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 killed 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-protected 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. “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-action 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, was 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 his nursing degree from Sandhills Community College, which would later establish a scholarship in his memory.

He was engaged to Jill DeGarmo, a co-worker who escaped the shooting 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 to the base of her brain. She remains the oldest American known to have died in a mass shooting.

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

Lillian Dunn, 86, was a former employee of the defunct Milliken textile plant in nearby Robbins. Before moving into the nursing home, her hobbies included making quilts and cooking with vegetables that she grew herself and canned. Dunn was found in her wheelchair with two gunshot wounds, slumped over in a red 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 also shot at close-range.

Margaret Johnson, 89, previously ran a small farm with her family in Chatham County. She died after being shot in her left pelvis.

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 Pinelake 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 to have just one officer patrolling the municipality, which had a population of only 2,200 despite being the seat of government for Moore County, on a Sunday morning.

“It was a small town,” he said.

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

Garner, then just 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 residents doddering around amid shell casings and spattered blood.

“When I walked through the front door, there were people wandering around like it was just another morning,” he said. “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 him a decent marksman. Stewart was also a hunter. They were both once members of the same hunting club.

It was a small town.

The men fired at one another. 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 floor.

Garner restrained Stewart by linking two pairs of handcuffs behind the bulky 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 shooting. 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 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 begged Garner to kill him.

Garner received awards from the National Tactical Officers Association and the American Police Hall of Fame. He was commended by members 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 Garner and his chief, but McKenzie turned down their requests. The publicity, he said at the time, was beginning to feel disrespectful to the victims.

Then-Gov. Bev Perdue authorized more than $27,000 in payments to the victims’ estates through the N.C. Victim Compensation Fund. The money was meant to help the families pay for funeral services, 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 people 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 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 that 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, 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.” Stewart would give her a “certain look” when he was angry, she said. The look scared her.

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

He was described as “hot-tempered” by Tim Allred, an acquaintance from Stewart’s hunting club. Allred called Stewart a “coward” who would initiate disputes with other club members only to retreat when the situation began to escalate toward a 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 in court. “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 a new 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 may pass before a quiet moment is punctured by a cough or the sound of lawyers shuffling paper. But the courtroom rarely fell totally 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 apart from his lawyers. 

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 custom armbands for the victims’ relatives. The date of the shooting was emblazoned on each white band, along with an all-capitals message: “WE REMEMBER.”

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,” she said. “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. It was cold comfort to many of the families. They wanted to see Stewart executed.

“We were not happy about the verdict,” Strickland said.

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 probably died in pain. They might have suffered less had Stewart shot them in the head.

Shortly after the trial, Neal said she was satisfied with the jury’s decision.

“He got what he deserved,” she told The Associated Press. “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 packed 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 attempting to build 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 the 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 of the 10 indictments connected to the shooting.

For precedent, Stewart cited a 1940 case in which the N.C. Supreme Court reversed a judgment against a man whose name was not included in a bill of indictment. The defendant in that case 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 separate letter to the Moore County District Attorney’s Office.

The Pilot was unable to reach Stewart for comment, but last year he corresponded with a journalist for the U.K. edition of 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 the journalist, Stewart maintained he had no recollection of his actions. He also described himself as 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 ever put forth in response to the shooting.

Kelly Haight, press assistant for the N.C. 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 that change was not spurred by the rampage at Pinelake.

Garner, who now works as a recruiter for the Highway Patrol, said his experience is often 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.

But that does not always happen. Last year, Scot Peterson, an ex-sheriff’s deputy in Florida, was widely condemned 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. His failure to act drew withering criticism from both President Donald J. Trump and former Florida Gov. Rick Scott.

Garner, however, is not as 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 law enforcement officer would have done when he entered the nursing home alone to apprehend 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 shooting. “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 massacre 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 loud cheering and laughter from volleyball players on the other side of the building.

According to Macon, the first thing a person should do during a shooting is run away from the shooter. He told the four 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, 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 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 in active-shooter situations. 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. They did not have the strength to confront the nearly 400-pound gunman.

Macon said businesses across the state have hired him to provide active-shooter survival 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 wound 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 marking notable moments in the town’s 243-year history.

There are exhibits about James Rogers McConnell, the home-grown aviator who died fighting for France before the U.S. entered World War I, and the Tyson & Jones Buggy Co., a carriage manufacturer that was once the county’s largest employer. But visitors will find no mention of the massacre that briefly transformed Carthage into a national cause célèbre.

The shooting has not been intentionally overlooked by the committee, according to Patrick. Still, she acknowledged that it 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.

The daughter doesn’t necessarily want the section to be removed, Patrick said. 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 asked about the anniversary by a reporter, 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 in the prayer. “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,” he 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 his proposal, citing the corporate owners’ wishes to distance themselves from the shooting.

McGraw, whose father-in-law is a patient at Peak Resources Pinelake, considered organizing a moment of silence on town property, but ultimately decided against it. He also instructed the town clerk to remove a message about the anniversary from the town’s monthly newsletter.

He didn’t want to dredge up the massacre without first conferring with residents, he said.

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 condition of 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 dedicated to the victims sits beneath a cluster of trees near the school’s Kennedy Center. The piece was unveiled during a commencement ceremony in 2010.

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 never 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,” she 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, she recalled that 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. The bullet from Stewart’s hunting rifle is still lodged in his shoulder.

“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.”

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.

Seeking Shelter

The following articles are part of my ongoing coverage of homelessness in Moore County. I began reporting on the issue in January 2019 with a story that revealed the county’s unsheltered residents were not being included in the “Point in Time” count, an annual survey of homeless populations across the U.S. That article prompted a group of concerned citizens to launch a nonprofit that will administer the county’s first official “Point in Time” count.


Homeless Not Being Counted in Moore County

Tent at an encampment for the homeless in Aberdeen. (Photograph by Jaymie Baxley/The Pilot)

This article first appeared in The Pilot on Feb. 1, 2019.

ABERDEEN, N.C. – Rich Moyer was sleeping in the woods when the temperature slid to 20 degrees early Thursday. Darrius Jones was resting under a blanket in the breezeway of a shopping plaza.

The men, like other unsheltered people across the Sandhills, were overlooked during last year’s “Point in Time” count, a single-day survey designed to provide a statistically reliable snapshot of homeless populations across the U.S.

No children or adults in Moore County were found to be living in an “unsheltered situation” in the 2018 count, a conclusion at odds with the multiple encampments for the homeless in wooded areas near highways in Southern Pines and Aberdeen.

“Nobody counts the unsheltered,” said Susan Bellow, executive director of Family Promise of Moore County. “In rural areas, it’s really hard to count people because you don’t really know where they are.”

Some of the data used in the “Point in Time” count are from charities like Family Promise, which reports the number of people staying at its temporary shelter for homeless women with children. Other organizations in Moore County offer transitional housing for recovering addicts and victims of domestic violence.

But homeless people who don’t meet the criteria for those shelters are forced to find safe places to sleep outside, tucked away from view with cover from the stabbing wind.

Unofficial totals from this year’s “Point in Time” count, which was held Wednesday, are still being collected by the North Carolina Coalition to End Homelessness. A representative for the coalition deferred questions about the tallying process to Debbie Cole, executive director of Christians United Outreach Center in Asheboro.

Cole coordinates the count for Region 7, which includes Moore and surrounding counties. In an email, she said questions about the count should be directed to the “people directly involved in collecting those numbers” in Moore County.

“The numbers aren’t submitted to me,” Cole wrote. “They are submitted by app and Excel spreadsheet to the NCCEH, and some are still being tallied.”

