The three-week trial of Tiffany Marion for her role in the 2008 murders of two Swain County men ended with a guilty verdict this week, despite Marion’s claims of being a bystander along for the ride.
Marion, 28 of Decatur, Ga., was found guilty Monday of two counts of first-degree murder, attempted murder, two counts of robbery with a dangerous weapon and first-degree burglary. She received to two consecutive life sentences without the possibility of parole, followed by another 278 months.
There were allegedly six involved in the murder — a foursome from Atlanta and two local boys who led them to the house of Scott Wiggins and Heath Compton. Three defendants pleaded guilty; a fourth committed suicide in jail. The final suspect, Mark Goolsby of Sylva, will be tried later this year.
During the trial, Marion testified that she did not know her friends were planning to rob and murder Wiggins and Compton and that she had remained outside in the van during the crime.
Marion’s story was corroborated by the other suspects, who testified that Marion stayed outside during the crime. Prosecutors didn’t attempt to dispute her claim, but successfully argued that her involvement nonetheless rose to the level of first-degree murder.
Marion said she didn’t realize plans for a robbery were in the works when she and her friends left their hotel room at Harrah’s Cherokee Casino and headed out for Wiggins’ home. Marion said she thought they were merely going to buy drugs.
Marion claims she was lying under the covers when one of the local “white boys” hanging out with them announced that he wanted to smoke more marijuana and knew where they could buy some. When she saw her friend Jada McCutcheon leaving, she grabbed her stuff and headed to the van with them.
“I wanted to smoke with them,” Marion said. “I didn’t want to be left out.”
Marion sat in the passenger seat and listened to the music that played loudly over the radio as Jeffrey Miles, who was later deemed the triggerman in the murders, drove.
“I was real mellow, real laidback, zoned out,” Marion said.
The van came to a stop and several passengers hopped out. Within a couple of minutes, Marion said, she realized that she was the only one left in the van except for Goolsby.
“I pretty much couldn’t see anything. It was dark,” Marion said.
Marion stayed in or near the van chain-smoking cigarettes. And, “I don’t remember anyone talking about crime,” Marion said.
In McCutcheon’s various retellings of the night, she always said that Marion stayed by the van. However, McCutcheon said, “I am pretty sure everybody knew” about the robbery.
Marion has maintained that she never saw any guns during the trip to North Carolina, did not hear Miles load the shotgun outside the van and never heard any shots while she sat in the van.
She did not know how long the others were gone, but Marion said it was hours, during which she smoked and slept.
“It felt like I was in the van for a while,” Marion said. “It felt like hours.”
Suddenly out of the darkness, the other local boy who had gone up to the house, Dean Mangold, came running toward the van, yelling and breaking the deadly silence.
“It sounded like he said, they were shooting. ‘Get out of the car,’” Marion said.
Marion testified that she thought Mangold was hallucinating as a result of the ecstasy they’d been taking, and she did not hear any gunshots. When Mangold and Goolsby asked her to run away with them, Marion said she decided to stay with the van because she did not trust the two strangers and was afraid they might rape her.
After the boys left, Marion once again fell asleep in the van. She awoke and decided to stumble toward what seemed to be the lights of a house, hoping to find McCutcheon. As Marion approached Wiggins’ house, she told her friends that the white boys had run off and urged them to hurry up.
“You all need to come on and come on now,” Marion recalled telling them.
Marion returned to the van and later returned to Georgia where she continued to hang out with the group.
She was arrested several days later in an apartment filled with stolen goods from Wiggins’ home, even his dog. But, she claimed she never knew murders had taken place that night.
Will it decimate mountain beauty or open the economic flood gates?
Either way, the costly missing link of a four-lane highway through the remote southern mountains has hit a startling and potentially insurmountable roadblock. State and federal agencies are reluctant by some accounts — downright unwilling by other accounts — to issue essential environmental permits. Without them, the missing link can't go forward.
So for now, an 18-mile, $800 million highway through Graham County known as Corridor K is at an impasse.
Graham County is the final piece of a four-lane highway stitching together the seven, peak-pocked western counties before surging onward to Tennessee, blazing a pseudo-interstate from Asheville to Chattanooga.
The highway was envisioned nearly 50 years ago. Its purpose: to transform the far corner of Western North Carolina from an Appalachian backwater to economic prosperity.
"It was the same everywhere in Appalachia. It was just twisty two-laners, and it was a long trip to get anywhere," said Bill Gibson, the director of the Southwestern Commission, a governmental planning unit located in Bryson City for the seven western counties.
A lot has changed in the intervening decades, however. For starters, the region isn't exactly a backwater anymore. Also, environmental laws are much stronger, and road building is a lot more expensive.
But, Graham County is still clamoring for its promised piece of four-lane. Indeed, four-lane highways have been delivered to all the western counties except for Graham thanks to a special pot of federal road building money funneled to the region through the Appalachian Regional Commission since it was set up in the 1960s.
"I think to shortchange a small part of Western North Carolina of their opportunities is wrong," said Joel Setzer, head of the N.C. Department of Transportation for the western counties. "We got ours. We should care whether they get theirs."
Graham County's 18-mile missing link of the highway, pegged to cost from $700 to $900 million, is the most rugged, remote and environmentally challenging. The highway would bury streams and wetlands, cut into mountains and require a half-mile long tunnel.
Meanwhile, Graham County leaders blame their 18 percent unemployment rate and high poverty on the lack of a four-lane highway.
Graham County has come to view Corridor K as a silver bullet, the one thing separating it from the advances realized elsewhere in the mountains. If built, the county's unemployment and poverty would darn near solve themselves, leaders claim.
This easy fix to Graham's economic woes has proved anything but however.
"It has been studied to death," said Mike Edwards, the chairman of the Graham County commissioners. "It has been going on for four decades, and it has reached a point now where it is getting more and more difficult to justify building 18 miles of road."
So hard to justify, in fact, that the project has reached a stalemate. There's 10 different agencies, from the Environmental Protection Agency to the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission, that can make or break the project by refusing to issue essential permits.
A few of these agencies are questioning whether the road is worth it. Given the price tag and environmental damage, will it truly bring the hoped for economic benefits?
"The regulatory agencies seem to be stuck," Gibson said. "They are saying why should we go through all this permitting if we aren't sure that the purpose and need really exists as was forecast? Will this realize economic development and improve lives? Is it true that this road is needed in the way that DOT now has it laid out?"
Economic development was once a driving force behind new highways. But, it is mostly touted as a side benefit these days rather than heralded as the sole purpose.
D.J. Gerken with the Southern Environmental Law Center in Asheville said it is rare to see road construction justified with economic development.
But, Setzer pointed out that was the rationale behind the four-lane highways in the seven western counties. From the bypass in Waynesville to the four-lane in Franklin, all were pursued for economic development under the banner of the Appalachian Regional Commission highway program.
"The purpose of the program was to end isolationism in the Appalachian region," Setzer said.
The question now, however, is whether that rationale is still relevant and will it work for Graham.
"It is not going to be the silver bullet they think it is," said Brent Martin, the Sylva-based Southern Appalachian director for The Wilderness Society.
