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20-29 years in prison given in sex crime case
  • Updated

A State Road man charged with committing dozens of sex crimes involving juveniles while he was in the role of pastor was sentenced to a minimum of 20 and a maximum of 29 years in prison Monday after pleading guilty to one count of statutory sex offense with a child.

Rodney Dean Luffman, 59, also pleaded guilty to three counts of indecent liberties with a child and one count of first-degree sex offense with a child.

Luffman entered his pleas pursuant to Alford pleas, which means he pleaded guilty while not specifically admitting to guilt.

Judge Michael D. Duncan of Wilkesboro sentenced Luffman in Wilkes Superior Court.

Det. Amanda Boyd of the Wilkes Sheriff’s Office, investigator in the case, said Luffman was charged in cases involving three male and two female juvenile victims for offenses that mostly occurred at Luffman’s home on Pleasant Ridge Road in the Wilkes portion of the State Road community.

She said the offenses mostly occurred between 2000 and 2015.

Boyd said one of the victims was as young as 4 and another as old as 16 when the offenses occurred. Luffman was friends of the families of two of the victims through his church and was connected as extended family to the other three victims at the time, she added.

Two of the victims spoke during court Tuesday and parents of two other victims spoke. Luffman also briefly addressed the court.

When Boyd first charged and arrested Luffman in January 2020, he was identified online as pastor of Open Arms Outreach Ministries, a non-denominational church on N.C. 268 in West End Elkin.

Boyd said that by the time Luffman was arrested, Open Arms Outreach Ministries had closed and Luffman was engaged in online ministry. She said he also had been affiliated with Methodist churches, at least one in North Carolina and another in Virginia.

Boyd charged Luffman with 181 counts of indecent liberties with a child, 58 counts of first-degree sexual offense, 22 counts of statutory rape/sex offense and one count of first-degree statutory offense. Most of the charges were dropped as part of a plea agreement.

Assistant District Attorney Cameron Waddell was the prosecutor in the case. Attorney David Freedman of Winston-Salem represented Luffman.

Luffman remained in the Wilkes County Jail under a $1 million bond since being charged.

Guard still unsure of plans here with bond funds
  • Updated

Over five years after voters locally and statewide approved a $2 billion bond package, plans for the portion included for building a new N.C. Army National Guard facility in Wilkes County remain uncertain.

The Connect NC Bond Act of 2015, which passed in March 2016, called for using $70 million of the bond funds to build National Guard regional readiness centers in Wilkes, Burke and Guilford counties. These were identified as training facilities for multiple Guard units with hundreds of Guardsmen.

Construction is underway on a 66,000-square-foot readiness center where a facility for youthful offenders once stood in Morganton (Burke County). It’s about to start on an 85,000-square-foot readiness center on a state prison site in McLeansville (Guilford County). Completion of the Burke facility is expected in July 2022 at a cost of $23 million, while the Guilford facility is expected to be ready in June 2024 at a cost of $47 million.

The North Wilkesboro commissioners approved giving 119 acres of the town’s industrial park on River Road-Liberty Grove Road to the state as the site of the readiness center in Wilkes in October 2018.

Almost from the beginning, state officials didn’t mention the readiness center proposed in North Wilkesboro as prominently as the other two. The original schedule had the Wilkes facility under construction by now at a cost of $10.5 million, but a March 2021 report to a House appropriations committee said it was still in the design stage with an undecided completion date.

The deed conveying the 119 acres said the state agreed to accept it for a readiness center, but that ownership of the land automatically reverted back to the town if the Guard determined it wasn’t needed for military purposes. It was valued at $327,140 when deeded.

North Wilkesboro Town Manager Wilson Hooper said earlier this month that Rep. Jeffrey Elmore of North Wilkesboro told him the Guard planned to spend $6 to $10 million of Connect NC funds on renovating the current 12,500-square-foot National Guard Armory on 3.90 acres on Armory Road, North Wilkesboro, instead of building a regional readiness center on the 119 acres.

Emails from Elmore’s office to Hooper and North Wilkesboro Mayor Robert Johnson indicate that Elmore shared this with them in April or May.

Despite the information from Elmore, Lt. Col. Matt Handley, director of public affairs for the N.C. National Guard, told the Wilkes Journal-Patriot last week that a final decision on the Guard’s plans in Wilkes hadn’t been reached as all options are reviewed. He said “renovating, remodeling and expanding (the facility on Armory Road) is one of the options that is under review.”

