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.”


Don’t Call it a Pipe Dream: Southern Pines Teen Rallies for Skate Park

The following article, which first appeared in The Pilot on July 2, 2019, won a second place award for Sports Feature Reporting from the North Carolina Press Association. 


Jack Kelley wants a place where he and his friends can skate without breaking the law or running afoul of local business owners.

Town ordinances prevent the 13-year-old from legally riding his skateboard in the most skateable part of Southern Pines. If he’s caught skating on any sidewalk or roadway in the town’s business district, Jack could be charged with a misdemeanor and ordered to pay a $50 fine.

His plight is familiar to a generation of skateboarders in Moore County, where the soon-to-be Olympic sport has been without a proper venue for the past decade.

A sixth-grade student at Southern Middle School, Jack said the closest public skate park is a 38-minute drive from his home. He was 2 years old when the county’s only purpose-built place for skaters was shuttered during the lowest valley of the Great Recession.

Jack is asking residents to sign a petition to build a skate park in downtown Southern Pines. Armed with a storage clipboard filled with pens and petition forms, he spent a recent Sunday afternoon pitching the idea to strangers on Southwest Broad Street.

His pitch began with a brief speech summarizing the benefits of a public skate park. He then offered to produce a laminated copy of the letter he intends to submit to the town council, lest anyone doubt his commitment to the project.

An older woman gushed about the young petitioner’s moxie before writing her name on the form. Jack thanked her twice. He thanks everyone, even if they decline to sign the petition.

Jack said he’s been rejected by only a handful of people. None of them gave him a reason.

“They just kind of brushed me off,” he said.

Filling a Void

Several downtown business owners have signed Jack’s petition, which boasted nearly 450 total signatures as of Monday afternoon. Baxter Clement, owner of Casino Guitars on Northeast Broad Street, even offered to donate money to help pay for the skate park’s construction.

“I think it’s a great idea because it’s really boring here for kids,” Clement said. “There are a lot of kids in this community who don’t play golf or tennis and don’t ride horses.”

Much of the recent growth in southern Moore County has been attributed to an influx of young military families. While the area is home to multiple tennis courts, golf courses and equestrian tracks, these amenities appeal more to older adults than to families with school-age children.

Youth participation rates for golf and tennis are far lower than for other sports, according to survey data from the National Federation of State High School Associations. A 2018 study by Street and Smith Sports Business Journal found that golf, tennis and horse racing have the oldest average viewerships of all major televised sports.

“We definitely see a lot of parents expressing the need for a skate park,” said William Dean, owner of Flowland Counter Culture Outlet in Aberdeen. “Some of the military families who moved here from places with lots of skate parks are truly surprised when they find out that Moore County doesn’t have one.”

Dean said skateboard sales at Flowland have increased “five-fold” over the past two years. He expects the trend to continue after skateboarding makes it Olympic debut at the 2020 games.

“Because of the Olympics and all the press it’s going to get, there’s going to be a groundswell of participation,” Dean said. “Our skate population is only going to grow.”

Dean previously served as president of Flowmoore, a Pinebluff skate park that opened in 2006. The facility was popular with local skaters, but the harsh economy at the time forced the park to close after only three years in business.

Flowland Counter Culture Outlet
Wall of skateboards at Flowland Counter Culture Outlet. (Photograph by Jaymie Baxley/The Pilot)

Though it was short-lived, Dean believes Flowmoore made a difference during its brief existence. He said the park’s teenage patrons were less likely to trespass or violate ordinances when they had a place to skate.

“A lot of those youths could have gone in bad directions,” Dean said. “But because they had that park, I am 100-percent convinced that some of them did well and moved on to better things.”

Jack’s petition represents the first serious effort to build a skate park in the Sandhills since Flowmoore closed. In Dean’s estimation, the need for such a place has only grown.

“We have a lot more families now than we did 10 years ago,” he said.

Hurdles to Clear

Terry Grimble is widely recognized in skateboarding communities across eastern North Carolina. He serves as president of DaVille Skate Shop, a business with locations in Fayetteville and Myrtle Beach, and is the founder of the Friends of the Skateparks Foundation, a nonprofit that advocates for skateboarding projects.

And he was once, like Jack, a teenage skater at the mercy of municipal leaders. When Grimble was 18 years old, he tried to persuade city officials in Fayetteville to build a downtown skate park.

With support from the Parks and Recreation department, Grimble presented his proposal to the city council in 1991. It didn’t go the way he hoped.

“We lost by one vote,” he said.

Grimble continued to advocate for a skateboarding facility in downtown Fayetteville. His persistence eventually led to the opening of a skate park, albeit in a different location, in 1993.

Still, Grimble said the project could have been completed “two years earlier for 20 percent of the cost” had it been approved when he first addressed the council.

Funding could be another hurdle. Grimble said a modestly sized skate park can cost as much as $450,000 or as little as $300,000, depending on the builder.

But the investment, he said, can pay off in multiple ways.

