Some thought excessive the use of riot police to disperse a peaceful demonstration on the steps of the Capitol in Richmond in March 2012.
After the entire city of Boston was shut down last month during a massive manhunt following explosions that maimed and slaughtered marathon bystanders, news that a block of Rugby Road was shut down last week for a multi-agency operation sparked ominous speculation. Was it a terrorist threat? A hostage situation? A murderous rampage?
Virginia State Police initially refused to say what nefarious activity had taken place that warranted closing off a stretch of one of Charlottesville's most prestigious streets.
The target of SWAT-attired state police and Homeland Security agents, who shut down Rugby Road between Preston and Rosser avenues around 9:30pm May 6? A fake ID ring, it turns out.
Even the next day, long after two residents had been hauled off to jail and a third mysteriously "fled custody" in a white Range Rover, according to authorities, combat-clad cops with assault weapons maintained a perimeter around 920 Rugby Road while an armored vehicle sat in the driveway with blue lights flashing, keeping curious flip flop-wearing students and well-heeled neighbors at bay.
"I heard lots of doors slamming and saw a million blue lights," says a resident who's lived on Rugby Road for 35 years and who demands that her name not be used. "I went over here and asked if there was a fire.
"I was ordered to go home, " she adds indignantly.
"Boston was the breaking point," says civil libertarian John Whitehead at the Rutherford Institute, a longtime critic of SWAT ops. "If you can lock down a whole city, it gives police leeway to do more."
The show of force in a prominent college-town neighborhood of $1-million-plus homes has some critics raising another question. Could the 21-year-old drinking age get someone killed?
They drove a Range Rover and a $50,000 Cadilliac SUV. They paid $4,000 a month cash in rent for a house on Rugby Road that had been listed for over $3 million. The safe in the house had $200,000– as well as a gun on top, and other firearms were on the premises, according to court documents.
And their neighbors wondered, where did those young people, who didn't interact with other residents, get their money?
As perhaps befits a man accused of manufacturing and distributing more than 4,000 fake IDs, Alan McNeil Jones, 31, has at least seven pseudonyms: Joshua Tucker, J.D. Tucker, John Williams, Jonathan Williams, Charles Miller, Charles Brown, and Thomas Taylor. His employee and co-defendant Mark G. Bernardo, 26, according to court documents, knew him by yet another moniker: "Carter."
Perhaps the most unlikely of the three suspects is Kelly Erin McPhee, 31. "She's the last person I'd expect to be arrested by a SWAT team," says an acquaintance from the Charlottesville Drinking Club, which McPhee organized around 2009-2010 and which drew twenty-somethings to local watering holes with drink discounts. Photos on a Flickr account show McPhee as a pretty, smiling blond with long curly hair, posing with an array of friends.
McPhee worked for a number of years at Mellow Mushroom. She also was involved with a local software provider called CloudBrain, which created a digital music organizer that cleaned up playlists and that was sold to a large company in Seattle, according to people who know her and who requested their names not be used.
"She's super nice– I'm shocked," says local real estate/restaurant developer Stu Rifkin, one of the few people who would speak on the record about McPhee. He knew her through Curbplaces.com, a now-defunct real estate and neighborhood website that was a partnership with CloudBrain. Rifkin says he hasn't seen her in a few years.
A couple of neighbors who spoke with the Hook said there seemed to be something "sketchy" about the tenants of 920 Rugby Road. One recounts some children going on the property and Jones cursing at them. "We've never been happy with those neighbors," says another before slamming down the phone.
As for McPhee's relationship with Jones/Tucker/Williams et. al., one clue emerged as they each stood before a federal judge May 8. Both said they attended the University of Alabama. Jones also said he attended Long Island University.
A friend who spoke only on the condition of anonymity says McPhee went to the University of Alabama at Birmingham, and adds, "Kelly is a great example of a really sweet girl who probably thought it was exciting to live a little dangerously, and never considered the repercussions."
Another friend who spoke to the Hook, again only on the condition of anonymity, paints a more menacing portrait of the dynamic between McPhee and Jones.
"It was one of the more emotionally manipulative relationships I've seen. She went where he told her to go and stayed as long as he allowed her to. It was a relationship that had friends and family worried for years– they dated off and on for about five years."
According to this friend, "No one felt comfortable around [Jones]," who the friend describes as "paranoid."
