Cherokee stands together to cope with loss of fallen trooperWritten by Bibeka Shrestha
Charlotte Littlejohn has spent much of her morning in a bustling kitchen preparing traditional frybread. Next to her, Donavon Crowe is stirring an enormous pot of chili. Crowe says he’s probably made six gallons of it already.
Littlejohn and Crowe are surrounded by a dozen others, some jotting down orders, others rushing out for delivery. All are donating their time for a cause that is both atypical and close to their hearts.
Money raised from the Indian tacos, chili, frybread and drinks sold will help the Blanton family afford the cost of attending the first-degree murder trial of Edwardo Wong two-and-a-half hours away in Newton, a proceeding that could take two months. The trial was moved outside the region for fear it would be impossible to find unbiased local jurors.
Wong faces the death penalty for shooting and killing state Trooper Shawn Blanton two summers ago. Blanton had pulled over Wong for a routine traffic violation on a stretch of Interstate 40 outside Canton.
Blanton died that night at Asheville’s Mission Hospital — the same hospital where his newborn son, Tye, was being treated. Little Tye had been born premature and died from medical complications just four months after his father.
The unthinkable tragedy left a mark on the Cherokee community then and continues to move the tribe today.
“It’s been a harsh two-and-a-half years,” said Anthony Sequoyah, a close friend of the Blanton family. “You still see people with T-shirts, stickers on their cars. People are always asking, ‘What we can do?’”
“I think the loss for everyone here is as fresh as the first day it happened,” said Nikki Bradley Nations, Shawn’s grandmother. “It takes a tribe to raise a child, and a tribe has lost a child.”
With Shawn Blanton’s death, the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians lost its first enrolled member to earn the title of North Carolina state trooper. Community members now wear T-shirts with his trooper ID, G-540, to acknowledge his achievement.
“Everyone wears them because we’re proud,” said Nations. “We just want him to know we’re proud.”
On Friday, about 65 people had signed up in advance for the fundraiser lunch. More showed up spontaneously, handing over $10 donations for the $6 meal.
“The community recognizes that this family has gone through — trauma none of us want to go through in our lifetime,” said Principal Chief Michell Hicks.
Watching gavel to gavel
Two years ago, Sequoyah was forced to make the painful call to Shawn’s father, Dave Blanton, to tell him his son had been shot.
“I told him he was shot in the shoulder, and everything was going to be fine,” said Sequoyah.
It wasn’t until the frantic ride to Asheville that the two learned the injury was far more serious.
Sequoyah himself was so devastated from Shawn’s death that he took a month off from his job at Cherokee EMS, where Dave also works.
“Shawn was probably the closest thing to a brother that I’ve had. I’m a single child,” said Sequoyah. “Dave is the next best thing to my father.”
Sequoyah has been at the Blantons’ side in Newton this month as jurors are selected for the emotionally draining trial.
“It’s hard to sit there,” Sequoyah said. “It’s hard knowing what’s going through Dave’s mind.”
So far, Sequoyah and many others have been infuriated by what they see as a blatant attempt by Wong to delay the trial. Wong has demanded new lawyers and recently a new judge.
“After a while, it just seems like a bunch of stunts,” said Crowe, a distant cousin of the Blanton family.
“It’s not fair. He makes it look like he has all the power,” said Robin Swayney, manager of the Qualla Boundary Library. “It makes me angry. He did something despicable and horrible.”
Swayney says it seems as if Wong is desperately grasping for anything he can to push back the inevitable.
“To me, it’s like a waste of time,” Swayney said.
“And resources,” added Yona Wade, director of the Cherokee Cultural Arts Center.
Jenny Bean, who volunteered at Friday’s benefit, said it’s unfair that Wong has all his expenses taken care of while the community has to scrape together money to allow the Blantons to attend his trial.
Others take issue with Wong’s general disposition during the hearings.
“He’s emotionless,” said Sequoyah. “When he talks, he talks with a smart attitude.”
“It’s like he doesn’t care,” said Littlejohn. “I’m angry, and I think a lot of people feel hurt.”
With the death penalty as a very real possibility for Wong, Nations isn’t surprised by the legal maneuvering, however.
“If I was fighting for my life, I would try to delay it as much as I could,” said Nations. “I understand that.”
Life or death?
Whether Wong will be handed down a death sentence — and whether it is deserved — is in the forefront of most people’s minds in Cherokee.
