Landis embezzlement investigation named top Salisbury Post story of 2019
After completing an interview with Post reporter Liz Moomey in late 2018, former Landis Town Manager Reed Linn had a question of his own: was it going to be a positive story?
The story published Jan. 13 reported the facts. State officials had concerns about finances from the 2017-2018 fiscal year. A letter from the state’s Local Government Commission was concerned about overspending on salaries and that several accounts were over budget.
“We have requested financial reports from Landis staff — the finance officer and town manager — on several occasions via email and phone calls and have not received any reports as of Sept. 13, 2018,” the letter stated. “This is a grave concern to us.”
But Linn, who had for years been fire chief and town manager, pushed back against the idea that something was wrong.
“If you just look at this one letter, you’re thinking, ‘Oh my God, the town of Landis is broke and poor,’” Linn said.
On Feb. 4, the board met for the first time after the story published. The news from February’s meeting was that Linn would retire as town manager and stay on as fire chief. And town board members vigorously defended Linn and action by town staff. Board members read a letter purportedly written by Linn, who was not in attendance.
Salisbury Post reporting was “fake news,” said then-Mayor Mike Mahaley. Public comments questioning the town and/or Linn were “ludicrous,” he said.
But just two days later, the State Bureau of Investigation opened a criminal probe into the town. Then-Alderman Seth Moore said he received a tip that he referred to Landis police, who then spoke with District Attorney Brandy Cook. It was Cook that asked the SBI to open an independent investigation. Instead of retiring, Linn resigned. Finance Officer Ginger Gibson was out, too.
The investigation remains ongoing, with no indication from state officials about when or if charges will be brought against Linn and Gibson, but details revealed through public records requests and voluntary releases by the town in the months that followed provided a picture of what may have occurred.
W-2 data released by the town showed Linn and Gibson took home substantially more than the salary approved by the Board of Aldermen. While Linn’s approved compensation in 2018 was $69,077, he actually took home $285,541 in 2018, according to the W-2 data. His salary topped out at nearly $350,000 one year earlier.
Gibson’s earnings rose as high as $248,008, while her approved salary was about $50,000, according to W-2 data.
Whether they were ready to hang it up or worried about their potential ouster in November, all Landis incumbents up for re-election in 2019 chose not to seek another term. That meant Mayor Mahaley was out along with Mayor Pro Tem Tommy Garver and Moore. By large margins, voters picked Meredith Bare Smith as the town’s first female mayor. Ashley Stewart and Katie Sells joined the board as aldermen.
The story rocked the town of Landis in 2019 and drew statewide attention, with State Treasurer Dale Folwell taking a personal interest in the case. He told the Post the Landis allegations looked like “pension spiking,” a tactic used to increase a government employee’s pay following retirement.
For its impact on the town of Landis and the broader community, the editorial staff of the Salisbury Post voted the Landis embezzlement investigation its No. 1 news story of 2019, finishing with just one more point than the second story.
The Salisbury Post’s other top 10 news stories of the year are as follows:
• No 2: Erica Parsons case comes to a close.
Eight years to the day after 13-year-old Erica Parsons died, Sandy Parsons in December pleaded guilty to the murder of his adoptive daughter. Receiving a sentence that put him in prison for a minimum of 33 years, Sandy’s plea marked the end of the criminal case against him and his wife, Casey.
Casey in August received life in prison without parole after pleading guilty to first-degree murder in addition to other charges, while Sandy’s plea was for second-degree murder and other charges. Already, the pair were serving federal prison time for mail fraud for accepting adoption assistance and other benefits while Erica was buried in rural Chesterfield County, South Carolina. Her remains were found just off of a small dirt road that was surrounded by pine trees.
In Casey’s case and Sandy’s, too, the disturbing details of Erica’s life and death were described in court.
According to statements by her adoptive brother, Jamie, Erica was reportedly not allowed to sleep in a bed, spending most of her nights locked in a closet or on the floor in her parent’s bedroom. She smelled bad because Sandy and Casey didn’t allow her to bathe, Jamie said. Autopsy reports said she was thought to have an infection at the time of her death. She had numerous broken bones in varying stages of healing.
According to Jamie, who reported in 2013 that he hadn’t seen Erica in nearly two years, Erica’s hand was once placed on a hot stove as punishment, injuries to her back left it scarred. Casey admitted to beating Erica and bending her fingers back as punishment and that she was scared to take the girl to a doctor because Social Services might get involved.
On what is thought to be the last night that Erica was alive, she complained that she couldn’t breathe. Casey responded that the girl should “get back in the (expletive) corner.”
