The first time John Elliott Neville's name appeared on the front pages of the Winston-Salem Journal was on June 27, seven months after his death.
Tevin LaMar Bonner came to Winston-Salem to do only one thing — to install an alarm system, like he had done all over the country. But, according to a Forsyth County prosecutor, his brief encounter with two teenage boys at a gas station after he had finished work would result in him getting shot 20 minutes later. About a week later, he would die at a local hospital.
On Monday afternoon, those two teenage boys — Brandon Martelle Banks, 15, of the 1900 block of Althea Street, and Bayron Yovanay Estrada Gonzalez, 16, of the 1900 block of Butler Street — pleaded guilty to second-degree murder. Gonzalez also pleaded guilty to armed robbery and conspiracy to commit armed robbery. Banks pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit armed robbery. They both had been facing charges of first-degree murder.
Judge Todd Burke of Forsyth Superior Court sentenced Gonzalez, who a prosecutor said pulled the trigger, to a minimum of 16 years and a maximum of 20 years and three months in prison. Burke sentenced Banks, who had agreed to testify against Gonzalez, to a minimum of 10 years and a maximum of 13 years in prison on the murder charge. He gave Banks a suspended sentence of two years and one month and a maximum of three years and six months on the conspiracy charge and placed him on 18 months of supervised probation.
Assistant District Attorney Belinda Foster said this is what happened:
On June 17, 2019, Bonner, 28, of El Paso, Tex., was at a gas station when he approached Banks and Gonzalez about buying marijuana. Surveillance video from the gas station showed Bonner going into the convenience store to use the ATM machine, then coming back out and all three getting into Bonner’s 2014 gray Jeep SUV. Banks was in the front passenger seat, and Gonzalez got into the back passenger seat behind Bonner.
They stopped somewhere, and Bonner and Banks went to buy the marijuana.
At 9:56 p.m. a neighbor who lived in the 1400 block of Williamson Street near Timlic Avenue called 911 and reported hearing gunshots. He went outside and saw two men pull Bonner out of the vehicle and leave him on the street.
A man later identified as Gonzalez got into the driver’s seat, and Banks got into the front passenger seat, and Gonzalez drove Bonner’s SUV a few yards before it stopped. Gonzalez and Banks got out and ran toward a wooded area.
Banks was later identified through the surveillance video, and Winston-Salem police subsequently arrested Banks and Gonzalez. Banks gave several false statements to police, Foster said, before he started saying what happened. Banks said at some point that Bonner had accused the two of stealing his money but he never said who shot Bonner.
Gonzalez admitted that he shot Bonner but never explained why he did.
The murder weapon was never found, and Foster said it appears that they dropped it into a culvert as they ran from the crime scene.
Bonner was shot twice in the head. Another bullet went through his neck.
Foster said one challenge to the case had to do with the fact that she wouldn’t be able to admit Gonzalez’s confession if the case had gone to trial. That’s because the person who was in the interrogation room with Gonzalez and whom Gonzalez referred to as his mother was not, in fact, his mother. The woman was not his legal guardian, she said. The woman was actually his mother’s girlfriend who stepped in because Gonzalez’s mother was intoxicated.
Foster said Banks had agreed to testify against Gonzalez but would not say if Gonzalez had pulled the trigger.
Julie Boyer, Gonzalez’s attorney, said Gonzalez’s father had been in and out of prison and his mother’s drinking had been a constant problem.
Andrew Keever, Banks’ attorney, said his client was 13 at the time and Banks had no idea that Gonzalez was going to shoot Bonner.
According to his obituary, Bonner was the oldest of four siblings and had a son, who is now 5. He also competed in USA Track and Field events, and running, long jump and triple jump were his passions.
Twelve members of his family, including his mother and the mother of his child, attended the hearing, many of them wearing the jerseys of his favorite football team, the Green Bay Packers.
His mother, Tasha Bonner-Dennison, said the last time she talked to her son was on Father’s Day. He was grilling food and was making plans to see his son. The last words they said to each other were “I love you,” Bonner-Dennison said.
“Not only did they murder my son but they tore up our family,” she said.
