Early Saturday morning, March 16, at approximately 12:45am, three gunshots rang out on Second Street NW on the Downtown Mall, between the offices of the Hook and the Elks Lodge, leaving two men shot and wounded on the street. According to police, the two men have been identified as Frank D. Brown, 56, of Albemarle County, and Leon T. Brock, 22, of Culpeper County. As of Hook presstime on Tuesday, March 19, both were listed in stable condition at the UVA Medical Center and no charges had been filed. The police officer who has also acknowledged firing his weapon has been placed on administrative leave pending an investigation.
According to a search warrant for Brown filed in Charlottesville Circuit Court, a witness told police that Brown fired on Brock after Brock and three other men jumped him.
Charlottesville Police Officer Alex Bruner, according to the search warrant, told police on the scene that he had fired his weapon twice. A witness also states that Bruner shouted "Drop the weapon!" before firing.
The late night gun battle– witnessed by a Hook reporter– happened in the blink of an eye, but the repercussions of the violence continue to reverberate across the Downtown community.
"This isn't the first time there have been incidents outside the Elks Lodge," says Sigrid Eilerton, owner of the Firefish art gallery on Second Street NW, directly across from where the shooting took place. "Last September, a fight broke out between two women coming out of the Elks Lodge on a Friday night, and one woman threw the other through one of my windows." Eilerton describes a number of other incidents, too, that occurred while patrons were visiting her gallery. Indeed, a 2007 Hook story on Downtown violence mentions a late night assault on a woman at the Elks Lodge.
"I don't want the Elks Lodge to close down," says Eilerton. "It's a historically important place for the African-American community, but I don't understand why there can't be some controls." Eilerton says she'd like to see a limited or no-alcohol policy at the club, as well as an 11pm curfew and a no firearms policy.
"I would be fine with the Elks Lodge being there if those regulations were put in place," she says.
Phone messages left for Elks Lodge #195 were not returned. Rick Turner, head of the local NAACP, did not return the Hook's calls by press time.
Established in Ohio in 1898, the Improved Benevolent and Protective Order of the Elks of the World is an African American fraternal organization created to provide financial and emotional support for the community. According to information published by the Albemarle Charlottesville Historical Society, the Charlottesville Black Elks Lodge, as it's commonly known, was established in 1914 in the African American neighborhood known as Vinegar Hill, a neighborhood that was destroyed in the 1960s when Charlottesville residents voted to redevelop the land.
The Black Elks Lodge, however, is a continuing part of that history, an island of local African American culture smack dab in the middle of predominantly white-owned and frequented businesses on the Downtown Mall. As detailed in the Hook and elsewhere, while the Elks club has historically been a place for entertainment and recreation, its members also support the local African community with aid to seniors and education scholarships. In 2006, Elks Lodge #195 hosted the organization's state-wide convention at the DoubleTree Hotel.
Still, as Eilerton and other downtown business owners know, it has often been a raucous scene when a Friday night party at the Elks Lodge on the Downtown Mall lets out, with people pouring out onto Second Street after a night of dancing and drinking. Unlike the Mall's restaurant- and late-night-club owners, the Elks Lodge, as a nonprofit private club, isn't required to have an ABC license or to abide by state regulations for restaurants.
"The Elks should close down. It's nothing but a hole in the wall," writes Lena Haskins, an African American woman who used to go to the club back in the 1990s, on the Hook's website. She confirms the sentiment in a Facebook message exchange with a reporter. "Fights rung out every Friday."
Indeed, nearby restaurant owner Jacie Dunkle claims she has had to make an early last call many of those Friday nights, not wanting her customers at Fellini's #9 caught up in the often-boisterous scene in the street.
"I probably call the police two out of four Fridays every month," says Dunkle. "Fighting is part of the norm on Friday nights when there is a party there. People who can't get into the Elks wait in the parking lot for friends to come out - you can watch it unfold. It can be absolute mayhem."
Last Friday night, her fears were justified.
After the shots rang out– scattering the crowd, many of whom ran for cover– and two men lay wounded and bleeding on the street, Dunkle quickly locked the front door of Fellini's and had her customers hit the floor. Outside, there was chaos, shouting, and cries of "a cop shot him!, a cop shot him!" as at least 20 officers arrived.
Almost immediately, a reporter witnessed, police had a heated, racially charged situation on their hands, and they worked to secure the scene, calmly but forcefully demanding that the crowd disperse. Some in the crowd were visibly angry and upset, and police, standing shoulder-to-shoulder in groups of four or five, shouted down and forced the crowd away from the scene.
As a reporter wandered among the crowd snapping photos, he was approached by several angry people demanding to know who he was but refusing to talk about what they had seen when the reporter identified himself. Police, too, declined comment at the scene.
One man lay handcuffed on the ground, his head and shoulders propped up against a telephone pole. He was bleeding through his shirt around his abdomen and in obvious pain. The other man lay bleeding on the other side of the street, partially leaning against the side of a car.
Within an hour and a half of the shooting, Brown and Brock had been transported to UVA Hospital, the crowd had been dispersed, and a strange calm descended on Second Street. Officers guarded the taped line around the now empty street, and detectives swept the area for evidence. Around the corner, the southern rock and bluegrass band Crow Jane was playing its final set at Miller's, and people could be heard chatting and laughing out front. People strolling the Mall, unaware of what had happened, discovered that Second Street, from Market Street to Water Street, had been taped off and declared a crime scene. Police refused to let anyone in the area, even those who'd parked their cars along the street, much to their annoyance. Indeed, a reporter, who had retreated into the offices of the Hook to post a story, had to be escorted by police out of the crime scene area when he left the building.
Four days after the shooting, police are still asking any witnesses to the incident to contact Charlottesville Police at 970-3280.
Original story posted 3/16 at 1:21am:
BREAKING: Shots fired on the Downtown Mall, two wounded
At approximately 12:45am this morning, March 16, a reporter heard three loud shots ring out on Second Street NW on the Downtown Mall, between the offices of the Hook and the Elks Lodge, leaving two men down in the street, alive, but in obvious pain. A huge crowd of Elks Lodge-goers poured out on the street, some furious and shouting– several demanding to know what I was doing there with a camera [I identified myself as a reporter for the Hook], and others saying, "A cop shot him! a cop shot him!"– as at least 20 Charlottesville police officers tried to control the crowd. Police handcuffed the two wounded men, waiting for the ambulance to arrive, then taped off the entire street up to Water Street and declared it a crime scene, declining to give a reporter information about the shooting, and not allowing anyone in the taped off area, even those whose cars were parked along the street.
Later, at a 9am press conference, Charlottesville Police Chief Tim Longo offered further details about the incident that sent the two men to UVA hospital.
According to Longo, a witness who'd driven across the Mall on Second Street NW saw two men engaged in an altercation that police believe began inside the Elk's Lodge, next door to Fellini's restaurant. The witness watched as the first man drew a gun and fired on the second man, then proceeded toward him with his weapon aimed. At that time, according to Longo, Charlottesville Police officer Alex Bruner arrived on his bike. While the witness did not see Bruner discharge his weapon, he heard at least one gunshot, and Longo says Bruner has acknowledged firing his weapon.
Bruner has been placed on paid administrative leave pending the outcome of both the criminal and administrative investigations. No charges have been filed against either man at this time, and their conditions and identities are being withheld pending family notification.
Any witnesses to the incident are asked to contact Charlottesville Police at 970-3280.
Story updated 10:28am with details from press conference