“It’s been proven that skate parks reduce crime and depending on the scope of the park, it could also create a positive economic impact,” Grimble said. “More people are going to come in from out of town, spending money on gas and eating at local restaurants.”

He added: “And if they build the proper park, there’s no reason Southern Pines couldn’t produce an Olympic athlete by 2024.”

The Friends of the Skateparks Foundation provided input on a $1 million skate park expected to open this fall in Fayetteville. Funded through a bond referendum approved by voters in 2016, the park will be built at the same downtown location suggested by Grimble in the early 1990s.

“It can take years and years of planning and funds to do a skate park,” he said. “But it’s the world’s fastest growing sport and it’s going to be around forever.”

Jack Kelley, 13, performs a skateboard trick in downtown Southern Pines. (Photograph by Jaymie Baxley/The Pilot)

It remains to be seen if council members in Southern Pines will be amenable to Jack’s proposal. Reagan Parsons, who has served as town manager for the past 15 years, said he doesn’t recall a formal petition for a skate park ever being presented to the council. No local studies have been done to determine the feasibility of such a project, he said.

Many public skate parks require visitors to wear helmets and safety pads. According to Parsons, these requirements can sometimes be a dealbreaker for skaters.

“One of the real challenges that a lot places experience is if a public entity owns (a skate park) and insurers get involved, you’ve got to start requiring certain safety measures and different things,” Parsons said. “Then people tend not to want to use it.”

A Teen Determined

Jack fell in love with skateboarding after an uncle introduced him to the sport two years ago. Before long, he was entertaining his little brother with tricks he learned from studying skate videos on YouTube.

Some of Jack’s friends picked up skateboards around the same time. After mastering the fundamentals in driveways and cul-de-sacs, the teenagers began searching for a real place to skate.

In downtown Southern Pines, they found a landscape teeming with rideable terrain. They also found disapproving business owners and signs forbidding skateboards.

From Jack’s perspective, a downtown skate park seemed like the obvious solution. He wrote a plea to town officials and designed the petition forms with help from his social studies teacher.

“I really didn’t have a good speech when I started,” Jack said. “I was nervous, but I was still getting signatures because people agreed with it.”

Nervousness is not something Jack exudes naturally. He is inquisitive and charismatic, especially when describing the elements of a successful skate park or the nuances of a particular trick.

Jack is also indefatigable, according to his mother Catrina Kelley. When her son sets out to accomplish something, she said, “he sticks with it.”

Kelley said Jack’s crusade for a skatepark has been met so far with near-unanimous support. She cited the multiple downtown business owners backing the proposal as evidence of its appeal.

“The businesses, and I agree with this 100 percent, have a huge problem when [the skaters] are grinding on their handrails and benches,” she said. “But if you give them somewhere else where they can skate, then that won’t be a problem, and I think that’s why a lot of the businesses are behind it.”

She’s behind it, too. Like most parents, Kelley said she approves of just about any recreational activity that doesn’t involve “being inside all the time playing video games.”

Jack envisions the skate park going in an empty field near the old tennis court on East Connecticut Avenue. He and his friends like to skate on the court, where a large sign forbids the use of alcohol, cigarettes and skateboards.


Pinelake Massacre: A Decade in the Shadow of NC’s Deadliest Mass Shooting

Note: This special report on the 10th anniversary of the Pinelake nursing home massacre first appeared in The Pilot on March 30, 2019.

PART I: THE SHOOTING 


On a windy Sunday morning in March 2009, a burly house painter with a messy beard walked into a Carthage nursing home and fatally shot eight people.

Many residents of rural Moore County were still in church when Robert Stewart arrived at Pinelake Health and Rehabilitation, a 110-bed facility specializing in patients with dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. He went there shortly after 10 a.m. in search of his estranged wife Wanda Neal, a nursing assistant who, unknown to Stewart, had been assigned that morning to the facility’s passcode-locked Alzheimer’s ward.

His rampage began in the parking lot. Armed with a .22 caliber hunting rifle, Stewart shot through the rear window of Neal’s unoccupied PT Cruiser before opening fire on a Ford pickup truck near the nursing home’s entrance. Michael Cotten was stepping out of the truck when a bullet pierced his left shoulder. He ran inside the building and called 911.

“I told them there was a guy out there shooting,” Cotten said in an interview earlier this month. “It wasn’t long after that, as I went further into the facility (to hide), that we realized he was coming in.”

Stewart placed the rifle on the roof of his Jeep Cherokee, swapping the weapon for a 12-gauge pump shotgun. With the shotgun in hand and two other firearms — a 357-caliber revolver and a semi-automatic pistol — holstered around the waist of his overalls, Stewart walked into the main hall of the nursing home, the area where his wife would normally be working, and began shooting indiscriminately at elderly residents.

Jerry Avant Jr., a nurse, is believed to have been gunned down while attempting to move patients out of Stewart’s path. The 38-year-old had served 10 years in the U.S. Coast Guard before receiving a nursing degree from Sandhills Community College, which would later establish a scholarship in his memory.

