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2020: A year in review

The local stories that defined an unprecedented year

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April 27 - Ashley Henson, a nurse at Piedmont Urgent Care, swabs Teresa Valcourt, of Remington, for a rapid antigen coronavirus test.

Virus has been upending lives since March

Latest wave of cases, hospitalizations is most virulent yet

In December 2019, health officials in Hubei Province, China, reported cases of “viral pneumonia of unknown cause.” Soon, a novel strain of coronavirus (a family of viruses that includes the common cold) was identified as the culprit. The virus was later named SARS-CoV-2, short for “severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2.” The disease caused by the novel coronavirus discovered in 2019 was named COVID-19.

A case of the virus outside China was confirmed with the first two weeks of January. A week later, the first case was confirmed in the United States, in Washington. By March, cases and deaths had skyrocketed around the world – especially in Europe – and the World Health Organization declared the outbreak a pandemic.

COVID-19 has contributed to more than 330,000 deaths in the United States as of Dec. 29, a case to fatality ratio of 1.8%. That ratio has declined significantly since the pandemic began – it was more than 6% in the spring -- due to improved treatments and changing trends in the ages of those infected. (The risk of severe complications from COVID-19 generally increases with age.)

Still, COVID-19 has contributed to the deaths of nearly 1.8 million people around the world, according to Johns Hopkins University.


May 15 -- Pilots associated with The Flying Circus and with the Mid-Atlantic Stearman Association fly over Fauquier Hospital to celebrate health care workers.

The first case among Fauquier County residents was confirmed March 25 by the Virginia Department of Health. Since then, at least 28 county residents have died from complications from COVID-19 and 90 people have been hospitalized. A total of 2,257 Fauquier residents have tested positive for the virus as of Dec. 29.

An outbreak at Brookside Nursing Home in Warrenton accounts for most of the county’s fatalities to date; 16 deaths were associated with the outbreak, which began in August.

The rapid testing program developed in conjunction with the health department at Piedmont Urgent Care in Warrenton played a pivotal role in regional testing efforts. Since April, thousands of residents have been tested at the clinic. ("Confirmed" cases of COVID-19 are reported only as a result of positive PCR tests, not an antigen tests. Cases are reported depending on where a person lives, not where a person was tested.)


July 21 -- Caitlin Reams, a registered nurse at Piedmont Urgent Care in Warrenton, prepares a swap for a rapid antigen test.

Although the rate of new cases in Virginia was relatively low during the summer months, the number of new cases surged in the fall, followed by a spike in hospitalizations. More than 4,900 Virginians have died from complications of COVID-19 since the pandemic began and 17,782 have been hospitalized.

The final weeks of 2020 brought hope. On Dec. 11 the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved a coronavirus vaccine manufactured by Pfizer; four days later, health care workers at Fauquier Hospital began receiving the first of two doses. On Dec. 18 the FDA approved a second vaccine, developed by Moderna. Health care workers and residents of nursing homes are scheduled to receive the vaccine first, along with workers who interact with the public regularly.


March 18 – Days after the governor ordered all school buildings closed, Sebastian Gorg, a third-grader at St. John the Evangelist Catholic School, goes through a stack of his textbooks on the kitchen table in his Warrenton home.

Pandemic disrupts education, puts additional stress on families

As it was becoming apparent the novel coronavirus would inevitably spread to Virginia, the governor ordered all school buildings closed to students and staff beginning March 16. At first, there was hope the disruptions to learning would be minimal, but it soon became apparent that education would take on entirely new forms in 2020. New instruction in the county’s public schools halted entirely for the rest of the spring semester; most private schools continued instruction remotely.


May 20 -- With a burst of confetti, Gabriella Biasello, member of the class of 2020 at Kettle Run High School, enters her individual graduation ceremony at the Kettle Run football field with her parents, Julia and Enzo.

In May and June, area school administrators still found ways to celebrate graduating high school seniors. Public high schools held individual graduation ceremonies throughout the course of a week on football fields. Highland and Wakefield each held physically distanced ceremonies as well.

In a heated debate that is still ongoing, some public-school parents and teachers argued over the summer that returning to full-time in-person instruction was the only acceptable way to begin the school year in August. Other parents and teachers argued the pandemic made it impossible to return to school buildings safely.


May 6 - While school buildings are closed in the early days of the pandemic, Conor Hartless (left), 10, a fourth-grader at Pierce Elementary School, and his sister, Mileigh Hartless, 12, a sixth-grader at Taylor Middle School, work on online math exercises while their mother, Kat Brady, and 2-year-old brother, Spence, join them at their kitchen table in Bealeton.

