Two new art galleries are opening in Bryson City this May only about a street’s width away from each other.

Blue Mountain Studios and Studio 19 both are gathering artists from various mediums to work in a studio setting and show their work in a storefront studio. The studios plan to have a collaborative relationship with the common goal of promoting the arts in Swain County.


Studio 19

Studio 19 is the collaboration of Debra Mills, a basket weaver; Joan Glover, who makes gourd art; Lori Anderson, a cornhusk artist; and Julie Bottorf, a jewelry maker.

“This is a studio primarily,” Mills said. “It’s all about the work and the learning and passing it on.”

The four women will consume most of 19 Everett St. with their workspace and a small teaching area. The remaining front portion of the store, formerly a yoga studio, will showcase art they have created.

“Working all by yourself, it puts you in a vacuum,” Mills said. By all working within a small space, “We can feed off each other, our excitement level.”

Mills previously owned The Cottage Craftsman, which is also in Bryson City, but said the venture became more about paperwork than art for her.

“All I did was paperwork. There was just too much administration,” Mills said.

So, Mills sold the Cottage Craftsman more than a year ago and began searching for a new place where she could focus more on weaving a basket than through mounds of paper work. She also roped in Anderson, whose work had immediately impressed her.

Anderson works with cornhusks — a skill she learned from area legend Annie Lee Bryson. Although she makes Bryson-esque cornhusk dolls, Anderson, a volunteer with the Great Smoky Mountain National Park, found her own niche. She has a deep fondness for Western North Carolina’s native wildflowers, which shows when examining her meticulously crafted cornhusk flowers.

“Rather than stealing her (Bryson’s) joy, I found my own,” Anderson said.

Anderson takes a camera and ruler on every hike. So, when she sees a particular flower that she loves, she can replicate it to scale and incorporate even the tiniest of details.

When Mills saw Anderson’s work for the first time, she was in awe.

“I went bonkers,” Mills said. “Her work was beautiful and pure and honest.”

In addition to working out of the backroom studio, the four artists plan to teach regular classes for children and adults. The tutorials will be anything from a simple cornhusk doll that can be crafted in 30 minutes to a more complex basket pattern that takes all day.

Construction on the studio/classroom portion of the business will be complete later this month. And, Mills hopes the gallery will open soon after.


Blue Mountain Studios

Blue Mountain Studios is a place “where artists can get a start,” said owner Brona Winchester.

The gallery/studio, which is located on Main Street in the heart of downtown Bryson City, officially opened for business a few days ago and is hoping to soon fill up its six separate studio spaces with working artists. Anyone can rent a work area that sits behind the storefront gallery or a larger room to host a variety of art classes.

Winchester said she plans to keep her prices reasonable so that new and young artists can afford to create there.

“I am trying to keep them very, very reasonable,” said Winchester, who charges a 30 percent commission for art sold out of the gallery.

Winchester also rents the neighboring storefront on Main Street. And, eventually, pending funds, Winchester hopes to sublease the other storefront and turn the space behind it into expanded studio space and a small venue for live music.

Winchester herself only dabbles in drawing and painting, but she wants to devote more of her time to her own artwork particularly since creative energy will be flowing throughout the building.

“There is going to be a lot of creative energy,” Winchester said.

But, the main impetus for the studio was to promote art in Bryson City, particularly up-and-coming artists.

“We can work together and really service the community more,” Winchester said. “We have so many talented people. We have to pull them out of the sheds and the barns (that they currently work out of).”

Among the artists currently featured in the gallery are painter Kathryn Hicks Tsonas, surrealist Daniel Murch, watercolorist Lenny Gemski and quilter Maddy Haughn. Blue Mountain Studios will remain open until at least 8 p.m. during the fall and summer months, Winchester said.

“For so long at 5 o’clock, it’s a ghost town,” Winchester said. “We want it to be a place where people feel welcome.”

After two years of lawsuits and two mediations, Swain and Graham counties have finally agreed on where to draw the county line signifying their portions of the Fontana Dam.

Fontana Dam straddles the two counties. How much of the dam lies in each county determines how much they each get in property tax money from the Tennessee Valley Authority for the dam, its hydropower equipment and generators.

