County Appoints Vaccine Critic to Health Board

Note: The following story first appeared in The Pilot on Jan. 26, 2023. 

Tom LoSapio uses props to make a point about masks and the coronavirus at a Board of Education meeting in September 2021. || Photograph by Ted Fitzgerald/The Pilot

A West End man who once declared he would “rather die of COVID” than get vaccinated has been appointed to the board that oversees the Moore County Health Department.

Tom LoSapio, an outspoken critic of vaccines, masks and other infection-control measures promoted by the Health Department, was selected Tuesday by county commissioners to take over an at-large seat on the Moore County Board of Health. He will replace Dr. Paul Kuzma, who resigned earlier in January with three months left in his term.

LoSapio has repeatedly gone before the Board of Health with comments alleging that COVID-19 vaccines are unsafe. In December 2021, he told the board he was “extremely disappointed” to learn that a small percentage of children in the county had been vaccinated.

“Anyone who allows an experimental drug to be injected into our children should be ashamed,” he said at the time. “I’m 66 years old. I’m overweight. I have diabetes. I have kidney disease. I’d rather die of COVID than get that shot.”

LoSapio also regularly attended meetings of the Moore County Board of Education to protest a policy requiring students and faculty members to wear face masks in schools. In one appearance during a 2021 school board meeting, he used props to argue that cloth masks contain holes through which the respiratory droplets that spread COVID-19 can easily escape.

“I would like someone on the board to tell me how this hole stops this particle from getting through,” he said while holding up a hoop representing a mask and a small plastic ball representing a virus particle.

In a two-page letter accompanying LoSapio’s application to the Board of Health, a copy of which was provided to The Pilot on Friday, he accuses the board of “blindly following one narrative only, with COMPLETE DISREGARD for any other information source” in its response to the pandemic.

“For the last two years, I have attended Board of Health meetings and have been speaking at these meetings to bring the Board and the community information contrary to the CDC data that is selectively and singularly presented to this board by the Moore County Health Department,” he wrote, referring the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “It is obvious that critical information regarding Covid 19 from researchers and scientists around the world is not being presented and may, in fact, be excluded from all Health Department presentations made to the Board of Health.”

Commissioner Jim Von Canon made the motion to appoint LoSapio, which succeeded in a 4-1 vote. The dissenting vote came from Commissioner Frank Quis, who is currently the commission’s designated liaison to the Board of Health.

“I respectfully disagree with the way this is being handled,” said Quis, who went on to suggest that LoSapio had not submitted a formal application for the position. “As is tradition, we, in considering appointments, are given applications by interested individuals so that we could understand what they would bring to a board.”

But Laura Williams, clerk for the commissioners, confirmed that LoSapio’s application and letter were submitted to the county on Jan. 19 and distributed to the commissioners the following day.

Addressing his fellow commissioners, Quis argued that Tony Price, chairman of the Board of Health, should have been given an opportunity to weigh in on LoSapio’s appointment. While Quis acknowledged that the commissioners are not required to notify board chairs of potential appointments, he said it was still “the courteous thing to do.”

“Whether it’s the Board of Health or any board that serves here in Moore County, I think it sends a message to the members of whatever board it is that we haven’t thought enough of the board chair to let them know who we’re appointing or to get some input from them,” Quis said.

Nick Picerno, the commissioners’ chairman, contended that the appointment was listed on the agenda distributed in advance of Tuesday’s meeting.

“If I was the chairman of the Board of Health and saw an appointment, I think I would have been here,” he said.

Price said he did not see the appointment on the agenda. Moreover, he said the possibility of an appointment being made was not mentioned during a breakfast meeting he had the previous morning with Quis and newly elected Commissioner Kurt Cook, who will be replacing Quis as the commission’s liaison to the Board of Health.

“I did meet with the outgoing representative for the Board of Health and the incoming representative for the Board of Health the day before, and neither of us at that point were aware that an appointment was going to be made for the Board of Health,” Price said in a phone interview on Wednesday. “Had I had a better feel for that, I would have made the meeting.”

Price, who is CEO of Moore Free and Charitable Clinic, was appointed to the Board of Health in 2020 and named the board’s chairman in January 2022. He has presided over several meetings in which LoSapio espoused unfavorable opinions — and unfounded theories — about COVID-19 vaccines.

But Price said he is not bothered by the commissioners’ decision to appoint LoSapio.

“I welcome the commissioners’ appointment,” he said. “I think that diverse opinion, input and ideas will result in the best decisions that the Board of Health makes, so I welcome that.”

The 11-member Board of Health is the policy-making body for the Moore County Health Department. By law, seven of the board’s seats must be filled by health care professionals who work in different fields.

One seat on the board is reserved for a county commissioner. The three other positions are at-large seats that can be filled by any resident appointed by the commissioners.

While those seats are technically open to members of the general public, past commissioners have shown a predilection for applicants with backgrounds in health care. Kuzma, for example, is a former anesthesiologist who practiced medicine in Moore County for over 20 years. He recently received a master’s degree in Public Health from the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore.

In the letter accompanying his application, LoSapio said he found it “highly unreasonable that the three Board of Health seats specifically reserved for ‘members of the general public’ have been filled by medial professionals or individuals related to the medical profession.”

His appointment comes amid a countywide advertising campaign — administered by the Health Department and supported by the Board of Health — encouraging residents to get vaccinated against COVID-19. He commented on the campaign in his letter, calling it “deceptive in nature.”

“There is never discussion of the VAERS report or the potential risks of this still experimental ‘vaccine’” he wrote, referring to the Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System website.

Anyone can report an adverse vaccine reaction to VAERS, and the website is filled with speculative posts from people who are not medical professionals. A disclaimer on the website even cautions that data based on the reports “may contain information that is incomplete, inaccurate, coincidental, or unverifiable.”

“Reports to VAERS can also be biased,” the disclaimer says. “As a result, there are limitations on how the data can be used scientifically.”

Data from the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services showed that about a quarter of local adults aged 18 and older remained unvaccinated as of Wednesday. All of the “currently approved or authorized COVID-19 vaccines are safe and effective and reduce your risk of severe illness,” according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The Moore County Health Department recorded a moving, daily average of 23 new infections for the week ending Wednesday, up from an average of about 22 new infections on Jan. 18. Over 40 percent of laboratory-confirmed COVID-19 tests administered in Moore County were returning positive as of last week.

A total of 31,200 cases of COVID-19 have been confirmed in Moore County since the start of the pandemic, according to the latest available data from the Health Department. At least 352 of those cases, or about 1.1 percent, have been fatal.

LoSapio was one of two men involved in a brief altercation at a Board of Education meeting last May. At that meeting, LoSapio and Carthage resident Kevin Lewis expressed conflicting views during a public comment period. Shortly after LoSapio finished speaking and walked back to his seat, a video recording of the meeting captured audio of a brief altercation between the two men in the auditorium. The camera recording the meeting was focused away from the incident.

The following morning, both Lewis and LoSapio pressed charges against each other for simple assault. Charges were later dropped by both, and neither commented on the matter.

Southern Pines Drag Show Will Go on Amid Growing Opposition

Note: The following story first appeared in The Pilot on Nov. 22, 2022. 

Drag artist Naomi Dix outside the Sunrise Theater.

A planned drag show in downtown Southern Pines had become a lightning rod on social media even before Saturday’s deadly mass shooting at a gay nightclub in Colorado.

The discourse only intensified in the aftermath of the rampage at Club Q, which was scheduled to host a drag brunch the following afternoon in observance of Transgender Remembrance Day. After the attack, Sandhills Pride, a local LGBTQ organization, began discussing its own upcoming drag event at Sunrise Theater.

“Our community is devastated,” Lauren Mathers, director of Sandhills Pride, said of the shooting. “It’s alarming, it’s increasing and it’s getting out of control. We only have a few safe spaces and now they’re being invaded by violence.”

The nonprofit was already weighing safety concerns for its Downtown Divas drag show at Sunrise on Dec. 3. Some worried that attendees would face hostility from the Proud Boys, a far-right nationalist group whose members disrupted a drag event in nearby Sanford last month.

