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This week’s “mystery plant” is a highly fragrant, but low-growing evergreen and member of the Heath family.

2 jailed for Hamilton murder also charged in Walker death
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The Wilkes Sheriff’s Office on Feb. 25 charged Joshua Anthony Allen and Vanessa Mae Davis, both of North Wilkesboro, with one count each of murder, conspiracy to commit robbery and robbery with a dangerous weapon in connection with the death of Renee Ann Walker of Wilkesboro.

Walker was reported missing to the Wilkesboro Police Department on July 9, 2020, by her grandmother, Dare Miller. A sheriff’s office press release said Walker, 26, when reported missing, was last seen at the Quality Inn in Wilkesboro in June 2020. She had been staying there.

The press release referred to investigators locating human remains off North Ridge Road, Roaring River, in December 2020. The remains, found in an area about a mile from where North Ridge Road intersects with N.C. 268 East, were sent to Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center in Winston-Salem for an autopsy.

Law enforcement officers said earlier that they believed the remains were those of Walker, but this hadn’t been confirmed in the autopsy by late last week. The press release said the autopsy determined that the cause of death was a gunshot wound. Allen once lived off North Ridge Road.

The press release also said that during the investigation, it was learned Allen and Davis had planned to rob Walker of her Quality Inn room key to gain access to her motel room.

The case has been jointly investigated by the Wilkes Sheriff’s Office, Wilkesboro Police Department, State Bureau of Investigation and Sparta Police Department.

In December 2020, the Sparta Police Department charged Allen, 34, with murder of Kadejuia Nichole Hamilton, 26, originally from Wilkes County but living in Sparta when she was reported missing in October. Authorities believe she died in October and that same month her body was found outdoors in the White Plains Road area of Roaring River, several miles west of North Ridge Road.

In January, the Sparta Police Department charged Davis, 20, with accessory after the fact to murder in Hamilton’s death.

A warrant charging Davis said there was probable cause that she knew Allen took Hamilton’s life and that she helped him attempt to escape arrest and punishment by moving and concealing Hamilton’s body. The Sparta Police Department also charged Davis with abducting Hamilton’s young son from Hamilton. Allen brought the child to the boy’s grandparents in Alleghany.

Allen was already in the Alleghany County Jail and Davis was already in the Ashe County Jail on charges in Hamilton’s death when they were charged in connection with Walker’s death on Feb. 25. Both were still in jail with no bond last week.

5 charged after still, hundreds of gallons of 'shine seized
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A large illegal distillery and several hundred gallons of moonshine were seized or destroyed and five people charged in Wilkes County as a result of an investigation initiated by Triad ABC Law Enforcement in Winston-Salem.

Greg Miller, chief of Triad ABC, said Triad ABC agents and Wilkes Sheriff’s Office detectives executed search warrants at 417 Brewer Baldwin Ridge Road in the Hays community and at 587 Dellaplane Road in the Antioch community on Jan. 20.

Miller said the officers found a large active liquor still inside a building, several hundred gallons of non-tax paid liquor (moonshine) and several thousand gallons of mash at the Brewer Baldwin Ridge Road location. He said the still was destroyed and some of the non-tax paid liquor kept as evidence.

He said the officers found more moonshine and an older copper still that no longer was active at the Dellaplane Road location. Miller said the still was seized.

Miller said searches were conducted at the two locations as a result of Triad ABC officers receiving a tip in May about a possible non-tax paid liquor still on Rock Creek Church Road in Hays.

He said that in a follow up to the searches conducted on Jan. 20, Triad ABC agents went to 281 Hague Road in the Clingman area to interview a possible suspect in the case. (Hague Road is between U.S. 421 and Old 421.)

“Upon arrival, agents observed in plain view what was known to them to be a ‘drink house,’ ” said Miller, referring to a place with the illegal sale of alcoholic beverages, often liquor by the drink.

“After consent from the person in charge of the residence (was secured), multiple gallons of non-tax paid liquor were located, along with gambling tables.”

Miller said this type of operation can gross several hundred thousand dollars in a year, “resulting in a significant tax loss.”