Previously, the two counties split the money 50-50. However, Graham County successfully argued in 2010 that it deserved more of the money since more of the dam lies on its side of the county line. Graham then sued Swain County for taxes going back decades that TVA had paid to Swain but rightfully belonged to Graham, estimated at $15 million. Swain filed a countersuit. Leaders from the two counties used mediation to eventually find a dividing line that suited them both.

Historically, the center of the Little Tennessee River was the boundary line between counties. But the river was covered up by Fontana Lake when the dam was built, and finding that center line now has proved elusive.

In a quest for resolution, surveyors were sent out to take a look at the area and discovered an old monument marking the center of the river on the dam, giving Swain County a watertight argument for where the county split should lie.

“We did not compromise beyond that marker. That marker establishes the exact center,” said Swain County Manager Kevin King.

Unfortunately for Swain County, however, it will recoup some, but not all, the tax money it has lost to Graham. With the new, or rather old, marker as the agreed on dividing line, Swain County will gain back about three-fourths of the funding it lost last year.

Under the disputed formula, Swain County lost more than $200,000 a year from its budget — a devastating blow that might have forced the county to raise taxes or increase fees. King estimated that the county will get back about $150,000 of that.

“We are better now than we were six months ago, but we’re worst now than we were two years ago,” said Commissioner Donnie Dixon.

Commissioners in both counties have signed a joint agreement that they will forward on to the General Assembly for approval. The state legislature’s rubberstamp is a mere formality however since the counties are in agreeance.

“We’re hoping that everything is going to work out and (want to) re-establish the relationship we’ve had with Graham County,” said Commissioner David Monteith. “We need to work together on everything.”

Overall, the county commissioners were happy that an accord was reached and will avoid the county having to either hike taxes or make major budget cuts.

“We were looking at different ways to fill the gaps in the budget,” King said. “We’d have to come up with that revenue somehow.”

The last of six people accused of playing a role in the murders of two Swain County residents back in 2008 has been put away.

Mark Goolsby of Sylva plead guilty to nine counts of accessory after the fact to various charges, including second-degree murder, first-degree kidnapping and attempted first-degree murder. Goolsby received a seven- to ten-year sentence but was credited for time he has already spent in jail awaiting trial. This means that he has a minimum of about three years and three months before he can be paroled.

“I believe the plea accurately reflects what happened as far as his involvement,” said James Moore, assistant district attorney for the case.

Goolsby was one of two Sylva men who in some way participated in the murders of Scott Wiggins and Heath Compton. Goolsby and his friend Dean Mangold were in the Walmart parking lot in Sylva one day when they ran into two strangers from Atlanta who were looking for more drugs two-days in to a partying-spree at Harrah’s Cherokee Casino and Hotel. The two area boys followed them back to their hotel room at Harrah’s where they proceeded to smoke weed and take the illegal drug ecstasy.

Later, the group left the hotel room, planning to rob Wiggins and Compton, whom they believed dealt drugs. Goolsby stayed in the vehicle and did not actively participate in the robbery and murders, according to testimony of others in the case.

Goolsby testified last month against co-defendant Tiffany Marion, who was then found guilty of a myriad of charges and sentenced to more than two consecutive life sentences without the opportunity for parole. He was also prepared to testify against Mangold, who opted to plead guilty and make a deal with prosecutors rather than stand trial.

“He (Goolsby) did that without any kind of plea deal,” Moore said. “I take that as meaning something.”

Of the six defendants, three pleaded guilty; the fourth committed suicide in jail; and the fifth was found guilty following a jury trial last month.

The only related case left is the trial of Anita Vestal, a jailer in Swain County who helped the ringleader in the murders, Jeffrey Miles, escaped from the Swain County jail in 2009. As of Tuesday morning, no trial date had been set for Vestal. It is also unclear whether she will stand trial or try to make a plea deal.

As Tommy Yon carried his kayak up the side of a waterfall in Tennessee, he tried not to over-think the 100-foot drop that awaited him.

“I didn’t want to hesitate and psych myself out,” said Yon, who lives along the Nantahala River in Swain County.

Bald River Falls is not a commonplace run for kayakers. But, something in Yon told him that he could make it, that he needed to try it.

“I guess I was just feeling it that day,” Yon said.