Those concerns grew after a number of Facebook users posted comments, many of which included homophobic and transphobic language, denouncing the popular downtown theater for hosting the event.

“This is the most disgusting crap I’ve ever seen here,” reads one typical comment. “Take this nasty crap back to New York where you belong! Real people don’t want you here and never will. Sunrise, you used to be a great place to go but you no longer are. I hope this leads to your closure now. Bye forever!”

Mathers said some of the other comments she read “would be inappropriate in any space.” One post, she said, included a reference to lynching.

“That’s not OK in anybody’s book, in any kind of civilized society,” she said.

Kevin Dietzel, executive director of Sunrise, was surprised by the backlash. The theater partnered with Sandhills Pride for a previous drag event without controversy in 2019.

“I thought maybe there would be some people who didn’t like the event, and they would stay home because they’re welcome to not come to events that they don’t want to see,” Dietzel said. “I didn’t think it was going to be a big thing that blew up.”

In addition to comments on Facebook, the theater was inundated with phone calls, Instagram messages and emails about the show. Several of the emails contained the same copied-and-pasted text arguing the event “shouldn’t be here and isn’t in line with the values” of the town, according to Dietzel.

But the event, he said, is “completely in line” with past programming at the theater, which in June hosted an LGBTQ film series sponsored by Sandhills Pride. He added that drag is “not new to the area,” pointing to previous drag shows organized by Sandhills Pride at Belvedere Plaza, an outdoor venue two blocks away from Sunrise.

“The Sunrise in an inclusive space,” he said. “We’re a community resource and we don’t discriminate on who uses the space or what type of event they place unless it’s a known hate group.”

In an interview before the shooting at Club Q, Dietzel said the theater planned to contract with a private company to run security during the show. Chief Nick Polidori of the Southern Pines Police Department said his agency was “following all of the information” it had received about the event and will “plan accordingly.”

“We’re working out all the details and keeping an eye on it,” he said Tuesday. “Before Dec. 3, we’ll have something in place to make sure we have enough personnel working and resources.”

While children and teenagers were initially allowed to attend the ticketed event if accompanied by an adult, Sunrise and Sandhills Pride have since decided to only admit individuals aged 18 and older. The change was announced Monday in a statement on social media.

“One of the issues being raised is an event like this will expose children to explicit content,” the theater said in the statement. “While we do not believe that the content of this show will be explicit in nature, out of an abundance of caution, the organizers of the event have chosen to implement an age restriction. As the venue hosts of the event, we have agreed and support this restriction.”

Honoring the Art

Mathers said there are “a lot of misconceptions around what drag and drag art is and its place in the community.”

One of the most common fallacies, she said, is that drag artists undress on stage. Mathers believes this misunderstanding stems from people confusing drag shows with burlesque performances, which sometimes involve stripping.

There is also the more incendiary, unfounded claim that drag artists are sexual predators who want to “groom” young children. Such accusations have become increasingly common among anti-LGBTQ hate groups amid the rising popularity of events where individuals in drag read stories at libraries and schools.

“(They think) that people who are doing this are grooming, which is to say that we are now pedophiles because with people who are sexual predators the word ‘grooming’ is used in that context when they are going after young children,” Mathers said. “We’re being portrayed in a way that is completely wrong and false.”

The issue has been compounded by an uptick in violence against gay, lesbian and trans communities. A 2020 study by the Williams Institute at UCLA found that LGBTQ people were “nearly four times more likely than non-LGBT people to experience violent victimization,” including physical and sexual assault.

Mathers said drag goes back to the Elizabethan era. It originated on the stage, she said, “specifically in productions of Shakespeare’s plays when women weren’t allowed to perform and men played all the roles.”

In more recent history, so-called drag houses have become havens for countless members of the LGBTQ community.

“Historically and even today, it’s the drag houses where many of the most marginalized members of our community have found family, protection and shelter when they got kicked out of their own original homes because of who they are,” Mathers said. “When we do drag, we’re honoring those individuals, their place in our history and the importance of this art form.”

‘Call to Action’

On Monday, parents of students at Calvary Christian School in Southern Pines received a copy of a poster promoting Downtown Divas along with a letter calling the event an “attack on the children of this community.”

The letter, which is undersigned by pastor Charles Garrison Jr., the school’s administrator, and principal Dwight M. Creech, reads:

The attached poster is a call to action. The LGBTQ forces are coming to Southern Pines and they are after our children. You can see from the poster that student tickets are half price. This is their target audience to peddle their abomination.

God’s Word is very clear. Genesis: 1:27 – “So God created man in His Own Image, in the Image of God created He him; MALE AND FEMALE CREATED HE THEM.” There are no other genders. Deuteronomy 2:25 – “The woman shall not wear that which pertaineth unto a man, neither shall a man put on a woman’s garment: for all that do so are abomination unto the Lord thy God.”

The truth of God is that women are not to identify as men and men are not to identify as women — it is an abomination to God. The Truth of God is that our gender cannot be changed. Psalm 100:3 says “Know ye that the Lord HE IS GOD: IT IS HE THAT HATH MADE US, AND NOT WE OURSELVES.”

Someone has said that, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”  Something that we can do is contact the Executive Director of the Sunrise Theater […]. We need to contact him and voice our opposition and ask that the Sunrise cancel this show.

Later in the letter, Garrison and Creech urge parents to also contact the two businesses sponsoring the event — Realty World Properties of the Pines and Manifest Boutique — as well as members of the Southern Pines Town Council. They write that a “permit has been approved for us to gather in protest” if the event is not canceled.

“The time for silence is over. We must earnestly contend for the faith. We must refuse the evil and choose the good by letting our voices be heard.”

When Garrison was asked by a reporter if he still planned to protest now that the show is restricted to adults, he said “absolutely.” He declined to elaborate in a phone interview.

Polidori, the police chief, confirmed that an application for the permit allowing an outdoor demonstration had been submitted to the town, but he said the application remained under review as of Tuesday morning.

In addition to the letter from Calvary Christian, a form letter denouncing the event has repeatedly been sent to Sunrise Theater, the event’s sponsors and other stakeholders. The letter reads in part:

First of all, this drag show goes against everything that is morally and spiritually right. You do not need a pastor, or anyone else for that matter, to inform you that it is wrong for biological males to dress up and act like women. God has given all humans a conscience that bears witness to what is right and wrong. I urge you to listen to your conscience and do what is right.

Second, it is wrong enough to air a show like this for adults, but then to take it a step further and encourage students and children to attend (by offering an admission discount) is pure evil. Jesus Christ warned all humanity that leading a child astray is one of the worst sins we can commit; He said it would be better to have a millstone tied around one’s neck and thrown into the sea than to lead a child astray.

Nikki Bowman, owner of Realty World Properties of the Pines, said she has received several “hateful calls” demanding she withdraw her business’ sponsorship of the event.

“I refuse to back down,” said Bowman, who has also received messages of support from the community. “I’m standing strong with the Sunrise and with Sandhills Pride.”

Making a Space

Naomi Dix, a Durham drag artist headlining the Downtown Divas event, said isn’t bothered by the controversy. She has dealt with disapproving critics throughout her career.

“I don’t really consider them to be a threat because at the end of the day, these people don’t really want to go to jail,” she said. “They’re just doing this because it gets them a little bit more clout, gets them some clicks on social media and it makes them look popular amongst their group of people. But at the end of the day, they’re just creating a space for themselves to be able to look cool to their friends. If that’s the route that they want to go, let them go.”

The rampage in Colorado hit close to home for Dix, who said one of her friends was shot six times at Club Q and is currently recovering from the attack. The shooting was also a reminder, she said, that “there’s still a lot of work to be done.”

“It brought a lot of pain to us, knowing that this is something that still exists out there, but it has made us stronger in fighting what we know is still a fight for us,” Dix said. “As a person of color myself, being in the eye of people who look at us or look at me or just want to be an opposition is nothing new. For people who identify as straight, this might be something new to them but I have to fight every single day just because of the color of my skin. On top of that, I also have to fight because I am a queer person who also happens to be a drag queen.”

