Monday, December 19, 2011

Nearly a third of Americans are arrested by age 23

A UNC Charlotte criminologist is getting national buzz this morning for a new study he led showing nearly a third of all Americans have been arrested by age 23. The study, out today in the journal Pediatrics, is also summarized today by the New York Times in this story.

The study, by UNCC criminal justice professor Robert Brame, shows a significantly higher arrest rate than in 1965, when a similar study was done. It leaves several key questions unanswered, however, including the impact of racial or regional differences. Still, interesting findings.

Why do you think the arrest rates for young adults might be rising?

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Officer charged with assault has lengthy suspension record

Officer David Estele Jones III had been suspended five times since he was hired on Sept. 27, 2000.

Earlier today, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police responded to a freedom of information request for the public parts of Jones' employment record.

Jones is accused of slamming Richard McVicker to the ground after a traffic collision involving the officer's mother. The Observer has reported previously that Jones faced a hefty six-week suspension (240 hours) for an undisclosed incident that happened on March 25, 2010.

The suspension record, which is public information, shows the date and severity of each suspension, but it doesn't detail why Jones was punished, or if he had been accused of violent acts in the past.

In addition to the six-week suspension, Jones was also suspended without pay for a week (40 hours) on August 5, 2004. In February, 2006, he was given a probation-like suspension for one day, which would not be activated unless he got into trouble with the department again. That suspension was activated six months later when he appears to have had another departmental infraction.

During two of his suspensions, Jones was required to undergo some type of counseling. --Cleve R. Wootson Jr.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Officer charged with assault had been suspended for 6 weeks

We know that Officer David Estele Jones III was given a hefty suspension in April 2010. What we don’t know is why.

Jones is the officer accused of slamming Richard McVicker to the ground after a traffic collision involving the officer’s mother. Jones first court appearance was today in court, but his lawyer, George Laughrun, showed up on his behalf.

McVicker, who said he had "a few beers" before the collision and was charged with driving while impaired, told me yesterday that Jones’ mother took his license when he asked if she was OK following the collision.

McVicker says he rapped on the woman’s window, trying to get it back. Jones’ lawyer used the word “banged.”

Earlier today, we reported that Jones had been suspended by the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police department three times since he’d been hired a decade ago. We got the information via a public records request.

About a year ago, the Charlotte Observer requested detailed information about suspensions from the city and the police department. A new state law had made public for the first time information about a public employee’s suspensions, demotions, and dismissals.

The list we received from the city had hundreds of suspensions on them, most for small amounts of time. But a few officers, like Jones, had multiple suspensions or suspensions of a week or more.

Gov. Bev Perdue has said the personnel law – which was passed as part of a series of ethics reforms – was designed to increase accountability in government.

But in this case, it appears to have provided more questions than answers, as readers have asked the same question – why was Jones suspended?

We’ve asked city and police officials for more information on Jones’ suspensions. We’ll share their response when we get it.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Police seeing more protests in Charlotte

City leaders expect droves of protesters to descend on the Queen City when the Democratic National Convention hits Charlotte next September, but police say they've already seen an increased number of sign-bearing malcontents.

Police Chief Rodney Monroe told the Observer the city is "seeing a demonstration every other day." He spoke to reporters at the unveiling of a new mobile crime scene unit on Tuesday.

Occupy Charlotte protesters remain camped out in front of the old city hall building, which is located across the street from police headquarters. Someone has put metal barricades around the fallen officer's memorial, apparently to keep protesters from disturbing it.

On November 16, eight protesters were arrested after climbing the flag pole in front of Bank of America headquarters on Tryon Street and unfurling a sign that said "Not with our money." Monroe said that group is from California and "they brought their whole network here."

