Top stories of 2017: Elections bring change

Published 12:00 am Saturday, December 30, 2017

By Elizabeth Cook

SALISBURY — Winds of change swept through Rowan County on Election Day 2017 and could shape what happens in 2018 and after.

The Salisbury Post’s news staff voted for elections, appropriately, as the top news story of the year, followed closely by Salisbury’s grappling with gun violence and the countywide opioid epidemic.

Here’s a rundown of the top 10 stories, as voted on by the Post:

1. Elections bring historic change.

Municipal voters made history this year, especially in Salisbury. In her first run for office, Al Heggins became the first African-American woman to lead city voting and be chosen mayor. “Welcome to the people’s meeting,” she said after being sworn in on Dec. 5.

Joining Heggins in making history are David Post, the city’s first Jewish mayor pro tem, and Tamara Sheffield, the city’s first openly gay council member. Also for the first time, women hold the majority on the council — Heggins, Sheffield and Karen Alexander, former mayor.

Two Rowan towns elected their first black town board members — Arthur Heggins in China Grove and Sharon Hovis in Spencer.

The trend echoed across the nation as an unprecedented number of women, minorities and LGBT people were elected to public office. Pundits attributed the shift to increased turnout among minorities, especially black women — perhaps a reaction to the 2016 election of President Trump.

Speaking up for and involving people who feel left out or ignored by local government was a recurring theme in the campaign.

“I want to keep enticing and inviting them to come to the board meetings, because their opinion matters,” Hovis said after receiving the most votes in Spencer’s election. She became mayor pro tem.

With turnout around 16 percent, Rowan municipal voters expressed a desire for change by ousting at least one incumbent in several towns — Phronice Johnson and Tammy Corpening in East Spencer, Mike Brinkley and Arin Wilhelm in Granite Quarry, Dorland Abernathy in Landis, Ken Hardin in Salisbury and Howard White in Spencer.

Some 6,322 voters cast ballots, according to the Rowan Board of Elections, including 3,489 women and 2,798 men. (Thirty-five voters are “undesignated.”) By party, those casting ballots included 2,720 Democrats, 2,330 Republicans, 1,590 unaffiliated voters and 9 Libertarians. The voters included 4,297 whites and 1,868 blacks.

On to 2018. It should be interesting.


2. Salisbury confronts gun violence and crime.

Salisbury started 2017 with several violent deaths from the previous year hanging over the city, including the killing of Ferguson Laurent in November 2016 by police serving a no-knock search warrant. Autopsy results released in January showed Laurent had 10 gunshot wounds, several more than police had indicated. Black pastors and others held a press conference to call for “truth, transparency and trust.”

Police Chief Jerry Stokes told City Council that Salisbury’s crime problem is homegrown and gang-related. And the shootings continued, virtually all involving young black men who settled their differences with guns.

Hence the unrest. Citizens, many of them black, bombarded City Council with comments about crime and violence and accused council members of not listening, even as the city began to turn the corner on filling the police department’s depleted ranks. City Council OK’d a 15 percent raise and $40,000 starting pay for police. Capt. Shon Barnes joined the force as assistant chief.

Crime fears seemed to peak after a shootout in front of a downtown restaurant left two dead and two wounded. With the help of the Rowan County Sheriff’s Office and the SBI — and tips from a more cooperative public — Salisbury Police quickly made arrests in the homicides. In fact, police identified or arrested suspects in all of the year’s killings, a change from the backlog of unsolved cases of years past.

Near the end of the year, the city gained another partner in the crime fight, the federal Office of Justice Programs Diagnostic Center.

3. The opioid crisis heightens. 

Abuse of opioids reached frightening new levels in 2017. Individuals passed out from overdoses in cars, houses, stores, hotel rooms and even the bathroom of a hospital’s intensive care unit. In August, a passerby found an overdosed couple unconscious on a downtown sidewalk, their 5-year-old son in a pickup parked nearby.

EMTs often found children present when they went to the scene of an overdose — and they went to a lot of them in 2017, some repeatedly. Calls for service in which Rowan EMS administered Narcan to reverse an overdose are on track to more than double the 2016 total of 292.

Nationwide, drug overdoses have become the leading cause of death for people under 50 — more than gun-related homicides and collisions combined — and Rowan is part of that trend.