Handley also stated, “The North Wilkesboro project right now is in the advanced planning stage. We are weighing options and working with city, county and state leadership in order to get the best use out of tax payers’ dollars through the NC Connect Bond referendum.”

He continued, “No final decision has been made at this time, but the most important aspect is having a facility that will meet the current and future needs of the N.C. Army National Guard and with that we are confident it will bring benefit to the community in North Wilkesboro and meet the intent of the voters that approved the NC Connect Bond.” He said not doing a Guard facility project in North Wilkesboro isn’t an option.

Elmore said in an interview that high costs of grading and other site work on the 119 acres related to its steep terrain influenced the Guard’s decision to propose renovating the existing facility on Armory Road instead of building on the 119 acres.

Hooper agreed about major grading needed on the 119 acres but said there apparently was a belief earlier that costs could be cut by having the North Wilkesboro-based 875th Engineering Co. help with grading. The unit specializes in excavation with heavy equipment. He said this apparently wasn’t documented.

Hooper said he and Johnson discussed the matter and decided it was best to support renovating the existing facility on Armory Road instead of insisting on building on the 119 acres. He said this was discussed with commissioners individually and they concurred. Hooper mentioned it briefly in a North Wilkesboro board meeting in early June.

“Our rationale was that we wanted to choose the option that was more likely to get done and that was the renovation option,” said Hooper.

“Jeffrey (Elmore) said that if we decided we wanted to stick with the industrial park property, it would stay on the books as a possibility, but getting the approval needed for it to occur was unlikely, particularly since the estimate for the building (on the 119 acres) was far more than $6 million.”

Hooper said he, Johnson and Elmore decided on a letter stating support for renovating the facility on Armory Road on April 26 and Hooper later emailed a copy to Elmore with a note asking who it should be sent to in the Guard.

Hooper said he mailed it to Col. Brian Pierce, a Guard government affairs official, on May 26 after hearing from the commissioners. Hooper said he hasn’t received a response yet.

The letter expressed gratitude for the Guard’s presence here and noted its importance. It also said renovating the existing armory, built in 1955, would support the Guard’s mission and enhance its ability to serve the people of western North Carolina.

“Locally, a renovated facility will help beautify Statesville Rd. and serve as a landmark for travelers of that corridor. The renovation will also employ area residents and give a boost to ancillary businesses in the area,” the letter stated.

Hooper said he assumed the legislature would somehow memorialize the shift from building a regional facility on the 119 acres to renovating the existing armory and that there would be documentation for the town to approve. He said town would seek the return of the 119 acres.

“I’m happy that they’re staying, because other towns are losing” their Guard facilities as Guard units are consolidated into regional readiness centers. For example, the Guard facility in Boone will close when the unit based there is moved to the readiness center in Morganton.

Hooper said North Wilkesboro officials have talked about using the 119 acres for housing or recreational purposes such as motocross racing if it isn’t used by the Guard.

A road enters the property from the north and another road from the south but they don’t connect due to a steep ravine.

Local officials say Wilkes Economic Development Director LeeAnn Nixon regularly tried to learn about the status of the readiness center from the Guard since 2018, largely due to the proposed readiness center’s potential for encouraging development of other portions of the town industrial park.

Nixon said she never learned much and she credited Elmore with gaining information from the Guard for town officials this spring. In 2015, Elmore and then-Sen. Shirley Randleman helped get Wilkes included as a site for a readiness center funded by Connect NC bond funds.

Mark Bondo, principal budget analyst/budget execution in the N.C. Office of State Budget and Management, cited language in the Connect NC Bond Act that he said allows the Guard to either build a new facility or renovate the existing armory in North Wilkesboro.

It says, “The proceeds of public improvement bonds and notes, including premium thereon, if any, for National Guard, as provided in subdivision (1) of this subsection, shall be used by the Adjutant General of the North Carolina National Guard for capital improvements, as defined in G.S. 143C-1-1(d)(5), for readiness centers located in Guilford, Burke and Wilkes counties.”

Bondo said G.S. 143C-1-1(d)(5) has the definition of capital improvements, saying it includes “real property acquisition, new construction or rehabilitation of existing facilities, and repairs and renovations over one hundred thousand dollars ($100,000) in value.”

He stated, “Thus, under the Connect NC Bond Act and the State Budget Act (143C) the Guard can construct a new facility or repair, renovate, and expand the existing armory to meet the needs of a regional readiness center.”

