Top 10 News Stories From the Past Year
On an eerily windy, sunny Sunday morning in March, a burly man walked calmly into a Carthage nursing home and began randomly shooting at helpless victims -- some in wheelchairs.
Before a young Carthage police officer ended the bloodshed with a single shot, seven elderly residents and a male nurse had been fatally wounded in the rampage. The accused gunman, Robert Kenneth Stewart, was believed to be looking for his estranged wife, who was working there that morning.
Justin Garner, the only Carthage police officer on duty that morning, entered Pinelake Health and Rehabilitation Center without any backup and located the assailant in a back hallway. In an exchange of gunfire, Garner was struck by three pellets from the assailant's shotgun, but not before he managed to get off one shot. Stewart was struck in the upper chest.
Garner managed to handcuff Stewart, who now sits in Central Prison in Raleigh, awaiting trial later this year. He faces the death penalty if convicted. Chief Chris McKenzie and others hailed Garner as a true hero. He has received numerous awards and national recognition.
The events on that murderous morning, March 29, forever changed Carthage. News media from all over the country descended on the quiet little county seat.
Members of the Pilot's news staff recently voted the Pinelake massacre as their unanimous choice for the No. 1 news story of 2009 in Moore County.
In fact, the balloting was more of a contest to see which story would be runner-up. That distinction went to the historic announcement by the United States Golf Association in June that the famed Pinehurst No. 2 Golf Course would host the U.S. (men's) Open and the Women's Open during back-to-back weeks in 2014. It was an unprecedented move.
The USGA had previously announced that Pinehurst would host the 2014 U.S. Open for a third engagement, the first two having been held here in 1999 and 2005. The Women's Open has been held three times at nearby Pine Needles in 1996, 2001 and 2007. Everyone knew it would return, but the shocker was that it would be played in Pinehurst this time.
Another big story this year was the jury's verdict in a federal lawsuit against the Moore County Sheriff's Office and a former deputy as a result of a shooting seven years ago. During a military training exercise called Robin Sage, deputy Randall Butler shot and killed one soldier and wounded another in a tragic case of misunderstanding.
After listening to several weeks of testimony and hearing differing versions from the eyewitnesses, the jury awarded $750,000 in damages to Stephen Phelps, a former Special Forces soldier. The jury concluded that Butler had used excessive force during a traffic stop near Robbins in February 2002.
Butler claimed that he had not known Phelps and Tallas Tomeny were student soldiers taking part in the Special Forces qualification training course. The soldiers' civilian driver, Charlie Lieber, never let on during the confrontation that it was a training scenario. They all assumed Butler was in on the game. Butler was cleared of any wrongdoing in investigations conducted by the Army and the State Bureau of Investigation.
In a more feel-good story of the year, the Pinecrest High School varsity football team made history. After notching a school record nine wins in the regular season, the Patriots hosted their first-ever playoff game and won, advancing to a second-round home date with Fuquay-Varina. That was where the magical season came to an end.
But the future seems bright for the program. Coach Chris Metzger, now in his third year, is credited with helping bring the program back from the brinkof being eliminated just three short years after a winless campaign. He earned the designation of The Pilot's Newsmaker of the Year for 2008.
Another Pinecrest sports story also made the top 10. Supporters of former soccer coach Larry Martin unsuccessfully appealed to the Board of Education to have him reinstated. The situation brought to light growing tensions between the school's soccer and football programs.
On the local government front, an announcement in July by the village of Pinehurst that it had reached a deal to buy the water and sewer treatment plants at a textile plant near Wagram for $5.5 million raised more than a few eyebrows. The village wants to create some type of regional consortium to tap the resources of the plant. The village said the facilities would provide an asset to help meet the needs of the region.
The deal has been held up by Scotland County, which must approve it. The city of Laurinburg is conducting its own study about the possible use of the utilities.
The economy, which was also among the top stories a year ago, was again a big issue this year for many local governments and the public schools as they coped with covering budget shortfalls brought on by state cuts and declines in revenues. Balancing budgets became even more difficult.
The school system took the unprecedented step of announcing in July that it would have to eliminate 90 jobs. In the end, the number came down significantly, thanks to federal stimulus funds.
