Purcellville Town Hall, in Loudoun County, Va. The ouster of a longtime town manager sparked political turmoil. (Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)

Set in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, near wineries and the Loudoun Golf & Country Club, the town of Purcellville, Va., has long been a place of comity and community.

Every year, parades celebrating the Fourth of July and Christmas march down Main Street. Crowds gather for Little League baseball games at Fireman's Field, to picnic at a nearby park or to cheer on the local high school's elite cross-country track team.

The wave of development that has transformed Loudoun County has exploded in Purcellville, nearly tripling the population since 2000 and sparking political battles between "the old guard" and newer arrivals.

Those tensions erupted over the last year into full-blown melodrama, with investigations and allegations of threats, after the forced departure of the longtime town manager and the attempted firing of a newcomer police chief. Even the human resources specialist hired to investigate the chief was yanked into the plot when someone tipped off local newspapers to her 20-year-old convictions for writing bad checks and credit card theft. Others accused her of having an affair with a town administrator.

"It just seems like so many different things are boiling up," said Eric Zimmerman, who was Purcellville's mayor during the late 1980s. "When you lift one rock, you find a problem. When you lift another rock, there's another problem. What the heck is going on here?"


Mayor Kwasi A. Fraser at Purcellville Town Hall. (Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)

The seeds of change may have been planted with the 2014 election of Mayor Kwasi A. Fraser, a reform-minded phone company executive who campaigned on increasing transparency. After a new council majority took hold in 2016, Fraser and the others began to pursue changes.

They were concerned about mounting debt, and some associated Robert Lohr Jr., who had been the town manager for 24 years, with the traffic and other problems that came as Purcellville's population neared 10,000. What's more, council members said, Lohr resisted their efforts to improve efficiency.

Facing being fired, Lohr announced his retirement in April, during an emotional council meeting that brought out dozens of angry supporters.

"He was the glue that was holding this place together," said Magic Kayhan, a former boxer who is now a local developer and fitness center owner. "When the glue is gone, of course the whole thing is going to come down."

Lohr declined a request for an interview.

Fraser said the council is determined to pull the town out of financial difficulties, citing a recently approved debt restructuring plan that is projected to save Purcellville $12.5 million over the next decade. "There was a mutual agreement between us and Mr. Lohr to part ways," he said.

Karen Jimmerson, a town council member who moved to Purcellville in 2011, describes open resentment from longtime residents at the council's desire to do things differently. 

"They grew the town and we all moved here, but when we said we're going to take an interest in the decision-making, their biggest argument against it was: 'Well, you just moved here,' " she said. "You can't invite us into the town and then tell us we have nothing to say."


Magic Kayhan, a former boxer and local businessman, says departed Purcellville town manager Robert Lohr Jr. “was the glue that was holding this place together.” (Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)

Karen Jimmerson, a member of the Town Council majority that wanted Lohr to go, said: “You can’t invite us into the town and then tell us we have nothing to say.” (Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)

Lohr's departure exposed problems that had previously been smoothed over. 

The council appointed Alex Vanegas, a 12-year employee who directed the Public Works Department, as interim town manager. He soon launched an investigation of Police Chief Cynthia McAlister, a former Fairfax County commander hired in 2015, who raised questions about how evidence was being handled and believed some department veterans were undermining her authority.

"Perhaps Purcellville isn't ready for someone like me," she complained to a deputy town manager in an April email provided to The Washington Post. "I am not used to dealing with immature officers of rank. It's a team deal and they don't get it."

By July, seven of the department's 16 officers had accused McAlister of belittling them, inserting herself into internal affairs investigations and trying to intimidate a council member by sharing a dash-cam video that appeared to show the council member running a stop sign.

Lohr had learned of the video encounter shortly before he retired and concluded it didn't warrant discipline. Supporters of McAlister described the incident as a courtesy to let an elected official know that a police officer had been reluctant to pursue the violation.

But the council member, Kelli Grim — a member of the new majority who left the council in October because she was moving out of the area — said she saw it as a political threat, given the friction that already existed between her and McAlister over the department budget and some incidents the chief saw as micromanaging.

"She approached me and said, 'Apparently, you think you're above the law,' " Grim said. "I said, 'Write me a ticket if you think it's me, and let's take it to court.' It didn't happen."

 Vanegas hired human resources specialist Georgia Nuckolls to investigate the allegations against McAlister. In her report, Nuckolls recommended that McAlister be fired, and the council and Vanegas agreed.


Main Street in Purcellville, Va. (Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)

But that process, too, got messy. Sally Hankins, the town attorney, soon announced that her office had learned Nuckolls had a criminal history.

And Loudoun commonwealth's attorney Jim Plowman said Nuckolls and Vanegas appeared to have had an inappropriate relationship that turned sour, though both vehemently deny one ever took place.

Vanegas approached Plowman in October with questions about a court order of protection against Nuckolls, Plowman said, after receiving threatening messages that appeared to be from her. Vanegas didn't follow through, however, and says he now believes the threats came from phony email and phone accounts.

"It's hard to determine the entire context of the relationship, but I would say it was hostile and personal," Plowman said, about the messages and some voice recordings he said were given to him by Vanegas.

Vanegas has since filed a sexual harassment complaint against Hankins, the town attorney, which she has denied.

Nuckolls, meanwhile, says she regrets ever setting foot in Purcellville. She said the long-ago criminal convictions Hankins revealed were related to an abusive ex-husband's mishandling of their finances. The critics who dug them up, she said, were part of a fierce backlash to her investigation of McAlister.

"I didn't even know what I had stumbled into," Nuckolls said. "They were leaving notes on my car telling me to 'watch my back.' They flattened my tires. And I'm like, 'What on earth is going on here?' "


A street scene in the old part of in Purcellville, Va. (Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)

Both Vanegas and Hankins are on administrative leave while a new probe — into all the allegations — takes place.

McAlister, who appealed her termination, has been reinstated as chief. But she also remains on leave pending the results of the new investigation, which is being conducted by the Wilson Elser law firm and the ex-police chief of Chesterfield County.

"When everything is said and done, I know I'll be vindicated," Vanegas said. "They're going to find that the decision we reached about the chief was sound and that it should stand."

McAlister declined to comment, but her attorney, John Berry, said she was fired without a chance to respond to the allegations against her.

Fraser said the turmoil has not kept the town from realizing some important goals, including a renegotiated management agreement for Fireman's Field that is expected to generate $500,000 for the town over five years. Last month, the council hired a new interim town manager. Officials are looking for a permanent replacement for Lohr. 

Around town, several residents and business owners said they are yearning for stability. Harman Nayyar, who owns a local hair salon, said customers often mention the scandals, which they say are embarrassing for Purcellville.

"It's painful to hear," Nayyar said, "because I still love this community."