Unseen crime: 85% of arrests, details about investigations go unreported in Loudoun and Leesburg

Unreported arrests from the Loudoun County Sheriff's Office.

The six men knew exactly what they were looking for when they broke into businesses in Ashburn's Piccadilly Plaza on Sept. 16, 2013.

They had done this before - in Prince William County and six other jurisdictions.

Law enforcement later watched on surveillance video as the men simultaneously broke into two businesses. The extra security measure was put in place by Loudoun County deputies after a lone perpetrator in 2012 smashed glass, causing thousands in damage, and stole miniscule amounts of cash and electronics from four stores in the same shopping plaza.

Yaarob Fared Hamed, 24, of Centreville, one of the six perpetrators, was ultimately arrested on March 25.

Burglaries happen every week in Loudoun. As do heinous crimes against children, sexual and domestic assaults and illegal drug sales.

Loudoun is no different than most counties in Virginia. Crime happens. Reports are filed.

But like Hamed's arrest, these crimes in Loudoun County rarely go before the public's eye.

Most arrests go unreported

A four-month study by the Loudoun Times-Mirror that compared more than two years of indictment lists issued by the county's commonwealth's attorney's office to arrest reports issued by the county's sheriff's office and Leesburg Police Department in the same time period found that 85 percent of arrests never see the public light of day.

Under Virginia's Freedom of Information Act, criminal incident information relating to felony offenses are required to be released to the public. The reports must include a general description of the criminal activity reported; the date and general location the alleged crime was committed; the identity of the investigating officer or other point of contact; and a general description of any injuries suffered or property damaged or stolen.

Anyone looking for this information simply has to ask for it under the law.

But there's a catch.

If law enforcement believes releasing the information would jeopardize an ongoing investigation, it's exempt from FOIA.

Still, the law goes on to say that it's at the discretion of the law enforcement agency to release this information.

And in Loudoun, it's rarely released unless a major crime, such as a murder or bank robbery, occurs.

The practice even goes against the Law Enforcement Guide to the Virginia Freedom of Information Act, which in its overview and philosophy statement says law enforcement should not abuse the discretion to release information.

"It is an established fact that law enforcement benefits when citizens are informed to the maximum extent possible," it says.

Virginia has one of the strictest FOIA criteria in the nation when it comes to the release of arrest reports, according to Ginger Stanley, executive director for the Virginia Press Association.

"The important lesson to be learned is that they have the discretion to release this information. The FOIA says all information should be open unless it's an ongoing investigation," Stanley said. "... It seems like a high enough number that it's questionable if they're serving the public's need with this much information not being released."

By the numbers

The Times-Mirror combed through indictment reports starting in August 2012 - the same time the commonwealth's attorney's office began releasing indictment lists to the public. The study ended in November 2014, the most recent indictment list available.

Direct indictments - arrests law enforcement take directly to the grand jury - were not counted in the study.

The study found that from August 2012 to December 2012, the Loudoun County Sheriff's Office reported 8.2 percent of the 122 indictments prior to the defendants reaching the grand jury. For Leesburg Police, 9.8 percent of 51 arrests were reported.

In 2013, the sheriff's office reported 14.5 percent of the 344 indictments and Leesburg reported 6.2 percent of 130 indictments.

This year, excluding December, Loudoun County reported 11.1 percent of 301 indictments and Leesburg published 40 percent of 124 indictments.

The jump in numbers for Leesburg Police Department is a result of the agency, starting in January 2014, publishing the majority of its arrests online each week, a practice also in place in Fairfax County.

'Pockets of reporting'

While Virginia's FOIA law allows law enforcement discretion in what they report, many jurisdictions in the commonwealth err on the side of caution, according to Stanley.

"Almost everything is discretionary. The good news, most of the time, in a lot of areas, they err on the side of releasing," she said, citing areas of southern Virginia, Roanoke, Norton, Coalfield, Fredericksburg and Culpepper as examples.

VPA receives the most complaints from journalists working in the Northern Virginia and Tidewater areas, Stanley said, when it comes to a lack of communication from law enforcement.

Under-reporting

It was around 11:25 p.m. Aug. 23 when Wilber Escobar, 19, Marcos Antonio Guevara-Guevara, 22, and two other men stopped a man walking on a path toward Tommy's Place II in Sterling.

Escobar pushed the man to the ground, put a gun to his head and demanded cash. The group asked the victim what gang he belonged to. When the man resisted, Guevara-Guevara replied: "I told you what to do if he resisted."

It was then that Juan Carlos Reyes began stabbing the man in the chest near his heart. The men surrounded him, taking cash from his pockets. The victim, still able to move, ran. A shot rang out behind him. He was later rushed to an area hospital where he underwent emergency surgery to stop bleeding around his heart.

Loudoun deputies identified the assailants by providing the victim with photographs taken by the county's Gang Unit.