Another murder made the top 10 this year. In May, Abigail Baughn, a well-liked assistant principal at Pinecrest High School, was found dead of a gunshot wound in her home near Carthage. Police charged her husband, Randy, with her murder.
The legal battle over the village of Pinehurst's attempts to annex Pinewild Country Club raged on this year, with several more rulings in both state and federal suits favoring the village. The legal war has been on The Pilot's top 10 list now for several years. It may be winding down soon. Opponents are still hopeful the state Supreme Court will take up the matter, but the appeal is not automatic, since the N.C. Court of Appeals unanimously rejected the latest claims earlier this year.
Last, but not least, was the controversy over the decision by the Moore County Board of Commissioners to expand the county jail and build other offices on land it had bought in downtown Carthage. The jail expansion became a central issue in the municipal election in the county seat as opponents mounted a campaign for mayor and seats on the Town Board to stop it. They were defeated at the polls.
The commissioners were divided on the matter themselves. Some wanted the county to hold off until it decides what to do about the critical space shortage faced by the courts facility, which is becoming outdated and overcrowded. The county has hired a consultant to study ways to address the needs of the court system.
Other stories that received votes but did not make the list included the continuing saga involving John Edwards, a former U.S. senator, two-time presidential candidate and former vice-presidential nominee who grew up in Robbins; and the resignation of Abigail Dowd from the Southern Pines Town Council.
The Pilot's newsroom staff members voted on the top 10 stories, chosen from a list of 19 nominees.
News value, the main criterion in the judging, is an admittedly subjective and hard-to-define measure. It is not necessarily the same as long-term community importance -- though that, too, factored into the staff's consideration. Other criteria included reader interest and the amount of coverage given to each story.
Here are the top 10 news stories of 2009:
1. Pinelake Massacre
The shattering events of the morning of Sunday, March 29, were unlike anything Carthage Police Chief Chris McKenzie had seen in 20 years in law enforcement.
A lone gunman walked into Pinelake Health and Rehabilitation Center on Pinehurst Avenue about 10 a.m. and opened fire on patients and staff. Seven elderly patients and a male nurse died.
"I don't know that the emotion has entirely set in," the shaken chief said that afternoon. "This is a small community built on faith, and faith will get us through."
Pinelake is a 110-bed rehabilitation, nursing and Alzheimer's care facility located on Pinehurst Avenue in Carthage. The slain residents were identified as Tessie Garner, 88; Lillian Dunn, 89; Jessie Musser, 88; Bessie Hendrick, 78; John Goldston, 78; Margaret Johnson, 89; and Louise Decker, 98.
A registered nurse who worked at the facility, Jerry Avent, 39, was also killed. Michael Cotton, 53, a visitor at the nursing home who was shot as he got out of his car, survived after being transported to Moore Regional Hospital.
Justin Garner, 25, the only Carthage policeman on duty on a normally sleepy Sunday morning, responded to a 911 call about gunshots fired at the nursing home. He parked his patrol car by the front entrance and started inside, meeting a woman at the front door who was fleeing for her life.
Garner went in without backup -- finding the place, as he later said, enveloped in an eerie silence. He encountered the heavyset, bearded Stewart in a back hallway. Garner ordered him three times to drop the shotgun he was carrying, but Stewart instead brought it down to point and fire. Despite being struck, Garner shot Stewart, cuffed him and placed him under arrest.
District Attorney Maureen Krueger praised the efforts of Garner, who she said was a well-trained officer who performed his duty.
"He acted in nothing short of a heroic way today," she said. "If not for his action, we could have had a worse tragedy."
The day after being treated at FirstHealth Moore Regional Hospital, Stewart was arraigned on eight counts of first-degree murder before District Judge Jayreene Maness at a hearing held in the sally port at the county jail, then taken directly to Central Prison in Raleigh. Two attorneys from an Asheboro firm were appointed to defend him by the capital defenders office. He faces trial next year for the murders and numerous other charges.
Stewart, who was described as being on the "outskirts" in Moore County, told an emergency room nurse that "he had taken six nerve pills and does not remember anything else," according to search warrants ordered unsealed late Monday.
Investigators later searched Stewart's green-striped white double-wide mobile home at 2530 Glendon-Carthage Road and seized shotguns, pistols, rifles and ammunition, as well as notes and notebooks.
