Sunday, October 8
Wonderland, Shockoe Bottom
Ryan hadn’t planned on going out that night. Hanging out at home seemed just as viable of an option, but after being visited by a friend, he was convinced. His friend’s band, Torino Death Ride, was playing at the classic Richmond haunt for metal and hardcore rock: Wonderland.
Originally printed in RVA #31 WINTER 2017, you can check out the issue HERE or pick it up around Richmond now.
Now, as mannequin heads hang from the ceiling and purple lights illuminate the walls, decorated with spiders, deer heads, clowns and skulls, post-hardcore rock floods the room.
He hadn’t planned on going out that night. Yet here he is, standing at the bar, drinking a beer, talking to friends he’s known for years and listening to the band close their set in the charmingly creepy and irresistibly weird Shockoe Bottom bar.
The streets are quiet right now, as most of Shockoe Bottom patrons have made their way inside the bars and clubs. Between 30 and 40 people occupy Wonderland tonight, all enjoying a space that many have come to call a second home.
It’s another Saturday night in the Bottom.
Wonderland, Shockoe Bottom
The band is just finishing up and are beginning to load their things into their car–drums, amps, instruments–before the late-night crowds flood the streets and police close in to ensure another night of safe fun on Main Street.
The air conditioning unit in Wonderland hasn’t been working correctly, and this early in October the last dredges of a Virginia summer feel oppressively humid. The front windows of Wonderland are wide open to allow air flow.
The person manning the front door is Clint, who’s just helped the band load their equipment into the car. Crowds from neighboring bars and clubs are filtering into the streets–some headed for a late-night snack like wings or pizza, others finding their way to cars or waiting for Ubers. The sidewalks buzz with life.
Chad Painter, the owner of Wonderland, had told all his door guys that if there was ever any trouble in the street, they should take pictures in case it would help police. Clint had seen a fight break out down the street, but also saw a Deputy arrive and break it up. The situation seemed to have de-escalated, but within a few moments, they would find it hadn’t.
It’s not just another Saturday night in the Bottom.
18th and Main Street
Lt. Erlan Marshall was making his usual rounds in Shockoe Bottom. He has worked with the Richmond Police Department (RPD) for over 20 years, and assumed his current role as head of operations in Shockoe Bottom about four years ago. Working overnight shifts in the Bottom is overtime for most officers, but for Lt. Marshall–this was his usual Friday and Saturday night. He manages the 10th to 19th street blocks of Shockoe Bottom and likes to keep around 11 officers on patrol in the area.
“We basically are all assigned to zones,” Marshall said. “Officers try to stay close to areas that could have a potential for violence, merely because of the fact that there are clubs, there’s alcohol, and there are lots of young people. We show a strong presence in order to try and deter crime.”
While walking up 18th Street, Lt. Marshall hears gunfire. An officer sends a message over the radio, “Shots fired.” Two officers in reflective vests were just a half block away from the sound of the shooting, but their presence was not enough to deter this gunfire.
“Our challenge was try to figure out who was shooting because by the time I rounded the corner and came into the zone, there were no shots being fired,” Marshall explained. “But what was happening, it was like a wild stampede because people are running in all directions. From the officer’s point of view, we don’t know what’s going on, we don’t know who’s shooting, who has the gun, whatever. All we see is people who are running towards officers in all directions.”
Within seconds, an ambulance was called and responding officers began putting crime scene tape around the entire 1700 block of Main Street.
“It sounded just like popping. You know those snappy things you throw as a kid on the ground that pop? It sounded like that, but a hundred times louder. The window was open as well, so the sound came right in.”
Julia Veres was standing at the end of the bar, side furthest from the window when she heard that popping sound. After hearing it five or six more times, she realized it wasn’t an amp or a firecracker, but actual gunshots.
“I dropped like gravity didn’t fucking exist,” Veres said. “I was right at the end of the bar and I was like boom. We were all on the ground in at least a minute, maybe two minutes.”
The bartender, Brian, had yelled at everyone to get on the ground. Clint was still outside and pushed anyone lingering on the sidewalk back into the bar, including the band members who were still loading their equipment.
“I thought it was the speakers, like the snare drum, or some percussion instrument going off on the speakers,” Ryan said. “Then I just saw some motion out of the corner of my eye. I was talking to somebody, and I just glanced and they were all piling towards the door. I heard, ‘Get down! Get the fuck down!’ And I heard more gunshots. Then I knew. Then I dropped and everybody in here dropped.”
Painter, the bar owner, was walking into the bar from the back office when the shots were fired. When he realized what was happening, he quickly made his way to the front to make sure the doors were secure and everyone was on the ground.
“[Clint] was crouched down in the doorway looking towards the stuff, and there is a bullet hole in the wall, not even a foot above where his head would have been if he were standing up,” said Painter.
