Published 12:00 am Saturday, December 28, 2013

Where is Erica?
The question has been asked time and again since July 30, when Erica Lynn Parsons was reported missing by her adoptive brother. But Erica hadn’t just recently gone missing when authorities got that report. She hadn’t been gone two days, not even two months.
Erica hasn’t been seen in Rowan County in more than two years.
The story has been told often and is now well known. Her adoptive parents, Sandy and Casey Parsons maintain they dropped off a 13-year-old Erica at a Mooresville McDonald’s in November 2011 to visit a woman they knew as her biological grandmother, Irene “Nan” Goodman. After that, they say, Erica decided she wanted to live with Nan at her Asheville home.
Trouble is, investigators haven’t been able to find Irene Goodman. And other relatives say she doesn’t exist, that both of Erica’s biological grandmothers died years ago. The Parsonses now say they were duped, but investigators, outside observers, even their family members, are skeptical.
So, where is she?
Erica’s story has dominated local headlines and Charlotte TV newscasts in the latter half of this year. It has also been reported nationally. Sandy and Casey Parsons appeared on a two-part “Dr. Phil” show to defend themselves against suspicions and accusations.
There have been searches, vigils, rallies. Everyone wants answers.
The Post news staff voted Erica Lynn Parsons the top local story of 2013.
Meanwhile, the story goes on. Investigators still insist they are seeking a missing 15-year-old girl but also revealed recently in a search warrant they were considering the possibility that she’s not alive.
No matter her fate, the question remains.
Where is Erica?
The other top stories of 2013, as chosen by the Post newsroom staff were:
The top local story of 2012 stayed in the headlines this past year, mainly due to squabbling between the Rowan County Board of Commissioners and the Rowan-Salisbury Board of Education over where a new school system central office would go and how much it would cost.
A Board of Commissioners reconfigured after last year’s election started 2013 by rescinding an offer to borrow $6 million for a central office because a majority of the board didn’t want it built on South Main Street in downtown Salisbury.
Opponents of the site — which the city had offered to give the school system — cited its past as a service station and potential contamination from leaking underground fuel tanks. After a nearly $500,000 cleanup, the property got a clean bill of health from the state.
But that hasn’t settled the debate, with commissioners refusing to go along even after the city, then a local family, offered to finance the construction up front and let the county pay it back over time. Not on that site, commissioners Chairman Jim Sides has said repeatedly.
Commissioners offered a number of other sites — including the former Department of Social Services property on West Innes Street and land on Julian Road — but the school board returned to the South Main Street option, saying it was the best and most economical.
So nearly two years after the county board first approved the $6 million funding, the two bodies remain at loggerheads. The school board will meet Monday, though, and could discuss the central office again.
When Marcus Kauffman was shot in the head during a burglary at his western Rowan County home Dec. 2, his family — and the community — hoped and prayed for his survival.
Though the outlook was positive initially, Kauffman’s condition deteriorated rapidly in his final days, and he died Dec. 20. Two men have been charged with murder, and two others as accessories after the crime.
A Facebook page family and friends established to post updates on Kauffman’s condition attracted more than 50,000 followers. That and the fact that the 25-year-old volunteer firefighter left behind a young, pregnant wife made his one of the most high-profile killings this year.
But not the only one.
Shirley Goodnight Pierce’s fiance made a horrifying discovery the morning of July 23. The 62-year-old Kannapolis woman had been beaten and stabbed to death in her home, the knife blade broken off in her neck. Authorities quickly charged Marlene Postell Johnson with murder. Johnson had reportedly harassed Pierce for years and assaulted her previously, believing Pierce was having an affair with her husband, with whom the victim worked.
Investigators discovered Johnson, 61, had stolen some of Pierce’s mail and had surveillance photos of her and aerial photos of her home. District Attorney Brandy Cook said she will seek the death penalty if Johnson is convicted.
Another murder was in the family, investigators allege.
Jeff Steen is charged with killing his 87-year-old grandfather, J.D. Furr, and assaulting his mother and apparently leaving her for dead. Warrants say Steen, 40, would have inherited his grandfather’s eastern Rowan County property.
