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The Salisbury Post’s Top 10 news stories of 2016

By Mark Wineka
mark.wineka@salisburypost.com

SALISBURY — A’yanna and Erica were their names. Two little girls. Two innocent victims of tragedies that should never happen, things adults should never do.

The deaths of A’yanna Allen and Erica Parsons topped the Salisbury Post’s list of Top 10 stories in 2016. A’yanna’s death from what appears to be a vengeful, drive-by-style shooting represented one more wake-up call for the community, resolved again to do something about repeated cases of gun violence.

The 7-year-old’s killing could be a beginning toward answers, but it was part of a horrific year in which Salisbury dealt with 10 murders, all by guns.

Erica’s confirmed death represented closure of sorts to a story that went on for too many years. Where was Erica, last seen in 2011, and what role did her adoptive parents, imprisoned for scamming the system, have in her mysterious disappearance?

The answer finally came in September when Sandy Parsons told authorities where they could find his adopted daughter’s remains in rural South Carolina. The hunt for Erica was over.

The Post news staff considered 24 nominations for top news stories. In the end, 19 of those received votes. No hard-and-fast guidelines were given before the voting. That is, stories could be judged on their news value alone, how much discussion they generated or their impact and long-term ramifications.

So the Top 10 chosen provide a good launching point for discussion. A sobering note: You could make the case that five out of this year’s Top 10 stories have some connection to guns and violence or crime in general.

Here’s a capsule summary of the Top 10, with mention at the end of other stories that were considered:

1 — A sleeping girl never wakes up. A’yanna Allen, 7, was shot and killed close to 4 a.m. Dec. 4 while she was sleeping at her grandmother’s house on Harrel Street.

The front of Shirley Robinson’s house was peppered by bullets, and Robinson, who was sleeping in the same bedroom with A’yanna, suffered a leg wound. Police think the shooting was somehow connected to an earlier homicide that morning in which Sharod R. Mathis, 22, of Spencer was shot in the parking lot of the Firewater Restaurant and Bar on Avalon Drive.

Mathis laster died at the hospital. Ayanna already had passed away by the time authorities reached her grandmother’s house that morning. She was a second-grader at Koontz Elementary School.

In the aftermath of the little girl’s shooting, city and council officials announced the offering of a $20,000 reward, the largest ever put up through the Salisbury-Rowan Crimestoppers program.

The Rowan County Sheriff’s Office and Salisbury Police Department also collaborated on an agreement which allows sheriff’s deputies to work overtime as law enforcement officers in Salisbury. The city agreed to reimburse the deputies at a rate of $45 per hour, covering pay, fuel, uniforms and equipment.

The agreement helps a Salisbury Police force faced with 15 vacancies. Of Salisbury’s 10 murders in 2016, seven remain unsolved.

2 — The search for Erica is over. In late September, Rowan County authorities located the skeletal remains of Erica Parsons in a shallow grave in rural Chesterfield County, S.C. Erica’s adoptive father, Sandy Parsons, showed investigators where to look.

The finding of Erica brought to an end a three-year investigation by the Rowan County Sheriff’s Office, which was first made aware of the girl’s disappearance in July 2013. At that time, her adoptive brother, Jamie, reported he had not seen Erica since 2011.

Erica was 13 in 2011.

According to a Sept. 27 search warrant obtained by the Post, Sandy Parsons, serving time in federal prison in Butner, sought out Lt. Chad Moose in August and told Moose that Erica was dead.

He also gave Moose an exact date Erica’s body was buried in South Carolina: Dec. 18, 2011, the warrant said. The S.C. property was on land near Sandy’s mother’s house, but it was not owned by her.

Investigators obtained an order to take custody of Sandy Parsons so he could show them the location of the grave. Before that happened, Rowan investigators conducted several interviews with him during which he detailed abuse Erica suffered at the hands of the family.

The treatment included locking her in a closet, beating her with a belt buckle, bending her fingers back and choking her. The abusers included the girl’s adoptive parents, Casey and Sandy Parsons, and siblings, the warrant said.

Neither Casey nor Sandy Parsons has been charged in Erica’s death yet. Both are in prison after pleading guilty to multiple fraud charges related to monetary benefits they received for Erica’s care.

Sandy is serving an eight-year sentence; Casey, 10 years. She is in a federal prison in Tallahassee, Fla.

3 — What to do about coal ash? This year actually provided some answers on what Duke Energy will do about the coal ash stored in ponds next to Buck Steam Station, but residents living close by are still faced with many more months of depending on bottled water.

Under plans submitted to state regulators, Duke Energy has agreed to connect 188 properties, mostly residences in Dukeville, to a new water line that will be part of Salisbury-Rowan Utilities. Another property will probably be given a water filtration system for its well.

Duke estimates the water connections will cost the company $4.97 million, and it plans for construction to be completed by November 2018.

Earlier in the year, Duke Energy reached a settlement with the Yadkin Riverkeeper and Waterkeeper Alliance that will require the company to excavate and recycle all coal ash stored at Buck, or place the coal ash in a lined landfill that provides separation from groundwater and distance from the Yadkin River.

