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Confederate flag in car at Bowman Gray prompts apology from race organizers in Winston-Salem

Organizers of the NASCAR series at Winston-Salem’s Bowman Gray Stadium apologized this week after a car with a Confederate flag decal made it onto the track, breaching NASCAR’s ban on the symbol.

“It will not happen again,” Gray Garrison, a spokesman for the track, said of the decal, which was inside Lee Stimpson’s car on Saturday night.

“We must have just flat-out missed it, so we did miss it, and we apologize and will talk with (Stimpson) about that,” Garrison said.

Stimpson, who raced his No. 45 in the Modified Division’s Hayes Jewelers 200, said on Wednesday night that he would have taken the decal of the Confederate flag off his car or covered it if officials would have asked him to.

“When you aren’t around, you get behind,” Stimpson said about not being a regular at the track since 2007. “I put that (decal) in there probably 10 or 12 years ago and I don’t run hardly at all anymore over there, and if somebody would have come over to me and said to get that out of there I would have addressed the situation.”

Stimpson said he went through the Friday practice day last week but none of the track officials said anything. And then he went through qualifying on Saturday before the race.

“Gray and them have been super, super good to me and my family,” Stimpson said. “And if I would have known this would have given them some bad press, that’s the last thing I would want to do. They are good people and I would hate for something I did would give them some bad press. I’m not making any excuses, but I wish somebody would have come over and said, ‘You need to do something about that.’”

Garrison said he would make sure that Stimpson does not have the symbol in his car if he races again.

Stimpson said he will likely race one more time this season at Bowman Gray Stadium, and if he does will not have the decal in his car. “Absolutely I will not have it on there,” he said.

Garrison said the ban on the Confederate flag covers all four divisions that race on Saturday nights: Modified, Sportsman, Street Stock and Stadium Stock.

The City of Winston-Salem owns the track.

Ben Rowe, an assistant city manager who was at the track Saturday night, said he did not see the image but heard about it Monday.

“It was simply an oversight because that’s not something that is allowed to be displayed during races,” said Rowe, who is responsible for the city’s public facilities.

The city doesn’t have an ordinance against displaying the flag, Rowe said, but the city will not allow vendors at the Carolina Classic Fair to sell items bearing images of the Confederate flag.

“We go by the rules at the track that are set forth by NASCAR and WSSI (Winston-Salem Speedway Inc.), and we support those rules,” Rowe said.

NASCAR banned Confederate imagery at all tracks covering all levels of racing last June after a high-profile incident in which a noose on a garage pull-down rope at Talladega Speedway in Alabama was found in the garage assigned to NASCAR’s Bubba Wallace, the only Black driver in the series. After investigating, the FBI said the noose was on the garage door rope since October 2019 and that Wallace was not targeted.

Racing at Bowman Gray Stadium, in its 72nd season, is part of the NASCAR Weekly Series.

Garrison said he and his staff try to ensure that drivers don’t make political statements on their cars.

“We had a couple of drivers who had what looked like a Confederate flag blending into an American flag, and we asked them to cover them up or take them off the car,” Garrison said. “We are very consistent with that policy, and our drivers know it.”

Bowman Gray Stadium, which is home to football games for the historically Black university Winston-Salem State during the fall, hosted a sellout crowd of more than 13,000 on opening night, the first track activity since August 2019 because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Stimpson, from Lewisville, placed 21st after his first race at the track in several years and won $300.

“I was hanging on by a thread,” Stimpson said about his race that ended with a broken rear suspension that forced him to the pits during the long 200-lap race on a hot, muggy night. “So it was a blessing in disguise that I had to quit. It took a lot out of me, and I thought I was in better condition. I’ve had a bout with cancer and I was just informed I’m a diabetic so I’ve had some health things.”

NASCAR’s decision to ban Confederate symbols became a flash-point last summer, which was marked by protests over the murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer and ongoing tensions over racial divisions.

Confederate images were also taken down across the country in recent years, including the removal of the Confederate memorial in downtown Winston-Salem in March 2019.

After the Wallace incident, NASCAR took a stand against racism, with a memorable moment at Talladega Superspeedway when drivers gathered with Wallace and pushed his car to the start-finish line before the race.

“It’s a family run deal with my brother and I,” Stimpson said about his race team. “We’re just a two-man team and I like to go over there and be with my friends and that place has always been really good to me ....