To the non-paddling spectator, Yon’s daredevil stunts might seem like a leap of faith, more of a free fall with a kayak around his waist. But in an instant, he sized up which ledges to aim for, which rocks to avoid. He calculated the likely thrust of the boat and where it would hit as it pummeled down the falls into the roaring, churning froth below.

With three people running safety at the bottom of the falls in case something went awry, Yon climbed into his boat. Butterflies collected in his stomach, and he prayed to God that his intuition and calculations were correct. And, they were. Yon floated down the 100-foot waterfall as if it was a mere 20-footer. Everything was in slow motion, Yon said.

The day had started as a laid-back and relaxing kayaking trip with friends. But, when Yon drove along Tellico River Road, he stopped the car without warning halfway across a bridge overlooking Bald River Falls. Yon saw the line and knew what to do — how he could safely navigate the precipitous drop of a 100-foot waterfall. And, his intuition and knowledge served him well that day.

With about 20 years of experience under his belt, Yon, a professional freestyle kayaker, has cultivated a mixture of instinct, physics and practice that allows him to dare such feats.

The 27-year-old Nantahala native grew up along the river, helping his mom and dad at their boiled peanut stand that sat about mile away from the Nantahala Outdoor Center. Everyday, or nearly everyday, Yon would sneak away from the stand along U.S. 19 and watch groups of people take to the water.

Although kayaking does not define who Yon is, his love of all things water-related is undeniably a major part of his life. Yon has been on the water since he was 7 years old.

“That is all I wanted to do is be in the water,” said Yon, who works as a rafting guiding and soon as a kayaking instructor at Nantahala Outdoor Center.

“It makes me so excited to see someone almost touching base with something,” Yon said, adding that he loves giving people a few words of advice or little nudge that helps them conquer a move.

Yon is a first-rate paddler of all manners, from steep-ass creek paddling to swift down-river slalom. But his forte — one that happens to be in the limelight right now — is freestyle paddling. In freestyle paddling, kayakers perform tricks for a certain period of time and are scored based on difficulty and variety.

“Freestyle, to me, is like a different form of walking or dancing or skating or doing anything, but you’re on water,” Yon said.  “I feel more balanced an controlled on water than I do on my own two feet. I’m a klutz when it comes to land.”

Yon is an ideal example of an outlier, as defined by author Malcolm Gladwell. He has put in his 10,000-plus hours and like any successful person, takes his passion for something to a whole new level.

About age 7 or 8, Yon’s dad bought him a ducky, an inflatable kayak of sorts, and then, he slowly accrued enough gear to get his first kayak.

Yon said he practiced everyday unless he had gotten himself good and worn out.

“I maybe missed one day a week, two days a week. Maybe,” Yon said.

Yon soon began learning rolls, where you intentionally capsize the kayak and then return to the upright position, and then doing enders, where the front of the kayak is plunged into the water and the boat stands up vertically.

“From then forward, I went full forward into kayaking and never looked back,” Yon said.

Although practice makes perfect, Yon said he spends more time on land thinking about the physics of a trick — a McNasty or Donkey Flip or Phoenix Monkey — before he takes to the water to try it.

“I spend more time out of the boat than in the boat thinking about it,” Yon said.

For him, it’s about being able to visualize himself mastering a move, using his mind’s eye to watch how the position of his paddle affects his trajectory. Yon talks about kayaking the way a chess master might discuss his strategies. He puts a large amount of forethought into the combination of tricks he performs at competitions.

“I need to be thinking about when I do a move here where I am gonna land and what move is possible over there,” Yon said.

Although his plans may change once he gets on the water, Yon is never unprepared.

“I have done everything in kayaking as I possibly could because I have wanted it. I have wanted it for myself,” Yon said. “This is the lifestyle that I chose, and I love it.”

Of all the tricks he has performed and the places he has traveled, Yon said the crowning moment of his kayaking career was attaining pro-status several years ago.

“Being able to do all the trick of all the people that I followed who were my heroes,” Yon said. “I am paddling better than I have ever dreamed of paddling. I am happy.”

Yon is a member of Team Pyranha and competes in freestyle kayaking competitions around the U.S. And, unlike other sports, like hockey or football, the competition remains friendly.

“We are out there to encourage people,” Yon said.

If someone lands a complicated trick or combination, everyone is cheering him or her on, Yon said. In freestyle competitions, each kayaker racks up points based on a few set tricks that the judges expect to see, how they combine tricks into a continuous move and on other maneuvers that they toss into the mix.