A few moments after Monroe spoke, a half dozen protesters -- including a child sitting on a man's shoulders holding a cardboard sign that had been scribbled on with purple crayon -- began walking up Trade Street, toward the Square, chanting slogans. -- Cleve R. Wootson Jr.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Murder case involving teen highlights juvenile system's process

It's not often that a juvenile delinquency hearing receives widespread attention, but on Monday, local eyes will be on the Mecklenburg courtroom where a 15-year-old accused of killing his father and stepmother will learn whether he'll be prosecuted as an adult.
During a recent seminar for local court and media representatives, Chief District Court Judge Lisa Bell led a discussion about the juvenile court system, which differs significantly from adult court in its procedures.
The laws that govern juvenile hearings are outlined in the N.C. General Statutes in Chapter 7B, which is known as the “Juvenile Code.”
The seminar came a month after a 15-year-old called 911 and said he’d shot his father and stepmother, police said. When officers arrived at the teen’s southwest Mecklenburg home, they found 43-year-old Christian Hans Liewald, and his 24-year-old wife, Cassie Meghan Buckaloo, dead. The teen now faces two counts of first-degree murder.
If someone younger than age 16 is accused of a crime, he is sent to juvenile court. But if he is accused of a felony and is at least 13 years old, he’s eligible to be tried as an adult, according to law.
Some differences between juvenile and adult courts are as simple as the legal terminology used. For example, juveniles are “adjudicated delinquent” when they’re found guilty of a crime rather than “convicted.”
But cases that begin in juvenile court don’t necessarily end there.
Prosecution as an adult or juvenile?
The teen accused of killing his father and stepmother is scheduled to appear in juvenile court Monday for a probable cause hearing, where prosecutors will try to convince a judge that there is probable cause the teen committed the crimes and that the killings were first-degree murders. If the judge agrees, the case will automatically be transferred to Superior Court, and the teen will be prosecuted as an adult.
But if the judge finds that the evidence presented supports lesser charges of second-degree murder or manslaughter, the judge will decide whether he should be prosecuted as a juvenile or an adult.
If prosecuted as an adult, the teen could spend the rest of his life in prison.
He isn’t eligible for the death penalty. In 2005, the Supreme Court ruled that it’s unconstitutional to impose the death penalty on someone who committed a capital offense when he was younger than 18.
In a previous Mecklenburg juvenile court hearing, prosecutors have said Liewald and Buckaloo were killed in an “ambush attack” in which the teen planned to kill his father so he could run away to Mexico. But the teen’s attorney has said he is a battered child who experienced physical abuse since infancy.
The teen has been in a juvenile detention facility since he was taken into custody. No bail or bond is set in juvenile cases, but detention hearings are typically held every 10 days when a juvenile is being held in custody. If the case is transferred to adult court, then a bond will be set.
Open or closed hearings?
Another legal issue that has arisen in the case is that of openness.
At the teen’s first court appearance in September, his attorney made a motion to close the courtroom to everyone but family, arguing that making the case public could affect the teen's mental health and damage his reputation and future.
Although the courts take precautions to protect the confidentiality of juveniles, delinquency cases are presumed open to the public.
To close a juvenile delinquency hearing, the court must evaluate the circumstances of the case and find “good cause” for the closure, according to state law.
The five factors examined are:
1) The nature of the allegations against the juvenile. (Is the child accused of a misdemeanor or a serious offense, such as murder?)
2) The juvenile’s age and maturity. (Is the juvenile a 9-year-old or a 15-year-old? Does the child have a developmental disability?)
3) The benefit to the juvenile of confidentiality. (How could an open hearing affect the juvenile now or in the future?)
4) The benefit to the public of an open hearing.
5) The extent to which an open hearing will compromise the confidentiality of the juvenile’s file. (Are private medical or mental health records likely to be revealed?)
State law prohibits authorities from disclosing the juvenile’s identity. But that law does not apply to the media. Although the name of teen accused of killing Liewald and Buckaloo has been widely reported, police have not publicly identified him. The Observer has not named him because the case remains in juvenile court.
Media representatives objected to the motion to close the hearing, and Observer attorney Jon Buchan addressed the court. He pointed out that the accused teen is 15, not far from the age at which he’d be tried as an adult.
A judge denied the motion to close the hearing, saying that the teen is facing serious charges and that his confidentiality is no longer an issue because of widespread media coverage.
The teen's attorney or prosecutors could ask for future hearings in juvenile court to be closed.
Check the Charlotte Observer on Monday for updates from the hearing.
--Meghan Cooke

Friday, September 16, 2011

Read District Attorney's statement on guilty plea

District Attorney Jay Gaither spoke to the press immediately following Elisa Baker's guilty plea.