After she died, her remains were placed in plastic trash bags inside of a plastic container, with bleach poured over her body to disguise the smell. After attending a holiday party the evening prior, Sandy said he and his wife on Dec. 18, 2019, went to Pageland, South Carolina, and dug a hole in which they placed her remains.
In court, family members said they suspected Erica was being abused but “shrugged it off.”
Casey, whom prosecutorial evidence said was primarily responsible for the abuse, said that she had failed God and failed her adoptive daughter. Sandy said that he had failed his adoptive daughter and his other kids, too.
• No. 3: School closure debates continue.
The Rowan-Salisbury School Board began the year weighing the closure of North Rowan High School and ended it considering closing another.
Sandwiched between those two in 2019 was the equally controversial proposal to shutter Faith and Enochville elementary schools.
While no proposal has been finalized, 2019 has been a year in which the school board repeatedly and unsuccessfully set its sights on closing schools. Those discussions have been prompted by aging buildings, a declining student population and thousands of empty seats across the district.
After having raised the possibility in late 2018 and seeing community opposition, the Rowan-Salisbury School Board on Jan. 23 paused a proposal to close North Rowan High until countywide redistricting plans were implemented. But redistricting plans never came to a conclusion. Instead, the school board in March proposed closing Faith and Enochville elementaries.
It was finally time to take action, Wagner said when raising the closure proposal. Other boards never had the backbone to make tough decisions and close schools, he said.
But a crowd of dozens showed up repeatedly at school board meetings to protest the Faith and Enochville closures. And the board canceled closure plans later that month after receiving a promise of additional funding from County Commissioners Chairman Greg Edds.
As promised, funding came with the introduction of Rowan County’s 2019-2020 budget in the amount of $75 million over two years. Then, the Rowan-Salisbury School Board in September approved a $26 million renovation of Knox Middle School.
When the board combined the renovation project with shuttering of Overton Elementary, it was Salisbury’s turn to stand against school closures, with the City Council passing a resolution in support of a combined K-8 school that includes Knox and Overton.
• No. 4: Chewy.com fulfillment center.
With the potential to add more than 1,200 jobs by 2025, tens of millions in taxable property and a major, new business, online pet product retailer Chewy.com’s April announcement that it would build a fulfillment center on Long Ferry Road was big news.
In fact, news about Chewy’s selection so big that it’s the biggest, single job announcement in the county’s history. Rowan beat out sites in South Carolina and Georgia for the fulfillment center.
The facility isn’t small either. At 700,000 square feet, it’s expected to add $55 million to the county’s taxable property total. Hundreds of thousands of cubic yards of dirt were moved to make way for the warehouse, which is under construction and expected to open in June. It required roughly 25,000 to 30,000 cubic yards of concrete.
The announcement has local leaders and Realtors thinking about where all of Chewy’s employees will live, with East Spencer and Spencer hoping to be first in line.
• No. 5: Fame monument vandalized again; the city council’s discussions
For the second time in less than a year, paint was splashed on the “Fame” Confederate monument in March. That incident prompted a citywide discussion about the monument’s relocation and led the City Council to schedule a public hearing in which locals passionately advocated their position.
Yellow paint was discovered on the monument in the early morning hours of March 20. And while police obtained grainy images of two “persons of interest” and a vehicle, no one has been charged in connection with the incident.
Then-Mayor Al Heggins reacted to the incident by calling for civility.
“Clearly, there are forces at work to set an old and unresolved disagreement about this statue on fire. I believe Salisbury residents are strong enough, smart enough and resilient enough to not fall into this nasty trap,” Heggins said in March.
Heggins also attempted to organize a special meeting about “Fame,” inviting representatives of the United Daughters of the Confederacy, Sons of Confederate Veterans, Salisbury-Rowan NAACP, Salisbury Indivisible and Women for Community Justice. The Confederate supporters didn’t show.
Heggins in an email told Salisbury-Rowan NAACP President Gemale Black she preferred a private discussion with groups she invited to the meeting, but the mayor was pressed by Black and others to have a public hearing. She agreed to support a public hearing if other council members did the same.
The next step was a June public hearing at the Civic Center. A standing-room-only crowd turned out, with dozens speaking in support of and in opposition to relocating the monument from its downtown perch on West Innes Street.
But there are barriers to its relocation that include the city conveying land to the United Daughters of the Confederacy in the early 1900s and a 2015 state law that placed strict limits on a city’s ability to move Confederate monuments. Ultimately, conversations about relocation fizzled out as the Salisbury City Council entered the 2019 election.
