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Durham picks Fairfax firefighter who helped at Pentagon on 9/11 as next fire chief

Robert Zoldos II, an experienced firefighter whose career includes rescues at the Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001, will be the next chief of the Durham Fire Department, the city announced Tuesday morning.

Zoldos, 49, has worked for the Fairfax County Fire and Rescue Department in Fairfax, Va. for 25 years and is now the deputy chief of its health, safety and wellness division. In Durham, he will replace Interim Fire Chief Chris Iannuzzi, who has served in the position since Daniel Curia left in July to take over Charleston, S.C.’s fire department.

Zoldos was the commander of the urban search and rescue team in Fairfax before transitioning to the deputy chief position.

Durham City Manager Tom Bonfield cited Zoldos’ emergency medical and search and rescue experience in Fairfax in explaining the decision to hire him. “With the Durham Fire Department being very active in fire and emergency medical calls as well as in North Carolina Task Force 8, we felt his extensive leadership experience and on-the-ground ‘know-how’ was a great fit for Durham,” Bonfield said in a press release.

As a member of Virginia Task Force One, Zoldos was certified for both domestic and international deployment for emergency rescues. In addition to his efforts as a rescue squad officer after the Sept. 11 attacks, Zoldos was deployed to help after Hurricane Katrina and has served on 11 international rescue missions. He testified before Congress about a week-long mission in Japan to try to find survivors of an earthquake and tsunami that ravaged the country on March 11, 2011.

Zoldos also served three terms from 2012-18 as the mayor of Lovettsville, Va., a small town of about 2,000 people at the northern tip of Virginia.

Zoldos will take charge of the Durham Fire Department just after it merged with the county’s fire department on July 1 to speed up response times to emergencies. The department now has 318 employees.

Defense attorney from ‘The Staircase’ says owl might have killed Kathleen Peterson

An owl might have killed Michael Peterson’s wife, his defense attorney said Wednesday night.

David Rudolf, the attorney who defended the novelist after his wife Kathleen died in 2001, gave credence to the popular internet-driven theory at a talk entitled “Inside the Staircase: Lies, Fake Science and the Owl Theory.”

“It’s a very plausible theory,” Rudolf said. “I can’t sit here and say that it’s accurate. Do I think it’s more plausible than any other theory that I’ve heard until now? Yes.”

The owl theory says that a barred owl killed Kathleen Peterson. (Photo by Gareth Rasberry / Creative Commons )

WRAL-TV anchor David Crabtree, who moderated the talk at Durham’s Carolina Theatre, noted that Rudolf had said offstage that the theory was “correct.” Durham was Rudolf’s first stop in a world tour, with future events in London, Dublin and Glasgow, among other places.

The theory, which argues that an owl left Kathleen Peterson bloodied and dead at the foot of the stairs of their Forest Hills mansion, gained popularity after “The Staircase”, a 13-episode documentary on the case, was released on Netflix this summer. Peterson was convicted of murdering his wife in 2003 and served time in prison until 2011, when he was released after a judge ruled that jurors were misled about blood evidence by one of the prosecution’s key witnesses.

Peterson was granted a new trial but pleaded guilty to voluntary manslaughter in 2017 and avoided additional prison time. The 74-year-old has continued to maintain his innocence.

The case began when Peterson called the police in the early hours of the morning Dec. 9, 2001, saying he had found his wife unconscious at the foot of the stairs. Kathleen Peterson later died.

The prosecution argued that Peterson struck and killed his wife. Rudolf and the defense had argued that Kathleen Peterson had died from a fall down the stairs after drinking wine and taking Valium.

The owl theorists believe otherwise. The idea was first theorized by Peterson’s former neighbor, attorney Larry Pollard, during Peterson’s trial. He saw the photos of the wounds Kathleen Peterson had suffered and noticed they looked like talon marks. He called an ornithologist who he had seen recently and asked if bird attacks were common—and the ornithologist pointed him to owls, which are known to attack humans.

Pollard deduced that an owl swooped in and grabbed Kathleen Peterson’s head with its piercing talons when she headed outside to put Christmas decorations on the porch—the blow leaving a feather found in her hair.

“I called it my smoking feather,” Pollard told the 9th Street Journal. A throng of onlookers crowded Pollard after the event Wednesday, including one fan wearing a shirt that said the owl committed the crime.

Pollard had brought details of to his theory to Rudolf just before closing arguments for the trial. Evidence had been closed for the trial at that point and Rudolf had been arguing to the jury for months that Kathleen Peterson had died in a fall.

Rudolf said at the event Wednesday night that the tip came too late to raise in the trial. “I [couldn’t] now stand up and say forget about all that, she really didn’t fall, it was an owl.”

But with hindsight, Rudolf said that he had noted a number of apparent inconsistencies with a fall in evidence—including a bloody palm mark on the frame of the front door. As Pollard developed the theory, Rudolf said it became more credible.

“I had tunnel vision,” Rudolf said. “I had a theory that it was a fall, and anything that was inconsistent with that theory or might have been, I came up with my own explanations for.”

Rudolf said he believed that Kathleen Peterson died from a fall because that was what Michael Peterson thought had happened when Rudolf first came on the case.

