COVER- JADE junkie: the unlikeliest First Amendment warrior
Love or hate? Similarly ambiguous are Elisha Strom's tattoos: Celtic knots with the word "revolting."
I HeArTE JADE website
White nationalism was an earlier interest of Elisha Strom, and this photo was taken in 2001 at a National Alliance demonstration in front of the Israeli embassy in Washington.
PHOTO COURTESY SOUTHERN POVERTY LAW CENTER
An officer Strom dubbed Skoal is surreptitiously photographed.
I HeArTE JADE website
Detective Brian O'Donnell met Strom when he was the investigator on the case against her husband. On I HeArTE JADE, Strom nicknames him "Longhead."
I HeArTE JADE website
Was this map of JADE vehicles during a bust what earned Elisha Strom an obstruction of justice charge?
I HeArTE JADE website
Elisha Strom tails "Spot" and snaps photographs while driving.
I HeArTE JADE website
Lt. Don Campbell talks to the media after a drug bust, which chafes Elisha Strom because she was ordered not to publish identifying photos on her blog.I HeArTE JADE website
Judging by sheer number of television shows dedicated to the genre, Americans are obsessed with cops. Judging by the 221 entries on her blog, Elisha Strom is obsessed with cops.
Now this 34-year-old mother finds herself the unlikely star of her own legal thriller– one that's put her in jail and yet earned support from the American Civil Liberties Union and a Washington Post editorial. Oh, and she's a former white separatist.
Elisha Strom admits she's interested in cops– but not just any cops. The officers who stirred her interest to the extent that she staked them out over eight months, photographing and following them and posting the results on a blog all work in a multi-jurisdictional group called the Jefferson Area Drug Enforcement Task Force.
Strom argues that her interest in JADE is a hobby, much like others pursue basketball or basket-weaving, and that she's merely an "information junkie" investigating what these cops do to satisfy her own curiosity.
The 11 men in JADE might disagree.
"It's kind of a scary situation, having someone follow you to your house," says Sergeant Paul Best, who's running for Charlottesville sheriff. "All or a majority of us feel the best result would be [for Strom] to get some sort of psychiatric help."
That didn't happen. Instead, Strom was arrested July 16 and spent a month behind the bars of the Albemarle-Charlottesville Regional Jail before a family member posted the $7,500 bond to secure her release. Strom worried that more charges would follow. Her fears proved well founded.
On September 2, she was charged with obstruction of justice in Charlottesville General District Court.
Whether Strom is a citizen watchdog or a delusional stalker will be heard in court. She says she never realized her blog would become a free speech issue or raise a discussion on how the drug war plays out in Charlottesville.
"I did not consider that at all because it was a silly blog– light-hearted and rambling," she says. "I think JADE is blowing it out of proportion. Now it's a free speech issue."
Indeed, the American Civil Liberties Union believes the class six felony under which she's been charged– a Virginia law against publishing officer addresses or photographs with the "intent to coerce, intimidate, or harass"– is unconstitutional.
She points out that she hasn't been charged with stalking, a class 1 misdemeanor, which Virginia defines as someone one whose conduct appears to puts "a person" in reasonable fear of death, sexual assault, or bodily injury.
"You can't stalk an occupation," says Strom.
Love or hate?
Strom's interest in JADE stems, she says, from the arrest and conviction of her estranged husband, white separatist Kevin Strom, for one count of child porn possession. He was found not guilty of intimidating a witness— Elisha— and enticement of a minor in October 2007, but pleaded guilty to the kiddie porn charge in January 2008 and served 23 months in jail.
One of the investigators on the Kevin Strom case, Brian O'Donnell, also works on the JADE task force.
"Special thanks to Detective Brian N. O'Donnell of the Charlottesville Police Department," writes Elisha Strom October 25 in the first I HeArTE JADE post. "Had it not been for his advice, this site likely wouldn't exist."
Elisha acknowledges the ambiguity of the name of "I HeArTE JADE" and declines to elaborate further about her interest that compelled her to repeatedly to make the nearly 100-mile, almost two-hour drive from the tiny town of Thaxton in Bedford County where she now lives, to sit outside the JADE headquarters in the Frank Ix building for hours on end.
"I'm an information junkie," she says. "I think their work is exciting. It's interesting. It's fun."