State and federal agencies holding up the new highway have questioned whether there are other solutions to economic challenges in Graham County. They have also questioned whether the goal of ending Appalachian isolation when the highway was envisioned is still relevant today.
"It is doubling down with a half billion investment on an economic development plan from the 1960s rather than asking the question," Gerken said. "If Congressman Heath Shuler said 'I have half a billion to invest in Graham County economic development and just started taking ideas, I suspect you would get a lot better suggestions."
Building an $800 million highway for a county of 9,000 people is particularly problematic when there's no evidence to show it will accomplish economic development.
In a way, the state and federal agencies holding up the permits didn't have a choice, Gerken said.
"It is rare for a project to be so lacking in a clear purpose that the agencies are forced into this position," Gerken said. "The law states clearly that projects like this one cannot be given the required permits if there are practical alternatives that will cause less damage."
Nonetheless, the resistance by agencies to sign off on permits for the highway is unprecedented.
"I was a little surprised, but given the environmental impacts, these agencies are doing their job," Martin said.
Along with the run-of-the-mill road-building complaints that are par for the course in Appalachia — from despoiling historic farmsteads to fragmenting wildlife habitat — Corridor K in Graham County has some particularly sticky environmental challenges. It would mar views from the Appalachian Trail. It would cut through acidic rock with the potential to pollute streams. It would go through terrain that's steep even by mountain standards. And, it would require a half-mile tunnel.
Critics claim these would detract from the natural beauty Graham has to offer.
"I disagree with that, but I certainly understand the point of 'don't destroy what it is you are trying to enhance,'" Setzer said.
As for the tunnel, Setzer sees it as an environmentally sensitive solution. It goes under the Appalachian Trail, avoiding a major highway crossing for hikers. It could also be a possible tourism boon.
"There might be people who come to drive the road just to go through the tunnels," Setzer said.
Graham County leaders believe a four-lane highway is what separates them from their more prosperous neighbors — both literally and figuratively.
The county's unemployment rate of 18 percent is the highest in the state. It also has the highest rate of child hunger.
"That is my reasoning for trying to advance corridor K as soon as possible because of how destitute the area is," said Roger Shuler, a retired contractor in Robbinsville.
Graham is not only poor but small, with young people leaving to find work.
"The thing you always gave kids for a graduation gift was a suitcase," said Edwards, the chairman of the county board.
A four-lane highway could change that. It would not only bring business but quicker commutes to everything from shopping to jobs to Western Carolina University.
"When people think economic development, they think factories and four-lanes and tractor trailers. That is very narrow. It is also access to health care and access to education and access to tourism assets," said Ryan Sherby, planning liaison with the Southwestern Commission.
The biggie for many is access to medical care since Graham lacks a hospital.
"We have too many people being flown out of the community on an emergency helicopter at $15,000 a ride," said Edwards, a retired teacher and school administrator.
But with $800 million on the table, Graham County could build a hospital instead of a road. It could solve education woes by building a satellite university campus, Martin said.
"You could bring in an entire team of economists to come up with an economic development plan in Graham County for that much money," Martin said.
Some question whether the county has embraced the economic options at its fingertips now.
"What I would say to Graham County leaders is focus on what you have," said Julie Mayfield, director of WNC Alliance, a regional environmental group. She rattled off the diverse and unique outdoor tourism appeal of Graham County: the scenic Cherohala Skyway, Joyce Kilmer's giant trees, Lake Santeetlah, class V paddling on the Cheoah, Tsali mountain biking and the world-class motorcycle ride known as the Tail of the Dragon.
"We go to vacation in Graham County," said Mayfield, who lives in Asheville. "I am no PR expert, but I am confident I could design a tourism brochure for Graham County that would draw more outdoor recreation tourism."
While Graham County laments its plight as the only county in the state without a four-lane road, it's actually an asset, Mayfield said.
"I would celebrate that. I think there are a lot of people who would go to Graham County because it is a hidden gem," Mayfield said. "There is an audience there to be appealed to."
But, Edwards said the four-lane highway would actually help tourism if Graham County wasn't so hard to get to.
"The easier it is to get here the more likely they will come," Edwards said.
Graham County may be the last county without a four-lane — but it is also the last county that is completely dry. Even the grocery stores in Robbinsville don't sell beer or wine.
When asked whether the lack of alcohol could be a deterrent to young people staying in Graham County or hurting tourism, Edwards didn't deny it.
"It has been said by some, but that is a very volatile issue," Edwards said, adding there are no plans to change it.
Highway supporters in Graham blame outside environmentalists for holding up progress.
"They want to come and tell us, 'No you cannot build a road because it devastates our landscape,'" said Roger Shuler a Graham County resident.
These outsiders have packed the numerous public hearings on Corridor K over the years, painting a tainted picture of public opinion, said Edwards, chairman of the Graham County commissioners.
"The thing that gets me is there is always an outside influence that wants a say-so on what is going to impact us here locally," said Edwards. "We've been impacted from attorneys of every flavor of organization over the years.
I respect that, but the 9,000 people in my county have to be accounted for in the environmental argument. The people here have a right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness."
That doesn't change the reality of environmental court challenges should the road proceed. In fact, the threat of lawsuits was among the concerns cited by resource agencies that are holding up the project as currently designed.
The road known as Corridor K has long been mired in a philosophical debate that on the surface pits outside environmentalists against more conservative locals.
But that would be over-simplifying things. Retirees lean both ways — some eager for quicker access to a hospital and others relishing the rural lifestyle.
Some multi-generation families in Graham are eager for progress the highway will surely bring, but others fear an erosion of their heritage and way of life.
Even the outdoor industry is torn. Getting tractor-trailers out of the paddling-crazed Nantahala Gorge would no doubt please some rafting companies and kayakers, who would no longer have to worry about the barreling freight traffic. But outdoor enthusiasts like the rugged nature of Graham County's prized recreation areas.
These debates are merely academic, however, as long as the state and federal agencies continue to dig in. Many local advocates for the project don't even realize it's in jeopardy, however.
"We think our chances are very good," said Antoinette Burchfield, with the local Corridor K Coalition. "We think it is going to be sooner than everybody realizes."
Birchfield knew nothing of the impasse with federal agencies about permits, asking whether that was the same as the lawsuits being threatened by outside environmental groups.
Birchfield has been going door-to-door to county commissioner and town board meetings in the seven western counties seeking an official endorsement for Corridor K. She has racked up an impressive number of formal resolutions from local government bodies, suggesting a majority of leaders in the region support their brethren in Graham County in its quest for a highway.
Ironically, the DOT's strategy to advance the highway has backfired. Instead of building the entire 18-mile missing link at one time, the DOT broke it into two roughly equal segments — one from Stecoah to Robbinsville and one leading on toward Andrews.
Only the first half is up for debate now. The other half — from Robbinsville to Andrews — would be years away.
"We didn't have the finances to go in and build the whole thing at one time because it is an expensive project," Setzer said.
Tackling one segment at a time was also seen as an easier route to dealing with environmental concerns. The drawn-out timeframe for the project meant the DOT had to keep revisiting its environmental assessments — first in the 1980s, again in the 1990s, and again a decade later. Redoing the environmental studies each time was a massive undertaking.