“I understand that about the rules and I know that Gray has to answer to somebody, too, and they are a NASCAR-sanctioned track. I have no hard feelings toward Bowman Gray and I hate that it slipped through the cracks like that.”

Photos: Race Night at Bowman Gray Stadium

Their time to celebrate

About 4,000 seniors are graduating in traditional style this year in Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools, restoring a time-honored custom after last year’s ceremonies were pushed online. On Wednesday, students at Reynolds High School had their turn to celebrate at Deaton Thompson Stadium.

Coca Cola ban fizzles in Surry County

Shareholders of the Coca Cola Company — check your portfolios, people — surely breathed easier Tuesday morning, knowing that Surry County commissioners, after giving the matter way too much thought, reversed course on their short-lived decision to ban Coke from county buildings.

That extra $40 (in quarters) every week will surely pay huge dividends to a company that reports $33.4 billion in annual sales revenue. Warren Buffett, the largest shareholder, no doubt sweated the ban.

Meanwhile, as the Coke commissioners dithered over a political statement roughly equivalent to blasting an elephant in the hind parts with a pea shooter, Surry County continues to struggle with an opioid epidemic that’s leaving a swath of death and devastation across huge parts of the populace.

Following the whole Coke “controversy” — it could have happened anywhere, such distractions honor no borders — is equal parts stomach-turning and head-scratching.

Knee-jerk reaction

Word began filtering out Tuesday that the Board of Commissioners had taken a second vote on its Coke ban, which had been approved last month by a weird quirk of parliamentary procedure.

On May 17, the board voted 2-2 on a motion to ban a dozen Coca-Cola vending machines from county buildings. But because one commissioner abstained from voting without stating a reason, his vote counted as a “yes” and the ban passed.

Georgia, like many other states, hit the panic button when too many Black voters showed up to cast ballots in 2020. The GOP-controlled Legislature, despite a mountain of evidence and court rulings to the contrary, cited “fraud” in passing legislation that adds a photo ID requirement for voting by mail; cuts the amount of time to request absentee ballots; limits the where drop boxes can be placed and bans people from handing out food and drink in long voting lines.

“The legislation is wrong and needs to be remedied,” said Coke CEO James Quincey in an interview earlier this year.

That didn’t sit well in Dobson and so the board — Commissioner Eddie Harris in particular — took aim at the elephant.

“It’s a reflection of corporate America trying to affect public policy,” he told the Journal last week. “These unelected CEOs are trying to change the political dynamics of this country.”

Like that’s not happening by funneling hundreds of thousands of dollars politicians through anonymous, untraceable dark money into shady political-action committees?

Or is this a case of telling CEOs who run companies employing thousands — including three dozen in Surry County — that their First Amendment rights don’t matter: “Thanks for the jobs and the sales and property tax revenue. Now shut up.”

“They need to stick to trying to sell their products and be more respectful of their customers,” Harris said.

Odd, but pushing a ban on products because someone said something you don’t like sounds a lot like … cancel culture.

Don’t lose sight of things that matter

The board, as mentioned, opted for a do-over Monday evening in which commissioners voted 3-2 to backtrack.

Commissioner Larry Johnson, the original abstainer, weighed in saying he supports voter ID laws but opposed removing Coke machines. (Maybe he’s got a thing for Mello Yello.)

So here we are back to the start following nearly a month of pointless debate. All the while, an actual problem that commissioners could lead on continues to plague Surry County.

The opioid numbers remain eye-popping.

A database published by The Washington Post in 2019 showed how pervasive it truly was. Some 80.3 OxyContin and oxycodone pills — a gateway to cheaper street heroin — were prescribed per person per year between 2006 and 2012 in Surry, compared to 42.9 statewide and 38.4 in Forsyth County.

Worse, a half-million Americans died of opioid overdoses between 1999-2019. And in Surry County, population 72,000, the death rate between 2014-2018 was 17.1 per 100,000 residents, well above the statewide rate of 13.6.

The number of OD deaths in Surry dropped from 55 in 2017 to 26 in 2019, but that’s attributable to an increase in the use in naloxone (Narcan), an opioid-reversal treatment rather than a dip in drug use.

Nearly a year after that much talked about summit in May 2019, nothing much changed. Attendance at regular follow-up planning meetings dwindled to 10 in a matter of three months.

Talk about creating volunteer support networks turned into hot smoke.

