2012: A look back at top Ashe stories
Last modified: Dec. 27
BY JESSE CAMPBELL
BY ADAM ORR
Ashe County had its shares of trying moments in 2012.
With some of these tougher times also came signs of prosperity and moving forward out of the national recession.
In no particular order, the following is the best and worst of 2012.
Mark Houck Killing
On Nov. 19, Glendale Springs resident Mark Houck was killed by ACSO Deputies Joshua Hopkins, Brandon Howell, Jeremy Munday in addition to West Jefferson Police Officer Jake Howell as the four men responded to a report of a shooting at 543 Gaither Poe Road in Laurel Springs shortly after 11 p.m. on Nov. 19, according to ACSO Capt. Carolyn Gentry.
After arriving, officers found Houck, 47, armed with a high-powered rifle and scope, according to Gentry, who said the officers identified themselves and ordered Houck to put down his weapon.
Houck refused, pointed the weapon at the officers who then opened fire and killed him.
All officers involved were placed on administrative leave with pay pending the completion of the investigation conducted by the North Carolina State Bureau of Investigation. At presstime, that investigation continues.
In a Nov. 21 statement, Williams expressed his “complete confidence in all the officers involved,” and said he was satisfied they followed department policy and their training protocols.”
“Our hearts go out to the victim's family,” said Williams, “as well as to our officers and departments involved.”
April stabbing leaves one dead
The Ashe County Sheriff's Office said alcohol was a factor in an April altercation that led to the stabbing death of a Fleetwood man.
Sheriff James Williams said deputies arrived at a residence on Miller Mountain Road, which is located off of Liberty Church Grove, on Friday, April 13. There they found James Carroll, 52, from Watauga County with a fatal stab wound to his chest.
They also found Brian Smith, of the Miller Mountain Road residence, with non-life-threatening injuries. He was transported to Watauga Medical Center, where he is currently listed as a patient, said Williams.
Williams said the deceased was the landlord of the residence, and that an argument had turned into a fight between him and the tenant.
Authorities are at this time uncertain how events leading up to the stabbing transpired, but have acknowledged a knife as the weapon.
Investigation yields arson to be the cause of church fire
The congregation of North Beaver Baptist Church in West Jefferson awoke one July morning to the news that a deliberately set fire had destroyed their beloved church.
In the coming days, the Ashe County Sheriff's Department said they believed an arsonist set the fire.
The case remains open and no suspects have been formally named.
"All indications are that this was an arson. There was evidence of forced entry into the church," said Ashe Sheriff James Williams. "We've also called in the State Bureau of Investigation and the state arson investigator."
Williams did not confirm rumors of a break-in prior to the fire or if a suspect has been named in the case.
Ashe County Fire Marshal Bob Davis said the fire appeared to have started in a small hallway located between the sanctuary and an office.
He did not rule out multiple origin points for the fire, but did not further comment, as the investigation is ongoing.
Combs convicted in sexual assault case
In March, Ray Dean Combs, of West Jefferson was sentenced to a minimum of 100 years in prison on 16 combined counts of rape and sexual offense of a child by an adult.
It took jurors less than two hours to return guilty verdicts on all charges.
The victim in the case was 9 and 10 years old when the abuse happened, according to courtroom testimony.
The sexual assault, said prosecutors led by Assistant District Attorney Kisa Posey, happened on multiple occasions between March 2010 and May 2010, and sometimes two or three times day.
The weeklong trial proved to be an emotional one, especially for the victim and her family, who remained present throughout the entire proceeding.
At one point, the judge cleared the courtroom to allow the victim to testify due to the delicate nature of the subject matter and the large audience.
Former band director convicted in student sex case
Former Ashe High band director Ryan Claar, 33, pleaded no contest to three counts of a crime against nature on July 9 in Ashe County Superior Court.
Instead of an active jail sentence, Claar received three consecutive sentences of 30 months of unsupervised probation.