"We decided let's not do a plan that is going to have to be refreshed again. Let's separate it and do it in manageable chunks," Setzer said.
Agencies questioning the highway argue that the costs and environmental impacts should be analyzed in their entirety, not piecemeal.
Regardless, the DOT is now hamstrung by its piecemeal approach. If the DOT wants environmental impacts to be considered in standalone segments, the benefits must also be justified in standalone segments.
But, justifying the economic benefits of half a highway — the single 9-mile segment leading in to Robbinsville — hasn't worked.
"I think it is gong to be very difficult to quantify the economic impacts of building a four-lane road that will dead end in Robbinsville," Martin said.
Setzer agreed on that point. The economic benefits of the highway won't be fully realized unless both segments are built.
And, that begs the question: does building the first segment make the second segment a foregone conclusion?
The second segment is predicted to be even more expensive and environmentally challenging, but state and federal agencies fear they will be pigeonholed into approving it once the first one is already built, preventing a true analysis.
Setzer said tackling the entire missing link as a single project as some of the agencies want to do would essentially mean starting over — and would likely derail the process.
"It builds in certain delays and the longer you delay it the more apt funding will be seized for what somebody else thinks is more important," Setzer said. "We should allow the fragmentation to eventually get to the ultimate goal."
While opponents point to the sizeable price tag, money is not a hang up. The DOT has almost enough to build the first nines miles sitting in the bank, waiting on the green light. It has been saved up thanks to a special pot of federal highway dollars earmarked for the Appalachian region.
The money is burning a hole in the DOT's pocket and driving the project, according to critics.
"They either spend or they don't," Gerken said. "So they are trying to come up with a legitimate purpose for building this road."
The view is shared by at least some of the state and federal agencies.
"There are disagreements among the agencies about whether the project is really needed or is driven by the availability of Appalachian highway funding," states a report last year summarizing concerns of the agencies.
One of the agencies interviewed for the report said the special pot of money "creates a want without a substantiated need."
The DOT hit a stumbling block two years ago that in hindsight was a harbinger of more serious roadblocks to come. The Army Corps of Engineers, one of the many agencies that can make or break the project by denying permits, called for a partial do-over of the DOT's environmental analysis.
Several agencies were questioning why the DOT couldn't upgrade the existing two-lane highway through Graham County instead of building an entirely new one. The Army Corp sent DOT back to the drawing board to determine whether upgrades to the existing road would suffice.
They wouldn't, DOT determined.
The DOT countered that simply dressing up the winding two-lane road through Graham County with an extra climbing lane here and there, wider shoulders and gentler curves isn't really fixing the problem.
Cars just won't take a route around the Gorge if it is only marginally better.
"They say it has to be big enough and fast enough to lure traffic away from the Gorge," Gerken said.
Not surprisingly, Gerken doesn't think the DOT did an "adequate analysis" of upgrading existing roads.
"I would characterize it as a half-hearted attempt," Gerken said. "Because this is a project in search of a defensible purpose, DOT shouldn't have eliminated a lighter footprint from consideration. Targeted improvements to the existing roads could be built now without controversy and at a fraction of the cost."
Agencies holding up highway permits have been frustrated that DOT is unwilling to consider anything but a new four-lane highway. Critics say DOT has blinders on to anything except a four-lane highway and are refusing to think creatively about an appropriate road through the mountains.
"There seems to be all kind of options other than building your 'anywhere-in-America' four-lane," Martin agreed.
The existing road could be upgraded not just with climbing lanes, but all sorts of bells and whistles aimed at luring eco-tourists. Picnic areas, overlooks, wildlife viewing pull-offs, hiking trails, fishing access, cultural heritage sign boards could all be built in.
The premise is hard to argue with, no matter how many lanes a new road would have.
"If we do need a new road, let's design it so we can capitalize on the assets we do have," said Ryan Sherby, regional planner for the Southwestern Commissioner. "It would go through some fabulous public lands. Let's provide access to them."
Setzer said the goal is to get traffic now using the Nantahala Gorge to use the new highway instead, and if it isn't any faster, they won't take it. That means the road through the Gorge itself would have to be upgraded.
Even the reluctant state and federal agencies agree that the Nantahala Gorge is congested and unsafe, clogged for six months of the year with rafting buses and an onslaught of cars sporting kayaks on roof racks.
Gibson, director of the Southwestern Commission regional planning agency, has had a front row seat to the Corridor K debate over the decades. Brand new on the job in 1975, he traveled to Raleigh to see design options being considered by the DOT for a four-lane highway through Graham County.
One option was a double-decker highway through the Nantahala Gorge, achieving four lanes by stacking them on top of each other. Another was to divide the highway, with two lanes in one direction on one side of the river and two lanes in the other direction on the other side.
Those obviously fell by the wayside in favor of a new highway through Robbinsville. Yet three decades later, it is still floundering.
"The folks in Graham County are still waiting," Gibson said. "A lot of the people who hoped to see it in their lifetimes are gone now. Others who hoped to see it in their lifetimes are afraid they will be gone."
Will a four-lane highway bring economic development to Graham County?
While local leaders and the N.C. DOT have a hunch that it will, state and federal environmental agencies aren't convinced and so far have refused to sign off on permits for the environmental damage the highway would cause.
But, there may be a way out of the impasse. A regional economic development plan for the seven western counties will be launched in coming months. It may prove the highway is needed, but likewise, it may not.
"Everything is on the table," said Ryan Sherby, a regional planner with the Southwestern Commission agency based in Sylva. "People need to quit thinking about fighting for a four-lane road. People need to think about what is our economic development vision for our region."
The study may indeed quantify the economic benefits of a four-lane road, and if so, highway supporters will have the justification that state and federal agencies say is lacking.
But, it may also show that there are other economic ideas. The Southwestern Commission will act as project manager, but an outside consultant will be brought in to lead the study. It will take 12 to 24 months and involve dozens of players.
The study will be funded with a piece of Appalachian highway money, but that doesn't mean road-building interests will have an inside track to influence the study's outcome, according to Joel Setzer, head of the N.C. DOT for a 10-county mountain area.
"We aren't trying to stack the cards," Setzer said, pledging that his agency is willing to let the "chips fall where they may."
The impasse over a $800 million four-lane highway in Graham County is a rarity in road building.
It is not uncommon for state and federal agencies to express concerns about a project's environmental impacts but rarely do they rise to the level of refusing to sign off on permits.
In hopes of breaking the logjam, a firm that specializes as mediators in environmental disputes was brought in to assess the prospects of a resolution and recommend a course forward.
The U.S. Institute for Environmental Conflict Resolution interviewed 58 stakeholders in early 2011 in hopes of ferreting out the hot button issues that must be solved.
"There are disagreements among the agencies about whether the project is really needed," the mediators concluded in their assessment. "Several agencies expressed the view that the environmental impacts are severe and that the expectations of economic benefits are not sufficiently supported to justify the environmental impacts."
Those interviewed include the Environmental Protection Agency, Army Corps of Engineers, N.C. Division of Water Quality, U.S. Fish and Wildlife, N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission, Appalachian Trail Conservancy, Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, as well as local leaders, DOT and federal highways.