Baker, 43, was sentenced to 15 to 18 years in prison after pleading guilty to second-degree murder in the death of her stepdaughter Zahra Baker. Elisa Baker also pled guilty to obstruction of justice, bigamy, four counts of obtaining property through false pretenses, and two counts of identity fraud.

Talking to the media, Gaither recounted how his investigative team handled the case. He read a statement documenting some of his thought process and the work of his team starting from Oct. 9 when Zahra was reported missing up to the decision to enter into a plea agreement with defense attorneys.

Read the full statement here.

"On Sunday, October 24th I met with defense counsel to determine under what terms Elisa Baker was willing to give cooperation and to determine exactly what information she professed to have.   When I learned that Elisa Baker could give us the location of Zahra Baker’s remains and that she could give us details of how Zahra died, my heart sank.  Throughout the search I had been of the same opinion as Chief Adkins… that we were investigating a homicide.  But along with the community and law enforcement, I had continued to hold out hope that Zahra was still alive."

-- District Attorney Jay Gaither

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Video: "Beyond Scared Straight" comes to Mecklenburg jail

Tonight, the Mecklenburg County Sheriff's juvenile crime intervention program will take the national spotlight with the season premiere of "Beyond Scared Straight" on A&E.

The TV series will highlight the county's Reality Program, which gives at-risk youth a glimpse of what it's like in Mecklenburg jail.

For a sneak peak, click here to watch a clip from the episode. The video shows the jail's Direct Action Response Team (DART), which is trained to remove unruly inmates from their cells.

To read more about the program and the show, click here.

The episode, which was filmed at Mecklenburg jail in June, airs at 10 p.m.

-Meghan Cooke

An inmate intimidates 15-year-old Jeiza during the Reality Program at the Mecklenburg jail. At right, in the red jail uniform, is Sabrina Ann Black, a 26-year-old awaiting trial on a murder charge. Photo courtesy of Arnold Shapiro Productions.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Man acquitted of murder says police, DA 'ruined' his life

Michael Mead, acquitted of murder in the death of his pregnant fiancee, released a statement last week thanking jurors and his attorneys. And he blamed the Gaston County Police and district attorney's office for ruining his life.

"In my opinion, they have purposely ignored facts, manipulated the media, and mishandled evidence that would have exonerated me from the beginning," he wrote. "They spent their resources trying to make a case against me rather than trying to solve the murder of Lucy and my unborn child.  This type of prosecutorial 'tunnel vision' is outrageous." 

Mead was accused of shooting Lucy Johnson in the back of the head and burning her Gaston County home on July 16, 2008. Mead could have faced the death penalty, but a Mecklenburg jury found him not guilty of murdering his pregnant fiancée.

In his statement, Mead states that he believes James Spelock is responsible for Johnson’s death. In open court, Mead’s attorney’s repeatedly said Spelock had the motive to kill Johnson and should have been on trial instead of Mead.

Johnson and Spelock were in the midst of a custody battle when Johnson was killed. Defense attorneys said Spelock abused Johnson in the past, and that Johnson had accused Spelock of cross-dressing. The Observer has tried to reach Spelock on several occasions and he has not returned calls.

Here is his full - unedited - statement:

I would like to personally thank the 15 jurors who rendered a just and fair verdict.  Thank you for the time, dedication and hard work they put in for the past 7 weeks.  The jury unanimously voted to acquit.  I have never waivered in my claim that I was innocent and I have feel vindicated by verdict.  The jury was comprised of a variety of people from the community.  Many jurors were college educated and some have gone on to earn Masters Degrees and higher.  Even the alternates would have voted not guilty and I think that speaks volumes.  After the verdict was read, I was able to thank the members of the jury and I did, personally.  Again I thank them all for giving an innocent man his life back.

I want to thank my lawyers Lisa Andrew Dubs and Jason White and my investigator, Captain Steve Ehlers, for believing in my case and me.  Ms. Dubs did not have to take this case.  I will never be able to thank them enough. There will never be enough adjectives to describe how I feel about them.  They have my gratitude for life, because they have saved my life.  I am truly speechless when I try and describe what they mean to me.  In my opinion one of Lisa’s peers should nominate her for 2011 Lawyer of The Year. She would certainly have my vote.  Without fearless attorneys the scales of justice would be on-sided.  They are all three lifelong friends now, and I owe them my life and future forever. My parents also wanted to thank them all for their hard work, time, dedication, and devotion to this case for 19 months.