He was engaged to Jill DeGarmo, a fellow Pinelake employee who escaped the rampage without injury. In a television interview the next day, DeGarmo said she found her fiancé “laying on the floor bleeding” near shards of glass from a broken window.

An autopsy report showed that Avant was shot twice from a distance and once at close range. He died on an operating table at FirstHealth Moore Regional Hospital in Pinehurst.

Louise DeKler, 98, was the oldest victim. The lively nonagenarian had moved to Carthage four years earlier to be closer to her daughter. She previously lived alone at an apartment complex in New Jersey, not far from the Atlantic City casinos where she loved to play double slots.

Dr. Deborah Raddisch, the state’s chief medical examiner, said DeKler was shot in her left thigh and pelvis. The wounds, Raddisch said, caused “a little bit of blood” to travel to DeKler’s spine and the base of her brain. She remains the oldest American known to have died in a mass shooting, according to The Washington Post.

Jerry Avant Jr., left, and Louise DeKler (Courtesy photographs)

Lillian Dunn, 86, was a former employee of the defunct Milliken textile plant in Robbins. Her hobbies included making quilts and cooking with vegetables that she grew herself and canned. After being shot twice in her wheelchair, Dunn was found slumped over in a red-and-white dress that she liked to wear on Sundays.

Tessie Garner, 76, was known for assembling beautiful Christmas baskets. She was shot once, with the blast injuring multiple organs before exiting through her back. She was pronounced dead at the hospital.

John Goldston, 78, had 14 grandchildren, enjoyed jigsaw puzzles and was a loyal fan of the Carolina Tar Heels. He was shot from less than two feet away.

Bessie Hedrick, 78, once owned a beauty shop and was, as her sister Elenor Clapp put it, a “dyed-in-the-wool Democrat.”  She was shot from at least six feet away.

Before moving to Pinelake, Margaret Johnson, 89, ran a small farm with her family in Silk Hope. She died after being shot in her left pelvis at close range.

Jesse Musser, 88, was a retired railroad machinist who spent more than 40 years fixing trains in Virginia and West Virginia. He was shot in the back while waiting to visit his wife, a fellow resident with Alzheimer’s disease.

Dr. Thomas Clark of the state Medical Examiner’s Office said Musser’s heart was “shredded” by the blast. Melba Musser was told her husband died in his sleep.

Justin Garner was the only Carthage police officer on duty when the call came in. It was not unusual, he said, to have just one officer patrolling the county seat on a Sunday morning.

“It was a small town,” Garner said in a recent interview.

Local officers at the time did not carry rifles or ballistic armor in their vehicles. The Carthage Police Department had no official protocol for responding to active shooter events.

Garner, then 25 years old, did not wait for backup when he arrived at the nursing home. He went alone into the building’s lobby, where he saw elderly patients doddering amid shell casings and spattered blood.

“When I walked through the front door, there were people wandering around like it was just another morning. To my left was a lady who had been shot in her wheelchair. There were like five or six people standing behind her, not saying a word. They didn’t have a clue what was going on.”

He made his way through the main corridor, past the motionless bodies of victims in beds and wheelchairs. Rounding a corner, he found the 380-pound shooter reloading his shotgun.

“There wasn’t any missing him,” Garner said. “He took up the whole frame of the hallway.”

Garner repeatedly ordered the man to drop his gun. Instead, Stewart leveled his weapon. Garner steadied his service pistol.

Years of hunting deer with his father had made Garner a decent marksman. Stewart was also a hunter. The two were once members of the same hunting club.

It was a small town.

The men fired almost simultaneously. Lead pellets from a ricochet struck Garner’s leg and foot. Stewart, shot in the chest by a bullet from Garner’s .40-caliber Glock pistol, fell to the ground.

Garner restrained Stewart by linking two pairs of handcuffs behind the obese gunman’s back. Reinforcements from every police department in Moore County were approaching the nursing home when Garner’s voice beamed over the radio: “The suspect is down.”

Stewart and Garner were both taken to FirstHealth Moore Regional Hospital for treatment. Within hours, they would be two of the most talked-about men in the country. 

National news outfits descended on Carthage to cover the rampage. During a hastily organized press conference at the Carthage Fire Department, Police Chief Chris McKenzie tallied the morning’s violence: eight dead, three injured, two still hospitalized.

“If Justin hadn’t gone in when he did, there would have been many more killed,” McKenzie later told reporters. “I don’t know if he will ever know how many lives he saved.”

Over the next few days, chyrons praising the “Hero Cop” from Carthage were a common sight on cable news. Garner was still in the hospital when the interview requests started pouring in.

“The attention was overwhelming,” he said. “There was all this pressure.”

On April 3, the national media moved on. Another shooting rampage had left 14 people dead at the Binghamton American Civic Association building in New York. The perpetrator, like more than half of all mass shooters, died at the scene.