And, she assures, "I would do this with any kind of subject I'm interested in."
On March 3, she writes, "If you haven't guessed yet, I'm heavily Law Enforcement focused. I'm sure there's a deep pseudo-psychological reason someone can devise for me being this way, but let's not go there."
With the enthusiasm of Nancy Drew, Strom describes putting duct tape on her headlights to disguise them while following JADE officers around at night. She follows them to their houses, and publishes a chart noting the distance they live from the JADE HQ and gives them quirky nicknames like "Porn Star," "Dasani," and "Boomslang."
She posts pictures of their dogs, as well as of their cars. She describes following them on a bust, and creeping close in to observe the action.
On November 13, 2008, three weeks after the blog goes up, Strom writes that she has been observed taking photographs outside the Ix building by JADE head Lieutenant Don Campbell, and that she gets a phone call from the FBI.
A month later, she's followed and stopped by the JADE officer she calls "Spot," (and whom Strom thinks is "hot," according to I HeArTE JADE.)
By December 27, Charlottesville Police Chief Tim Longo meets her at C'Ville Coffee for a chat and a request to knock it off, according to the blog.
"In a nutshell, he said that I was a nuisance to the Task Force and I should back of," writes Strom. "I felt unaffected by his monologue. He pulled out an envelope and told me he'd put what he'd spoken in writing. See? I knew there'd be paperwork! Not as nasty as I'd expected it to be, but not nice either."
Early in 2009, she's told she's not allowed on JADE property, and on January 23 she reports being photographed by task force members, and then stopped when she makes a hasty getaway down a one-way street.
On Groundhog Day, Strom gets another letter from Chief Longo ordering her to "cease and desist" her surveillance of the task force and warning of criminal prosecution. A trespassing notice follows in May, and all the while Strom continues to document and dog the task force members.
Her case is turned over to Special Agent Jason Trent with the Virginia State Police, who warns her she faces charges under state code in §18.2-186.4 after she publishes the home address and photos of one of the JADE detectives.
Her last entry is July 16: "Uh-oh. They're here."
The aftermath of a September 2008 high-speed chase that ends in the arrest of Michael Tomey for illegal gun possession.
PHOTO I HEARTE JADE WEBSITE
Sheriff Chip Harding worked for JADE before it was officially a task force.
PHOTO ALBEMARLE SHERIFF'S OFFICE
JADE's annual report showing arrests and seizures was posted on I HeArTE JADE blog.
PHOTO I HEARTE JADE WEBSITEWhat would become the Jefferson Area Drug Enforcement task force got its start in 1987 during the height of the Reagan administration's war on drugs, when Charlottesville had open-air crack cocaine markets, drive-by shootings, and as many as five drug-related murders a year.
"Crack hit hard in the late ‘80s," says Lieutenant Don Campbell, who launched the group with fellow Charlottesville Police officers Bryant Bibb and Chip Harding.
In 1995, the task force was officially mandated, and now 11 members: five from the Charlottesville Police Department, four from Albemarle, one from UVA's police force, and one Virginia State Police member, says Campbell, with the DEA, ATF, and FBI pitching in on investigations. After 2001, the group added anti-terrorism to its mission.
Each jurisdiction pays the salaries of its officers and adds another $6,000 per man— there are no women in JADE— for a total budget of $78,000.
"Everything else is paid for from seized assets," says Campbell, who now heads the unit.
In 2007, the most current report on JADE statistics, the task force made 197 arrests and seized 571 grams of methamphetamine, 19 pounds of marijuana, and 1.79 kilos of cocaine. A September 3 arrest netted seven grams of coke, according to a JADE press release.
"We're not trying to set records," says Campbell. "We're trying to get people off the street."
Campbell also notes that while the group doesn't target marijuana, they'll bring charges when they find it.
Now the sheriff of Albemarle, Harding stopped working on drugs in 1992, but says even after the open air drug markets died out, people from New York and Washington moved in– people who are, says Harding, "less respectful of life."
Critics question the use of precious local resources to fund a national war on drugs that doesn't appear close to victory. Independent City Council candidate Paul Long, for instance, has made repeal of the Harrison Act– which made heroin and cocaine illegal– key to his platform, even though the issue does not fall under City Council jurisdiction.
