Moore County NAACP Celebrates Court Victory in Voter Purging Case

The following article first appeared in The Pilot on Aug. 28, 2018.

SOUTHERN PINES, N.C. — Lawyers are crediting the Moore County branch of the NAACP as the driving force behind a recent federal court decision that prevents voters from being purged from the rolls because of undeliverable postcards.

Leah Kang, a civil rights attorney from Durham, said the case “bubbled up” from work done by the Moore County NAACP ahead of the 2016 general election. Members of the Moore County NAACP found that nearly 500 local voters had been expunged from the rolls by the county Board of Elections after postcards sent to the voters’ home addresses were returned as undelivered mail.

Similar purges, it was later found, were happening in Cumberland and Beaufort counties. A lawsuit was brought against the State Board of Elections and against the Board of Elections offices in Moore, Cumberland and Beaufort counties, with the plaintiffs arguing that the postcard-based purges were a violation of the National Voter Registration Act.

“It was an absolute violation of federal law,” said Kang, who represented the Moore County NAACP in the lawsuit. “Federal law tries to protect voters from being removed for something as stupid, really, as a returned postcard.”

An emergency injunction was granted to ensure the residency challenges would not prevent voters from casting ballots in the 2016 election. Earlier this month, Judge Loretta Biggs issued an order to extend the injunction permanently. 

“The uncontested facts show that the Moore County Board violated the NVRA’s prohibition on removing a voter from the rolls during a federal election cycle on change-of-residency grounds (…),” Biggs wrote in the order, which was signed on Aug. 8.

Speaking during the monthly meeting of the Moore County NAACP on Monday in Southern Pines, Kang called the decision a “victory over illegal purging.”

“Because of your legal victory, no county boards from here on forward are permitted to hear and make challenges based on residency,” Kang said. “In many ways, this is the first case of its kind on this particular issue. Its impact will be huge, not just in this case but elsewhere.”

Kang is an attorney for Forward Progress, a civil rights law firm in Durham. She was assisted in the case by Caitlin Swain-McSurely, a lawyer and the stepdaughter of Moore County NAACP president O’Linda Watkins-McSurely.

“My gut feeling was that something was not right about what was going on,” Watkins-McSurely said during the meeting. “We’re celebrating this victory.”

In November 2016, The Pilot reported that the postcard-based residency challenges brought in Moore County included 365 white voters, 92 black voters and seven American Indian voters. Of the challenged voters, 154 were registered as Democrats, 136 were Republicans, 195 were unaffiliated and 10 were Libertarian.

According to a statement from the North Carolina NAACP, the racial breakdown of voters purged in Beaufort County was “disproportionately African American.” In the statement, the Rev. T. Anthony Spearman, president of the association, said it was “fitting” that the recent court order arrived “on the week of the 53rd anniversary of the Voting Rights Act.”

“The odious practice of using mass mailings and undelivered mail to suppress and intimidate voters of color has a long and shameful history in North Carolina,” Spearman said. “(The) federal court decision will ensure that voters are not wrongly disenfranchised on the basis of returned mail.”

A Guide to Nicholas Sparks’ North Carolina

The following article first appeared in The Pilot on Oct. 21, 2018.

Nicholas Sparks, the New Bern author known for “The Notebook,” “A Walk to Remember” and other massively successful romance novels, will headline a sold-out event Monday at Pinecrest High School.

While the writer has yet to base a story in the Sandhills, each of his 20 novels are set in North Carolina. Following is a guide to some of the Old North State locales that have appeared in Sparks’ books.

Location: New Bern | Population: 30,101 | Featured in “The Notebook” (1996); “A Bend in the Road” (2001); and “The Wedding” (2003)

Sparks’ first and arguably best-known novel, “The Notebook,” is set in New Bern, where the author lives. The tearjerker inspired a popular film that catapulted actors Ryan Gosling and Rachel McAdams to stardom. 

Other Sparks novels set in New Bern include “A Bend in the Road” and “The Wedding,” which is a sequel to “The Notebook.”

Location: Wilmington | Population: 119,045 | Featured in “Message in a Bottle” (1998); “Dear John” (2006); “The Choice” (2007); and “See Me” (2015)

Several of Sparks’ most popular stories are set on the beaches of Wilmington. Three of his four novels based in the city, “Message in a Bottle,” “Dear John” and “The Choice,” have been adapted for the big screen.