Writing in a follow-up email, Cole said she was not sure if anyone actually conducted a count of unsheltered people in Moore County. There was, she wrote, “conversation from a couple of agencies in hopes it would happen.”

Tent Cities

While the count was underway, Moyer was using a donated space heater to warm his tent in the woods. His encampment, nestled in a thicket near a small shopping plaza off U.S. 1, is powered by donated propane tanks.

Moyer said he became homeless after his wife died. A native of Pennsylvania, he has a high tolerance for cold weather.

People in the community have been “very generous,” Moyer said. He and his fellow campers receive meals from the nearby food bank.

Moyer said he’s constantly reminding the younger members of the encampment to clean up after they eat. He worries the whole group will be kicked out if litter begins accumulating on the property.

“We try to help each other,” he said. “We don’t bother anybody.”

About a dozen people live in the encampment, according to Moyer. The property can be reached from a clearing behind the Martial Arts Academy of Southern Pines.

“We see the folks a lot, but they’ve never been a problem to us or anything like that,” said Dan Dorton, an instructor at the academy. “Anytime I’ve ever talked to them, they’ve been very respectful.”

Before Moyer migrated to the woods, he stayed in a tent under a water tower. He said there’s another encampment behind Staples in Aberdeen, but he doesn’t know how many people live there.

Moyer said he often thinks about Nancy Serravalle, a Connecticut transplant who also wound up shelterless in Moore County. He was with her on the night she died.

Serravalle, 54, was attempting to cross U.S. 1 when she was struck by a tractor-trailer in November. The impact threw her body into a Honda CRV that was traveling in the opposite lane. She was pronounced dead later that night at FirstHealth Moore Regional Hospital in Pinehurst.

Pastors from local churches sometimes give sermons at the encampment. Wrapped in a jacket, sweater and two hooded sweatshirts on Thursday morning, Moyer said he found it difficult to believe in God.

Familiar Faces

Not all of Moore County’s unsheltered residents live in hidden encampments. Jones is one of several homeless men who have become fixtures at the stores and restaurants dotting the same highway where Serravalle was killed.

Jones is arguably the area’s most well-known homeless person. He is sometimes called the “bag man,” a reference to his ever-present collection of plastic grocery bags.

It is not difficult to find Jones, who often sleeps in front of the BB&T at the corner of Johnson Street or beneath the awning of Harris-Teeter. When he has the money, he might rent a room at one of the cheaper hotels on North Sandhills Boulevard.

But on the night of the “Point in Time” count, Jones slept in a lawn chair near the sliding-door entrance of Food Lion in Aberdeen. His face and body were covered by a padded blanket.

Updates about Jones are regularly shared by members of the Facebook group Moore County Ask a Neighbor. In a thread from 2018, a user named Meghan Ford wrote that Jones was once “beaten” and is reluctant to accept meals from strangers because he “feels like he was poisoned” in the past by donated food.

“The first time I saw him, I cried because it reminded me of myself when me and my kids were homeless,” Ford wrote.

The North Carolina Coalition to End Homelessness defines “unsheltered” as any person sleeping in “a place not meant for human habitation.” Cars, park benches, abandoned buildings, streets and encampments are all considered uninhabitable places by the coalition.

According to the coalition’s website, information from the “Point in Time” count is used to “plan local homeless assistance systems, to tailor programs to meet existing needs and to raise public awareness of homelessness.”

Fritz Healy, a local businessman, sought permission in 2015 to build a shelter for the county’s general homeless population, a group that would include people like Jones and Moyer. After months of discussion and public debate, the Southern Pines Town Council voted to allow homeless shelters in the town’s business district.

But the project failed to move forward because Healy was unable to find anyone willing to rent out a suitable building in the approved district. Since then, there have been no major efforts to build a homeless shelter that is open to unmarried men in the Sandhills.


Citizens Seeking Solutions for Unsheltered Residents

The Place of Grace homeless shelter in Rockingham during Hurricane Florence in September 2018. (Richmond Daily Journal photograph used with permission from Champion Media)

This article first appeared in The Pilot on Feb. 15, 2019.

Before Gary Richardson became a pastor, he was a rudderless young man without a fixed address. Struggles with depression and drug addiction had reduced him to living in a “crack house in Ellerbe,” he said.

Richardson is now CEO of New Life Christian Ministries of the Carolinas, a Rockingham religious organization that recently turned a vacant middle school into a haven for unsheltered people in Richmond County.

The project is being considered as a potential model for a newly formed committee that hopes to address homelessness in Moore County, where efforts to open a shelter have repeatedly foundered.

Cliff Brown, a retired sergeant with the state Department of Corrections and former president of the State Employees Association of North Carolina, launched the committee after The Pilot published an article earlier this month about the county’s unsheltered population. The story “stirred the pot,” Brown said.

More than 50 people attended the committee’s second meeting on Tuesday in Aberdeen. The group invited Richardson to give a presentation about Place of Grace, the shelter he opened after overcoming some of the challenges that derailed similar proposals in Moore County.

Power of Ministry

For over 20 years, the Baker House was the only homeless shelter in Richmond County. When the facility was destroyed by a fire in 2013, the county’s homeless population fanned out to encampments.

Several nonprofits “rose up and tried to do different things” to replace the facility, Richardson said, but none were successful.

“We had about 40 people in tents living behind our church,” he said. “They didn’t have anywhere else to go.”

An opportunity surfaced two years ago after the Richmond County Board of Education closed Rohanen Middle School. County commissioners bought the campus for $100 in June 2018.

Richardson believed the schoolhouse, which already boasted a large kitchen and other amenities, could be easily transformed into a homeless shelter. He negotiated a trade with the county, offering 26 acres of land he owned in exchange for the 11-acre parcel containing the school.

Richmond commissioners approved the deal in July. Because Place of Grace is overseen by a religious organization, Richardson said he was able to clear many of the hurdles traditional nonprofits face when trying to open homeless shelters.

“From a nonprofit standpoint, you will have to deal with your zoning boards and your county commissioners, you will have to get permissions and permits,” he said. “As a church, however, you fall under ministry — and the state can’t tell you what to do when it comes to ministry.”

‘Swimming Uphill’

If Richardson’s story was meant to help the committee envision a possible path forward, Fritz Healy presented the group with a cautionary tale.

Healy is the owner of Healy Wholesale, a beer and wine distribution company based in Fayetteville. He sought permission in 2015 to open a privately funded shelter in Southern Pines. But the project, he said, repeatedly slammed against the same bureaucratic roadblocks Richardson managed to avoid.

“I’m probably the foremost authority on the problems you’re going to bump into,” Healy said during the meeting. “I went five times in front of city hall to beg (the council) to let me use my own money to open a homeless shelter, and I got rejected like seven times.”

Healy and his wife had established a foundation to open a shelter that would serve homeless men. While there are some temporary shelters and transitional housing programs available to homeless people in the Sandhills, those opportunities are limited to women and their children.

The proposed shelter was met with resistance from officials like Southern Pines Police Chief Bob Temme, who advised the council that a shelter could “create a large homeless population that does not currently exist.” Temme told council members the facility would sap time and energy from local law enforcement.

After months of discussion and public debate, the council voted to allow homeless shelters in the town’s general business district. Still, it wasn’t the decisive victory Healy had hoped for.

He has been unable to find anyone willing to rent out a suitable building in the approved district. Healy said he even offered a large sum of money to a church with space in the district, but the church turned down his offer.

“It was swimming uphill,” he said.

Next Steps

Jon Rachels, a musician and community organizer who is involved with the committee, said homelessness is often “swept under the rug“ in Moore County.

“We don’t want outside people knowing that we have these issues, but we do.”

