- The Washington Times - Saturday, October 18, 2003

VIRGINIA BEACH — An oceanfront Italian restaurant on Thursday flew a banner ad from a plane over the Virginia Beach Circuit Court to attract journalists and others associated with the trial of sniper suspect John Allen Muhammad.

Someone must have told the restaurant owner to cancel the ad.

The horde of outsiders expected to descend on “The Beach” and boost business sales, stall traffic and hog parking spaces has yet to materialize.

“There’s been no effect on parking and no effect on traffic. It’s been a fortunate surprise. … I think a lot of the little things we did helped,” said Virginia Beach Sheriff Paul J. Lanteigne.

In the days before the trial’s start on Tuesday, city officials had been concerned about the arrival of hundreds of reporters, legal workers and security personnel while the area was still recovering from Hurricane Isabel, which hit last month. Virginia Beach sustained $37 million worth of damage in the storm.

City workers said they feared that traffic would snarl on the two-lane road leading to the government complex and that parking at the courthouse would become a competitive event. The city even placed an electronic sign on the side of the road warning drivers to expect delays.

But by the second day of the trial, reporters who had given themselves extra time to get to the courthouse said the only backups they had experienced were behind school buses and trash trucks.

“It’s been the easiest drive I’ve ever had — a breeze,” said one out-of-town reporter.

Meanwhile, the trial has disappointed local merchants who had hoped to make some extra cash.

Peter Park, who owns one of the only sit-down restaurants within walking distance of the courthouse, said he lost several thousand dollars this week because lunch and dinner sales dropped 50 percent.

“The media said there was going to be a lot of traffic, so the regular customers stayed away,” he said. “I’m hoping it will get better, and if not, I hope the trial will end soon.”

Mr. Park had increased his staff and extended the restaurant’s hours but quickly cut both.

Even in the courthouse, Ray Cabanos’ basement cafe has lost money because court officials canceled all other jury trials for the first week of the Muhammad case.

Mr. Muhammad, 42, and companion Lee Boyd Malvo, 18, are accused of killing 10 persons and wounding three during a three-week sniper spree last October in the Washington area.

Judges ordered the trials to be moved 200 miles southeast to the Hampton Roads area after defense attorneys argued that Northern Virginians were too traumatized by the shootings to act as fair jurors.

Mr. Muhammad is charged with capital murder in the Oct. 9, 2002, killing of Dean Harold Meyers, 53, at a Manassas gas station.

Mr. Malvo goes on trial Nov. 10 in nearby Chesapeake for the Oct. 14, 2002, shooting death of FBI analyst Linda Franklin, 47, at a Falls Church Home Depot.

Sheriff Lanteigne said 24 satellite TV trucks have arrived to cover the trial; his office had prepared for 34. The sheriff has issued more than 350 media credentials and provided extensive safety precautions around the courthouse.

The street behind the courthouse has been blocked off and closed to all personnel except media, and all TV trucks are parked there. City and state police are providing security outside the courthouse, with many troopers in squad cars and six on horseback.

Sheriff Lanteigne also canceled all leave for deputies at the courthouse through the duration of the trial, and moved about 175 fleet vehicles off-site to free up 350 parking spaces.

“Parking this week has been better than a normal week,” Sheriff Lanteigne said.

Monday will provide another test. Other jury trials will resume, and opening arguments in the sniper case will be one of the biggest attractions for national and international media. Australian and German reporters are expected to arrive then.

“For the employees on Monday, it’s going to be more like what they should have been expecting,” said Paula Miller, a spokeswoman for the sheriff’s department.

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