Bondo said the Connect NC Bond Act doesn’t give the Guard the option of canceling the Wilkes project or delaying it indefinitely. Total funding designated for the Wilkes project now is $12.86 million, he said, adding that it received a supplement in general fund money in 2018.

Principal, central office changes announced
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David Johnson

Deborah Surgeon

New principals at six Wilkes County schools and changes in central office positions were announced June 22 by Wilkes School Superintendent Mark Byrd.

Schools with new principals are North Wilkes High, Deborah Surgeon; East Wilkes High, Dustin Webb; Roaring River Elementary, Danielle Dowell; Mulberry Elementary, Nikki Patrick; Traphill Elementary, Carol Cleary; Boomer-Ferguson Elementary, Craig Tidline.

Byrd also announced that David Johnson is now director of secondary education (grades six-13) and county athletic director/school safety coordinator. He said Dr. Joe Bullis is now executive director of career and technical education.

Byrd said he is excited about what the newly-named principals can bring to their schools. “While they each have big shoes to fill from those previously in their roles, our committee knew without a doubt that we had selected the right people for these positions,” he said. The committee he referenced consists of Wilkes School District leaders Byrd appointed. He said changes at the central services level will strengthen support for principals and teachers.

Byrd said he is confident that the people in the new positions will serve in a manner benefitting students for many years to come. “Our school communities should be excited about those chosen to lead their schools and we hope that this will only add to their excitement for a great 2021-22 school year.”

Dustin Webb replaced Dr. Chad Mann as East Wilkes High principal. Mann was named principal at Starmount High School in Yadkin County. Webb, originally from Mount Airy, has a bachelor of science (BS) degree in history and secondary education from Appalachian State University and a master of arts degree in executive school leadership from Gardner-Webb University. He began his administrative career as assistant principal of Pilot Mountain Middle School for three years. He was assistant principal at Elkin Elementary before serving as Sparta Elementary principal the last four years. Webb stated, “I am deeply honored and truly excited to join Wilkes County Schools. I am joining a great family at East and I look forward to working with them for the good of the students of East Wilkes High School. My goal will be to support and serve the students, staff and community of East Wilkes and continue the tradition of excellence that is present throughout Cardinal Nation.”

Deborah Surgeon replaced David Johnson as North Wilkes High principal. Surgeon was North High’s assistant principal the last three years. She is a Wilkes native and North Wilkes graduate. Surgeon has a BS degree in exercise and sports science degree from the UNC-Greensboro, a master’s degree in middle grades education from ASU and an add on licensure in school leadership from ASU. Surgeon became a National Board Certified Teacher in 2008 and renewed this in 2018. She began her administrative career as assistant principal at C.C. Wright Elementary for two years before becoming North High assistant principal. Surgeon said, “As a college student I knew that I wanted to return to North Wilkes someday. I never could have imagined that I would have the opportunity to serve as principal. It is with great pride, honor and excitement that I continue to serve the North Wilkes community. Once a Viking always a Viking.”

Nikki Patrick replaces Ritchie Cornette as Mulberry Elementary principal. Cornette retired. Patrick, a Wilkes native, was Traphill Elementary principal the last two years. Before that, she was an assistant principal for seven years, including at Mulberry Elementary, West Wilkes Middle and Mountain View Elementary. She was a teacher for nine years. She has a bachelor’s degree and a master’s degree and school administration degree, all from ASU. “I am excited about returning to the Mulberry. I look forward to getting to know everyone and serving the (school’s) community,” said Patrick.

Carol Cleary replaces Nikki Patrick as Traphill Elementary principal. Patrick was named Mulberry Elementary’s principal. Cleary was assistant principal at Wilkesboro Elementary this past school year and before that assistant principal at Central Wilkes Middle. She is a Wilkes native and graduate of East Wilkes High. Cleary received a master of school administration degree while at Western Carolina University as an N.C. Principal Fellow. She has a BS degree in K-6 education from Lees McRae College. Cleary completed an educational specialist in administration degree last month from ASU. “I am excited and honored to have been chosen to partner with the Traphill Elementary School students, staff, parents and community and to lead through the next phase of continued educational excellence. If I can be of service in any way, please do not hesitate to contact me,” said Cleary.

