,” he said. “We are still 5 million workers down from where we were 18 months ago.”

Barkin said women’s participation in the U.S. workforce peaked in 2000, and right now is now about four percentage points below 2000. “It is almost all working class,” he said.

However, women’s participation in the workforce in the U.S.’s northern neighbor, Canada, is up 5 points from 2000, and that is “almost all working class,” he said.

“I would like to know, what is Canada doing to get women in the workforce, that we are not doing,” Barkin said, adding that it might be related to childcare policies or education policies.