MOREHEAD CITY — A fresh year, and decade, has begun, but a lot has changed in Carteret County in the last 12 months.
Another hurricane has blown through, a new congressman has been seated and local school politics have heated up. We’ve rounded up arguably the biggest local news stories of 2019 – as voted by News-Times staff – and compiled them here for your reflection.
Happy New Year, everyone.
No. 1: Community mourns unexpected death of AB Fire Chief Adam Snyder
In March, Atlantic Beach suffered the unexpected loss of Fire/EMS Chief Adam Snyder, who died from injuries sustained in a snow skiing accident.
Chief Snyder was on vacation with his family in Charlottesville, Va., at the time. After his death, he was brought home via procession, and a memorial service was held March 17 at the Crystal Coast Civic Center in Morehead City.
Chief Snyder was a well-respected and fondly remembered member of the emergency services community in Carteret County, and many fire chiefs and elected officials from around the county and state said he was a great leader, a great civil servant and a great friend.
After Chief Snyder’s death, other fire departments from around Carteret County came together to aid the ABFD.
On April 22, longtime ABFD Deputy Chief Michael Simpson was promoted to chief, while Senior Capt. Casey Arthur was promoted to deputy chief.
Chief Simpson and the staff of ABFD have said they are ready to follow in Chief Snyder’s footsteps and carry a legacy of community and service to the town and Carteret County.
No. 2: Longtime Congressman Walter Jones Jr. dies at 76
Longtime U.S. Rep. Walter Jones Jr. died Feb. 10, 2019. It was his 76th birthday.
The congressman, who had been ailing for months prior to his death, represented much of eastern North Carolina in the U.S. House of Representatives for nearly a quarter of a century.
He was well known for his staunch support of the armed forces, top-notch constituency services and, on a national stage, for a willingness to push back against the Republican Party’s top brass in the House and vote across party lines when he saw fit.
In addition, Rep. Jones is remembered for publicly denouncing his initial support for the invasion of Iraq, and he spent many of his later years writing personal letters to families of military personnel killed overseas. He called that his penance for his vote to support the war.
Rep. Jones, a native of Farmville, died in Greenville and left behind a wife, Joe Anne, and a daughter, Ashley.
Interest in the special election for his seat was high, with 17 Republicans running in the April primary. The race proceeded to a Republican runoff and then a general election in which Republican Dr. Greg Murphy clinched the seat.
Rep. Murphy is running for reelection in 2020.
No. 3: Hurricane Florence recovery continues
More than a year on, residents, business owners and others continue to recover from the devastating effects of Hurricane Florence, which blew through Carteret County in September 2018.
Perhaps most critical, housing is a still a primary barrier to recovery, whether it be finding contractors to repair damaged structures, struggling with insurance payouts or combatting the lack of affordable housing.
In March, Carteret County Schools reported 100 students had permanently left the school system due to moves after the storm.
Spearheaded by Communications Director Tabbie Nance, the school system’s foundation took the lead in assisting families and employees with immediate and long-term needs, dispersing hundreds of thousands of dollars in donated funds.
Nonprofit and religious organizations continue to seek volunteers and donations to help repair homes and outfit families.
Many businesses shuttered by the storm have reopened, while others decided to close their doors permanently, including Snug Harbor on Nelson Bay, an assisted living and rehabilitation center in Sea Level. It closed in December, citing challenges with insurance and repairs.
The arrival of Hurricane Dorian in September 2019, while not as destructive as Florence, increased the workload on contractors and skilled laborers and, in some cases, displaced more residents.
No. 4: After years, judge releases Reels brothers
In late February, a long-running civil matter took a new turn, as Melvin Davis and LiCurtis Reels were released from the Carteret County jail after nearly eight years.
The brothers were incarcerated March 31, 2011, for contempt of civil court in a property dispute. They’d been disputing the ownership of a 13.25-acre lot off Silver Dollar Road in the Merrimon community near Beaufort in a case that stretched back to 2002.