Freestyle paddlers to turn up the heat in NOC Shootout this weekend

About 60 kayakers are expected to compete in this year’s Nantahala Outdoor Center Freestyle Shootout from April 20-22 in the Nantahala Gorge near Bryson City.

The Shootout will be a trial run, although on a much smaller scale, of world freestyle paddling championships being held on the Nantahala in September of 2012 and again in 2013.

“The Freestyle Shootout is always a highly competitive event, and we look forward to athletes turning up the heat this year as they ramp up their training for the Worlds,” said Zuzana Vanha, event coordinator with the Nantahala Outdoors Center.

The  NOC Freestyle Shootout will be the first official freestyle event to be held at the newly enhanced Nantahala Wave, designed for the upcoming World Cup in 2012 and World Championship in 2013.

The Wave is manmade contraption below the surface that changes the contour of the river bottom and kicks up waves and holes for kayakers to do tricks on.

Paddlers have been toying with the contraption to get the best wave results. A final model isn’t yet settled on.

“This event will give athletes an opportunity to give feedback about the (Wave) and express their opinions about what they would like to see as the Nantahala Gorge Organizing Committee prepares for the final round of fine-tuning,” Vanha said.

The NOC is expecting several hundred spectators during the course of the weekend, Vanha said.

Athletes get two 45-second runs to do their tricks, but the number of rounds will depend on athlete participation. The top winners from Saturday’s round will go on to the finals Sunday.

Freestyle paddling competition begins at 11 a.m. both Saturday and Sunday. Other event highlights include:

• Paddler Feedback Session at 6 p.m., April 20, at Slow Joe’s Café. An opportunity for athletes to make their opinion heard as the Nantahala Gorge Organizing Committee prepares for the final round of fine-tuning on the Nantahala 2013 Wave.

• Chris Gratmans, of TerraVida Threads, will discuss the psychology of paddling at 7 p.m., April 20, at Slow Joe’s Café.

• The Science of Hydraulic Engineering beside The Wave at 2 p.m. April 21.

• Stand up Paddleboard Head-to-Head Race at 6 p.m., April 21, at the near Slow Joe’s Café. Competitors will negotiate a slalom course on their way down stream.

• Dagger Dash Attainment Race at 2:30 p.m., April 22.

Slow Joe’s Café will offer live music each night starting at 8 p.m.

The weekend will also feature Demo Days, the NOC’s annual spring vendor fair and gear demo event. Guests can choose from more than 60 boats and test-paddle them for free on the Nantahala throughout the weekend. Manufacturer representatives will be on hand to answer questions about the gear, and the Outfitter’s Store will be offering deals on kayaks and accessories.

When a two-day partying and gambling binge left five Atlantans broke and out of drugs, a mission to replenish their stash and an off-kilter moral compass triggered a deadly and chaotic sequence of events — one that culminated in a home invasion and the execution-style murder of two Swain County residents.

A rash decision to leave Atlanta in the middle of the night to hit Harrah’s Cherokee Casino, eventually running out of money to get back home, a chance meeting in a Walmart parking lot with local boys — had the deck been stacked differently leading up to the ill-concocted robbery, the chips may not have fallen like they did.

Since the murders three years ago, exactly what played out on that fateful night has been a mystery, known only to detectives, the young Atlanta thugs and the two murder victims, Scott Wiggins, 33, and Heath Compton, 34.

That changed this month, when one of the suspects was brought to trial in Swain County, offering the first public dissection of the fatal course of events.

Of the six suspects charged in the murders, three had pleaded guilty. Another committed suicide in jail. The last two had held out, denying their involvement and claiming to be mere bystanders.

One of those, Tiffany Marion, 29, was on trial for three weeks, ending with a guilty verdict Monday. (see related article.)

The following account is a combination of testimony that played out in court in recent weeks. The story begins with two friends, Tiffany Marion and Jada McCutcheon, on their porch in Atlanta just before climbing in a van for a joy ride with friends.

Both Marion and McCutcheon, who was 19 at the time, met attending the Everest Institute in Georgia for massage therapy.