Rachels is the director of Operation AWOL, a nonprofit created in the aftermath of Hurricane Florence to help displaced families in Vass. The storm caused extensive flooding in the small community, where many residents live below the poverty line.

“Moore County is a special type of county because our median income is so high, but that’s not a real number,” he said. “We have some of the poorest, most destitute people you’ve ever seen in your life.”

It is difficult to know the true extent of homelessness in Moore County. The county’s unsheltered residents were not tallied during last year’s “Point in Time” count, an annual survey designed to provide a statistical snapshot of homeless populations across the U.S.

Multiple encampments for the homeless exist in wooded areas throughout the county, but there has been no formal effort to count the people living in them.

Brown hopes the committee will eventually serve as a “clearing house” for charities and churches that offer resources for the homeless. But before that can happen, he said the group must settle on an official name and appoint a board of directors.

“We’ve got to formalize who we are and what we’re working toward,” he said.


Effort to Address Homelessness Gathers Steam 

Cliff Brown, founder and director of TEAM Workz. (Photograph by Jaymie Baxley/The Pilot)

This article first appeared in The Pilot on May. 16, 2019.

After months of legal maneuvering, an organization has launched to address homelessness in Moore County.

The nonprofit TEAM Workz — the first part of the name is an acronym for Together Everyone Accomplishes More — was founded by Cliff Brown, a retired sergeant with the state Department of Corrections and former president of the North Carolina State Employees Association. Brown said The Pilot’s report on local homeless encampments stirred interest in the plight of unsheltered residents, prompting him to convene a series of community meetings that led to the formation of TEAM Workz.

One of those meetings was attended by Fritz Healy, a beer wholesaler who in 2015 tried unsuccessfully to create a homeless shelter in Southern Pines. Healy wanted to open Moore County’s first facility for homeless men, but the privately funded project was met with resistance from local officials.

Following months of public debate, the Southern Pines Town Council voted to allow homeless shelters in the town’s general business district. It was a hollow victory for Healy, who was unable to find anyone willing to rent out a suitable building in the authorized area.

The Gem Foundation, a nonprofit he established to run the shelter before the project foundered, had been dormant for years when Healy offered to donate the foundation’s bylaws and other assets to Brown’s organization. Sharlene Gilmer Anderson, a Pinehurst lawyer, volunteered to orchestrate the transfer, which allowed TEAM Workz to secure its nonprofit status sooner than had it gone through the application process.

A website, teamworkz.org, was created by Oakland eMedia of West End. Novae Design Group, a Southern Pines business, designed the organization’s logo.

Brown attended grant-writing workshops at Richmond Community College and began soliciting support from officials like Moore County Sheriff Ronnie Fields, who said Wednesday that his agency is committed to “helping in any way we can.”

TEAM Workz must now install a board of directors, a legal requirement of the organization’s donated bylaws. Brown said David Bruton, a retired pediatrician who co-founded the Moore Free and Charitable Clinic, and Tony Price, the clinic’s longtime CEO, have both agreed to serve on the board.

“We’ve cleared the hurdles that held us back from being operational,” Brown said. “Now we can open a bank account, get donations in and start actually doing things for people.”

During a meeting Tuesday at Bethesda Presbyterian Church in Aberdeen, members of the organization’s advisory board discussed projects that will be tackled by subcommittees in the coming months. One of these teams is expected to recruit volunteers to conduct next year’s “Point in Time” count, an undertaking that could generate valuable data for nonprofits and government agencies in the Sandhills.

Held on a single evening every January, the “Point in Time” count is designed to provide a statistically reliable snapshot of homeless populations across the U.S. But a Pilot investigation found that unsheltered people are not being tallied in Moore County, where encampments for the homeless are active in wooded areas in Southern Pines, Aberdeen and Pinehurst.

Because no effort has been made to determine how many unsheltered residents are living here, there is no way of knowing the true size of the county’s homeless population. Findings from the “Point in Time” count could be used to bolster requests for grant funding and services that benefit the homeless.

One of Brown’s long-range goals is to establish a traditional homeless shelter in Moore County. While the county is home to a handful of transitional housing programs, they only accept single mothers or women recovering from substance abuse.

Brown was to visit the Place of Grace homeless shelter in Rockingham on Friday with Jon Rachels, a community organizer who serves on the TEAM Workz advisory committee, and Todd Maness of the Moore County Sheriff’s Office. They are researching the facility, a repurposed middle school, as a potential model for Moore County.


Homeless Campers Removed From Aberdeen Woods

The King James version of the Bible sits on a lawn chair in an Aberdeen homeless encampment on May 25, 2019. (Photograph by Jaymie Baxley/The Pilot)

This article first appeared in The Pilot on May 28, 2019.

Nicholas Cowley was hauling his possessions from the woods when the temperature shot to 95 degrees on Saturday, but he couldn’t let the heat slow him down.

Police had imposed a deadline for Cowley and the other members of a homeless encampment behind Center Park shopping plaza in Aberdeen. They were given 24 hours to tear down their tents and vacate the woods.

Paul Sabiston, town manager for Aberdeen, said the campers were barred Friday at the request of an attorney for Overton Body Shop, the Southern Pines business that owns the land. If they return, the six campers banned from the site could be charged with trespassing.

Cowley said he doesn’t know why Overton decided to kick out the group, which included a father and son who had lived in the thicket for three years.

“We come down here to sleep at night,” Cowley said. “We don’t bother anybody and we keep it clean.”

But in a joint statement provided to The Pilot on Tuesday, the owners of Overton Body Shop claimed the property “was littered with garbage, debris of all kinds and human waste.”

“These conditions represent a potentially environmental hazard as well as a health hazard to our employees and customers,” the owners wrote. “Additionally, we have had several instances of unprovoked aggression from individuals trespassing on this property towards our staff. In some cases, even our customers were accosted.

“Over the course of the last several years we attempted to peacefully encourage these trespassers to vacate the property by asking them to leave in person and posting signage. Unfortunately, the property continues to be occupied by some individuals and because we cannot identify who remains on the property, and who is responsible for the aggressive behavior, Overton Body Shop contacted authorities and took the appropriate and legal measures to have these trespassers removed from the property.”

‘Convenient Place’

Brian, who declined to share his last name with a reporter, moved to the encampment a few months ago.

He said he has a job and is trying to save up enough money to afford the deposit on an apartment. Brian could stay at a hotel, but he said the cost of renting a room every night would leave him unable to set any money aside.

Though far from cozy, the encampment had a makeshift shower and a large canopy that sheltered campers from the rain. It was a short walk from resources like the Sandhills food bank.

“This place was just really convenient,” Brian said. “We had water and (access to) places where we could charge our phones.”

Brian and his 19-year-old son were photographed by police when the barring notices were served. He said law enforcers had known about the encampment for some time.

“They never had a problem with us,” he said, adding that he is not bitter with police. “They’ve got a job to do, and they were just fulfilling their job.”

Brian contends that members of the encampment did not allow litter to accumulate in the woods. He said he was unaware of any campers acting aggressively toward Overton’s employees or customers.

“It’s not like we were going over there and vandalizing their cars or nothing,” he said, gesturing in the direction of the vehicle repair shop. “The woods ain’t been burned down and we weren’t trashing the property. People out here are just trying to survive.”

Brian said the group has found a new campsite, but he feared they would be kicked out again if he shared the location.

Seeking Shelter

Cliff Brown is the director of TEAM Workz, a nonprofit launched this year to address homelessness in Moore County. He said the organization would have tried to relocate the campers had it been made aware of Overton’s decision.

“We may have been able to help prepare (the campers) and provide transportation,” he said.