Not a day passes that I don’t miss Lucy.  Lucy represented one of the happiest times in my life.  It was amazing to be with her.  She loved life.  She was a wonderful mother and I was always impressed with how she interacted with her children, Lauren and Caison.  Lucy was outspoken and she loved to laugh.  We both loved music and we rarely watched TV; however, we did enjoy reruns of “I Love Lucy”.   With all I have been through, I have never regretted the time I was lucky enough to share with Lucy.  She will always be in my heart, until the day I die.  I would endure all that I have been through again if I could hold her one last time. She was happy and content in our relationship.  She had finally found someone who was stable, reliable, and dependable.  She often compared me to her father in that way.  I loved playing with Caison and Lauren.  I think of them both often, and I miss them.  I know Lucy is watching over them.  She treated Christian, my son, as if he was her own, and he too loved her.  My immediate family accepted Lucy, Caison and Lauren into our family with open arms.  My family also mourns the loss of Lucy and the baby. 

Michelle Dye, Lucy’s biological mother, was not a part of Lucy’s life while we were together.  Lucy told me her mother hadn’t been in Lucy’s life since she was 15.  Often, Lucy refused to speak about her mother and their troubled relationship.  To this day I cannot understand why Michelle Dye has behaved in the way she has.  She has done everything in her power to seek the spotlight and spread misinformation about the facts of this case.  She has attacked me personally many times in the media and on the Internet.  Even given the way she has acted, and her strained relationship with Lucy, she is still a grieving mother who has lost a daughter.  I will pray that she is able to come to terms with her behavior and find some peace in her life.

The Gaston County Police Department and District Attorney’s Office have ruined my life.  They have done many things in this case that are unacceptable.  Not only were they negligent in how they have handled this investigation; but, in my opinion, they have purposely ignored facts, manipulated the media, and mishandled evidence that would have exonerated me from the beginning.  They spent their resources trying to make a case against me rather than trying to solve the murder of Lucy and my unborn child.  This type of prosecutorial “tunnel vision” is outrageous.  It is the third largest reason innocent people end up in prison according to the NC Innocence Project.  It is only through having endured what I have that I fully understand how horrifying that fact is.  You can’t imagine what it’s like to be crucified daily for someone else’s crimes, to face the possibility of being put to death.  The stress and pressure was monumentality hard on me, my son Christian and my immediate family.

At my bond hearing, Locke Bell made statements about facts and evidence I have never seen.  He indicated the State had evidence that was never produced.  I believe he misled the Court and Grand Jury.  William Stetzer told outright lies at my bond hearing in an attempt to keep me falsely incarcerated.  I am surprised Mr. Bell did not appear once at the trial.  After all of his statements about me, in Court and out, I find it odd he did not prosecute me.  I do not believe he felt strongly about my guilt, despite his public statements to the contrary.  I believe he knew they had arrested the wrong man and did not want to be associated with this trial.  Mr. Bell has legal, moral, and ethical obligations to seek out exculpatory information, that I believe he purposefully ignored.  

Detective Bloom and Eddie Meeks presented a convicted child rapist, Randy Waterson, as a witness against me.  I believe they did so knowing Mr. Waterson was lying and perjuring himself.  Randy Waterson was convicted of raping a 6-year-old girl eight times while holding her mother at gunpoint. While I was in jail and awaiting my bond hearing, Mr. Meeks would have you believe I confessed to Mr. Waterson.  After reading a newspaper article in prison two weeks after the trial had started, Mr. Waterson concocted a story with several inconsistencies yet was allowed to take the stand and testify against me.  I have always maintained my innocence, yet the State contends I would confess to a man sentenced to 146 years in prison for raping a child 8 times.  At the end of the day, Mr. Waterson got what he wanted; a transfer to a safer facility.  This was a desperate attempt to convict an innocent man, and quite frankly, unforgivable.