Here's a sample of concerns expressed by some of the agencies as listed in the mediators' report. The firm points out that not all agencies share the same level of concerns.
• There are many questions about whether the expectations of economic benefits from the road are realistic.
• There are disagreements among the agencies about whether the project is really needed or is driven by the availability of Appalachian highway funding.
• There are different perspectives among the agencies as to whether the recognized environmental impacts are worth the environmental costs, especially given uncertainty about the expectations of economic benefit from the road.
• There is disagreement about the feasibility of and plans for mitigating the environmental impacts, especially related to acidic rock.
• The feasibility, cost and desirability of the tunnel is a concern.
• The project is driven by a 'Build it and they will come' approach.
• Many are not clear about why the option of improving existing routes is not a viable alternative.
• The fact that the "Purpose and Need" was developed in the 1980s raises questions for some about whether it is still applicable and relevant.
Tiffany Marion remained stoic as witnesses recounted their version of events and attempted to recall more than three-year-old conversations surrounding the 2008 murder of two Swain County residents.
It wasn't until an audio recording of a police interview with her friend Jada McCutcheon was played that Marion began to sob. McCutcheon hanged herself in 2009 while awaiting trail in the Haywood County jail.
McCutcheon, then 19, had a tiny, child-like voice to match her diminutive, less than 5-foot frame.
"That was not our intention, but that is what ended up happening," McCutcheon said during a interview with law enforcement officials just days after two Swain County men were found murdered in their home. McCutcheon and Marion were two of six people charged in connection to the double homicide.
It seemed that just days after the crime, McCutcheon's conscience began wearing on her and hindering her ability to sleep.
"Every time I close my eyes, I see two freaking dead people that somebody shot," McCutcheon said.
Marion, who was 25 at the time of the crime, is currently on trial in Swain County.
Her indictment includes a slew of charges: two counts of first-degree murder, one count of attempted murder, one count of first-degree burglary, two counts of robbery with a dangerous weapon, three counts of first-degree kidnapping and 18 counts of accessory after the fact.
Marion is the first of two suspects to stand trial in connect with the Swain County murders. Mark Goolsby, of Sylva, will face a jury at a later date. His charges are identical to Marion's. However, he only faces nine counts of accessory after the fact.
Marion's trial is in its third week, and more than 400 pieces of evidence have been presented showing what investigators collected at the crime scene and at the residences where the suspects were found.
Though no DNA evidence connects Marion to the inside of Wiggin's home, prosecutors pointed out that no DNA evidence matching Jeffrey Miles, Jason Johnson or Dean Mangold was found in the residence — yet each pleaded guilty to various charges.
Marion's fingerprints were found on a stolen white Ford truck owned by Scott Wiggins.
The defense has argued that Marion was at most an accessory because she was present at one of the getaway vehicles, a gold Honda Odyssey, while the crime was taking place.
Based on McCutcheon's interviews, the defense argued that Marion could have been so out-of-her-mind on drugs that she did not know what was transpiring. And if that were the case, Marion might not have known about the robbery and murders until her arrest days later.
During one of McCutcheon's interviews, she asserted that no one discussed the events of Aug. 8, 2008 once they had occurred.
"Nobody talks about it," said McCutcheon, who also stated that Marion seemed messed up on drugs.
When an investigator informally interviewed Marion at the apartment where she and McCutcheon were found, Marion asked if the boys had robbed the casino and if that was why the police came knocking.
Among the other evidence is a less than 30-minute audio-recorded interview with McCutcheon telling her version of what happened on Aug. 8.
Throughout each of the at least three interviews between law enforcement officials and McCutcheon, the teenager repeatedly stated that Marion had remained by the group's van during the murders and robbery. McCutcheon indicated that Marion might have been too messed up to know what was happening.
During their trip, the group smoked weed and took ecstasy. The ecstasy tablets were mixed with cocaine, methamphetamines or heroin.
The foursome drove up to Cherokee on Aug. 5, where at least two of them — Marion and Miles — gambled at the casino. After winning about $2,700 that day, Miles rented a room in Harrah's hotel where they stayed for a couple days. At some point on Aug. 7, Miles and Johnson traveled to a nearby Walmart. There they met Goolsby and Mangold, of Sylva, who returned to Harrah's with them.
Later that night, Goolsby and Mangold told the out-of-towners about a good place to "hit a 'lick" or rob. The group, taking directions from "the white boys" as McCutcheon often referred to them, drove to a dirt drive near John Henderson Road and parked. Following some discussion, McCutcheon said, she, Miles and Johnson approached the house where Wiggins and Heath Compton lived during the early hours of Aug. 8. And, as Miles and Johnson held the two Swain County residents at gunpoint in an office-type room, McCutcheon ransacked the house, gathering up anything of value.
During the robbery, Miles killed both Wiggins and Compton, McCutcheon said. Miles also shot local Timothy Waldroup twice after he had stumbled upon the scene, she stated during an interview with investigators. Despite this, Waldroup survived the incident. However, he died of a drug overdose before he could testify in court.
Later in the day on Aug. 8, the Georgians drove back to Decatur where police arrested them just a few days later.
On Aug. 8, 2008, officers from the Swain County Sheriff's Office and agents with the State Bureau of Investigation responded to a double homicide at 211 John Henderson Road in Bryson City.
In the early hours of that morning, intruders had entered the house where David Scott Wiggins, 33, and Michael Heath Compton, 34, lived. The invaders stole items from the house and shot both men.
Swain County is a close-knit Western North Carolina county with low crime rates and less than one homicide a year. The county has nearly 14,000 residents spread over its scenic, wooded lands.
After a few days of investigation, law enforcement officials arrested six individuals who they believe were linked to the crime: Mark Steven Goolsby and Dean Raymond Mangold, of Sylva, and Tiffany Leigh Marion, Jason Christopher Johnson, Jeffrey Czechonna Miles II and Jada McCutcheon, of Decatur, Ga.
The four Georgians had traveled to Western North Carolina a couple days prior to Aug. 8 to gamble at Harrah's Casino in Cherokee. While in the area, they met Goolsby and Mangold who, investigators say, directed them to the house and told them that it contained valuable goods.
Marion is the first of two suspects to stand trial in connect with the Swain County murders. Mark Goolsby, of Sylva, will face a jury at some later date, and McCutcheon hanged herself in 2009.
The other three defendants — Miles, Mangold and Johnson — all pleaded guilty to one count of attempted murder, three counts of first-degree kidnapping and two counts of robbery with a dangerous weapon. Mangold is serving minimum of 212 months for those charges as well as two counts of second-degree murder. Miles and Johnson must serve two consecutive life sentences for the two murders followed by a minimum of 189 months for those charges and one count of attempted first-degree arson.
The Swain County Board of Elections has decided to continue running a satelite early voting site in Cherokee, but to the chagrin of some nixed for now the idea of an additional site in the rural Alarka community.
The Swain County commissioners this week approved the election board’s request for $2,600 to run an early voting site in Cherokee for two weeks prior to the May primary election.
However, the election board decided not to pursue an early voting site catering to residents in the remote communities of Alarka and Nantahala.