"I have a problem with police officers specifically fighting drugs rather than crime in general," says Long, a former addiction counselor. "If I was on Council, I'd vote against funding those five officers on JADE."
Long contends the violence associated with drug trafficking is the result of illegality, much like alcohol during Prohibition. "Outlawing alcohol led to the rise of organized crime," he says. "We're seeing that with drug use."
James Curtis, treasurer of the Jefferson Area Libertarians, agrees that drug laws actually breed violence by creating a strong a black market. "If you're trying to reduce drug addiction," says Curtis, "there are more responsible, less expensive ways."
Former Greene deputy sheriff Steve Shifflett says JADE robs departments of vital manpower. "If I had my choice as a taxpayer, I'd put them on patrol," says Shifflett, who calls a JADE assignment "a gravy train type job."
Charlottesville Police Chief Tim Longo suggests that critics may not have enough information.
"JADE personnel and our federal partners have been instrumental," writes Longo in an email, "in the identification and successful prosecution of many violent offenders in our city that made their living selling drugs, destroying lives, and negatively impacting the quality of life in neighborhoods throughout our region."
Albemarle's Lieutenant Todd Hopwood recalls his own experience as a patrol officer when he assisted JADE in Operation Roasted Chestnut, a 1995 bust of five houses, after months of investigation, in Esmont and Chestnut Grove.
"This was a community that was completely overrun with drugs," says Hopwood. "A patrol officer doesn't have time to build informants and build cases."
JADE's biggest cases bring federal conspiracy charges to shut down violent gangs, such as the RICO charges against PJC, aka Project Crud, a gang of 30 members terrorizing 10th and Page streets whose leader, Antonio Bryant, was sentenced to two life sentences in 2006.
Earlier this year, the free market-oriented Cato Institute looked back approvingly on the experience of Portugal after nearly a decade of decriminalized personal drug use, and even drug warriors like Harding concede the failures of current U.S. drug policy.
"Do I think the war on drugs is effective? No, I don't," says Harding. "Do I think we should we revisit our marijuana laws and look at how legalization has worked in other countries? Yes, I do."
"We know we can't stop drug use and dealing," acknowledges JADE's Campbell. "As long as people want drugs, they'll use them, and as long as they're illegal we'll keep enforcing the law."
But for those who would question the effectiveness of JADE, Campbell offers a reference. "Call the people who live in those neighborhoods when they had shootings and they were begging for help."
But is it illegal?
"This is a classic free speech issue," says Kent Willis, ACLU of Virginia executive director. "Ms. Strom has taken information that's publicly available and put it on a website. A federal court has already struck down as unconstitutional a nearly identical law in Washington."
The ACLU's interest in the case was piqued because in Sheehan v. Gregoire, a Washington state law similar to Virginia's statute was overturned in federal court.
"Based on the Sheehan case," says Willis, the Virginia law "is probably unconstitutional as written. You can publish information about public officials to goad them to action. It can't contain an actual threat to do physical harm."
Strom insists her purpose in publishing the address, available from public records, is not to harass.
After she's contacted by the FBI, she hints in a November 13 post at having more info on JADE, information she may unleash if pushed.
"I do have enough intelligence to, within the confines of the law, effectually take on what I believe is nothing more than a group of arrogant thugs."
In the same post, she writes, "Will the Federal Bureau of Investigation make good on its threat? Time will tell. The bottom line: Maybe I'll have to do the same."
Back in August, Albemarle Commonwealth's Attorney Denise Lunsford expressed a willingness to prosecute. Now, she will no longer talk about the case.
Another Virginia law having to do with publication of publicly available information recently went to the the U.S. Supreme Court. Privacy advocate B.J. Ostergren was aggrieved that Virginia public records often include Social Security Numbers. To call attention to the identity-theft threat, she published the SSNs of public officials that she found online.
The General Assembly responded by making it illegal to publish such info, even if it came from government records. In Ostergren v. McDonnell, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled the law unconstitutional in June.
Strom picked up the obstruction of justice charge for her post about a low-speed chase July 9 in Belmont after which JADE, as part of an undercover sting, arrested two people for cocaine distribution and one gun charge.
The Daily Progress wrote about the chase, and Strom put up that article July 11, along with a map of JADE vehicles around Belmont Park and photos, presumably of the law enforcement cars, on her blog.