The film adaptation of “Message in a Bottle” brought in more than $118 million at the box office when it was released in 1999, making it the highest-grossing movie based on a Sparks novel.

Location: Beaufort | Population: 4,199 | Featured in “A Walk to Remember” (1999)

Following the back-to-back successes of “The Notebook” and “Message in a Bottle,” Sparks was perhaps reluctant to veer far from the Carolina coast. His third novel, the coming-of-age romance “A Walk to Remember,” is set in Beaufort, seat of government for Carteret County.

In 2002, the book was adapted into a movie starring Mandy Moore and Shane West.

Location: Edenton | Population: 4,846 | Featured in: “The Rescue” (2000)

Sparks looked north for inspiration when writing his fourth novel. “The Rescue” takes place in Edenton, seat of government for Chowan County, and features fictional characters who volunteer at the town’s fire department.

Location: Rodanthe | Population: 261 | Featured in “Nights in Rodanthe” (2002)

Sparks’ sixth novel is sent in the eponymous unincorporated community, which is located in Dare County. The book was adapted into a 2008 film starring Richard Gere and Diane Lane.

While all of Sparks’ novels are set in North Carolina, “Nights in Rodanthe” holds the distinction of being the only one of his books to include its location in the title.

Location: Swansboro | Population: 2,663 | Featured in “The Guardian” (2003)

Like his previous stories, Sparks’ seventh novel unfolds in Eastern North Carolina. The small Oslow County town of Swansboro serves as the backdrop for “The Guardian.”

The setting was familiar, but the book’s tone marked a departure for the writer. “The Guardian” is a romantic thriller that Sparks said was influenced by the works of Agatha Christie and Stephen King.

Location: Southport | Population: 3,625 | Featured in “Safe Haven” (2010)

Sparks’ 15th novel is set in the Brunswick County city of Southport. Some scenes from the film adaptation of “Safe Haven” were filmed in the city.

Location: Oriental | Population: 900 | Featured in “The Best of Me” (2011)

One of the smallest North Carolina towns featured in a Sparks novel, Oriental occupies little over a mile of Pamilco County. A film adaptation of “The Best of Me” was released in 2014.

Location: Black Mountain | Population: 7,848 | Featured in “The Longest Ride” (2013)

Sparks’ 17th novel was partly inspired by Black Mountain College, the venerable liberal arts school that operated near Asheville from 1933 to 1957. “The Longest Ride” is also Sparks’ longest book, clocking in at 568 pages.

Location: Charlotte | Population: 859,035 | Featured in “Two by Two” (2016)

Breaking again from his tradition of setting stories in small communities along the Carolina coast, Sparks based his 19th novel in the state’s most-populated metropolis.

Location: Sunset Beach | Population: 3,572 | Featured in “Every Breath” (2018)

Released earlier this month, Sparks’ 20th novel takes place in the seaside community of Sunset Beach. A swath of the town, which is part of the metropolitan area for Myrtle Beach, is located on a barrier island.

Fictional settings in the state | Featured in “True Believer” (2005); “At First Sight” (2005); “The Lucky One” (2012)

On his website, Sparks writes that “True Believer,” a supernatural romance novel, and its prequel “At First Sight” were both partly inspired by the “legend of the Brown Mountain lights, a mysterious phenomena of lights that occurred regularly in western North Carolina.”

But because Sparks wanted to set the books in the eastern part of the state, he decided to recast the Brown Mountain legend in the fictional town of Boone Creek. Sparks later based the small fictional community in “The Lucky One” on towns in the Blue Mountain region, according to his website.

He Does a Pretty Good Hank Williams

The following article, which first appeared in The Robesonian in 2014, won a third place award for Arts and Entertainment Reporting from the North Carolina Press Association. 

LUMBERTON, N.C. — Jason Petty remembers the first time he heard a Hank Williams tune. 

“I was 6 or 7 years old, riding in the car with my father,” he said. “One of the songs he used to sing to me was ‘Hey, Good Looking.’ That’s one of the first songs I remember hearing. It was the kind of thing that really leaves an imprint.” 

Those serenades from Dad were a harbinger for Petty, who is now considered the nation’s top Hank Williams impersonator. 

His take on the country music legend has won praise from The New York Times, Rolling Stone and USA Today. Even musicians who were close to Williams have heralded Petty as a second coming. 

