Murder of Deputy Heads Top-10 Story List for 2011
A routine report of a trespassing at a home on Morrison Bridge Road earlier this month sparked a tragedy no one could have imagined.
At first, Moore County sheriff’s deputy Rick Rhyne did not recognize the two men at the abandoned home. Once he did, he received a radio transmission that one of them — Martin Abel Poynter, an Iraq War veteran — was wanted on a child support warrant.
Poynter responded by abruptly shooting Rhyne in the face and then committing suicide. He was said to be the first deputy ever killed in the line of duty in Moore County.
Members of The Pilot’s news staff recently voted Rhyne’s murder as the No. 1 news story of 2011 in Moore County.
A close second was the early September conviction of Robert Kenneth Stewart in the 2009 nursing home massacre in Carthage. The jury returned second-degree murder convictions, apparently affected by the defense theory that Stewart was under the influence of prescription drugs that left him a sleepwalking state.
Coming in third was the threat of a U.S. 1 bypass through Southern Pines Horse Country, which touched off a widespread public outcry. While the state contends there is no such bypass proposal on any map, residents made it clear they don’t want a freeway coming through the pristine countryside.
Another public outcry, over the school board’s decision to close Academy Heights Elementary as part of a cost-cutting measure, ranked No. 4. In the end, the impassioned pleas to spare one of the county’s top-performing schools were to no avail.
In fifth place was Moore County’s embroilment in the worldwide debate over “fracking” as a way to extract natural gas from shale deposits such as those in the Deep River basin.
The Village Green in Pinehurst was back among the top stories this year, this time ranking No. 6. The Village Council approved plans for improving the area in hopes that it will not jeopardize the village’s designation as a National Historic Landmark. That came as some residents filed a second lawsuit to stop an expansion of The Village Chapel.
Dr. Susan Purser’s announcement that she would retire Dec. 31 as superintendent of Moore County school system landed in seventh place. Purser has held the post since she replaced the controversial Patrick Russo in 2004.
No. 8 was the Sept. 1 incident in which a Southern Pines man was charged with the beating death of a woman who blamed him for her daughter’s suicide. It happened in an alley in downtown Southern Pines in view of several horrified witnesses.
Ending up in ninth and 10th places were the final approvals given to two major real estate developments, Pine Forest and Tyler’s Ridge at Sandhills
Several other stories received significant votes: the finding of two bodies in a burning Robbins home Aug. 29, which was ruled a murder-suicide; a victory by former Taylortown Police Chief Tim Blakeley in his lawsuit against the town over his firing; the conviction of the final suspect in the 2007 murder of Emily Haddock; abandonment of a proposal calling for back-in parking and repaving Broad Street in downtown Southern Pines; and the closing of the Pinehurst post office.
The Pilot’s staff members chose the top 10 stories from a list of 20 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 2011:
1. Murder of Deputy
Moore County sheriff’s deputy Rick Rhyne, 58, was shot and killed Dec. 8 after attempting to arrest a man on a child-support warrant at a home on Morrison Bridge Road in Lobelia, in the extreme eastern part of the county.
Martin Abel Poynter shot Rhyne in the face and then turned the gun on himself, according to reports.
Poynter, 33, was an Iraq War veteran and former Special Forces medic with a history of mental problems. He had once lived at the home where the shooting occurred. He had been living with family in Missouri. In April 2007, he was picked up on a warrant for desertion.
Poynter’s wife, Susan Corinne Poynter, sought a protective order the following month, saying in court papers that she feared the effect that his increasingly violent and disturbed behavior was having on her four young children.
Rhyne was said to be the first Moore County deputy to be killed in the line of duty. He joined the Sheriff’s Department in April 2007, after retiring as the Foxfire police chief in 2006. He also previously worked as a member of the Pinehurst Police Department.
Owens Auditorium at Sandhills Community College was overflowing with hundreds of mourners, including law-enforcement officers from Moore County and across the state, for the funeral. A procession of some 180 law-enforcement vehicles escorted the hearse carrying the casket to the cemetery in Roseland.
During the funeral,Terry Brown spoke of Rhyne as a man who meant the world to him and said he could only imagine what people there could be feeling.
“My heart hurts for you have lost your brother, a colleague, a friend, a mentor,” Brown said. “We have lost a dear friend. Grandchildren — now too young to understand — listen to all the stories of what Grandpa did. They are all true.”
2. Stewart Conviction
On Sept. 4, in a rare Saturday session of court, a jury convicted Pinelake mass murderer Robert Kenneth Stewart of eight counts of second-degree murder for the March 29, 2009, shooting deaths of seven elderly patients and a nurse at the Carthage nursing home.
Stewart, 47, will spend the rest of his life behind bars. His punishments, which run consecutively, sent him to prison for up to 175 years.
“I thought he deserved the death penalty,” District Attorney Maureen Krueger said afterward.
