Protesters who have held all-day, occupy-like demonstrations at Bailey Park for nearly two weeks said Thursday that they aren’t going anywhere until they get answers about the jail-related death of John Elliott Neville in December.
“We will stay out here for as long as it takes to have each of these demands met,” Brittany Battle, one of the lead organizers, said at a news conference held at Bailey Park. “We’re on day nine and we’ve been out here in brutal heat, in rainstorms and lightning storms. ... We will be out here as long as is necessary.”
Triad Abolition Project and the Unity Coalition are the lead organizers of the protests. Demonstrators have called for transparency and accused Forsyth County District Attorney Jim O’Neill and Sheriff Bobby Kimbrough of a cover-up. O’Neill and Kimbrough have denied those allegations. The protesters also have a list of specific questions about Neville’s death that they say O’Neill and Kimbrough have not answered, including questions about changes in policies at the jail.
Neville died of a brain injury at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center on Dec. 4, three days after Kernersville police arrested him on an outstanding warrant for assaulting a female in Guilford County. Exactly 24 hours after being placed in the Forsyth County Jail, Neville suffered a seizure while he was asleep and fell out of the top bunk to the concrete floor of his cell.
The autopsy report said Neville’s brain injury came about after his heart stopped beating. He asphyxiated while being restrained with his arms behind his back and his legs folded in a hog-tie position. Neville said he couldn’t breathe at least 10 times, and at least twice, the response from detention officers was, “Come on buddy, if you can talk, you can breathe,” according to three independent sources. He was revived several times, at the jail and in the hospital, before eventually going into a coma and dying.
Five former detention officers and a nurse have been charged with involuntary manslaughter — Lt. Lavette Maria Williams, 47; Cpl. Edward Joseph Roussel, 50; Officer Christopher Bryan Stamper, 42; Officer Antonio Woodley Jr., 26; Officer Sarah Elizabeth Poole, 36; and nurse Michelle Heughins, 44.
The detention officers were scheduled to appear in Forsyth District Court on Thursday, but their cases have been continued to Nov. 6. Heughins is scheduled to appear in court on Thursday, but her case will likely be continued as well to November.
The ACLU of North Carolina is supporting the protests, according to Citlaly Mora, a spokeswoman for the group.
“The sheriff and the DA have a responsibility to answer the questions and respond to the community,” she said Thursday in a brief phone interview. “We are fully encouraging those calls. It’s a reflection of the movements that we’re seeing in North Carolina for police reform, defunding the police and calls for police accountability that we haven’t seen previously.”
More than 30 demonstrators stood in the rain, many holding signs and banners, including one that had a painted portrait of John Neville. Directly behind the speakers was a banner across a tent protesters have used before. That banner says, “Blood is on your hands Kimbrough and O’Neill.”
Kimbrough did not publicly acknowledge Neville’s death until June 26, prompted by questions from the Winston-Salem Journal.
Kimbrough has said he did not mention Neville’s death publicly at the request of Neville’s family members and their attorneys, Michael Grace and Chris Clifton.
Kimbrough also said he kept quiet about Neville’s death because of an investigation he had requested by the State Bureau of Investigation and also because he didn’t know what caused Neville’s death until July 7, when the autopsy was finalized.
The protesters have accused Grace and Clifton of having a conflict of interest because the law firm has represented sheriff’s office deputies on behalf of the Police Benevolent Association and because Grace and Clifton are friends with Kimbrough.
Clifton said just because he’s friends with Kimbrough doesn’t mean there’s a conflict. He’s friends with prosecutors, judges and law-enforcement officials and that doesn’t keep him from vigorously defending the rights of the people he represents, he said.
“He’s a leader and a good man and somebody that I personally have admired for a long time and known professionally for two decades,” Clifton said. “That doesn’t mean he’s not going to do his job and I’m not going to do mine.”
There is jail surveillance video and body-camera footage of the incident that led to Neville’s death but it has not been released publicly. The footage is not considered public record, and the News & Observer of Raleigh has filed a petition for its release.
Triad Abolition Project and the Unity Coalition have not specifically asked for the video to be released publicly.