“I played with Hank for many years and I was his best friend,” said the late Don Helms, a member of Williams’s backing band, the Drift- ing Cowboys. “No one in my time has come closer to Hank ’s look, sound and natural charisma than Jason.” 

Petty will don Williams’s signature 10-gallon hat and music note-patterned suit for a concert Saturday at the Carolina Civic Center. His opening act will be Carolyn Martin, a Grammy-nominated Patsy Cline impersonator. 

A native of Lookout Mountain, Tennessee, Petty began his career entertaining tourists in 1996 as part of a country music sideshow at the erstwhile Opryland theme park in Nashville. 

“Since I was tall and had that look to me, I was asked to portray Hank Williams in one of the shows,” he said. “That prompted me to really study his music.” 

At Opryland, he caught the attention of Randal Myler, a theater director who was adapting Williams’s life story into a jukebox musical. After accepting Myler’s invitation to audition for the lead role, Petty was asked to play an impromptu concert for the show’s backers at Nashville’s storied Ryman Auditorium. 

“It’s tough to play for 15 or 20 people in suits taking notes,” he said. “It was the weirdest show I’ve ever done, but it was also one of the greatest because it kick-started my career.” 

Petty landed the part and “Lost Highway” debuted in 2003 to positive reviews. Much of the praise went to Petty, who received an Obbie Award for his performance. 

The production, which often called for as many as eight shows a week, took a toll on Petty. He left “Lost Highway” to become a touring tribute artist. 

At 43, Petty has outlived his inspiration by more than a decade. Williams was 29 years old when he died of a heart attack in 1953. The troubled star was found surrounded by empty beer cans and unfinished song lyrics in the backseat of a Cadillac. 

Williams left behind a legacy at odds with itself. He was the winking cowboy troubadour behind infectious trifles like “Move It On Over” and “Hey, Good Looking.” He was also the self-destructive outlaw behind timeless tearjerkers like “Your Cheatin’ Heart” and “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry.” 

“He had that Saturday night, Sunday morning personality that all of us have,” Petty said. “There’s this beautiful simplicity to his music that speaks to the heart of the common man and woman. I tell people that Hank was responsible for many men being able to cry in public. They would go into a bar and order a beer and a Hank song, then they would commence to cry in their beer.” 

Tom Hiddleston will soon try to loosen Petty’s hold on the market for Hank Williams impersonators. The English actor recently signed on to play Williams in “I Saw the Light,” a biopic due out in 2016. 

Petty says he isn’t worried about the competition. 

“For me, it’s just a great honor to help people fall in love with Hank’s music all over again,” he said. “Nobody gets rich doing what I do. You show me a Hank Williams impersonator who says he’s rich, and I’ll show you a liar. We do it for the love.” 

MTV’s ‘Promposal’ to Feature Gay High School Couple

The following article, which first appeared in The Pilot on May 16, 2017, won a first place award for Arts and Entertainment Reporting from the North Carolina Press Association. 

Brandon Caddell was learning how to waltz on a recent Tuesday at Carolina DanceWorks in downtown Southern Pines. He didn’t know how to dance, which was a problem if the teenager planned to take his boyfriend Noah Ambrose to prom at Pinecrest High School.

Hidden from sight in a separate ballroom, a film crew huddled around a tiny monitor to watch Caddell. The crew had been shadowing him for days collecting footage for a prom-themed reality show that will air next month on MTV.

Caddell and Ambrose are set to appear in an upcoming episode of “Promposal.” They will be the first gay couple featured on the series, which debuted Sunday after the season premiere of MTV’s long-running “My Super Sweet 16.”

“We were contacted by somebody from casting and then we did the whole audition process,” Ambrose said. “Then when we were contacted by MTV, they said they’d love to have us and that we would be the only LGBT-identifying couple in this season.”

The episode follows the two Pinecrest students as they prepare for prom. Ambrose is president of the Spectrum Club, the school’s Gay-Straight Alliance chapter, while Caddell serves as the group’s vice president.

When they’re not advocating for fellow LGBT students, Ambrose and Caddell volunteer with organizations like Equality N.C., Sandhills Pride and the Moore County chapter of the NAACP. They hope the show will draw national attention to their activism.

“We’re really privileged to be able to have the kind of platform that we do and the kind of support that we do around here,” Ambrose said. “We want to show LGBT kids watching the show that it does get better and there’s hope for them.”