Stewart expected a similar fate. While lying in handcuffs on the floor of the bloody hallway, he allegedly begged Garner to kill him.

Garner received awards from the National Tactical Officers Association and the American Police Hall of Fame. He was recognized on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives and interviewed alongside McKenzie on “The Today Show” in New York.

Producers for “Dr. Phil” and “Geraldo at Large” tried to arrange interviews with the officers, but McKenzie turned down their requests. The publicity, he said at the time, was beginning to feel disrespectful to the victims.

Gov. Bev Perdue authorized more than $27,000 in payments to the victims’ estates through the North Carolina Victim Compensation Fund. The money was meant to offset costs associated with the funerals, which were delayed until the autopsies could be conducted.

Stewart was sent to Central Prison in Raleigh, where he spent the next two years awaiting trial. Perhaps unaware he had been relocated or not sure of the prison’s address, people began sending angry letters meant for Stewart to the Carthage Police Department. McKenzie had been destroying the hate mail until a judge ordered him to preserve it for evidence.

PART II: THE TRIAL


Stewart’s trial began July 2, 2011. He faced eight counts of first-degree murder, with each charge carrying a possibility of the death penalty.

Fearing the extensive media coverage had stoked bias among potential jurors in Moore County, Stewart’s court-appointed defense counsel persuaded Judge James Webb to move jury selection to Stanly County. More than 190 people were summoned for jury duty as part of the selection process, which required candidates to be interviewed about their beliefs on capital punishment.

In death-punishable cases, members of the jury cannot have strong opinions about the death penalty. People with moral objections to the death penalty are excused. So are those who believe death should always be imposed in capital cases.

It took weeks to find 12 suitable jurors and four alternates. They were bused in each day from Albemarle while the trial was underway at the courthouse in downtown Carthage, less than two miles from the site of the shooting.

Stewart admitted to the slayings in court, but said he was not guilty of the charges. His lawyers, Jonathon Megerian and Franklin Wells, claimed large doses of Ambien, a popular sleep aid, mixed with Xanax and the antidepressant Lexapro, had caused Stewart to enter a state of “automatism.”

Stewart, his lawyers argued, was essentially sleepwalking when he carried out the rampage, and he could not be held criminally responsible for his actions.

Robert Stewart in court (Photograph by Glenn Sides/The Pilot)

The prosecution team, led by assistant district attorney Peter Strickland, contended the attack was premeditated. Prosecutors pointed to an apparent suicide note Stewart had written days before the shooting as proof he knew what he was doing. They argued that Stewart completed multiple complex actions — gathering the four firearms, driving to the nursing home — that showed malice aforethought.

“Medication is not what caused this,” Strickland told the jury.

Maureen Krueger, the district attorney for Moore County, recused herself from the proceedings to avoid a potential conflict of interest stemming from an assault case she had worked on while in private practice. Stewart had accused his mother, who was represented at the time by Krueger, of assaulting him. Krueger negotiated a plea for the mother, who denied her son’s allegations.

New details about Stewart emerged when Neal, his estranged wife, testified about the couple’s life before the shooting.

It was their second marriage to one another. They first wed when Neal was only 17. Her father had to sign the marriage license then. The union ended after three years, but the two reconnected decades later during her father’s funeral. They remarried in 2002.

The couple lived outside Robbins, about 20 minutes from the nursing home. Stewart owned multiple guns, all obtained legally, and used empty barrels in the yard for target practice. He was a heavy drinker, Neal said.

She said Stewart sank into a depression after losing his house-painting business. He filed for bankruptcy, Neal said, and the couple struggled to make ends meet.

Their financial situation improved somewhat after Stewart began receiving disability benefits for an injury he suffered years earlier. According to Neal, the injury happened when a mule fell on Stewart’s legs.

In her testimony, Neal described her second marriage to Stewart as “good and bad.” She said Stewart would give a “certain look” when he was angry. The look scared her, she said.

Brian Pilsen, Neal’s son from a previous marriage, testified that he once witnessed Stewart hitting his mother. An ex-wife remembered Stewart having “violent tendencies.”

He was described as “hot-tempered” by Tim Allred, an acquaintance from Stewart’s hunting club. In an earlier interview with The Pilot, Allred called Stewart a “coward” who would initiate disputes with fellow club members only to retreat from confrontation.

“Big talk, no show,” Allred said. “You know what I mean? Just like he walked in on that rest home up there. He went in where he knew nobody could whip him. That was the cowardice in him.”

Neal left Stewart two weeks before the shooting. Prosecutors said he went to the nursing home to kill her in retaliation for leaving him, but he was unable to gain entry to the passcode-protected Alzheimer’s unit where she was hiding in a bathroom.

Tessie Garner’s autopsy report (Image via N.C. Medical Examiner’s Office)

Neal said she blamed herself for Stewart’s actions. The guilt, she said, drove her to attempt suicide by overdosing on prescription medication before the trial.