Brian threw the keys to the front door to Clint, who locked the door. Chad shut the front windows, killed the music and worked with Brian and Clint to push everyone towards the back of the bar, into the kitchen, staying low.
“We had a couple people who were outside and a friend of mine, Ace, who was coming back from getting pizza. The bullets went right by his head,” Chad said. “He took off running, he ran out back and got underneath the air conditioning unit in the back because he didn’t know what was going on. We let him in the back, and he was completely shaken up the rest of the night.”
Seconds pass as everyone crowds together on the floor. Then minutes.
1700 block of Main Street
The first people police allow into a crime scene are medical emergency responders. By 1:30, the ambulance had arrived, and EMTs had examined the two victims.
Deonte M. Bullock, 19, and Oscar W. Lewis II, 25, were found fatally wounded in the 1700 block of East Main Street, just outside Wonderland. The boys were known to be best friends since childhood. While Bullock was transported by ambulance to the hospital, Lewis was pronounced dead at the scene. His friend would be pronounced dead that afternoon.
“After we have that part covered, detectives then come in and start working the case,” Lt. Marshall explained. “They collect the evidence, interviewing any witnesses that we might have, and they don’t normally do the interview on scene. Usually, they ask the witness to go to police headquarters where they can be interviewed and recorded, and then they go from there. That same night, they had warrants on the shooter.”
Detectives were able to find a reliable witness. A young woman who said she was the girlfriend of one of the victims was taken to police headquarters and interviewed. Her descriptions, along with eyewitnesses at the scene, were able to identify the offender as Dominique D. Brockenbrough, 40.
“[Detectives] believe it was a retaliation,” Marshall said, referring to an earlier shooting dispute that summer he believed involved the two victims.
According to the police record, Brockenbrough is wanted on charges of “aggravated malicious wounding, possessing and transporting a firearm by a convicted felon, and use of a firearm in the commission of a felony.”
“I think I was there until 3:30, but if I remember correctly someone told me that they cleared the scene around 6 o’clock in the morning,” Lt. Marshall said. “People might not understand why they’re out there that long, but they have to remember that it’s preserving evidence and pictures, measurements, things like that become very important when you go into court for a murder trial. You can’t just come, scoop up the person and leave. You have to show consistent evidence.”
Because of this process, the body of 25-year-old Oscar Lewis remained on the sidewalk for nearly five hours.
“I saw the hand,” Veres said. “I just wanted to know in my own head just how close this was to our front door. I just went to the window, I just leaned forward just a little bit, and I just saw the hand and I thought, ‘That’s really, really fucking close.’ But I didn’t want to see him.”
Painter and the other employees work to keep everyone secure inside. A group of about 15 college-aged kids can’t wait and leave out the back shortly after police block off the sidewalk out front. Although the heavy police presence suggests no imminent danger, Painter tries to keep everyone else inside until police gave an all-clear.
“There was one girl, actually,” Veres said. “She was just inconsolable, crying. I was shaking, but I was okay. She was in this booth toward the back, she wasn’t near the window. I would say she had to be under 25. Right after everyone got down and he closed the front window and everyone got in the back, she walked past me, just crying. It’s just sad. Two people are dead. That’s the saddest part. It’s sad we had to experience something like that, but at the end of the day, there are two human lives that were taken.”
Most patrons stay in the bar for the next hour after the incident, consoling one another, talking to each other, waiting for news. “To be completely honest with you, I had a beer after that,” Ryan said. “I had to sit down.”
There are two bullet holes in Wonderland’s building. One is just to the left of the front door.
“Clint said he went home and had to wash his hair three or four times because when the bullet hit, there was still the dust from the plaster,” Painter said. “He had to wash his hair three or four times just to get it out, to not feel like that was there. He was back the next night.”
There is another bullet hole that goes through the window in Sumo San, the restaurant just next door. Sumo San had been long closed before the shooting, but the bullet went straight through to the wall.
“I had to look,” Ryan said. “I stood out there and I looked at the kid. Then a couple times after that, I went and looked through the window and he was in the same spot. You keep hoping, or wanting, or expecting that next time you go and look, that they’ve rolled or that they’re talking to somebody. I didn’t know who this guy was, but I think inherently in every human being you don’t want to see anyone else suffer or be in pain. I feel bad about the fact that I needed to go look. What did I need to go see a dead man for?”
1700 block of Main Street
The only officers needed now are patrol officers to secure the crime scene while forensics and detectives finish their work. They’re stationed at different points to ensure no one accidentally wanders into the crime scene or disturbs the evidence. Lt. Marshall can go home.