Brown, a retired sergeant with the state Department of Corrections and a former president of the North Carolina State Employees Association, has credited The Pilot’s recent coverage of homelessness with stirring interest in the plight of unsheltered residents, which prompted him to convene the series of community meetings that led to the formation of TEAM Workz.

The organization hopes to eventually build a homeless shelter in Moore County. While the county is home to a handful of transitional housing programs, they accept only single mothers and women recovering from substance abuse.

With few other options at their disposal, many of the county’s homeless men are forced to sleep in the woods. Five of the six people banned from the encampment on Friday are men.

Other homeless encampments have been found in wooded areas behind Flowland Counter Culture Outlet and Pinehurst Senior Apartments. But because unsheltered residents were not tallied as part of this year’s “Point in Time” count, it is difficult to know the true extent of homelessness in Moore County.

Members of TEAM Workz are researching Place of Grace in Rockingham as a potential model for the area. That shelter was created after officials in Richmond County agreed to give a vacant middle school to a local church in exchange for land.

Moving Out

When The Pilot first reported on the Aberdeen encampment in January, people were using donated space heaters to warm their tents.

Rich Moyer, a homeless widower from Pennsylvania, was among the 12 campers who had taken refuge in the woods at the time. He was with Nancy Serravalle, a Connecticut transplant who also lived in the encampment, on the night she was fatally struck by vehicles while attempting to cross U.S. 15-501 in November.

Moyer said local churches had dropped off food and held worship services at the encampment. Reflecting on the deaths of Serravalle and his wife, he told a reporter it was difficult to believe in God.

Cowley said someone offered Moyer a place to stay after reading about him in The Pilot. While churches have continued to visit the encampment, Cowley doesn’t know how they will find the group now.

Fatal Hour: Reconstructing a Deadly Standoff With Police

The following article, first published Sept. 10, 2018, on ThePilot.com, received a first place award for Best Multimedia Project from the North Carolina Press Association. 


ABERDEEN, N.C. — On July 28, Arthur Garner was shot dead in a standoff with law enforcement at his parents’ home near Sand Pit Road.

Officials say police followed protocol in shooting the 33-year-old, who was armed with a rifle, but Garner’s family believes the use of deadly force was unwarranted.

The morning after the shooting, Sheriff Neil Godfrey said Garner was killed after he shot at police. In a stunning reversal, Godfrey later told reporters that Garner never fired his gun.

Godfrey blamed the error on a misunderstanding between himself and investigators. In actuality, he said, Garner had only “raised his rifle and pointed it in the direction of a deputy or deputies.” 

“Our deputies and the other officers involved in this incident responded to a very dangerous and volatile situation,” Godfrey said during a news conference at the Rick Rhyne Public Safety Center in Carthage. “(They were) in imminent danger of being shot.”

The Pilot was part of a coalition of news organizations that successfully petitioned for the release of dashboard and body camera videos in Moore County Superior Court.

The videos released to The Pilot are from the two municipal law enforcement agencies that assisted Sheriff’s deputies. Godfrey said the deputies involved with the shooting were not wearing body cameras and did not have dashboard-mounted cameras in their patrol vehicles.

The following timeline is based on the videos, as well as court documents and audio tapes of 911 calls made in the hour leading up to Garner’s deadly encounter with police.


2:48 a.m.

A dispute is escalating between Garner and his girlfriend outside his family’s home. She leaves the residence after Garner shatters one of her car windows. Garner’s sister and parents make their way inside, locking the doors behind them. 

Aerial view of the Garner residence
Aerial view of the Garner residence, located in the 100 block of Forest Place.

2:51 a.m.

Alyssa Garner has a fraught conversation with a 911 dispatcher. “Come now, please, please, please,” she says. “My brother’s drunk; he just busted his girlfriend’s window (…) there’s blood everywhere.”

She later tells the dispatcher that Arthur Garner is attempting to break into the locked home.


2:53 a.m. 

In separate 911 calls, Alyssa Garner and her mother, Terry Garner, report that Arthur Garner has made entry to the home after kicking through a sliding glass door. Arthur Garner goes to his parents’ bedroom, where his father, Danny Garner, tries to prevent him from grabbing a hunting rifle. 

“My husband is keeping him away from the gun as long as he can,” Terry Garner tells a dispatcher. “He’s going to hurt my husband.”

Arthur Garner takes the rifle by threatening his father with what authorities later described as a “12-inch butcher’s knife” he retrieved from a kitchen drawer. According to Godfrey, Danny Garner surrenders the firearm after his son, who is on probation, says he is willing to “die before he goes back to prison.”


2:58 a.m. 

Danny and Terry Garner are waiting outside when sheriff’s deputies Dustin Hussey and Stephanie Griffin arrive. Alyssa Garner is still inside the home, hiding in a locked bedroom. 

Two more deputies, Justin Mack and Sgt. Sean Ballard, arrive at the residence. They are soon joined by Sgt. Jason Caulder and Michael Muse of the Pinehurst Police Department, and by Austin Whatley of the Aberdeen Police Department. 

Law enforcers train their weapons on Garner while taking cover behind the open doors of their patrol vehicles. The standoff continues for several minutes.


3:14 a.m.

After being told repeatedly to drop his rifle, Arthur Garner allegedly raises the weapon in a way that suggests he is about to shoot at police. This cannot be confirmed by the body camera footage.

Three of the deputies and a Pinehurst officer fire more than 30 gunshots at Arthur Garner from different vantages outside the home. The rear window of a patrol vehicle is shattered in the barrage.

A person, presumed to be one of the officers, shouts for police to “cease fire.” Seconds pass and another shot is fired.


3:23 a.m. 

Authorities enter the home carrying ballistic shields. Arthur Garner’s body is found on the living room floor near his weapon.

“We’ve got him down,” a deputy says.

An emotional Terry Garner tries to force her way into the home. She is held back and placed in handcuffs. “I hate you,” she screams through tears. 

Alyssa Garner emerges from her bedroom and is escorted outside by Griffin.


3:36 a.m. 

A paramedic inside the home asks if Arthur Garner shot at the officers.

“Yeah,” Caulder says.

The paramedic notes that Arthur Garner, who is lying facedown in handcuffs on the blood-specked carpet, does not have a pulse. An autopsy report will show that he died from a gunshot wound to the chest.

It was the only bullet that struck him.


Storm Deals Devastating Blow to Embattled Moore County Community

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The following article first appeared in The Pilot on Sept. 25, 2018.

VASS, N.C. — As Hurricane Florence lumbered toward eastern Moore County earlier this month, a familiar sense of dread washed over residents of Riverview Drive. 

Nearly two years ago, part of the neighborhood was left underwater by Hurricane Mathew. In the days leading up to Florence, piles of flood-damaged furniture and wadded-up insulation were still visible in some yards.

But the piles were not visible in the immediate aftermath of Florence. Neither were the yards. Photographs of the flooded community on Sept. 16 show only flag poles and the shingled roofs of submerged houses jutting from the water.

After the floodwaters receded, many residents returned to find their homes uninhabitable. They began rummaging through their sodden possessions in search of items that could be salvaged, a task made all the more difficult by the overpowering stench of mold in the waterlogged buildings. 

Riverview Drive is one of several roads in Vass where the risk of flooding is heightened by nearby streams that connect to Crains Creek, which swelled during the recent deluge. The flooding undid many of the costly home repairs that followed Hurricane Matthew in 2016.

Multiple people in Vass, where the median household income is about $26,000, say they can’t afford to move and they don’t have the money to rebuild again.

“We lost everything we had twice,” said Steve Byrd, who has been staying with a family member since his home was flooded for the second time in two years.