“I wanted all this to end,” she said. “I know a lot of the family members hold everything against me. I understand, and I can’t take it no more.”

The proceedings dragged on for five weeks.

Each day, the victims’ families squeezed into uncomfortable pews for another round of gut-wrenching testimony. Daughters and sons heard grisly findings from their parents’ autopsy reports. Sisters and brothers watched as the guns used to kill their siblings were passed around for examination by the jury.

Long silences are common in superior court. At a typical session, several minutes might pass before a quiet moment is punctured by a cough or the sound of lawyers shuffling paper. But the courtroom rarely fell completely silent during Stewart’s trial. The anguished sobs of grieving family members were almost always audible.

Stewart showed little emotion, even when confronted with impassioned testimony from the victims’ children. He seldom made eye contact with anyone outside his defense team. 

Patricia McGraw, a victim witness legal assistant for the prosecution, made pound cake and peach cobbler for the families. In the final weeks of the trial, she ordered customized armbands for the victims’ relatives. The date of the shooting was emblazoned on each white band, along with an all-capitals message: “WE REMEMBER.”

In a recent interview, McGraw, who is now married to the mayor of Carthage, said she will “never forget” the trial.

“It stays with you: the evidence, the testimony, the families — mostly the families.”

A contingent of the jury earned a nickname from Judge Webb. He called them The Smoking Jurors.

The Smoking Jurors scribbled requests for cigarette breaks on slips of paper that were handed to the jury foreman, who delivered the notes to Webb. A sheriff’s deputy was then summoned to stand guard while the Smoking Jurors smoked cigarettes outside the courthouse. 

After 10 hours of deliberation and several smoke breaks, the jury found Stewart guilty of eight counts of second-degree murder. He was acquitted of two counts of attempted first-degree murder for shooting Garner and Cotten.

Webb imposed the maximum punishment for each conviction, sentencing Stewart to 179 years behind bars. It was cold comfort to many of the families: they wanted to see Stewart executed.

“We were not happy about the verdict,” Strickland said in an interview earlier this month.

It is possible, he said, that the out-of-town jury was simply eager to bring the ordeal to an end. The verdict was rendered during a rare Saturday session on Labor Day weekend.

Looking back on the case, Strickland said the “brutally of the actions” stands out. Because of the location of their injuries, many of the victims are believed to have died in pain. They might have suffered less had Stewart shot them in the head.

Shortly after the trial, Neal told The Associated Press she was satisfied with the jury’s decision.

“He got what he deserved,” she said. “I hope he rots in hell.”

PART III: THE AFTERMATH 


Stewart is currently housed at Caswell Correctional Center, a medium-security prison in Yanceyville. Prison officials have repeatedly cited him for fighting, possession of weapons and other infractions.

In a handwritten complaint that was recently added to his voluminous case file at the Moore County Clerk of Court’s office, Stewart called his confinement “involuntary servitude.”

He has written many such letters from prison. Susan Hicks, the clerk of court, dutifully adds each new document to Stewart’s file, which is spread across multiple folders in a crowded filing cabinet at the county courthouse.

In 2015, Stewart sent a Freedom of Information Act request for retiring Sheriff Lane Carter’s letter of resignation, along with summaries of “any and all allegations leading to (Carter’s) resignation.” Stewart was building a lawsuit that accused the Moore County Sheriff’s Office of destroying a set of blood and urine samples related to his case.

He was seeking $60 million in damages. The lawsuit was eventually dismissed as frivolous.

One of several letters Stewart wrote to Tom Embrey, a reporter for The Pilot who died in 2016.

Two years later, he requested copies of the indictments he had been served by a grand jury and a copy of the envelope the jury foreman placed the indictments in. Stewart needed the documents, he wrote, to “evaluate my legal situation and prepare a post-conviction petition.”

He submitted a petition in April 2018 for the writ of habeas corpus, a process used to determine if an inmate has been unlawfully imprisoned. Writing in the petition, Stewart claimed the judgment against him should be overturned because the state failed to include his full name in each indictment connected to the shooting.

For precedent, Stewart cited a 1940 case in which the state Supreme Court reversed the judgment against a man whose name was not included in a bill of indictment. In that case, the defendant had been sentenced to 12 months after pleading guilty to owning an illegal slot machine.

In October, Stewart sent a notarized complaint alleging his prison sentence was a “civil rights” violation. He described himself as a “state slave” in a related letter to the Moore County District Attorney’s Office.

The Pilot was unable to reach Stewart for comment, but last year he corresponded with GQ for an article in which a dozen convicted mass shooters were asked what could have been done to prevent their killing sprees. 

Writing to a journalist for the U.K. edition of the magazine, Stewart maintained he had no recollection of his actions. He also wrote of being a strong supporter of the Second Amendment, calling it the “only way the people can keep the government from become [sic] tyrants.”

Friday marked the 10th anniversary of the rampage, which remains the deadliest mass shooting in modern North Carolina history.