Dix isn’t interested in dissecting the recent rise in hand wringing over drag, which she dismissed as simply the latest trend among people who dislike the LGBTQ community.

“I don’t really care where it’s coming from,” she said. “Listen, people go through fads. The same way that people are wanting to look like the Kardashians every single day is the same way that people are jumping on the bandwagon of being so angry about drag queens doing a story hour or drag artists performing in their town, city, state, whatever. It’s a fad, and it is what it is. All I know is that my job is to create a space for people to be able to feel as though they are accepted.”

And in that space, she said, even detractors are permitted.

“I’m never going to turn someone away from the door because of their beliefs or because of how they feel about something or their opinions,” she said. “That would make no sense. If I’m teaching that this is an open space that’s inclusive of everyone, then why would I turn someone away?”

In Pinehurst, a Village Divided by Short-Term Home Rentals

Note: The following story about the divisive issue of regulating short-term rentals in Pinehurst first appeared in The Pilot on July 9, 2022. 

Some of the Pinehurst homes and condos listed on Airbnb on July 8, 2022. || Collage by Jaymie Baxley/The Pilot

For about $240, you can spend a night in the middle of a municipal maelstrom.

That’s the average cost of an Airbnb in Pinehurst, where some long-time residents feel their quality of life is being threatened by a proliferation of short-term home rentals. Others contend that the rentals benefit the village and are key to its continued success as a global destination for golfers.

The debate is forcing the village to reckon with two seemingly irreconcilable sides of its identity. Is Pinehurst a retirement community or a resort town?

While the Village Council has for years fielded complaints from residents about short-term rentals, a recent surge in rental listings has moved the issue to the forefront. Data from AirDNA, a consultancy that tracks the short-term rental market, shows there are nearly 430 homes and condos in Pinehurst listed on Airbnb and VRBO — a 141-percent increase from the third financial quarter of 2019.

Comments from supporters and opponents of short-term rentals have become a common part of Village Council meetings. According to a Pilot analysis of legal minutes and meeting videos, the council has received 86 public comments about short-term rentals since the beginning of the year.

Several of those comments came from Jeffrey Heintz, an attorney who has lived in Pinehurst since 2015. He wants to see the council enact a village-wide prohibition on short-term rentals.

“Living next to a short-term rental is like having a vacant house next door,” Heintz said in an interview. “There is no one to whom you can go and borrow a cup of sugar. There is no one to whom you can chat about local issues. And if left unchecked, it will consume the single-family, residential neighborhood character of the village, which is every bit as important as the resort character of the village.”

On the other side of the issue are people like Brandon Goodman, who operates three short-term rentals in Pinehurst. Two of his properties, he said, were “purpose-built” as rentals by James Tufts, the founder of the village, in 1896.

“Vacation rentals have been a part of Pinehurst since its very founding,” Goodman said. “What’s actually relatively new to Pinehurst is full-time residents. The vacation rentals have always been here.”

Nuisance or Necessity?

Robert Rupel estimates there are seven short-term rentals within a two-block section of his neighborhood near the 13th hole of the Pinehurst No. 2 golf course.

He said litter and noise from renters are common nuisances in the neighborhood. There have been a few instances of intoxicated guests urinating in his backyard, he said.

While walking his dog a few weeks ago, Rupel overheard a lively conversation among a group of renters who he said had “obviously been playing golf and drinking all day.”

“They’re screaming at each other about whose ‘unit’ is bigger than the other guy’s ‘unit,’” he said. “If you live on either side of that house, it’s disgusting. And it’s a pain that you shouldn’t have to put up with in a residential neighborhood.”

A June 2020 incident on Magnolia Road is often cited as Exhibit A in the case against short-term rentals. Police responded that night to numerous reports of loud music, illegal drugs and property damage in connection with a party attended by about 75 people at a rental home, a violation of the statewide gathering restrictions in place at the time to curb the spread of the coronavirus.

But that incident was an “outlier,” according to Village Manager Jeff Sanborn. He has said that an analysis of rental-related complaints filed with the Pinehurst Police Department yielded no evidence of widespread misbehavior.

That finding has been disputed by critics of short-term rentals, who claim that many incidents involving renters go unreported. Among other things, Rupel believes renters are to blame for the increased amount of litter he’s seen around the village.

“The litter problem that we have in Pinehurst, which I think is significant and degrading to our community, is driven by short-term rentals,” he said. “You’d be hard-pressed to convince me that 70-year-old people are throwing Budweiser cans out of their car window after a night of drinking beer for the weekend. It’s coming from the renters who don’t have a vested interest in the community.”

Goodman rejects what he views as a prevailing misperception of short-term renters as “drunk golfers.”

“About 50 percent of the people that stay in our houses are here for golf,” he said. “There’s a host of reasons people come here, from family reunions to funerals. It’s not all golfers. And if people on vacation are so undesirable, why would we want them anywhere? Why would we want them in our hotels? There’s just no data to support that people on vacation are undesirable people.”

He added that some of the residents who oppose short-term rentals have no issue “staying at vacation rentals in other communities.”

“They like them in other places,” Goodman said. “They just don’t like them here.”

Goodman contends that the village, which has only a handful of hotels, would not be able to accommodate large events like the back-to-back U.S. Open golf tournaments that will be played at Pinehurst Resort in 2029 without short-term rentals. When the tournaments were last held at the resort in 2014, about 340,000 people visited the village.

“We don’t have the available hospitality here to support what’s happening here, what’s going to happen here and what has already happened here,” Goodman said. “We just don’t.”

Todd Camplin, who manages a dozen short-term rentals in Pinehurst, said the benefits are “a lot more far-reaching than most people consider.”

“Not only do they bring dollars to the area, which pumps money into the economy, but every short-term rental pays taxes to the Convention and Visitors Bureau for marketing dollars,” he said, referring to the 3-percent cut taken by the bureau to promote the area to tourists. “It’s not much of a stretch for me to believe that a lot of the new interest in Pinehurst, as far as real estate goes, is directly correlated to those dollars.”

Camplin said a renter may decide to become a permanent resident following a good experience at a short-term rental, which could in turn improve the quality of life for all residents by boosting the village’s coffers. That additional tax revenue could then allow the village to expand existing services and create new amenities.

“There is a huge trickle-down effect from people coming to the area, spending money and having a good time here, and going back to their homes and telling people about how good of a time they had here,” Camplin said. “Most of the people that I deal with in the real estate environment who are looking to move here either heard about it from someone else or they have come here as part of a trip or outing or event that drew them to the area. I think short-term rentals are a big driver in the overall economy and interest in the area.”

Katrin Franklin is a downtown business owner who supports short-term rentals. In recent comments to the village council, Franklin said her store, Bump and Baby, which specializes in clothing for infants and maternity wear, is sustained by out-of-town customers who hope to eventually move to Pinehurst.

“It is clear and undeniable that tourism drives my business,” she said. “My money is made on mostly tourism. We catalog every shopper, we talk to them and ask where they came from. People (say they) are visiting for the first time or they visit every single year or they can’t wait to retire here or they own a short-term rental here. It’s a myriad of beautiful stories about how this is the place that they want to end up.”

Seeking Solutions

The Pinehurst Village Council voted 4-1 last month to adopt an ordinance amending the village’s municipal code in an attempt to address some of the oft-repeated complaints about short-term rentals.

Among other things, the ordinance prohibits “unruly gatherings at residential properties.” Such gatherings are defined as any event where “at least one person who is not a permanent resident” of the property is present and three or more criminal offenses are committed within 100 yards of the property over a 24-hour period.

If an unruly gathering occurs at a short-term rental, the owner of the property will be fined $1,000 under the ordinance. An increased fine of $2,000 will be levied against the owner for any subsequent violation recorded at the property within two years of the first offense.

The ordinance also includes an amendment prohibiting overnight parking on residential streets and a section stating that any person found “urinating or defecating on private property” could be fined $500.