Claar was originally suspended from the Ashe County School System on Feb. 6 pending an investigation by the Ashe County Sheriff's Office. He soon after resigned.
According to courtroom testimony, Claar had maintained a relationship with a 17-year-old female student, who had wished to become a drum major in the school's band program, during the previous school year.
The best of Ashe politics
GOP retains control of commissioners, N.C. General Assembly
While President Barack Obama and the Democratic Party secured his presidency for another four years, it would be the republicans who would win big at the local level.
Republican incumbents Larry Rhodes, Gary Roark, and Gerald Price retained their seats on the Ashe County Board of Commissioners.
Rep. Jonathan Jordan and Sen. Dan Soucek also captured enough votes to return to Raleigh to serve their High Country constituents in the North Carolina General Assembly.
New gun ordinance controls firearms at sporting events
Pro gun advocates and concealed carry permit owners were up in arms in February when county commissioners voted 3-2 to regulate the carry of concealed weapons at county sponsored sporting events.
Commissioners did, however, vote to allow concealed carry owners to have their weapons in other areas of the park, including the walking trails, when there are no athletic events. Concealed carry owners were also given the option of storing their weapons in concealed compartments of vehicles at the park, away from athletic events.
Commissioners voted on the ordinance after a failed motion to disallow any regulation by the county at the park and several comments from pro-gun advocates during a second public hearing.
Sweepstakes Gaming Machines
A ruling by the North Carolina Supreme Court to once again ban “sweepstakes gaming machines,” answered questions Ashe County and West Jefferson had grappled with since a March ruling by the North Carolina Court of Appeals meant owners of the machines could be open for business.
“I don't feel like this will be the end of this story,” said Ashe County Planner Adam Stumb on Dec. 17. “I think there will be future challenges to the law.”
In March, the North Carolina 4th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that a 2010 state law that banned sweepstakes gaming machines was unconstitutional. NC Attorney General Roy Cooper's office appealed the 2-1 decision to the North Carolina Supreme Court, but he uncertainty in the wake of the appellate court's ruling left towns and counties, including Ashe and West Jefferson, in an uncertain position.
In August, the Ashe County Board of Commissioners passed a nine-month moratorium on sweepstakes gaming machines that would effectively give the county the chance to allow the state's highest court to rule on the legality of the machines, and craft a more detailed ordinance if it became necessary.
West Jefferson took action to limit town business to a maximum of 20 sweepstakes gaming machines per business. A $500 licensing fee per machine was also institituted.
“We just heard from the (North Carolina) League of Municipalities,” said West Jefferson Town Manager Brantley Price on Dec. 18. “They're telling us that judgment in the case is not entered until 20 days after the opinion is issued, which means the new law will become effective on Jan. 3.”
Mitchell becomes county manager
During its first board of the year, the Ashe County Board of Commissioners voted 4-1 to appoint Pat Mitchell as the newest Ashe County manager.
Mitchell had served in the interim since the forced resignation of former county manager Dan McMillan.
Mitchell has served as the county's director of economic development since December 2004.
Homebuilders vent health department concerns
The lines of communication between local contractors and Appalachian District Health Department were not working in unison this spring, as builders, plumbers, and electricians gathered at the Fleetwood Fire Department to voice their frustrations.
Local contractors argued that poor customer service and a lengthy permitting process for new construction and well drilling from the health department had significantly hampered their business and livelihood over the past several years.
To alleviate the building tension between the parties, a joint meeting between the health department and representatives from local home builder associations later convened to address the problem and begin working toward a solution.
Commissioners bail out Ashe Services for Aging
In May, the Ashe County Board of Commissioners advanced funding to Ashe Services for Aging, a comprehensive service provider to the county's elderly and disabled.
ASA had requested a minimum of $125,000 on April 2 to meet its mid-April payroll, and was seeking $267,284 before commissioners finalized and adopted the county's 2012/13 budget in June.