Miller said the overall investigation resulted in Bruce Church, 69, of Roaring River, Randy Howell, 65, of North Wilkesboro and Phillip Church, 46, of Roaring River being charged with one count each of manufacturing liquor with no permit, felony attempt to evade/defeat tax and conspiracy to commit a felony.

Howell, the two Churches and Lester McBride, 68, are also charged with one count each of possession/sale of non-tax paid alcoholic beverage. McBride has a Columbus, Ohio, address but has been staying at a residence on Butternut Drive, North Wilkesboro, said a Triad ABC spokesman.

McBride is also charged with keeping a disorderly house and possessing alcoholic beverage with no permit in connection with him being in charge of the drink house, said the Triad ABC spokesman.

Howell is also charged with resist, obstruct and delay an officer.

Pamela McBride, 61, of North Wilkesboro is charged with possessing alcoholic beverage with no permit.

Major Jason Whitley, Wilkes County Jail supervisor, said Bruce Church and Randy Howell were arrested Feb. 19 and Phillip Church was arrested Feb. 23. Whitley said all three were released from custody under secured bonds of $10,000 each.

He said that as of Monday, Lester McBride and Pamela McBride hadn’t been served with arrest warrants yet.

Miller said anyone with information pertaining to this case or any similar activities is asked to call Triad ABC Law Enforcement at 336-784-5808.

Newspaper's photos, editorial page win awards
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The Wilkes Journal-Patriot received four awards in the N.C. Press Association’s 2020 news writing and photography competition, held remotely this year due to COVID-19.

Staff member Marty McGee won first place and second place in feature photography, while staff member Jule Hubbard won third place in spot news photography. The newspaper’s editorial page took second place.

McGee’s first place feature photo was titled “A Lyrid meteor on Earth Day.” It was published on April 29, 2020, and had the following cutline: “A Lyrd meteor streaks toward the southeastern horizon in the pre-dawn hours of Earth Day (April 22). The annual Lyrid meteor shower peaked the night of April 21 into the morning of April 22, bringing about 15 to 20 meteors per hour over skies in Wilkes County, which were almost totally dark due to the nearly-new moon. The Milky Way galaxy is visible to the left of the meteor.”

McGee’s third place feature photo was titled, “Sizing up Santa,” published on Dec. 10, 2020. The cutline read: “Sizing up Santa with an incredulous look is Finley Case of Wilkesboro, who was one of the first toddlers in line to meet the Jolly Old Saint Nicholas during ‘Christmas in the Commons’ Saturday in Wilkesboro.”

Hubbard’s third place spot news photo showed a motor vehicle chase suspect being escorted by Wilkes Sheriff’s Office deputies from the woods along Fall Creek Road in western Wilkes County after he was apprehended. The photo appeared in the Jan. 8, 2020, issue.

The Wilkes Journal-Patriot competed with the largest circulation non-daily newspapers. Winners were announced on Feb. 25. Entries are judged by staff members of newspapers in a different state each year.

Above: West Wilkes junior quarterback Hunter Wayne looks for a passing lane Thursday in Millers Creek, as Wilkes Central’s Sam Joines (22) and Isaiah Buckhannon (50) are in hot pursuit. Right: West sophomore Jarrett Minton returns a kickoff for big yardage Thursday while being pursued by the Eagles’ Malachi Rucker. Rucker had two scores in Central’s 58-7 win in Millers Creek.

Weak contender for economic growth
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Wilkes County’s lack of competitiveness for economic development without suitable buildings or sites was emphasized in a Feb. 25 county government budget work session.

It’s a message veteran Wilkes commissioners acknowledge hearing before.

This time it came from Emily Miller, president of Garner-based McAdams & Associates LLC, as the commissioners begin the process developing a budget for fiscal 2021-22.

Miller provides local governments with administrative and consulting services to help them seek grants for economic development-related capital projects. She focuses on site development and infrastructure, mostly in rural communities.

She helped North Wilkesboro secure funds for a $2.2 million elevated water storage tank off River Road-Liberty Grove Road, with construction scheduled to start this month. Miller helped the Wilkes Economic Development Corp. apply for a $1.5 million Golden LEAF Foundation grant for constructing a building the EDC could use to help bring about job and tax base growth.