In July, the school board compromised by approving a “hybrid” instruction plan that would give parents the option of sending their children to school buildings up to two days per week. A month later – just two weeks before classes were set to begin -- the school board reversed its decision and opted for remote instruction for all but a few students. The school year began Aug. 24 with most students attending class online.


Nov. 9 -- Fauquier High School Principal Kraig Kelican (left) chats with students as they arrive for the first day of widespread in-person instruction under the school division’s “hybrid” plan.

Under mounting pressure to offer more in-person learning opportunities, the school board later approved a revised “hybrid” model that began Nov. 9. About two-thirds of students attended in-person classes two days per week through the first half of December. The last week of classes before winter break, however, was moved online after coronavirus cases and exposures among staff members led to “catastrophic workforce shortages.”

Second-semester classes are currently set to begin Jan. 7, 2021, under the “hybrid” model, but Superintendent David Jeck cautioned at a recent school board meeting that the surge in the number of new coronavirus cases regionally could lead to a delay in the return to in-person classes next month.


May 27 -- Frieda Tarazia waves from her car as participates in a drive-thru parade at the Warrenton Community Center to celebrate members of the Fauquier Senior Center.

Finding joy amid the pandemic

Many public events were canceled altogether this year, along with innumerable private gatherings and celebrations. Still, local residents found a way to mark some occasions in ways that adapted to the public health crisis.


Aug. 20 – The Rev. Dick Winter and Lytisha Mann wave as friends and family drive by Winter’s home in Warrenton to celebrate his 98th birthday.

The drive-by birthday celebration, for instance, was a hallmark of 2020. In April, local veterans’ groups and first responders paraded by the Morrisville home of Austin St. John for his 9th birthday. Friends and family of the Rev. Dick Winter, of Warrenton, drove by his home to wish him a happy 98th birthday in August.


April 9 -- The Rev. Terri Church reads from the pulpit during a Maundy Thursday service at Our Savior Lutheran Church in Warrenton as her husband, the Rev. Michael Church, livestreams the service on Facebook from his phone.

Local congregations celebrated Easter and Passover in April, with most houses of worship making use of livestreaming or physically distanced services in parking lots to reach parishioners and celebrate those holy days.

In May, the Rappahannock-Rapidan Community Services Board received donations to purchase meals and supplies for members of the Fauquier Senior Center. Organizers turned the drive-thru pickup time into a joyful parade, with locals gathering at the Warrenton Community Center to spread cheer.


Dec. 5 – Santa and Mrs. Claus wave to passersby from the top of a vintage fire engine during a drive-thru Christmas parade at the Warrenton Aquatic and Recreation Facility.

Some major events, like the Fauquier County Fair, were canceled because of the pandemic. But officials sometimes found ways to celebrate major holidays in formats adapted to public safety protocols. In July, local fire departments led “wave parades” through neighborhoods to celebrate Independence Day while encouraging residents not to gather. A “reverse” Christmas parade at the Warrenton Aquatic and Recreation Facility attracted hundreds of families – in their vehicles -- in early December.

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June 10 -- Led by Tiana Minor (with megaphone), participants in a Black Lives Matter young people’s march pass the Warrenton courthouse.

Local residents join national anti-racism movement

In May, George Floyd Jr., a Black man, died in police custody in Minneapolis, Minnesota, after a police officer knelt on his neck for several minutes. A national reckoning about the specter of racism in the United States followed, with protests around the country – and the world --- pushing institutions to grapple with and address the culturally embedded legacies of slavery and racism. Although a few protests turned violent – often as the result of outside agitators – the vast majority were peaceful. The movement coalesced around the rallying cry, “Black Lives Matter.”

In Warrenton, three major demonstrations – all entirely peaceful – took place over the summer in support of the racial justice movement. The first, in May, was organized by Warrenton resident Arleena Allen and drew 250 people to Courthouse Square. Town Council Member Sean Polster organized a second event in June, dubbed the “Hate Has No Home Here Rally,” in Eva Walker Park that focused on faith communities; more than 800 people attended. Also in June, local high school students organized a young people’s march in which almost 300 demonstrators walked from Fauquier High School to Old Town Warrenton to show solidarity with the movement.

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June 6 – During the “Hate Has No Home Here” rally at Eva Walker Park, Black Lives Matter activist Arleena Allen kneels in prayer between Warrenton Police Chief Mike Kochis and Officer Chai Fuller, the newly appointed public information officer and community outreach coordinator.

