Charlottesville Breaking News

Glenmoregate: Embezzling Comer gets another 3 years

Convicted embezzler Michael Comer stood before a judge today in federal court for the final sentencing in a string of charges that came to light when the Glenmore homeowners association discovered it was missing money–- and its former treasurer.

Kandi Comer, his wife, and her sister, Mo Gaffney, sat in the back of the courtroom as U.S. District Court Judge Norman Moon sentenced a gray-striped, prison-garbed Comer to 36 months on tax fraud and mail fraud charges stemming from embezzlement of Glenmore Associates, PBK Real Estate, and Kessler Enterprises–- companies associated with his wife's family.

Comer had already pleaded guilty. Between 2003 and 2009, he admitted he filed false income tax returns and had $2,548,212 in unreported, taxable income. He agreed to repay the additional income tax that's at least $933,028.

Comer's lawyer, Blair Howard from Warrenton, pleaded with the judge to consider Comer's children and the letters written by his mother-in-law, Peggy Kessler, and sister-in-law Gaffney, both victimized by Comer's financial machinations.

"It's true he betrayed his family," acknowledges Howard. "He used assets to buy a better way of life for his family." That included private school tuition for his two children.

Howard also noted Comer had n...

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Incumbent protection? House plan would add Fauquier to 5th

Every 10 years, Virginia redraws its congressional districts following the fresh census results. Cooler heads inevitably call for nonpartisan redistricting, and accusations of "gerrymandering" inevitably follow the new districts, always weighted-to-the-party-in-power.

A bipartisan plan has emerged from Virginia's members in the House of Representatives, Politico reports, but rather than praising that spirit of cooperation between Democrats and Republicans, critics are blasting the plan as "incumbent protection."

The plan was devised primarily by Virginia's eight GOP members, including the 5th District's freshman Representative Robert Hurt, and it got the support of the state's three Dem Reps by strengthening their districts as well, according to Politico's Richard E. Cohen, who cites multiple sources from both parties familiar with the plan.

Most eyepopping for voters in the already-gigantic 5th District, which stretches more than 150 miles from the North Carolina border to Greene County, is that the district would bloat even farther north to bisect the state, adding the Republican-leaning Washington exurb of Warrenton in Fauquier County.

David Wasserman at the Cook Political Report calls it "the most egregiously shaped district," str...

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Ragged cost: Wildfire tally nears quarter-million mark

As the criminal trial nears, tallies of suppression costs and property losses have begun in the so-called Ragged Mountain Fire, and the price-tag appears to have neared the quarter-million-dollar mark, including nearly $50,000 to extinguish the sprawling conflagration. Meanwhile, the late February blaze scorched 609 acres of terrain, according to an official with the Virginia Department of Forestry.

"We confirmed it with GPS," says David Powell, an assistant regional forester, who notes that an earlier estimate of over 800 acres included "initial containment lines" that were wider than what actually burned.

This fire– which began on a wind-whipped Saturday in a financially troubled subdivision– cost the Forestry Department $9,940, a figure that includes only the time and fuel expended for Department-mustered workers and equipment, not the efforts of the myriad other fire companies that pitched in.

If the cost– at $16 an acre– seems a little low, indeed it's less than one quarter of the $72 per acre five-year average the Department cites.

"We don't bill for investigative time or for education," explains Powell, "We only bill for actual time spent putting it out."

At the Ragged Mountain fire, which began under ...

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Short story winner: 'A Small Brown Box'

I don’t know why I’ve even bothered telling this story again– principals, officers, magistrates. They’ve finally given me a lawyer, but it looks like he’s on their side. Everyone’s on their side. I never had a chance. That’s how it’s been every day since I first walked through the doors of that building. No one cared how I felt, what I was good at. Just follow the rules and do what you’re told. I wish now that I had done what I really wanted to when I had the chance. I’m going to end up paying for it anyway. I can’t believe he’s still talking– I have to interrupt.

“Stop! You have no idea why this happened. I shouldn’t be here. I know that’s what they all say, but this is different, I swear.” I don’t know what else to say to him, he doesn’t understand.

“But the gun was in your possession, in your hands, pointed at him. According to witnesses you had personal problems with him, and you argued with each other every day.”

I see the contempt in his face when he says this. So I try again to make him see my side.

“This is all a mistake. I wasn’t going to shoot anyone. It’s just like every other day; I have no control over what happens in there. The bell rings and we start, the bell rings and we end. I can’t even go to the bathroom unless it fits into the schedule, and this is no different. My side of the story doesn’t matter at all.”

“So you were frustrated, you’d had all that you...

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Plotting Along: Contest winners pack a punch with their fiction

"I had the twist ending in mind about the teacher," explains 2011 Hook Short Story Contest winner and high school teacher Steven Turner. "Maybe in some Freudian way, this was a little insight on the idea of the powerlessness teachers feel sometimes."

To win the acclaim of best-selling author John Grisham, Turner used unique elements of perspective and plot. So did the other two winners.

"I like my stories to be about things that aren't quite as they seem," says third place winner Gary Kessler.

And as it turns out (and as was the case in the 2010 contest also), two of the three winners let the competition serve as the springboard for their imagination– writing their very first fiction specifically for The Hook.

"Charlottesville is for writers," says Kessler– and with the entries for The Hook's Short Story Contest again at its highest number ever (150 entries in both 2010 and 2011) he seems to be absolutely right.

The contest, now in its 10th year, drew participants from all levels of experience– seasoned writers involved in local writing clubs, UVA MFA graduates, and first-time fiction writers.

With stories inspired by snowstorms, antique cars, or relationships, the contest drew on the diverse talents of Charlottesville's writing community. But the winners circle wowed the heart of Judge Grisham with sympathetic characters, fast-paced plots, and innovative narrative techniques.

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