Top stories 2008: Historic election, murder and more

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Here are the rest of the top stories for 2008:
2. The vote for change
If there is one word that defined the elections of 2008, that word was “change.”
Of course, Barack Obama, a first-term U.S. senator from Illinois, made change a central them in his successful run for the presidency. And the Democrat’s coattails helped carry some other races that saw the status quo shown the door.
Locally, the biggest change may have been that Elizabeth Dole, a Republican U.S. senator and Salisbury native, lost her seat to Democratic challenger Kay Hagan. Obama’s popularity surely aided Hagan, but the once seemingly invincible Dole didn’t help herself by releasing a widely criticized ad in the waning days of the campaign connecting the church-going Hagan to “godless Americans.”
In Cabarrus County, Robin Hayes, scion of the Cannon textile family, lost his seat in the U.S. House of Representatives to Democrat Larry Kissell in a rematch of their narrowly decided 2006 contest.
The Rowan County Board of Commissioners experienced change, too. Outgoing Chairman Arnold Chamberlain decided not to run for re-election. Republican Carl Ford won a seat on the board after a half dozen campaigns and was promptly named its chairman. Jim Sides lost his bid for re-election and Democrat Raymond Coltrain won a seat.
Rowan saw its share of big-time political visitors and was even home to one besides Dole. Salisbury attorney Bill Graham ran for the GOP gubernatorial nomination which went to Pat McCrory, the Charlotte mayor with ties to Salisbury through his alma mater, Catawba College. Other candidates for governor, including eventual winner Democrat Bev Perdue, stumped in Rowan as well.
Perhaps nobody generated as much political buzz as Bill and Hillary Clinton, who made separate stops here in April to support her bid for the Democratic presidential nomination. The city’s historic train depot hadn’t seen the kind of crowds the Clintons attracted since the return of George Clooney and Renee Zellweger ó also in April ó to promote their movie, “Leatherheads,” which was partly filmed in Rowan.
3. A life taken, a reputation unraveled
When an employee discovered a well-known Salisbury dentist strangled to death in his County Club home June 26, the crime shocked the community.
Revelations that followed Dr. David Boydís murder proved perhaps just as shocking.
The State Bureau of Investigation and local authorities had been investigating Boyd for allegedly trading prescription drugs for sexual favors, according to agency officials and documents filed in connection with the case.
Candice Jo Drye, one of three charged in Boydís murder, told police she traded sex for drugs in the dentistís private office at his practice on Statesville Boulevard, and that she wasnít the only one. Search warrants revealed investigators found condoms, a video camera, alcohol and other items in the office.
Drye, 23, Jonathan Barnett, 18, and Christopher Boyd, 21, stand charged with murder. Each is also charged with first-degree burglary, felonious larceny and armed robbery. Authorities say the three went to the dentistís home to rob him the night he was killed.
Only Christopher Boyd faces a possible death penalty.
4. Economic turmoil
It only became official Dec. 1, but many in Rowan County and the surrounding region knew it long before then: The economy has been in recession for a year.
No matter what label it wore, local residents knew the economy wasnít good.
Just ask those who lost jobs or were forced to close businesses.
Seeing orders for its trucks dwindle, Freightliner laid off about 1,500 workers in June but later recalled 650 of them. Hanesbrands. Inc., an apparel maker based in Winston-Salem, announced in November it planned to shut down its yarn plant in China Grove, eliminating 185 jobs. Norandal, which makes aluminum products used in the building industry, laid off workers at its Salisbury plant. Ingersoll-Rand laid off 110 at its Mocksville plant.
The school system said more families were applying for free and discounted lunches even as the state asked for money back to help fill a project budget shortfall. Rowan Helping Ministries said people were still giving, but the need was so much greater this year the agency could hardly keep up.
Home sales slowed and retail suffered locally as it did nationally in 2008. Kohlís opened on schedule in October at the new Wallace Commons shopping center on Julian Road, and Olive Garden and Longhorn restaurants are going up, but Home Depot put its plans to build there on hold indefinitely.
Loans became harder to get and many wondered what would happen to their local bank branch when Wachovia, teetering on the brink of failure as so many banks were before going under, being bailed out by the federal government or being bought by another bank, was swallowed by San Francisco-based Wells Fargo.