Kimbrough also said the office has changed policies regarding the duty to intervene and starting on Aug. 1, 50 detention officers, including members of the jail’s special response team, will undergo medical training.
He said that the medical provider, Wellpath (formerly Correct Care Solutions), is one of the only corporations that provide medical care in jails.
Wellpath has been sued several times over deaths of inmates at the Forsyth County Jail, including two men who died in May 2017.
Speakers, including Battle, Bailey Pittenger and Chad Armstrong, said Thursday that they question whether justice will be done in Neville’s case, even though involuntary manslaughter charges have been filed against the detention officers and the nurse.
They referred to the death of jail inmate Shon McClain in Wake County. According to the News & Observer, McClain died of neck and head injuries after a Wake County detention officer slammed McClain into a floor twice.
The officer, Markeith Council, got 90 days in jail and three years of probation after he was convicted of involuntary manslaughter, the paper reported.
David Gortman was hard at work inside the parked RV that takes up a large chunk of his small front yard. The door to the vehicle was open and a variety of hand tools and tool boxes were strewn about the ground.
He was surprised to see a visitor approaching, and slightly wary. And who could blame him; no one who’s been by in the past few months has come bearing good news.
The guest list includes housing inspectors responding to complaints about trash, overgrown grass and cars in the yard; mail carriers bringing bad news about an impending foreclosure; a process server with a summons for a nuisance abatement claim brought by the city and detectives investigating a fire which severely damaged the house and resulted in an arson charge against his estranged wife.
The hits just keep on coming, and yet Gortman managed a weary smile when asked about the complaints, court proceedings and a years-long string of heartache and hassles.
“I appreciate the chance to tell my side,” he said. “People look at the house and they see devastation. They see the tarps and the stuff by the street. I get it. But when I look, I see Easters and Christmases. My kids were raised here. They’re grown and on their own now, thank God.
“The house did its job.”
If you’ve ever been stuck in a slow-moving line of traffic from Robinhood Road waiting to make the drag-strip merge of death onto Silas Creek Parkway, you’ve probably seen Gortman’s house.
City inspectors certainly have.
Tarps cover holes in the roof that firefighters made to ventilate smoke and flames from a fire investigator say was intentionally set in September by 49-year-old Wendy C. Taylor, Gortman’s estranged wife.
Vegetation has obscured some of the house’s windows, a red VW Beetle that’s seen better days is parked next to the RV and a pile of rubbish sits a few feet from Silas Creek Parkway.
Complaints have been trickling for months into the city’s code enforcement division. Others made it to the Journal from neighbors and passersby annoyed by a seeming lack of progress.
“It’s a low priority in terms of importance with everything else going on in the world. We have higher priorities,” Phil Boutwell, who often drives by the house, said during a quick phone call earlier this week. “But it’s an eyesore. You’d think the city would at least pick up the trash and haul it away.
“What are the ordinances anyway?”
That’s a valid question. Fair, too.
Winston-Salem, like any other decent-sized town with an ounce of self-respect, has on its books an assortment of ordinances meant to strike a balance between public health and minimum appearance standards against property rights.
It’s a delicate act, one that requires time, meticulous documentation and the occasional intervention of the courts.
No city worker relishes telling business owners that their signs are bigger than what’s allowed. No self-respecting ex-contractor signs up to become an inspector dreaming of the day she has to order somebody to cut their grass, haul off a rusted car or repair broken windows and leaking roofs.
There are legitimate reasons for having such ordinances. Trash attracts rodents, and overgrown lots provide cover for snakes that want to eat them. Old tires are breeding grounds for mosquitoes, and crumbling houses are a danger to inhabitants and a drag on nearby property values.
It can take weeks to move from complaint to action. A homeowner with an overgrown yard might get several notices and 30 days’ lead time before city workers mow it and send a bill. Collecting it can require a lien on the property.
In some instances, the city can take legal action to declare a house (or business) a public nuisance, order repairs or in extreme cases, seek to have a building razed.
At this point, the city’s complaints against Gortman are intended to get the lot cleaned up. An affidavit filed in the nuisance case indicates that inspectors filed several notices of violations, including on Sept. 6, Jan. 14 and June 5 for trash, overgrown weeds, housing code violations and abandoned vehicles in the yard.