Another warrant resulted in the search and seizure of a Jeep Cherokee registered to Stewart's estranged wife, who had fled what her mother called a "violent marriage" to take refuge with her family.
The events attracted nationwide attention, and the county seat filled with satellite news trucks, television cameras and reporters from national and international networks and news agencies. Chief McKenzie held news conferences and later traveled to New York with Garner to appear on NBC's "Today" show.
2. His-and-Her Opens
The United States Golf Association created surprise and excitement throughout the golf world June 15 when it announced that the 2014 U.S. Open and Women's Open would be held on back-to-back weekends at Pinehurst Resort.
In an unprecedented move, the USGA will stage the men's championship on the renowned No. 2 Course June 12-15, with the women following June 19-22. The USGA had previously announced that Pinehurst would host the 2014 U.S. Open.
"This is a unique and wonderful opportunity to showcase the U.S. Open and the U.S. Women's Open," said USGA President Jim Vernon.
It's also something that may never happen again. According to USGA Executive Director David Fay, "There is probably only one other venue in the country [where this could be accomplished]. This double-header, staged at one of the sport's most storied golf courses, promises to provide a promotion of women's championship golf unlike anything we've ever seen."
The only evident downside to the event could be that this means Pine Needles Resort, which has hosted three of the most successful U.S. Women's Opens in history --1996, 2001 and 2007 -- won't be considered for a return for at least a decade.
"We have had three very successful Women's Opens at Pine Needles, and this certainly doesn't mean that we won't return there in five or six years," Fay said. "Why wouldn't we? But we were looking for a great course to host the 2014 Women's Open, and this was just such a terrific opportunity."
Fay said that concerns that the course might not be able to withstand two weeks of stringent conditioning for national championship play should be alleviated because of the location, the fact that the women's event is being played second, and because Pinehurst Resort's maintenence crew, headed by Bob Farren, is considered one of the best in the world.
"It's a very good course on which to try this," Fay said. "It's a resort, and the ownership is willing to do it, which might not be the case with a private club. And then you take the course itself. The sand-based area of the Sandhills will minimize [damage by] the traffic outside the ropes."
3. Robin Sage Verdict
A federal jury in Greensboro on Oct. 27 awarded $750,000 in compensatory and punitive damages to a soldier who had been shot by a Moore County deputy eight years previously.
Randall Butler, who is now chief deputy of Lee County, had shot Army Sgt. Stephen Phelps and 1st Lt. Tallas Tomeny in an altercation during a traffic stop near Robbins.
Tomeny died, and Phelps was badly wounded. The two soldiers, along with a civilian volunteer, Charlie Leiber, were involved in a Special Forces training exercise called Robin Sage. They thought Butler was part of it, but he said he knew nothing about the exercise.
Phelps and Tomeny's estate filed a lawsuit in 2004, naming Butler both personally and in his capacity as a law-enforcement officer and Lane Carter in his capacity as sheriff of Moore County. Tomeny's family settled out of court before the trial began.
The key thing affecting their decision, jurors said, was eyewitness testimony -- primarily from Leiber, who watched everything from the front seat of Butler's patrol vehicle.
Butler testified he had seen what looked to him like two machine guns in a black backpack Tomeny was trying to hide. Hurling the bag behind him, Butler said he whirled around to break Tomeny's two-handed grip on his service revolver, drew the gun, then attempted to pepper-spray the soldier. At that point, Phelps jumped from the truck and went running toward the bag, according to the testimony.
Phelps said he was trying to get away from the pepper spray to a wooded area, taking the bag with him as it contained a disassembled M4 assault rifle. The rifle was loaded with blanks, as are all weapons used in Robin Sage. Butler, who said he had never heard of that exercise, told the jury he feared for his life. When he saw Phelps getting up with the gun, he fired. When he saw Tomeny putting one hand back as if to draw a gun, he fired again.
The jury had to decide which story to believe about events that day.
Robin Sage has been conducted for more than four decades in a number of North Carolina counties, including Moore. Future Special Forces soldiers conduct a mock infiltration of an imaginary country called Pineland. They are instructed to regard law-enforcement officers they encounter as enemy agents controlled by OPFOR, the opposing force they are helping Pinelanders fight off.