It is difficult to know what lasting impact, if any, the massacre had. While news of the attack was initially met with sadness and outrage from state lawmakers, no legislation was put forth in response to the shooting.

Kelly Haight, press assistant for the state Department of Health and Human Services, said federal regulations enacted in 2016 by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services require nursing homes to have plans in place for “active shooter scenarios,” but the change does not appear to be related to the shooting at Pinelake.

Garner, who now works as a recruiter for the Highway Patrol, said his experience is used as a case study in the state’s Basic Law Enforcement Training program. Instructors sometimes invite him to speak to their classes.

Before the Pinelake massacre, officers responding to mass shootings were trained to cordon off the area and wait for a SWAT team to arrive. Many law enforcement agencies began rethinking their approach after a 2013 study by the FBI found that most mass shootings last only five to eight minutes. Officers across the nation are now expected to follow Garner’s example by moving immediately toward the shooter instead of waiting for backup.

Scot Peterson, an ex-sheriff’s deputy in Florida, was widely condemned last year for standing by while a suspect with an AR-15-style rifle gunned down 17 students and staff members at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland. Peterson’s failure to act drew withering criticism from both President Donald J. Trump and former Florida Gov. Rick Scott.

Garner was not so quick to vilify the disgraced deputy. “I can only imagine what he’s feeling now,” he said.

Trooper Justin Garner at the state Highway Patrol office in Aberdeen on March 15, 2019. (Photographs by Ted Fitzgerald/The Pilot)

To hear him tell it, Garner simply did what any self-respecting police officer would have done when he entered the nursing home alone to confront Stewart. Garner would have been consumed by guilt, he said, had he stood on the sidelines while innocent people perished.

“I don’t know how a man could live with himself if he didn’t try,” said Garner, who struggled with post-traumatic stress disorder in the years following the attack. “Unfortunately, in today’s society, you’ve got to be willing to make that sacrifice.”

Reports of mass shootings in the U.S. have increased dramatically since 2011, the year Stewart was convicted. More than 320 such events were reported last year.

The body counts have grown larger, too. Four of the five deadliest mass shootings in U.S. history happened within the past seven years. A total of 59 people died during the deadliest incident, the 2017 shooting at the Route 91 Harvest Music Festival In Las Vegas.

Still, the toll of Stewart’s rampage remains shocking for Moore County.

According to the State Bureau of Investigation, the county had an annual average of only five murders from 2010 to 2017. The Pinelake massacre accounted for more than half of the county’s record 14 homicides in 2009.

Patrick Macon, a martial arts instructor from Asheboro, visited Moore County earlier this month to teach a self-defense class on “active-shooter survival.”

The timeliness of the training, Macon said, was a coincidence. He was not aware of the upcoming anniversary of the worst killing spree in the state’s modern history.

Only four women signed up for the free class, which was held at a Southern Pines recreation center less than 12 miles from the site of the rampage. The solemnity of the subject was at odds with the constant cheering and laughter from a volleyball game that was underway at the center.

According to Macon, the first thing a person should do during a shooting is run away from the shooter. Macon told the women to stick close to walls while they flee. This will help minimize their “footprint,” he said, if they are forced to sprint past the perpetrator’s line-of-sight.

If running isn’t an option, Macon told the women they should hide in an empty room, ideally one with furniture that can be used to barricade the door. If hiding isn’t an option, he said they must prepare “to meet aggression with aggression” by improvising weapons from whatever items are within reach.

And if no weapons are available, Macon said the women should attempt to strike the shooter’s head with the heels of their hands. Palm strikes, he said, are preferable to throwing closed-fist punches, which can cause knuckle injury.

The course was modeled after the same three-step strategy the FBI advises civilians to follow during active-shooting events. Run, hide and — as a last resort — fight.

But most of the elderly victims at Pinelake were in wheelchairs or otherwise incapable of running. Their diminished hearing and sight would have made it exceedingly difficult to find a safe place to hide, and they did not have the strength to confront the nearly 400-pound gunman.

Macon said businesses across the state have hired him to provide the active-shooter training to their employees.

“It’s hard to believe we live in a world where these classes are even necessary,” he said.

One of his college classmates can no longer walk because of a gunshot injury she suffered in the 1999 massacre at Columbine High School. Next month marks the 20th anniversary of that shooting.

Though Macon said he was unfamiliar with the 2009 rampage in Carthage, he recalled hearing something recently about a mass shooting that “happened a while ago at a nursing home in the area.”

Pinelake Health and Rehabilitation is now known as Peak Resources Pinelake. The Charlotte company that owns the nursing home decided to change the facility’s name in the mid-2010s.

In a written statement declining an interview request from The Pilot, a spokeswoman for Peak Resources said the company has no plans to “publicly address the anniversary” of the shooting.

“We feel it is our responsibility to uphold the privacy of those families and employees who prefer to grieve in private,” wrote Mandy Reutter, chief technology officer for Peak Resources. She said the nursing home’s employees “strive to ensure the safety and well-being of each resident under our care.”