“Seeing as how I’ve been working the overtime down there for four years, this is the first shooting that’s happened while I was working,” Marshall said. “Historically, over the past years when there was violence there, it happened in that general area. Not to say that can’t happen on Cary Street, because there are clubs over there, too. They have had incidents over there, but not to the extreme as those that happen on Main Street.”
Marshall ticked off proactive steps the police took for Main Street. “We decided to actually shut the streets down a little bit earlier, enforce a little bit harder parking regulation, basically keep cars away from a club where they might have easy access to a gun. Basically, do little things to deter crime from happening.”
Other than one incident near the Farmer’s Market this past July, there hasn’t been a shooting like this in Shockoe Bottom since 2011. Things are much quieter in the Bottom under Lt. Marshall’s watch, and crime has been steadily decreasing in the area. But according to Marshall, crime, on the whole, isn’t down, it’s simply moved elsewhere.
There were 61 homicides in the city of Richmond in 2016. In the first 36 days of 2017, violent crime had increased by 25 percent. Unfortunately, the areas where crime is occurring is often in government housing areas, according to Marshall. It’s why the public sees such high spikes in Richmond crimes rates. More than 130 people have been shot in Richmond this year, and as of Nov. 17, there have been 62 deaths by gunshot in 2017, according to the database.
“When I first moved here and I lived in the Richmond area apartments, I worked at Alley Katz,” Ryan said. “I loved coming to Shockoe Bottom. There was a group of us and we called ourselves ‘Bottom Rats.’ We loved it. And now, I don’t like coming down here. It’s a fucking shame because this bar is the shit. McCormack’s is awesome. It’s just like on certain nights of the week, it’s like a war zone. You don’t know what’s going to go down.”
Marshall said that there are plans in motion to set up video cameras in the street that would connect to a police officer in Main Street Station, offering officers live feed of this area of the Bottom. In addition to this project, the reconstruction of the Shockoe Bottom Farmer’s Market promises to install its own set of video cameras, further providing tools to gather evidence if another instance like this should ever occur.
“I don’t know that there’s any answer for how you stop people from committing crimes, because as I said before, there were two officers maybe half a block away, and this person still decided to pull out a gun knowing very well there was a potential for him to be confronted by the police,” Marshall said. “I don’t know that there’s an answer for how you stop crime because some people are just bent on doing crime, and they’re going to do it, and not really consider the consequences.”
Morning of October 8
“It’s difficult not to break down,” Painter said. “Fuck the business. I almost lost several very close friends. People who are like my brothers. Again, money is money, it’s whatever it is. Further on the back end, obviously, this is going to affect business for everybody down here. But the number one thing was I almost lost a lot of really good friends, and I broke down a little bit once I got home. But when you’re the leader, so to speak, you have to be strong for everyone. It’s very difficult. Thank God everybody is safe.”
Painter was still in his bar with Julia Veres, Ace, and a few others come morning. Several people couldn’t leave because their cars were part of the crime scene, which wasn’t cleared until 6 a.m. They stayed, talked, and processed what they had just witnessed. It was a long night.
Painter believes one of the reasons crime is more likely to happen in the Bottom is due to the presence of large-capacity clubs, like Plush and Image. Having such large groups of people together in one place, then mixing in alcohol, can create conflict between patrons and situations that are hard to control for bouncers and business owners. Although there are frequent meetings between other business owners in Shockoe Bottom, as well as the Shockoe Bottom Neighborhood Association, Painter finds that these discussions often fail to produce results or bolster neighborhood cooperation.
“You can’t control 500 people,” Painter said. “Period. It’s like one bad apple screws it up for everyone. We’ve been to the meetings, we’ve sat there, we’ve talked.”
Although there is a strong police presence in this section of Shockoe Bottom, Painter believes business owners should take on their own sense of responsibility when policing their own business and portion of the neighborhood, since opening a new business in Shockoe Bottom may mean bringing a new or varied demographic of people to that business.
“[Being a responsible business owner] just means you don’t let people get away with shit, inside or outside,” Painter said. “You walk in that door, whatever problem you have with whoever it is, that shit’s out the fucking door. You’re on my time. I’ve worked too hard at this for too long, and I’ve sacrificed too many aspects of my own life, be it relationships or friendships.”
Because of that sacrifice, Painter’s business continues to attract customers in spite of whatever may happen in the Bottom, whether they wander down the rabbit hole into Wonderland for the first time or they’ve been coming back every weekend for years.
“It’s the sense of camaraderie,” Painter said. “The pyramid effect of everybody who’s worked for me or been with me through the years; they still come back, regardless of what happens. They keep coming back. I’m still here because this is like an oasis or an escape for people. People come here for years. They go away, they come back, they’ve got stories. Once you get in, you never leave. It’s a sense of community, our own little family. I guess they feel like they belong to something.”
Top Photo Credit: Wonderland RVA