Stewart gunned down the eight victims during a five-minute rampage. All were shot at close range with a 12-gauge shotgun. Carthage police officer Stewart was rounding a corner reloading his shotgun when he came face-to-face with Carthage police officer Justin Garner holding his .40-caliber Glock pistol. The two fired at almost the same instant. Garner’s bullet struck Stewart just as the killer was turning and raising his shotgun. Several pellets struck Garner, who was able to arrest Stewart.
The trial including gripping testimony from numerous eyewitnesses as well as Stewart’s former wife, who attempted to commit suicide because of her anguish, which came out during the court proceedings
The most unusual aspect of Stewart’s defense was that — with his permission — his attorneys admitted in court that he committed all the killings, but they said Stewart was not guilty of murder. He was on what was described as a “drug cocktail” of the antidepressant Lexapro and the sleep aid Ambien. That combination, his lawyers said, put Stewart in a drug-induced sleepwalking state in which he acted not willfully but as “an automaton.”
3. Horse Country Bypass
At an informational meeting in October hosted by the Walthour-Moss Foundation, residents of Southern Pines Horse Country sent a loud and clear message that they don’t want a U.S. 1 bypass coming through Horse Country.
A bypass east of U.S. 1 around Southern Pines and Aberdeen would likely go through the Foundation, a 4,200-acre nature preserve that is home to large stands of longleaf pines and endangered wildlife.
“This bypass is sort of a curse hanging over the Foundation and Horse Country,” John Pavan said. “This thing needs to be killed once and for all.” Pavan was one of about 250 people who came to the Sunrise Theater in downtown Southern Pines for the meeting.
Stephen Later, a Pinehurst attorney and Foundation vice chairman, called the bypass “a threat to much of what we love about this area,” saying, “This isn’t just about Horse Country. It’s about our whole community.”
N.C. Department of Transport-ation officials have insisted that there is no plan to route a bypass through any part of Moore County. “Yes, there was one in 2005, and that was taken off the table when it became clear that there was community resistance to it,” Ted Vaden, deputy secretary for internal and external affairs at NCDOT, said in October. “There is no route on a map now.”
The U.S. 1 bypass is one of five major road projects in Moore County that will be included in a Comprehensive Transportation Plan being developed for the county that will reflect the priorities of residents and elected officials. NCDOT held a series of seven “charrettes” in early November to seek input.
4. Academy Heights
Months after a ConnectEd voice message informed parents that budget cuts would close Academy Heights Elementary School, students, teachers and parents finally said goodbye to the 77-year-old facility in June.
The closing of Academy Heights was one of many cost-saving measures implemented by the Moore County school system to help absorb an $8.2 million funding shortfall from the state.
The day before schools let out for the summer, members of the Academy Heights community gathered in the old gym to celebrate the year-round elementary school’s success.
Academy Heights PTA president Carol Ray reflected on her own feelings about the events leading up to the closure as she addressed the audience.
“If I had to sum up what Academy Heights means to me right now,” Ray said, “I would probably say, ‘fortunate.’ I was fortunate my kids got to come to school here. I was fortunate that I got to know the parents, and I don’t think I realized that until the ConnectEd came.”
Ray and other speakers acknowledged the strong bond held among parents, students and teachers that was evident in the grass-roots rally led to save the school. She urged families to take a piece of Academy Heights with them as they move on to new schools.
5. Fracking Debate
Horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing — or “fracking” — are game-changing technologies that have turned shale deposits in other parts of the country and around the world into major players for the extraction of natural gas.
And the boom in fracking appears to be on the verge of potentially trickling down to northern Moore County, which lies atop the Deep River basin, where some believe a 40-year supply of natural gas exists.
“We think there is an economic field of natural gas,” said Ken Taylor, assistant state geologist and chief of the N.C. Geological Service. “It was just anecdotal stories until you found out about shale gas being found in other parts of the country and around the world.”
There is a contentious worldwide debate over whether fracking is safe, and there is little scientific evidence to fill an information gap that has made it difficult for lawmakers and the public to understand the risks. Methane contamination of drinking water wells has been a common complaint.
Fracking is illegal in North Carolina — for now — but gas companies descended on Lee County in the first quarter of 2010. Today, the mineral rights to about 9,400 acres in Lee are under contract, with the gas companies eyeing legislation passed this year by the General Assembly that moves the state closer to shale gas development. It calls for a fracking study to be completed by three state agencies by May 1.
6. Village Green
The Pinehurst Village Council is slowly moving forward with with a plan that proponents say will improve the area without jeopardizing the village’s National Landmark Status.
The plan includes improvements to the sand parking lot that will shift the parking lot and create a larger lawn open space. The parking lot will be paved with a new surface. The plan also includes establishing a lawn in front of the old department store building and reconfiguring the parking to be on the outside of that area, among other changes.