5. Annexation: Donít take us in
Salisburyís plan to annex 1,700 new residents and 2,000 acres along N.C. 150 set off a storm of opposition locally and contributed to a renewed debate in Raleigh about the stateís involuntary annexation laws.
The City Council announced its intent in February to take in the territory west of the city, much of it the same area Salisbury had tried unsuccessfully to annex in 1999.
Just as they did nearly a decade ago, residents targeted for annexation joined together ó as the Good Neighbors of Rowan County ó and began collecting money to wage a legal battle against the city.
Rowan County commissioners hired an attorney to help fight the proposed annexation ó which included part of the county airport ó and threatened to quit the Centralina Council of Governments over its role in preparing an annexation study for the city.
N.C. 150-area residents protested in the cityís Square. One resident came to a City Council meeting dressed as a Colonial-era British officer to make his point about taxation without representation.
In the end, the cityís own policies derailed the plan.
Salisbury received 659 water and sewer requests from the annexation area spread out in such a way the city would have been forced to provide full water and sewer service to the Highway 150 annexation area at an estimated cost of $34.6 million. Even then, the cityís policy wouldnít require residents to connect to the system, making the annexation economically unfeasible.
In September, the N.C. Senate and House formed a joint commission to study the stateís 50-year-old annexation laws. Among its members are N.C. Rep. Fred Steen of Landis and Rowan County Commissioner Tina Hall. Steen said the panel could seek a moratorium on forced annexation when the Legislature convenes Jan. 28.
6. Gas pains
As the price of oil escalated to historic highs this year, so did gas prices. And a hurricane didnít help.
Crude oil steadily climbed during the first half of the year and rose to nearly $150 a barrel over the summer. With those rising prices, a gallon of fuel got more and more valuable.
Regular gasoline approached $4 a gallon at the start of summer, sparking a renewed interest in alternative modes of transportation. Some people took to scooters. Some pedaled bicycles. Others got on the bus or a train.
Salisburyís bus system saw its ridership spike, as did Amtrakís Charlotte-to-Raleigh Piedmont line.
In May, NASCAR fans lamented the cost of making their annual treks in recreational vehicles to Loweís Motor Speedway in Concord. ěPeople used to make house payments with what you pay for fuel now,î one RV driver said.
Fuel prices got political candidates to embrace more oil exploration off the nationís coasts ó even some who used to oppose it, including U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Dole, who reversed her support of a ban on drilling off North Carolinaís shores.
In September, Hurricane Ike forced refineries along the Gulf Coast to shut down, resulting in supply problems and panic buying that led to more shortages in our area. Motorists waited in line at stations where they could find fuel and some happily paid more than $4 a gallon.
In other parts of the state, a few stations charged $5 a gallon. The N.C. Attorney Generalís Office later accused them of price gouging and some have agreed to pay fines.
Gas prices made news in October when the price of a gallon dropped below $3. Those prices have kept falling, along with oil which recently dropped below $40 a barrel. Gasoline can be had for around $1.45 a gallon around Salisbury now.
7. Caring for veterans
When the Department of Veterans Affairs announced in September it planned to eliminate emergency, surgery and inpatient services at the W.G. ěBillî Hefner VA Medical Center and change the hospitalís focus to mental health and long-term care, the announcement drew few positive reactions.
Though the agency said the proposed changes would bring primary services closer to the people it serves, veterans said they were ambushed by the announcement and felt shortchanged by the agencyís plan to outsource much of their care to other hospitals. They protested in various ways and left no doubt about their displeasure with the plan.
Employees of the VA Medical Center said they were blindsided, too, and feared for their jobs should the changes take place.
Elected officials at every level added their criticism and the proposed plan became a campaign issue, notably in the U.S. Senate race pitting incumbent Elizabeth Dole against challenger Kay Hagan.
U.S. Rep. Mel Watt said he was ěhit coldî by the announcement and sent letters to the head of the Veterans Affairs Department asking for an explanation.
The Department of Veterans Affairs ordered a review of the proposal and on Dec. 12 announced there would be no changes to health care services at the Hefner VA until 2013, nor will there be any staff reductions.
8. A night gone wrong
More than two years after Michael Jason Brown wrecked his scooter and died in eastern Rowan County, six young people accepted responsibility.
