A1 A1
Murder arrest made in Pleasant Hill case
  • Updated

Tyler Blake Daughenbaugh

A Surry County man has been arrested on a charge of murder in the death of an eastern Wilkes County man.

Tyler Blake Daughenbaugh, 22, of 909 Hunter Road, Mount Airy, was arrested about 8 p.m. June 15, said Wilkes Sheriff Chris Shew.

Daughenbaugh was using a riding mower for transportation in a wooded area near his home when he was arrested without incident by personnel from the Wilkes and Surry sheriff’s offices and State Bureau of Investigation, said Shew. He is in the Wilkes County Jail without bond.

Daughenbaugh is charged in connection with the shooting death of James Leroy Conley, 53, who was deceased when Wilkes Sheriff’s Office deputies found him lying on the ground outside his home at 425 L & L Road in the Pleasant Hill community the morning of June 13.

Shew said Daughenbaugh and Conley were acquaintances. He declined to comment on a possible motive, but said the arrest was made as a result of investigators interviewing people and following up on leads.

Shew said deputies went to the residence in response to a phone call made to the Wilkes Communications Center at 8:44 a.m. June 13. The possibility of more arrests hasn’t been ruled out but aren’t anticipated as the investigation continues, added the sheriff.

He said he wanted to thank the Surry Sheriff’s Office, Mount Airy Police Department, Carroll County (Va.) Sheriff’s Office and SBI for their assistance in the case.

Scythian and Brother Oliver drew one of largest crowds ever at the Yadkin Valley Marketplace in downtown North Wilkesboro on Saturday night. The two bands were presented by the Town of North Wilkesboro and Window World. See Wilkes Living section on Page C1 for story and more photos.

Bands draw large crowds at Yadkin Valley Marketplace

Appeals court says trooper wrongly fired
  • Updated

The N.C. Court of Appeals ruled June 15 that an N.C. Highway Patrol trooper unjustly lost his job after a motorcycle he was pursuing wrecked and the operator died just west of Wilkesboro on Jan. 9, 2019.

The appeals court also ordered that James E. Belcher of Millers Creek be reinstated by the Highway Patrol. Belcher said Monday that he hadn’t yet decided what he’ll do.

Attorney Barry K. Henline of Wilmington, representing Belcher, said Monday, “We’re pleased that the Court of Appeals determined that there were no policy violations that justified” Belcher being dismissed from the Highway Patrol.

Henline said the N.C. Supreme Court has the option of hearing the case, but this doesn’t automatically occur because the Court of Appeals’ decision was unanimous. The Highway Patrol has 15 days to decide whether to petition for review, he added.

He said that under state law, Belcher is eligible for reimbursement of lost Highway Patrol pay and Henline’s law firm is eligible to receive its legal fees in the case from the state. He said he plans to file a petition seeking these funds.

The Highway Patrol dismissed Belcher on July 1, 2019, saying he violated Highway Patrol chase and truthfulness policies during a pursuit on U.S. 421 that led to the death of Cody Adam Cooper, 26, of Ferguson.

Belcher appealed the dismissal, ultimately appearing before Administrative Law Judge David F. Sutton after filing a contested case petition in the Office of Administrative Hearings. Sutton found just cause for Belcher’s dismissal, and Belcher appealed this to the Court of Appeals.

Sutton said Belcher violated Highway Patrol chase policy by continuing the pursue after the motorcycle started “weaving.” Sutton based this on video footage from Belcher’s dash camera and on three troopers testifying on behalf of the Highway Patrol that Cooper’s actions constituted weaving.

Sutton said Belcher violated the agency’s truthfulness policy by telling Highway Patrol Sgt. Brandon Buchanan on the radio that Cooper wasn’t weaving.

Henline pointed out that the Highway Patrol has no written definition of weaving so attempts to identify this are subjective and the chase policy as it relates to weaving is prone to selective enforcement. The Court of Appeals’ written decision said Sutton’s assertion that Belcher’s statement about weaving was untruthful “relies on a definition that does not exist, and therefore is arbitrary.”

The decision noted that the three testifying troopers each had different definitions of weaving.

It said that based on Buchanan testifying that the driver of a patrol car could see things that might not be captured by a dash camera, video from a dash camera isn’t a rational basis for concluding certain statements by Belcher about what he saw were untruthful.

The decision said Belcher violated Highway Patrol policy by failing to activate his blue light and siren during the chase, but “this violation did not proximately cause the harm that resulted from the chase.”