Swain first ran an early voting location in Cherokee during 2010 but has debated for the past month whether it was worth the cost to do so again this year. Without the extra site, Cherokee residents must drive anywhere from 20 to 40 minutes to reach the main early voting site in Bryson City. Jackson County has historically provided an early voting site in Cherokee for residents on the Jackson side of the reservation.
The Cherokee site will also make early voting more convenient for voters in Whittier, which is closer to Cherokee than Bryson City.
“That portion of the county was underserved,” said Mark Tyson, a member of the Board of Elections. “There had been a lot of community response made to the board.”
Residents of Alarka and Nantahala have similarly long treks, but the Board of Elections determined that it did not have enough time to adequately set up a brand new early voting site.
“It would be tougher to do a site in the western part of the county,” Tyson said, “given the short of amount of time that we had and the limited resources.” The election board decided to revisit the idea of a West Swain site next year.
Commissioner David Monteith suggested the election board go ahead and ask for money for both sites, but they felt it was too late to prepare both in time for early voting.
“I challenged them on it and told them they should do so, but they didn’t want to do it,” Monteith said.
Monteith said county residents would have liked to see the additional site in West Swain and that the election board should have dealt with the issue earlier.
“They could have come to us a month ago,” he said. “They just weren’t thinking ahead.”
The Board of Elections members had to appear before the commissioners twice in the past week over the issue. The first time, the election board did not come with a clear request but instead presented an open-ended question to commissioners on which sites they wanted to fund.
“So you all have not decided exactly what you want to get? You are speculating?” said Commissioner David Monteith.
Board of Elections Chair James Fisher explained that the election board had avoided making a hard and fast request because they did not want to put the final decision on the backs of the commissioners.
“I felt like it was unfair to y’all,” Fisher said.
Monteith replied that the commissioners would be answerable to the final decision anyway.
“Would it not be better for you guys to make a decision on what you want?” Monteith said. “I would rather know exactly what you want.”
Commissioners told the election board to return once they had nailed down what specifically it wanted the county to fund. The election board came back five days later with its specific request — namely to fund the site in Cherokee but not Alarka.
When the Swain County Board of Elections first offered an early voting site in Cherokee in 2010, the turnout was poor, with only 226 people taking advantage of the new location. “That’s not to say that it won’t be successful this go around,” Fisher said.
Board of election members said the site may just need more time to gain a following but also questioned whether the county can afford to spend thousands of dollars on a previously underused early voting site. The board spent about $3,500 to run the site in 2010.
“We are letting these people down by not getting them where they need to vote,” said resident Barbara Robinson.
The Swain County Board of Elections first approached the Board of Commissioners after realizing that it didn’t have enough money in its budget this year to run more than the single early voting site in Cherokee.
Counties once got a small contribution from the federal government to help fund early votings, but the state legislature for now is refusing to pony up the required state match, which means counties would not get the assistance this year.
“It is thrown on the backs of the counties,” said Phil Carson, chairman of the board of commissioners. “The taxpayers are footing the bill.”
With little brouhaha or fanfare, the Swain County Board of Commissioners voted last week to nudge its room tax up 1 percent, less than two months after the idea was first floated publicly.
“We felt like it would be a good plus for Swain County,” said County Commissioner David Monteith. “It is not on the local people. It is on the tourists.”
The Swain County Tourism Development Authority first introduced the idea of an increase to commissioners in mid-January. It will go into effect in July.
The tax on overnight lodging stood at 3 percent before the vote. The increase will bring in at least an additional $100,000 annually and will be earmarked for special tourism projects.
“It’s a very good thing,” said Brad Walker, a Swain County Chamber of Commerce board member and chairman of Smoky Mountain Host.
The former Bryson City mayor said it would give the tourism agency flexibility to support special projects it currently doesn’t have a budget for.
“We are now trying to help develop attractions,” Walker said, adding that the county cannot do that without additional funds.
One project that the additional money could help with is the renovation of the historic courthouse in Bryson City into a visitor center and museum.
Another target for funding is the 2013 World Freestyle Kayaking Championships, which is expected to draw thousands of out-of-towners to the county. The tourism agency wants to post signage advertising the kayaking competition and help with beautification efforts near the Nantahala Gorge where the event will be held.
Swain County had one of the lowest taxes on overnight accommodations in the state. More than half of the counties in the state have a tax that is more than 3 percent.
Opponents of the increase, however, say it could hurt business.
The county should focus on advertising its comparatively low taxes, not jack them up, said Winfred Brooks, who has worked in the cabin rental business for 20 years.
“This is not the time to consider gouging traveling tourists anymore,” Brooks said. “Keep your taxes low you will get more visitors.”
Now, if someone pays $100 to stay the night in a Swain County hotel or inn, he or she will pay an additional $4 a night compared to $3 a night, not counting sales tax, to occupy the room.
Swain’s room tax collections increased 5 percent last year and 8 percent the year before that, making it one of the few counties that has escaped a downturn in its room tax collections as a result of the recession.
Last year, Swain County brought in $341,000. The money is used to promote tourism, mostly by advertising and marketing Swain as a destination.
The county can currently use up to 30 percent of its current room tax collections on tourism projects, including the Christmas lights featured throughout downtown Bryson City.
• 3 percent: Clay, Graham, Macon, Mitchell, Yancey, Jackson*
• 4 percent: Haywood, Swain, Buncombe, Transylvania, Cherokee
• 5 percent: Henderson, Madison, McDowell
• 6 percent: town of Franklin, Watauga
*Jackson County has proposed an increase to 6 percent.
More than a year has lapsed since 15-month-old Aubrey Kina Marie Littlejohn died on the floor of an unheated single-wide trailer in Cherokee one frigid January night, but it could be several more months before the state conducts a child fatality review required by law in such cases.
Swain County Department of Social Services alerted the state to the suspicious child death the day after Aubrey died in January 2011, but the mandatory case review hasn’t been started yet because of a statewide backlog. The N.C. Department of Health and Human Services formally accepted the case for a child fatality review last April, but the review has not been scheduled yet, according to Lori Watson, a spokesperson for the state agency in Raleigh.
Ideally, a child fatality review can help prevent future tragedies. It is supposed to detect where social safety nets failed and whether there are cracks in the system that need fixing.
In Aubrey’ case, it seems there will be plenty to learn from such a review. Cops, neighbors, family members and social workers all came in contact with Aubrey’s caretaker and noticed red flags, from violent behavior and suspected drug use to poor living conditions and even visual signs of abuse.
The child fatality review is not intended to find fault, nor is it a witch-hunt to hold anyone responsible, Watson said. The state in particular is interested in whether new policies or protocols could have saved the child’s life.
It is a learning exercise that taps the insight of anyone who may have interacted with the child — teachers, daycare workers, pediatricians, friends, family and social workers — to determine what could be done differently in the future.
“They will bring all those people together that had been involved in that child’s life,” Watson said.
By design, the case review isn’t conducted on the heels of a child’s death.
“They try to plan them so they give the community an opportunity to heal and people can come back to the table and take an objective approach to looking at the case,” Watson said.
But, a year and counting is longer than it should be in an ideal world. It could be several more months yet before it is conducted.