In 2012, the North Carolina chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union threatened to file a lawsuit if Rowan County commissioners didn’t stop opening their meeting with sectarian prayer.
In March, the organization filed that lawsuit. It did so on behalf of three local plaintiffs who say their constitutional rights were being violated by the Christian-specific invocations offered up by commissioners.
Commissioners initially answered the legal action with defiance. Vice Chairman Craig Pierce opened the first meeting following the lawsuit’s filing with a prayer he ended with the words “personal lord and savior.” Then the board voted to fight the ACLU in court and retained attorney David Gibbs III of the conservative National Center for Life and Liberty.
They’ve gotten a lot of support, from residents filling the board’s meeting room to more than 1,000 attending a September rally outside the county administration building in support of prayer.
The case even spawned the Rowan County Defense of Religion Act, sponsored by N.C. Rep. Carl Ford, a former Rowan County commissioner. The bill died in committee after opponents said the wording opened the door for a state religion.
Commissioners toned down their prayers after a judge signed an injunction ordering them to do so. Now they’re waiting as the Supreme Court weighs a similar case involving a New York town’s governing body opening meetings with sectarian prayer.
Prayer was far from the only thing on Rowan County commissioners’ agenda this year.
Central office aside, the board’s relationship with the Rowan-Salisbury school board hasn’t been smooth. The boards are currently in mediation over the county’s budgeted funding for schools this year, and the Board of Education has retained an attorney who helped the Union County school board win a $91 million jury award against that county’s commissioners.
In June, the General Assembly approved commissioners’ request to remove the Rowan County Airport from the boundaries of Salisbury, over the objections of city leaders. Commissioners argued having one taxing authority and a lower overall rate would help in developing the airport.
When it came to rancor, commissioners didn’t spare their own. In September, other board members voted to begin a censure investigation regarding Commissioner Jon Barber’s alleged misuse of county resources.
A report prepared by the county’s risk manager estimated Barber made about 4,000 copies at the county government center, which his fellow board members say were for personal use. Barber said the materials were made for county projects and community programs and that the real issue was his being publicly critical of the board.
On Dec. 3, commissioners voted to send the results of the investigation to Rowan County District Attorney Brandy Cook, who has not said what she’ll do with the report.
And commissioners went shopping at the mall. When the troubled Salisbury Mall went on the auction block in September, Rowan officials saw an opportunity — more than 300,000 square feet under roof that could fill the needs of a number of county departments. After dropping out of the bidding, the county re-entered the picture when the auction results fell through.
The move has sparked worry of an exodus of county employees from downtown Salisbury. What will happen remains to be seen. Rowan County closed on the $3.425 million deal Dec. 16.
Spencer police say Angela Monique Dunlap was drunk and going more than twice the speed limit when she drove her GMC Envoy off South Rowan Avenue and into a tree on Jan. 18.
Including Dunlap, there were nine people in the vehicle when it hit the tree and caught fire. Six of them died.
The crash claimed the lives of 28-year-old Dunlap; Vincent Eugene McNeal, 45; Sean Javen Jacobs, 25; Da’Ja Cathcart, 10; Taliah Williams, 8; and Karizma Nichole Sexton, 4.
Da’Ja and Taliah were Dunlap’s children. So were 6-year-old twins Davion and Javion Williams, who survived along with 10-year-old Charles Patrick Jr.
Charles, who was thrown from the GMC and pulled Davion Williams from the vehicle, said the last thing he heard before the crash was Jacobs — the only person in the SUV wearing a seat belt — telling Dunlap to slow down.
“I thought it was a dream,” he said.
But it wasn’t a dream. For the families of the victims, and the community, it was a nightmare.
East Spencer town board members fired Darren Westmoreland from his job as police chief on July 29. But the bigger news had already come.
In a series of articles, the Salisbury Post reported that current and former officers had expressed concerns about Westmoreland’s handling of the department, and what they believed was negligence in criminal investigations.
In an audio recording one of the officers made during a meeting with the town’s mayor, Barbara Mallett, she thanked them for not going to the Post. When nothing was done about their concerns, however, that’s exactly what they did.