The episode will touch on “what it is like to grow up gay in small town North Carolina,” according to a news release.

“Too many LGBT teenagers have to live their lives in the closet and aren’t able to ask the person they care about to prom,” Caddell said. “This was a great opportunity for us to show everyone it is possible to be out and happy in a small community.”

The couple’s faith is also expected to come up during the half-hour show. Caddell and Ambrose are both members of Emmanuel Episcopal Church in Southern Pines.

Looking back on the filming of “Promposal,” Ambrose says he was struck by the “positivity of everybody helping us to convey our message.”

“It’s definitely something that I’m going to remember for the rest of my life,” he said.

The episode will air at 10:30 p.m., June 5 on MTV.

Once a Ballerina, Her Life Now Pivots on a Kidney

The following article first appeared in The Pilot on April 12, 2019. 

On Friday morning, Angela Gaskell used a needle to push nearly two pints of blood-cleansing fluid through a surgically implanted catheter in her stomach.

The treated blood traveled to her peritoneal membrane, which redirected the waste her kidneys can no longer filter out. After being ferried back by the fluid, the waste was drained from Gaskell’s body through the catheter. The whole process took about 10 minutes.

She repeated the ordeal four hours later, and repeated it again four hours after that. The routine will start over around the same time tomorrow and every day until Gaskell, 38, finds a replacement for her failing kidney.

The regimen has been part of Gaskell‘s daily life since she was diagnosed with end-stage renal disease in 2014. She believes her decision to immediately begin dialysis after her diagnosis is the reason she can still urinate.

“A lot of people on dialysis can’t pee,” she said. “I think because I started dialysis right away, that helped preserve some kidney function.”

For Gaskell, the manual approach, known as peritoneal dialysis, is preferable to hemodialysis, the more common form of treatment that requires several long visits to a clinic each week. Another option would require her to spend nine hours tethered to a whirring machine every evening at home.

Gaskell briefly tried the home device, sometimes called a night cycler, but she disliked how forcefully it sapped blood from her body. “It was painful,” she said.

The peritoneal method is not as convenient, but Gaskell said it allows her to be more independent.

“I don’t have to have this big machine in my room, and I don’t have to rely on electricity if there’s a storm,” said Gaskell, who currently lives with her mother near downtown Southern Pines.

Still, Gaskell said she must always “think 10 steps ahead” when planning her day. Her part-time job as a receptionist at Pinehurst Surgical Clinic is scheduled around her peritoneal exchanges. Long-distance travel is mostly off the table. 

“I can’t go to the beach unless we’re staying at the beach,” she said.

Some trips are manageable with preparation. During a recent visit to the mountains, she drained the dialysate fluid from her body before leaving home and replenished it after reaching her destination.

Gaskell was once a professional ballerina. She performed with the Carolina Ballet, the Cincinnati Ballet and the Hungarian National Ballet.

In 2004, she was diagnosed with lupus. The autoimmune disease took a toll on Gaskell’s kidneys, derailing her promising future in ballet.

“My career was cut way short,” she said. “That was really hard because being a dancer was my identity.”

Angela Gaskell holds a photograph taken when she was a professional ballet dancer. (Photograph by Jaymie Baxley/The Pilot)

Gaskell is one of 27 Moore County residents on the national waitlist to receive a new kidney through the death of a registered donor. Several factors are used to determine a patient’s placement on the list, with small children taking precedence. 

More than 3,160 people in North Carolina are on the list. Over 2,780 of them are in need of kidneys, making it the state’s most sought-after organ.

Data from the national Organ Procurement and Transplantation Network, which is overseen by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, shows that 193 kidney transplants have been performed so far this year at the state’s six transplant centers. All but 38 of the kidneys were harvested from non-living donors.

There are more than 5 million registered organ donors in the state, but the pool of usable body parts is significantly smaller than that. Kidneys can only be harvested from benefactors who are pronounced dead at a hospital. Organs cannot be taken from registered donors who die at home or in vehicle accidents.

Even when a donor dies on the operating table, there is no guarantee their kidneys will be fit for transplant. Nearly 450 of the state’s donated kidneys have been discarded by surgeons since 2014, the year Gaskell was placed on the waitlist.