• No. 6: Turnover in municipal elections
Last year’s municipal election marked change across Rowan County.
For the second time in three elections, Karen Alexander received the most votes of any Salisbury City Council candidate and, with unanimous support from fellow board members, was chosen as the city’s mayor. Heggins, a political neophyte who charged to first place in her first bid for public office, finished short of first in her second campaign by less than 200 votes. She was named mayor pro tem as a result. While seats changed, all incumbents returned to the board.
Voters also gave their approval to a ballot referendum that will make Salisbury’s mayoral race a separate item on the ballot in 2021 and beyond.
Following an embezzlement investigation in Landis, voters in November picked Meredith Bare Smith as their new mayor and Ashley Stewart and Katie Sells as new aldermen. The trio campaigned together on a platform of transparency. With incumbents choosing not to seek re-election, the newcomers swept into office by large margins.
In Spencer, voters ousted all incumbents except Sharon Hovis after the departure of former Town Manager Terence Arrington, who left just six months into a three-year contract. Arrington’s disagreements with the board became a public spectacle, with him criticizing a poor performance review he received. A recording of a phone conversation involving Arrington, a board member and her wife brought simmering disagreements to a vigorous boil. He resigned less than a month after the recording leaked.
Jonathan Williams was elected Spencer mayor after Jim Gobbel chose not to seek another term.
In China Grove, Lee Withers was upset by Charles Seaford in the China Grove mayor’s race. Seaford, who had served 10 years on the town council, made Withers a one-term mayor when he received 54.26% of the vote in November.
• No. 7: Rick Travis’ disappearance
A 66-year-old Spencer man went on a run on a dreary February afternoon and hasn’t been seen since.
Rick Travis, a former marathoner who ran the same route multiple times per week, was last spotted somewhere around Long Ferry Road and Interstate 85. He also was the former director of the Rowan County Department of Social Services.
Crews searched for days and never found anything. There was no evidence that pointed to what happened to Travis.
Months after his disappearance, Travis’ wife, Jean McCoy, was able to collect thousands of signatures to help change the N.C. Department of Transportation’s policy about how it alerts the public and solicits help in finding missing people.
• No. 8: Little League girls become world champs again
For the second time in four years, the Rowan County Little League Softball team in 2019 won the World Series.
With a lot of people watching from home, Rowan held on to beat a team from Louisiana, 4-1, on an August night in Oregon. Four years earlier, Rowan also scored four runs, allowing just two, in their championship win over a team from Rhode Island.
But this year’s victory was different. Like last year, the city held a parade through downtown for the team and gathered at Salisbury Community Park for a celebration.
Unlike the prior championship, the president, through a post on Twitter, invited the boys baseball team to the White House. Naturally, Coach Steve Yang, also through Twitter, asked for equal treatment and a White House invitation.
He received hundreds of “retweets” and “likes,” the attention of the county’s congressmen and, ultimately, an invitation for the girls.
• No. 9: Reesa Dawn Trexler cold case solved
On Dec. 3 and after 35 years, Salisbury Police solved the murder of Reesa Dawn Trexler, a teen who was found stabbed to death at her grandfather’s home in 1984.
The case was solved with DNA technology that was not available at the time of the murder.
Police wouldn’t name the suspect, but the body of Curtis Edward Blair, who worked nearby, was exhumed in connection with the case. A knife belonging to a “C. Blair” was also seized, according to court documents. Blair died in 2004.
Interest in the case was renewed when Trexler’s sister, Jodie Trexler Laird, appeared on The Dr. Phil Show and passed a polygraph test in 2018. At one time, Trexler’s sister had been a suspect in the case.
• No. 10: Years of construction and frustration end on I-85
County Commissioners Chairman Greg Edds had a message for employers after contractors for the N.C. Department of Transportation opened new traffic lanes on I-85.
“Rowan is open for business,” Edds said in November.
Two years earlier, in 2017, crews began widening I-85 from two to four lanes in each direction. On Nov. 8, 2019, DOT officials said the widening had reached “substantial completion” and that new traffic lanes were ready for vehicles.
Because I-85 previously narrowed to two lanes in the China Grove area, the interstate was more like a parking lot during peak traffic hours. DOT, emergency and elected officials say the new lanes will allow traffic to flow more freely, provide faster access to crashes on the interstate and bring economic development.
At roughly the same time as new traffic lanes opened on I-85, DOT also opened a new exit at Old Beatty Ford Road, which will be the site of a mixed-use development that Kannapolis will annex.
Josh Bergeron is editor of the Salisbury Post. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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