The past few months have been difficult for Byrd. One of his fishing buddies died recently. Then his mother died.

His home on Creek Bend Drive, he said, had just become “comfortable” again after a series of Matthew-related repairs. He didn’t predict he would be standing in the parking lot of the Crains Creek Fire Department on Monday, waiting to receive a hot meal from the American Red Cross.

“I don’t want to say it can’t get worse, because I know it can,” Byrd said of his situation. “But I don’t see how it can get that much worse.”

Michelle Gagnon moved into the 100 block of Riverview Drive with her boyfriend shortly after Hurricane Matthew. Her home escaped that storm with no significant damage, but it wasn’t able to withstand Florence.

Torrential rains caused nearly 18 inches of water to pool inside Gagnon’s house, forcing the couple to move all their saturated furniture outside. Gagnon said she and her boyfriend have spent the past week trying to clean up the mess. 

Sifting through stacks of personal belongings in her yard, Gagnon recalled how her home looked before it was desecrated by the storm. 

“My home was beautiful,” she said. “It was my little piece of paradise.”

Gagnon said it was surreal to see her sanctuary overrun with floodwater. The 29-year-old had never been in a tropical storm’s path of destruction. 

“It’s like one of those things you see on TV,” she said.

People in the neighborhood are helping to remove drenched carpet and sheets of drywall from the homes of fellow residents. Gagnon described Riverview Drive as the kind of place where every barbecue and birthday party comes with an open invitation for the community.

Gagnon said she is concerned about the financial strain the disaster has placed on her neighbors. The flood-damaged home next to hers was recently stripped to its frame, displacing the homeowners and their children.

“These are paycheck-to-paycheck people,” Gagnon said.

Catherine Graham, chairwoman of the Moore County Board of Commissioners, visited the neighborhood and other storm-affected pockets of Vass on Monday. During her tour of the town, Graham surveyed the damage and met with residents whose homes were flooded.

“I knocked on as many doors as I could,” she said. “I just wanted (the residents) to know that we had not forgotten about them.”

Seeing the extent of the storm’s destruction was an “eye-opener,” according to Graham.

“There’s a lot of massive cleanup to be done,” she said.

Graham said she was encouraged by the response from agencies like the Red Cross, which sent a three-person team from Alabama to prepare meals for flood victims. A church group from Mississippi deployed to the Crains Creek Fire Department to cook additional meals for residents. 

Jon Rachels, a local community organizer, has established a collection site for building supplies and basic necessities near Mt. Pleasant Groceries on Lobelia Road. He also launched a fundraiser on Facebook to help displaced residents bounce back from Florence.

Rachels said he spent several months in Louisiana after the state was ravaged by Hurricane Katrina. His experience there, he said, showed him how a natural disaster can be a crushing setback for people in low-income communities.

The difference, he said, is that the devastation wrought by Florence happened on a more manageable scale.

About 30 families here lost their homes in the storm. Helping those families get back on their feet, Rachels said, is “so possible and very easy” for Moore County, which ranks among the most economically well-off counties in the state.

The generosity of people in affluent parts of the Sandhills could turn the tide for struggling flood victims in Vass, according to Rachels.

“We’re calling on people to fight the good fight and help their neighbors,” he said. “Dig deep and take the tax write-off.”

Embattled Vass residents caught a much-needed break when Gov. Roy Cooper announced that Moore County was approved for financial assistance from FEMA on Monday.

The approval means uninsured homeowners in Vass are now eligible to receive money to pay for Florence-related repairs, but it’s not clear when the agency will begin writing checks.

Court Records Shed Light on Troubled Woodlake Community

Empty Woodlake
View of the empty lakebed at Woodlake Resort and Country Club. (Jaymie Baxley/The Pilot)

By JAYMIE BAXLEY | The Pilot

VASS, N.C. — A recent deposition of the sole executive and lone U.S. representative of the troubled Woodlake Resort and Country Club sheds new light on the inner-workings of the business.

The deposition became public record after being submitted as evidence in a class action lawsuit against Woodlake CC Corp. A Superior Court judge on Thursday ordered the company to pay more than $160 million to residents of the gated Woodlake community.

The lawsuit was filed on behalf of the residents whose property values plummeted after the state drained Lake Surf, the community’s 1,200-acre centerpiece, to prevent a potentially catastrophic dam failure, The tax value of waterfront properties in Woodlake was slashed by half after a revaluation last year by the county tax department.

Julie Watson has represented at least two ownership groups over the course of her career at Woodlake. Under Woodlake Partners, she was general manager. When that company filed for bankruptcy three years ago, the resort was bought by a venture called Woodlake CC Corp. Watson received 100 shares in the business at no cost and was named its vice president.

Both business entities were owned by German investors. Woodlake Partners was owned by Ingolf and Gabrielle Boex. Woodlake CC Corp. was bought out of bankruptcy by German businessman Illya Steiner.

Watson, 58, began her career at Woodlake as head of the resort’s janitorial staff in the early 1990s. She has kept a low profile in recent years, repeatedly declining to speak with The Pilot and other news organizations about the issues at Woodlake.

Watson’s testimony was collected by Hope Carmichael, attorney for the more than 1,900 property owners represented in the class-action lawsuit, during a three-hour interview held March 14 at the law offices of William T. Clemmons in Southern Pines.

Throughout the 109-page transcript of the deposition, Watson repeatedly describes the erstwhile lake as the gated community’s signature asset.

“The lake is Woodlake,” she told Carmichael. “The lake is a value — when you buy a lakefront property, that’s your value. That’s a lot of the value of your home.”

In addition to the lake, the corporation’s assets include two golf courses — one is closed — an antebellum-style clubhouse, a pool and other facilities.

A Plan to Purchase Woodlake

During the deposition, Watson said she receives an annual salary of $80,000 to manage the resort. In her role with both ownership groups, Watson served as the liaison between the state and Woodlake’s foreign owners.

But she claims Steiner — and Ingolf Boex before him — were the only ones with access to the large sums of money needed to pay the company’s mounting debts and the costs associated with rebuilding the dam, a necessary precursor to refilling the lake.

The state Division of Energy, Mineral and Land Resources began sending notices to Watson about the deteriorated condition of the dam’s spillway in 1996.  Waston said Steiner had pledged to address the issues before he purchased the bankrupt community at auction for $750,000 in 2015.

Steiner, the auction’s first and only bidder, planned to invest $6.5 million in the development, Watson said, with $2 million earmarked to repair the dam.

“At the time we were all in a meeting in the clubhouse, and they just said they were interested in purchasing,” Watson told Carmichael. “Mr. Steiner asked me to give him a list of everything that was needed to restore Woodlake to its beauty.”

Repairs were never made, and the dam came perilously close to collapsing after the lake was inundated with rain from Hurricane Matthew in October 2016. Concerns about the dam’s stability led to the temporary evacuation of nearly 100 homes downstream of the lake.

State safety officials later ordered the controlled draining of the lake, a move that frustrated homeowners who paid premiums for waterfront property in the gated community. The state Attorney General’s Office sued Woodlake CC Corp. in January 2017 for repeatedly failing to follow through on promises to repair the dam’s spillway.

‘Everything Would Stop; Always’

In March 2017, an agreement to dismantle the spillway was reached between Watson and representatives from the Attorney General’s Office in Moore County Superior Court. Destroying the spillway, officials said, was the only way to prevent water from pooling in the empty lake 

The agreement established a series of deadlines for the work, but Woodlake failed to meet them. With hurricane season approaching,  the state decided to take matters into its own hands. 

Crews were contracted by the state to tear down the spillway. Watson later vowed that Woodlake CC Corp. would rebuild the dam after work on the breach project was completed.