4. Pinecrest Football
Pinecrest High School's hopes of extending a magical football season ended Nov. 20 with a 41-7 defeat at the hands of Fuquay-Varina in a second-round playoff game.
But the players did not allow that lopsided loss to diminish their accomplishments on the field this year. It was the Patriots' best season ever at 10-3.
The Patriots broke the school record for wins, reaching 10 in a season for the first time in the 40-year history of the program with only the second postseason win in the program's history. The week before, the Patriots shut out Durham Jordan 28-0 at home in the first round of the 4AA playoffs. It was the first-time Pinecrest had ever hosted a playoff game.
The future looks bright for a program that was nearly eliminated three short years ago. The coaches are running a year-round program and developing players years in advance. The players and the community have also bought into the football program. About the only thing missing is a championship trophy.
But the foundation is in place, and the coaches hope it will make winning seasons and playoff victories the rule rather than the exception.
5. Wagram Deal
The village of Pinehurst announced in July that it had reached a deal to buy water and wastewater treatment plants near Wagram in Scotland County for $5.5 million.
The facilities had served a former WestPoint Pepperell mill located on the Lumber River. The village said the plants would serve its needs and those of the region for years to come. The county currently owns the utilities that serve the village.
The village said it wants to form a regional consortium. It has approached Aberdeen and Southern Pines about participating. Both have indicated a willingness to discuss the arrangement. Questions swirled about how the village could make it work financially and where it would leave the county should it go through.
But for now, the deal has hit a snag.
Village Manager Andy Wilkison said there is a difference of opinion between the Scotland County Board of Commissioners and Pinehurst officials on how the deal should move forward. Wilkison said Scotland County wants the village to conduct a feasibility study before approving the deal, while Pinehurst wants the approval before committing an estimated $100,000 to conduct the study. Because the plants are located in Scotland County, its Board of Commissioners must approve the purchase.
"We're reluctant to do [the study first] because there's no guarantee that they're going to vote at all, or vote to allow us to acquire [the plants]," Wilkison said in November.
The village originally eyed a closing date in November. In September, the Scotland County commissioners voted to give the Laurinburg City Council 90 days to conduct its own study of the situation.
6. Budget Difficulties
The impact of the economic recession on local governments was exemplified by the critical situation facing the Moore County public school system as it tried to develop a budget.
The system announced in June that it would be forced to cut 5 percent of its workforce in the new year -- with 90 positions across the board to be eliminated. It was an unprecedented move. At least 38 employees would be laid off, Superintendent Susan Purser said. That came in response to sharp cuts in state funding to pay teachers and other employees, necessitated by a billion-dollar revenue shortfall facing North Carolina.
By the time the school board finally approved its budget in August, well after the fiscal year began in July, the situation was not as dire as earlier projected. The system was able to avoid layoffs, thanks largely to federal stimulus money.
In the end, the district endured $6.9 million in state cuts. Federal stimulus money helps offset a good chunk of the state reductions. The reduction in non-instruction personnel is almost completely replenished by $3.2 million in federal funds given to to the state to fill in some of its budget gaps.
The system also received $1.3 million for Exceptional Children instruction and $716,000 for Title 1 schools. Both are good for two years.
Superintendent Susan Purser said that "every penny" saved has gone toward the school system's top goal -- saving teaching positions.
But that task may be even more difficult next year. The school system is expecting another $1.1 million cut in state funding next year. And this time, there will be no federal stimulus funds to ease the pain.
The county and most towns had to cope with sagging revenues brought on by the recession, such as a decline in sales tax revenues.
7. Baughn Murder
An assistant principal at Pinecrest High School died May 24 from a gunshot wound to the head.
Abigail Alexander Baughn, 36, was found dead at her home at 333 Baughn Trail in Carthage by Moore County sheriff's deputies and EMS personnel after they received a report of a shooting at that address. The next day, investigators with the Sheriff's Office charged her husband, Randy Martin Baughn, 38, with murder. He was placed in the Moore County Detention Center with no bond.
Baughn had been an assistant principal at Pinecrest for three years. Before that, she taught special education at Union Pines High School for eight years.
"Abby Baughn has been an outstanding member of the Moore County educational community," Superintendent Susan Purser said. "She was very highly regarded by all of her colleagues."