Some 30 people died of opioid overdoses in Rowan in 2016. Totals for 2017 are yet to be reported, but with more addicts using fentanyl, a highly powerful synthetic opioid, the toll likely will be much higher. Fatal overdoses reached 19 in one five-month period, with first responders saving hundreds more people with Narcan.

Novant Health Rowan Medical Center leader Dari Caldwell said the hospital planned to expand its 20-bed behavioral health unit to include substance abuse as a primary diagnosis.

Solutions offered at an August forum on opioids included establishing a full-scale inpatient treatment facility in Rowan, as well as public awareness and education initiatives, working closely with those who prescribe and dispense drugs and providing a drug disposal site.

Looking for ways to help, Sheriff Kevin Auten said this week that he plans to visit a pre-arrest drug diversion program in New Hanover County designed to keep low-level offenders out of the criminal justice system and get them the help they need. Coming up with money and space to start a similar program in Rowan could be a challenge.

Law enforcement agencies made several major arrests of people involved in the drug trade, but the supply of opioids — and the demand for them — appears to be endless.

4. Bank robbery goes wrong.

Armed with a gun, 25-year-old Paul Jones III entered a Wells Fargo Bank on Jake Alexander Boulevard on the afternoon of Nov. 9 with robbery on his mind. He would soon be dead.

According to a witnesses, after demanding money from a teller, Jones confronted bank customers and asked for their car keys so he could make his escape. As the customers backed away, Jones shot one of them and then fled on foot. He ran to Brenner Avenue, where he shot at the driver of a black Acura that was waiting to turn onto Jake Alexander Boulevard. Jones got in the car, pushed the man aside and sped off. The man later jumped from the car as it sped along Lincolnton Road near Salisbury High School.

Jones led police on a short chase that circled back to Jake Alexander Boulevard and ended when the Acura crashed into the rear of another car in front of Jerry’s Shell. Police approached the Acura and Jones shot at them. Witnesses said they heard two pops. Police fired back, killing Jones.

It all happened within minutes. But what spurred Jones, a one-time warehouse worker, to take such drastic action may forever mystify his friends and family members. After one report that he suffered from mental illness and could not get treatment, family members stepped forward to refute that claim and offered a public apology for his actions.

Police Chief Jerry Stokes said his officers acted with bravery and valor. “They clearly saved other people’s lives yesterday,” he said the day after the robbery. “We don’t know what led Mr. Jones to commit these evil acts and we don’t know what else he could have done had the officers not been able to locate him fleeing the area.”

The people Jones shot survived but suffered serious injuries. Bank customer Jose Santiago, 61, was shot in the face and taken to Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center in Winston-Salem. The driver of the Acura, Larry Darnell Dalton Jr., 45, told a Post editor on Thursday that he still has a bullet lodged in the back of his skull.


5. School buildings need drastic action.  

The Rowan-Salisbury Board of Education started and ended 2017 talking about the system’s $208 million in capital needs — with only $2.4 million a year to spend on them. But it was not a year of inaction.

In November, the system broke ground on the new West Rowan Elementary School to replace Woodleaf and Cleveland schools. Around the same time, a committee appointed to look at the system’s 35 aging schools and the system’s shrinking enrollment recommended a plan to redistrict, consolidate and close several schools.

The committee flagged 11 schools:

• Elementary schools: Overton, Mount Ulla, Hurley, Morgan, Granite Quarry and Faith.

• Middle schools: China Grove, Corriher-Lipe and Knox.

• High schools: North Rowan and Henderson.

Committee member Nick Atkins likened the mounting needs to a growing credit card balance. “At this point, we have a credit card with no limit,” he said. “We’re making the minimum payment and we’re racking up bills on this thing. It’s just not a situation we can get out of.”

The school board has taken the plan under consideration but not endorsed it.

6. Cheerwine celebrates 100 years.

From the time L.D. Peeler formulated it in 1917, Cheerwine has given Rowan County something to brag about — being the birthplace of a bubbly, cherry-flavored soft drink like no other. Cheerwine celebrated its 100th birthday in 2017 with a downtown celebration that may have set records for packing thousands of people into two downtown blocks and dispensing truckloads of cold Cheerwine.

“Unbelievable,” said Cliff Ritchie, president and chief executive officer.

This was a yearlong celebration, however. Other highlights included resolutions and proclamations from elected officials, a highly popular exhibit at Rowan Museum and the company’s pledge of $100,000 to United Way to match new donations.

The family-owned business is now in its fifth generation.