“People feel very strongly,” said Nancy Pheasant, a paramedic at Cherokee EMS. “Everyone you talk to has their own opinion on how the outcome for the trial should be.”
Some of the Blanton’s closest friends say Wong more than deserves to die.
“I know his defense attorneys are trying to keep it from being a death penalty case,” Pheasant said. “That’s exactly what it needs to be.”
With two years passing by since the murder and still no resolution, Littlejohn hopes justice will prevail in the end. She, too, is in favor of the death penalty for Wong.
“On Shawn’s part, he didn’t get the option [to live],” said Littlejohn. “He didn’t have any options there.”
Sweyney wasn’t so sure that the death penalty would be the best answer for Wong, though.
“Seems like the easy way out to me,” said Sweyney.
As for Nations and her family, they just want to see the trial come to a prompt end. The legal process has already reopened wounds that were just beginning to heal two years after Blanton’s death.
A camera mounted in the dashboard of Blanton’s patrol car captured audio of the shooting. Blanton can be heard moaning and pleading for his life. When the recording was played in open court, deputies had to restrain Blanton’s father from leaping out of his seat toward Wong.
“We know there has to be a trial,” said Nations. “Mr. Wong deserves a fair trial, I reckon. We just want to go on and have Shawn in our hearts and memories and laugh about him … We want to get on with our lives.”
Tribe members say the family can get closure only after the trial is settled. Tribal officials, including Hicks, plan to make the drive to Newton to attend part of the trial.
“This issue does need to come to an end,” said Hicks. “The sooner the better.”
Lynne Harlan, spokeswoman for the tribe, said the trial might help the family move on, but what was done to Shawn Blanton will remain etched in the tribe’s permanent memory.
“It will be the end of putting salt on that wound, but that wound still does not heal,” said Harlan. “This is part of our history that we won’t forget.”
Nations looks forward to the day she won’t have to see Wong on TV, in newspapers or in person. Faith has sustained her in the aftermath of Shawn’s murder, and it is what continues gives her peace today.
“Mr. Wong is in the hands of a gracious, merciful and — don’t forget — he is a just God,” Nations said.
Happier memories of Shawn Blanton live on despite the cruel circumstances of his death.
Pheasant remembers him always smiling, always laughing, always making somebody’s day.
“You could just be having the worst day of your life. He would just come up and give you a hug,” said Pheasant. “Dave’s the same way. You can hear Dave’s laugh from a mile away.”
Nations remembers how Shawn and her other grandchildren would come straight to her house each day after school. One of Shawn’s younger cousins would constantly try to beat him at wrestling — unsuccessfully, of course. And every summer, they would take camping trips together.
“Shawn was always adventurous,” said Nations.
He was also an avid softball fan. Blanton coached a girls’ team at Smoky Mountain High School in Sylva, where a new indoor training facility for baseball and softball will be named after him. The Shawn Blanton Scholarship Fund continues to assist girls who play softball.
The N.C. Department of Transportation recently dedicated a bridge at Exit 31 of I-40 to Trooper Shawn Blanton. Thousands of friends and strangers alike have joined a Facebook group dedicated to him, posting messages of support and consolation to the family.
“He’s an unforgotten hero killed in the line of duty,” said Hicks. “Shawn will never be forgotten.”
Crowe said losing someone who always made a positive impact on the community has been tough.
“He was such an outstanding Cherokee man,” said Sarah Sneed, a resident of Birdtown. “He was a contribution from our people to the state of North Carolina.”
The tribe continues to show an outpouring of support years later, whether it’s the fundraisers like the one held on Friday, or the recent motorcycle memorial ride to fund Blanton’s softball scholarship.
“His memory is alive in those works that we do,” said Harlan. “We keep his life and his work going … not just for sentimental reasons, but also practical reasons.”
Still, Nations says not many days go by that she doesn’t miss Blanton. Once a week, she has a quiet breakdown that nobody knows about.
But the family continues to grow. One of Dave Blanton’s nieces recently gave birth to triplets. With the family’s permission, Sequoyah decided to name his five-month-old “Shawn” in honor of Trooper Blanton.
As the Blanton family prepares for one of the most difficult trials of their lives, the tribe seems to stand behind them in spirit.
“It’s shown what we do best. That is, to unite as a tribe, as a community,” said Wade. “Something we do culturally that’s in our blood.”