Weekly “vigils for action” in support of the Black Lives Matter movement began in June and are still happening once a week. Organized initially by the local chapters of the Virginia Interfaith Center for Public Policy and the League of Women Voters, the gatherings in front of the courthouse are now supported by the Fauquier County NAACP. By the fall, attendance averaged more than 100 people, although organizers recently decided to limit attendance to two dozen people in light of the worsening pandemic.

Policing was one of the main focus points of protests over the summer. Warrenton Police Chief Mike Kochis, whose first day on the job was in February, was especially proactive in reaching out to the community. Kochis embarked on a “listening tour,” holding several focus groups with community members and attending personally each of the Black Lives Matter demonstrations in Warrenton. In June, the first meeting of the department’s “citizen’s advisory committee” took place, an initiative Kochis had discussed since first becoming police chief.


Oct. 21 -- Former Orlean Volunteer Fire Department Fire Chief Johnny Ray Kerns with his “therapy donkeys,” Abbey and Whezzy. Kerns retired this year after 50 years as a firefighter.

Community concerns make headlines


Jan. 20 -- Janette Smith, a member of Mount Morris Baptist Church in Hume, performs with the Martin Luther King Jr. Choir during a Martin Luther King Day celebration at Highland School.

In January, almost 300 people attended two Martin Luther King Jr. Day celebrations in Warrenton, featuring rousing spirituals from a gospel choir formed annually for the occasion and speeches from religious leaders. It was one of the last major community events before the pandemic.

When the pandemic – and subsequent job losses – hit in March, donations started to pour in to local food banks and other local charitable organizations as the tenuous financial situation of many local families was made more apparent. In May, the annual Give Local Piedmont fundraising drive set a record, raising $1.2 million for local nonprofits.


Nov. 5 -- A crane lifts the rehabilitated truss of the 1878 Waterloo Bridge into place over the Rappahannock River. The bridge has been closed to traffic since 2014 and is expected to reopen early next year.

But some news stories didn’t have anything to do with the pandemic.

Early in the year, rehabilitation of the much-beloved Waterloo Bridge began; in October, the 1878 metal truss spanning the Rappahannock River was lifted back into position after being repaired. The bridge has been closed since 2014 and is scheduled to reopen in the first half of 2021.

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Dec. 9 -- Despite ongoing efforts by neighbors to save it, Daniel Atkins of Atkins Homes cut down a towering ginkgo tree on a lot he owns on Washington Street in Warrenton. Four residences are planned for the lot.

Another effort to save a local landmark was unsuccessful. This fall, residents of the Washington Street neighborhood in Warrenton explored how they could save a towering ginkgo tree on a lot where a developer planned to build four new homes. Only days after stating he would work with residents and the town government on a solution, builder Daniel Atkins personally cut down the tree early on a Saturday in December.


April 11 – On the day before Easter, Kelly Hall, of Warrenton, pets Spanky, a lamb born at the farm of Don and Patty Hudson on March 3.  Spanky’s mother rejected him at birth – a somewhat common occurrence. Hall, who lives next door to the Hudsons, bottle-fed the lamb until he was old enough to re-join the flock. “When he’s hungry, he comes over here,” Hall said.


Sept. 18 -- Mrs. Helen Craig, of Warrenton, fills out an absentee ballot at the Fauquier County registrar's office during the first day of absentee voting for the 2020 general election.

Many Fauquier voters embrace absentee balloting for local, national elections

There were four elections in which Fauquier County residents could participate this year. The March 3 Democratic Party presidential primary, in which more than 23% of all registered voters in the county cast a ballot, was the only one unaffected by the pandemic.

In May, residents of Warrenton, The Plains and Remington voted – mostly by mail amid the pandemic – in town council elections. And in June, all Fauquier County registered voters were eligible to vote in party primaries to nominate candidates for the U.S. Senate and the U.S. House of Representatives.

Like elsewhere in the United States, turnout for the general election in November was high in Fauquier County. More than 80% of registered voters cast a ballot in the presidential election, with similar numbers casting ballots for U.S. Senate, U.S. House of Representatives and two proposed amendments to the Constitution of Virginia.

About two-thirds of all ballots cast in Fauquier County during the general election were cast before Election Day, made possible by state legislation passed before the pandemic that expanded “no-excuse” absentee voting options available to Virginians. Most absentee ballots in Fauquier County were cast in person in the weeks leading up to Election Day at the central registrar’s office or at one of the two satellite registrar’s offices in Vint Hill and Bealeton.

As they have since the 1960s, Fauquier County voters favored Republican candidates by wide margins. In the presidential election, 57.5% of ballots cast by county residents went to President Donald Trump, almost exactly the same percentage that went to Republican Bob Dole in 1996.

