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Isabella Gonzales of Waldorf, left, and Elsie Gibney of La Plata pick a sunflower during Serenity’s Farm’s Annual Sunflower Festival held last weekend in Benedict. The festival featured cut-your-own sunflowers, photo opportunities, vendors and food and beverage trucks.

Picking and grinning

Catholic youth group to host 9/11 event on St. Clement's Island

About 30 Catholic youngsters are hosting a 9/11 commemoration event on St. Clement’s Island to honor the memory of those who died along with current first responders.

Southern Maryland Roots, which formed from three Catholic churches in 2013, decided to host the 9/11 event this year instead of its annual end-of-school June picnic and Mass.

“In realizing the significance of the date and knowing what our first responders today have and continue to endure to keep this country safe, we realized what a blessed opportunity this would be,” youth minister Theresa Friess said in an email.

“There is no better place to hold such a special ceremony to journey together as united Americans connecting our Catholic roots and American values,” she said, noting St. Clement’s Island is the birthplace of Maryland and the place where religious freedom was founded in what became the U.S.

Three local priests who will officiate at a Mass of Intentions include the Rev. Chip Luckett of Our Lady of the Wayside in Chaptico, the Rev. Stephen Wyble of Sacred Heart in Bushwood and Holy Angels in Avenue, and the Rev. Ryan Pineda of St. Francis Xavier in Newtowne Neck.

Friess noted the youth group made 600 St. Michael’s protection medal bracelets and necklaces for each first responder in the Seventh and Leonardtown districts.

Michael Hutson, vice president of St. Clement’s Hundred, a nonprofit that maintains the replica Blackistone Lighthouse and island grounds, said he’s “very encouraged that this event is taking place on Sept. 11.”

St. Clement’s Hundred has been involved with the island since 2007 when an agreement was formed with the Maryland Park Service, Hutson said.

Those who want to attend the event — which is open to the public and called “Honoring Our Heroes, Near and Far” — are encouraged to arrive beginning at 8:30 a.m. on Saturday, Sept. 11. A boat will shuttle folks from St. Clement’s Island Museum in Coltons Point to the island.

Capt. Butch Cornelius of The North Star will accept donations to ride to the island and back, Friess said. The event begins at 10 a.m. and runs until 1 p.m.

Among those scheduled to be in attendance are Sen. Jack Bailey (R-St. Mary’s, Calvert), St. Mary’s Commissioner Eric Colvin (R), St. Mary’s Director of Emergency Services Stephen Walker and school board member Rita Weaver.

Twitter: @CalebSoMdNews

Conservation alliance forms in Southern Maryland

Environmental groups across Southern Maryland have come together to form a coalition to help protect the natural beauty of the region.

The Southern Maryland Conservation Alliance held its inaugural meeting at Serenity Farm in Hughesville on Tuesday morning.

Conservation groups from Charles, St. Mary’s and Calvert counties along with groups from Prince George’s and Anne Arundel counties joined in on the effort to protect the landscapes and waterways of the region.

“We hope to enable greater collaboration among the conservation community here in Southern Maryland to build capacity, better identify funding and conservation opportunities, and importantly to focus at a landscape scale,” John Turgeon, director of the Maryland Environmental Trust, said.

Joel Dunn, president and chief executive officer of the Chesapeake Conservancy, spoke on the importance of protecting landscapes during his remarks to the assembled crowd.

Dunn spoke at length about the Native American heritage of the area, recognizing the collection of indigenous nations that once populated the Chesapeake Bay area.

“The heritage of these lands and how humans have benefited from living here in balance with nature began with the Piscataway, so it’s really important that we acknowledge that,” Dunn said.

Climate change was also a core part of Dunn’s speech, stating that biodiversity was threatened by the rapid extinction of species brought on by the impacts of the warming climate. Dunn also quoted scientific estimates that 1 million species could be extinct by the next century.

Calvert County Commissioner President Earl F. “Buddy” Hance (R) spoke at the event on the need for working landscapes. Hance, a former state agriculture secretary, said land preservation was an important economic tool.