In her interview with Carmichael, Watson said the funds for the breach and the repair of the dam were never transferred from Germany.

“When I spoke with Steiner, it was to continue to go on. We would repair the dam. I would never (…) sign anything not knowing that they would be — I mean, that Steiner was not going to send the funds to get it repaired,” Watson said, later adding “in the middle of the ball game, everything would stop; always. It’s always been that way.”

At various points during the deposition, Watson suggested she was unfairly blamed for the inaction of Woodlake’s past and present owners.

“If I called Dr. Boex, it’s the same as Illya — I have to beg” for resources, she said. “Dr. Boex, Illya, they’re all — they’re not interested in Woodlake. They’re not interested in Woodlake.”

Watson said she had not communicated with Steiner since the class action lawsuit was filed in October. She said she does not know what German city Steiner lives in. 

“Illya does not communicate with me,” she said.

Watson claimed she had reached into her own pocket to cover some of Woodlake’s bills.

“Even though I get a paycheck, it goes right back into Woodlake,” she said. “It’s paying for this, paying for that, making sure the operations — I mean, it’s just — you know, it’s just trying to keep things alive.”

While Watson stressed the financial challenges faced by Woodlake, she could not provide Carmichael with an estimate of the company’s revenues for 2017. She did not present any evidence of bills she had paid and did not give examples of specific business costs she had covered.

Other Possible Buyers?

According to Watson, a handful of potential investors have expressed interest in Woodlake. She had been in talks, she said, with prospective buyers from China who ultimately backed out because of “bad PR and the uncertainty of the dam.”

“If anyone has the money and comes to me and says, hey, I’ve got money, I’ve got someone backing me up, I’d sign my shares over today to them,” Watson said. “I don’t want shares at Woodlake. I don’t want to be vice president at Woodlake. I work hard there. I take care of my father, who has dementia. I’m tired, but I won’t turn my back on the community.”

Watson later lamented that she had been “kicked aside” by Steiner. 

“I’ve put up with a lot of things from Woodlake,” she said. “I’ve put up with a lot of things from Germany.” 

Several of the lead plaintiffs in the lawsuit against Woodlake CC Corp. are members of a committee that hopes to refill Lake Surf. The Restore Woodlake Committee, which paid the $40,000 retainer for Carmichael’s legal services, has repeatedly criticized Watson for not communicating with residents and for ignoring invitations to meet with the group.

In an email to community members on June 27, Watson announced that Woodlake CC Corp. could not afford to rebuild the dam and the company was preparing to transfer ownership of Lake Surf to residents with lakefront property. David Watterson, chairman of the Restore Woodlake Committee, said the group spent $7,000 to establish the Lake Surf Property Owners Association to facilitate the transfer, only to be met with silence from Watson.

“We heard not a single word back from Julie or any representative of Woodlake,” Watterson said at the time. “We spent $7,000 to get zero response from Woodlake.”

Despite her lack of communication with the committee, Watson told Carmichael she “only want(s) to see the property owners have a lake.”

Watson accused some of the plaintiffs of trying to “sabotage” her. “There’s a couple of them that have personal agendas against me,” she said. “But the rest of them (…) they just want their lake.”

Property Owners Look Ahead

Much of Thursday’s court hearing bore resemblance to when the state took Woodlake CC Corp. to court last year. That hearing was also held in March, in the same courtroom, with the same judge, James Webb, presiding. 

Though Watson did not attend the most recent hearing, her voice was repeatedly invoked through excerpts from her deposition shared by Carmichael.

“Ms. Watson testified in her deposition that the German funding arm that supports Woodlake CC Corp. has ‘closed the books on Woodlake,’ and she has indicated that there will be no money forthcoming for any repairs to the dam,” Carmichael said during the hearing.   

Webb awarded the plaintiffs $40.6 million in compensatory damages and $121.8 million in punitive damages, but the likelihood of collecting on the judgment is slim. 

The Attorney General’s Office plans to order Woodlake CC Corp. to pay back the more than $1.2 million the state spent to dismantle the Lake Surf dam. Multiple contractors claim to be owed money from Woodlake CC Corp., and the county says the company owes tens of thousands in unpaid property taxes. 

If Woodlake CC Corp. fails to pay the judgment, the plaintiffs hope to take control of Lake Surf through a foreclosure auction. They plan to then seek funding to repair the dam and eventually refill the lake.

Of the more than 1,900 property owners in Woodlake, 39 decided to opt out of the lawsuit. Property owners who declined to participate in the lawsuit “retain the right to sue Woodlake CC Corp. as individuals,” according to a statement issued by the Restore Woodlake Committee. 

Before the judgment can be enforced, the plaintiffs must wait 30 days for any objections to be submitted to the court. Woodlake CC Corp. also has 30 days to file an appeal.

Accused of Murder, Octogenarian Says She Was Getting Ham Sandwiches When Husband Died

The following article first appeared in The Pilot on July 15, 2017.

CARTHAGE, N.C. — At 81 years old, Margaret Kellis would not seem to fit the profile of a dangerous criminal suspect, yet that is how police described her to a judge.

During a hearing last week in Moore County Superior Court, a Sheriff’s deputy claimed the octogenarian threatened to kill a fellow inmate at the Moore County Detention Center.

Kellis has been in jail since she was arrested in connection with the shooting death of Dallas Kellis, her 76-year-old husband, in October.

Superior Court Judge James Webb on Wednesday denied a request to reduce her bond, currently set at $1 million, to $100,000. It was the second such request submitted in as many months by attorney Arthur Donadio, who says Kellis suffers from a litany of health issues and has “elderly children” from a previous marriage who are also in poor health.

Lowering her bond, Donadio said, would give Kellis a chance to see her ailing son, who was recently diagnosed with terminal cancer.

“She is hardly a flight risk since she can no longer get around without assistance,” Donadio said.

Prosecutors disagreed. Addressing the judge, Assistant District Attorney Peter Strickland said Kellis would pose “a danger to herself and others” if released.

According to Strickland, she has allegedly tried to “intimidate” multiple witnesses into changing their statements to investigators.

“Even while she’s been in jail, she’s tried to make contact with potential witnesses,” Strickland said.

Sgt. Anthony Guerra, the detective leading the homicide investigation, said during his testimony that Kellis recently “threatened to kill” a fellow inmate. The 36-year-old prisoner reported the threat in a signed statement earlier that morning.

Strickland says prosecutors fear Kellis will flee their jurisdiction if she is released from jail. She reportedly traveled to Tennessee, Georgia and Alabama in the months between her husband’s slaying on July 20, 2016, and her arrest in October.

Relatives have also advised against her release, Guerra said.

“I have been told by family members that if she is released, we will never see her again.

Margaret Kellis in Superior Court
Margaret Kellis, 81, in Moore County Superior Court. (Photograph by Jaymie Baxley/The Pilot)

‘I Think He’s Dead’

On the morning her husband was shot, Margaret Kellis told a 911 operator she had been at McDonald’s ordering breakfast. She said Dallas Kellis was unresponsive when she returned to the couple’s home in the 600 block of Sand Pit Road in Aberdeen.

After being transferred to a police dispatcher, Margaret Kellis launched into a meandering summary of her morning before explaining why her husband was in need of medical attention.

The following is excerpted from an audio tape provided to The Pilot by the Moore County Sheriff’s Office.

DISPATCHER: Tell me exactly what’s going on.