She told commissioners that EDC records show Wilkes missed 35 opportunities for expanded local or new operations since August 2018. Miller said that in all but five of the 35, Wilkes was dropped from consideration due to a lack of available and suitable buildings or graded sites.

“You have 100% chance of not getting anybody if you don’t have sites or buildings,” said Miller, indicating this is the case now in Wilkes.

Board chairman Eddie Settle said the commissioners have already heard what she was saying and that he believed they’ll soon learn if it’s true.

Commissioner Keith Elmore, recently elected to his fifth four-year term, said that for years the EDC has told commissioners the county needs spec buildings and pad ready sites but hasn’t provided a plan and the numbers.

“We finally have a plan and I think we’re going to see, if they build it, will they come. And we’re in a position financially where we can do that,” said Elmore.

Elmore said his biggest concern is whether Wilkes has the workforce to support a major new employer. He said major employers in Wilkes are already advertising for employees. He noted that Tyson Foods Inc. is paying $15 an hour starting wages and offering $1,200 sign-on bonuses.

Miller’s response was that many Wilkes residents commute to better jobs outside the county, so might give up commuting for better opportunities in their home county.

She said numerous companies that considered moving to Wilkes recently offered jobs that were a good fit for workforce training offered at Wilkes Community College.

The water tank Miller helped North Wilkesboro get will provide increased water pressure for fire suppressant needed for Jeld-Wen to expand its fiberglass door “skins” (facings) manufacturing facility off River Road-Liberty Grove Road. The expansion means an $8 million investment and creation of 29 jobs with average weekly pay of $688.

Miller said Golden LEAF approved a grant for the project, but for less than sought because plans for an assisted living project on River Road-Liberty Grove Road were dropped. Funding from the N.C. Division of Environmental Quality was sought to make up the difference.

Efforts to secure funding for the water tank took over a year, resulting in Jeld-Wen renting another facility.

“That’s a lot of expense for the company as it waits for the tank to be completed,” said Miller, adding that Jeld-Wen might have left Wilkes if it could have found a large enough facility.

She said the point is that it’s very important to be prepared if one of the many industries in Wilkes wants to expand to keep them from leaving.

She said N.C. Local Government Commission approval of the project is expected this week. “We’ll hopefully start construction on the tank in March and take a year for completion.

Miller is also helping the EDC with its application for $1.5 million from Golden LEAF for building a 31,000-square-foot metal building to serve as the “Wilkes Commercial Business Center.” Discussion has focused on building it on five acres owned by the EDC behind the Knotville Fire Station near the intersection of N.C. 268 East and Liberty Grove-River Road.

“That center is key for having some type of product” because now there are no vacant buildings with adequate square footage and ceiling heights in Wilkes.

Miller referenced information gathered for the $1.5 million Golden LEAF grant application with help from the EDC. This included 20 companies (five in and 15 outside Wilkes) with plans for new facilities over the past three years that could have gone into something like commercial business center.

A list of the 20 companies indicated five are still considering Wilkes. Two of the five are already in Wilkes — a textile manufacturing company planning 75 new jobs and a commercial automotive business with 10 new jobs.

The other three are manufacturers, one aerospace with 10 new jobs, another food equipment with 40 new jobs and the third food processing with 10 new jobs. Their potential projects here involve investments up to $5 million, which is the textile operation.

The five need facilities ranging from 8,000 to 20,000 square feet of floor space and ceiling heights ranging from 12 to 28 feet. Their average wages range from $15 to $17.90.

She said that once the commercial business center is completed and occupied, revenue from leasing it and financing based on the building as collateral can be used to construct another building for the same purpose and so on. Having one such building completed will help get grants to duplicate this.

Miller said that for sites without buildings to be competitive, they need to be graded, have had soil tests, have industrial grade power, have water and sewer lines or good plans for getting them and have good access.

When a company decides to expand, it wants this within six to 12 months and not two years, said Miller.

She urged commissioners to make sure Wilkes doesn’t miss any more opportunities due to a lack of buildings or sites.

