01/03/10 — Top stories of the decade

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Top stories of the decade

By Dennis Hill
Published in News on January 3, 2010 1:50 AM


News-Argus Managing Editor

From avoiding BRAC to fallen heroes, historic fires and wrongful imprisonment -- these were the top 10 stories of the first decade of the 21st century:

1. Air base saved from BRAC ax

After months of speculation, military officials announced in May 2005 that Seymour Johnson Air Force Base not only would be spared the budget cutters' ax during the most recent round of decisions by the federal Base Realignment and Closure Commission, but that its mission would be beefed up.

Wayne County officials rejoiced since the base pumps millions of dollars into the local economy each year.

Seymour Johnson gained eight more KC-135R tanker jets from Grand Forks AFB in North Dakota and a fighter jet engine repair facility from Langley AFB in Virginia, netting an additional 345 military jobs and 17 civilian jobs in the process.

North Carolina as a whole came away a winner in the BRAC announcement, with all Marine Corps bases and air stations remaining open and the Army post at Fort Bragg also netting gains. North Carolina's military bases represent $18 billion in revenue annually and more than 350,000 civilian jobs.

2. Four airmen killed in two Middle East crashes

War in the Middle East claimed the lives of four members of the 4th Fighter Wing from Seymour Johnson Air Force Base, two killed in Iraq in 2003 and two killed in Afghanistan in 2009.

Capt. Mark McDowell, a fighter pilot, and Capt. Thomas Gramith, a weapon systems officer, died July 19, 2009, when their F-15E Strike Eagle crashed in Afghanistan during a mission in support of Operation Enduring Freedom.

A Strike Eagle crash in Iraq in April 2003 took the lives of Maj. William Watkins III and Capt. Eric Das.

3. Paramount Theatre and Community Building burn months apart

Goldsboro was hit with two disasters less than a year apart when a pair of landmark buildings were destroyed by fire.

The Community Building on Walnut Street burned on May 2, 2004, and the Paramount Theatre on Center Street burned on Feb. 19, 2005.

The Community Building was 79 years old when it was destroyed. The Paramount was 123 years old when it succumbed to the flames.

No official cause for either fire has ever been determined.

Downtown officials vowed to replace both buildings and after businessman David Weil interceded to help form a public-private partnership, the Paramount was restored and reopened in February 2008. Plans for the construction of a new facility to replace the Community Building are still under consideration.

4. Dwayne Dail freed after 18 years of wrongful imprisonment

Goldsboro resident Dwayne Dail protested for years that his conviction on a charge of raping a 12-year-old girl in 1987 when he was 19 years old was wrong.

After 18 years behind bars, DNA evidence and the work of lawyer Chris Mumma of the N.C. Center on Actual Innocence led court officials to the same conclusion and Dail was exonerated on Aug. 28, 2007, set free and then pardoned by the governor.

Another man was later charged with the crime.

Dail received a payment in excess of $300,000 from the state to help compensate him for the years he spent wrongfully imprisoned. After being reunited with his son, he was sued by his former girlfriend for part of the money but she eventually dropped the lawsuit. Dail now lives in Florida.

5. City councilman resigns seat after criminal investigation

Goldsboro City Councilman William Goodman stepped down from his elected post in early June 2004 after he pleaded guilty to obtaining property by false pretenses and was sentenced in Wake County Superior Court to 5-6 months in jail, suspended. He also had to pay $24,000 in restitution.

Goodman, a training scheduler for the state Department of Correction, fraudulently billed the state more than $24,000 for several hundred nights he spent at his mother's beach condominium. He was originally charged with five felonies after the SBI reviewed his expense reports, but pleaded to one count of obtaining property by false pretenses.

Goodman had represented District 3 on the City Council for 17 years. He was replaced by Don Chatman, who was appointed by the remaining members of the council.

6. Annexation north of city approved after long court battle

After years of bitter court battles, residents of an area along Salem Church and Buck Swamp roads officially became residents of the city of Goldsboro. The residents at first challenged the city's right to forcibly annex them, then the manner in which it did so.

A judge ordered the city to go back to the drawing board and reconstruct its plan for the annexation and the residents sued again. This time, the annexation held up in the courts as the state Supreme Court refused to hear the case.

But the brouhaha brought on by the battle helped lead lawmakers in Raleigh to take another look at the state's forcible annexation laws. No action was taken in the 2009 session but legislators are likely to continue to reconsider the way the state allows municipalities to grow when it reconvenes this year.

7. Goldsboro High School threatened with closure

The judge empowered by the state with bringing the state's public school system up to par warned 19 high schools in the spring of 2006 that they would have to improve their students' academic performances or he would order them to shut their doors.

Judge Howard Manning based his decision on the state Constitution's guarantee of equal education for all students. Manning had taken over the education issue at the behest of the state after his ruling in the Leandro school-funding lawsuit in 2002. That ruling established the basics of a sound education, which include competent, well-trained teachers, effective principals and sufficient resources.

Manning later relented and Goldsboro High opened classes on schedule that September, but Wayne County education officials took action to improve the school's graduation rate, most recently hiring a graduation "coach," to work with students.

But that did not go far enough to satisfy the state NAACP, which late last year filed a complaint with the state Department of Public Instruction and the U.S. Justice Department, alleging that the school board's policies had allowed the school to slip back into segregation, since the great majority of students at the school are black.

