Illustration by Arnel Reynon
Richmond, over the years, has witnessed its share of remarkable rogues, spies, confidence men (and women) and swindlers. Maybe we're too trusting. Too polite to ask for references? Too willing to jump at a too-good-to-be-true promise? Sometimes, our trust gets us burned. We've even had our city burn to the ground (see Elizabeth Van Lew). Whatever the case, at least the stories we can tell afterward make for good cocktail conversation — or historical markers.
Real Estate Scam
There's no disputing that Justin Glynn French knew how to look smart in a suit and sound smart as he courted Richmond's jet set. It's just too bad none of them looked into French's past, or they'd have seen that his accessorized jewelry was as likely to include an ankle arrest bracelet as a Rolex.
In the six years between his arrival in Richmond — still starched from a mid-1990s stint in the clink for his role in a guns-for-drugs deal — and his Jan. 24, 2011, guilty plea in federal court, French managed to bilk his victims for more than $11 million. Perhaps most shockingly, French didn't need guns or drugs to wreak havoc, instead relying on a somewhat ham-handed scheme to inflate costs for historic tax credit rehabilitation projects undertaken by his development firm, French Consulting Co.
"Mr. French exploited the rich history of the commonwealth to cheat taxpayers and investors out of more than $11 million intended to preserve historic homes in Virginia," U.S. Attorney Neil MacBride said in a statement after French was sentenced to 16 years in prison. "While Mr. French spent lavishly on a beach house, a personal jet and trips to Las Vegas, more than 100 investors lost their retirement funds, their medical care accounts and their kids' college funds."
Once again, a little due diligence could have saved Richmond a whole heap of headache back in 1993, when a supposed Austrian nobleman showed up and struck stars in the eyes of the city's high society.
German national Ottone Eugeno Camelio Bresselau, calling himself Baron Otto von Bressensdorf, lacked only epaulettes and a pince-nez to complete his disguise. He relied on the convenience of his last name — held in common with the Austrian nobility who claim the von Bressensdorf title — in perpetrating his not-so-elaborate confidence game. Long before arriving in Richmond, the "baron" already had blitzkrieged through the American small-business community, using his Lyons Capital investment business to defraud entrepreneurs of tens of thousands of dollars each — amounting to $1 million a year used mostly to finance a lavish lifestyle fit for a nobleman.
It all ended in 1998 when the FBI launched its own blitz, swooping in to nail von Bressensdorf and his wife on 209 counts of fraud and money laundering. As the Germans would say: Meine Güte!
A Union Spy
Today, it's less of a scandal than a story of a misunderstood and often overlooked patriot. Elizabeth "Crazy Bet" Van Lew provided for the Union Army with, in the words of one general, "the greater portion of our intelligence in 1864-65."
But in Richmond, the name of Van Lew existed for many years — generations even — as the very definition of "scandal."
The Van Lew family already was well known to Richmonders before the Civil War. Elizabeth's mother, Eliza, unconventionally sold some real estate that she had inherited from her husband, John, to two free black women. And the family hosted ardent abolitionist Fredrika Bremer.
Then came the war and Van Lew's dogged rejection of Virginia's secession from the Union. A known and outspoken Union sympathizer, she first courted wartime controversy by becoming a devoted visitor of imprisoned federal troops, even helping aid in escapes.
But her most important contribution to the war — and to her scandalous reputation afterward — was in erecting one of the most effective and thorough spy networks. Van Lew even employed a free black servant named Mary Jane Richards (later identified as Mary Bowser) in the Union underground.
After the war, even as Richmonders set about getting back to being Americans, they looked on Van Lew as a high traitor who'd used her position as a dame of society to help bring about their defeat.
"No one will walk with us on the street," she once wrote. "No one will go with us anywhere; and it grows worse and worse as the years roll on."
Needless to say, her statue on Monument Avenue has yet to appear.
Sept. 21, 2007, was a night likely to live forever in Richmond political infamy. Though not quite of the magnitude of the great evacuation fire of April 3, 1865, the melee of that night nearly burnt the reputation of one of the state's most revered civil rights pioneers.
It had been a pretty typical day at City Hall: The office of then-Mayor L. Douglas Wilder had issued a news release linking a computer in then-Council President Bill Pantele's office to visiting online porn sites, and told aides of council members that they would have to reapply for their jobs. Then at about 5 p.m., police cars and moving vans cut through rush hour traffic and began surrounding the 900 block of East Broad Street. Police with truncheons gathered at the building's exits, allowing only moving crews in and employees out. As darkness fell, spotlights played across the building's façade, giving the impression of a citadel under siege.
Meanwhile, huddled on the 17th floor, the city's School Board had entered an emergency session even as movers began carting out their office furniture and filing cabinets.
Wilder, who wanted to make room for other city departments, had threatened for months that he'd forcibly remove the School Board from its longtime digs, but few believed he'd do it. None thought he'd transform downtown Richmond into a reenactment of the August 1991 coup d'etat attempted by Soviet hardliners against pro-democracy Russian leaders. But there it was. When the dust cleared about a year later, the nation's first black governor's chance at a second mayoral term was shot, City Council had finally found its mojo to stand up to Wilder, and the School Board remained firmly in place in City Hall.
A Case of Extortion
Richmond 9th District City Councilwoman Gwen Hedgepeth, like most of her council peers of the time, had never shown any tendency toward shyness around cameras. On public access television coverage of meetings, she was quick to meet controversy with controversy.
But her flair for publicity ended badly when FBI agents taped her in 2002 and 2003 accepting a bribe on behalf of Richmond developer Louis Salomonsky. Salomonsky also at the time served as vice chairman of the city's Industrial Development Authority and, in later court testimony, said he saw council member Bill Pantele's mayoral bid as important to his ability to do business. At the time, council members voted to choose a mayor from the council.
Though Salomonsky's bid to install Pantele (referred to as Councilman A in later court documents) as mayor proved unsuccessful, he wasn't done. In an effort to see future mayoral candidate Lawrence Williams appointed to a vacancy on council, he and a co-conspirator arranged to pass a $2,000 bribe to Hedgepeth.
Salomonsky later pleaded guilty to extortion conspiracy charges for arranging for Hedgepeth to receive a total of $2,500 in bribes.
And Hedgepeth took the fall for her part on the receiving end. She was convicted in 2004 and sentenced under the federal Hobbs Act, which prohibits politicians from accepting gifts in exchange for political favors.
Since the scandal, most parties involved have rehabilitated themselves. After serving two years in a federal prison, Salomonsky returned to repair his reputation. In the wake of the French scandal, he's become an outspoken advocate for historic tax credits, even purchasing two of French's former buildings.
And after serving the bulk of her 44-month sentence, Hedgepeth also returned to Richmond. In August 2012, she also returned to the limelight. That's when then-Gov. Bob McDonnell, just months away from becoming embroiled in his own gift scandal, granted Hedgepeth's petition to restore her voting rights.