The District Attorney’s Office must provide any and all exculpatory evidence they obtain.  This is the type of evidence that would have reaffirmed my innocence.  Rather than provide much of this type of evidence to my attorney, they tried to hide it or destroy it.  They even admitted to losing important evidence; evidence that would have been in my favor.  Often investigators on this case would recreate their case notes, even after several years had passed. I believe there is evidence that will prove Captain Shaw, Sergeant Reynolds and Detective Bloom were out to get me.  I believe evidence was purposely ignored and even destroyed in this case.  I do not mean evidence favorable for the State but evidence that would have been in my favor.  In my opinion, the evidence presented by the Gaston County Police Department and District Attorney’s Office was not even enough to establish probable cause.  I simply do not understand why I was arrested.  Sergeant Reynolds told outright lies to the Grand Jury to get an indictment and circumvent my right to a probable cause hearing.   They have Sergeant Reynolds present to the Grand Jury, but not once did he show his face at my trial.  Even more absurd.
I have heard the Gaston County’s District Attorney’s Office quoted as saying this case is closed.  That is unacceptable.  Lucy and my child deserve justice.  This case should be turned over to the Federal Bureau of Investigation, since it’s an “interstate crime”; meaning two states.  The minute I was cleared by a jury of my peers, they have to reopen the case.  Detective Bloom admitted under oath that James Spelock Jr. was not ruled out as a suspect in this case.  How they could try me when they had not ruled out all other suspects is unfathomable to me.  Nonetheless, I believe there is ample evidence of Mr. Spelock’s guilt.  I know beyond all doubt that James Spelock Jr. is responsible for Lucy’s death and the death of my unborn child. 

Lucy and Mr. Spelock were engaged in a bitter custody dispute over Caison.  Lucy had told me, and others, Mr. Spelock had threatened her numerous times.  Lucy was going to expose Mr. Spelock’s alternative lifestyle in Court.  There was a ton of evidence found indicating James Spelock ordered transsexual outfits and visited transsexual websites. His personal Sony Vaio notebook showed transsexual history all the way back to the beginning of 2006, long before he met Lucy Johnson.  The evidence shows Mr. Spelock was unaccounted for at the time of the crime.  There is witness testimony of Mr. Spelock’s strange behavior that early morning.  James Spelock Jr. had the motive, intent, ability, and ill will necessary to commit these crimes.  There is more evidence available against James Spelock Jr. than there ever has been against me, there was never one piece of evidence against me.  There is enough evidence to get a Grand Jury indictment for First Degree Murder and Arson right now against James Spelock Jr.

I challenge Locke Bell to step up and do the right thing.  I do a lot of work in Gaston County.  Some of the finest people I’ve ever met work at the Freightliner Mount Holly Truck Plant and the Freightliner Gastonia Parts Plant.  The people of Gaston County are honest, hard working, good people.  Their tax dollars have been wasted.  They did not need to be.  I encourage Locke Bell to do the right thing.  We all want justice for Lucy and our child; nobody more so than me.  Until James Spelock Jr., is arrested, tried, convicted and put on Death Row in Raleigh justice in this case will never been done.  I pray daily for justice to prevail.  He has gotten away with murder for three years, just like he said he would.

-- Michael Mead

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Police release video of unrest in uptown Charlotte

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police have released 8 minutes, 25 seconds of surveillance of the uptown unrest that happened after Speed Street on May 28:

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

City releases report on uptown unrest

On Wednesday, the city of Charlotte released its first detailed report about last weekend's unrest in uptown, showing the time line of events that began Saturday evening with disorderly crowds and led up to a fatal shooting early Sunday. The following is the city's report:

An operational plan for 2011 Speed Street was developed forecasting personnel and equipment needs based upon events that occurred during Speed Street 2010. On duty and off duty personnel were staffed in the Center City and additional officers assigned to the Civil Emergency Unit (CEU) were on standby in their assigned divisions. The CEU officers were equipped and ready to respond upon activation to provide support to the Central Division officers and the officers working the Speed Street event in a Secondary Employment capacity.

On May 28, 2011, beginning at 6 p.m., the intersection of E. Trade Street and S College Street experienced a surge of youth between the ages of ten and twenty five years of age. This crowd was not attending the Speed Street event. The pedestrian crowd cruised the Center City area outside of the speed street event.