The case went from Carteret County Superior Civil Court to the N.C. Court of Appeals, then to the N.C. Supreme Court, the highest court to which a civil matter may be appealed, before being remanded back to Superior Civil Court.
On Feb. 27, during a motion hearing, Judge Joshua Willey released the brothers from jail, and Mr. Davis and Mr. Reels were greeted by about 20 family members and friends outside the county jail.
While the brothers are now free from jail, the 13.25-acre lot remains the property of Adams Creek Associates, the other party in the civil case.
The case of the Reels brothers garnered national attention. ProPublica, a nonprofit newsroom, collaborated with The New Yorker magazine on an article in July, putting the civil case in the context of civil rights, how legal loopholes and property laws have been used to take property from black owners.
No. 5: Superintendent Mat Bottoms retires
Citing concerns over the political climate locally and at the state level, County Schools Superintendent Mat Bottoms announced Nov. 21 he would retire at the end of 2019.
His announcement was followed by outcry from school employees, parents and the community during the Dec. 3 school board meeting, when numerous people appealed to the board to keep politics out of its future decisions.
One of Mr. Bottoms’ main concerns was the switch from nonpartisan to partisan county school board elections, which he said was negatively impacting his ability to carry out his duties.
After a closed session during the Dec. 3 meeting, school board members announced Assistant Superintendent Richard Paylor will serve as interim superintendent.
Assistant Superintendent Blair Propst will share duties with Mr. Paylor until a replacement is found.
The board also authorized attorney Neil Whitford to retain the N.C. School Boards Association to conduct the superintendent search. Mr. Whitford said the estimated cost would be $26,000.
Mr. Whitford said funds for the search would come out of the superintendent’s salary, money that won’t be spent over the next several months. The goal is to have the new superintendent in place by Wednesday, July 1.
No. 6: More swimmers drown off the coast of Emerald Isle, community reacts
Four rip current-related drownings in 2019, including two Wake Forest High School friends April 19 and two other visitors in May, got the town and the community more involved in ocean safety efforts.
Susie Van Guilder, a teacher, organized an event to thank town workers and honor surfers who save countless lives each year, and near the end of summer started a volunteer-run life jacket loan program at Bogue Inlet Fishing Pier, a popular, privately owned beach access.
Danny Shell, a former town beach patrol officer, gave ocean safety lessons at the oceanfront gazebo at the Holiday Trav-L Park in late summer.
John Merical, the father of one of young adults from Wake Forest, attended Ms. Van Guilder’s event with surfers and town EMS personnel and started his own rip current education program, traveling the state’s coast to urge swimmers not to fight the rips, but to float until the currents release them.
All the efforts urged swimmers not to enter the ocean without flotation devices, and the town doubled down on educational efforts about warning flags on the strand.
A committee has been listening to suggestions and expects to meet in January to formulate improvement recommendations.
The efforts date back to June 2018, when two Goldsboro teens drowned after being caught in rip currents. It sent shockwaves through the resort community. The town had two lifeguards at each of the two major beach accesses and three roving guards on ATVs, but added a fourth rover in 2019 and more warning flags.
No. 7: County, school board attempt to close MaST, but parents, students fight back
After a month-long battle between school board members and the administration and parents of the Marine Science and Technologies Early College High School, the board, by a 5-2 vote, agreed July 30 to keep the school open for the 2019-20 academic year. The vote rescinded a previous decision the board made in June to close the school.
Those voting against keeping the school open were members Kathryn Chadwick and Travis Day, who has been an outspoken critic of the school.
The initial decision to close MaST was based on a recommendation from county commissioners to consider reassigning $185,000 in local MaST funding to save several teaching positions expected to be cut due to a lack of state funding. There was also concern the state budget, which has still not passed due to a veto by Gov. Roy Cooper and stalemate with the legislature, would not include funding for early college high schools.
Following the initial decision to close MaST in June, the school board created a committee to guide formal closure procedures and commissioned a study, as required by state statute, on the impacts of closing the school.
During the closure process, an attorney representing MaST students and parents filed for a temporary injunction to halt the imminent closure, along with a civil complaint alleging the school board did not follow due process. Parents dropped the suit when the board agreed to keep the school open.