An order for abatement/motion for injunctive relief for overgrown vegetation was drafted earlier this year by the city attorney’s office. A summons was served Jan. 24 and another notice delivered by certified mail Feb. 3.
A judgment in favor of the city was entered March 18. A hearing is scheduled for next week to address the shrubbery.
“The City will be initiating additional actions with regard to the trash and the motor vehicle storage on the property,” wrote Jerry Kontos, an assistant city attorney in an e-mail. “Further, demolition is also being considered.”
That’s only part of the problem; Gortman is also nearing the end of a lengthy foreclosure.
But what all that legal maneuvering fails to take into account — it’s not designed that way — is the human element, the pain and emotional suffering homeowners endure as the processes drag out.
Gortman said his troubles began 10 years ago when his job at Douglas Battery Manufacturing Inc. ended.
“It was breaking big rocks into little rocks but it was good, honest work,” he said. “We produced things that were used in the war on terror after 9/11 and that was a good feeling.”
Then came the financial crisis of 2008, which froze credit and squeezed businesses. Douglas Battery Manufacturing was sold in 2010 to an out-of-state company, and 90 jobs were eliminated.
Money got tight, and Gortman said he had to spend savings to make ends meet. “It took two or three McDonald’s type jobs to even begin to make up for (the job loss),” he said.
That slow bleed led in 2015 to a place no one ever wants to go: filing for bankruptcy, a Chapter 13, which allows people to stay in their homes if they continue making the mortgage payments with extra added in each month to catch up on arrears.
“He was a really nice man and I wanted to help him,” said Robert Lefkowitz, a Winston-Salem attorney who specializes in bankruptcy. “A lot of people wait too long, to the point where there’s not a lot of options.”
Gortman said his Chapter 13 filing nearly doubled his mortgage payment. He kept up as best he could, but fell behind again.
That led to the Chapter 13 agreement being withdrawn and foreclosure, a prolonged process that’s just winding down. The court file indicates that the latest upset bid for the property — $47,237.86 — was filed this month. The tax value on the home is listed at $138,200.
While all that was playing out in slow motion, Gortman said, stress piled up and exacted a heavy toll on his marriage. “I didn’t want to tell her,” he said. “I kept putting it off.”
Eventually he had to come clean and admit they were in danger of losing the house. He said they’d separated, and in his opinion, she suffered mentally and emotionally.
Police records support the picture of a household under stress. Officers were summoned to the residence at least two dozen times between July 24 and Sept. 9. Most were for unknown disturbances, communicating threats or harassing phone calls. No charges were filed, however.
A tense situation came to a head the night of Sept. 11 when Gortman said he awoke to strange noises. Taylor, he said, had entered the house, called for the dog and then started a fire.
“No sooner than the front door closed then I smelled smoke,” he said.
He ran to his bedroom and started scooping up photos and keepsakes. The fire had grown to “more than my little extinguisher could handle” and he thought for a moment he might be trapped.
He escaped, he said, by jumping through a bedroom window and he cut his back on a jagged piece of glass. The enormity of what had just taken place hit him on his way home after being treated.
Taylor was charged with first-degree arson, and placed in the Forsyth County Jail with bond set at $80,000. “At the time of the burning, David Wayne Gortman was in the dwelling house,” the arrest warrant reads.
Meanwhile, on a parallel track, city inspections (and notices of violations) continued and the nuisance abatement case pressed on.
“That (the fire) was worse. I busted my rear end to get this house. We scrimped and saved.”
As for what happens next or where he’ll go, Gortman just isn’t sure.
“I don’t know,” he said. “I got this RV. If I can get it fixed up good … .”
He didn’t finish his thought. But he didn’t have to.
There are no good answers, only a series of questions about to be answered by the courts.
A stalemate in Congress over extending the $600 federal unemployment insurance weekly benefit likely means those COVID-19 pandemic payments will cease after Saturday.
About 75.8% of state and federal UI payments to North Carolinians have come from federal sources, mostly the $600 from the pandemic unemployment compensation (PUC) package.
While it could take weeks to reach an extension compromise — at an amount potentially as low as $175 to $200 a week — most unemployed North Carolinians receiving state UI benefits will not be left empty-handed.