Says this source, who knew Jones for about three years, "He ranted about the government invading privacy and the foolishness of having personal information on Facebook and on the internet. He also told me he was in the military, and when I found out the FBI was after him, I thought it might be because he was AWOL because he told me he had left basic training because he'd twisted his ankle."
Observes McPhee's friend, "CloudBrain was Kelly's last strong, healthy tie to community, and when that went away, [Jones] gained even more control of her. She no longer had structure to her life."
The business plan
Fake IDs have always been coveted by those too young to drink, but the demand exploded after the Federal Aid Highway Act in 1984, which forced the many states that had made 18 the legal drinking age during the Vietnam War years to raise it to 21 years old or face losing federal highway funds.
Much as Prohibition did, the 21-year-old drinking age has created new categories of criminals, from underage 19-year-old drinkers to the purveyors of high-quality faux identification.
The path that led law enforcement to Rugby Road started at the College of Charleston in 2012, when several students were busted with fake IDs and told police they'd heard word of mouth of a company called "Novel Designs," says Lazaro "Larry" Cosme in the criminal complaint. Cosme is a special agent for Homeland Security, Immigration, and Customs Enforcement in Harrisonburg, and he says Jones a.k.a. Tucker has been selling the fakes since at least August 2011.
The complaint says the fake IDs were marketed toward under-age college students. U.S. Attorney spokesperson Brian McGinn declines to say whether there's any evidence of sales to terrorists or identity thieves.
Purchasers were told to send cash to Com Services at PO Box 7266 in Charlottesville, and about a week later, the students would receive "high-quality fraudulent driver's licenses from various states" from an entity called ND & Associates with a fake PO box-address in Richmond, according to the complaint. Special agent Cosme says he and other law enforcement agents corroborated with multiple witnesses that numerous people sent cash to Com Services.
ND & Associates used free U.S. Postal Service software to create shipping labels. They mailed their product with stamps or flat-rate priority mail envelopes– over 4,000 parcels since early 2011, according to Cosme.
On January 11, the investigators put a covert surveillance camera in the main U.S. Post Office on Seminole Trail to keep an eye on PO Box 7266, and observed that it was regularly checked by Jones, although they didn't seem to know his identity at that time.
By January 23, agents followed Jones to a white 2008 Range Rover with Washington state license plates. A woman they believed was McPhee was sitting in the car's passenger seat– and from the post office, agents ultimately followed the couple to 920 Rugby Road.
Over the next two months, they observed Jones pick up mail from PO Box 7266 "almost daily" and McPhee do so three times.
They also installed a surveillance camera on Rugby Road to keep closer tabs on the house, and noted a black 2013 Cadillac SUV that was registered to Bai Wu in Philadelphia and driven by Mark Bernardo, who later told agents he'd given Wu, his brother-in-law, $50,000 in cash to buy the Cadillac for him in part to avoid detection.
The big break in identitying Jones appears to have come May 2, when he drove a red Jeep Wrangler, according to court documents. Agents following him ran the tags, and discovered they were registered to Alan Jones for a 2005 Dodge Ram truck in Alabama.
Investigators talked to the owners of 920 Rugby Road, who told them they rented the house to a Joshua Tucker, who preferred to conduct business in cash, and even said he'd paid $60K cash for a vehicle, according to court documents. They identified a photo of Jones as the man they knew as Tucker.
City property records show 920 Rugby Road is owned by Phillipe LLC, whose registered Albemarle County address is that of Stephen and Diane Jacques, who built the 5,000-square-foot house in 2010. They did not respond to phone calls from the Hook.
The owners had another interesting detail for the investigators, according to court records: during a December 2011 maintenance check, they noticed Jones had fortified a room and had lots of latex glove boxes around.
On April 28, law enforcement agents were ready to make their own purchase of what is described in court records as "premium quality fraudulent identifications." They emailed Novel Designs and received very specific instructions on the class of mail and U.S. Postal Service add-ons to use to send cash to Com Services at the Charlottesville main post office.
Agents received an email back that said the IDs had shipped on May 6– and that night federal and state tactical units moved in for the bust and shut down Rugby Road.
McPhee and Bernardo were arrested, and from court documents, it appears Bernardo immediately rolled over on his business associates.
