While Swain County fights to secure the rest of the $52 million cash settlement its owed by the federal government for the North Shore Road, the $12.8 million already in the bank is generating hundreds of thousands in interest every year.
Since the initial payment of $12.8 million to Swain County in 2010, it has made nearly $1.5 million in interest.
The cash settlement money is held in a trust fund managed by the N.C. Treasury Department. Every year, the state remits a portion of the accumulated interest to the county. The principle itself is safeguarded, and can only be tapped if two-thirds of Swain’s registered voters agree to do so in a special vote, per the terms of the trust fund.
So far, Swain has gotten $150,000 of the interest generated on the account. Even though the actual interest earned on the fund is much higher, some has been reserved as a cushion, intended to safeguard the principle $12.8 million.
Should interest rates take a dive, or even post a lost, the cushion that has been held back should prevent an erosion of that principle sum from dipping below the $12.8 million.
The fund currently stands at just over $14 million, according to the state treasurer’s office. Now that a sizeable cushion has been built up, Swain can expect to see more interest flowing to it each year and less held back. This year, the county could expect as much as $500,000.
How to spend the money is ultimately up to the county commissioners. The current board of commissioners don’t want to merely dump the money into the county’s general budget, but instead want to see it go toward special projects, so the public can see the good the money is doing, according to County Manager Kevin King.
“They didn’t want to see any of the money going to the operational budget because it gets lost in the shuffle,” King said. “We want to be able to identify every penny that goes to every project.”
Likewise, the commissioners are hesitant to use the money for a big-ticket item, like a new school. Dedicating the money to that kind of recurring expense — such as annual debt payments on the same large construction project year in and year out — would tie up the cash settlement interest on a single project for the foreseeable future, King said. Instead, the county is interested in special projects that otherwise would be taxing, if not impossible, for the county to undertake.
So far, the county has spent its cash settlement interest money on public restrooms at a downtown riverside park in Bryson City, a series of historical monuments, a new trash truck and renovation of the historical county courthouse for a museum.
The commissioners have dedicated $50,000 so far for a cultural heritage museum being constructed inside the iconic Swain County courthouse, and have pledged another $100,000 from future interest payments.
The National Park Service is refusing to let go of a $4 million payment Swain County is due as part of the cash settlement over the North Shore Road.
The federal government is supposed to pay Swain County $4 million a year over the next decade — a deal intended to finally compensate the county for a road that was flooded when Fontana Lake was built in the 1940s.
Swain has had little luck getting the government to make good on the pledge, however.
Swain didn’t get the money in 2011 after Congress clamped down on earmarks. This year, the money was supposedly included in the National Park Service’s construction budget by both the President and Congress, but the park service isn’t releasing the money.
“It is currently sitting in the National Park Service’s account,” said Whitney Mitchell, spokesperson for Congressman Heath Shuler, D-Waynesville. “It is unclear why the National Park Service has delayed transferring the $4 million payment out of their budget into the Swain County trust fund.”
The National Park Service claims it doesn’t have proper authorization to make the payment.
Simply including the money in its budget isn’t enough. The park service claims it needs specific authorization — spelling out that $4 million should be handed over to Swain County — included as part of the budget bill that was passed by Congress last December.
“While the funding was included in the final bill, the necessary language was specifically excluded,” said Jeffrey Olson, a spokesperson for the National Park Service in Washington, D.C.
Without that language, it won’t turn over the money, Olson said.
“Everybody agrees the $4 million for Swain County was passed,” said Leonard Winchester, a Swain County resident who has been working on behalf of the cash settlement for years. “Why this money can’t be turned loose because someone at Department of Interior said they didn’t have the proper authorization, I don’t know.”
Shuler’s office, meanwhile, claims the money included in the budget carries clear instructions to be handed over to Swain County.
Olson was unable to address the apparent stalemate, simply reiterating that the park service lacked authorization to release the money.
“That is the end of the question for us,” Olson said. “If a member of Congress says ‘Yes it is,’ and we say, ‘We don’t have it,’ that’s as far as I can take it. It either shows up in the language of the appropriation bill or it is not there.”
Specifically, the money for the cash settlement was included as part of the National Park Service’s construction budget, a total of some $159 million. That’s something even Olson agrees with.
But where he differs is whether the $4 million for the cash settlement needs its own authorization before it can be released.