Sanborn described the ordinance as the first step in a three-phase plan to establish a regulatory framework for short-term rentals in the village. The second phase of that plan, which is scheduled to be discussed by the council on Tuesday, would involve adding short-term rentals to the table of allowed lodging uses in the Pinehurst Development Ordinance.

Darryn Burich, planning and inspections director for Pinehurst, said this change would give village staff the ability to issue and revoke permits to rental operators, and to designate districts where short-term rentals are or are not allowed.

But some opponents of short-term rentals believe a more drastic approach is needed. Residents like Heintz want the practice banned outright.

“If I’m wrong and a pause or a prohibition on short-term rentals in single-family neighborhoods turns out to not be the thing to do, we can always allow them (again),” he said. “But if the short-term rental people turn out to be wrong, we’re screwed because we will already be overrun. It will be impossible for us to get that genie back into the bottle.”

Although Rupel is also opposed to short-term rentals, he doesn’t think they should be “eliminated or blown off the face of the earth or whatever.”

“They ought to be controlled, they ought to be managed, they ought to be monitored,” he said. “And where there are violations or problems, the owner ought to be held accountable.”

Goodman, however, believes the problems are confined to a small number of short-term rentals in the village. It would be unfair, he said, to impose restrictions on the rental operators who have been following the rules all along.

“The perfect solution is to use existing law and existing ordinances to deal with the bad actors,” he said.

Phillip Sounia, a retired Army officer who is in the process of completing his doctorate in public policy, has repeatedly gone before the Village Council offering to mediate a solution between the rental operators and their critics. The council has yet to take him up on the offer.

He has also provided the council with multiple reports and studies on short-term rentals. One of these papers, published in 2017 in The Journal of Law and Economics, links the regulation of short-term rentals on a Florida island to a decrease in surrounding property values, a conclusion that goes against a concern voiced by some village homeowners who feel their property values could be adversely affected by short-term rentals.

In a phone interview, Sounia acknowledged that there are “valid claims on either side” of the issue.

“One side is saying, ‘Hey, this is part of my livelihood that you’re trying to take away from me. This improves the value of my home. This allows me to go on vacations, to see my grandkids, and you’re trying to take that from me,’” Sounia said. “And then on the far other side, you have a group that’s saying, ‘Hey, we just want to have this totally quiet environment, and I want to have a golf course all to myself. I don’t want to have any kind of disruption to my daily life.’

“But what they don’t realize is that all the visitors that come to Pinehurst are what pays for that quality of life.”

The council itself has yet to reach a consensus on the extent of the issue or the best way to address it. While council members Jane Hogeman and Patrick Pizzella have been generally supportive of a potential prohibition on short-term rentals in areas zoned for single-family residential use, members Jeff Morgan and Lydia Boesch have both voiced concerns that such a measure would subject the village to lawsuits by running afoul of the rights of property owners.

Despite being the only council member to vote against the municipal code amendment addressing unruly gatherings, Boesch said she is neither for or against short-term rentals.

“My position all along has been let’s let the two sides try to work this out and find common ground where they can agree,” she said in an interview. “What are the two sides telling us that we should do? I don’t even know the answer to that because they haven’t been given the opportunity.”

While Pinehurst has by far more short-term rentals than any other municipality in Moore County, it is not the only place where local officials are grappling with the issue. On Tuesday, Foxfire will hold a public hearing on a proposed amendment to its development ordinance that addresses the “use of dwelling units and short-term rentals.”

Unlikely Rivals: Fellow Reps Vie for Redrawn District 52

This article first appeared in The Pilot on April 29, 2022.

In a contest precipitated by the state’s legislative redistricting, two sitting members of the North Carolina General Assembly will compete to represent House District 52 in the Republican primary.

State Rep. Ben Moss, a freshman lawmaker from Richmond County, hopes to usurp longtime Rep. Jamie Boles, who is seeking an eighth term in the redrawn district, which now includes all of Richmond and a southeastern portion of Moore County. The district previously covered none of Richmond and most of Moore.

Who They Are

Boles, a funeral home owner, has represented District 52 since 2008. He’s fended off fellow Republicans in past primaries, but this will be his first time facing a challenger from outside of Moore County.

Moss, a railroad engineer, in 2020 became the first-ever Republican elected to represent District 66, which at the time comprised Richmond, Montgomery and Stanly counties. With Richmond now melded into District 52, the Rockingham resident must defeat Boles to keep his seat.

State reps. Jamie Boles, left, and Ben Moss. (Courtesy photographs)

The men are, in many ways, unlikely political rivals. They were even assigned to some of the same House committees during the most recent legislative session.

“We both have basically the same conservative rating scores,” Boles said in a phone interview, referring to the American Conservative Union Foundation’s annual analysis of votes cast by Republican legislators. “We both believe in the same things. It’s just a matter of having seniority over a freshman.”

Moss said he would prefer not to be pitted against his colleague in the Republican-controlled General Assembly, but he isn’t “ready to go home” after only one term.

“We both happened to get drawn into a new district that they formed, and it just so happened that he lived within that district and so did I,” he said in a phone interview. “I’ve had some people say to me, ‘That’s Boles’ district.’ No, that’s not Boles’ district. It’s not my district. It is a district that was designed and we just happen to live there, and I hate that it happened because Jamie’s always been nice to me.”

Boles may not be so chummy in the weeks ahead. Despite having worked together toward common causes in the House, the Aberdeen native said he plans to treat Moss like every other opponent he’s bested over the past 14 years.

“You still go out to win,” Boles said. “You just have to reassure the new people in the new district that you’re just as conservative and care about the same issues as the other Republican members.”

Like Boles, Moss is well-established in his home county. He spent a decade on the Rockingham Board of Commissioners before running for state office.

Still, he knows the district’s map gives Boles an edge in the race. The John Locke Foundation, a conservative think tank, recently projected that Boles has a “distinct advantage” because of the “higher population of primary voters in Moore County” compared with Richmond, where voters are more likely to recognize Moss’ name on the ballot.

“I’m an underdog,” Moss said. “It’s like a David and Goliath story, but I don’t mind being a David by any means.”

He recalled once attending a meeting where his opponent was introduced as the “unbeatable Jamie Boles.” Moss thought to himself at the time: “You know, the Titanic was announced as the ‘Unsinkable Ship.’”

Where They Stand

Boles believes inflation and workforce woes are two of the biggest issues currently affecting Moore and Richmond counties.

“Overall, everybody right now post-pandemic is seeing a struggle with getting employees,” he said. “You see it in restaurants. You see it everywhere.”

Some of the strain placed on local businesses, he said, could eventually be alleviated by the Republican-led legislature’s work to reduce taxes.

“Since we’ve taken over in 2010, we’ve done real well as far as lowering corporate income taxes and personal income taxes, and we’ve also eliminated the personal income tax on retired military personnel,” he said. “I think that’s going to help both counties, and the businesses will bounce back with the lower taxes that we have.”

Another priority for Boles is enhancing public safety services across the district.

“The first job of the government is to protect the citizens,” he said. “That is the No. 1 goal of the government. It doesn’t matter if you travel in Richmond County or Moore County, you need public safety. You expect it to be there and you expect it to be at the same level throughout the state of North Carolina.”

Moss, meanwhile, believes education will be one of the major issues faced by the district in the years ahead.

“Parents’ concerns for their child’s education and what they’re being introduced to, I think, is a very big deal, and we’re seeing that now in the Moore County area,” he said.

Indeed, meetings of the Moore County Board of Education have recently become battlegrounds for everything from mask mandates for students to the content of little-read books on library shelves.

“Education is very important to me personally because my children are still in school and I care about other people’s children,” Moss said. “In my mind, there are some common-sense guidelines that need to be in place where parents have a chance to play a bigger factor in what actually goes on.”

He added: “There’s several differences of opinion, and that’s fine. I’ll respect everyone’s opinion, but I myself have skin in the game. I have a 10-year-old and a 15-year-old, and I think that differentiates me from my opponent a little bit.”