Commissioners voted to unanimously advance $50,000 to the financially struggling agency, and approved an additional $50,000 that ASA could utilize in May should the agency need it. The $100,000 was an advance against the agency's 2012/13 budget appropriation.
ASA's financial difficulties began in mid-2009, according to Ashe County Manager Pat Mitchell, when the non-profit learned it would be forced to take a 5 percent pay cut in Medicaid reimbursements. An additional 2.67 percent cut followed in 2011/12, meaning ASA would be forced to operate on 7.67 percent less than in the 2008/09 year.
County has no answers for Fleetwood Fire Department
It remains to be seen if the department will forced — at the cost of its members time and the department's money — to remove a belowground water tank they installed on what they believed was county property.
The department later learned the land is currently held by the North Carolina Department of Transportation for use in the future widening of 221.
The FVFD sunk a belowground water tank for emergency use, on property where the Old Fields Voting House once stood.
Combined with the land clearing and site preparation process, and the purchase and plumbing of the 10,000-gallon water tank the FVFD spent more than $15,000 to prepare the tank for use.
Commissioners ultimately decided to table the issue until clarification from the NC DOT on the property is issued, presumably in 2013.
Boone town manager “not at liberty to discuss” water intake project with Ashe County
Boone Town Manager Greg Young told Ashe County Manager Pat Mitchell he was, “not at liberty to discuss,” the town's water intake project with Mitchell in an October email exchange.
Mitchell had requested a meeting with young to obtain current maps and plans concerning the intake project, including an access road and the route of a proposed water transmission line.
Young's response came six days later, on Oct. 25.
“At this time, the rights-of-ways on Brownwood Road are still in the early stage of acquisition,” wrote Young. “As far as your remaining questions go, I'm unable to provide any definite responses at this time other than reiterating that the town of Boone does not own any real property or any property interest in Ashe County, and would not attempt to acquire one without the Ashe County Commissioner's approval.”
Young further wrote, “I'm not sure that meeting will be beneficial to you as I don't think I would be at liberty to provide the information you're seeking. Is the county reconsidering their position on this matter? I don't understand why you're asking these questions now.”
ABC's Nightline interviews Blue Ridge Elementary first graders
On Dec. 13, Blue Ridge Elementary School first graders were interviewed by ABC's Nightline and given the chance to ask President Barack Obama and family questions about Christmas.
The interview was filmed early on the morning of Dec. 13, and was originally scheduled to air Dec. 14 according to ABC reporter Janice McDonald, but was rescheduled in the wake of the Sandy Hook Elementary school shooting on Dec. 14. The entire eventually ran on Dec. 26.
Under the glare of lights, cameras and a boom microphone, first graders Chase Miller, Carrigan Kearley, Katelyn French and Alicia Deardorff asked the President why the carpet in the Oval Officer is blue, what he does for his job, and how the First Family celebrates Christmas in the White House, among other questions.
The idea for the light-hearted interview came during the delivery ceremony for the White House Christmas tree, when BRES teacher Amanda Estes helped her husband Beau, and father-in-law Rusty deliver the official Blue Room Christmas tree to the White House on Nov. 23, when a reporter noticed a tag on the tree delivered by the Estes family. Each fall, BRES first graders attach tags to area Christmas trees as part of a mapping project. The tags ask the tree's new owners to respond and include the name of the town that becomes each tree's final destination.
“A reporter happened to see the tag on the White House tree, and that's what sparked the interest (in the interview),” said Ashe County Schools Public Information Officer Joallen Lowder. “From there, the entire interview idea came together really fast.”
Schools chief steps down
In late November, Ashe Schools Superintendent Travis Reeves resigned from his post to become superintendent of the Surry County School System.
Reeves cited close family ties with Surry County and the town of Mt. Airy as a major factor in his decision to move on.
“I have truly enjoyed living and working in Ashe County,” said Dr. Reeves in a press release. “My family and I have made many friends and created meaningful relationships. I will miss Ashe County and will always carry the pride that is demonstrated here in my heart. The decision to resign from Ashe County and join Surry County is based on moving my family closer to grandparents and immediate family who live and work in Surry County.”