Gaskell said it could be years before a cadaver that shares her O-negative blood type becomes available. On top of the wait, kidneys harvested from dead donors are less dependable than organs from living contributors.

“You’re better off with a living donor,” Gaskell said. “The chances of being healthier and having the kidney last longer are higher.”

Angela Gaskell during one of her three daily peritoneal dialysis exchanges. (Photograph by Jaymie Baxley/The Pilot)

An event will be held at the Shaw House in Southern Pines later this month to help match Gaskell with a living donor. She hopes the event, which is being called Spring for Angela, will also boost awareness for others in need of organ transplants.

Local donors and recipients of organs will speak about their experiences during the event. Gaskell thinks their success stories could persuade attendees to register to become organ donors. 

According to the National Kidney Foundation, dialysis patients have an average life expectancy of five to 10 years. This year marks the fifth anniversary of the start of Gaskell’s treatment.

If she succeeds in her search for a living donor, Gaskell will still need to find a way to pay for the transplant. The procedure typically costs more than $414,000, only a portion of which is covered by insurance.

The National Foundation for Transplants is raising money to defray some of the potential costs associated with Gaskell’s surgery. Tax-deductible donations can be made through her profile on the foundation’s website.

Photographer With Autism Captures Town’s Heart

The following article first appeared in The Pilot on Dec. 5, 2019. 

Joseph Hill, the perpetually upbeat, roving photographer for the Southern Pines Welcome Center, sees life from a different angle.

He has autism, which may explain some of the recurring themes in his work. Many of Hill’s photographs emphasize the subtle patterns and geometric forms he finds in mundane objects.

In 2015, Hill made a still-life photograph of a tabletop napkin dispenser at the Ice Cream Parlor on Northwest Broad Street. The picture’s composition struck a chord with Anthony Parks, the restaurant’s owner.

“Joseph takes interesting pictures of regular things, and I thought that particular visual said a lot about the life of a small-town diner,” Parks said. “The napkin dispenser is something that’s there every day, but people never consider the beauty and art of it.”

Napkin dispenser at The Ice Cream Parlor in downtown Southern Pines. (Photograph by Joseph Hill)

Hill, 25, keeps a copy of the picture in his portfolio, a three-ring binder bulging with hundreds of pages of photographs. During a recent interview at the welcome center, he carefully removed a 6×4 print from its translucent sleeve for inspection.

“This is the first photo I ever took,” he said of the image, which shows a freight train barreling along the railroad tracks near Crystal Lake in Vass.

He snapped the picture with his mother’s camera when he was 13 years old. Teresa Hill was taking an online photojournalism course at the time, and her train-obsessed son had tagged along for a class assignment.

“I wasn’t really into photography, but I loved trains. Then we saw the train coming, and taking a picture of it felt cool,” Joseph Hill said. “I kept saying, ‘did I get it, did I get it?’ That’s how it all started.”

Joseph Hill was diagnosed with autism at age 2. He was later diagnosed with Crohn’s, an inflammatory bowel disease that caused severe damage to his intestines, forcing doctors to remove his colon.

In 2013, a vocational rehabilitation counselor told Teresa Hill that her son, who had just graduated from high school, should find a job cleaning tables to supplement his disability benefits. She balked at the idea.

“Joseph’s mother was concerned that vocational rehab’s recommendations weren’t career opportunities,” said Suzanne Coleman, a family friend and director of the welcome center. “They were more hospitality-oriented, busboy-type jobs, and she wanted more for him. She knew he had a creative side.”

Shortly after her meeting with the counselor, Teresa Hill and her husband began brainstorming ways their son could turn his zeal for photography into a career.

“One night, me and my mom and my dad started having all these creative ideas about how my photos could become a photography business,” Joseph Hill said. “We had such an awesome night, taking notes and channeling ideas of how all my photos could be put to good use.”

Sunsets are among photographer Joseph Hill’s favorite subjects. (Photograph by Joseph Hill)

The family soon began selling postcards, T-shirts and other items emblazoned with his photographs at local festivals. After joining the welcome center’s board of directors in 2016, Coleman invited Joseph Hill to serve as the facility’s de facto photographer.

“What I love about Joseph’s photographs is that he sees things that other people don’t see,” Coleman said. “He shoots from the heart.”

The last couple years have been tough for Joseph Hill.

His mother died suddenly on Feb. 13, 2018. His father, Joseph Bullock Jr., was later diagnosed with kidney cancer (the affected kidney was removed in November).