“My great-grandfather would be pleased to see it’s lasted this long,” Ritchie said. “I don’t have any idea what his expectations were, but we do have a great sense of accomplishment and pride. We’ve been able to carry it on, and pass it on to the next generation.”

Cheerwine is now available in nearly all 50 states and through specialty stores like World Market and Cracker Barrel. But its biggest fans may be in North Carolina — like Winston-Salem resident Rick Ragan, who drove to Salisbury for the May festival.

“I tell you,” he told a reporter, “if I’m going to drink a soda, it’s going to be a Cheerwine,”

7. The search continues for A’yanna’s killer.

Young A’yanna Allen was killed in December 2016, but the search for answers about her death continued in 2017. The 7-year-old was asleep at her grandmother’s house when a drive-by shooter sprayed the house with gunfire, killing A’yanna and injuring her grandmother. An autopsy released in February said the girl suffered 20 wounds from head to toe, inflicted by 13 bullets.

A billboard erected at the intersection of South Main Street and Jake Alexander Boulevard in the spring advertised a $20,000 reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of A’yanna’s killer, but as yet no arrests have been made.

Anyone with information is asked to contact Salisbury Police at 704-638-5333 or Salisbury-Rowan Crime Stoppers at 1-866-639-5245, online via

8. Rowan takes prayer case to the Supreme Court. 

The Rowan County Board of Commissioners voted 5-0 in September to appeal a ruling over its prayer practices to the U.S. Supreme Court, setting the stage — if the court takes up the case — for what could be a historic decision.

The case started in 2013 when the ACLU filed suit on behalf of residents Nan Lund, Robert Voelker and Liesa Montag-Siegel, who took issue with the board’s prayers at the start of commission meetings. In July, the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the commissioners’ prayer practice from 2006 to 2013 was “unconstitutionally coercive.” Judge Harvie Wilkinson wrote that “free religious exercise can only remain free if not influenced and directed by the hand of the state. On this score, the county simply went too far.”

In a similar case in the 6th Circuit concerning county commissioners in Michigan, federal judges ruled by a 9-6 count that commissioners’ prayer practices were constitutional. Known as a circuit split, the fact that the courts ruled differently on the same topic may increase chances of the Supreme Court taking the case.

Rowan commissioners decided to press on. “If you go back through the courts enough,” Commissioner Craig Pierce said at one point, “sooner or later they’re going to give you the answer you want.”

9. Salisbury seeks a Fibrant solution.

Fibrant, the city’s high-speed broadband system, has a record of satisfied customers and unsatisfactory financial performance. Set in motion by City Council just before the Great Recession set in, a system that was expected to be a moneymaker is instead pulling about $3 million a year from the city’s general fund.

In 2017, City Council decided to seek someone to buy, lease or manage Fibrant, and several proposals came in. An advisory board of local business people and others appointed to weigh in on the system’s future met behind closed doors — even papering over windows so no one could see what was going on. The city has yet to reach a conclusion on Fibrant’s future.

David Post, now mayor pro tem, summarized the situation in a Salisbury Post guest column. “Because of Fibrant’s lack of profitability, its value is low, requiring us to negotiate from a position of weakness. We face local criticism for yesterday’s mistakes rather than support for tomorrow’s possibilities.”

The FCC’s recent decision to repeal net neutrality might work in Fibrant’s favor. As big internet service providers start favoring some content over others, charging more access fees and placing barriers to competitors, some people predict publicly owned networks like Fibrant could become more popular and widespread.

But will they be profitable or at least break even?

10. PFLAG representatives not allowed in Holiday Caravan.

Members of PFLAG — Parents, Family and Friends of Lesbians and Gays — climbed aboard the Avita pharmacy float for the Nov. 22 Holiday Caravan and soon met opposition from a parade official. Their rainbow-colored PFLAG T-shirts did not match the color scheme on Avita’s parade application, the official said. The group was not allowed to appear in the parade, and Avita pulled its float.

The Holiday Caravan board said PFLAG members were removed because the Avita float  “didn’t follow the rules and tried to change the entry without approval.” In an email to the Post, a board member also pointed out the parade board’s right “to decline participation at our events from any group or organization which do not reflect the mission, vision and values of our organization.”

Many perceived the action as discrimination against the people for whom PFLAG advocates, and Salisbury City Council heard requests in December for the city to step in. The council took no action, but member Brian Miller said it underscored the need to fix the city’s special permit parade ordinance.