8. Three Republicans elected to county commission

Democrats' century-old stranglehold on the Wayne County Board of Commissioners came to an end as the new millennium started when voters chose three GOP candidates in the 2002 elections: Incumbent Andy Anderson, who had broken down the party wall in the 1990s and two new Republicans, Arnold Flowers and Efton Sager, who defeated D.J. Pelt and John Tart, respectively, in district 5 and 4. The wins still left the Republicans in the minority but nothing like the situation that had come to be the norm since the days of Reconstruction.

Anderson broke the Democratic barrier in the 1990s, when he became the first Republican to win a seat, in District 1.

Republicans made a run at a majority in 2004, but fell short. The decision wasn't final election night, however. With more than 2,000 provisional votes uncounted and several races too close to call, it took almost a week before the Democrats were sure of a 5-2 margin on the board. In 2008, the Democrats maintained the same advantage.

9. Terence Garner freed after five years behind bars

In another case in which jurors sentenced the wrong man, Terence Garner was found innocent in 2002 of having robbed a Johnston County finance company in 1997 and was set free from prison after serving five years in prison.

The case of Garner, a Goldsboro teenager, was publicized on national television in the PBS "Frontline" documentary, rekindling in the case. A Wayne County Sheriff's deputy, the late Jerry Best, helped prove another man was guilty of the crime.

Although a Johnston County judge initially refused to hear the case on appeal, Garner's appellate lawyers hired a private detective who found witnesses to help bolster his case. A visiting judge set aside the verdict and Johnston County prosecutors declined to try Garner again.

10. MOC wins national baseball title

Mount Olive College won the NCAA Division II national baseball championship in early June 2008, when the Trojans defeated Ouachita (Ark.) Baptist College 6-2 in the title game played in Sauget, Ill.

The team, coached by Carl Lancaster, finished with a 58-6 record after winning its third consecutive Conference Carolinas title and coming back from the losers' bracket in the South Atlantic Regional Tournament to reach the finals.

Right-handed pitcher Casey Hodges got the win in the title game, going eight innings and striking out six.

Four members of the team were named All-Americans: Hodges, fellow right-handed pitcher Ryan Schlecht, catcher Jason Sherrer and rightfielder Alex Vertcnik.

2000-2009 honorable mentions

Some stories of the decade deserved to be counted among the Top 10, but since the number is limited, they didn't make the cut. That didn't reduce their importance, however.

1. LEADERS GONE: Goldsboro Mayor Hal Plonk, 80, died in December 2001 after serving in the job for 22 years. Atlas Price Jr., 79, a former county commissioner and school board member for nearly 30 years, died December 2009. And John Henry Wooten Sr., 82, the county's first black commissioner chairman, died in January 2007. All were the old-school small-town southern politicians: friendly and likeable, straightforward yet diplomatic, and truly interested in the public good, not their own.

2. KING FIRST BLACK MAYOR: After Plonk, it seemed unlikely that Goldsboro would find someone to really fill his shoes. But Al King, a former Air Force officer and city personnel director, showed he had the chops. King was chosen by the council to serve out Plonk's term, then was re-elected in 2003 and 2007 by wide margins.

3. U.S. 117 NORTH COMP-LETED: After decades of waiting, work on the U.S. 117 North Bypass between Goldsboro and Wilson began in 2000. Now completed, it has been re-designated I-795. But poor initial paving work has forced the state to spend extra millions to keep the roadway from deteriorating.

4. LOTTERY OPENS: The first tickets in the North Carolina Education Lottery were sold in Wayne County on March 30, 2006. Within months, a $600,000 payout ended up in the hands of eight employees of Ready Mix Concrete.

5. CHERRY LOSES FUNDING: After the death of a patient, Cherry Hospital had its federal Medicaid and Medicare reimbursements cut off in September 2008. The funding was reinstated a year later after the hospital passed muster with federal officials.

6. ERIC LANE: Eric Lane was found guilty and sentenced to death in July 2005 for the sexual assault and murder of 5-year-old Precious Whitfield, whose body was found in a swampy area near a bridge over Nahunta Creek. His first trial ended in a mistrial in 2004 because of juror misconduct.

7. MURDERER FINALLY CAUGHT: After more than a decade, investigators were led to a suspect in the 1990 murders of elderly victims Alvin and Thelma Bowne and Hattie Bonner. Lynwood Earl Forte was arrested in April 2001 found guilty of rape and murder in October 2003.


SHOOTING: While attending the funeral of her boyfriend, who had been shot to death, a woman was shot to death as she exited McIntyre Funeral Home in April 2008. Kelvin Buffaloe was charged with killing Sharon Nicole Sheppard. The incident led local leaders to form STOP the Funeral, a group dedicated to reducing violence in Goldsboro.

9. MOUNT OLIVE POLICE SCANDAL: Three Mount Olive police officers were found guilty in of extorting money from Hispanic drivers they had stopped for traffic violations. All three men resigned in September 2004 and pleaded guilty in January 2005. One received 75 days in prison.

10. PUPPY MILL: Acting on a tip, Wayne County authorities, along with the Humane Society, raided a dog breeding operation near the Sampson County line in February 2009, discovering hundreds of animals being kept in poor condition. Virginia Thornton was found guilty of animal abuse and banned from breeding dogs.

11. KERR RETIRES: State Sen. John Kerr, who led Wayne's delegation in Raleigh since 1992, decided not seek re-election in 2008. Kerr, a powerful Democrat, began his career in the House in 1986 and never lost an election.