Over 9,000 have first dose, nearly 5,000 have second in Wilkes
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Wilkes County Health Director Rachel Willard said at least 9,320 Wilkes residents had received first doses of COVID-19 vaccine and at least 4,908 had received second doses by the end of last week.

Willard said the Wilkes Health Department alone had administered 9,788 first and second doses combined by then.

The health department reported that as of Monday, 6,001 Wilkes residents had been diagnosed with COVID-19 and 103 COVID-19-related deaths of Wilkes residents had been confirmed since the pandemic began in March 2020.

Also on Monday, Wilkes had 215 active COVID-19 cases. This included 23 people who were hospitalized.

The number of new cases of the virus per 100,000 people in Wilkes in the prior 14 days continued to drop and was 278 on Monday.

Willard said the health department is accepting vaccination appointments for eligible people at a first dose clinic Thursday and a second dose clinic Friday. Both are drive-through clinics at Lowe’s Park at River’s Edge, with enough doses of Moderna vaccine for about 1,500 vaccinations Thursday and about 900 Friday.

Those already eligible for vaccination include health care workers with in-person patient contact, long-term care residents and staff, people 65 and older, Pre-K-12 teachers and school staff and childcare workers.

Gov. Roy Cooper announced Tuesday afternoon that frontline essential workers in group three of the state’s COVID-19 vaccine eligibility plan will be eligible for vaccination starting Wednesday of this week instead of March 10 as earlier planned.

These are people who must be present in-person at their place of work in one of eight sectors:

1. People employed in “critical manufacturing,” which includes those involved in manufacturing medical supplies, medical equipment or PPE and products needed for food and agricultural supply chains.

2. College and university instructors and support staff.

3. People who make certain essential goods available, include workers in stores that sell groceries and medicine.

4. People engaged in food and agriculture, such as those working in restaurants and in meat packing, food processing and food distribution facilities.

5. People engaged in government and community services, which includes U.S. Postal Service and other shipping workers, those working in court systems, elected officials, clergy, homeless shelter staff and veterinarians, veterinarian staff and veterinarian students.

6. Public health workers and social workers.

7. Public safety personnel, including firefighters and emergency medical services, law enforcement, corrections workers, security officers and public agency workers responding to abuse and neglect.

8. People involved in transportation, including public transit workers, Division of Motor Vehicles workers, transportation maintenance and repair technicians and workers supporting highway infrastructure.

Dr. Westley Wood, assistant superintendent of the Wilkes County Schools, said during Monday night’s Wilkes school board meeting that plans are being made for administering second doses to school personnel.

Wood said 641 full- and part-time school employees (about 47% of the total) pre-registered for one of four first dose clinics Feb. 24-26. Wood said school employees who didn’t pre-register were also accepted.

Per a directive from DHHS, it was only available to school employees.

Wood said almost 50 school employees 65 and older were vaccinated in a clinic on Jan. 28 at the Stone Center and some in drive-through clinics for the general public at Lowe’s Park at River’s Edge.

He said the Wilkes County Schools are proud to partner with the Wilkes Health Department, Wilkes Sheriff’s Office and Wilkes Emergency Medical Services at these clinics.

Wood said school nurses, social workers, counselors and April Marr, director of student services, all worked at the clinics.

He said the Wilkes County Schools is one of four organizations statewide that participated in a pilot program through DHHS in which school employees registered for vaccinations on paper and electronically. Wood said the goal was to help reduce health department labor entering information about each person vaccinated in a database.

Appalachian State University announced that is set to aid in vaccine distribution after DHHS approved its application to be a community vaccine distribution center once vaccine allotments are provided.

The N.C. Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) expected to receive 83,700 doses of the Johnson & Johnson’s one-shot vaccine on Wednesday following the federal government approval of distribution of the vaccine Saturday. This new vaccine doesn’t require extreme cold storage, so it can be more easily shipped, stored and administered. State officials said this should help ensure more equitable distribution and access to vaccines in every community in the state.

The other two vaccines currently in use are Moderna and Pfizer, which both are being given in two doses about a month apart.