Watson said the agency is facing a backlog of its child fatality reviews. Watson cited staff turnover and unfilled positions at the state level as reasons the agency got behind.
The child fatality review will likely determine why social workers had forcibly removed other children from the home where Aubrey was living but allowed Aubrey to stay. Social workers had documented inappropriate use of physical discipline against Aubrey when she was just a year old. In addition to bruises on Aubrey, there were also signs she wasn’t developing like a baby of her age should, but she was not being taken to the doctor for check-ups.
Cops had been to the residence multiple times, according to dispatch records. Neighbors witnessed violent behavior in the yard of the home and noted children fending for themselves.
Prosecutors in a second-degree murder and felony child abuse case in Swain County have sealed social service records for fear they could compromise the on-going investigation or the ability to prosecute the case.
Prosecutors have told the Swain County Department of Social Services not to release records that would normally be made public surrounding the death of 15-month-old Aubrey Kina-Marie Littlejohn, who died more than a year ago. Ladybird Powell, Aubrey’s great-aunt and caretaker, was charged in connection with her death this month.
Since DSS records are highly personal — often revealing private aspects of family life, emotional state and financial status — they are all confidential.
There is an exception, however, when criminal charges surround a child’s death. In such cases, DSS is supposed to release a summary of the agency’s involvement with the child, describing whether social workers had the child’s well-being on their radar and what steps, if any, were taken to investigate or improve the child’s safety and care.
The district attorney’s office has the authority to block the release of the records if it is deemed a risk to the criminal case, however.
In this case, the prosecutor has done just that, citing the highly unusual circumstances of a separate yet parallel case against two social workers. The workers allegedly falsified records following the child’s death, presumably to conceal whether the agency properly followed up on complaints of abuse and neglect, according to a State Bureau of Investigation probe.
Whether social workers did their job or failed to intervene and protect Aubrey has been a source of heated and emotional controversy. The records, if released, would reveal whether social workers acted on reports of suspected abuse and neglect — assuming the records provide an accurate picture.
But releasing those records that describe DSS involvement in Aubrey’s case could compromise a fair trail in the separate case against the social workers, since their involvement — or lack of involvement — is at the heart of that case.
The release of records would “jeopardize the state’s ongoing investigation” and “jeopardize the state’s ability to prosecute” the case, the district attorney’s office told Swain DSS when blocking the release of the documents.
Swain County commissioners will have to decide in coming weeks whether to pony up $3,000 to $5,000 for an early voting site in Cherokee this election.
The Swain County Board of Elections doesn't have the money in its budget this year to run an early voting site in Cherokee as it did in 2010. The election board decided last week to pass the decision up the chain to county commissioners.
The election board also has given county commissioners the option of funding another early voting site at the West Swain County Fire Department to serve the Alarka, Almond and Nantahala areas.
The cost of running the sites would be between $6,000 and $12,000, said Joan Weeks, director of Swain County's Board of Elections. Right now, the only early voting site would be at the board of elections office in Bryson City.
Board of Elections Chairman James Fisher seemed confident that the commissioners would approve their request and then the board could move forward with election preparations.
"We are going to appear before the county commissioners and get the funding," Fisher said.
All three election board members have declared their support for continuing to operate the early voting site in Cherokee as long as they can line up the funding.
"I am still very hopeful we can make this happen," said board member Mark Tyson. "It would be sad if it didn't."
Tyson wanted the election board to go ahead and vote last week on the additional early voting sites. He made a motion to approve the early voting sites in Cherokee and West Swain pending funding from the county commissioners.
But, the other two election board members felt it was more appropriate to simply ask commissioners first.
"I felt like Mr. Tyson was trying to create a problem," Fisher said. "It would have backed the commissioners in a corner."
Board of Election officials will make their request at the next county commissioners meeting on Tuesday, Feb. 28. And, at least some county commissioners are open to the idea of contributing to the early voting sites.
"I fully support the tribe having a voting precinct," said Commissioner David Monteith. "I think they should have a place to vote."
Commissioner Steve Moon, on the other hand, was more hesitant, saying he wants to discuss the issue with the other commissioners before deciding whether the $6,000 to $12,000 investment is worth it.
"That's a lot of money," Moon said. "That is not something we need to rush into."
County Commissioner Donnie Dixon agreed that the board must meet to talk about the issue collectively but was more optimistic that it might vote in favor of funding the sites.
"That is very possible," said Commissioner Dixon.
After addressing the county commissioners, election officials are planning to meet with tribal council leaders to update them on the issue.
Cherokee leaders have indicated that they would like the early voting site to operate again this election year and are willing to offer the county Internet services and a building on the reservation free of charge.
The request for an early voting site in West Swain came up for the first time this year.
Former elections board member John Herrin filed a formal request with the Board of Elections for a site located at the West Swain County Fire Department in Almond. The location would offer residents near the Nantahala Gorge and Alarka a closer place to vote. Currently, residents must drive into Bryson City — a 20- to 30-minute trip — in order to cast their ballot early.
"It is my intent in requesting this that it will inherently make the 'Right to Vote' much easier for the registered voters of Swain County," wrote Herrin in his request. "This would as well relieve some of the workload on the Election Day for very possibly the whole county."
When the Swain County Board of Elections first offered an early voting site in Cherokee in 2010, the turnout was poor, with only 226 people taking advantage of the new location. Board of election members said the site may just need more time to gain a following but also questioned whether the county can afford to spend thousands of dollars on a previously underused early voting site. The board spent about $3,500 to run the site in 2010.
Without the additional location, Cherokee residents will again have to drive to the Swain County election office in Bryson City if they want to vote early — a more than 20-minute trek. And, for those living in the far reaches of Cherokee's Big Cove community, the trip is more like 30 to 40 minutes.
However, Cherokee residents aren't the only ones in Swain County who face a long haul into Bryson City to take advantage of early voting. People in Alarka and Nantahala have similar distances to drive. Residents of that area travel about 21 miles, or about 30 minutes, to cast early ballots.
Residents of western Swain County have indicated that they would like an early voting site as well. But, a formal request for an additional location was not submit to the Board of Elections until this year.
Swain County’s Board of Elections will decide this month whether it is worth several thousand dollars to operate an early voting site in Cherokee again this election year.
The three-member election board all agreed the county might not be able to afford an early voting site in Cherokee this year. However, they disagree on whether low turnout at the site during the 2010 election should be a factor in the decision.
“(Money) is really the only factor,” said Mark Tyson, a member of the three-person board and a Democrat. “I am really hoping that we are able to provide the voting site in Cherokee.”
The board of elections currently doesn’t have the money in its budget to cover the cost of an early voting site in Cherokee, but intend to ask county commissioners for an additional appropriation.
Without the additional location, Cherokee residents will again have to drive to the board of elections office in Bryson City if they want to vote early — a more than 20-minute trek. And, for those living in the far reaches of Cherokee’s Big Cove community, the trip is more like 30 to 40 minutes.
“That is a heck of a drive,” Tyson said.
Election board member Bill Dills said he is in favor of keeping the location in Cherokee as long as it is worth the cost.
“To me, the function of the Board of Elections … is to provide people the opportunity to vote, the way they want to,” he said. “What I want to see is how we can work with those people and get them to take advantage of early vote.”