8. Pinewild Annexation
A Moore County Superior Court judge in November dealt yet another in a long line of legal setbacks to a group of Pinewild residents fighting annexation by the village of Pinehurst.
The Pinewild residents had asked for a legal ruling on whether annexing private, gated communities amounted to taking "private property for public use" -- for which the Bill of Rights requires fair compensation. Attorneys for the village asked that the petition be dismissed.
Senior Resident Superior Court Judge James M. Webb dismissed it. He then went a step further by barring opponents from refiling another claim on the same issue.
Webb's decision was in line with those of two federal judges who previously had ruled that constitutional challenges to any private property taking may not be accepted until two things have happened: First, something must be condemned and taken. Second, payment for it has to be challenged as unjust in a proceeding called "inverse condemnation."
So far, nothing has been taken, judges have previously ruled.
The Pinehurst Village Council adopted a resolution to annex Pinewild effective June 30, 2008, but the annexation has been put on hold pending the outcome of legal challenges in the state and federal courts. Under state law, annexation ordinances like the one the Village Council passed don't take effect until 30 days after a final court decision on any challenge.
After the N.C. Court of Appeals issued a unanimous ruling against them earlier this year, the Pinewilders asked the N.C. Supreme Court for a discretionary review. An appeal is not automatic, since the appeals court ruling was unanimous.
The state's highest court has yet to decide whether to accept the case for review. It is unknown when a decision might come.
On the political front, involuntary annexation foes across the state were once again thwarted in the General Assembly in their efforts to reform state laws. The House passed a measure allowing for a referendum -- something involuntary annexation foes wanted -- but only if 15 percent of the registered voters in the municipality and the affected area signed a petition requesting a vote. Reform supporters felt it would be impossible to meet that threshold. The bill died in the Senate, which never took up the legislation.
Those pushing for reforms in state law vowed to continue the fight when the General Assembly convenes next year.
9. Larry Martin Furor
Supporters of former Pinecrest High School soccer coach Larry Martin pleaded their case to the Moore County Board of Education in January as part of their failed efforts to have him reinstated.
During the public-comments section of the regular meeting, more than a dozen players, former players and parents asked that the board re-evaluate the decision made by Principal Joel County in November 2008 to dismiss Martin as coach.
Many Martin supporters said they felt he was unfairly evaluated and became the scapegoat for the general lack of field management policies at the school's John Williams Athletic Complex.
Todd Abbey, a 1994 Pinecrest graduate, was named the interim coach of the girls' soccer team in February. After a successful first season, Abbey earned the opportunity to lead the Patriot boys.
The Patriot girls lost three of their first four matches before going on to win their 12th conference title in a row and compile an overall record of 18-5. The boys' team, meanwhile, made it to the state semifinals, losing to Green Hope 2-1.
10. Jail Expansion
On a 3-2 vote in October, the Moore County Board of Commissioners finally accepted a design and development phase plan for the public safety-detention center to be constructed on a 21-acre tract adjacent to the existing jail in downtown Carthage.
Jimmy Melton, then vice chairman of the board, made the motion to approve the plan. He was joined by then-Chairman Nick Picerno and Commissioner Larry Caddell in voting for the plan. Commissioners Tim Lea and Cindy Morgan cast the dissenting votes.
Under questioning by board members, architect Glenn Ware said that the detention center would initially be large enough to house 192 inmates. However, he said the facility is designed for future expansion to house as many as 500 inmates but not more than 600.
The jail expansion became a central issue in the Carthage town elections, with opponents fielding a candidate for mayor and the Town Board, with hopes of derailing the project. They opposed construction of such a facility so close to an elementaryschool, library, homes and the downtown, saying it could pose a safety threat. They lost at the polls.
Lea and Morgan, now the chairman and vice chairwoman, voted against approving the plans until a study of the court system's space needs is completed. They also wanted the board to consider constructing the public safety office building at the Carriage Oaks site, where the Department of Social Services is located. They said that would leave room on the downtown site for a possible court expansion.
Senior writers Florence Gilkeson and Tom Embrey, staff writers John Chappell and John Krahnert III, and golf writer Howard Ward contributed to this report.
More like this story