“As to the incident of March 29, 2009, we are extremely proud of the staff members, residents and families present at the time and their rapid and diligent response in handling a very unique and difficult situation,” Ruetter wrote. “The event was a very unfortunate incident and all those who were involved have spent the years healing from this experience.”

Pinelake Health and Rehabilitation changed its name to Peak Resources Pinelake after the rampage. (Photograph by Jaymie Baxley/The Pilot)

The company’s decision not to acknowledge the anniversary was unsurprising to Bert Patrick, a former nursing instructor at Sandhills Community College.

“They don’t want anyone talking about it,” she said.

Avant, the slain nurse, was one of Patrick’s students. She believes he died defending vulnerable patients because he “felt a responsibility to care for those people.”

“There was a kindness about him,” she said. “How many men that spent 10 years in the Coast Guard then want to be a nurse at a nursing home?”

Patrick lives in Carthage and is a member of the local historical committee, which runs a small museum in the 200 block of Rockingham Street. Open only on Sundays, the museum contains hundreds of artifacts tied to notable moments in the town’s 243-year history.

There are exhibitions about James Rogers McConnell, a local aviator who died fighting for France before the U.S. entered World War I, and the Tyson & Jones Buggy Co., a carriage manufacturer that set the standard for horse-drawn transportation in the mid-1800s. But visitors will find no mention of the shooting that briefly transformed Carthage into a national cause célèbre.

According to Patrick, the massacre has not been intentionally overlooked by the committee. Still, she acknowledged that the shooting is a complicated topic for the community.

Patrick said her daughter, a musician who “loves Carthage,” has wanted for years to see new information added to the town’s Wikipedia page, which features a prominent section dedicated to the shooting.

Her daughter, she said, doesn’t necessarily want the section to be removed. She simply wants the Wikipedia article to be fleshed out to provide a more balanced summary of the town.

“You type in ‘Carthage’ and that’s what comes up online,” Patrick said.

Mayor Lee McGraw did not realize a decade had passed since the shooting. After being informed of the anniversary, he opened the March 18 meeting of the Carthage Board of Commissioners with a prayer for the victims and their families.

“Time just moves on and we sometimes put bad things behind us to get them out of our memory,” he said during the meeting. “The tragedy touched us very hard. Most of us, one way or another, knew the people or knew the people very well.”

A Carthage native, McGraw was a town commissioner when the shooting happened. He was elected mayor before the trial began in earnest.

“It did change things for the community,” McGraw said in an interview. “And when it happened, people said it’s not going to define us, it’s not who we are.”

After the board meeting, McGraw asked a representative for Peak Resources Pinelake if the nursing home would be amenable to hosting a brief ceremony in observance of the anniversary. The representative rejected the proposal, citing the corporate owners’ wishes to distance themselves from the shooting.

McGraw considered organizing a moment of silence on town property, but he ultimately decided against it. He also instructed Dorothy Dutton, the town clerk, to remove a message about the anniversary from the town’s monthly newsletter.

McGraw, whose father-in-law is a patient at Peak Resources Pinelake, said he didn’t want to dredge up the massacre without first conferring with residents. 

On Friday morning, flags in Moore County were not lowered to half-staff, as they had flown 10 years earlier. The news vans that once filled the parking lot of the Moore County Agricultural Center, the building adjacent to the nursing home, did not return on the anniversary of the shooting.

Gov. Roy Cooper did not tweet about the deadliest mass shooting in the state’s modern history. No statements were issued by U.S. Rep. Richard Hudson, Sen. Richard Burr or Sen. Thom Tillis, whose districts include Moore County.

No special service was held at First Baptist Church, the Carthage house of worship where the victims’ families waited anxiously a decade ago for updates about their loved ones — and where many of those same families bonded over meals during Stewart’s trial.

There was no moment of silence at Sandhills Community College, where a sculpture is dedicated to the victims. The piece was unveiled during the 2010 spring commencement ceremony and is located beneath a cluster of trees near the Kennedy Center.

Jordan Cranford, a former student, remembers seeing the sculpture on campus before she graduated in 2012. She was never told what it was commissioned to commemorate. She had not heard about the decade-old massacre at Pinelake Health and Rehabilitation.

“I never really knew about it, and I’ve lived here my whole life,” Cranford said.

Judy Woodward, a longtime librarian at the Moore County Public Library in Carthage, can’t recall the last time someone mentioned the shooting.

“Everyone was just appalled when it happened,” she said. “Now people don’t talk about it at all.”

Michael Cotten on March 22, 2019. (Photograph by Ted Fitzgerald/The Pilot)

One of the few tributes on Friday came from Krueger, the district attorney. Writing on Facebook about the crime scene, she said the “bloody murder trail was easy to follow but impossible to comprehend.”

“Throughout the nursing home, one violent scene led to another,” Krueger wrote. “The magnitude of the violence revealed itself. Old age had rendered these victims completely defenseless and harmless; feeble in body and mind.”