The pursuit began when Belcher, then in his 10th year as a trooper, attempted to stop a 2002 Honda motorcycle operated by Cooper on U.S. 421 in Wilkesboro. The motorcycle instead continued westbound on U.S. 421.

The decision said Belcher and Trooper Sean T. Hall pursued Cooper for 13 minutes while Buchanan supervised by radio before Cooper lost control of the motorcycle, was ejected and died at the scene. This occurred near the intersection of South Minton Road and U.S. 421.

Belcher and Hall were placed on administrative duty while an internal investigation was conducted. At the request of the Highway Patrol, the State Bureau of Investigation conducted an independent investigation into the incident. In late February 2019, District Attorney Tom Horner announced that no criminal charges would be filed against Belcher.

Judge Jeffery K. Carpenter of Monroe of the Court of Appeals authored the decision. Concurring were Judge Valerie J. Zachary of Yadkinville and Judge Hunter Murphy of Waynesville.

A wrongful death suit filed against Belcher in June 2020 by Angela White in Wilkes Superior Court in connection with Cooper’s death was voluntarily dismissed June 8. The suit was dismissed with prejudice, which means it can’t be refiled. Henline said no money was paid as part of the dismissal. White was Cooper’s mother and the administrator of his estate.

Wilkes man is lottery game's last $1M prize winner
  • Updated

A Wilkes County man who won the $1 million top prize with a 50X the Cash scratch-off ticket said the experience was surreal and left him more shocked that anything, stated a press release from the N.C. Education Lottery.

Lee Kilby of Wilkesboro recently purchased the ticket for $10 at Village Market No. 1 at 71 Sparta Road, North Wilkesboro.

He had a choice of taking the $1 million as an annuity of $50,000 (before federal and state taxes) a year for 20 years, or a lump sum of $600,000. Kilby chose the lump sum of $600,000 and took home $424,503 after federal and state tax withholdings.

He claimed his prize Friday at lottery headquarters in Raleigh and told a lottery official, “When I scratched it off, I couldn’t believe what I was seeing…. I couldn’t be more excited about winning.”

Kilby won the last $1 million top prize, so the lottery will begin steps to end the game.

The press release said ticket sales from scratch-offs like 50X the Cash make it possible for the lottery to raise more than $725 million a year for education in North Carolina.

Budget okayed with BROC funds despite investigation
  • Updated

The Wilkes County commissioners discussed withholding funds from Blue Ridge Opportunity Commission (BROC) in the fiscal 2021-22 budget June 15 due to an investigation of the agency.

Commissioners shared differing views on the matter before they unanimously approved a budget that left BROC’s funding unchanged from what County Manager John Yates proposed last month.

When Chairman Eddie Settle opened the floor for consideration of adopting the new budget that night, he looked at Commissioner David Gambill expectantly until Gambill responded, “I’ll bring it up.”

Gambill then said there is new information about BROC involving “some kind of investigation” and added, “I understand we give them a little money.”

Yates said $56,815 is in the proposed budget for BROC.

Gambill continued, “Probably I’m in agreement with the budget, but I would like to hold that amount (for BROC) prior to the investigation and everything coming out. If they need some money they can… maybe present an invoice or a bill or something.”

County Attorney Tony Triplett asked what his motion would be and Gambill said he didn’t have a motion yet. “I’m not aware of everything going on, but I do know there is something going on, said Gambill, adding that he didn’t want to impede an investigation.

“At some point I guess I probably will make a motion, but I don’t know if it might get a second. I’m just throwing it out there that I would like to probably hold that money out.”

Settle asked Triplett if Gambill could make a motion to withhold BROC’s funding until further investigation.

Triplett said that would be fine, “but you need to clarify whether you’re talking about taking it out of the budget for now — and it could always be added to the budget later by a budget amendment — or whether you’re going to keep it in the budget and instruct the finance officer to not disburse it.”

Yates recommended keeping BROC’s funds in the budget but withholding it for now.

Gambill said he preferred whichever is easiest for the county finance department “until more light is shed” on the situation with BROC.

Commissioner Keith Elmore, speaking remotely, said he was “a little bit familiar” with what Gambill was referencing with BROC. Elmore also said BROC serves a valuable purpose for a lot of people in bad circumstances.