Treatment is expensive and time consuming.

Opioid addiction carries a huge stigma, too, often viewed as some sort of character flaw rather than a medical and psychological problem.

Substantive change takes political will — and money. Taking an attention-getting vote is much easier.

“Millions of Americans believe that the last presidential election was not held in a fair manner and that more voter fraud will occur in the future if elections are not more closely monitored and regulated,” Commissioner Harris wrote in a letter to the Coke CEO.

Millions also believe in a Deep State warrior called Q.

And ignore the suffering of their neighbors.

A worker makes the rounds in the Renfro Corp. plant in Mount Airy. The company has some 5,500 employees.

top story
Nearly 15 years ago, Samuel Flippen was executed for stepdaughter's death. Now, girl's father wants answers about his daughter's death.

In 2006, North Carolina executed Samuel Russell Flippen for the murder of his 2½-year-old stepdaughter, Britnie Hutton. Nearly 15 years later, Britnie’s biological father, John Hutton, is raising questions about whether Flippen really killed her.

Flippen was the last person North Carolina executed. Executions have been put on an indefinite hold due to litigation over several issues, including the Racial Justice Act, a now-defunct law that allowed death-row inmates to challenge their sentences based on allegations of racial discrimination.

Hutton was in Forsyth Superior Court on Wednesday on a motion filed by his attorneys, Andrew Chamberlin, Michelle A. Liguori and Mark Rabil, asking a judge to order the Winston-Salem Police Department, the Forsyth County Sheriff’s Office and the Forsyth County District Attorney’s Office to turn over their investigative files. In the motion, Hutton’s attorneys point to an allegation that Britnie’s mother beat one of her other children years after Britnie’s death, suggesting that she might have killed Britnie and not Flippen.

The mother, Tina Gibson (also known as Tina Harvell), has previously denied those allegations, and no criminal charges were ever filed against her in either Britnie’s death or the alleged assault on her son. A woman answering the number for what is believed to be her business hung up the phone when a Winston-Salem Journal reporter asked to speak to Gibson.

Judge David Hall of Forsyth Superior Court reluctantly granted part of the motion, saying he was concerned about wasting the court system’s resources on a case where the defendant has already been executed and that he wasn’t sure what kind of remedy he could provide.

“I believe the remedies are limited,” he said.

Winston-Salem Police Department had two pages of documents. The police department initially investigated Britnie’s death in 1994. There was some confusion about jurisdiction before authorities determined that Britnie died in Clemmons. The case was turned over to the Forsyth County Sheriff’s Office. The sheriff’s office said it had 50 pages of documents from the investigative file.

Chief Assistant District Attorney Jennifer Martin said in court Wednesday that personnel in her office searched the sixth floor, where the case file would be and could not locate it. Hall said he would not issue an order for a more thorough search, saying he took Martin’s word that her office did not have the file anymore.

Chamberlin said Shelagh Kenney, then an attorney for the Center for Death Penalty Litigation, had seen the file on Samuel Flippen in 2011 as part of litigation over the Racial Justice Act. Chamberlin said those files on death-penalty cases were supposed to be kept due to the litigation. It’s not clear what happened to the file.

After a brief hearing, Hall ordered the Winston-Salem Police Department and the Forsyth County Sheriff’s Office to provide documents from the investigative file to Hutton’s attorneys under seal.

After the hearing, Martin issued a statement, saying she respected Hall’s decision and that her office extends its sympathy to Britnie and her family.

“Brittnie’s murder was especially heinous, atrocious and cruel,” she said in the statement. “This office is here to protect the innocent and hold the guilty accountable. That is what occurred in this case.”

Christina Howell, a spokeswoman for the sheriff’s office, said current Sheriff Bobby Kimbrough was not involved in the original investigation and was not aware that Hutton had concerns. She said the sheriff’s office extends its condolences.

“We are willing to meet with Mr. Hutton and share anything with him that we are legally able to disclose,” she said. “As always, we are committed to transparency while remaining steadfast in our legal obligations as a law enforcement agency.”

Brutal murder

In 1994, Britnie Hutton lived with her mother, Tina Marie Gibson, and her stepfather, Samuel Flippen, in a trailer that Flippen owned in a mobile home park off Peace Haven Road in Clemmons, according to court papers.