Interviews revealed that Westmoreland — who was acting chief at the time — declined help from the Rowan County Sheriff’s Office and SBI in investigating the 2011 homicide of Travis Hinds, then told the victim’s family those agencies were too busy to help. The murder is still unsolved.
Current and former officers told the Post no member of the East Spencer Police Department had training in homicide investigation.
The officers also said that Westmoreland failed to fully investigate the shooting of a toddler in 2012. Again, no charges were filed. And they said he discriminated against some officers and falsified his own time sheets.
Some of the allegations came as a surprise to several town board members, who know only that Town Administrator Macon Sammons — who appointed Westmoreland chief in 2012 — had conducted his own internal investigation and taken no action.
After Westmoreland’s firing, and repeated requests for public records, the Post learned the former chief had a criminal history, did not have homicide investigation training and was the only candidate interviewed for the job.
When Daniel Safrit said goodnight to his mother on Sept. 26, she knew he’d had another bad day, that he’d been picked on again at school.
She had no idea how bad.
The next morning, 11-year-old Daniel’s family found him dead in his room. He had taken his own life.
His parents, Scottie and Jamie Safrit, said bullying drove the Erwin Middle School student to suicide — he’d tried it earlier that month — and they have made it their mission to see schools toughen their policies and protect children from bullying.
The Safrits say they want to change a system they believe failed Daniel. They said they spoke with guidance counselors and school officials on several occasions, but little progress was made toward stopping the bullying. And some school officials blamed Daniel’s depression on his home life, they said.
They’ve spoken at school board meetings, candlelight vigils and rallies, and Jamie Safrit gave new Rowan-Salisbury Superintendent Dr. Lynn Moody an earful at one of her first meetings.
School system officials say they’re putting an internationally known anti-bullying program in place at every school that teaches everyone who may witness bullying — from administrators to custodians and bus drivers — how to respond, and encourages students to be more than bystanders.
They say, however, it will take time to change the culture. For many, that change can’t come soon enough. For Daniel Safrit, it’s too late.
In March, crews transformed parts of historic Salisbury into the fictional Sleepy Hollow, scene of Washington Irving’s classic short story pitting Ichabod Crane against the Headless Horseman.
In this retelling, Ichabod Crane is the Revolutionary War soldier who lopped off the Horseman’s head in the first place. He awakens 250 years later and is pitted against his nemesis again, as well as other evil that has descended upon the town.
For the series pilot, the crews transformed the front lawn of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church into a Revolutionary War cemetery where Ichabod Crane awakens from the dead and does battle with the Headless Horseman. The Bell Tower, Confederate monument, East Innes Street and other downtown locations provided backdrops for car chases, gun battles and pyrotechnics.
The shooting excited local residents, some of whom even got in front of the camera. Salisbury was abuzz with hope that, if Fox picked up the series, its production would return to the city permanently.
But 20th Century Fox chose Wilmington to film the ongoing series. That coastal city has an established movie and TV production industry and could best help “Sleepy Hollow” meet its budget and time constraints, as well as provide fast access to crew and creative staff, the director of the North Carolina Film Office said.
That doesn’t mean the show won’t return to Salisbury for some scenes, however. Keep listening for those hoofbeats.
On the evening of Jan. 16, a five-alarm blaze destroyed Salisbury’s historic Grimes Mill.
Police officers who were first to arrive on the scene reported flames showing from through the windows.
Within minutes, the fire had spread throughout the 117-year-old wood-and-brick structure, breaching the roof of the mill. Firefighters found the mill engulfed in flames when they arrived and never able to enter the building.
The heat was so intense that steam rose from rain-dampened ground 60 feet from the structure.
The fire continued to burn into the next day as the structure collapsed.
The Historic Salisbury Foundation owned the mill, and volunteers searched for relics they could save from the gutted structure. The foundation also hoped to preserve some iron machinery in the basement that survived the fire.
The foundation sold bricks from the mill individually and by the pallet with proceeds helping to offset the cost of cleaning the Church Street site.
Authorities said in March they would never know what caused the fire.