Coal ash became a hot topic statewide and even nationwide in 2016. State Epidemiologist Megan Davies resigned after she accused the Department of Health and Human Services and the Department of Environmental Quality with distributing a “false narrative” about whether well water near coal ash ponds was safe to drink.

“I cannot work for a department and administration that deliberately misleads the public,” Davies said.

Administration heads also accused State Toxicologist Ken Rudo of reaching “questionable and inconsistent scientific conclusions” in regards to coal ash. In a deposition related to the Yadkin Waterkeeper lawsuit, Rudo said state government officials had acted unethically and maybe illegally when they decided to rescind “do not drink” orders for wells near coal ash ponds.

Famed consumer advocate Erin Brockovich even weighed in on coal ash and was a guest speaker for Catawba College’s Center for the Environment this fall.

4 — Wide-scale layoffs happen again at Freightliner. In early January, the Freightliner plant in Cleveland announced it was laying off 936 workers, including 666 assemblers and 107 utility team members.

The layoffs represented about a third of the workforce at one of Rowan County’s largest employers. But the discouraging employment news kept coming when it was announced in February the plant would lose 550 more jobs.

Orders for new heavy-duty trucks made at the plant fell dramatically in the last quarter of 2015 and sank again in January. While most of the Freightliner layoffs were based on seniority, some people had been working at the plant as long as 14 years.

Other truck manufacturers in the country also were laying off workers in 2016 because of weakened demand.

5  — A no-knock search warrant leads to an officer-involved shooting death. On the morning of Nov. 3,  a young black man, 22-year-old Ferguson Claude Laurent Jr., died after being shot by a Salisbury Police officer when officers burst into Laurent’s home in the execution of a no-knock search warrant.

Laurent was shot, police said, after he fired upon members of the Special Response Team, who were at his 625 E. Lafayette St. mobile home to serve the warrant.

The warrant did not require officers to knock. It was the culmination of a three-month investigation into the presence of drugs, weapons and stolen property.

The officers, not wearing body cameras, forced open a rear door and threw in a flash-bang grenade, spreading smoke into a hallway and announced “Police” before rushing inside. Authorities said Laurent fired at one of the first officers, Karl Boehm, who returned fire.

Laurent later died at the hospital. At the mobile home, officers collected crack cocaine, weapons, ammunition and a bulletproof vest.

The shooting led to Boehm’s being placed on administrative leave pending a State Bureau of Investigation report. It also prompted several door-to-door and on-street meetings between police and members of the community around East Lafayette Street.

Meanwhile, Women for Community Justice circulated a petition and called on Salisbury City Council to end immediately the execution of no-knock search warrants.

6 — Ralph Ketner dies. To Ralph Ketner, 98 percent was a failing grade. “If you’re going to make 2 percent errors in business, you can’t make it,” the Food Lion co-founder said once.

Ketner died May 29 at the age of 95. He was a genius with numbers, and he famously bet a small, struggling grocery chain — named Food Town then — on a low-pricing strategy that eventually became known as LFPINC (Lowest Food Prices in North Carolina).

A tenacious buyer and demanding boss, Ketner set the prices on every item in Food Town/Food Lion stores. Meanwhile, he also headed a company culture built on the low prices, forward and centralized buying, merchandising, convenient store location, distribution, training and employee incentives.

By 1982, Forbes had dubbed Food Town as America’s fastest-growing grocery chain. By 1990, Food Lion was among the Top 10 grocery chains in the United States. It all grew from one store in the Ketner Center in 1957 that Ralph Ketner started with his brother Brown and their friend Wilson Smith.

In retirement, Ralph Ketner became a great advisor, mentor and philanthropist, donating millions of dollars to local, state and national causes. As importantly, others followed his lead, thanks to riches they gained from their early investment in Food Town stock.

Scores of the original investors became millionaires, and Salisbury and Rowan County benefited greatly from the company’s success and their generosity.

7 — Federal appeals court acts on Rowan County government’s prayer practices. 

Rowan County commissioners scored a significant court victory Sept. 19 when a federal appeals court, by a 2-1 count, overturned a prior ruling in the county government’s long-running prayer case.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit ruled a lower court erred when it declared unconstitutional commissioners’ prayer practices from 2007 to 2013. A U.S. District Court judge had found sectarian prayers at the start of county commissioners’ meetings to be in violation of the First Amendment’s establishment clause.

At issue was the fact that sectarian prayers were delivered only by county commissioners.

Writing for the majority in September, Judge G. Steven Agee said the District Court treated the Supreme Court’s silence on lawmaker-led prayer as excluding county commissioners from giving opening prayers. In the Fourth Circuit ruling, Agee said the lower court ruling was “not supportable.”

Agee wrote that Rowan County’s prayer practices from 2007-2013 fit within the longstanding tradition of lawmaker-led prayer. Taken as a whole, the county commissioners’ prayer practices do not coerce or disparage, Agee said. He wrote the court found no evidence the Board of County Commissioners, as a board, crafted prayers to say before meetings. Instead, prayers were a personal creation and also given for the benefit of members of the board, Agee said.

Despite the ruling, Sheriff’s Office Chaplain Michael Taylor continued to offer opening prayers at commissioners’ meetings until the lawsuit is completely settled.