The $3 trillion federal CARES Act stimulus package also extends state benefits by up to 13 weeks for most claimants once they exhaust their initial 12 weeks of regular state benefits.
The first round of extended benefits comes from the pandemic emergency unemployment compensation (PEUC) package.
Even though the 13 weeks are paid by the federal government, the weekly amount adheres to state benefit guidelines of a $350 maximum.
The extension is not automatic. According to the U.S. Labor Department, claimants “need to apply for them” at each extended benefit step, which could delay payments.
The limitations that the Republican-controlled N.C. General Assembly enacted in July 2013 to regular state benefits — currently no more than 12 weeks at a $350 weekly maximum — also applies to the PEUC package.
Florida also provided 13 weeks of the first phase. According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, just five other states — Alabama with 14 and Arkansas, Missouri and South Carolina at 20 — don’t provide 26 PEUC weeks.
The second phase would be 9.6 weeks of the extended benefits (EB) package to claimants once they exhaust their 13 PEUC weeks.
The EB payments are available only “during period of high unemployment in a state.”
It is not clear what monthly jobless rate qualifies as high unemployment.
The state’s April jobless rate of 12.9% represented at least a 43-year high. After slipping to 12.8% in May, the state jobless rate had a record one-month drop to 7.6% in June — which may be enough to shift North Carolina out of high unemployment status.
At 9.6 weeks of EB payments for North Carolinians, only Florida (at 6 weeks) and Alabama (at 7 weeks) provides a lower weekly amount. South Dakota does not provide EB payments, but does offer 26 PEUC weeks.
The majority of states provide 13 weeks, while the most available in this package is 20 weeks.
The final phase is known as pandemic unemployment assistance (PUA).
It is for individuals unable to work because of COVID-19, such as parents staying at home to care for school-age or dependent children, individuals at high risk for infection. It is also available to claimants not eligible for regular state UI benefits, such as independent contractors, self-employed and individuals placed on furlough.
Those PUA benefits don’t have a maximum of weeks, but expire Dec. 26.
The N.C. Division of Employment Security reported that as of 10:30 a.m. Thursday that $6.23 billion had been paid in state and federal UI benefits since March 15.
There are 1.19 million claimants representing 1.99 million claims after 9,441 were filed Wednesday.
Some people have been required to file a second claim — after being determined to be ineligible for initial state benefits — in order to qualify for federal benefits that often include extended state benefits.
The state’s UI Trust Fund was close to $3.85 billion before the brunt of the pandemic began. Since then, $1.51 billion has been paid out, or 39.2%.
The remaining unemployment-payment breakdown is $4.25 billion from the federal pandemic unemployment compensation (PUC) package, $304.9 billion in the federal pandemic unemployment assistance (FUA) package, $161.7 million in pandemic emergency unemployment compensation (EUC), and $1.99 million in the extended benefits program (EB).
Currently, 28.1% of the 4.23 million North Carolinians considered in the state’s workforce as of mid-June have filed a state or federal unemployment claim.
According to DES, 820,213 claimants have received state and/or federal benefits, about 69% of the state’s claimants.
The $600 federal weekly amount was passed — barely — in Congress as a national level benefit to get the payments out quickly rather than determine payments by individual states.
The Democratic-controlled U.S. House passed a $3 trillion stimulus bill that would offer a new round of federal UI benefits.
U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin has said the Trump administration would cap another round of federal UI benefits so that workers don’t receive more money than they did at their previous job.
The weekly federal amount could be as low as $175 to $200.
U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., is preparing to roll out the $1 trillion package that could include another round of direct $1,200 cash payments to Americans who make less than $75,000 annually.
Adam Webb, a spokesman for U.S. Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C., said on July 10 that the senator “believes we need to help North Carolinians who lost their jobs due to the pandemic and have been hurt the most, and his top priority is getting them back to work as soon as possible.”
U.S. Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., hasn’t commented publicly on whether he supports an extension of federal UI benefits.
U.S. Rep. Patrick McHenry, R-N.C., whose 10th congressional district will feature parts of western Forsyth County in 2021, said Thursday during a House Finance Services committee hearing that “for many workers, the enhanced unemployment benefits package equals 150% or 200% of their usual earnings.”