At approximately 7:30 p.m., the crowd surged again and based on crowd growth and behavior, Command activated the additional Civil Emergency Unit from the divisions according to the Speed Street Operations Plan. The first CEU squad was in place within 20 minutes. CEU officers were in standard police uniform and at no time during the evening was there a need for them to transition to protective gear which includes helmets/ shields, etc.

Several times during the night, groups of individuals would chant, display hand signs and yell “gun” causing groups of people to run. Firecrackers were set off by individuals in the crowd. Several arrests were made for criminal offenses such as disorderly conduct and public affray based on a no tolerance policy for this type of behavior by individuals. Vehicular and pedestrian traffic was maintained throughout the evening.

At 11:30 p.m., pedestrian traffic increased in the Trade Street/College Street area due to the conclusion of the Speed Street event. Officers continued to maintain pedestrian and vehicle traffic in the affected area and dealt with several fights and altercations. One fight which occurred in front of the Ritz Carlton Hotel resulted in the response of a CEU squad and Central Division officers. One of those involved in the fight confronted officers and became combative and a TASER was deployed to affect the arrest of the suspect. During the arrest of this individual and others involved in the fight, the crowd on the sidewalk east of the incident began running toward the arrest scene as someone further down the street yelled “gun” causing the crowd to charge the officers. Officers formed a barrier to keep the crowd separated from the officers involved in the arrest.

At approximately 1:30 a.m. Sunday morning, an officer working a traffic control point at 3rd Street and College Street reported by radio multiple shots fired. Central Division bicycle officers and foot patrol officers were on the scene in less than one minute locating two gunshot victims. It is believed that there was a confrontation between two groups who knew each other which lead to the homicide.

During the night, officers made several arrests for a variety of charges which are listed below:

: 76
MALE: 66

2nd Degree Trespass: 3
Assault on a Female: 2
Assault on a Officer: 2
City/Town Violation: 1
Disorderly Conduct: 33
Failure to Disperse on Command: 1
Impeding Traffic: 3
Intoxicated & Disruptive: 9
Littering Under 15 lbs: 1
Obstructing Sidewalk: 6
Open Container: 1
Possession of Marijuana: 4
Public Affray: 14
Resist/Obstruct/Delay: 22
NOTE: Several suspects had multiple charges

Though the Center City area experienced large crowds and several fights, the fights were limited to small groups of individuals. Control of the Center City was maintained at all times.

The CMPD is still gathering details and reviewing video footage of the events that occurred and that information will be used in preparing for future events.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Elisa Baker indicted on drug trafficking charges

A federal grand jury indicted Zahra Baker’s stepmother on drug charges Wednesday.

Elisa Baker is charged with possessing and distributing prescription drugs and conspiracy to distribute those drugs. She is also charged with maintaining homes in Granite Falls, Hudson and Hickory from which to distribute drugs.

The indictment:

-Cleve R. Wootson Jr.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Charges stack up against Zahra Baker’s stepmom

District Attorney Jay Gaither is racking up charges against Elisa Baker, who is accused of second-degree murder in the death of her 10-year-old stepdaughter Zahra Baker. Elisa Baker now faces at least 23 charges. All but two are unrelated to Zahra’s death. And most are for relatively minor offenses – worthless checks, unsafe tires, driving without a license – that few prosecutors spend much time on.

Gaither says his strategy is: The more charges against Baker, the more bargaining power he may gain as he pursues his real goal of convicting Baker in the killing. And the more convictions he can obtain in the smaller cases, the more prison time Baker would get if she’s convicted in the murder.

"The prosecution has a plan and we are proceeding on course," he says.

On Wednesday, Baker, 42, appeared at the Caldwell County Courthouse wearing a bulletproof vest and surrounded by armed guards. She pleaded not guilty to four counts of identity theft for allegedly using a relative’s personal information to get electricity turned on at a house where the family was living in March 2010.

Prosecutor Eric Bellas turned over 114 pages of evidence gathered on the identity theft charges to Baker’s attorney and pushed for a trial date to be set, according to media accounts.
Gaither has also pushed for a trial on Baker’s obstruction of justice charge.