Foster said Bonner’s family had traveled several times to Winston-Salem from Texas, Minnesota, Florida and Georgia.
“On June 17, 2019, Brandon Banks and Bayron Gonzalez placed a hard and bitter pill in their mouth and it won’t go down,” she said.
ELIZABETH CITY — The Rev. Al Sharpton issued a powerful call for transparency and the release of body camera footage at the funeral Monday for Andrew Brown Jr., a Black man shot and killed by deputies in North Carolina, with the civil rights leader likening withholding the video to a “con” job done on the public.
“I know a con game when I see it. Release the whole tape and let the folks see what happened to Andrew Brown,” Sharpton told mourners in a scorching eulogy at the invitation-only service at a church in Elizabeth City.
“You don’t need time to get a tape out. Put it out! Let the world see what there is to see. If you’ve got nothing to hide, then what are you hiding?” he said, to loud applause.
A judge ruled last week that the video would not be made public for at least a month to avoid interference with a pending state investigation into the April 21 shooting of Brown, 42, by deputies attempting to serve drug-related search and arrest warrants.
An independent autopsy commissioned by his family said Brown was shot five times, including once in the back of the head. Family members who were privately shown a portion of the body camera video say Brown was trying to drive away when he was shot. The shooting sparked days of protests in the city in rural northeastern North Carolina.
Other speakers included Brown’s sons as well as civil rights attorney Ben Crump, who is representing Brown’s family. Calling Brown’s death an “unjustifiable, reckless shooting,” Crump told mourners the legal team would continue fighting for justice and transparency.
“We are here to make this plea for justice because Andrew was killed unjustifiably, as many Black men in America have been killed: shot in the back. Shot, going away from the police. And because Andrew cannot make the plea for justice, it is up to us to make the plea for justice,” Crump said.
Relatives of other Black men killed by law enforcement officers, including siblings of George Floyd, Eric Garner’s mother and Daunte Wright’s sister also spoke at the service. Bridgett Floyd described the “sleepless nights, long days, heartache and pain” that she knows Brown’s family is facing, having experienced the killing of her brother by a police officer in Minnesota who was later convicted of murder.
After Brown’s funeral, she told reporters it was important for her to come to North Carolina to show support for his family.
“I’m showing them strength right now. If I can do it, they can do it,” she said.
A long line of mourners filed into the church, many wearing white T-shirts with Brown’s image and the words, “Say his name.” In the lobby, a wreath of red and white flowers with a ribbon bearing the message, “Rest in Peace Drew,” referring to Brown’s nickname, stood next to a tapestry with images of him. As the service started, an ensemble sang songs of praise including, “You’re the Lifter,” while mourners stood and clapped.
Family members have said that Brown was a proud father of seven, who was known for entertaining relatives with his stories and jokes.
The FBI has launched a civil rights probe of the shooting, while state agents are conducting a separate investigation. Three deputies who were involved remain on leave. The state’s Democratic governor, Roy Cooper, has called for swift release of the body camera footage, which must be approved by a judge under state law.
The search and arrest warrants accused Brown of possessing small amounts of cocaine and methamphetamine that he intended to sell. Brown had a criminal history dating back to the 1990s, including past drug convictions.
A prosecutor has said that Brown’s car ran into the deputies before they opened fire, while a family attorney who watched a 20-second clip of the footage disagreed, saying that Brown posed no threat and was driving away from deputies. The sheriff has said his deputies weren’t injured.
During his eulogy, Sharpton slammed the notion that Brown’s past record or actions on the day of the shooting justified violence against him.
“Whatever record Andrew had, Andrew didn’t hurt nobody,” he said, adding: “How do you try and justify shooting a man that was not a threat to you, because he was running away from you?”
Among those attending the service was 40-year-old Davy Armstrong, who said he went to high school with Brown and lived near him while the two were growing up. He said Brown seemed to be doing well when he ran into him recently before the shooting.
“He was very humble, very generous. He said he was doing good,” said Armstrong, who works in construction. “We hear about this on TV all the time. But when it’s someone so well known and so respected, it’s pretty painful.”