At the time, John Hutton had joint custody of Britnie and had planned to pick her up on the morning of Feb. 12, 1994, so that she could spend that weekend with him. Gibson got up around 8 a.m. that morning.

Britnie was already awake, according to court documents. Flippen was still asleep. Gibson woke up Flippen and left the trailer to go to work around 9:30 a.m. Forty-one minutes later, Flippen called 911, saying that Britnie had fallen from a chair and was having trouble breathing. She was taken by ambulance to the hospital, where she died at 10:51 a.m. on Feb. 12, 1994.

Flippen said Britnie had fallen from an 18-inch chair, but an autopsy showed Britnie had blunt-force injuries all over her body, including abdomen, head, back, right forearm and right thigh. Those bruises were fresh and could have been inflicted up to eight to 12 hours before Britnie died. Britnie’s pancreas was cut in half and there were lacerations on her liver. The medical examiner, Dr. Donald Jason, concluded that Britnie was punched with such force to cause the injuries to her pancreas and liver. She died of internal bleeding. He said that the injuries to her organs occurred approximately up to one hour before her death, court papers said.

Flippen was charged with first-degree murder. He went to trial in 1995, where a jury convicted him and he was sentenced to death. But the N.C. Supreme Court overturned his sentence because the trial judge failed to include a jury instruction about Flippen’s lack of a criminal record. He was retried in 1997 and again sentenced to death. In the second trial, prosecutor Eric Saunders described Flippen as a “low-life sniveling coward” for not admitting he killed Britnie.

Flippen, who maintained his innocence, was executed on Aug. 18, 2006, after his appeals, including to the U.S. Supreme Court, failed. Then-Gov. Mike Easley rejected a clemency petition.

Father seeks answers

John Hutton, who opposed the death penalty for Flippen, said in an affidavit filed with the motion that he has continued to have questions that officials with the Winston-Salem police, Forsyth County sheriff’s office and the district attorney’s office have not answered.

He said in the affidavit and the motion that prosecutors and law-enforcement agencies did not consult him during the investigation or the prosecution.

“I was not informed during the investigation nor during any of the criminal proceedings of any rights that I had as a victim of the case,” Hutton said in the affidavit.

His concerns increased, he said, when he found out about allegations that Tina Gibson, his ex-wife and Britnie’s mother, had physically abused a son, who was born after Britnie’s death.

Deborah Shaw signed an affidavit on Aug. 13, 2006, that she had babysat the son. One day, during the summer of 1999, the son called Shaw into the bathroom and pulled down his pants. She said he was black and blue from his buttocks to his ankles. When she asked, he said said his mother did it. Shaw said in the affidavit that she contacted his grandparents, who told her that Tina Gibson had whipped her child at a store because he wouldn’t stop playing with a toy.

“I believed in spanking children but it was clear to me that spanking would not have caused such bruising,” she said in the affidavit. “I was also familiar, based on my experience, with the normal types of bruises and abrasions children had, and (his) condition was not normal.”

Flippen’s attorneys raised this allegation during appeals to stop his execution, citing it as new evidence. Gibson denied those allegations.

Martin said in court that Tina Gibson was never charged and that both Gibson and her son are doing fine.

Rabil, the director of the Innocence and Justice Clinic at Wake Forest University’s law school, said in a separate affidavit that he began working with Hutton after a Winston-Salem police officer approached him at a store. The officer told Rabil that “he was concerned about evidence that was not properly considered or investigated.” Rabil said he did not remember the name of that officer.

Rabil sent a letter in August 2018 to then-Sheriff William Schatzman to set up a meeting to discuss the sheriff’s investigation into Britnie’s death. He later followed up with emails to Lonnie Albright, who was then the county attorney assigned to the sheriff’s office, as well as to assistant city attorney Lori Sykes and Martin with the district attorney’s office.

In February, Hutton made a written request for records based on his rights as a victim of Britnie’s murder. In April, Rabil, Liguori and Chamberlin filed a motion in Forsyth Superior Court.

Chamberlin told Hall that Hutton’s request was no different than when a criminal defendant requests records in post-conviction proceedings. Hutton is entitled to those records under state law regarding victims’ rights, he argued.

Hall had reservations, pointing to the fact that Flippen was executed. He said he had sympathy for Hutton and his rights as the victim’s father but believed that there wasn’t a lot he could do to provide relief.

“This is an instance where there was an investigation that is over and closed,” he said. “There was a prosecution that is over and closed.”