A protest against gun regulations proposed by state Democrats drew about 100 people to Crockett Park in February; about 130 people gathered in Old Town Warrenton in May to protest restrictions on put in place by Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam during the pandemic.

The 5th Congressional District, which includes most of the population and land area of Fauquier County, will be represented by a new congressman beginning next year. Incumbent GOP Rep. Denver Riggleman was ousted in a drive-thru Republican Party nominating convention in April, with former Campbell County supervisor Bob Good emerging the victor after a bitter campaign. Good went on to win the general election against Democratic Party candidate Cameron Webb, a physician from Charlottesville. Rep. Rob Wittman, the Republican who has represented the 1st District since 2007, won reelection by a wide margin.

Republicans have dominated the state legislature – and the therefore the drawing of Congressional and General Assembly district maps -- for decades. But despite Fauquier County remaining a GOP stronghold, in recent years Virginians have voted in greater numbers for Democratic Party candidates. After sweeping victories in the 2019 state legislature elections, Democrats -- for the first time since 1993 -- had unified control of the executive and legislative branches for the January regular session. (A special session convened in August and effectively ended three months later.)

After the results of the 2020 U.S. Census are finalized, however, Democrats in the General Assembly will not be able to redraw legislative districts to favor their party – as Republicans have for decades. A state constitutional amendment approved in November by almost two-thirds of Virginia voters created a bipartisan commission that will draw new district boundaries before the general election in November 2021. Eight Democrats and eight Republicans will make up the commission and maps must be approved by two-thirds of commission members.

Fauquier County is currently part of the 1st and 5th U.S. Congressional Districts; the 18th, 31st and 88th House of Delegates Districts and the 27th Virginia Senate District. The boundaries of each district will likely change next year.

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Jan. 8 – A sheriff’s office vehicle is parked outside the Warrenton apartment building where Fabian Sosa was killed.

Homicides, animal abuse cases mark a busy year in public safety

Five high-profile homicides took place in Fauquier County this year.

In January, Fabian Sosa, 27, was shot to death in his Warrenton apartment; two others were seriously injured by gunshot wounds. Four people pleaded guilty to first-degree murder as a result of the incident, which was described in court documents as a botched attempt to rob the apartment’s residents of illegal drugs and money.

In what would become a national story, Jennifer Norwood and her 6-year-old son, Wyatt, were shot and killed in their Midland home in February. Jennifer Norwood’s 17-year-old son, Levi, fled to North Carolina but was apprehended days later and charged with the murders. Levi Norwood’s father found the bodies and accused his son of the crime; Josh Norwood later took his own life. Last month, Levi Norwood was found competent to stand trial and his attorney indicated he would likely invoke his right to a jury trial. Prosecutors have not alleged publicly a motive for the homicide.

In June, Kelly Gray, 40, was stabbed to death in her apartment in Bealeton. Subsequently, Melody Glascock, of Linden, was arrested and ultimately indicted for first-degree murder and two counts of soliciting a third party to commit a felony; Glascock’s former romantic partner was in a three-way romantic relationship with Kelly Gray and her husband at the time of the murder, though no motive has been explicitly alleged by prosecutors. Two other people are charged with being accessories to the murder after the fact.

In October, Derek De La Iglesia, 21, of Marshall, was shot and killed in his parked car outside an apartment building on Jackson Street in Warrenton. No one has been charged in the murder. This month, the Federal Bureau of Investigation funded a $5,000 reward for information leading to a conviction in the case.

Lincoln Williams Jr., 18, of Warrenton was killed by a gunshot in his home during a botched attempt to rob him of drugs and money in August 2019. In March, Myison Ellis, 39, of Waynesboro, was convicted of first-degree murder in connection with the murder by a jury; he was later sentenced to 51 years in prison by a judge. Ellis’ alleged co-conspirator, Daniel Farmer II, of Nokesville, is also charged with first-degree murder in the Williams homicide. Farmer’s jury trial was delayed by the pandemic and will likely take place in 2021.

Homicides were not the only public safety matter that gripped the community

Richard and Niki Thompson, of Orlean, died in a house fire in February; no foul play was suspected. The Thompsons had been active members of the Fauquier Community Theatre community.

A now-former Fauquier County sheriff’s deputy, Jake Dooley, 22, of Marshall, claimed in July he was assaulted on a rural roadside while on duty. His claim set off a frantic manhunt and an outpouring of outrage directed toward the supposed perpetrators. However, less than 24 hours later the sheriff’s office announced Dooley had confessed to fabricating the entire story; Dooley was subsequently fired and charged with lying to investigators. He eventually pleaded no contest to a single misdemeanor charge of making a false report of a crime.