The men live together in Vass on a limited income. They receive some support from nonprofits like The Arc of Moore County, which provides services to the families of residents with disabilities.

“Joseph has overcome a lot, but he’s always been the young man who looks at the glass as being half-full,” said Wendy Carter, executive director of The Arc. “He doesn’t dwell on the sadness.”

Carter said adults who have autism or autism spectrum disorders are too often shunned by people who wish to avoid uncomfortable interactions. The concern, she said, is generally unfounded.

“If they simply take the time to actually talk to a person with autism, they will probably come away from the conversation with a lifelong friend,” Carter said. “And that’s especially true of Joseph. He’s definitely one of my favorite people, and he’s a joy to be around.”

Individuals with autism, Hill said, “are seen in a different way because we do things differently than normal people.”

“For example, I often like to wave at people even though I don’t know them,” he said. “We have a lot of different characteristics, but it’s a fact that an autistic person can really bring a lot of positivity to the world.”

Nov. 2 was National Deviled Egg Day, and Hill marked the occasion by sharing a photograph of the hors d’oeuvres on Twitter.

He tweeted a snapshot of a Boston cream pie on Oct. 23, the day dedicated to the dessert. On Nov. 21, he photographed a carton of Stove Top mix in honor of National Stuffing Day.

For National Eat a Cranberry Day, which falls 48 hours after National Stuffing Day, Hill posted an image of Ocean Spray cranberry sauce. Two days later, the company tweeted a reply.

“What a saucy photo,” @OceanSprayInc wrote. “Thanks for choosing Ocean Spray!”

Hill was elated. In an emoji-laden response, he thanked the company (twice) for commenting on his picture.

“For me growing up, every Thanksgiving, me and my family always look forward to serving your delicious cranberry sauce with our Thanksgiving dinner,” he wrote.

The bubbly endorsement was quintessential Hill, according to Coleman.

“In the 11 years I have known him, I have never once heard him utter a single negative word,” she said. “He is the most positive, kind-hearted, caring person I have ever met.”

Joseph Hill stands in front of the Southern Pines Welcome Center on Dec. 2, 2019. (Photograph by Jaymie Baxley/The Pilot)

On weekends, Hill can be found roaming the sidewalks of Southern Pines in search of interesting things to photograph for the welcome center. Coleman said Hill will invariably visit every open business to chat with employees while making his rounds.

“Joseph’s photographs are very popular, but Joseph is just as popular as his photographs,” she said. “He’s like the unofficial mayor of downtown Southern Pines.”

Hill hopes to expand his photography business to other parts of Moore County in 2020. His goal, he said, is “to go as far as possible.”

“Maybe I can eventually go to another state or travel the U.S.A., or who knows, maybe I can travel to another country,” he said. “But the point is, photography-wise, I just want to be the best that I can be wherever I go.

“I don’t want to be better than anyone else. I just want to show that as a person with autism, I have what it takes.”

He Fought the Law on Video Gambling, and the Law Won

The following article first appeared in The Pilot on Sept. 18, 2019.

For the past six years, a Moore County businessman has been embroiled in a closely watched legal saga involving video slot machines.

Richard Frye, owner of Sandhill Amusements in Southern Pines, said he was surprised when the N.C. Court of Appeals on Tuesday overturned a 2017 ruling that found certain gaming kiosks, sometimes called sweepstakes machines, did not run afoul of the state’s gambling laws. The reversal will end a permanent injunction protecting businesses that operate the games.

The latest ruling, Frye said, is unfair to companies that market machines like the ones distributed by Sandhill Amusements. These suppliers usually share income with the restaurants, bars and convenience stores that house the machines.

“As far as I’m concerned, the court is wrong,” Frye said. “They didn’t follow the facts in the case or in all the many cases that led up to this final case, but there’s nothing I can do about it.”

The kiosks distributed by Sandhill Amusements are pre-loaded with slot machine games that allow players to win gift vouchers, which can be redeemed for cash or online prizes.

After determining the games were in violation of state law, sheriff’s deputies began seizing kiosks from businesses across Onslow County in 2013. Sandhill Amusements later sued the state and the Onslow County Sheriff’s Office. The N.C. Supreme Court ruled against the company in 2015.