He told agents that he'd been employed since December by the man he knew as "Carter," and was paid in cash to edit the backgrounds of the photos used in the fake IDs. Carter a.k.a. Jones and McPhee were the only other people allowed to enter the upstairs rooms where the fake ID manufacturing was done, said Bernardo.
Somehow, Jones fled custody May 6. U.S. Attorney Tim Heaphy declined to elaborate on how Jones managed to slip away in the white Range Rover from the tactical teams blockading Rugby Road.
Jones' life as a fugitive was short lived. Police received a tip May 7 that the Range Rover was spotted near Banana Republic at Barracks Road Shopping Center, says Charlottesville Police spokesperson Ronnie Roberts.
"He was seen going into a business," says Roberts, who declines to say which business, leaving the public to wonder just what sort of purchases Jones might have been making for a life on the lam at a shopping center barely a mile from where his fake ID ring had just been busted big time.
There was a short chase, and Jones was found "hiding behind a column close to the front of Harris Teeter," says Roberts.
"These heavily armed men with the biggest guns I've ever seen pointed them at this guy who looked like he was out for a jog," says an eyewitness to the arrest who was in her vehicle in front of Harris Teeter and spoke on the condition of anonymity. "At first he was running. And then he stopped running and put his hands in the air."
Says the witness, "It was frightening because if someone had started firing there would have been a lot of civilians in the way. It was 5:30 on a weeknight at Harris Teeter. A little bit terrifying."
U.S. Magistrate Judge Waugh Crigler's courtroom on the third floor of the federal courthouse on the corner of Ridge-McIntire is not huge, and before the 10:30am hearing began May 8, the two rows closest to the front were filled with family and friends of Kelly McPhee.
A tearful McPhee in a red jail jumpsuit was brought in, along with Jones and Bernardo.
In separate hearings, Jones and McPhee learned that they face up to 55 years and $750,000 in fines on three felony charges for mail, wire, and false identification fraud. "We expect many additional charges," U.S. Attorney Heaphy told the judge.
Jones wanted to hire his own attorney, and McPhee's family brought in defense attorney Andrew Sneathern.
Bernardo, who is charged with one count of fraud for the fake IDs and one count of money laundering, presumably for the Cadillac purchase, and who likely will face additional charges, according to Heaphy, wanted a public defender.
The 26-year-old was cryptic when Judge Crigler quizzed him about his finances and asked if he had any money stored. "No cash," said Bernardo, who acknowledged an old bank account from a business with about $2,000 in it.
Then Bernardo asked what it would entail for him to represent himself.
"The general rule is that the person who represents himself has a fool for a client," advised Crigler.
The three will be back in court May 16 for a bail hearing.
"The overcriminalization of America"
John Whitehead, who coined the phrase above, was one of the few expressing concerns when Boston– a major U.S. city– was shut down April 19.
Whitehead dates what he calls the militarization of police to well before 9/11, back to Ronald and Nancy Reagan's war on drugs in the 1980s. That's when the federal government started handing out tactical weapons and equipment to local law enforcement, and the images of Mayberry's Andy Griffith and Barney Fife as the kinder, gentler way of keeping the peace began to fade.
Since then, the number of special weapons and tactics– SWAT– raids has shot up to 80,000 a year, says Whitehead. And innocent people have died in raids, 10 to 15 percent of which are to wrong addresses, he says.
He cites the Tucson slaying two years ago of Marine and Iraq vet Jose Guerena, who was killed when men who did not identify themselves as police stormed into his home and Guerena grabbed a weapon to defend his family.
"What I'm seeing is an increase in storm troopers," says Whitehead, who also criticized the use of assault-weapon-carrying tactical teams who burst onto the property of an Albemarle County man two years ago and busted him for two pot plants.
"This is a form of martial law when you close down a street," says Whitehead, "Over fake IDs? It's one thing if they were gun running."
Whitehead wonders why the three fake ID suspects weren't arrested when they were on the street, especially since they were under surveillance.
He notes that in the 1993 Waco massacre that killed 76 men, women and children in the standoff of Branch Davidians against federal agents, cult leader David Koresh went jogging every morning. "Why didn't the SWAT team arrest him then?" asks Whitehead.
Another danger Whitehead warns of from the militarization of police is the ratcheting up of paranoia of people he refers to as "gun fanatics," who see it as reason to arm themselves further.