Olson said everything else in the construction budget carried the necessary authorization. That authorization usually comes in the form of an itemized list of approved construction projects.
“When we have a construction budget, it often includes a list of projects. It is my understanding that list of projects is our authorization,” Olson said.
However, that itemized list doesn’t show up in the appropriation bill passed by Congress in December. The list was left out of the final bill.
“Where it went astray was they didn’t keep the list. It just devolved to a single number,” Winchester said. “Whatever wording the National Park Service thought ought to be there went away, and they ended up with a lump sum number for their construction budget.”
That begs the question: Can the National Park Service not spend any of the $159 million in its construction budget this fiscal year because it too lacks authorization due to the absence of the list? Or is Swain’s cash settlement is being held to a double standard?
Olson said the National Park Service doesn’t need specific authorization for the rest of its construction budget. When it comes to the rest of the $154 million construction budget, the passage of the appropriations bill itself counts as authorization even though the list was left out of the final budget bill, Olson said.
“There is no requirement that this list of construction projects be attached to the appropriations bill Congress passes and the President signs before we proceed with the projects,” Olson said.
But as for the $4 million cash settlement contained in that same construction budget? The park service wants Congress to pass specific language saying its OK to pay it out.
Apparently, even though the money was included in the park service construction budget, the park service isn’t willing to consider the cash settlement as “construction.”
Leonard points out that the cash settlement is a substitute for constructing the road itself, and so in a way, it is kind of construction — since it is “in lieu of” construction.
At one point, there was indeed an itemized park service construction list circulated in budget talks. The cash settlement was allegedly on the list. The list was even referenced in budget committee documents as the “go-to” list for what the National Park Service should spend its construction budget on.
“The amount provided will fully fund the NPS construction projects as prioritized by the Service pursuant to the Administration’s revised request list provided to the Committees on June 24, 2011,” according to a draft version of the National Park Service appropriation bill.
Olson didn’t want to talk about what type of authorization the National Park Service needs at this point to fix the situation.
“Those are conversations that happen between a congressman and the National Park Service,” Olson said. “We are not going to use your newspaper as a way to communicate with Swain County.”
However, that’s exactly the question that has stymied everyone working to secure the cash settlement.
“Somebody, somewhere, has to know if there is something missing, what it is,” Winchester said.
Winchester has followed the labyrinthian appropriations process through Congress. He even flew to D.C. in 2010 along with a delegation from Swain County to meet with Ken Salazar, the Secretary of the Department of the Interior, to remind him of the cash settlement promise.
Winchester said it is disappointing to fight so hard, to see the money included in the budget, but to come up empty-handed.
The cash settlement was intended to resolve a festering decades-old dispute between Swain County and the federal government over a road flooded during the construction of Fontana Lake back in the 1940s. At the time, the government promised to rebuild the road one day, but never did.
Nearly seven decades later, the government instead promised to make good on its broken promise by paying Swain the cash value of the road that was destroyed — a value pegged at $52 million.
The money was supposed to be appropriated by Congress to the tune of $4 million a year until the obligation was settled. But after an initial down payment of $12.8 million in 2010, Swain hasn’t seen a penny since.
The cash settlement was supposed to make right on the long-standing obligation to Swain County citizens. The federal government signed a memorandum of understanding amid great pomp and circumstance in 2010, a ceremony attended by some 200 people at Swain County High School, pledging to reimburse Swain County for the road.
If it’s authorization the park service wants in order to release the $4 million included in this year’s budget, how about that memorandum of understanding, signed by the Secretary of the Department of Interior Ken Salazar, promising to pay it? Winchester said that ought to be good enough.
“Each individual subsequent appropriation does not require a new additional authorization,” Winchester said. “These joint acts by the federal government and by Congress constitute the authorization, recognition, expectation and plan for future payments, if and when they are appropriated.”
Congressman Shuler has been a champion of the cash settlement. He grew up in Swain County and rode his football stardom there and at nearby Tennessee to his congressional seat in Washington.
Shuler had to lobby for the appropriation on two fronts. He worked closely with the Obama Administration to get the $4 million payment included in the National Park Service budget this year, Mitchell said.
He also had to shepherd the line item through Congress to make sure it remained intact during the budget process.
“Rep. Shuler worked closely with House leadership to ensure the $4 million annual payment the President promised and requested as part of the North Shore Road settlement was fully funded in the 2012 Appropriations bill,” Mitchell said.