After the funeral, 67-year-old Michael Harrell, who lives around the corner from Brown’s house, recalled that he would see Brown playing with his kids in the yard.
“Everything is in God’s hands,” Harrell said of the message he took away from the funeral. “And through God’s hands, truth and justice will be served. People will be held accountable.”
A nighttime officer at the Yadkin County Detention Center has been arrested and charged along with 10 other people in connection with what the Yadkin County Sheriff’s Office called drug-smuggling operations that brought illegal narcotics into the county jail.
Investigators said Wendy Kaye Nelson, the nighttime detention officer, developed what the news release about the arrests called an “inappropriate personal relationship” with inmate Christopher Cody Caudill.
The sheriff’s office said the investigation revealed that Nelson was helping two other people, Edgar Owen Strickland and Scott Adam Strickland, to deliver contraband and narcotics to Caudill.
Investigators said that the items were hidden in property that was delivered to the jail and brought inside for Caudill. Nelson also allowed an inmate to use a cellphone while incarcerated.
The two Stricklands and Caudill were arrested in this investigation, as was Bobby Lee Davis. The name of a sixth person charged in this investigation was not available.
The sheriff’s office said the investigation of the smuggling of items into the jail came about as result of another investigation into the mailing of illegal narcotics into the jail.
The five people arrested as a result of that investigation were Chadwick Taylor Essick, Johnathan Welborn Yarboro, Selena Rae Calhoun, Joseph Bryan Walker and Cory Ryan Parrish.
The sheriff’s office said the arrests were made between April 22 and May 2.
Nelson, who is 44 and lives in Boonville, was charged with 10 felonies: one count each of possession of synthetic cannabinoid with intent to sell and deliver; possession of a controlled substance in the jail; commission of a sex act with an inmate by a government employee; provision of a mobile phone to an inmate; and sale or delivery of a controlled substance within 1,000 feet of a school; and five counts of conspiracy to sell and deliver a controlled substance.
Nelson’s bond was set at $100,000 and her court date is on May 18.
Edgar Owen Strickland is 76 years old and lives in Hamptonville. He was charged with five felonies: one count each of possession with intent to sell synthetic cannabinoid and maintaining a dwelling for illegal drugs; and three counts of conspiracy to sell and deliver a controlled substance. His bond was set at $40,000 and he has a May 18 court appearance.
Scott Adam Strickland, who is 28, lives in Hamptonville. He was charged with seven felonies: three counts of conspiracy to sell and deliver a controlled substance; two counts of sale or delivery of a controlled substance within 1,000 feet of a school; and one count each of sale and delivery of a controlled substance and possession with intent to sell or deliver synthetic cannabinoid. His bond was set at $15,000 and his court date is May 19.
Caudill is 33 and lives in Hamptonville. He was charged with six felonies: five counts of conspiracy to sell and deliver synthetic cannabinoid one count of possession of a controlled substance by a jail inmate. His bond amount and court date were not released by the sheriff’s office.
Davis is 42 and lives in Yadkinville. He was charged with one count of felony conspiracy to sell and deliver synthetic cannabinoid. His bond was set at $10,000, and his court date is on May 26.
Essick is 29 and lives in Booneville. He was charged with seven felonies: one count of possession with intent to sell and deliver buprenorphine; and two counts each of sale and delivery of a controlled substance; provision of a controlled substance to an inmate; and conspiracy to sell and deliver a controlled substance. His bond was set at $10,000 and his court date is on May 5.
Yarboro is 30 and lives in Hamptonville. He was charged with four felonies: two counts each of conspiracy to sell and deliver buprenorphine; and attempted possession of a controlled substance by an inmate. Yarboro is being held in a state prison on unrelated charges and will be served with the new charges on his release.
Calhoun is 44 and lives in Yadkinville. She was charged with four felonies: one count each of possession of buprenorphine with intent to sell and deliver; sale and delivery of a controlled substance; conspiracy to sell and deliver a controlled substance; and providing a controlled substance to an inmate. Her bond was set at $10,000 and her court date is on May 5.
