Alexandria Behind the Cora Kelly School in the Arlandria neighborhood is a wide field that slopes down to Four Mile Run. Nestled in the brambles and overgrowth between the field and the creek is a small drainage ditch. That’s where two members of MS-13 decided to dump Eduardo Chandias Almendarez, a witness to a pending malicious wounding case, after stabbing him 96 times and eventually beating him to death in 2015.
During the prosecution of another murder case earlier in February against Rashad Lonzell Adkins, terrified witnesses tried to avoid questions from attorneys and repeatedly asked the judge if they could leave. All witnesses in the case had received death threats for testifying.
“This goes beyond just one trial, and beyond just Alexandria,” said Commonwealth Attorney Bryan Porter. “[Witness intimidation] is a tangible problem right now.”
During a City Council meeting on Feb. 14, Vice Mayor Justin Wilson briefly mentioned the need for the city to look into providing funding for a witness protection program.
“It’s a real challenge to bring some of these cases to prosecution,” said Wilson. “There’s some things we can probably do to help alleviate that.”
Wilson said there are a few options available, but said he and Porter were especially interested in a program out of Denver. Colorado's program was started in 2006 after the shooting of Javad Marshall-Fields and his fiancee Vivian Wolfe, days before Marshall-Fields was set to testify in a murder case.
“It’s an intensive program of victim-witness work, where you have people assigned to talk to witnesses and coax them into being comfortable enough to participate,” said Wilson. “There’s a high level of intensity that, right now, a lot of our detectives are called to do.”
In the Adkins murder case, Porter said the prosecution was only able to find four witnesses though dozens had been in the vicinity of the murder when it happened.
“If that number gets to down to zero,” said Porter, “people can commit violence with impunity.”
Porter says a witness protection program could allow law enforcement to remain in contact with witnesses and be vigilant for potential intimidation.
“The idea would be: to bring a scaled down version to my office,” said Porter. “It would probably involve hiring staff that would be capable of addressing these concerns, staying in contact with victims and witnesses, and helping them deal with stresses of the case. Let’s say there’s a witness interviewed day after murder and is cooperative. If we don’t have any contact and wait until a week or two out from the trial and find them again, then hit them with subpoena, they might freak out when re-approached. It’s better to have contact with them, maybe even just a phone call, to make sure they’re not being intimidated.”
But the potential program is constrained by the realities of the city budget. Both Wilson and Porter noted that many of the more traditional witness protection services would be costly.
“Physical protection is extremely expensive,” said Porter. “You’d need somebody who wanted police or physical protection in the first place. Even if you have someone willing to do that, you have to have the resources. Let’s say we make an arrest on Jan 3, trial wouldn’t be for at least four or five months. When does that start? How long do you go after the trial. [Physical security] costs $2,400 a day. A traditional witness protection is even more expensive. Most witnesses don’t want that either, as it requires them to leave their entire life and sign an agreement that you will never contact family or friends again.”
“I will probably put in a budget memo request,” said Wilson. “We may not be able to make it happen in this year’s budget, but will help us see what it looks like. We can look for grants at a federal and state level to start it up.”