While smoking cigarettes outside McCutcheon’s apartment one night, her then-fiancée Jason Johnson pulled up in a gold mini-van and the two girls hopped in. Marion was introduced for the first time to Jeffrey Miles, who would later become the chief perpetrator and triggerman in the murders.

McCutcheon called Miles ‘papa’ because he cared for her. She said she would do anything he told her to.

After cruising around the Atlanta-area smoking weed and taking ecstasy, Miles suggested that they go to a casino, Marion said.

It was well after midnight when McCutcheon, her boyfriend Johnson, Miles and the recently introduced Marion, and a fifth guy known as Freak set out on the more than 150-mile trip to North Carolina — a drive that Miles apparently had made many times before.

During her testimony, Marion said she agreed to go to a casino but did not know that the group was referencing Harrah’s Hotel and Casino in Cherokee.

“I thought it would be fun,” Marion said. “They never mentioned what casino or where.”

The decision was rash judging by what Marion brought on the trip — nothing but a small Coach purse. Before leaving Georgia, the group had not made plans to stay in North Carolina overnight.

Marion and Miles entered Harrah’s Casino just before 8 a.m. Tuesday, according to a time-stamped security tape. Marion was sporting a white shirt, white skirt and once inside the casino, donned Miles’ black jacket. Miles was similarly dressed in a white t-shirt, white basketball shorts and a black and red baseball cap. The video showed the two sitting at a Blackjack table.

SEE ALSO: Murder victims' family faces daily struggle to cope

Although Marion said she did not know how much Miles won, it was in the thousands because he gave her a $1,000 chip, which she promptly cashed in.

“He said it was mine. ‘This is yours to keep,’” Marion said.

Miles’ winnings totaled about $2,700, according to the casino’s records. A female worker at the casino approached Miles and spoke to him as if she recognized him, Marion said. She told Miles that he had played enough to earn a three-night stay in one of rooms in Harrah’s Hotel — room 942.

By this time, the rest of the group — McCutcheon, Johnson and Freak who were not old enough to enter the casino — had rented a room across the road at the Days Inn where they stayed that night. Marion and Miles took advantage of the free hotel room offered at Harrah’s. Miles repeatedly returned to the casino to gamble. And, at one point, he lost what money he had won and asked Marion for the $1,000 he had given her.

Marion had stated in a previous interview with law enforcement officials that Miles and she were never intimate. However, on the stand, Marion said that she and Miles had sex in the room two or three times Tuesday and Tuesday night.

At some point the next day, Johnson, McCutcheon and Freak all packed into the complimentary room Miles had at Harrah’s, where the “chilled,” watched TV, took ecstasy and smoked marijuana.

By Thursday, their second day in Cherokee, the money and drugs started to run out. That day, “the guys were in and out,” McCutcheon said.

Some time Thursday, Johnson and Miles drove to Walmart in Sylva and scouted the parking lot, eventually encountering two local boys, Mark Goolsby and Dean Mangold. Exactly what Johnson and Miles told them isn’t clear, but there was some talk of drugs, and later that night Mangold would eventually lead them to Wiggins’ house where the hit went down.

When Miles and Johnson showed back up at Harrah’s, the two white boys were with them and joined the party. Marion and McCutcheon said they had never seen the two boys before and did not even know their names until after the crime took place. McCutcheon simply referred to them as “the white boys” most of the time.

“They seemed like they were cool, whatever,” McCutcheon said.

Goolsby and Mangold hung out in the hotel room with the five Atlantans, partaking in the ecstasy and marijuana.


Ill-conceived robbery

While in the hotel room, the group talked about “hitting a lick,” which means “to go to somebody’s house and take their shit,” McCutcheon said.

One of the white boys told them about a good house to rob, she said. It was about 20 minutes away, heading out of Cherokee and into rural Swain County, down a windy country lane and then a gravel road where Wiggins’ house was set in the woods.

That is when everyone, the two white boys and the Atlanta crew with the exception of the boy known as Freak, piled into the van and left the hotel for Wiggins’ home.

Taking direction from one of the white boys, Miles stopped the van in a wooded area a short distance from the house but well screened from anyone who might be inside. It was a well thought-out move, as the house was equipped with a closed-circuit security camera, a live feed trained on the driveway.

Miles grabbed and loaded a sawed off shotgun from the van, and Johnson had an unloaded gun that McCutcheon said looked like a machine gun. They then huddled around the van and planned out how the robbery would go down, exactly who would do what once they got inside, before heading up the hill to the house with their guns and empty black duffel bags in hand.