Gift Surplus, the Arizona company that developed the kiosks’ software, then added features to give players more control over the games’ outcome. Finding that the updated games relied more on “skill and dexterity” than on chance, Superior Court Judge Ebern T. Watson III ruled in favor of Sandhill Amusements in 2017.

The recent appellate decision was issued with separate opinions from three judges, each of whom cited different reasons for tossing out the lower court’s ruling. With the injunction vacated, law enforcers will be free to seize Gift Surplus kiosks from businesses and to impose fines on people caught playing the games.

State gambling laws are enforced by the Alcohol Law Enforcement division of the North Carolina Department of Public Safety. Erin Bean, special agent with the division, said ALE will not immediately begin cracking down on the machines.

“While the Court of Appeals issued an opinion (Tuesday), the court’s mandate, or official notification to the clerk of court of the opinion, will not occur until Nov. 4,” Bean wrote in an email. “ALE will continue to monitor this case and will take enforcement action as authorized by law.”

Frye said Sandhill Amusements will remove all of its Gift Surplus-branded machines from businesses before the court’s mandate goes into effect.

“There’s no real recourse for us at this point,” he said.

Caught in the Middle

Frye believes Sandhill Amusements was an innocent casualty in the state’s war on sweepstakes parlors, establishments he views as little more than clandestine casinos.

“What the state really wants to do is get rid of the big sweepstakes rooms, and my company doesn’t do those,” he said. “I’ve never owned a game room. I hate the game rooms, quite frankly.”

As the president of Entertainment Group of North Carolina, an organization that lobbies for the amusement machine industry, Frye has advocated for legislation banning sweepstakes parlors.

“We tried to get a bill passed to get rid of the game rooms, because that’s the major problem,” Frye said. “Everything they’re running is games of chance, and it’s highly illegal. They’re the big outlaw in the business, and I knew that if we got rid of them, then we had an opportunity to stay on the street in small, limited numbers.”

According to Frye, Sandhill Amusements never installed more than four Gift Surplus kiosks at a single location.

“The only way (the state) could get rid of the big game rooms was to get rid of everybody, so they shot us down,” he said, adding that many sweepstakes parlors have been “hiding behind” the injunction granted to Sandhill Amusements. “Now that the injunction is gone, I would say the game rooms are probably all going to be gone within 30 days.”

In one of the three written opinions issued on Tuesday, Judge Hunter Murphy said it is irrelevant “whether chance or skill predominates in the current iteration of Gift Surplus’s sweepstakes.” The statute relating to sweepstakes machines, he wrote, “explicitly proscribes sweepstakes conducted through electronic display, which is ‘visual information, capable of being seen by a sweepstakes entrant, that takes the form of actual gameplay, or simulated gameplay[.]’”

“The trial court erred in concluding Gift Surplus’s sweepstakes do not violate (state law) because the sweepstakes in question are run through the use of an entertaining display,” Murphy wrote.

An Embattled Industry 

Frye, who rarely gives interviews, has been in the vending business for nearly 40 years. He started out with coin-operated Pac-Man and Donkey Kong games in the early 1980s.

“They were minting quarters,” he said. “It was very lucrative for several years.”

Demand has since waned for traditional arcade cabinets, and many manufacturers are increasingly focused on high-end golf and bowling machines that offer more immersive gameplay. These machines, Frye said, typically cost between $6,000 and $7,000.

“They’re terribly expensive, and at 50 cents a shot for players, it’s hard to recoup your investment,” he said. “It’s gotta make double what it’s worth because you’re splitting income with the location, and I’m not going to invest in any more equipment if it takes five to 10 years to pay for it.”

Frye suspects the latest ruling will have wide-ranging implications for the industry. He believes the state will “go back to the old redemption law,” which prohibited amusement machine operators from offering prizes worth more than $10.

If that happens, Key Master-style arcade games that give players a chance, albeit slim, of winning iPads and other electronic devices would be prohibited. So would the crane games that entice players with prizes like jewelry and wristwatches instead of plush animals.

And that’s a problem for small suppliers like Sandhill Amusements. Most restaurants and retailers have lost interest in traditional arcade cabinets. They want games that make money.

Frye appears to be losing interest, too. Or perhaps he’s simply drained after attending more than 50 court hearings related to his video slot machines since 2013.

“I’m 70 years old and I’ve survived two bouts with cancer,” he said. “I’m getting a little tired, to tell you the truth.”