Craig Tidline replaces Beth Hubbard as Boomer-Ferguson principal. Hubbard retired. He was principal of Roaring River Elementary the last 14 years. Tidline, originally from North Wilkesboro, has a BS degree in elementary education from North Carolina A&T State University and a master’s degree in K-12 administration. He began his teaching career in Guilford County Schools and was an assistant principal there for two years before moving to the Wilkes County Schools. “I am excited to work with the Boomer-Ferguson Elementary School students, staff, parents, and community.” Quoting Philippians 4:13 in the Bible, he said, “I can do all things through Christ which strengtheneth me.”

Danielle Dowell replaces Craig Tidline as Roaring River Elementary principal. Tidline now is principal at Boomer-Ferguson. Dowell was born in Miami, Fla., grew up Elkin and is a graduate of East Wilkes High. Previously, she was assistant principal at North Wilkes Middle School. Dowell also has been an assistant principal at Mountain View, Millers Creek and Wilkesboro elementary schools and at East Wilkes High. She has a BS degree in middle grades education from ASU and a master’s degree in educational leadership from Gardner-Webb. “I am honored and beyond excited to serve the community of Roaring River as the principal. Like the late Rita Pierson said, ‘I believe every child deserves a champion’ and I intend to be just that for the students, teachers and families of Roaring River this coming school year,” said Dowell.

David Johnson’s new responsibility of secondary education previously was handled by Dr. Donna Cotton, chief academic officer. Dr. Joe Bullis previously was county athletic director/school safety coordinator. Johnson, a Wilkes native, has a bachelor’s degree in history/secondary education from ASU, master’s degree in school administration from Gardner-Webb, and an educational specialist degree in educational leadership from ASU. He began his administrative career as Elkin High’s assistant principal for six years. He then was North Wilkes Middle principal for four years, West Wilkes High principal for three years and was at North High the last three years. “I am excited to serve Wilkes County Schools in my new role. I am sure I will be learning a great deal over the next several months and look forward to working hard to help all of our schools meet the needs of our students,” said Johnson.

Dr. Joe Bullis replaced Wayne Shepherd as director of Career and Technical Education. Shepherd retired. Bullis was already director of federal programs. He is a Wilkes native, has a BS in special education from ASU. He also has a master of arts degree in school administration and an educational doctorate in educational leadership, both from Gardner-Webb. Bulllis has been a principal of elementary, middle and high Schools in Wilkes and has been a director at of testing and accountability, Title I, ESL, CTE, EC, middle school instruction, cultural arts, athletics, school safety and technology in Wilkes and Alexander counties. “I am honored for the opportunity to serve Wilkes County Schools in another capacity. This school system has been very good to me as a student, parent, teacher, coach and administrator. I am always very grateful and excited to give back to the institution that has given so much to me and my family.”

Holland wins 2A wrestling state title

Memorial Park fireworks, music, parade are July 4
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The Independence Day fireworks display at North Wilkesboro’s Memorial Park and the Great American Fire Truck Parade in the Wilkesboros are scheduled Sunday, July 4.

In addition, the Downtown North Wilkesboro Partnership will provide live music the evening of July 4 at the Yadkin Valley Marketplace along the Central Business District (CBD) Loop. Alex Key and the Locksmiths will take the stage with a country music show around 6 p.m., followed by Silvio Martinat’s Swing Band.

These annual events were canceled in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

A spokesman for the Downtown North Wilkesboro Partnership said people are encouraged to bring chairs or blankets for the fireworks display, which starts about 9 p.m. July 4. Leashed pets are allowed, said the spokesman.

People start arriving by early afternoon to claim choice spots for observing the fireworks.

The Independence Day fireworks display are again sponsored by the Wilkes Law Enforcement Officers Association, the Wilkes Journal-Patriot and the governments of Wilkesboro, North Wilkesboro and Wilkes County.

The fire truck parade, open to all emergency services vehicles, will begin at 8 p.m. at West Park, North Wilkesboro. From West Park, it will go right on D Street, right on the CBD Loop, right on Sixth Street, right on Cherry Street to Wilkesboro Avenue and cross the Yadkin River to Wilkesboro.

In Wilkesboro, it will turn right on Main Street and go down Main Street to where it will end near the Tyson Foods Inc. complex and the intersection of Main Street and Curtis Bridge Road.’

The parade is sponsored by the Wilkes County Fire & Rescue Association with David Webb, Cricket Fire Department chief, in charge.

Webb said entries in the parade should start arriving at West Park about 5 p.m. via the western entrance near Don’s Char-Grill and will be directed where to go. He that due to safety concerns, no candy will be thrown by parade entries.