“He finds his wife at the bottom of the stairs, she’s bleeding profusely. What do you think?” Rudolf said. “If you’re Michael, you say your wife just fell down the stairs. That set the tone.”

What’s driving the city’s drop in crime?

At a meeting last month, City Council members heaped praise on Durham Police Chief Cerelyn “C.J.” Davis for a dramatic drop in violent crime.

Durham Mayor Steve Schewel interrupted her presentation to express his glee.

“I want everybody in this room and everybody who’s watching this at home to wrap their mind just for a minute around that 28 percent figure,” Schewel said. “That is a big number. I just want to congratulate you.”

Davis attributed the drop to the department’s focus on more uniformed police on patrol, an emphasis on catching repeat criminals, more coordination with prosecutors and better engagement in the community.

But she left out what criminologists say is probably the biggest factor.

N.C. State criminologist James Brunet said the biggest influence in the drop in crime isn’t about cops or uniforms: it’s a decline in poverty.

And Durham’s good news came with an asterisk: Although robberies declined by 36 percent and aggravated assaults fell by 25 percent, homicides rose from 10 in the first six months of 2017 to 14 in the same period this year.

Durham police said they did not think the rise in homicides indicated a concerning long-term trend, noting that last year’s mark of 10 killings was a particularly difficult figure to beat after it fell from 21 homicides in the first half of 2016. Brunet cautioned against reading too much into quarterly statistics when the numbers are small, but acknowledged that poverty’s effect on different crime categories can vary.

“In the worst situation, you could have a shooting situation, a domestic violence situation where three or four individuals are killed, and that could really move the quarterly numbers pretty significantly, but it’s not indicative of the public safety within a city,” Brunet said. “The factors that lead to those different types of crimes are very different, like an assault versus a drug homicide.”

Criminologist Barry Latzer wrote in an analysis in the Daily Beast last October that crimes like murder are quarrel-based, stemming from anger or gun-fueled disputes. Robberies are often more correlated with economic factors, when poor people resort to stealing money and property by force out of desperation. And Durham’s poorest residents are often being pushed out by the rapid redevelopment of the city.

The Herald-Sun reported this year that the median household income in Durham County has increased 8.1 percent since 2010, and it has risen by more than 40 percent in six of the county’s 60 census tracts. As home prices and rents have soared, people who could no longer afford to live in Durham may have moved to poorer neighboring areas like Person County to the north and Chatham County to the south.

Cities in those counties have not been as fortunate with the direction of their recent crime rates. Lieutenant Shorty Johnson said the Pittsboro Police Department had nine violent crimes in 2017 and has seen seven through the start of September this year, on a similar pace for the full year. Roxboro does not differentiate between violent crime and property crime and does not track quarterly statistics, but total crime in the town rose nearly 10 percent from 2016 to 2017.

But even if the economy is the driving force in the declining crime rate, Brunet said police may deserve a little bit of the credit. He noted that police initiatives in community support have been shown to have a measurable impact in cities like High Point, N.C., and Boston, Mass., and may have contributed to some of the drop in Durham.

“Police can have a role in curtailing crime. It may not be the most important factor. Poverty and other conditions would be more prevailing,” Brunet said. “But if they’re instituting a new program that’s directed at gang violence, that could potentially impact violent crime rates.”

Davis revealed that a new community engagement unit assigning 10 officers to McDougald Terrace this year helped cause a 62.5 percent drop in violent crime in the southern Durham public housing complex. The officers in the unit hosted a community clean-up event to increase visibility, and they also ran safety education programs and intervention initiatives.

“Sometimes you hit a sweet spot,” Davis told the City Council. “Officers have been remaining vigilant and visible.”

Councilmember Mark-Anthony Middleton asked Davis how to replicate that unit and assumed the answer would be more money and staff. Davis pushed back on his cynicism.

“I don’t think it’s money,” she said. “It’s individuals that know how important it is to have good relationships with the community members that live there and those little kids that live in that community, who in another five to 10 years will be adults and have some impression of who police are.”

Durham Hispanic residents targeted in armed robberies of iPhones, cash

A series of armed robberies targeted Hispanic victims last month, the Durham Police Department said.

Police said no victims were seriously harmed in the incidents, which occurred in “parking lots of apartment complexes with a large number of Hispanic residents,” and usually involved two or three suspects.

Crime data on showed six armed robberies were reported in Durham on the morning of Aug. 20, the most of any day in the last month.

According to a police report, a 39-year-old Hispanic man reported on Aug. 20 that one or more robbers armed with a handgun stole an iPhone, $400 in cash, two credit cards and his wallet. The crime occurred at an apartment complex on Lednum Street in North Durham.

A 40-year-old Hispanic man reported being robbed at gunpoint of an iPhone and $700 in cash at a nearby apartment complex on New Castle Road about 30 minutes later the same morning. The six robberies were all reported in an 82-minute span from 5:18 to 6:40 a.m.

The crime spree marked an unusual spike after the number of reported robberies in the city fell 36 percent in the first half of 2018 compared with the same period a year earlier. Sharp drops in robberies and aggravated assaults accounted for most of a 28 percent decline in violent crime in the first six months this year.