Zahra Baker was reported missing on Oct. 9 and became the subject of a massive search that gained attention worldwide as people saw photos of the girl's smiling face and heard the story of her difficult life and shocking dismemberment. Zahra survived cancer, lost a leg, and lived with a hearing impairment.

Elisa Baker has been held in the Catawba County Jail since October, charged with obstruction for writing a phony ransom note to make it appear Zahra had been kidnapped.

Gaither charged Baker with second-degree murder in February, after reportedly entering an agreement with her not to seek first-degree murder charges in exchange for Baker’s assistance finding Zahra’s body. Baker led investigators across Caldwell County where the little girl's prosthetic leg and other body parts were recovered.

Elisa Baker told family the little girl died after an illness and that she and her husband, Adam, decided in a panic to get rid of the child's body. Relatives told the Observer the Bakers didn't take Zahra to a hospital and might have feared authorities because Zahra's father is in the country illegally, and because social workers had investigated complaints against Elisa Baker.

Second-degree murder is punishable by prison time ranging from about eight years to more than 30 years, depending on the killer's criminal record. Elisa Baker has a minor criminal record of long-ago convictions for assault and worthless checks.

Her attorney Scott Reilly has said repeatedly in court Baker is being singled out by prosecutors because of the high-profile nature of the Zahra Baker case.

He seems to be right that a lot of things are happening quite differently, but that's to be expected in many ways considering how extraordinary this case is.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Break-in suspect tries to move forward after dropped charges

On Thursday, the Observer told the story of Caleb Allen, the 25-year-old police initially charged in a string of south Charlotte “Bonnie and Clyde” break-ins earlier this year.

Police had warned residents of a man-woman duo who drove a red Jeep Cherokee and were responsible for several midday burglaries in upscale homes. Believing Allen (pictured at right) could be the male half of the team, police arrested him in February.

The arrest prompted Allen’s mother, who was convinced of her son’s innocence, to begin her own investigation. She tracked down what she believed to be the infamous red Jeep and even chased it down Interstate 485 as she called police.

The charges against Allen were later dropped, but so were those against two others charged in the case – Anna Lee Hoard, 34, and Justin Ryan Aldrich, 33 – because of problems in the investigation.

The saga of Allen’s arrest, his mother’s quest to clear her son’s name and the complexities of the case were also extensively covered by South Charlotte Weekly.

Hoard and Aldrich were arrested after Concord police caught them in a break-in last month. They posted bond and were released from Cabarrus County jail, but were arrested again this week – this time in Forest Acres, S.C., outside Columbia.

Police there said a man returning home for lunch saw a red Jeep Cherokee in his driveway and then saw the couple speed off.

Readers who commented on Thursday's story online had varying opinions about the case. Some expressed concern about the police’s investigation while others noted Allen’s criminal record. He’s a recovering heroin addict and convicted felon facing multiple drug-related charges.

“He’s no choir boy,” wrote one reader.

Another said people who use drugs will “pay a price for even the association with this practice.”

By the time Allen was jailed following his February arrest, he had been clean for about seven months, he told the Observer.

But his ongoing road to recovery has been a difficult one – one that’s been helped by his Christian faith, he said. Someday, he hopes to join the ministry and help other addicts.

Check out the Observer on Sunday for a follow-up by columnist Peter St. Onge on Allen’s personal struggle to kick the habit and move forward from this recent ordeal.

Today, Hoard and Aldrich are still being held in a S.C. detention center. Aldrich is being detained on a $75,000 bond for a burglary charge. He’s also facing a Horry County, S.C. charge of receiving stolen property, according to the Alvin S. Glenn Detention Center.

Hoard is also being held on bond of nearly $76,000 bond for burglary and possession of marijuana charges. Authorities also charged her with driving without a license.

--Meghan Cooke

Anna Lee Hoard, 34, and Justin Ryan Aldrich, 33. Photos courtesy of the Alvin S. Glenn Detention Center

Thursday, April 14, 2011

South most violent region in nation?

South Carolina was named the ninth most violent state and North Carolina ranks 19th, according to the 2011 U.S. Peace Index that measures states by level of peacefulness -- or “the absence of violence.”