Shuler is remaining optimistic.
“Rep. Shuler fully expects the National Park Service to fulfill the President’s request and uphold the federal government’s legally-binding obligation to Swain County by making the payment before the end of this year,” Mitchell said.
Mitchell pointed out that the government signed a “legally-binding” memorandum with Swain County.
Even with an ally in Shuler fighting for the cause, the cash settlement seems to have stalled out almost as soon as it was promised. Shuler is now serving his last year in office, however, having announced this winter he would not seek re-election.
Whether Shuler’s successor will fight with the same vigor for the settlement leaves the future of the payments in even greater limbo.
Shuler’s office says he will impress on whoever comes along after him to carry the torch.
“Our office will fully brief the incoming 11th District representative to ensure they have the information and resources they need to follow in Rep. Shuler’s footsteps and continue his leadership and hard-fought efforts on this front,” Mitchell said.
For now, Swain County leaders haven’t gotten actively involved in hunting down the $4 million that allegedly has their name on it somewhere in the National Park Service budget. Instead, they were counting on Shuler to fight that battle for them.
“The money is in the account ready to go but nobody is willing to sign the check,” Swain County Manager Kevin King said, proffering his version of the cash settlement’s status.
But Swain County commissioners might need to start rattling some cages.
“We might have to at some point in the future,” King said.
The so-called “Road to Nowhere” is a source of bitter resentment for the people of Swain County. Before it was flooded, the road traveled for more than 30 miles from Bryson City to Tennessee. The route was dotted with homes, farms, schools, churches, cemeteries and general stores of numerous Appalachian settlements going back generations.
When Fontana dam was built in the 1940s, what wasn’t consumed by the rising water of Fontana Lake was folded into the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Hundreds of people were forced to leave their homes forever.
The federal government promised in writing at the time to rebuild the road, but after pecking away at a dozen or so miles in the 1950s and 1960s, it was abandon due to the exorbitant costs and environmental hurdles of building the remaining 20 or so miles.
It became a symbol of Washington’s failure to keep promises to rural Appalachia. Swain County, after all, had paid to build the road in the first place — and had to keep paying off the construction debt for years after the road didn’t exist anymore.
A deep-seated distrust and disillusionment set in over the intervening decades.
Tee Coker and his company recently learned firsthand something they probably already suspected about creating brands and taglines for towns. Forget about pleasing everyone: it can be an insurmountable challenge to please anyone at all when it comes to developing exactly the right slogan for a community.
“It turned out a tagline wasn’t something Highlands either wanted or needed,” Coker said, perhaps reminded about Coca-Cola and its legendary public-relations disaster with “new Coke.”
Coker and his marketing consultant company, Arnette, Muldrow & Associates, were trying to convince Highlands’ leaders that the town had an upgraded image and needed a new slogan to match. Coker’s masterpiece — “Simply Stunning” — was destined for the same dustbin of history as new Coke, however.
Coker didn’t take the rejection personally, it should be noted. That’s just part of the job when your profession is developing taglines or slogans.
“It’s fun to do this for the most part,” Coker said. “But, it’s certainly challenging.”
Coker said that each community the company works with has its own personalities involved and various motivations at play for developing taglines. That can make reaching consensus difficult.
In Western North Carolina, quite a few communities have adopted a brand and slogan. Maggie Valley is “Can you come out and play?” Franklin is “Discover us.” Macon County is “Enjoy the beauty, discover the life.”
The challenge is coming up with a slogan or motto that highlights a community’s assets and creates an identity to distinguish it from other places. That can be difficult because everyone here, more or less, plays off our mountain locale.
In Haywood County, the tourism agency uses “See yourself in the Smokies.” Neighboring Cherokee is “Meet me in the Smokies.”
In local communities, the task of picking taglines has been taken up by marketing professionals, town officials, residents and wide assortments of tourism-oriented committees.
In Western North Carolina, logos and slogans reflect the heritage, history and image of the region’s towns.
Big cities use big dollars to brand and create taglines. New York is “The city that never sleeps.” Chicago is the “Windy City.” Virginia is for lovers. Las Vegas is “What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas.” Austin is “Keep Austin weird.”
But, branding and taglines are not just for the big cities of the world. When any city, county or state adopts a tagline, slogan or motto, it’s pitching that destination as a place to visit, live or work.