The ACLU, representing three plaintiffs who are Rowan residents, seized Wilkinson’s dissent as a reason to seek en banc review — where all 15 Fourth Circuit judges could hear the case.

Even if it’s denied an en banc review, the ACLU and plaintiffs could appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.

8 — Rowan-Salisbury Board of Education debates school consolidations. For several weeks in the spring, the Rowan-Salisbury Board of Education caused a stir when it discussed the future and whether the years ahead should include more school consolidations.

One scenario suggested, for example, the closing of six elementary schools, including Enochville, Faith, Morgan, Mount Ulla, Cleveland and Woodleaf. The public opposition was considerable, spurring a host of reactions from anger and suspicion to charges of conspiracies.

Though it ended up dropping the serious consolidation talk for now, school board members still are wondering what to do about the system’s 1,800 empty elementary school seats and aging schools overall.

Meanwhile, plans for one school consolidation are still on track, though it was a rocky road in 2016 to get there. Cleveland and Woodleaf elementary schools will be combined into a new school, which will be built on land not far from the existing Cleveland Elementary.

The school board settled on the Cleveland site after it ran into strong community opposition and additional problems on two other properties.

9 — Edgar Maddison Welch goes to Washington — with a gun. When he went to Washington, D.C., with an assault rifle. 28-year-old Edgar Maddison Welch probably didn’t realize he was going to become the national poster boy for being duped by fake news.

Authorities arrested Welch, a West Rowan High graduate and son of former Rowan County Register of Deeds Harry Welch, after he entered the Comet Ping Pong pizzeria in Washington with his rifle, pointed it at an employee and fired one or more shots in the establishment.

Welch told police after his arrest he was there to  “self-investigate” a widely circulated story on social media and the internet in general that Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton and her subordinates had been running a child sex ring out of the restaurant.

But it was all made up. For weeks the owner of Comet Ping Pong had endured death threats, phone calls, messages and stalkers, while its employees were being harassed over the fake story. Things came to the boiling point with Welch’s appearance.

Welch, who has said he was there to rescue children being used as sex slaves, was jailed on numerous felony gun charges. He was carrying an AR-15 rifle, a .38-caliber hand gun and a shotgun.

10 — Salisbury hires Jerry Stokes as its new police chief. After more than 30 years with the Lynchburg (Va.) Police Department, Jerry Stokes was sworn in as Salisbury’s new police chief July 18.

Stokes said his priority would be embracing “community-based, problem-oriented policing strategies,” emphasizing neighborhood support and sustainability.

“Our measure of success will be the reduction of crime, fear and disorder in the Salisbury community as partners with those living in and around our neighborhoods,” Stokes said.

The new chief inherited a department woefully short in officers, dealing with several unsolved murders and needing a structural reorganization toward community policing.

And things would not get easier. After four shootings occurring within a 15-hour period in late August, Stokes said he and his department were outraged at the violent crimes in the city.

Bigger challenges were on the horizon for Stokes: His department’s execution of the no-knock warrant that led to the shooting death of Ferguson Laurent, then the killings Dec. 4 of  Mathis and 7-year-old Allen.

 

Worthy of honorable mention in the Post voting were four stories:

• Maryland-based Cube Hydro purchased from Alcoa the Yadkin Project hydroelectric dams, including High Rock (1927), Tuckertown (1962), Badin (1917) and Falls (1919). Also this year, Alcoa received a renewal of its federal license for the hydroelectric project, and that license transfers to the new owner.

• It was a year of change at the Rowan County Animal Shelter, which failed a state inspection, hired and fired its first full-time veterinarian, opened a cat wing and saw Bob Pendergrass named as the new animal services director.

• After years and arguably decades of discussion, Rowan-Salisbury Schools moved into a new central office in 2016. The domed home adds a new structure to North Main Street in downtown Salisbury.

• The Auto House car dealership closed its expansive lots in Salisbury and Mooresville, and in a settlement with the N.C. Division of Motor Vehicles, Auto House owners agreed never to be associated with a future dealership anywhere in the state. Customers had lodged numerous complaints about business practices at Auto House.

Also considered by the Post staff were the merger of international grocery giants Delhaize and Ahold — Delhaize is the Belgium-based parent company of Food Lion; the presidential election year in which Rowan County voters heavily favored Republican Donald Trump, and the campaign season saw GOP vice presidential nominee Mike Pence and several Trump relatives visit Salisbury; and 2016 was the year WSTP AM 1490 went off the air in Salisbury after 76-plus years in business.

Other stories nominated included the school board’s rescinding of its pepper spray policy; Salisbury’s being a finalist as an All-America City; a controversy over officials’ travel expenses in the town of Landis; Rowan County’s rebranding process; a Black Lives Matter rally and march in July; the addition of  several businesses in downtown Salisbury, including two craft breweries; and the love story of Don and Margaret Livengood, who died just hours apart in the same hospital room.

Contact Mark Wineka at 704-797-4263. Stories written previously by Josh Bergeron, Amanda Raymond, Rebecca Rider and Shavonne Walker contributed to this list.

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