Brandon Lowery, 23, Eric Taylor, 21, Alstin Vanderford, 21, Patsy Morgan, 21, Rachel Miller, 21, and Derek Talbert, 23, admitted to being in a Jeep the night some of them threw eggs at Brown as he drove along U.S. 52.
Taylor, who was driving the Jeep, pleaded guilty to misdemeanor death by motor vehicle and felony hit and run.
Lowery and Vanderford each pleaded guilty to one count of death by motor vehicle, a misdemeanor, and leaving the scene of an accident by a passenger, a felony.
Morgan, Miller and Talbert pleaded to a lesser charge in exchange for their promise to testify if the case went to trial.
All received probation. District Attorney Bill Kenerly said he accepted the pleas because investigators found no evidence the Jeep hit the scooter.
Brown, who was a 26-year-old father of three, was driving the scooter in the early morning hours when the Jeep approached.
The six defendants told investigators that after some of them had been drinking that night, they went to Wal-Mart to buy eggs and then drove around egging houses. Some of the defendants ó their statements contradicted which ones ó threw eggs at Brown’s scooter.
The six told investigators they heard a thud, as if the scooter had hit the Jeep, but they did not check on Brown. Instead, they drove to a friend’s house and agreed to not talk about what happened.
Investigators initially determined Brown died in a one-vehicle wreck. But the Rowan County Sheriff’s Office exhumed Brownís body in January 2007 after developing new information. In February 2007, the six suspects turned themselves in.
9. Hospital wars
Rowan Regional Medical Center and Novant Health consummated their merger Jan. 2, changing the landscape of healthcare in Rowan County and strengthening both their positions in what some call the ongoing ěhospital wars.î
Novant pledged to invest $250 million in Rowan Regional and its facilities over five years to expand and improve services based on recommendations of the Rowan Regional board. Novant also assumed the hospital’s current debt.
Even before the merger was finalized, Rowan Regional and Novant submitted an application to the state to build a 50-bed, $109-million hospital in southern Rowan County.
The state denied the application but approved Carolinas Medical Center NorthEastís application for a freestanding emergency department less than a mile from Rowan Regionalís proposed site. Rowan Regional and Novant have appealed both decisions.
In September, Novant officials announced that Chuck Elliott had been relieved of his duties as chief executive officer of Rowan Regional Medical Center after having worked at the hospital since 2003.
10. (tie) The great flood
At 6 a.m. on Aug. 27, water began seeping into Paul Baker’s Faith Road home. A few hours later, Baker and his family were taking a boat ride to drier land, courtesy of the Rowan Rescue Squad.
Residents awoke all over Rowan and the region Aug. 27 to heavy rains. To many, Tropical Storm Fay was a welcome sight in the midst of a drought.
But the deluge quickly wore out its welcome. Even then, the rain kept falling ó more than 8 inches worth in some areas ó and caused dangerous situations and damage around the region.
School bus drivers came upon flooded roads.
Some motorists who tried to drive through several feet of water from an overflowing Town Creek on West Innes Street near Interstate 85 found themselves stuck and in need of help. The N.C. Department of Transportation said the culverts in that area were designed to handle a 50-year storm, meaning the kinds of rain the area got that day should happen only once every half century.
In Cabarrus County, nearly 100 homes and businesses were damaged by floodwaters. Officials declared a state of emergency and opened shelters. Gov. Mike Easley declared Cabarrus County a state disaster area.
10. (tie) A death, a deal
Reginald Weeks Jr. avoided a conviction and did not admit to murdering his stepdaughter, 18-year-old Brittany Loritts. But he still went to prison.
In January, Weeks entered an Alford plea, which allows a defendant to maintain innocence while accepting the benefit of a plea agreement.
Weeks stood charged with first-degree murder and rape in Lorittsí July 11, 2005 death.
Investigators said Weeks told them he found Loritts stabbed to death in her bedroom at the familyís Scales Street home when he stopped by that afternoon to collect some documents for work.
Lorittsí father and other family members werenít happy with the plea deal. But Rowan County District Attorney said he agreed to the plea instead of taking the case to trial because an essential witness, Lorittsí mother, had been ěless than cooperative.î
Weeks was sentenced to 109 to 140 months in prison.
Loritts had graduated from North Rowan High School in 2005 and had planned to attend Rowan-Cabarrus Community College and N.C. A&T State University. She wanted to become a teacher.