KELLIS: My nephew died down in Bladen County and we were going down there. My husband told me when I woke up this morning (to) run up to McDonald’s and get a ham sandwich and when you get back we’ll get dressed and go, that way we won’t have no mess to clean up. So I went up there and when I came back, I didn’t go in the room, I just went to the door and called him and said come on and eat your sandwich. He didn’t answer me, but that’s not unusual. He does that a lot. He’ll doze back off. So I went back in there and sat down and ate mine. He hadn’t come, so I went and called him. He didn’t answer me. I went on to the room and I seen him —

DISPATCHER: O.K. ma’am, what’s going on?

KELLIS: I think he’s dead.

McDonald’s does not sell ham sandwiches.

Later in the recording, Kellis is heard performing chest compressions on her husband. She wails in grief at the sight of “blood on the pillow,” but she never reveals the nature of his injury to the dispatcher.

When paramedics saw Dallas Kellis had been shot, they notified the Moore County Sheriff’s Office. The state Medical Examiner’s Office later found that he died of gunshot wounds to the abdomen and head.

Authorities said there were no signs of forced entry at the home, and nothing was reported stolen.

A grand jury indicted Margaret Kellis in connection with her husband’s slaying on Sept. 19, 2016. Strickland said she attempted to flee the home through the back door when Sheriff’s deputies arrived to arrest her.

‘A Great All-Around Guy’

Dallas Kellis was born Oct. 21, 1939, in Montgomery County. One of seven siblings, he briefly served in the military before working more than 20 years at the defunct J.P. Stevens textile mill in Aberdeen.

“He was a great all-around guy,” Rora Kellis, Dallas Kellis’ nephew, said in a phone interview. “He was very outgoing and well-spoken, with an infectious laugh.”

It was not uncommon for neighbors to see Dallas Kellis tending to his lawn. He took pride in its precisely trimmed hedges and manicured grass.

“Lord, he loved that yard,” Rora Kellis said. “He was very meticulous when it came to his lawn. Everything had a place.”

He was married for 41 years to Louise Kellis, who died June 21, 2009. Several women pursued the widower after his wife’s death, according to his nephew.

“Uncle Dallas was a sharp dresser,” Rora Kellis said, “and he was definitely in good shape for his age.”

Friends were taken aback when Dallas Kellis announced his engagement to the former Margaret Seiber.

“A lot of people were surprised because she wasn’t much like him,” a member of Dallas Kellis’ church, who asked not to be identified, told The Pilot last year. “She didn’t seem like an outgoing or friendly person either.”

And she has a checkered past, according to prosecutors. At a previous court hearing, Strickland said Margaret Kellis has been convicted of multiple felonies over the years. She was most recently convicted of felony larceny in 2009, he said.

Rora Kellis does not think his uncle knew about his second wife’s criminal record. Donadio contends that Margaret Kellis has “no history of violence.”

“She has maintained her innocence since the beginning,” he said.

Police have been unable to locate the gun used in the shooting. The District Attorney’s Office is still waiting for the State Bureau of Investigation to provide its analysis of DNA evidence collected from a 2013 Kia Soul seized from the couple’s home.

Thursday marks a year since Dallas Kellis was shot to death in his bed. He is buried near his parents in West End Cemetery.

Margaret Kellis is due back in court Sept. 7. She plans to request a jury trial, Donadio said.


Trump Stirs Support, Dissent in Fayetteville

Trump Protester Ejected in Fayetteville
FAYETTEVILLE, N.C. – A protestor is ejected from a campaign rally held by Republican presidential candidate Donald J. Trump. (Photograph by Jaymie Baxley/The Robesonian)

The following article first appeared in The Robesonian in March 10, 2016.

FAYETTEVILLE, N.C. — Thousands of Donald J. Trump supporters gathered Wednesday at the Crown Center Coliseum for a campaign rally that was disrupted at least 15 times by protesters.

The real estate mogul is the current frontrunner in the Republican delegate race. His appearance in Fayetteville marks the closest a presidential contender has traveled to Robeson County this election cycle.

“There are things he’s saying he’s going to take care of that no other politician will even touch on,” said William Lowe, a Trump supporter who drove from Lumberton to attend the rally. “He’s going to be a force to be reckoned with. That this guy can fill up an arena says a lot about him.”

Fans cheered as Trump listed the 14 state primaries he’d won since February. The pugnacious billionaire played up his ties to North Carolina, where voters will hit the polls next week.

“I have a lot of people who work for me in North Carolina,” he said. “I’m probably the only presidential candidate that’s ever came here who can say they employ a lot of people in North Carolina.”

Trump received 53 percent of the vote in a straw poll conducted Tuesday at the Robeson County GOP Convention, easily beating opponents Ted Cruz, who was stumping in Concord that day, and Mark Rubio.

“For the older guys and ladies of the party, the decorum and etiquette of Trump just doesn’t suit them,” said Bo Biggs, a local Republican and longtime observer of Robeson County politics. “But I think that the greater goal of defeating the Democratic nominee is going to bring everybody together. As we narrow the field, I believe that we’re all going to come together

To conservatives who bristle at his boorish persona, Trump said he “could be the most presidential person you’ve ever seen.”

“I’m not a professional politician,” he said. “I’m running against people who have run for office their whole life.”

According to Biggs, that’s part of the candidate’s appeal.

“Trump has obviously tapped into frustrations,” he said. “He has a huge draw of people who are very upset with what’s going on in Washington.”

Brenda Pope, president of the Robeson County Republican Women group, can’t recall a time when a candidate has caused so much division within the party.

“He has really awakened the sleeping portion of the Robeson Republican party,” she said. “This is something I’ve never seen before and hopefully it’s going to turn out good.”

Trump hit familiar beats during the rally, vowing again to “get rid of Obamacare and Common Core.” He also promised to “take care of veterans” and to provide troops with “the equipment that they need.”

Leaving little doubt about his position on guns, Trump argued that the Nov. 13 terrorist attacks in Paris “would have played out differently with bullets flying in the other direction.”

“Paris has some of the toughest gun laws in the world, folks,” he said. “We have a mental health problem [in America] and we have to solve the mental health problem, but we need to protect the Second Amendment.”

Trump walked on stage shortly after 7 p.m. as the Alan Parsons Project’s “Eye in the Sky” blared from the coliseum’s sound system. The 69-year-old spent much of the next hour dismissing protesters and admonishing the news media — occasionally hitting both targets at once.

“Tomorrow you’ll read in the paper: ‘Trump Has Protests,’” he said as a protester was being ejected from the coliseum. “I’m telling you, these people are the biggest liars in the world.”

Videos circulating on social media show a 78-year-old Trump supporter sucker-punching a black protestor at the event. A female protester wrote on Facebook that she was bombarded with threats and sexually charged insults.

“It was incredible,” she said. “The hate and straight-up racism that filled that coliseum makes me want to cry.”

Lowe says the protests didn’t weaken his support of the candidate.

“What I saw going on was a bunch of people wanting their 15 minutes of fame,” he said. “I didn’t hear them say anything other than ‘look at me; put me on TV.’”

Trump closed the rally with a promise to “bring jobs back to North Carolina.”

“We’re going to be a brilliant country, not just a smart country,” he said. “We’re going to keep winning; you’re going to love North Carolina and you’re going to love your president.”

Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton is set to visit a Durham high school later today. Bernie Sanders announced plans this morning to hold a campaign rally in Raleigh.

Drug Issues, Alleged Abuse at Assisted Living Home

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The following article, which first appeared in The Pilot on March 30, 2018, won a second place award for General News Reporting from the North Carolina Press Association. 


CARTHAGE, N.C. — Documents released by the state Division of Health Service Regulation show multiple incidents of neglect and possible exploitation of elderly residents at Tara Plantation.