The Green is part of the Pinehurst Historic District, which was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1996. The National Park Service, which oversees the landmarks, placed the village landmark on a “watch list” after learning of the construction of the Carolina Vista roundabout.
The Park Service called off a meeting with the village earlier this year to discuss the plans for the Green, saying it needed more documentation.
On another front, the N.C. Court of Appeals — on a technicality — rejected a lawsuit filed to stop approval of a 16,500-square-foot learning center to be built on Village Chapel property in the Village Green. The dismissal came on the heels of another lawsuit filed in September by three families who own property near the Village Green, claiming that the village, Pinehurst Resort and The Village Chapel have violated protections placed on the village center.
7. Purser Retirement
Susan Purser, superintendent of Moore County school system, announced in August that she would retire Dec. 31 after 41 years as an educator.
“It’s with a lot of sadness in one regard because I love the work we’re doing,” she said in a telephone interview in August. “But yet, it’s time. It’s the right time.”
Earlier this month, the school board voted to hire Aaron Spence, a school administrator from Texas, to replace Purser. He will start Feb. 6.
Purser said she began considering her options for retirement last January, and she emphasized that her decision is based on her desire to spend more time with her family and be a more active member of the community. She has held the post since 2004. Before coming to Moore County, she was superintendent of Pontotoc City (Miss.) schools.
In November, the school board honored Purser for her commitment to Moore County students and adopted a resolution recognizing her service as a “leader in educational excellence.”
Purser expressed gratitude for having had the opportunity to serve as superintendent in Moore County.
“Being a part of the community in Moore County has been the best part of my life outside of my family,” she said. “I have truly been blessed.”
8. Deadly Assault
A Southern Pines man was charged in the Sept. 1 beating death of a woman who had apparently accosted him in a downtown alley, blaming him for her daughter’s suicide.
Southern Pines police arrested Garland Scott Beal, 49, and charged him with the murder of Terry Lynn Baker, 50, of Pinehurst.
Several witnesses said they heard Baker yell at Beal. Several saw Beal standing over Baker kicking her while she was on the ground in an alley between Pennsylvania and New Hampshire avenues. He had also struck her with a pole, police said. Police Chief John Letteney said Beal and Baker knew each other, but officers didn’t divulge the nature of the acquaintanceship.
“I know that after her daughter’s suicide, she has blamed others for her daughter’s death,” Letteney said.
Police said Baker and another woman, identified as a close friend or relative, were on the way to Powell Funeral Home to prepare for her daughter’s wake at the time of the incident. Rebecca Baker, 19, had died two days earlier.
9. Pine Forest Approval
The county commissioners in early September voted 3-1 to approve a rezoning order for the controversial Pine Forest development made by MHK Ventures Inc., the developer of the 1,800-acre project on N.C. 211 southeast of West End.
“This offers more protection for the property than it has now,” Commissioner Jimmy Melton said in reference to the long list of standards and conditions attached to the zoning change.
The commissioners had deferred action because of questions about a key condition prohibiting the developer from drawing water from Nicks Creek or other tributaries on the property.
MHK began work on the project about three years ago, and the final aspect of the project has spanned most of 2011. Opposition focused on the environmental impact as well as the increased traffic congestion that Pine Forest and a companion development, Dormie Club, will bring. MHK still faces a series of decisions and actions before the first bulldozer goes to work on the heavily wooded tract.
MHK wants to develop two communities and a small business center on the property. One community will be a private gated residential development with its own 18-hole golf course. The other will be a resort with another golf course, a hotel and related amenities.
10. Tyler’s Ridge Decision
Tyler’s Ridge at Sandhills was finally cleared for takeoff in late September after state regulators rejected an appeal from opponents.
The N.C. Environmental Management Commission voted 14-0 against an appeal filed by Southern Pines attorney Marsh Smith on behalf of Esther Frye, an adjacent landowner, and the Moore County Wildlife and Conservation Club. Frye and the club had asked the EMC to declare that all of the project’s 46.2 acres fall under the town’s watershed.
Tyler’s Ridge will include a commercial development on the north side, with small shops and a restaurant. A multifamily development on the south side includes 216 one- and two-bedroom dwelling units. There will be three single-family lots.
The Southern Pines Town Council voted 4-1 in July to approve the project, planned at the corner of N.C. 22 and Airport Road.
Opposition centered on safety concerns, aircraft noise, an alleged glut of apartments in Southern Pines, current commercial space vacancies in Moore County, and the project’s proximity to the Sandhills Horticultural Gardens.
Developer Jim O’Malley said he was glad the approval appeared to be over. He said he hopes to start construction in January.
Senior Writers Florence Gilkeson and Tom Embrey and Staff Writers Hannah Sharpe, Ted Natt Jr. and John Chappell contributed to this article.
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