There have been four major shootings in Charlottesville since November — two of which are what police are calling “ambush-style” attacks, where the perpetrators fired dozens of bullets at someone.
This sudden rash of shootings — three of which were homicides — is uncharacteristic for a city that’s averaged less than three homicides in a year, and it has police urging residents to be cautious.
“We don’t normally have 25, 30 casings in a roadway,” said James Mooney, Charlottesville’s assistant police chief. “This is out of the ordinary, is what I would say. And I don’t know what’s driving this.”
The run of local homicides coincides with an alarming increase in such crimes nationwide. According to the FBI, murders were up 15% in the U.S. during the first half of this year. Other analyses show even starker increases.
Some criminologists theorize that it’s a combination of the economic and social impacts of the coronavirus pandemic alongside the civil uprisings against police violence that could be fueling the crime surge. But local officials say they can’t necessarily pin Charlottesville’s crimes on that.
“I can’t attribute it to the virus and people having to stay home,” Mooney said. “I don’t see any evidence of that in these cases.”
But “why these happened?” he added, “I have no idea.”
Police have made arrests in the first two homicide shootings. But the two most recent ambush-style attacks remain unsolved, Mooney said.
The first occurred around 5 a.m. Nov. 28 in the 700 block of McIntire Road, near McIntire Plaza. An unknown number of shooters fired more than 30 rounds at a woman there.
Tanya Wheeler, 31, was shot in the head and pronounced dead at the University of Virginia Medical Center, according to police.
One week later, it was a similar scene in the 500 block of Ridge Street. Just after 1 a.m. Dec. 6, an unknown number of shooters fired some 25 bullets at a man standing in front of a house.
Police found him lying near the porch with multiple gunshot wounds. The man was taken to the hospital that night. He survived.
In general, cases with such a high volume of gunshots tend to indicate the crime was personal, Mooney said.
“We’ve heard rumors that [the two shootings are] connected,” Mooney said. “But we don’t have any information that leads us to believe that. It’s just speculation at this point, but it could work out to be true.”
Investigators have suspects in both shootings, he added. On McIntire, in particular, there are nearby businesses that have surveillance cameras.
The number of bullets fired indicate there were likely multiple shooters, Mooney said. Those shooters were in a vehicle.
“So we try and find those vehicles in other places in the city,” he said. “We look back at days past and see if we can find them elsewhere and try to develop suspects that way.”
Regardless of whether the two cases are connected, the nature of the shootings is deeply concerning, Mooney said. In both cases, the spray of bullets hit multiple nearby cars and houses.
“They just had really no care whatsoever about who they hit,” Mooney said.
For that reason alone, Charlottesville residents should stay vigilant, he said.
Anyone who knows anything about the crimes can call Charlottesville police at (434) 970-3280, or they can report what they know anonymously to Crime Stoppers by calling (434) 977-4000.
“I don’t have any reason to think that” there will be more shootings like this, Mooney said. “But I would have told you the same thing last week on McIntire Road. I wouldn’t have expected this to happen on Ridge Street again.”