Walker is 43 and lives in Yadkinville. He was charged with two felonies: one count each of conspiracy to sell and deliver buprenorphine; and attempted possession of a controlled substance by an inmate. His bond was set at $3,500 and his court date is on May 5.
Parrish is 36 and lives in Hamptonville. He charges are identical to those against Walker. His bond was set at $5,000 and he has a May 5 court date.
A coalition of media outlets, including the Winston-Salem Journal, filed a lawsuit Monday for public records in the death of North Carolina inmate John Neville, a Black man who suffocated and died after deputies restrained him in a controversial hold for more than 11 minutes.
The lawsuit comes as the death of Andrew Brown Jr. in Elizabeth City puts a national spotlight on police accountability and transparency in North Carolina, because the state does not let the public see body-camera footage without a court order, which isn’t always granted.
But Monday’s lawsuit was two years in the making because of a death 269 miles across the state from Elizabeth City.
Neville, a 56-year-old Greensboro man died on Dec. 4, 2019, after being held in the Forsyth County Detention Center on his stomach with his hands cuffed behind his back and his ankles lifted to his wrists.
An autopsy report said Neville died from positional and compressional asphyxiation that caused a heart attack and brain injury.
Four deputies and a nurse are charged in his death.
The sheriff’s office, the Forsyth County District Attorney’s office and the State Bureau of Investigation kept Neville’s death a secret from the public.
It came to light after The News & Observer, acting on a tip, filed a petition with the courts for the release of the body-camera footage.
Forsyth County Sheriff Bobby Kimbrough Jr. did not publicly acknowledge Neville’s death for seven months, until June 26, prompted by questions from the Winston-Salem Journal. He said later that Neville’s family had asked that no information be released about their father’s death.
The newspapers, together with a coalition of other media outlets, have been seeking more information.
The current fight focuses on N.C. Department of Health and Human Services’ documents that helped the N.C. Office of the Chief Medical Examiner determine how Neville died. They include the entirety of an internal police investigation and the SBI report into his death.
Under North Carolina law, SBI reports are not public record. However, once that report was handed over to DHHS it became public.
These are the same records that lawmakers tried to keep secret when passing Senate Bill 168 last summer after they were requested by news media them in Neville’s case. The records remained public after public outcry led to a veto from Gov. Roy Cooper.
When Forsyth County District Attorney Jim O’Neill’s prosecutors learned DHHS was going to release the reports in response to three public records requests, his office filed an emergency petition to have them sealed. The newspaper was not notified of his petition until after Forsyth County Superior Court Judge David Hall granted the seal.
The media coalition’s attorney, Mike Tadych, fought the seal the following week and Hall agreed that the records were public and unsealed them. But before DHHS released them, O’Neill notified the court that he would appeal and asked for them to be sealed again.
Hall agreed to keep the records sealed for 60 days, but he recognized that since O’Neill’s office had left both the media and DHHS out of his emergency petition, neither could be heard in the appellate court.
Tadych agreed the media would sue DHHS and the N.C. Office of the Chief Medical Examiner to become a party. That happened Monday.
Tadych has represented the coalition since May 2020 when The N&O asked a judge to release deputies’ body-camera footage showing Neville’s last moments in the jail.
The video was dramatic.
It showed Neville having a medical emergency in his cell, which his cellmate had reported as a possible seizure.
The sheriff’s office’s special response team came to the cell to check on Neville and moved him into a cell on another floor of the jail.
That’s when they placed him on the floor in prone restraint .
“I can’t breathe,” Neville said, his voice echoing off the cell walls. “I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe, I can’t breathe, help!”
Deputies didn’t listen.
“If you can talk, you can breathe,” a deputy answered.
During Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin’s trial, according to USA Today, a pulmonologist testified that that statement, also made to Floyd, is very, very dangerous” because it assumes just because Floyd’s brain was still working in one moment that he would still be breathing the next.
In Neville’s case he would shout he couldn’t breathe more than 30 times before he became unresponsive.
He died at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center after becoming comatose.
The first time John Elliott Neville's name appeared on the front pages of the Winston-Salem Journal was on June 27, seven months after his death.