Moss said he is also committed to “protecting the conservative values that a lot of people hold near and dear in the majority of these rural districts.”

“Moore County’s not as rural as Richmond County by any means, but I think there’s just some issues where a lot of people don’t understand how we live or how we like to live or choose to live,” he said. “I think there’s a lot of basic fundamentals at stake and if we’re not careful, somebody will try to chip away at it.”

Early voting is currently underway at the Moore County Agricultural Center in Carthage and at the Aberdeen Recreation Station. Polls are open from 8 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. on weekdays and from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. for the next three Saturdays.

Moore County’s Hispanic Community Hit Hard by COVID-19

This article first appeared in The Pilot on July 7, 2020. 

The disproportionate toll of the coronavirus on people of color in Moore County has been especially pronounced in the Hispanic community.

An ethnicity-based breakdown of cases by the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services on Tuesday morning showed that Hispanic people, despite making up only 7 percent of the county’s total population, accounted for 21 percent of the area’s reported infections. This disparity is also reflected in ZIP code-level data from NCDHHS.

About 16 percent of all COVID-19 cases in Moore County have been linked to the primary ZIP code for Robbins, a town with a historically large concentration of Hispanic residents. That postal code is home to only 5 percent of the county’s population.

The Rev. Javier Castrejón of San Juan Diego Mission in Robbins suspects many of the area’s Hispanic patients are contracting COVID-19 in the workplace.

“I’m talking with them by Facebook or phone or after mass about how we can stop this virus, but they have to work to bring meals to their children,” Castrejón told The Pilot in a recent interview. “We are giving food (from our) pantry and meals to the sick families, but other families have to go out for work, and then they get the virus.”

Father Javier Castrejón at San Juan Diego Mission in Robbins on July 2, 2020. (Photo by Ted Fitzgerald/The Pilot)

The median household income for Robbins is one of the lowest in Moore County. Castrejón said Hispanic residents without American citizenship were ineligible for economic impact payments through the federal CARES Act.

“They didn’t get a check,” he said.

NCDHHS recently acknowledged a “high rate of COVID-19 spread” among Hispanic and Latino communities throughout the state. The agency said many Hispanic people in North Carolina work in “environments where social distancing can be challenging, health insurance is not provided and for a sick person, staying home could create a significant financial burden.”

Most health insurance providers cover the cost of coronavirus testing, according to FirstHealth of the Carolinas, but patients without insurance are required to pay as much as $110 for a nasal-swab test. While free drive-thru testing is available by online appointment at CVS in Aberdeen, the service is limited to customers with access to a vehicle.

Castrejón would like to see COVID-19 testing offered in a location that is more accessible to people in Robbins, which is about 20 miles away from the nearest testing site. 

“It’s not sufficient,” he said. “They have to drive more than 25 minutes for the test, and they are paying for the test.”

In response to an email from The Pilot inquiring about the possibility of pop-up testing in Northern Moore County, Emily Sloan of FirstHealth of the Carolinas said the company has no immediate plans to expand testing to the area.

“We currently do not have plans to open additional drive-thru testing sites, but we are willing to coordinate with county health departments and employer groups to assist with on-site testing as needed,” Sloan said.

The availability and cost of testing aren’t the only challenges in slowing the spread of the virus among Hispanic residents. None of the county’s contact tracers are bilingual, making it potentially difficult to identify individuals who may have been in close contact with Spanish-speaking patients.

Matthew Garner, public information officer for the Moore County Health Department, on Monday said the agency hopes the state will provide two bilingual contact tracers before the end of July. The county currently has four state-appointed tracers.

“Thus far for any language issues we’ve encountered, we’ve utilized the two full-time interpreters we have on staff and we haven’t had any issues yet as far as them being needed beyond their capacity,” Garner said.

Health Department Said it Plans to Work With NAACP; Group’s President Wants to Know When

This article first appeared in The Pilot on July 9, 2020.

On July 1, the director of the Moore County Health Department said his agency would be working with the local chapter of the NAACP to address the spread of COVID-19 in marginalized communities.

O’Linda Watkins, president of the Moore County NAACP, is still waiting for that to happen.

“I haven’t heard a thing,” Watkins said in a phone interview on Thursday evening, eight days after the health director announced the department’s plan to collaborate with the organization. “Everybody seems to be taking their time.”

Robert Wittmann, director of the Moore County Health Department, last communicated with the chapter during a teleconference over a month ago. He told the group then that the county’s Black community was a “high-risk population” for COVID-19.

“There’s an inordinate amount of underlying health problems with the African American population,” Wittmann said at the time.

Citing the 2019 Community Health Assessment for Moore County, he added that the “main areas affecting the health of our citizens” were obesity and behavioral health. The disparity in these areas, Wittmann said, was “much higher for the Black population than the regular population.”

O’Linda Watkins, president of the Moore County NAACP. (Photograph by Jaymie Baxley/The Pilot)

Since that meeting on May 28, data from the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services has consistently shown that people of color in Moore County are disproportionately affected by the coronavirus. NCDHHS on Thursday reported that African American residents, despite making up 12 percent of the county’s total population, accounted for 14 percent of infections and 36 percent of deaths.

These figures are based on information reported to NCDHHS, which on Thursday said it was missing race data for 216 of the county’s 594 reported cases.

Miriam King of the Moore County Health Department played down the uneven toll on communities of color during a Facebook Live broadcast last week.

“As far as our county is concerned right now, we are below that radar,” she said. “For those contracting COVID-19, for those testing positive, for those dying from COVID-19, right now our Black community is not adversely affected by these numbers.”

Earlier in the broadcast, King said the Health Department is “working with our Moore County NAACP.”

“We are speaking with representatives and we’re asking and formulating ideas, we’re formulating processes — anything that we can do to help our marginalized communities.”

Wittmann later interjected off-camera.

“Our next project, which will be headed up by Matt Garner, who is the incident commander, is going to be some drive-thru testing,” he said. “And we’ll be getting back in touch with the local president of our NAACP and also the chair of their health committee to devise strategies to get the word out to these at-risk communities in order to be able to direct them into our drive-thru testing.”

But Watkins has yet to hear from Wittmann, Garner or King, and she disputed King’s claim that the Health Department is actively working with the chapter.

“She made the statement and yet still I have not heard from them,” Watkins said. “I feel that someone from the Health Department could have at least sent us an email or some kind of follow-up to set up a time to talk after publicly saying they’re working with us.”

Watkins also took exception with Wittmann’s use of the word “project.”

“I still don’t get what he meant by that,” she said. “How is getting in touch with us a project? That shouldn’t take a week to do.”

In a previous interview with The Pilot, Watkins said the Moore County NAACP hopes to see free coronavirus testing offered in historically Black communities like West Southern Pines and in Robbins, where about half the population is Hispanic. She said the chapter would like to be involved with contact tracing and educational outreach in marginalized communities.

“We still want to work with the Health Department to make sure the community gets what it needs,” Watkins said.

In a phone interview on Friday, Garner said the department still plans on collaborating with the chapter in “the very near future.”

“We’re still working internally to figure out what our capabilities are as far as what we can offer in terms of staff,” he said. “Once we firm that up, we’re going to reach out to them and work with them.”

Garner added: “We’d like to work with them about possibly doing some outreach with some of the African American population and getting some testing sites open up and promoting them.”

The Health Department, Garner said, is looking at ways to offer testing in places like West Southern Pines and the Needmoore community in Carthage.

Catie Armstrong, spokesperson for NCDHHS, on Thursday said the state plans to make free testing more readily available for people of color in the area.

“As many as 300 free testing sites will be deployed throughout July to underserved communities, providing testing access for 2.2 million African American, LatinX/Hispanic and American Indian individuals,” Armstrong wrote in an email to The Pilot. “The initiative will increase testing capacity in more than 100 ZIP codes, including several across Moore County.”

She did not specify which local ZIP codes are included in the initiative.

Moore County Protests Show a Community Galvanized by Killing of George Floyd

This article first appeared in The Pilot on June 5, 2020. 