The report released to the public on Sept. 4 was this: "Three Sterling men have been charged in connection with an Aug. 23 stabbing that left a 32-year-old Ashburn man with serious injuries.

"Marcos A. Guevara, 21; Wilber Escobar, 18, and Juan C. Reyes, 19, were charged with malicious wounding by mob, malicious wounding, and attempted robbery.

"The Ashburn man was assaulted as the men approached him on a pathway near the 150 block of Enterprise Street in Sterling. One of the men assaulted him, pulled out a firearm and demanded money. The victim was stabbed when he resisted. The victim was taken to an area hospital with serious injuries.

All three men are being held at the Loudoun County Adult Detention Center."

Even in arrest reports that were published, instances of under-reporting were apparent.

Several criminal complaint reports filed with the Loudoun County Circuit Court simply state that an individual did possess drugs in the County of Loudoun or Town of Leesburg. The amount of drugs seized are never identified.

Sexual assaults and domestic violence

On Jan. 3, a 46-year-old Round Hill man was arrested on a plethora of charges after he twisted the arm of a 13-year-old boy during a domestic dispute. He slammed the boy to the floor, according to a criminal complaint, and continued to twist his arm until it popped. The man grabbed the boy by a chain around his neck, threw him into a DVD cabinet and choked him.

After his arrest, the man told deputies he locked the boy out in the cold wearing only shorts and a T-shirt.

Like dozens of other domestic assaults, the incident was never reported, and law enforcement in Loudoun has taken a firm stance that cases like these will never be published to the public.

Police worry that releasing these reports and other cases like them will re-victimize the victim.

"We're a small enough town that if we reported a sexual assault " the victim lives there " we want to do everything we can to not re-injure the victim," Leesburg Police Chief Joe Price said.

" ... There's always a concern in any sex crime case for the welfare of the victim and trying not to identify the victim. It becomes even more difficult when you have a husband, wife, nephew, uncle or even girlfriend, boyfriend " we have to be careful not to frighten the community in the sense of this wasn't a random act, this was an act of someone he knew," said Kraig Troxell, public information officer for LCSO.

Liz Mills, chief public information officer for the sheriff's office, said it's not as simple as just releasing the information.

"It's not really black and white. It's kind of a gray area. Sometimes we look at 'is it going to create a public safety issue?' 'Does it disrupt the community?' So it depends on the circumstances when we look at the sex crimes, domestic violence and the narcotics cases," Mills said.

Stanley, of VPA, disagreed. Reports, she said, can be redacted to take out identifying information. Besides, FOIA law states that this information should be made public, but law enforcement's discretion is to keep these reports private, she said.

A tale of two law enforcement agencies

The Loudoun County Sheriff's Office issues a daily crime report, which gives a brief description of "significant incidents" that occurred in a 24- to 48-hour time period.

Years ago, the agency partnered with Crimereports.com that updates each night on a map of the county with general descriptions of crimes. However, arrests are not reported on the site.

Troxell said the Loudoun Sheriff's Office is one of the few agencies in the region to put out a daily crime report.

"We haven't had any requests by the community or any other media outlet to change the way that we release the daily crime report or add additional arrests, but we could always look at doing something," Mills said.

Sheriff Mike Chapman, Mills, Troxell, the LSCO command staff and records management are trained in FOIA law, according to Mills.

However, when asked if a reporter would be allowed to speak to a commander on scene, Chapman said he couldn't think of an incident in which that would be necessary because either he or an information officer is usually there.

"Generally, I don't think we've had too many situations where we haven't been able to get to. I do like our PIOs dealing with it when it comes to our media responsibilities out there," Chapman said.

"Usually the sheriff is really good about being available, so he would be the one that would talk to the media," Mills added.

Leesburg Police began putting the majority of its arrests online each Tuesday beginning in January 2014 at the behest of citizen inquiries.

"Instead of trying to address something in a piecemeal basis every time we would get a FOIA or this kind of request, it just seemed like a more practical approach for us and, quite honestly, the arrest information that we're putting out there is public record anyway," said Chief Price. "There are certain cases that we don't put out " that if it's an ongoing investigation that this person is under arrest but it's part of a larger criminal investigation or something along that line, we're not going to post that. Otherwise, it's public information."

All supervisors at LPD are trained in FOIA, especially since the agency has only one part-time public information officer, Lt. Jeff Dube.

"We are the first to admit we make mistakes and there are things that maybe should have put out and we didn't. One of our challenges " is I clearly see the need for a full-time PIO," Price said.

Commanders on crimes scenes are allowed to speak with the press as time allows until a public information officer arrives.

"At some point, absolutely. And we have in our policies if we have a critical incident or a disaster " our emergency plan is to have at least two briefings a day " so that we can get accurate information out on a timely basis," Price said.

"In our general orders under our media relations, it's outlined in there that they may be the first line of contact until I can get on the scene. And if it is a major event " they know what they can and can't say and they know they're expected to make a brief statement and follow it up with 'our PIO knows and is on his way'," Dube said.

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