She added: “When I think of Pinelake, I remember the heroes, the innocent lives that were taken and their families who still live with the grief.”

Cotten, the first victim, is now the local branch director for the Food Bank of Central and Eastern North Carolina. 

“In some ways it doesn’t feel like 10 years and in other ways it does,” he said. “I feel real fortunate to be here. It could have turned out really differently.”

The bullet from Stewart’s hunting rifle is still lodged in Cotten’s shoulder.

Bidding on Bobbleheads: Wild Bill Wrangles Offbeat Items at Auction House

The following article first appeared in The Pilot on July 16, 2018.


In November, a long-lost Leonardo da Vinci painting sold at auction for a record $450.3 million, the most ever paid for a piece of art. The bidding war was overseen by Christie’s, the venerable British auction house that also administered the record-shattering sales of Audrey Hepburn’s dress from “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” and George Washington’s personal annotated copy of the U.S. Constitution.

Wild Bill is different from Christie’s.

Customers at Wild Bill’s auction house in Vass are more likely to leave with offbeat curios than widely coveted artifacts. Some of the items sold during Saturday’s auction include a Dale Earnhardt bobblehead, zip-locked bags of Mardi Gras beads, a gold-plated Elvis Presley coin and multiple copies of the 2011 video game “Skylanders.”

Common household goods are auctioned off at Wild Bill’s, making the business popular with bargain hunters who bid on everything from cleaning products to office supplies at prices sometimes significantly lower than retail.

Bill South, aka “Wild Bill,” bears little resemblance to the shotgun-wielding cartoon cowboy on his business card. A large-bellied man with a long ponytail, South conducts auctions through a wireless headset connected to a PA system. 

Like any good auctioneer, South can launch seamlessly into a rapid-fire chant: Two and a half, I need five twenty-five. Five twenty-five, give me seven fifty. Seven fifty, I need ten. Give me ten. Can I get ten?

The escalating rhythm of South’s well-honed auctioneer’s chant can make small acts of one-upmanship between bidders seem like dramatic salvos in a high-stakes showdown. However, the stakes at Wild Bill’s tend to run small.

At a recent auction, a competitive back-and-forth broke out over a steam iron. Bidding began at $20 and dropped to $7 before climbing past the starting price.

Packs of diabetic socks and protective cases for obsolete smartphones don’t sell themselves. South is tasked with drumming up excitement for the items, and the seasoned salesman has a pitch for seemingly everything. 

Of a set of roadside flairs, South said every Chevy owner in the audience “needs these for when your car breaks down.” While listing the many uses for a handheld fan with light-up blades, he said bidders could use the device to “hypnotize your friends.”

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Wild Bill conducts an auction. (Photograph by Jaymie Baxley/The Pilot)

Judy South, Bill’s wife, is also a licensed auctioneer. The couple ran an auction house in Sanford for several years before setting up at their current location on Thurlow Lake Road.

They moved into the building, a former concert hall with exposed trusses covered in Christmas lights, in December. The Souths’ business has since gained a following through Facebook posts and word-of-mouth from patrons like Michael Taylor.

“You can get pretty good deals on stuff, sometimes half to 75 percent off,” said Taylor, who ranked a Daisy BB gun, still in the box, as the most interesting item he’s won. “Everybody’s friendly here, and it’s somewhere to go to get out of the house.”

Taylor and his wife Teressa are among the more than 40 regular bidders at Wild Bill’s weekly auctions. Like the chummy caricature of an old-school salesman, Bill South addresses his customers as “folks” — as in, “folks, where else are you going to get a brand new, king-size sheet set for $10? Wild Bill’s, that’s where.”

The showmanship, auction-goers said, is part of the appeal. They could find cheap household items at yard sales, sure, but the experience wouldn’t be as entertaining.

Beyond the cut-rate goods — a large can of Lysol, won for $2 — and kitschy castaways  — a light-up “applause” sign, won for $15 — the business offers the kinds of heirlooms and antiques that customers might expect from a traditional auction service. Saturday’s inventory included an assortment of vintage coins, some dating as far back as 1865.

Judy South said the items come from various sellers she and her husband have built relationships with over the years.

“In auction circles, everybody knows everybody else,” she said. “We sell anything that comes in, and you never know what’s going to come in.”

Nearly every aspect of the operation is handled by a member of the South family. The couple’s son, Wes South, introduces the items up for bid. Nieces and nephews carry merchandise to potential buyers for inspection. Judy’s mother is in charge of the snack bar.

When Bill South needed a quick break from conducting the three-hour auction, his daughter Maryanne Aucompaugh took over. Like her parents, Aucompaugh is a licensed auctioneer.

She shares her father’s ability to slip effortlessly into the auctioneer’s chant. She also shares his knack for creative sales pitches.

“You ladies can use these to chase your husbands around the house,” Aucompaugh said before opening bids on a bundle of hand axes.