Hundreds of people knelt for nearly nine minutes Wednesday in downtown Southern Pines in honor of George Floyd, whose slaying in police custody has sparked a national outcry.

The silent tribute was timed to last the approximately 8 minutes and 46 seconds that a police officer pressed his knee against Floyd’s neck before the unarmed black man died in a Minneapolis street on Memorial Day.

Floyd, who had no pulse for three of those minutes, was born in nearby Fayetteville. His body will return to North Carolina on Saturday for a memorial service in Raeford.

Billed as a peace vigil, the downtown demonstration was organized by the Moore County NAACP. O’Linda Watkins, the group’s president, called on the droves of masked mourners in attendance to “move from anger to action.”

“My ancestors, slaves in the Cape Fear Valley, were property,” Watkins said. “Until you get to know us as human beings (…) we can never have the honest talk and the construction actions needed to dismantle the racist mentality that many police still have.”

Derek Chauvin, the officer seen holding down Floyd in a cellphone video made by a teenager, is charged with second-degree murder. The three other law enforcers at the scene during Floyd’s death are charged with aiding and abetting second-degree murder.

Black Americans are killed by police at more than twice the rate of white Americans, according to a database assembled by The Washington Post. The database, which comprises reports of fatal shootings, does not include deadly encounters like the ones involving Floyd and Eric Garner, whose 2014 death in a chokehold has been widely compared with Floyd’s killing.

Both Garner and Floyd pleaded for air in the minutes before they died. Their cries of “I can’t breath” were printed on several mourners’ signs and T-shirts during the vigil.

Organizers distributed flyers outlining a dozen ways in which residents can rally for systematic change. Some of the recommendations include petitioning for the banning of “knee holds” by police and demanding to see disciplinary records for law enforcers accused of misconduct.

Young protestors in Southern Pines on June 4, 2020. (Photograph by Jaymie Baxley/The Pilot) 

Carol Haney, mayor of Southern Pines, was one of several community leaders who spoke during the event. She informed the crowd of a local proclamation inspired by Floyd’s death.

“In part, it reads that George Floyd lost his life in a despicable act which has led to protests with some, like this, peaceful,” Haney said. “It states what we support, what we denounce and what we will not tolerate.”

The proclamation, approved later that evening by the Southern Pines Town Council, declares June 6 a “day of remembrance” for Floyd.

The peaceful protests continued when a procession of 379 vehicles traveled Thursday from the park beside the National Guard Armory in Southern Pines. The caravan, which moved through Aberdeen and Pinehurst before returning to the park, was organized by the N.C. Impact Coalition.

Lakisha Womack, a local educator who co-founded the coalition with her relatives Lanisha Bailey, Shirella Horton and Charles Taylor in 2016, said the group felt a caravan would minimize the protestors’ risk of exposure to the coronavirus.

“We want to show the right way to address the issue,” Womack said in a phone interview. “With this being a retirement community, we can’t afford to have COVID-19 run rampant here.”

People older than 64 are especially vulnerable to COVID-19, and the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services said the disease is causing a “disproportionate impact on communities of color.” Shortly before the caravan left Southern Pines, Gov. Roy Cooper signed an executive order directing local health departments to “provide targeted measures to help communities of color that have been affected by the pandemic.”

The caravan was escorted by police, and law enforcers were stationed to redirect traffic at various points along the 12-mile route. In Pinehurst, several members of the police department were seen kneeling in solidarity with the protestors.

“In this trying time for our nation, the Village of Pinehurst government is committed to stand for justice and equality for all residents and for our fellow citizens across the United States,” the village said in a statement shared on social media ahead of the protest. “All of our staff, including our exceptional police department, are committed to dignity, safety and a high quality of life for all people without regard for color.”

Addressing the large audience that assembled at the park after the caravan returned to Southern Pines, Horton said the protest was the “largest car procession ever in the history of Moore County.”

“Imagine what we can do if we continue to work together, if we keep this same energy,” she said. “Imagine the changes we can make.”

Earlier at the park, the protestors heard remarks from local mothers whose children had perished in altercations with police. Charlene Ross, mother of Shonquell Barrett, pressed a microphone against her phone as it played audio from the night her son was killed after a 10-minute vehicle chase in June 2018.

In interviews with The Pilot and other news organizations, Ross has said that Barrett was about to pull over when a state trooper initiated the PIT maneuver that ended his life. She has spent the past two years advocating for a law named after Barrett that would prohibit police from using PIT maneuvers to immobilize fleeing suspects.

“I will not be pushed aside,” Ross said Thursday to applause from protesters. “I have a voice, I have power and I will be heard. I did not give up on my son while he was living, and I will not give up on him while he’s dead.”

The Moore County Sheriff’s Office on Friday announced it would help provide security during Floyd’s memorial service in Raeford. In a statement released on the community notification platform Nixle, Sheriff Ronnie Fields praised the “concerned and caring citizens” who participated in the local protests.

“The events that have occurred across our country over the last two weeks concern me greatly. And sicken me!” Fields wrote. “The actions of the rogue police officers on the scene in Minnesota were unnecessary, unwarranted, and criminal.

“I pray that justice will be served, and the Floyd family will find peace.”

Fields went on to condemn the violent riots that have erupted in Minneapolis and other cities.

“The actions of the thousands of people across the country who have chosen violence as a means of their expression of frustration concerns me equally,” Fields said. “Please know that should the criminal element appear in Moore County, the members of the Moore County Sheriff’s Office will be here to protect and serve you, our citizens.”

At least 17 people have died nationally in protests sparked by Floyd’s death. Some of the victims include protestors killed by police and law enforcers shot by protesters.

But Fields noted that the demonstrations held in Moore County have been “totally peaceful.”

“Over the last two days, our citizens have organized and participated in events where their First Amendment rights were recognized and supported,” Fields said, adding he is “so proud to call this place home.”

Juneteenth Celebration in Pinebluff Disrupted by Alleged Hate Crime

The following articles first appeared in The Pilot on Oct. 21, 2021, and on Jan. 7, 2022

‘Still Fighting the Same Battles’: Alleged Hate Crime at Pinebluff Park Detailed During Forum

Mitch Capel speaks during a community forum on racial intolerance at Brownson Memorial Presbyterian Church on Oct. 14, 2021.

Mitch Capel remembers seeing crosses burning near Cardinal Park when he was a child.

The park was established along the shore of a spring-fed lake in Pinebluff by Capel’s parents in the early 1960s. At the time, it was one of the few places in Moore County where Black people could go swimming.

Capel’s father, the late Felton Capel, was known for breaking racial barriers. He led the push to integrate local schools and was the first Black person elected to the Southern Pines Town Council.

Choking back tears as he looked down at the wristwatch he inherited from his father, Mitch Capel recalled a recent incident at Cardinal Park that is now being investigated by police as a hate crime.

“I never thought in a million years that I’d still be fighting the same battles that my father and our ancestors fought,” he said.

Capel spoke publicly about the incident for the first time during a community forum on racial intolerance earlier this month at Brownson Memorial Presbyterian Church in Southern Pines.

According to an affidavit Capel filed with the Moore County Magistrate’s Office, the park’s Juneteenth celebration was disrupted by a man, identified in court documents as Russell Thomas Langford, who allegedly flipped a middle finger to event-goers while driving a pickup truck through the private property. The affidavit alleges that Langford then “discharged firearms” from his own property on Prosperity Way, which is near the park.

“It went on for 35 minutes but it seemed like an eternity,” Capel said of the gunshots. “Everybody kept looking around wondering what was going on.”

Langford reportedly returned to the park and began tossing out bumper stickers in support of former President Donald J. Trump. He later used “racial slurs” while questioning the attendees’ knowledge of Juneteenth, according to the affidavit.

“He started saying ‘you people don’t even know your own history, you people don’t even know what Juneteenth means,’” said Capel, who had never before interacted with Langford. “So I broke down our history as fast as I could in about three sentences, and then I broke down Juneteenth to him.”