“We wanted something understated and unique to Highlands,” said Ron Shaffner, design committee chairman for the Highlands Small Town Main Street Program. “‘Simply Stunning’ sounded like something that relates to weddings or diamonds — and that’s not Highlands. We felt ‘Simply Stunning’ might become ‘Simply Cliché’ after 10 years or so.”
Arnette, Muldrow & Associates led a series of roundtables in Highlands during two days in February. While the “Simply Stunning” slogan is a no-go, the design committee has pretty much settled on a suitably understated logo: an image of a tree simply baring the town’s name, “Highlands, North Carolina.”
“It turns out Highlands doesn’t really have to market itself aggressively so it isn’t that shocking that they don’t want a tagline. Highlands is a special case in many ways — there’s not really any other analogous communities in the Southeast,” Coker said.
The logo is simple and small enough to fit on a lapel pin or to go on letterheads or even on the sides of town vehicles.
The town might use its elevation — 4,118 feet — in branding efforts too, he said. The Highlands Chamber of Commerce already capitalizes on that claim to fame as the basis for its distinguishing slogan “Above it all.”
“The tough thing about it is trying to make a tagline that is all things to all people,” said Matt Pegg, executive director of the Cherokee Chamber of Commerce.
Cherokee, as much as any community in WNC, is in transition. For decades the Cherokee Indian Reservation marketed itself as a family destination for cultural events. That’s still true, but now you also have Harrah’s Cherokee Casino and Resort and such specialty niches as trout fishing on the Oconaluftee River.
Pegg said a good slogan must reflect the myriad nature of the offerings in a community such as Cherokee but not be so generic as to be useless.
“And there’s probably not another place you can go from the National Park to all the glitz and glamour of what will be at Harrah’s,” Pegg said, referring to the casino expansion and the new casino entrance under construction. Known as the rotunda, the new entrance that will feature shining five-story trees made of colored glass, with a 75-foot waterfall cascading down the middle and a 140-foot screen wrapping around the walls where choreographed light and surround-sound shows will be projected.
Pegg said committees and marketing professionals helped develop Cherokee’s taglines, including the currently in use “Meet me in the Smokies.”
“If it’s something we can do we try to do it internally, but we’ll certainly bring in groups to help, too,” Pegg said.
Until recently, neighboring Swain County like Cherokee played off of its position next to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. For several years, Bryson City used “base camp for adventure.” After reviewing visitor demographics, the town opted to change course, however.
Karen Wilmot, executive director of the Swain County Chamber of Commerce, said that it turned out the most important decision maker when it comes to trips to Swain County is actually 40-year-old women. The “base camp for adventure” was deemed too extreme to attract a wide cross section of visitors, particularly that imaginary 40-year-old woman.
“We do get a lot of younger folks, but we didn’t want to scare off that other demographic by saying we’re too extreme,” Wilmot said, saying she didn’t think most 40-year-old women were looking for freestyle kayaking events or to mountain bike at Tsali Recreation Area, two well known Swain County-based sports possibilities.
“We wanted to think about that armchair adventurer, too,” Wilmot said, saying the tourism agency wanted to include gentler outdoor adventuring such as walking up Deep Creek to see the waterfalls.
In the end, the tagline chosen was open ended: “My Bryson City is …. (you fill in the blank).” The message, and the photo accompanying it, changes according to the publication viewers being targeted — “My Bryson City is dazzling” might accompany an advertisement highlighting autumn color. “My Bryson City is the Dragon” could accompany a photo of a motorcyclist targeting a riding audience.
“It is an easily manipulated yet consistent message,” Wilmot said, adding that an advertising firm helped develop Bryson City’s changing tagline.
“We were all sort of thinking the same things, and we knocked ideas around in a creative meeting then took a couple ideas to the board,” she said.
Bryson City is also an example of how difficult it can be to rid yourself of an old tagline you might have outgrown. For years the town went by “unhurried, unspoiled and uncommon,” and in fact, there’s still a sign on old U.S. 19 coming into town boasting this fact. Brad Walker, a former town mayor who’s long been involved in the hotel business in WNC, said that particular tagline of “unhurried, unspoiled and uncommon” was developed by the tourism agency in Swain County some 10 or 15 years ago.
“We were trying to figure out what the town is. And we decided the biggest thing we are is that we are in the Smokies, and we are the opposite of Gatlinburg,” Walker said.