“I’ve always believed that the best preservation program we can have is a great agricultural economy. ... If the next generation sees a future on the farm, it’s less likely to be sold and developed,” Hance said.

Agricultural efforts provided about $10 million in funding for Calvert County, Hance added, calling agriculture the cheapest way to remove nutrients that could pollute waterways and protect natural resources.

The Alliance outline five goals for the partnership moving forward:

• Provide a forum and overarching strategy for all conservation organizations in the alliance to further cooperation;

• Help develop solutions to protect land usage across the region between working farms, forests, recreational resources and other uses;

• Identify vital networks of natural lands and waters that support habitat diversity;

• Help promote the economic well-being of the region’s communities and residents; and

• Provide a clearinghouse where alliance members and other interested parties share knowledge of best practices and technology.

Shirley Knight, a board member with the American Chestnut Land Trust, said the event was important to bring together conservation groups that are “dispersed” across Maryland.

Knight also said the alliance will act as an umbrella to bring groups together to further land preservation goals.

Twitter: @DarrylSoMdNews

Jury finds Waldorf businessman not guilty in murder-for-hire case

A Charles County jury on Wednesday found a Waldorf businessman not guilty of a plot to allegedly take out a hit on a rival.

Charles County Circuit Judge William R. Greer Jr. oversaw the trial that began last week and continued through Wednesday this week of Anoop Aggarwal for solicitation of murder, distribution of controlled dangerous substance and firearms charges.

The jury, after deliberating for multiple days, found Aggarwal not guilty on two counts of solicitation to commit murder and one count of possession of a firearm in a drug trafficking crime.

Aggarwal was found guilty on one count of distribution of narcotics, while the jury was hung on a third count of solicitation.

James Farmer, who represented Aggarwal, called the verdict a “good result.”

“Anoop did not intend for anyone to get hurt and nobody got hurt,” Farmer said after the trial Wednesday evening.

A call to the office of Charles County State’s Attorney Tony Convington was not returned by press time.

Prosecutors said that William Kern Jr. revealed the alleged murder-for-hire plot while in custody after a Jan. 31 arrest on possession and false identity charges.

Kern told law enforcement officials that Aggarwal had approached him and asked if he would kill a rival business owner over lost income to the tune of $400,000. The target was alleged as the owner of the Tinder Box, a cigarette shop based in Waldorf.

During testimony, Kern said that he and Aggarwal knew each other from an alleged deal they had trading cocaine for cigarettes.

Kern said he was driven to the target’s home and Aggarwal allegedly told him to “kill him in front of his family.”

Instead, Kern worked with law enforcement issues and setup two meetings between Aggarwal and an undercover agent with the bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms.

The two spoke on the phone, and then had two in-person meetings on Feb. 20 and March 5 where the agent and Aggarwal traded cigarettes for cocaine, and allegedly spoke about the murder plans.

Aggarwal allegedly offered between $3,000 and $4,000 to carry out the hit during the Feb. 20 meeting, according to prosecutors.

When the agent mentioned purchasing a weapon, Aggarwal said he had a weapon for him, later alleged as a Smith & Wesson .357 magnum revolver. Aggarwal allegedly said the weapon was “untraceable” as the cartridges are not ejected from the gun when fired.

A search warrant allegedly turned up the revolver and ammunition in a residence where Aggarwal resided.

Prosecutors also presented several firearms as evidence from area businesses that the Aggarwal family owned, including Willets Liquor in La Plata.

The defense argued that Aggarwal didn’t want to hurt anyone, and used his actions after the initial meeting to justify their claim. They argued that Aggarwal was evasive in talking with the agent in order to get the man to leave him alone.

Kern’s testimony was also called into question by the defense due to his criminal record, arguing that Kern fabricated the story in order to potentially receive a lighter sentence for a Jan. 31 arrest.

Kern vigorously denied those claims during testimony last week, which turned combative at times between him and the defense.