MaST students reported for their first day of class Aug. 7. The school allows students to gain high school and college credits simultaneously and is housed on the Carteret Community College campus in Morehead City.
No. 8: Authorities locate body of missing woman; boyfriend awaits trial
Nearly a year after she was initially reported missing, authorities in July discovered the body of Kristen Ashley Bennett of Newport.
Ms. Bennett, 24, had been missing and presumed dead since mid-August 2018, but the whereabouts of her remains evaded investigators for more than 11 months. Authorities searched periodically over the year, though Hurricane Florence derailed the effort early on.
Finally, on July 24, Ms. Bennett’s body was found wrapped in a tarp alongside some of her belongings. An autopsy found she died of a gunshot wound to the head.
Her former boyfriend, Lewis “Trey” Victor Branche III, 27, was arrested and charged with her murder shortly following her disappearance. He is being held in the Carteret County jail in Beaufort awaiting a court appearance Wednesday, Jan. 22.
While Ms. Bennett’s disappearance and Mr. Branche’s arrest rocked the community when it happened, the discovery of her body this year brought closure. Family, friends and strangers rallied when she was first reported missing to help try to find her. A Newport restaurant held a fundraiser to help the family hire a private investigator, and residents tied blue ribbons to their mailboxes in a show of support.
When authorities announced they suspected Ms. Bennett had been killed, the community gathered for a candlelight vigil to honor her memory and collect items for her son. Another candlelight vigil was held this August after Ms. Bennett’s body was found.
Ms. Bennett’s death may have been related to domestic violence, and many at her candlelight vigil voiced support for abuse victims. The Carteret County Domestic Violence Program has a 24/7 hotline for anyone experiencing crisis or seeking support related to domestic violence at 252-728-33788.
No. 9: Judge sentences Godwin to death in 2016 murder
In April, for only the second time in Carteret County, a judge handed down a death sentence to a defendant, this one convicted of the 2016 murder of a Morehead City woman.
Earlier that month, after weeks of testimony from witnesses called by the prosecution and defense, a jury found David Isaiah Godwin, 28, of Newport, guilty of first-degree murder in the July 4, 2016, killing of Wendy Tamagne. He had beaten, strangled, stabbed and dismembered the woman in her home, then left her body in trash bags and fled to Oregon.
Police soon discovered Ms. Tamagne’s body, and Mr. Godwin was extradited back to North Carolina, where he was held in the local jail awaiting trial.
On April 24, the jury recommended Mr. Godwin be sentenced to death for his crimes, and Superior Court Judge Joshua Willey upheld the sentence. It’s only the second time the death penalty has been imposed in Carteret County, and the first since 1992.
Mr. Godwin joined 141 other death row inmates awaiting execution at Central Prison in Raleigh. However, no one has been executed in North Carolina since 2006, and some of the inmates have been on death row for close to three decades.
Ms. Tamagne’s death shocked the community when it happened three years ago, and it continues to affect her family, friends and others she left behind. Her family said she was the mother of a teenaged son, an animal lover with many beloved pets and a practical jokester who loved to make people laugh. The community mourned her death at the time with events in her honor.
No. 10: Hurricane Dorian floods Cedar Island, spawns tornado in Emerald Isle
A confirmed tornado that touched down Sept. 5 in advance of Hurricane Dorian’s arrival offshore destroyed or severely damaged several businesses and most of a mobile home park.
The twister destroyed or damaged 60 RVs at Boardwalk RV Park, destroyed Artisan Granite and Marble and severely damaged the Lighthouse Inn and the Salty Pirate Water Park. It also destroyed campers on a nearby storage lot and an ice machine business.
No one was seriously injured in the tornado, and the scene was the site of several high-profile visits following Dorian, including Gov. Roy Cooper and U.S. Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C.
Dorian made landfall Sept. 6 at Cape Hatteras National Seashore.
During the storm’s brush up the coast, storm surge decimated much of Ocracoke village, stranding residents and ruining homes and businesses.