Reeves had served in the capacity of superintendent since 2009 when he replaced then retiring schools' chief, Donnie Johnson, who has since agreed to serve in the interim until a replacement for Reeves can be found.
Board of Education begins looking to future of Ashe County Middle School
In August, the Ashe County Board of Education began to outline the future of Ashe County Middle School, including renovating the existing structure or potentially building a new structure.
The current building in Warrensville has been used for nearly a half-century.
On May 15, Watauga-based architect Larry Green presented the findings of a six-month feasibility study to determine whether the current structure could be renovated and, if not, what a new facility would cost.
Greene determined renovating the existing building would cost at $7.6 million, with costs that could increase once construction got underway, and perhaps as much as $24 million if the board decided to build a new 800-student (sixth-eighth grade) building located on the current site.
A new 550-student (seventh and eighth grade) middle school located on the existing site would cost approximately $17.5 million, while an upgrade of the current building for 800 (sixth to eighth grade) students would cost approximately $10.8 million.
Greene ultimately recommended building a new facility.
“After conducting a system-by-system analysis of the age, nature and condition of each component of the existing middle school, it is our opinion that it would be better to replace the existing facility with a new school,” read Greene's report.
No decision on the future of the middle school was made during the Aug. 6 meeting.
A look back at industry in Ashe
Industrial layoffs and closings
Ashe County's workforce was dealt a significant blow this summer and fall with the announced reduction of workforces at United Chemicon and Gates Rubber Company.
In July, Ashe County Manager Pat Mitchell, who is also the county's director of economic development, confirmed Gates would close its temporary production facility located next door to the main plant.
Gates had maintained operations in the facility, which was once home to Leviton and Hanes Apparel, since April 2011 when destroyed the company's Glade Spring, VA plant.
Gates had relocated operations to the Jefferson facility with the destruction of the Virginia plant.
A total of 83 positions are predicted to be eliminated.
Then in October, officials with United CHemicon, a Japanese based electrolytic capacitor company, said it planned to layoff close to 150 employees between December and March 2013.
The planned reduction is expected to affect nearly 60 percent of the total workforce.
Chemicon's decision to reduce its workforce stems from uncertainty the Japanese based company has faced due to the 2011 tsunami and nuclear plant crisis that followed.
Lifestore begins operations under closer regulatory oversight
In June, Lifestore Bank was forced to operate with greater federal oversight after the U.S. Comptroller's office found “unsafe and unsound banking practices” related to legal lending limits, appraisals and protection of customer information.
The West Jefferson based bank was designated in “troubled condition,” and its board signed an agreement on May 4 that outlined several steps the bank must take to show it would operate in a sound manner.
The agreement required the bank to review senior officer to ensure competent management was in place, create a written profit plan to improve the bank's earnings, reduce its “criticized assets,” including non-performing loans, and monitor loan exceptions and secure an independent review of the bank's commercial loan portfolio.
Lifestore President Bob Washburn said the agreement was not an indication the bank was at risk of failing or being sold, and said he believed the bank's movement to a different federal regulatory agency caused several misinterpretations.
“To me, it is really more of one agency wanting things done a certain way,” said Washburn. “We just need to adjust our way of reporting.”
In July, West Jefferson Board of Alderman approved the opening of a second bank account on the recommendation of the state's Local Government Commission.
The transaction saw approximately $630,000 of town money transferred from Lifestore to First Citizen's in West Jefferson.
The best of the human spirit
Cox, Reed stage daring river rescue in icy waters of Nathan's Creek
In May, the N.C. State Highway Patrol honored Sgt. James S. Cox of Ashe County, and Ashe County Deputy Sheriff Aaron Reed for their actions during a Jan. 3 rescue of Jefferson's Tommy Shepherd.