So “unhurried, unspoiled and uncommon” really meant not Gatlinburg, Walker said.
Asheville, formerly “Altitude affects attitude,” has also undergone a change that reflects the city’s transition and newest image as a center of all-things-hip. Asheville is now “Any way you like it.”
Taglines and identities can be funny things. Some communities — in this case, Bryson City once again — can be downright protective of them. Bryson City recently took issue to the wording on a public art piece being installed on Main Street in Waynesville.
Donations are helping erect a replica of a historic arch that once spanned Waynesville’s main street, proclaiming the town as the “Eastern Entrance to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.”
That wording was too long for the artistic replica, however, so instead it will bear the words “Gateway to the Smokies.”
Not long after news stories ran about the arch, Waynesville Town Manager Lee Galloway received a phone call from Bryson City Town Manager Lee Callicutt regarding the wording on the arch. It was a slogan that Bryson City has used on its seal and police department badges for decades.
Callicutt had been directed to pass the concern of the Town of Bryson City onto Waynesville. The concern was duly noted but nothing came out of it.
Advertising agencies and companies can spend a fortune writing the right tagline. Small towns don’t have that kind of money. So sometimes they simply borrow.
Macon County’s current tagline, “Enjoy the beauty, discover the life” is a tweaked version of one a small business there was using, said Linda Harbuck, longtime executive director of the Franklin Area Chamber of Commerce.
Committees are used in Macon County to decide on taglines, saving on dollars and tapping local talent when it comes to defining the exact image to project. Harbuck said that community has had a number of different taglines during the years. The longest running one was “gem capitol of the world,” a play off of the large number of gem mining operations in Macon County. Macon County also has used “Mountain treasures, simple pleasures.”
“We don’t have any scientific ways of coming up with them,” Harbuck said. “A lot of things have just come from us sitting around the table talking.”
That’s been true in Maggie Valley, too, said Teresa Smith, executive director of the chamber of commerce there.
“We’ve used several recently,” she said. “We are trying to play off the park and being in the great outdoors.”
Maggie Valley uses a marketing committee to come up with choices. During the past several years, the town has used “Maggie’s calling.” Last year, they used “Far enough away yet close enough to play.” This year, it was tweaked to “Can you come out and play?”
Smith said it is indeed difficult to come up with taglines that make all those involved happy. Maggie Valley tourism leaders hold several meetings a year to do just that, usually working around a theme to help define the image Maggie Valley wants to project.
Jackson County recently has scaled down its slogan to focus on a single image it wants to project: mountains. The Jackson County Chamber of Commerce recently has been just using “N.C. Mountains.” It has also used “Mountain lovers love Jackson County” during the past few years, and previously used “A change of altitude,” said Julie Spiro, executive director of the chamber of commerce.
Betty Huskins, a longtime marketing expert with Ridgetop Associates, makes a clear distinction between brands and taglines. A brand, Huskins said, “is who you are in other people’s minds. A lot of people feel they’ve developed a brand when they’ve gotten a slogan or tagline, but you can’t just choose that.”
You can’t, in other words, choose the perception people have of you simply by picking a catchy slogan.
Huskins said ideally in marketing “you have to see who you are and build what you want to be.”
Huskins said the best taglines, as she was taught and still believes, should be no more than three words (think Highlands’ “Above it all.”)
A tagline, she said, should ultimately define “who you are and what you do.”
Lynn Collins, executive director of the Haywood County Tourism Development Authority, said a tagline has to generate an emotional response.
“You may think it is wonderful, but if people don’t respond to it, it doesn’t do much good,” she said. “If you have a really good slogan they know where you are talking about. It needs to appeal to people on an emotional level.”
The Haywood County Tourism Development Authority is currently using “See yourself in the Smokies.” The previously used tagline, “where the sun rises on the Smokies,” is still used too on logos, Collins said.
A few years ago, Haywood County made the tagline switch to “See yourself in the Smokies” on advertising to try to get prospective visitors to picture themselves doing such activities as skiing or hiking.
“We did it to get people to put themselves in that photo and imagine doing those activities,” Collins said. “It’s just another format of using the Smokies and to evoke that emotional response.”
Like Huskins, Collins makes a distinction between branding and taglines. Haywood County’s brand, she said, “is our natural scenic beauty.” The slogan is to try to get people to come and participate in that great scenic beauty in Haywood County.