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Feb. 5 – A Doberman pinscher puppy, one of 76 dogs seized from the kennel owned by Irina Barrett, of Broad Run, at the Fauquier SPCA.

The fate of 76 dogs allegedly abused and neglected at the Canis Maximus kennel in Broad Run is still uncertain almost a year after the legal saga began; the Fauquier SPCA took custody of the animals in January and is caring for them until the resolution of the case. The criminal case against the kennel’s owner, Irina Barrett of Broad Run, almost fell apart when a judge ruled in March the search warrant used to seize the dogs initially was not property obtained. But in August, another judge overturned that decision, reviving the case against Barrett. Barrett was eventually indicted on five felony counts of animal abuse and the case is likely headed for a jury trial in 2021.

Another animal cruelty case was resolved this year. After their arrest in September 2019, Barton and Vernine Gipstein, of Midland, were each convicted in January of one felony count of torturing an animal causing death; they were each sentenced to one month in jail. The Gipsteins were accused of operating a “puppy mill” at their home. The 80 dogs seized from their property were handed over to the Fauquier SPCA; all of the dogs were eventually adopted.

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April 18 – Tim Ernst, owner of Living Spring Microgreens, hands a bag to a customer during the first drive-thru farmer’s market in Warrenton.

Restrictions during pandemic put strain on businesses, workers

This year was a brutal year for many businesses and workers; the effects of mass layoffs in the spring are still being felt as the year ends. Although the economy in Fauquier County generally fared much better than the rest of the country, the pandemic itself and restrictions put in place to mitigate the virus’ spread nevertheless severely strained many businesses.

Still, local businesses have – at least so far – generally been able to survive. Tens of millions of dollars from the federal Paycheck Protection Program poured desperately needed capital into Fauquier County businesses, and county, town and private programs offered grants to help businesses stay afloat as well. Unemployment rates locally, while still much more elevated than before the pandemic, have consistently been much lower than in Virginia and the country as a whole.

Early in the pandemic, local shops and restaurants pivoted quickly to offer curbside and delivery services. The Warrenton farmers market proved a particular success, opening as a drive-thru in April and later opening for full walk-up service.


May 26 -- Jesse Hebert, 39, of Broad Run, jumps rope as part of a workout routine outside of CrossFit Warrenton. All gyms in Virginia were forced to close for two months at the beginning of the pandemic; when they were allowed to reopen in May, only outdoor activities were permitted.

As the tight restrictions on businesses and gatherings lessened in May, the Warrenton town government was especially proactive, allowing restaurants within town limits to use parking spaces for outdoor seating. Later in the summer, the town council voted to close Main Street to vehicle traffic on Friday and Saturday evenings, another boon to Old Town businesses.

Some businesses couldn’t withstand the financial pressure of the pandemic. Country Cookin’, a Roanoke-based chain of 14 restaurants, closed all of its locations in October -- including one in Warrenton -- and Denny’s closed its doors in November. The former Peebles in Warrenton opened as a Gordmans department store in March, but only two months later the brand’s parent company declared bankruptcy. The Warrenton Tuesday Morning store closed after its parent company filed for bankruptcy in May. (True Value hardware in Bealeton closed before the pandemic, as did Gentle Harvest in Marshall.)

Against all odds, however, several businesses opened this year amid the pandemic. Britches Great Outdoors, the revival of a Georgetown-based clothing brand popular in the 1980s, opened in Old Town Warrenton in July. So did The Purple Pumpkin, a children’s clothing shop. Prissylily Co., a plant shop, opened in September. This n’ That Amish Outlet debuted an Old Town location in June. In November, Something Old, Something New, a bridal dress shop, opened on Culpeper Street and Blu Room light therapy office opened in a Warrenton shopping center this fall.


July 30 -- Steve Sutherland and Matt Carson share a laugh in their shop on Warrenton’s Main Street. Britches Great Outdoors, opened in July, is the revival of the classic Britches brand that dates to 1967.

It wasn’t just Warrenton. The Cider Lab opened its doors in July in Sumerduck. An Anytime Fitness gym opened in Bealeton in September. Remix Market, an “upcycling” shop in New Baltimore, opened in June.

Describing what it called a “strategic merger of equals,” The Fauquier Bank announced in October it would merge with Virginia National Bank, which is headquartered in Charlottesville. The merger is expected to be finalized in 2021, ending 118 years of the “Fauquier Bank” name.

Reach Managing Editor Robin Earl at

Reach reporter Coy Ferrell at

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