"If I was obstructing justice, why wasn't the Daily Progress charged, too?" asks Strom, who contends she put up her pictures and map after the media had covered the bust. "I'm getting charged after the ACLU says they're representing me."
Charlottesville Commonwealth's Attorney Dave Chapman refuses to comment on the pending case.
"I think they're throwing everything at me they can," declares Strom. "If I was dangerous, they would charge me with stalking. They're just trying to intimidate me. Maybe it's payback. I just don't want to go back to jail. It's not worth it."
I HeArTE JADE is not Strom's first brush with notoriety. That came with her connection to white supremacist circles through her estranged husband, Kevin Strom, protégé of William Pierce, who wrote The Turner Diaries, the book that inspired domestic terrorist Timothy McVeigh.
The Southern Poverty Law Center calls her "about as close to a feminist as you can get on the American radical right."
Today Strom winces at that part of her past and tries to distance herself from the white nationalist movement.
"I disagreed with Dr. Pierce on some things," she says, citing Pierce's enchantment with Adolf Hitler. "I didn't think [Hitler] was so wonderful. Dr. Pierce changed his thinking."
It was through Pierce that she met and fell in love with Kevin, she says.
"It's not like I was looking for a neo-Nazi or white separatist," she says. "I wanted someone who wanted a better world."
Elisha Strom says she grew up all over the place. Her father was a "pastor's pastor" who traveled to troubled churches.
She left home when she was 15.
"I had a boyfriend who worked," she says. "I always wanted to be a wife and mom."
Strom insists she was never a member of the National Alliance, never lived on its compound in West Virginia, and never contributed money to the organization.
"That was my husband's life," says Strom. "I was supporting my husband."
Kevin was ousted from the National Alliance in a 2005 power struggle. The Stroms moved to Greene County, and he formed a new whites-only organization called the National Vanguard.
After Elisha reported finding him naked and looking at photos of naked females with the heads of girls transposed on them, the two faced off in U.S. District Court.
He charged her with assault when she bashed him on the head with a phone after finding him again looking at little girl pictures, and Elisha maintained the assault allegation was an attempt to intimidate her as a witness. The testimony in court played like a bitter divorce.
Despite Kevin's keen interest in a 10-year-old friend of Elisha's daughter, the enticement of a minor and intimidation charges were thrown out of court in October 2007, and Kevin pleaded guilty to one count of child pornography possession in January 2008, while denying that he was a pedophile.
In court, he also objected to being called a neo-Nazi and white supremacist. Though quite separate, the couple is still legally married, and Kevin lives in Charlottesville.
Readers of Elisha Strom's blog find an intelligent, articulate writer, though at times there's a bit of teen breathiness: "iHeArTEjade has to reiterate Spot is Hot. As. Hell. Especially in these pants."
She did not attend college, and says she just got her GED this past year. And according to the blog, she speed reads 1,010 words per minute with a 93 percent comprehension level.
Strom denies that she compromised JADE activities or informants. "If I followed them to an informant, I'd stay far away." (She also notes that none of the officers go undercover, which Lieutenant Campbell confirms.)
And she scoffs at the notion that JADE officers had fears for their safety from a 100-pound woman with ruby-red hair.
"The one thing I didn't think about and wish I had," reflects Strom, "was their wives and girlfriends and how they'd feel."
Some have suggested that I HeArTE JADE Is the effort of a woman scorned.
"I've heard that," says Strom. "I believe at one point Chief Longo said I hallucinated a relationship. I'll let it go at that."
Although she does come back to the woman-scorned label to label it "tiresome."
Did she have a relationship with a JADE officer? Responds Strom, "I wouldn't answer that."
And she maintains that her research on JADE fills a watchdog role. "People should be able to ask what they're doing," she says, "and if they do, they're called stalkers."
The terms of her bond prohibit the computer-savvy Strom from use of a computer and contact with law enforcement officers.
Elisha Strom is scheduled for her own day in court October 1 for both charges– misdemeanor obstruction of justice in Charlottesville General District Court, and felony harassment of cops in Albemarle General District. If convicted on the latter, she faces a mandatory six month jail sentence.
"I thought I wanted to live in a white society," she sighs. "Now I want to live in a nice society."