Bryson City: My Bryson City is ___
Canton: Where the mountains kiss the sky
Cashiers: Nature’s design for enjoyment
Cherokee: Meet me in the Smokies
Franklin: Discover us
Haywood County: See yourself in the Smokies
Highlands: Above it all
Maggie Valley: Can you come out and play?
Macon County: Enjoy the beauty, discover the life
Tim Cain has a bird’s eye view of Swain County’s real estate market, and from where he sits, the news looks good.
Cain was hired to oversee the countywide appraisal of every home, lot and tract of land in Swain County, a periodic exercise used to determine property taxes. His firm, the Raleigh-based Assessment Solutions, has visited more than 85 percent of the properties in Swain County during the past nine months. His expert assessment: property values in the county have bottomed out and are now on the rise.
“There has been a leveling off, and I am really excited to see what happens this spring,” Cain said. “It appears that they (property values) have stopped falling.”
Although the numbers are nowhere near those shown in the 2009 revaluation, property values are close to pre-recession numbers recorded during the 2005 reval — a positive sign considering the plunge the market took during the past few years.
“It has picked up, and we are feeling optimistic that is will continue,” said Kelly Stribling, president of the North Jackson County Board of Realtors, a local board that includes Swain County. “(But) It is certainly not like it was.”
Homeowners are slowly starting to buy and sell property, though many must still reduce their asking price if they want anyone to bite.
“There is a slight decrease in pricing,” Stribling said. “Some homeowners and sellers if they really want to move the property, they drop the price.”
But, people are still willing to pay a good price for a nice home, she added.
Cain agreed, saying that a nice chalet near the picturesque Nantahala Gorge or Fontana Lake will likely see an increase in value since the last approved revaluation in 2005. Meanwhile, homes in Bryson City seem to have remained steady when compared to the 2005 reval.
“If you’ve got a house in Bryson City, we really haven’t changed much,” Cain said. “The numbers that we are seeing now closely mirror the numbers we saw in 2005.”
Commercial lots will likely see an increase overall, while vacant lots, which were once destined to become subdivisions, will still lose some value.
“You’ve got a lot of subdivisions; they’ve got the infrastructure in place; (and) they are just sitting there,” Cain said.
People had bought, what were then, choice pieces of property at a premium and made plans for development. Then, the housing bubble burst, and the properties have since sat vacant, waiting.
“People are waiting out the economy,” Cain said. “They were demanding top dollar for their lots. And today, you’ve got developments that have gone bust.”
The last few years have been “a scary time” for people who need or want to sell property, Cain said.
Property owners’ hesitancy to put their lot on the market, and people’s reservations about buying have made it more difficult revaluate parcels, a process which is based partially on the sale price of adjoining properties.
Realtors and property assessors are seeing only about one-third of the transactions that they saw five years ago, Cain said.
Each property revaluation is specifically tailored to an individual county and even a specific part of the county.
“There is a specific reason that people go to Swain County,” Cain said. “It is a distinct place.”
The market value is determined by how much the property has depreciated, how much nearby properties sold for and how any improvements affect the property’s worth. A homeowner may spend $10,000 adding an in-ground pool, but the addition is essentially worthless unless it is deemed a valued amenity by homebuyers. The same is true for a $40,000 kitchen renovation. It is only as valuable as buyers in Swain County believe it to be.
Swain County commissioners seem to have made the right decision when they decided to throw out the results of its countywide property revaluation in 2009 and call for a do-over.
The 2009 revaluation captured a snapshot of Swain County real estate values during the height of a market boom — and before everything went bust.
It takes about two years to appraise every home, lot and tract of land in the county, so that 2009 appraisal largely drew on 2007 values, when the market was still hopping.
Since someone’s property value dictates how much they pay in taxes, a bunk appraisal based on no longer valid real estate values would have skewed what people legitimately should have paid in taxes.
So commissioner tossed out the results and decided to try again in a few years. That time is now here, and the appraiser leading the process said commissioners made the right call to hold off.
The 2009 reval that was tossed out would have posted a 30 percent increase to property values on average since 2005.
The do-over of the reval underway now shows instead of increasing, values are pretty much on par with where they were in 2005.
“The numbers are significantly lower than they would have been during that (2009) revaluation,” said Tim Cain, president of the Raleigh-based Assessment Solutions.
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 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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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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.”