In Carteret County, Cedar Island and South River experienced heavy flooding, according to emergency officials.
Much of the county, including many volunteers and donors Down East, rallied to support neighbors on Ocracoke who are now facing a lengthily recovery those in Carteret County know all too well.
At year’s end, Emerald Isle Town Manager Matt Zapp said many residents had moved back into the mobile home park in repaired or new structures and businesses were in the process of making repairs. The town waived building permit fees through Dec. 31. RV Park owner Bubba McLean said in late December there are now six vacant lots.
Cedar Point opens first town park
Perhaps the biggest event since the town’s incorporation about 30 years ago took place Nov. 8, when its 56-acre park on the White Oak River opened to the public.
Town voters in November 2018 approved a $2.5 million bond referendum to support the $2.8 million purchase of the property, off Masonic Avenue and previously owned by the N.C. Masons.
The town closed on the land in April and has spent the month since sprucing up the property after Hurricane Florence downed limbs and trees. Parks Commissioner John Nash said recently there’s been a steady stream of visitors.
Parkgoers from near and far have been using the more than 2 miles of marked hiking trails, mostly through deep woods, and enjoying the water vistas.
The town has upheld its claim officials would seek grants to offset the bond sale. To date, Cedar Point has raked in $1.75 million in grants.
The park is temporarily known as Boathouse Creek Walking Trails, but officials are reviewing naming options.
The town has a long-range plan for passive recreation facilities, restrooms and picnic areas.
Morehead City demolishes historic school building
In a move that drew opposition from longtime residents and history lovers, the city tore down the nearly century-old Charles S. Wallace school building on Bridges Street this year to make way for construction of a new city hall.
Crews demolished the old brick structure with tall, vertical windows in March. The building served a variety of functions over its 90-year history, but from its completion in 1929 until the mid-60s, it was the home of Morehead City High School.
The city bought the Wallace building in 2006 with grand plans of renovating it for use as a municipal building. Before the project could take shape, however, the Great Recession hit and the effort was put on hold for years.
Officials have taken a renewed interest in the project in recent years, and in 2018 the city council was tasked with choosing between renovating the existing building or constructing anew. Due to higher costs associated with renovation, the council opted to demolish and build fresh.
Residents, including some members of Morehead City High School’s last graduating class, spoke out against the decision, imploring the city to reconsider and preserve the structure. Opponents of demolition say it was one of Carteret County’s oldest buildings.
The new city hall will have design and landscaping features reminiscent of the historic Charles Wallace building.
City Manager Ryan Eggleston has said he hopes the new city hall helps bring Morehead City into the future. Currently, the city’s government offices are split between two buildings, so the digs will consolidate everyone in one central location. The building site also has plenty of extra room for future development.
County decides to withdraw from regional library system
Carteret County commissioners unanimously decided in May to withdraw from the Craven-Pamlico-Carteret Regional Library Board effective in fiscal year 2020-21, which starts in July.
The regional board pools and distributes resources from Carteret, Craven and Pamlico counties, but Carteret County commissioners chose to withdraw, believing financial resources would be more easily directed without participation in the board.
Officials have said they are looking at using N.C. Cardinal library services to give patrons access to materials.
SCOTUS hears QAR lawsuit
U.S. Supreme Court justices Nov. 7 heard arguments in a copyright case over photos and videos that document the recovery of Blackbeard’s flagship, the Queen Anne’s Revenge, discovered in 1996 in Beaufort Inlet.
The company that took the images, Nautilus Productions LLC of Fayetteville, holds the copyright to them and says the state should pay for using them. North Carolina says a federal law that appears to allow for copyright infringement lawsuits against states is unconstitutional.
As of presstime, the justices hadn’t made a decision. In an email interview Nov. 7 with the News-Times, Nautilus Productions co-owner Rick Allen said he didn’t anticipate a decision to be handed down until May or June.
The N.C. Department of Natural and Cultural Resources has declined to comment.
The annual Top 10 project is summarized by NT reporters and compiled by reporter Jackie Starkey.