Top Virginia lawmaker attacked in downtown Richmond after stepping in to help homeless woman

02/27/18

After pushing an unusually contentious state budget through the Virginia House of Delegates last week, House Appropriations Chairman Chris Jones woke up with only a short Friday to go before some weekend relief. Then the screaming started.

Around 6:30 a.m., Jones was in his downtown condo at the Miller & Rhoads building getting ready for another day at the General Assembly when he heard a man berating a woman outside the window.

The Suffolk Republican, a pharmacist when he’s not in Richmond putting together a $115 billion government budget, rushed downstairs and into a confrontation that underscored the dangers faced by those who have no safe place to go.

 When Jones got outside, he saw a homeless woman — someone well-known to many Miller & Rhoads residents because she frequently occupies a nearby bench — being threatened by a man who seemed mentally disturbed.

The man, who wore a military jacket and ranted about al-Qaida and Jewish groups, had thrown a cup of hot chocolate on the woman and was talking about burning her eyes out.

“She is not bothering anyone. Go,” Jones, 59, recalled saying as he stepped between the two. “Just leave her alone.”

The man seemed to be moving away from the woman. But when Jones turned to go back inside to call the police, the aggressor redirected his rage, following Jones into the vestibule and attacking him from behind.

“We had each other’s throat,” Jones said. “I wasn’t letting him go. And he wasn’t letting me go.”

Jones’s wife, Karen, had to get dressed before following her husband down to check on the situation. When she got to the lobby and saw him struggling with the attacker, she shouted to a neighbor for help.

Tim Glass, a 50-year-old phlebotomist who recently moved to Richmond from Atlanta, happened to catch the same elevator as Karen Jones as he headed down for an early morning coffee and cigarette.

“I just darted out the door to break it up,” Glass said.

Glass yelled to startle the attacker, a tactic that seemed to work as the two men in the doorway released each other. Glass then walked the attacker away from the scene as the man made a final threat that he would return to kill Jones.

After living downtown for six months, Glass has met several “rude people” asking for a cigarette, but the episode last week was his first encounter with someone who seemed truly dangerous, he said.

If Jones hadn’t intervened, Glass said, the woman could’ve been seriously hurt.

“I’m sure he saved a life,” Glass said. “This guy was like the worst I’ve ever seen since I’ve been here.”

Downplaying his role in the drama, Jones — who came out unharmed except for some scratches around his neck and rips in his pink dress shirt — said several other people eventually came outside to help.

“I just happened to be the first one on the scene,” Jones said.

Jones began to dial 911 when he got free, but police were already arriving on the scene.

Attempts to locate the woman at her usual spot Tuesday were unsuccessful.

According to recent data gathered by Homeward, a nonprofit that coordinates homelessness services in the Richmond region, 17.8 percent of homeless people said they had been a victim of violence in the past year. The percentages for men and women were similar.

“Homeless people are vulnerable,” said Kelly King Horne, Homeward’s executive director. “Not having a safe space to be is really troubling.”

The encouraging side to Friday’s episode at the Miller & Rhoads building, King Horne said, is that residents knew the woman outside and came to her defense.

“They didn’t write her off just because she spends time on a bench,” King Horne said.

For Jones, Friday’s assault wasn’t his first brush with danger. After his pharmacy was robbed at gunpoint in 1985, a drug-addicted woman walked in in 1987, stuck a gun in Jones’ side and demanded drugs. He pulled his own gun and shot her in the shoulder. She later thanked him for helping to turn her life around.

If Jones was fazed by Friday’s scuffle, he didn’t let it show when he got to the General Assembly. Days later, few people at the Capitol seem to know it happened at all.

“I changed my shirt,” Jones said. “And came on in.”