“I think we can fix the problem over there without withholding their budget. I personally would like to go ahead and pass the budget and then we’ll deal with any issues later on. At this point I don’t feel comfortable withholding their money. I think we can get it fixed,” said Elmore.

Commissioner Brian Minton is on the BROC board and said he was told to keep his mouth shut about the matter. “So there you go, but there is an investigation active and going on right now,” he added.

County Finance Director Chris Huffman said county government appropriations to non-profits are disbursed quarterly rather than in single lump sums.

Minton said the first quarterly payment could be withheld “and then see how the investigation comes in.” Yates said the first and second quarterly payments could then be made together later.

Elmore made a motion to approve the budget as presented, including keeping the $56,815 in the budget for BROC.

Elmore stated, “Mr. Gambill, I honestly think we can deal with any issues after the fact. I think we’ll be okay.”

Gambill seconded Elmore’s motion after saying he had to respect his position and noting that Elmore served on the BROC board earlier. The motion passed unanimously.

Gambill said in an interview later that he didn’t know any more about the investigation of BROC than what he said in the meeting.

BROC investigationOfficer Rocky Whitley of the North Wilkesboro Police Department reported that he went to BROC’s office on Veterans Drive, North Wilkesboro, on June 14 at the request of BROC Executive Director Dare Stromer.

Whitley said Stromer and Jennifer Cooper, BROC Senior Nutrition Services director, told him that a BROC employee used a BROC credit card to buy personal items. He said Cooper estimated that the employee made about $20,000 in unauthorized credit card purchases, mostly on VISA gift cards.

Whitley said he was asked to be present the next day when Stromer and Cooper questioned the employee referenced and terminated the person’s employment with BROC. His report said North Wilkesboro police are investigating the case as embezzlement.

Stromer said in an interview that BROC board members were notified about the matter. Cooper declined to comment but said BROC’s attorney would issue a statement on behalf of the agency at some point.

BROC is a 501 c(3) non-profit established in 1966 as a community action agency. It administers state and federal grant-funded programs that address poverty in Wilkes, Ashe and Alleghany counties. BROC also receives funds from local governments in these counties, Wilkes United Way and other sources. BROC reported $3.5 million in revenue in 2019. It’s expenses then included $1.9 million for the Head Start program.

More on county budgetDuring the June 15 meeting, Settle reviewed $628,560 in expenditures the commissioners added to the budget proposed by Yates inn May. They include:

• $400,000 more for K-12 school operations;

• $219,935 more for 3% across the board salary increases in the Wilkes Sheriff’s Office on top of 3% pay raises funded for all county employees;

• $1,400 more for the Catherine Barber Homeless Shelter;

• $2,225 more for Hospitality House;

• $5,000 more for Wilkes Rescue Squad.

Also during the meeting and before the budget was approved, Gambill made a motion to approve the Millers Creek Fire Department Board’s request for a two-cent increase in its fire district tax rate. His motion passed unanimously, which means the rate now is 10 cents per $100 of property valuation.

Settle said he believes that when the Millers Creek board requested a three-cent rate hike last year, an agreement was reached to only approve a one-cent increase last year and do something more this year.

Gambill, who is the fire commissioner, noted that the Millers Creek department recently increased the level of rescue services it provides to medium and it could easily provide heavy level rescue services.

He said Millers Creek was the first department to approve new, uniform contracts with the county a few years ago and as such helped influence other departments to do the same.

Settle said it’s going to be harder to raise fire district taxes any higher, adding that he also knows it’s hard for the fire departments. He said he appreciated the Millers Creek Fire Station serving as a Wilkes Emergency Medical Services base by housing a Wilkes EMS ambulance and staff and everything else it does.

Millers Creek Fire Chief Robbie Bolin said two Wilkes Rescue Squad vehicles also are housed at the Millers Creek station. It also houses the county’s air truck for refilling firefighter air tanks.

Minton asked if the commissioners will be asked to approve another two-cent increase in Millers Creek’s rate next year. Bolin responded, “I see this (10-cent rate) carrying Millers Creek for quite a while.”

The Millers Creek Fire Department board held off seeking a fire district tax rate hike for years but no longer could do this, said Joe Rankin, board vice president. He appeared with Bolin.

No other Wilkes fire departments requested fire tax rate hikes.

The new budget kept the county property tax rate unchanged at 66 cents per $100 of property valuation

It doesn’t include any of about $13.6 million Wilkes County government is expected to get through the American Rescue Plan.