Grab and go

McCutcheon, Johnson, Miles and Mangold walk up to the house while Marion and Goolsby stayed in the van. However, Mangold stopped before they reached the house, McCutcheon said. Either Johnson or Miles kicked in the front door to the house. Then, pointing their guns at Wiggins and Compton, the invaders corralled them in an office-type room. Compton was shoved into a recliner-like chair, and Wiggins was told to lay face down on the floor.

“We don’t want no problems,” McCutcheon said, recalling the victims’ words.

McCutcheon said her job was then to collect anything valuable. She began grabbing items and putting them into the black duffel bags that they had brought with them. While in the other room, McCutcheon said, she heard what she thought was a shot and returned to the room where her accomplices were holding Compton and Wiggins, only to find Compton still seated in the chair with a bullet hole in his forehead.

“He (Miles) felt like he had to do it,” McCutcheon said.

McCutcheon once again began gathering valuables from throughout the house, including guns, ammunition, a flat screen TV and cash, and tossing them into the bed of Wiggins’ white Ford truck in the driveway, which they also planned to steal.

It is somewhat unclear how long after Compton’s death Timothy Waldroup, who knew the victims, stumbled upon the scene. Waldroup, a drug addict, reportedly told his sister that he was going to Wiggins’ house to buy crystal meth. However, he soon found himself held captive as well. At some point, he was ushered into the bathroom and told to get in the tub.

While Miles watched over Wiggins and Waldroup, Johnson decided to sit in a black Ford truck in the driveway and make sure no one else disturbed them.

At some point, McCutcheon was outside packing the white truck with stolen goods, and she heard another shot. McCutcheon went back into and saw Wiggins with “a big ass, fucking hole in the back of his head,” she said.

Then, Miles handed her the sawed off shotgun that had killed both Compton and Wiggins and told her to watch Waldroup who was sitting in the tub while he finished up. Miles grabbed a silver pistol from the house, McCutcheon said, and when he returned from packing the truck, he shot at Waldroup three or four times as he remained in the tub.

Miles told McCutcheon to cover the house in flammable cleaning supplies so they could torch the house, she said. As she did so, Waldroup stumbled from the bathroom and fell into the aquarium in the living room. He pleaded with them not the burn Wiggins’ home, McCutcheon said.

At some point during the crime, the two local “white boys” Mangold and Goolsby ran away on foot. Marion walked up to the house, found Johnson sitting in the black truck and told him to hurry up, that the white boys had run off and they should all get out of there. Marion said she then went back to wait in the van.

Eventually, a calm McCutcheon returned to the van alone and told Marion that they needed to meet Miles and Johnson back at Harrah’s. Miles jacked the white truck with all the stolen goods and headed to the hotel. Johnson, meanwhile, drove away in the black truck but soon ditched it on the side of the road, perhaps due to mechanical problems.

That left Johnson on foot, not far from the scene of a deadly robbery, a black man from Atlanta in the nearly all-white countryside of Swain County.

He walked from house-to-house, knocking on neighbors’ doors asking to us the phone. One of the residents called the sheriff’s office to report the suspicious character and a deputy soon cruised by. He found Johnson walking down the road — but unaware of the crime that had just been committed, the deputy gave him a courtesy lift back to Cherokee.

When McCutcheon and Marion get back to Harrah’s, they pulled up alongside Miles. Marion jumped into the stolen truck he’s driving to ride back to Atlanta with him.

McCutcheon refused to leave without her fiancée Johnson, who had yet to make it back. McCutcheon went back up to the Harrah’s hotel room to wait, where Freak had stayed that night, and fell asleep. When she awoke, she found Johnson waiting in the lobby of Harrah’s. By 11 a.m. or earlier, the remaining three had left for home.

It wasn’t until 11:30 a.m. Thursday morning that the crime was discovered. One of Wiggins’ neighbors had spied Waldroup in a ditch along the road, slowly bleeding to death. Waldroup had managed to stagger from the living room to the road the night before, but hadn’t made it far before collapsing. Police arrived at the scene and soon realized that Wiggins and Compton were murdered.