The defense also argued that Aggarwal gave a false identification of the target and did not provide the agent with a weapon to commit the crime.

But in closing arguments, the prosecution said the conversations between the undercover agent and Kern proved that Aggarwal had intent for the target to be killed.

A status hearing on the outstanding count of solicitation will be heard at 9 a.m. on Tuesday. That date will also serve to schedule sentencing on the distribution of narcotics conviction.

Twitter: @DarrylSoMdNews

La Plata High student selected for American Legion Auxiliary Girls Nation session

Not many students who return to school in the fall will be able to tell their classmates that they helped formulate a bill in Congress.

But that’s exactly what Rana Holmes did after she was selected to take part in the 74th annual American Legion Auxiliary Girls Nation session held July 24 to 31 in Washington, D.C.

“The highlight for me was definitely our Senate session, where we would be able to write our own bills, and then basically do it as if we were actual senators,” said Holmes, a senior at La Plata High School, who was appointed the assistant sergeant at arms. “We would run through [the list] and either kill them or actually pass them to be seen by the actual Senate or House representatives.”

The La Plata resident was one of 94 students — and just 1 of 2 from Maryland — selected to participate.

Students were selected to represent their respective states as “senators” at American Legion Auxiliary Girls Nation after participating in one of 47 state sessions held across the country.

“I essentially wanted to see what [the program] was about and my brother went to the boys equivalent ... and he had such a great time in the program,” said Holmes, who is in the National Honor Society and a member of her school’s math team as well as a volunteer firefighter. “I’m always interested in service to others and I’m big with my [school’s NJROTC] and Civil Air Patrol, so finding another avenue that I can firsthand solve political problems within our state, country and everything while also representing other people with a big deal for me.”

Girls Nation is a seven-day leadership conference that provides aspiring young women leaders with insight into how the federal government operates and promotes youth civic engagement.

“ALA Girls Nation is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for our nation’s future leaders to learn about the inner workings of the federal government before they are of voting age,” Wendy Riggle, the organization’s committee chair, said in a news release. “After attending their local ALA Girls State program and then ALA Girls Nation, the girls return home ready to be engaged citizens at all levels of government.”

Many participants of the program go on to have careers in public service at the local, state and national level.

One of the activities Holmes took part in was participate in mock senate sessions complete with caucuses and debating bills that range from personal to political interests.

“My personal bill that I came up with my senior senator ... was about foster care, essentially, people who are trying to get foster care license have to renew them with every state that they go to and start the whole process over again,” Holmes said, referring to a 9- to 10-month wait to be recertified. “So we want to cut down on this time and just increase training, so we can make sure that both families, and these children are able to be united and then be fostered.”

Holmes said due to time constraints the bill was not able to be discussed and added that “the process to get it discussed would begin with a debate, and senators would get a chance to add potential amendments. When the debate ends, the senators vote on if the bill passes to the actual Senate or if it gets killed.”

Other activities included a trip to Arlington National Cemetery where the students placed a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, a tour of the local monuments and a community service project during which Holmes and her group read a book written for kids by the wife of a wounded veteran “to let [the kids] know that these are also people and they’re normal.”

Holmes, who would like to attend the U.S. Naval Academy, donated a copy of the book to the La Plata library and another to Walter J. Mitchell Elementary School.

“I learned that we don’t need to be quiet and we don’t need to step down in our current society,” Holmes said of her trip. “I’ve seen that, especially as a minority female like myself, that controversial issues should not be a [taboo] topic at the dinner table. … We should be able to speak with respect and also be entitled to our own opinions, and I learned that no matter what happens throughout life that there are other strong women who will be able to go out there and get their voices heard.”

Founded in 1919, the American Legion Auxiliary is a community serving veterans, military and their families, and also support the mission of The American Legion in improving the quality of life for the nation’s veterans. For more, go to www.ALAforVeterans.org.

Twitter: @MichaelSoMdNews

Meg Cruz, an Army captain, began the Valkyrie Project to help women in the military.