The state on Tuesday suspended admissions to Tara Plantation, an 80-bed assisted living center that serves patients suffering from dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. Mark Benton, deputy secretary of the state Department of Health and Human Services, says Tara Plantation’s license could be revoked if “demonstrative and lasting improvements” are not made at the facility.

A 114-page report released by the division lists several drug-related violations, including two separate incidents where a resident required emergency treatment for “possible drug overdose after medications were left in her room.” Both incidents happened during the same week in January, the report said.

The report describes a separate incident where Tara Plantation’s staff failed to properly administer Clonazepam, an anxiety medication, to a resident with dementia. Two employees filled out logs stating the medicine had been given to the man, but lab tests showed no traces of the drug in his bloodstream.

“If (he) had received Clonazepam every day, the medication would have been positive in his bloodstream when the lab was drawn because there had not been enough time for the medication to be cleared from his bloodstream,” the report said. “The facility’s failure to assure (the) resident received Clonazepam as ordered placed the resident at substantial risk for neglect and exploitation.”

According to the report, the facility’s administration did not notify the state Health Care Personnel Registry of allegations involving drug diversion after 15 doses of oxycodone, a narcotic opioid that had been prescribed to a resident in the special care unit, went missing in October. The administration ordered drug screenings for staff members after the disappearance of the oxycodone, the report said, but an employee who refused to be tested continued working at the facility until she left her job later that month.

“Allowing (the employee) to continue to work in the facility until she electively quit (…) exposed the residents in the SCU, who were cognitively impaired, to potential subsequent and/or continued drug diversion and exploitation by (the employee),” the report said.

The report said drug diversion was also suspected in a separate incident involving a container of Ambien, a controlled substance, that was returned to the pharmacy with 10 doses missing.

In addition to the drug-related violations, the report says Tara Plantation’s management failed to “assure the facility was free of obstructions and hazards” to residents.

Benton says division officials will make unannounced visits to Tara Plantation in the coming weeks.

“Ensuring the safety and care provided to individuals in licensed health care facilities is the top priority of this department,” Benton wrote in a letter to Kathy Huffman, owner of the facility. “I ask that you and your staff act with a sense of urgency to bring Tara Plantation back into compliance.”

Huffman did not respond to multiple phones calls from The Pilot seeking comment.

Whistleblower’s Video Sparks Investigation

The division’s findings are consistent with allegations made by multiple ex-employees of Tara Plantation. In recent interviews with The Pilot, the former staff members said they were ignored or instructed to keep quiet when they attempted to share their concerns with the administration.

But Stephanie Alston, a former member of the center’s housekeeping staff, was not so easily silenced. The state’s investigation was prompted by a widely seen video that Alston shared on social media.

In the nearly three-minute video, a female Tara Plantation employee who appears to be sleeping or heavily sedated is slumped over in a swivel chair with her head between her knees.

The woman, a medical technician who is no longer employed at the facility, is seated behind a counter, on which an unattended pharmacy bag is visible, in the facility’s Alzheimer’s unit. Near the end of the video, the woman can be seen grasping for a nearby crate containing what appears to be a tube-shaped container and a ballpoint pen.

According to Alston, the video was sent to the Moore County Department of Social Services on Feb. 13. Alston claims she and her co-worker Rachel Hough, who is heard talking to Alston in the video, were fired the next morning for filming the incident.

“We (were) wrongfully terminated from my job today because I wanted to protect the residents that were in danger,” Alston wrote in caption for the video, which she posted to Facebook shortly after she was fired. “I’m leaking this to the world to show everyone what your family could be dealing with on a regular basis.”

Alston also shared photographs from inside Tara Plantation showing stained furniture, wastebaskets overflowing with trash and crushed-up medication left in disposable cups. One of the photographs shows a visibly soaked adult diaper lying on the floor.

In a recent interview with The Pilot, Alston said her former employer cited “irresponsible and unprofessional” behavior as the official reason for her dismissal.

“I just want justice for the residents that deserve better,” Alston said. “I don’t feel sad about losing my job over this.”

‘Deal With it or Cut Ties’

Stacy Self, a Carthage resident who briefly worked at Tara Plantation in 2013, was among the nearly 60,000 people who watched Alston’s video on Facebook. Self said she observed similar issues during her time at the facility.

“From the beginning, I noticed a lot from misuse of meds to physical abuse,” she said.

While working in the center’s dementia unit, Self said she witnessed a co-worker “smacking” a resident whose clothes needed to be changed.

“I immediately told (the co-worker) to stop and leave the room,” Self said.

When she complained to the facility’s administrator about the incident, Self said she was told to “deal with it or cut ties.” She said she then quit her job at Tara Plantation and reported the abuse to the Moore County Department of Social Services.

“Another co-worker told me DSS said they would be there in a few days,” Self said. “(The administrator) told them if anyone wanted to keep their job, they better keep their mouth shut. Nothing ever was handled or fixed.”

Another woman who worked at Tara Plantation alleged that staff members regularly neglected residents when she was employed there during the mid-2000s. The woman, who requested that her name not be published because she has an elderly relative who lives at the facility, said she would return from 12-hour shifts to find residents wearing the same diapers they had on when her previous shift ended, “while staff members were in front of the TV asleep.”

“Some of the residents that needed help to eat wouldn’t get it,” she said. “The staff would eat their food as long as it wasn’t puréed.”

The woman said she was fired after sharing her concerns with the administration.

Issues Documented Over the Years

Tara Plantation LLC was created in 1997 and shares a mailing address with Dunmore Plantation, another assisted living facility owned by Huffman, in Surry County. 

In 2008, the state Division of Health Service Regulation levied a $14,000 fine against Tara Plantation for failing “to ensure health care referral and follow-up for two residents: one who was administered the wrong medication; the other experiencing a skin breakdown.” The company paid $4,000 as part of a 2010 settlement that required Tara Plantation to provide training to its employees.

During the same year, the company received a $3.7 million loan from the Small Business Administration. The agency says loans like the one provided to Tara Plantation are designed to assist “small businesses that are unable to obtain financing in the private credit marketplace.” 

More fines were issued in 2012 when a resident with dementia was allegedly left unsupervised in the facility’s courtyard, and in 2013, when the company was accused of failing to implement new policies after a resident suffered “multiple falls which resulted in injuries and bruises.” Both cases were successfully appealed by Tara Plantation, according to information from the Division of Health Service Regulation.

A 2014 inspection by the division rated Tara Plantation as a three-star facility, with six demerits based on citations for “noncompliance with the rules related to resident care and services.”

The poor physical conditions at Tara Plantation have been documented in visitation reports from the Moore County Nursing and Adult Care Home Community Advisory Committee. The committee is made up of volunteers and does not have regulatory  power.

In the quarterly report for July, visiting committee members wrote that “several (residents) were unkempt and looked dirty” and there were “odors throughout the entire facility.” The report described the building’s carpet as “frayed, torn and could be a hazard for walkers” and “badly stained, with several new areas of urine stains.”

In October, a committee member observed an “unpleasant odor” in the facility’s memory unit and described the carpet as “dirty and buckling.” The building’s roof was leaking, fruit was not being offered to residents and employees were not wearing name tags, the report said.

The division’s report marks the second time Tara Plantation has been roiled by allegations of drug diversion. In 2007, the Carthage Police Department charged five employees, including the then-director and three supervisors, with various drug-related offenses after controlled substances went missing from the facility. 

The charges against the employees were later dismissed, according to information from the Moore County Clerk of Court’s Office.

In response to the most recent drug-related findings, the state has ordered all employees with access to medication at Tara Plantation to be tested for controlled substances. The assisted living center has until Monday to send the test results to the state.