A city's trials, tribulations


Alexandria: Residents are less than thrilled with the security worries and media attention caused by the holding of 9/11 suspects at the city jail.

October 03, 2002|By Ariel Sabar | Ariel Sabar,SUN STAFF

ALEXANDRIA, Va. - Welcome to the city that calls itself The Fun Side of the Potomac, an elegant colonial seaport with a peerless collection of art galleries, antique shops and - ahem - international terrorism suspects.

It is so. Imprisoned just a short horse-and-buggy ride from shops that sell Amish quilts and British tea cozies are two of America's most wanted: John Walker Lindh and Zacarias Moussaoui.

The American Taliban member and the alleged "20th hijacker" are both locked up in the city jail, waiting for their criminal cases to unfold down the street, at Alexandria's federal courthouse. The city sheriff says they are simply the best-known of 15 people at the jail with suspected ties to the Sept. 11 attacks.

And so a city renowned for its Old Town historic district and its leash-free dog parks is coming to grips with a new, more modern landscape of razor wire, guard posts and blast-resistant concrete barriers.

"It used to be a nice, quaint small town," recalls Lee Carroll, 63, a resident since the 1960s who was taking a walk near the courthouse the other day.

Alexandria, an affluent city of 128,000 just south of Washington, D.C., has been host to the notorious before. Its high-tech jail has had a contract with the U.S. Marshals Service to house federal prisoners since the facility opened in 1987. And so the town's penny-ante drunks, thieves and barroom brawlers have long had occasion to crow of sleeping under the same roof as big-time spies such as Aldrich Ames and Robert Hanssen and tax-chiseling presidential hopefuls such as Lyndon LaRouche.

But the newest inmates' links to 9/11 have raised security worries and global press interest to a new level. The city and the federal government have already spent $3 million on new security.

Motorists now have to navigate a cordon of Jersey barriers around the Albert V. Bryan United States Courthouse. Buses have had to find new routes. Visitors to the nearby jail and police complex must contend with chain-link fences, a shrunken parking lot and sharp questions from clipboard-wielding guards.

"It's just an oppressive environment," says the city's public defender, Melinda Douglas, who visits clients there. "I find it sad."

Down the street, residents of the Carlyle Towers, a new, 525-unit condominium complex across from the courthouse, will have to flash special IDs to the U.S. marshals to enter their building when the Moussaoui trial begins in June.

The city recently reclaimed the patch of grass where Carlyle residents walked their dogs, setting it aside for the television trailers expected for Lindh's sentencing tomorrow.

In the street between the courthouse and the condo towers, U.S. marshals squint from tinted windows of new guard shacks. When the terrorism suspects appear in court, sharpshooters scan for trouble from perches on the towers' rooftop.

"This is probably the best-protected condominium complex in the country right now," says David I. Buckley, a retired engineer who is president of the building's condo owners association. That said, "the general feeling among residents is they hope future trials won't be held here."

A more militant group of residents and business people has taken to passing out fliers that accuse the federal government of "unconscionable risks to safety and economic welfare."

The flier, from the Carlyle-Eisenhower Civic Association, asks: "With 400 other Federal courthouses, why was one adjacent to residents chosen?"

A spokesman for the Department of Justice says it's mostly a matter of jurisdiction - Moussaoui is linked to the attack on the Pentagon, in nearby Arlington. And after his capture in Afghanistan, Lindh was flown into Dulles International Airport.

But the court also has a famously conservative jury pool and a reputation for justice so swift that lawyers call it "the rocket docket."

It also happens to be near Washington.

In a letter to Attorney General John Ashcroft, Democratic Rep. James P. Moran, a former Alexandria mayor, delicately suggested that perhaps a military base would be a more suitable venue the next time around.

Over at City Hall, the city spokeswoman, Barbara J. Gordon, reminisces about a time when she was answering reporters' questions about water-main breaks and ribbon cuttings.

Now, she is racing to help respond to requests from 2,100 news professionals for credentials to cover the court proceedings. A media consultant she hired lasted a week before burning out and quitting.

Just a few months ago, local news amounted to City Hall announcements that Alexandria had taken second place, in the small cities category, in a Ladies' Home Journal report on America's best cities for women. Things were a bit simpler when the list of notable Alexandrians ran to the likes of Robert E. Lee and George Washington.

"We'd like to be known as a great place to live and work," says Gordon, "not just the place where the terrorism trials are going to be."

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