“As cash-strapped small businesses struggle to survive, they cannot compete with what many workers are receiving in enhanced unemployment benefits. We can’t lose sight of the fact that, if businesses don’t survive there will be no jobs for workers to come back to.”
Gus Faucher, senior economist with PNC Financial Services Group, said Thursday that there “are concerns that the higher benefits could be leading some of the unemployed to put off returning to work.”
“But the loss of extra income if the benefits are not renewed could lead to a drop in consumer spending in August.”
A judge in New York City placed Jamill Jones, a former assistant basketball coach at Wake Forest University, on three years of probation for his role in the death of a New York tourist in August 2018.
Judge Joanne Watters of Queens Criminal Court also gave Jones 1,500 hours of community service and ordered him to pay a $1,000 fine and a $200 surcharge.
If Jones fails to meet those conditions, he will serve one year in prison, Watters said.
Before she sentenced Jones, Watters said that the former Wake coach was repentant for his actions that led to the Aug. 7, 2018, death of Sandor Szabo. Watters also said that Jones’ actions aren’t a reflection of his character but that he must live with the consequences.
Watters presided over Jones’ virtual sentencing hearing, which lasted about 2½ hours Thursday.
Following a jury trial in February, Jones, 37, was convicted of misdemeanor third-degree assault in connection with Szabo’s death.
According to trial testimony, Jones was driving with a companion shortly after 1:40 a.m. on Aug. 5, 2018, toward their hotel in Long Island City.
Szabo, 35, of Boca Raton, Fla., attended his stepsister’s wedding earlier in the day. Video footage shows that Szabo, who was also staying in a nearby hotel, approached a vehicle that Jones was driving. Szabo is then seen walking back toward a corner.
Moments later, Jones ran from the car and confronted Szabo. Jones then punched Szabo in the face, walked back to his vehicle and eventually left the area.
Szabo was taken to a nearby hospital. His injuries included a cut to his chin, a skull fracture and other traumatic brain injuries. Two days later, on Aug. 7, 2018, Szabo died as a result of those injuries.
During the hearing, Jones apologized to Szabo’s family for his actions, and he said he never intended to cause pain and grief to Szabo’s family.
Jones acknowledged that he never apologized to Szabo’s family members during the trial and court hearings that preceded it. Jones said he was following the strategy of his attorneys, Chris Renfroe and his son, Eric Renfroe.
“I lost my career and my family,” said Jones, the father of two children.
Prosecutor Kirk Sendlein and three of Szabo’s family members urged Watters to sentence Jones to serve one year in prison, the maximum amount of jail time for someone convicted of third-degree assault under New York law.
“Just because you are mad, you can’t punch somebody,” Sendlein said. “This coach made this choice, and now Sandor is dead.”
Jones was placed on administrative leave by WFU after the incident in New York. He resigned from his job in April 2019.
Jones had been at Wake Forest since 2017. He also coached at Central Florida, Virginia Commonwealth and Florida Gulf Coast.
Szabo had worked as a vice president of sales for What If Media Group of Fort Lee, N.J., since March 2017. He also worked as a consultant for Robert Kent Associates in the Raleigh-Durham area at the same time.
Donna Kent, Sandor’s mother, said that Jones “will always be a murderer and a coward who victimized my son.”
“You have taken so much from me,” Kent said to Jones. “You killed my son.”
After the hearing, Kent released a statement about Jones’ sentence.
“Violence is a scourge on our society,” Kent said in part. “It wasn’t justified in this case — and it never is.
“As a family, we now look to the civil courts to right this wrong, and believe it will do what the criminal court was too afraid to do: punish Jamill C. Jones for taking the life of our beloved Sandor,” Kent said. “In the meantime, we will not give up the fight for reform in honor of Sandor so criminals like Jamill C. Jones are justly punished for one-punch crimes.”
During the hearing, Chris Renfroe, one of Jones’ attorneys, said to Watters that his client is not a murderer and had no intent to kill Szabo. Renfroe described Jones as “a very good man in a bad situation.”
However, Jones has accepted his trial’s outcome and realizes that he committed a crime, Renfroe said.