The board spent about $3,500 to run the site in 2010 and only 226 people used it to vote during that election.
“When you break that down cost wise, it’s not efficient,” said Joan Weeks, director of Swain County’s Board of Elections.
Board of Elections chairman James Fisher echoed a similar sentiment, adding that there is no way to know what the turnout will be this time around.
“We are not against having (early voting) on the reservation or anywhere,” he said. But, “it’s not worthwhile if it’s not used.”
The 2010 election was the first time an early voting site was offered in Cherokee and may need more time to catch on.
Tyson and Dills said they believe more voters will turn out at the early voting site in Cherokee if it is offered again this election.
“Because it was new, a lot of people didn’t know it was there,” Tyson said, adding that the 2010 election did not include a presidential race.
States often see a spike in voter turnout during presidential election years such as this year.
“I think we would see a larger turnout from there,” Tyson said.
However, Dills said that the board did everything it could, including talking to tribal leaders and posting a notice in the tribe’s newspaper, to inform voters about the new site.
“I don’t know what else you could do to make people aware,” Dills said, adding that “a large number” still drove to Bryson City to cast their ballots early.
The cost of holding an election comes from county coffers, namely property taxes. Residents on the Cherokee reservation don’t pay property taxes in Swain County, however, so they don’t directly contributing to the expense.
But the economic benefit — from jobs to tourism — that Swain reaps from the tribe and its massive casino operation far outpaces the about $3,500 outlay the county would pay to staff an early voting site.
The election board plans to meet with Larry Blythe, vice chief for the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, to ensure that the tribe indeed even wants the early voting site. In 2010, the tribe worked with the election board to provide a suitable site.
Not having a site would “put people at disadvantage,” said Principal Chief Michell Hicks.
Tribal Council member Perry Shell said that the purpose of the Board of Elections is to make it as convenient as possible to vote.
“I think it’s important that people have every opportunity to vote,” said Shell, who represents Big Cove.
Board members emphasized that discussions about this year’s early voting sites have just begun. The county has until March 1 to submit its list of early voting sites to the state. Early voting for the primary begins April 19 and ends May 5.
“We just opened initial conversations about it,” Fisher said. “A whole bunch of this scuttlebutt is much ado about nothing.”
The board decided to place a voting site in Cherokee prior to the 2010 election after an elderly Swain County resident and member of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians made a formal written request.
Early voting has grown steadily in popularity after the state passed a new law in 1990s mandating that the convenient ballot casting be made available to the masses. Before then, it was only an option for the elderly, disabled or those with a qualified excuse that prevented them from getting to the polls on actual Election Day.
Of course, Cherokee residents aren’t the only ones in Swain County who face a long haul into Bryson City to take advantage of early voting. People in Alarka and Nantahala have similar distances to drive.
Fisher said he would like to have early voting locations everywhere, but with everybody tightening their budgets it would not be feasible.
John Herrin, a former member of the Swain election board, pointed out that Cherokee is a population center, whereas residents in other parts of the county, despite being a good distance from Bryson City, are more dispersed.
“You have quite a few registered voters in that area,” said Herrin, who helped set up the early voting site in Cherokee in 2010.
Cherokee residents are less likely to come into Bryson City in the regular course of their lives, while residents from rural reaches of the county usually eventually venture to town for groceries or other business.
Although the board has heard that other residents would like additional early voting sites throughout the county, none have made a formal appeal. A community member must make a written request, and the board must vote unanimously to approve a new location.
In addition to deciding whether to keep the Cherokee early voting site, the board is also expected to receive a request for another site near Nantahala. Residents of that area travel about 21 miles, or about 30 minutes, to cast early ballots in Bryson.
Fisher pointed out that people can mail in their ballots.
The decision to add an early voting site is “based on need and funding,” he said. “If (closing the site) would completely inhibit somebody from voting, I would fund it myself.”
The reservation lies partly in both Jackson and Swain counties. Jackson County operates an early voting site in Cherokee for those who live on the Jackson-side of the reservation near the Bingo Hall at a cost of anywhere from $2,000 to $5,000 depending on the hours and amount of staffing required.
The Swain Board of Elections’ next meeting is at 3:30 p.m. Feb. 15 at the Board of Elections building off U.S. 19.
All counties in North Carolina are required to operate at least one early voting site, the result of a new law passed in the late 1990s aimed at making voting easier and more accessible
Most counties offered just one early voting site initially, but as early voting took off and grew in popularity, some counties have added a second or even third early voting site in response to demand. The cost ranges between $2,000 and $5,000 per site for each county.
Here’s what some counties are doing.
Swain’s main early voting site is in Bryson City. In 2010, it added a second early voting site in Cherokee at the Birdtown Community Center but is contemplating whether to do so again this year.
Macon County has a single early voting site in Franklin. However, election officials are considering adding a site in the Highlands area this year.
Haywood’s main early voting site is in Waynesville, with a second site in Canton every two years during state and federal elections.
Jackson County has a main early voting site in Sylva but has also run sites in Cullowhee, Cashiers, Scotts Creek and Cherokee. It has not decided where or how many sites it will open this year.
Caron Swayney knew better than to torture herself, but still she occasionally found herself drawn to the trailer park where the cold, limp body of her 15-month-old niece was discovered dead in the middle of the night last January.
“I would go down there and just sit in the driveway and just look at that trailer and cry,” Swayney said. “It just seems like it is never going to end.”
The year since the death of Aubrey Kina-Marie Littlejohn has been trying and emotional for her extended Cherokee family. When Swayney participated in a ceremonial sweat lodge at the start of the new year, she had one wish.
“I asked everyone to pray for the family that this year would start off better than what it did last year and that we would get the answers we had been waiting for for a year,” said Swayney, Aubrey’s great-aunt. “We kept wondering when something was going to happen.”
Last week, something finally did.
Ladybird Powell, who was caring for Aubrey at the time of her death, was arrested on numerous charges last Friday in connection with Aubrey’s death, including second-degree murder and felony child abuse. Powell is being held on $1 million bond.
“This has been one of the hardest cases that we have had to investigate, primarily because of the age of the child. As a parent, it is hard to imagine any child being taken away at such an early age,” Swain County Sheriff Curtis Cochran said in a statement.
An autopsy revealed numerous recent bruises on Aubrey’s body and past evidence of a fracture. It found the nature of Aubrey’s death was consistent with hypothermia but could not conclusively determine that it was indeed the cause of death.
Family members say Ladybird’s trailer did not have heat. When Aubrey’s lifeless body was brought into the emergency room the night of her death, her core body temperature was a low 84 degrees, and she was dressed in only a T-shirt and dirty diaper.
Witnesses have said Aubrey was not properly cared for by Ladybird and that on the day of her death she had been strapped in a car seat for 12 hours and hardly fed.
Aubrey’s mother, Jasmine Littlejohn, had asked Ladybird to care for Aubrey temporarily while Jasmine served time in jail. When Jasmine got out of jail and tried to get her daughter back, Powell refused unless Jasmine paid her several thousand dollars, according to family.