Shepherd lost control of the truck he was driving on North Fulton Reeves Road and overturned into the icy waters of Nathan's Creek near where it runs into the South Fork of the New River.
Shepherd was trapped inside as frigid water poured inside the overturned truck. A passing motorist saw the pickup upside down in Nathan's Creek and Cox and Reed soon arrived, climbed down into the frigid water to try to open the doors of the pickup. The men were later joined in the water Tommy Richardson and Dennis Davis.
The driver's side door, jammed shut by the mud at the bottom of the creek bed, was later pried off by passing salt truck.
Shepherd was rescued and taken to Ashe Memorial Hospital when his core body temperature was measured at 14 degrees.
“Each officer went beyond the normal call of duty and demonstrated outstanding judgment,” said Col. Michael Gilchrist, commander of the N.C. State Highway Patrol.
Peak Farms grows official White House Christmas tree
On Nov. 23, a tree from Jefferson's Peak Farms became the Official Blue Room Christmas Tree when Rusty and Beau Estes presented it to First Lady Michelle Obama.
The Estes family earned the honor by winning the National Christmas Tree Association in Sacramento, Calif., in August. White House Superintendent of Grounds Dale Haney and Chief Horticulturist Jim Adams of the National Parks Service later handpicked the tree during a visit to Peak Farms on Oct. 3.
The tree was later harvested during a Nov. 17 ceremony, and was part of the Ashe County Christmas Parade that weekend as the tree made its way through West Jefferson before making the 370-mile journey to Washington, D.C.
“I got goosebumps watching them lift the tree in place, knowing we planted it and grew it on our farm,” said Rusty Estes, who began his career in 1979 with just 300 trees grown on a small plot of land. “It's always a special feeling watching a tree you grew go into a house, especially this house.”
West Jefferson remembers victims of Sandy Hook Elementary shooting
Despite being separated by hundreds of miles, residents of West Jefferson gathered in front of town hall on Dec. 18 to voice their love and support for the victim's lost in the Dec. 14 shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary that claimed the lives of 26 students and staff.
More than 60 people gathered to light candles and share in a brief ceremony led by West Jefferson Alderman Stephen Shoemaker and West Jefferson United Methodist Church Pastor Dr. Peter Taylor.
Taylor reminded the crowd that despite the presence of evil in our world, there is also good.
“We see it every day in the smile of our children, in the people of the community that came together to help one another, and the countless acts of charity performed every day here in Ashe County,” said Taylor. “It's through these acts of kindness that we see God in each and every one of you. You are God's hands and feet.”
The worst ever shooting at an U.S. elementary school, Friday's violence is second in victims to only the 2007 Virginia Tech massacre, which left 33 people dead, including the gunman.
Beloved town attorney dies
Longtime town attorney Jimmy Reeves passed away on July 31 at the age of 64.
Reeves had served as town attorney for West Jefferson for 30 years before stepping down in 2008.
He was also the senior partner in the Vannoy and Reeves law firm.
West Jefferson Mayor Dale Baldwin, who also served as mayor from 1997-2007, said he knew Reeves on both a professional and personal level.
“When he came on, he really took the town to heart,” said Baldwin. “He always worked with the town and saved us thousands and thousands of dollars in those 30 years.”
Baldwin added that Reeves was “one of the finest attorneys the town has ever had” and “an all around good citizen.”
Turnmyre becomes parks' director
Scott Turnmyre was named director of Ashe County Parks and Recreation in October.
He had previously served as a band director at Ashe County High School before retiring in 2010.
Turnmyre had served as interim director for the previous two months following the resignation of then-director Rita Prevette.
He has provided exceptional leadership to the staff and has done an incredible job,” said Mitchell on Turnmyre's recent job performance.
“From community members, including when I attended a recent App State football game, I've heard nothing but positive comments about his leadership in working with the staff and in his interactions with citizens and families. He is an excellent communicator and listener and I believe those attributes will Ashe County well.”