Man hunt

At first blush, the case seemed cold. A robbery and murder with no leads. Except one: the out-of-towner who was given a lift to Harrah’s in Cherokee by a deputy in the early hours of the morning.  Shannon Ashe, an agent with the State Bureau of Investigation, was assigned to follow-up the lead.

Unfortunately for law enforcement officials, the maids had already cleaned the hotel room that the suspects stayed in — room 942. And, there was little to no evidence to be collected.

“With it being cleaned and everything, it looked pristine,” Ashe said. “There was nothing unusual found within Room 942.”

Luckily, the casino has state-of-the-art surveillance, and investigators quickly pieced together descriptions of their suspects.

Two days after the murders, police found the gold Honda van at an apartment complex in Decatur, Ga. Johnson was inside, but they knew he couldn’t have acted alone.

The next day investigators found Marion and McCutcheon in the living room of her apartment with a light tan Chihuahua in their lap that had belonged to the murdered Wiggins and Compton.

Also in the apartment were black trash bags of stolen goods from the robbery, including a Radio Shack scanner with Wiggins’ name written on the front, prescription pill bottles in either Wiggins’ or Compton’s name and a Visa card belonging to Wiggins.

Officials separated the two suspects and began asking questions, while others searched the bags that sat on the living room floor.

After about 45 minutes, they received information that fellow suspect Jeffrey Miles was only three miles away at a Wendy’s. They quickly concluded their search of the apartment, arrested Marion and McCutcheon, and left to apprehend Miles.


A long road to justice

It’s been three and a half years, but the prosecution and victims’ families have received little respite. The arrest of the players, a jailbreak, a trial, two suicides and three guilty pleas have punctuated the years.

• Waldroup survived despite being shot multiple times, and he quickly became the star witness for the prosecution. But, before the case came to trial, he died of a drug overdose, an apparent suicide, while being held in jail on unrelated charges.

• Miles briefly escaped from jail in Swain County thanks to an inside job. He befriended and wooed a female jailer, Anita Vestal, who helped him escape in March 2009. Swain County residents were on high alert keeping an eye out for the escaped murderer. The two made it all the way to California but were eventually caught after a month or so.

In late 2010, Miles pleaded guilty to two counts of first-degree murder, attempted murder, two counts of robbery with a dangerous weapon, three counts of first-degree kidnapping, attempted first-degree arson and escape. He received two consecutive life sentences followed by a minimum of 189 months.

• Mangold, one of the “white boys,” pleaded guilty to attempted murder, three counts of first-degree kidnapping, two counts of second-degree murder and two counts of robbery with a dangerous weapon. Mangold received a minimum of 12 years and 7 months.

• His compatriot Goolsby will be tried later this year and faces the following charges: two counts of first-degree murder, attempted murder, first-degree burglary, two counts of robbery with a dangerous weapon, three counts of first-degree kidnapping and 9 counts of accessory after the fact.

• Johnson and McCutcheon were supposed to get married the Monday after they were arrested. But, instead, Johnson eventually pleaded guilty to two counts of first-degree murder, attempted murder, two counts of robbery with a dangerous weapon, three counts of first-degree kidnapping and attempted first-degree arson. He was given two consecutive life sentences and a minimum of 189 additional months.

• McCutcheon hanged herself in 2009 while awaiting trial in prison.

“Every time I close my eyes, I see two freaking dead people that somebody shot,” McCutcheon said.

To hear Diane Wiggins tell it, her little brother Scott Wiggins and little sister Christie Jones were spoiled, got away with everything and always caused trouble.

“It’s like they were always into something. I never got away with anything. You two got away with everything, especially Scott,” Diane said, sitting outside a Swain County courtroom with her sister last week.

The trip down memory lane was bittersweet. As they recalled good times from their childhood, they were haunted by the reality of what was playing out behind closed doors of the jury room. Wiggins was murdered, execution style, in a home invasion by thugs from Atlanta three years ago. As the two sisters reminisced, they were waiting for jurors to conclude a three-week trial and return with a verdict for one of the seven defendants allegedly involved in the robbery and shooting. They targeted his home because they believed he sold drugs.

When Scott was young, he threw rocks at his grandpa’s rooster, which retaliated by spurring him below the eye. But, he didn’t learn his lesson and ended up in the hospital after chucking rocks at a hornet’s nest.