Juneteenth commemorates the date that enslaved Black people in Galveston, Texas, finally learned they had been freed under the emancipation proclamation signed two-and-a-half years earlier by President Abraham Lincoln. Two days before the celebration at Cardinal Park, President Joe Biden signed a law recognizing the observance as a federal holiday.

In a video shared with The Pilot, Capel and other individuals can be seen escorting Langford out of the park. The video shows Langford backing his truck into a wooden gate post twice before driving away.

Langford, 41, is a former Army Reserve officer who served in the military from 2003 to 2019, according to information provided by the U.S. Army Reserve Command at Fort Bragg. He is highly decorated, having earned more than a dozen awards including the Bronze Star and Meritorious Service medals.

He has also been accused before of harassing members of a marginalized community. He made national news in 2016 after police said he threatened to kill Muslims and left packages of bacon — a food forbidden by Islamic law — at a mosque in Raeford.

Langford later pleaded guilty to ethnic intimidation in federal court. In a news release announcing his conviction, the U.S. Department of Justice said Langford “admitted that he acted intentionally to threaten the mosque’s members and obstruct their religious exercise.” He was sentenced to eight months of home confinement in 2017.

“It’s just insane that there are people out there like that in this day in society who think like that, who drink that Kool-Aid, who hate people because of how they look or how they pray,” Capel said. “It’s insane to think that.”

A warrant was issued on June 21 charging Langford with ethnic intimidation, injury to personal property and littering in connection with the incident at Cardinal Park. He was arrested 12 days later and placed in the Moore County Detention Center under a $75,000 bond, which was later posted by an agent for Palmetto Surety Corporation of South Carolina.

Attempts to reach Langford for comment were unsuccessful. Langford’s privately retained attorney, Kelly Dawkins, did not respond to messages from The Pilot seeking comment.

Langford’s case has been continued twice in Moore County District Court. His next court appearance is set for Dec. 3.

In addition to managing the park, Capel is a professional storyteller who performs under the stage name Gran’daddy Junebug. He had been reluctant to talk about what happened on Juneteenth, he said, because he feared it would overshadow the otherwise successful celebration, which was attended by more than 750 people.

“I tried to hide it from everybody because I didn’t want it to ruin the day,” he said.

But at the urging of Jim Davis, former sheriff of Hoke County, Capel decided to share his experience with the Moore County chapter of the NAACP.

The forum at Brownson Memorial Presbyterian Church was organized by the chapter, and included a panel discussion with representatives from the FBI, the U.S. Department of Justice and the N.C. Attorney General’s Office. Dion Lyons, a conciliation specialist with the DOJ’s Community Relations Service, moderated the conversation, which mainly focused on how hate crimes are identified and investigated by state and federal agencies.

Lyons said that Moore County District Attorney Mike Hardin was unable to attend the forum because he was preparing for an upcoming murder trial. O’Linda Watkins-McSurely, president of the Moore County NAACP, said the sheriff’s office had also been invited to participate but did not attend.

The June 19 incident at Cardinal Park is one of eight local hate crimes reported to the Moore County NAACP since 2003. Last year, a woman in Southern Pines filed a complaint alleging that she saw two people in Ku Klux Klan regalia sitting in a parked SUV in front of her home.

“Never in my 29 years of living have I ever been so scared for my life,” the individual wrote in the complaint, which was read by Watkins-McSurely during the forum. On Thursday, Watkins-McSurely told a reporter that the complaint is still under investigation.

The KKK’s intimidation tactics are painfully familiar to Capel, who said he saw “crosses being burnt” on hillsides in Pinebluff as a child. He said he also remembers seeing the hate group’s symbols and slogans spray-painted on buildings at his parents’ park.

Capel said he decided to file a criminal complaint following the Juneteenth incident at the park because it was the “right thing to do.”

“I did it because I knew my father would have done it and I knew my ancestors would have done it,” he said. “I knew it was a hate crime.”

Ex-Army Officer Sentenced to Probation After Disrupting Juneteenth Event in Pinebluff

Screenshots from a video showing Russell Langford at Cardinal Park on June 19, 2021.

A former Army Reserve officer was found guilty Tuesday of multiple misdemeanor offenses following his disruption of a Juneteenth celebration in Pinebluff, but he avoided what would have been his second conviction for ethnic intimidation.

Russell Thomas Langford, 41, was sentenced to 18 months of probation by Judge Regina Joe for littering, injury to personal property and disorderly conduct in connection with a series of disturbances that occurred on June 19 at Cardinal Park, a venue of historical significance to the Black community in Moore County.

Langford, who served in the military from 2003 to 2019, had been accused before of harassing members of a marginalized community. He made national news in 2016 after police said he threatened to kill Muslims and left packages of bacon — a food forbidden by Islamic law — at a mosque in Raeford. He later pleaded guilty to ethnic intimidation in federal court.

Mitch Capel, manager of Cardinal Park, said last year’s incident began when Langford, who is white, drove his pickup truck through the private property while flipping a middle finger to people attending a Juneteenth event. Capel, who is Black, alleged that Langford then “discharged firearms” from his own property on Prosperity Way, which is near the park.

Langford returned to the park, Capel said, and began tossing out bumper stickers in support of former President Donald J. Trump. He later used “racial slurs” while questioning the event-goers’ knowledge of Juneteenth, Capel said.

Juneteenth commemorates the date that enslaved Black people in Galveston, Texas, finally learned they had been freed under the emancipation proclamation signed two-and-a-half years earlier by President Abraham Lincoln. Two days before the celebration at Cardinal Park, President Joe Biden signed a law recognizing the observance as a federal holiday.

In a video submitted as evidence in Moore County District Court, Capel and other individuals are seen escorting Langford out of the park. The video then shows Langford striking a wooden gatepost three times with the back of his truck before driving away.

In the eyes of prosecutors, the property damage caused by Langford was enough to charge him with ethnic intimidation under state law, which makes it a Class 1 misdemeanor to “damage or deface the property” of another individual “because of race, color, religion, nationality, or country of origin.”

Joe, who herself is Black, disagreed, ruling that Langford was not guilty of ethnic intimidation. In a phone interview after the trial, District Attorney Mike Hardin said he was disappointed with the verdict, but “understand[s] the judge’s reasoning.”

“From a legal standpoint, I think she was following the strict letter of the statute,” Hardin said. “That’s a hard decision to make but I think she made the decision that she believed was right, and that’s all you can ask from a judge.”

The challenge created by the statute, Hardin said, was showing that Langford intended to damage the gatepost because of Capel’s race.

“When you watch the video, there’s no doubt that he’s trying to start trouble,” Hardin said. “But the question is did he go there with the intent to damage the property, or did he go there with the purpose to start trouble and then ended up damaging the property?”

Langford did not testify during the trial. His privately retained attorney, Kelly Dawkins, argued that he did not deliberately strike the gatepost and suggested that unspecified psychological issues and alcoholism may have contributed to Langford’s behavior at Cardinal Park.

In an interview after the trial, Capel said he appreciated the work done by prosecutors and accepted Joe’s rationale.

“The judge did the best she could do within the law, but I just don’t understand how someone can ride through an African American-owned park on a national, federal African American holiday with their middle finger up, using the N-word, taunting and being belligerent, and that’s not considered ethnic intimidation,” Capel said. “If that’s not ethnic intimidation then what is? That statute needs to be changed.”

Cardinal Park was established along the shore of a spring-fed lake in Pinebluff by Capel’s parents in the early 1960s. At the time, it was one of the few places in Moore County where Black people could go swimming.

Capel’s father, the late Felton Capel, was known for breaking racial barriers. He led the push to integrate local schools and was the first Black person elected to the Southern Pines Town Council.

In addition to managing the park, Mitch Capel is a professional storyteller who performs under the stage name Gran’daddy Junebug. He said he had initially been reluctant to pursue charges against Langford because he feared the incident would overshadow the otherwise successful Juneteenth celebration, which was attended by more than 750 people.

But then he asked himself: “What would my father do?”

“He always sought justice and always did things because they were the right thing to do,” Mitch Capel said. “He wouldn’t have let it go, and I couldn’t let it go. I have to live with myself, and I had to know that I did what was right and that I stood up to hatred.”