Gearing up in flak jackets and assault rifles is pretty much the standard across the country, says city police spokesperson Ronnie Roberts. "That is normal protocol for tactical units," he says of the Rugby Road op.
And even though Charlottesville Police were not informed of the May 6 raid until right before it started, Roberts points out that this is not the first time Rugby Road has been shut down and mentions Operation Equinox.
That's when three fraternities were busted in 1991 to show that the war on drugs also took aim at privileged white students and wasn't only targeting minorities. That raid has become notorious to some as an example of the excess of the war on drugs and spawned activists such as Jamie Graham, a third-year who sold two hits of LSD to an undercover cop for $5 and went to federal prison for his offense.
Others question the benefits of not allowing young adults to legally drink until 21. Since 2008, 136 college and university presidents have signed onto the Amethyst Initiative and say the upped drinking age just isn't working and has created a dangerous culture of binge drinking.
Rugby Road resident Kaye Teasley says she came of age when the drinking age was 18 for beer and 21 for wine and liquor. "We just drank beer," she says. "It was legal and we were fine with that." While she recalls parties where other alcohol was served, "for the most part, beer was our drink of choice. Now, because the kids cannot drink anything, they drink everything. Meaning, there are no distinctions between shots of alcohol and just a casual beer or three."
In addition to encouraging heavier drinking of stronger drinks, the 21 drinking age, Teasley says, provides a motive to possess– or for entrepreneurial types, perhaps, to create– fake IDs.
"I think the drinking age creates a few bad incentives," she says.
The use of fake IDs can even draw the weight of Homeland Security, says Hotcakes co-owner Keith Rosenfeld, who recently attended a class taught by ABC agents for owners of restaurants serving alcohol. "The agents were very clear that UVA has a lot of fake IDs," says Rosenfeld. “The agents stated that two foreign students can't get home because their fake ID convictions put them on the no-fly list.”
"An 18-year-old is going to drink beer come heck or high water," says Foxfield Racing Association president Benjamin Dick, who reminds that this country considers that age old enough to go to war. "The 21-year-old law forces them to drink clandestinely."
Dick has had his own battles controlling collegiate drinking at Foxfield, and has collected a lot of fake IDs. "An officer said there sure are a lot of students from New Jersey," he recounts.
New Jersey seems to be a popular state for fake IDers, including a 19-year-old who spoke with the Hook only on the condition that his name and his school not be revealed. He did not get his $100 fake driver's license from the alleged Charlottesville ring, and lost money trying to buy one from an online website. Ultimately, a friend in New York was able to procure one for him.
"Most of my friends at school don't have them," he says. "Almost all my friends at home have them."
"If we had an 18-year-old drinking law," says Dick, "the number of false IDs would probably drop proportionally in number."
He also takes aim at the amount of force used in the Rugby Road raid. "You need that kind of manpower at the Boston marathon," he opines. "Those were life-threatening situations. No one's going to come out [with guns] blazing for fake IDs."
Police don't necessarily agree, and the criminal complaint notes multiple weapons found in the house, including a high-power assault rifle.
"It is fake IDs," says John Whitehead. "You don't need a SWAT team for this. There's a danger of people getting killed."
There's also the danger of pets getting shot, he says. "Usually they shoot dogs," he says of SWAT ops. A Doberman pinscher found in the Rugby Road house survived the raid and was taken into custody by Animal Control.
If Whitehead rails against the increased use of SWAT ops, retired State Police Lieutenant Joe Rader says police make decisions on the level of force required based on specific information gathered during the investigation.
"As a police officer, there is nothing worse," Rader says, "then being under prepared."
According to the FBI, 72 police officers were killed feloniously in 2011– an increase of 25 percent over the previous year.
Still, the image of flak-jacketed, helmet-wearing, assault-rifle-toting police is disturbing to many citizens. "It seems to me a different level of extremism is rising with police," says local Soren Mitchell. "Police are becoming really militarized."
He finds public acceptance of that even more disturbing. "It seems like the whole nation is scared and willing to give up their freedoms for protection," says Mitchell.
To Whitehead, the show of force directly stems from the military equipment the federal government provides to local police, and the overcriminalization of America.
"Outrage is the word," he says. "We have a police state here. We don't want to see this in Charlottesville for this kind of operation. If they're going to blow up something, then act quickly. But for something like this?"
– with additional reporting by Courteney Stuart and Meri Jane Smith.