Kidnapping and extortion are among the charges filed against Powell. She also faces drug charges, including possession of methamphetamines, for drugs and paraphernalia confiscated from the trailer the night of Aubrey’s death.
The family was relieved to get word of the charges last week, particularly Aubrey’s mother, Jasmine.
“She knows it won’t bring Aubrey back, but like everybody else, she wants the people held responsible for her child’s death,” said Henrietta Littlejohn, Aubrey’s grandmother.
Cochran said that while it has taken a year to build the case, it has been a top priority of the sheriff’s department.
“There has been a great expression of concern from Aubrey’s family members, and we want everyone in Swain County to know that we have never stopped working on this case,” Cochran said, crediting the work of Detective Carolyn Posey in particular.
The family knows the charges are just the first step, however, in what could be a difficult and protracted court battle, one that will mean reliving baby Aubrey’s death over and over. Henrietta is trying to brace her daughter, Jasmine, for what’s to come.
“It could get nasty, and it could get ugly, so she is going to have to prepare herself. We all are,” said Henrietta Littlejohn.
David Wijewickrama, an attorney who has been acting as an advocate for Aubrey’s family in seeking justice, said he was pleased by the charges.
“I want to applaud the district attorney’s office for pursuing the case with diligence and not letting it slip through the cracks,” Wijewickrama said.
While the caretaker of 15-month-old Aubrey Kina-Marie Littlejohn has been charged in connection with her death last year, the case is not exactly closed.
Still pending is whether Swain County social workers will face charges for an alleged cover-up following the baby’s death. The State Bureau of Investigation conducted a 10-month probe into whether social workers falsified records in an attempt to cover up potential negligence on their part.
Aubrey’s family say they warned social workers numerous times that Aubrey was not safe in the home of Ladybird Powell. Social workers even removed other children from the home but left Aubrey there.
Charges stemming from the SBI investigation into the Department of Social Services are expected this week. See www.smokymountainnews.com for updates in the case.
Swain County’s Tourism Development Authority will appeal to county officials for a 1 percent increase in the room tax rate.
The tax on overnight lodging currently stands at 3 percent. The proposed increase would bring in at least an additional $100,000 annually to support tourism initiatives.
Monica Brown, chair of Swain County’s Tourism Development Authority board, said the idea came from business owners who approached her about raising the tax. The extra money could help fund special projects without burdening local residents.
“Basically, there is a lot of capital stuff we would like to help the county with,” Brown said. “It would give us more funding to work.”
Such projects could include helping the Great Smoky Mountain Railroad construct an engine turntable or Bryson City restore the historic courthouse for a visitors center and museum. The extra funds could be used toward beautification efforts and signage near the Nantahala Gorge, the site of the 2013 World Freestyle Kayaking Championships expected to bring thousands of visitors to the county.
“(The tax is) more for promotion of tourism in Swain County overall and a main part of that is the appearance,” Brown said.
The county can currently use up to 30 percent of its current room tax collections on capital projects, including the Christmas lights featured throughout downtown Bryson City.
A 3 percent tax is already tacked on to a visitor’s room rate. If someone pays $100 to stay the night in a Swain County hotel or inn, he or she will pay an additional $3, not counting sales tax, to occupy the room. If the increase is approved, that visitor will pay an extra $1 — for a total of $4 — each night.
Brown said the authority wanted to be “conservative” so it will only seek a 1 percent jump in room tax, although state law allows a room tax of up to 6 percent.
Jackson County has recently proposed increasing its room tax to the full 6 percent. More than half the counties in the state already levy a room tax of more than 3 percent, with a definitive trend in recent years among counties to increase the rate.
The Swain County tourism agency is “Right in line with what we are doing across the state,” Brown said. “And, an increase in the room tax is not going to impact the number of visitors to your area.”
The tourism authority has raked in between $300,000 and $353,000 a year in room tax revenue since at least 2006. Swain is one of the few counties that has escaped a downturn in its room tax collections as a result of the recession.
“We have enjoyed pretty steady room tax numbers in Swain County,” Brown said.
The tax has remained at 3 percent since its inception in the 1980s.
The extra 1 percent would be kept separate from the other 3 percent, which funds mostly marketing and promotions, said Karen Wilmot, secretary of the TDA board and executive director of the Chamber of Commerce.
The Tourism Development Authority splits its advertising dollars between print and online media. About 70 percent of the advertising budget funds traditional print ads, while the remaining 30 percent targets Internet users. Like other Western North Carolina tourism agencies, Swain County’s TDA focuses its efforts in North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Florida and Tennessee.
“We tend to take a really conservative approach to our advertising,” Brown said. “We try to do a lot with a little bit of money.”
The key to obtaining support for the 1 percent increase will be reminding residents of how the Chamber of Commerce and tourism authority has used the room tax to benefit the county, Brown said.
“I want everyone to understand the focus of the tax,” Brown said. “How it benefits the community as a whole.”
But, in order to obtain the increase, the agency must appeal to local government officials and its constituents for support.
“I honestly don’t know” when the measure could be put to a vote of county commissioners, Brown said.
The tourism agency will need to discuss the possible increase with the county commissioners and then with its lodging owners before even thinking about the vote.
It’s a “lengthy procedure,” Brown said.
The idea of an increase received mix reactions from lodging owners in the county who had not heard about the possible change.
“I would not be wanting to add any more to my guest’s room fee than I need to,” said Ed Ciociola, owner of Calhoun House Inn & Suites. But, if it helps advance tourism in the county, he said he would approve of the rise.
A handful of inn, motel and hotel owners vehemently disapproved of the plan, however.
“I am definitely not in favor of any new taxes,” said Blain Slobe, owner of Two Rivers Lodge. “I don’t see raising the tax 1 percent as helping tourism at all.”
If people are spending more money each day on their room bills, they will cut down on the number of days they spend in Swain County, he said.
Several cited the still slow-growing economy as a crucial reason for forgoing the increase.
“I think 3 percent is high enough,” said Mercedith Bacon of West Oak Bed & Breakfast & Cabins.
Bacon said that the tourism agency does an adequate job with the resources it already has and that businesses are still fragile following the recession.
“I just don’t think this is the time,” Bacon said.
A couple of business owners said they would like to hear more information before deciding whether to oppose or support a 4 percent tax rate.
“I don’t think I can say yay or nay,” said Mort White, owner of Hemlock Inn.
Brown was not surprised by people’s responses when they initially heard about the potential increase and said she thinks the majority of business owners will eventually favor the move.
“I think there is almost a knee-jerk reaction” to oppose the tax, Brown said. “I think we just have to let them know what it’s going towards.”
• 3 percent: Swain, Clay, Graham, Macon, Mitchell, Yancey
• 4 percent: Haywood, Buncombe, Transylvania, Cherokee
• 5 percent: Henderson, Madison, McDowell
• 6 percent: town of Franklin, Watauga
*Jackson County has proposed an increase to 6 percent.
• 2006-2007 $305,352
• 2007-2008 $320,820
• 2008-2009 $309,802
• 2009-2010 $335,353
• 2010-2011 $352,437
The Swain Tourism Development Authority board meets at noon on the last Wednesday of each month at the Chamber of Commerce. This month, however, it will be held Jan. 18.