Although Langford was not found guilty of ethnic intimidation, Hardin said he was pleased to see him convicted of the other crimes he committed on Juneteenth.

“I think everybody, even Mr. Langford, knew that he had acted inappropriately and violated the law,” Hardin said.

“George” Author Weighs in on Push to Remove Book From Moore County Schools

This story first appeared in The Pilot on March 5, 2022.

The Moore County Board of Education on Monday is expected to discuss whether “George,” a children’s novel about a transgender girl, should remain in the libraries of two schools, ending a months-long review of the book’s appropriateness for students.

Alex Gino, the book’s nonbinary author who uses they/them pronouns, has been following the local controversy surrounding “George.” They said they were not surprised that a resident filed a complaint in December calling for the book’s removal from McDeeds Creek Elementary and Union Pines High schools. 

School districts across the U.S. have fielded similar complaints about “George,” which last year topped the American Library Association’s list of Most Challenged Books. The novel is usually challenged for “LGBTQIA+ content, conflicting with a religious viewpoint, and not reflecting ‘the values of our community,’” according to the association.

Gino said their book is “at its heart, a traditional middle-grade story” about a transgender fourth-grader who wants to play Charlotte in her school’s stage production of “Charlotte’s Web.”

“There is a difference between a book that is challenged because of what an author chose to do in it versus a book that is challenged because of who the author is,” Gino said in a Zoom interview. “My book is being banned because there’s a trans character, and that says that my existence is so monstrous, so terrifying, that it is not appropriate for children. That’s gut-wrenching.”

The local push to remove “George” was prompted by a complaint from Carthage resident Jim Pedersen, who argued that it was not the “government’s business to introduce children to transgenderism.” He does not have children enrolled in either of the schools that carry the book.

Philip Holmes, a member of the Moore County Board of Education, vowed in January to have “George” removed from circulation.

“We teach reading, writing, and arithmetic,” he told The Pilot at the time. “You can teach ‘be nice to everybody, treat them equally,’ this, that and the other, but when you start diving deep into a person, how they recognize themselves, I’m not ok with that.”

Gino disagreed, saying that positive depictions of transgender people in books can help others to become “more aware and accepting.” Promoting acceptance, they said, is crucial at a time “when trans people, especially trans women of color, are at risk of violence.”

About 86 percent of students surveyed in 2019 by the national LGBTQ group GLSEN reported they had been harassed or assaulted “based on their sexual orientation, gender expression and gender identity.” More than half of those same students did not notify school officials because of doubt that “effective intervention would occur or fear the situation would only worsen once reported,” according to GLSEN.

Carter, a transgender eighth-grader attending Moore County Schools, said books like “George” are “a source of representation” for students like him.

“I think a lot of people believe that if a cisgender or non-LGBTQ child stumbles upon the book then they might be influenced by the transgender themes in the book, which I don’t think is true,” said Carter, whose mother requested be identified using a pseudonym for safety reasons. “The book is talking about how hard it is to be trans and how difficult it is. It is not trying to tell people to live alternative lifestyles.”

He pointed out that “George” is not required reading for students and must be checked out from school media centers.

“It’s not being pushed on other kids,” he said. “It’s simply a book in the library, and it’s really important to have books for every kid in the school. It’s our decision whether to pick up the book or not.”

His sentiment was shared by Gino, who also feels that restricting access to certain books stifles the autonomy of young readers.

“One of the lines I hear is, ‘It’s ok for you to decide what your kid reads, but you can’t decide what my kid reads,’” they said. “But that kid over there has now been denied access, and that kid over there might be a trans kid who is exactly the kid who needs to get that book. No, you don’t get to decide what your children read. Your children are whole human beings who have the right and deserve to learn about the world. They deserve tools, and you holding that back from them makes for adults who are ill-prepared, and that’s a travesty.”

After receiving Pedersen’s complaint, the Moore County Board of Education tasked an advisory committee with reviewing the book’s suitability for students. The committee, which is made up of both teachers and parents, determined last month that “George” should remain in the two schools.

In its recommendation to keep “George” at McDeeds Creek Elementary School, the committee wrote that the book “addresses positive messages about acceptance, diversity and inclusion.” The group’s recommendation for Union Pines High School states that the novel “meets the diverse needs of members of the school community and reflects a relevant perspective on current issues.”

The committee’s recommendations have been forwarded to the school board for final consideration. 

“I’m actually not worried that they’re going to vote against it,” Gino said. “I believe in the people in that room, and I believe that they know the systems that books go through to get into the classroom. These challenges don’t pass most of the time, however, they’re going to keep coming so it’s important to get policies in place so that it can’t take up so much time and so much energy.”

Gino urged the school system to establish a more “onerous process” for dealing with challenged books in the future. Getting something like “George” banned from school libraries, they said, “should be as hard as it was for me to get it published.”

This Aberdeen Motel Has the Lowest Sanitation Grade in Moore County

This article first appeared in The Pilot on Dec. 14, 2021. 

During a recent stay at the Super 8 motel in Aberdeen, Erick McRae felt something crawling in his bed.

When he turned on a light to investigate, he saw dozens of cockroaches scatter across the room. He estimates there were as many as 60 of the insects.

“They were everywhere,” McRae said in a phone interview. “On the walls and the floor. Behind the dresser. Under the sink and in the shower. Above the door — everywhere.”

He showed a cell phone video of the cockroaches to a concierge, who offered to move him to a different room. But McRae said the second room wasn’t much of an improvement.

“Soon as I get in there, I see two or three more roaches,” he said. “Then I try to turn on the heat and the heat doesn’t even work. It was the worst experience I’ve ever had in a hotel.”

Photograph by Jaymie Baxley/The Pilot

Similar stories are common in online reviews of the establishment, which currently holds the lowest sanitation grade of any hotel in Moore County. Crystal Hodges, an environmental health specialist with the Moore County Health Department, said the Super 8 has “documented complaints regarding pests verified through inspections and investigations.”

The health department threatened to suspend the motel’s lodging permit because of a “pest infestation” in August 2019, according to documents obtained by The Pilot through a public records request. The notice of suspension was lifted following a re-inspection that September.

“Insect infestations identified through an inspection, complaint or inquiry are addressed by the Moore County Environmental Health Department by verifying the infestation then taking action to remedy the situation,” Hodges said in an email. “Remedies may include requiring the owner or manager of the establishment to eliminate food sources, thoroughly clean the area, remove clutter, seal holes or cracks in floors, walls and ceilings; and contracting a professional pest control service.”

Copies of receipts shared with the health department show that the motel is frequently serviced by exterminators, but the issues have persisted.

Health officials observed 36 sanitation violations during an inspection of the motel this past September. Some of the violations included:

• Live insects crawling on an AC vent and a cabinet;

• A ceiling-light fixture filled with bugs;

• Mold growing on a wall;

• “Bodily fluid” on the torn cover of a mattress;

• Rusty refrigerators and microwaves; and

• “Petrified animal feces” beneath a bed.

Super 8 received a sanitation grade of 71 at the time. Under state law, any hotel that receives a score lower than 70 can immediately have its lodging permit revoked.

The motel’s grade improved to an 83.5 after a re-inspection on Nov. 2. The score currently stands as the lowest sanitation grade posted for any of the county’s 22 hotels.

Chart showing the sanitation grades for Moore County’s 22 hotels. (Graphic by Jaymie Baxley/The Pilot) 

Super 8 is a subsidiary of Wyndham Hotels and Resorts, a franchisor whose other brands include Ramada, Days Inn and Howard Johnson. In a statement to The Pilot, a spokesperson for Wyndham said the company was looking into the issues at the Aberdeen motel.

“We are disappointed by these allegations, which are in no way reflective of our brand values or our expectations of franchisees,” Rob Myers, senior director of global communications for Wyndham, said in the statement. “While this location is independently owned and operated, we take these concerns seriously and are addressing the hotel’s owner.”

The Pilot was unable to reach Girma Aduga, the motel’s owner, for comment.