Being 20 years his senior, Diane took on a more motherly role. She took her brother to basketball camp and took both her siblings to Disney World.

“I think I was more like a mother, “ Diane said. “I sent him to camp, and I did those sort of things with him.”

But, as he grew older, the relationship evolved into friendship. Diane even helped him build his house. In 1996, Scott built a home on the rural John Henderson Road on property that his father had given him. He asked Diane, who ran a cabinet business at the time, to build the cabinets for his new home and constantly called her for answers and advice.

“He about drove me nuts,” Diane said.

Christie Jones and Scott were only a few years apart and had the typical sibling love-hate relationship. But, when they weren’t fighting, they were thick as thieves. Jones described him as “funny,” “mischievous” and “adventurous.”

SEE ALSO: One night, two murders, three years ago: the untold story

She recalled the times they would cart around the house in their miniature, battery-operated toy cars, one right after the other. And, despite the age difference, their mother used to dress both Jones and Scott alike whenever they were supposed to have their pictures taken.

“We used to be treated like twins,” Jones said. “If one got something, the other got something,” even not so good things like the chicken pox.

Both were still young when their father, Dave Wiggins Jr., served as Swain County Sheriff.

“They grew up in the back of the sheriff’s car,” Diane said.

Scott played basketball and football for Swain County High School before graduating in 1991. He loved NASCAR races, Jimmy Buffett, camping and horseback riding. Scott also had, what some would consider, a rather strange love — vacuum cleaners. In fact, he loved it so much that as a child that his family bought him a vacuum cleaner for Christmas.

Although he wasn’t big on hunting, Scott collected guns, in addition to Native American baskets. In college, he studied criminal justice and radiology.

Scott held down several and varied jobs through out his life. At one point, he worked at Harris Regional Hospital and his father’s company, Wiggins Oil Co. While still working for his father, he began working in the excavation business and flipping houses.

He lived in his personalized home with Heath Compton, 34. The two were in a long-term relationship, said Compton’s mother Linda, Mcburney. However, Compton was planning to move back to Virginia Beach to live with his family.

Similar to Scott, Compton was also outgoing, Diane said. He came to Western North Carolina to work as a whitewater rafting guide and teach skiing and snowboarding lessons at Cataloochee resort. Like Scott, Compton also loved animals. Collectively, they had a couple of Chihuahuas and a number of Labradors. They also shared a love of water. He and Scott would hang out on Fontana Lake in Compton’s houseboat.

Diane chuckled recalling one of Compton’s favorite pastimes — sitting on the couch, snuggled under a blanket, watching the Lifetime Movie Network.

“Scott would get so mad at him” because they usually had other plans, Diane said.


Then everything changed

Jones was on her lunch break from work when she first heard that something might be amiss. A neighbor had picked up correspondence on the police scanner, and her husband Eric wanted to know if he should pick her up from work. Figuring that it was nothing, she declined his offer but called her daddy, the former county sheriff.

He was the one to relay the news — intruders had busted into Scott’s house, stolen items and murdered him and Compton. Jones was in shock, not able to comprehend how or why it happened.

Only adding to the heartache was that fact that she would have to be the one to tell her big sister, Diane, who was working at Lowe’s when she received the call.

“I about passed out,” Diane said, adding that she couldn’t drive she was fraught with emotion.

SEE ALSO: Woman convicted in Swain County Murders

Even now, she will find herself suddenly breaking down while driving, and she cringes anytime she sees a murder on the news, knowing what those families are going through.

“We are scarred,” Diane said, adding she sometimes wakes in the middle of the night.

When Scott was murdered, nearly everything changed — and not just emotionally for the Wiggins family. His dad was forced to shut down the oil business because there was no one to drive the truck and deliver the product to customers. And, Scott’s house was rented. Though, Diane said she considered living there herself.

“I sort of wanted to move in it,” Diane said. “I just feel like I am closer to him there.”

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.

SEE ALSO: One night, two murders, three years ago: the untold story

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.

SEE ALSO: Murder victims' family faces daily struggle to cope

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?"

Misguided goal?

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.

Tired of waiting

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.

Age-old debate

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.

Two roads better than one

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."

Money on the table

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."

Preconceived notions

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 dollars flow down new highway?

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."

A way through the impasse

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.”


Early voting request, take two

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.”

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