The South is the least peaceful region in the United States, based on the study conducted by the Institute for Economics and Peace.

Louisiana was ranked as the least peaceful state and Maine ranked as the most peaceful state. The Northeast was found to be the most peaceful region in the U.S., followed by the Midwest and then the West region.

Nine of the ten most violent states are from the South. Only two states in the South are ranked in the top 20 most peaceful states: West Virginia and Kentucky.

When determining rankings, the U.S. Peace Index takes into account the number of homicides, violent crimes, jailed population, police officers, and availability of small arms.

Started in 1991, the peace index seeks to further the understanding of what makes a peaceful community and help quantify the economic benefits that could result from an increase in peace. The authors estimate that if the U.S. had the same levels of peacefulness as Canada then state and federal governments could save $89 billion in expenditures and generate $272 billion in additional economic activity, and create over 2.7 million additional jobs.

The authors estimate North Carolina could save $6.2 billion and South Carolina could save $4.3 if violence were reduced by 50 percent.

Here are 2011 rankings. The least peaceful states are ranked first.

1. Louisiana
2. Tennessee
3. Nevada
4. Florida
5. Alabama
6. Texas
7. Arkansas
8. Oklahoma
9. South Carolina
10. Maryland
11. Missouri
12. Georgia
13. New Mexico
14. Arizona
15. Delaware
16. Illinois
17. Mississippi
18. California
19. North Carolina
20. Michigan
21. Alaska
22. New York
23. Colorado
24. Kansas
25. New Jersey
26. Virginia
27. Indiana
28. Wyoming
29. Ohio
30. Pennsylvania
31. Kentucky
32. Wisconsin
33. West Virginia
34. Montana
35. Idaho
36. Connecticut
37. South Dakota
38. Oregon
39. Hawaii
40. Nebraska
41. Washington
42. Iowa
43. Rhode Island
44. Massachusetts
45. Utah
46. North Dakota
47. Minnesota
48. Vermont
49. New Hampshire
50. Maine

Note: Washington D.C. is excluded from the ranking list.

Photo: Aerial photo of Columbia, S.C.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

I got Tased

I'm glad to see towns around Charlotte debating the use of Tasers.

The stun guns are powerful weapons that can help police stop a bad guy without resorting to gunshots. But they also deliver an extremely painful, paralyzing shock – and should be used only in the most critical circumstances.

I know this first-hand, because I got Tased.

It was 2006. I hadn't committed a crime or otherwise provoked a police officer. I actually volunteered to "ride the lightning," as some officers call the Taser shock.

I was 24 and a new reporter covering Gaston County Police. The department's policy required that any officer selected to carry a Taser had to get zapped - so the officer would fully appreciate the pain and paralysis caused by the shock. So I figured a good reporter who planned to write about Tasers ought to know the pain too.

The video from that day gets great laughs in the newsroom: There I am, 6-foot-2 and 240 pounds, standing between two beefy Gaston County police officers. Electrodes are attached to my foot and shoulder. An officer pulls the Taser trigger, and instantly, I stiffen and go down.

It lasted five seconds, they told me. I lost count after three. It's still the worst pain I've ever felt. Electricity hummed in my ears and my muscles contracted as my body conducted 50,000 volts.

I got up off the padded floor with an embarrassed smile - and a scorch mark on my right shoulder. It's a scar now, and I'm pretty sure will never go away.

I have since written dozens of stories about Tasers. They're widely used in Charlotte and the region, although the town of Stallings recently abandoned its use of Tasers to avoid possible liability issues.

A 2008 study by the advocacy group N.C. Taser Safety Project found improper Taser use contributed to 11 deaths in North Carolina in the prior four years. The biggest complaint I've heard at crime scenes is that officers are too quick to use the devices instead of employing other methods to de-escalate a situation.

CMPD shocked suspects 120 times in 2008, including a teen who died from cardiac arrest after he was shot with a Taser during a dispute in a grocery store. The officer was disciplined for shocking the suspect for too long (37 seconds) and the city paid the teen's family a $625,000 settlement. CMPD officers were given additional training in proper Taser use.

The next year, Taser use fell significantly. CMPD used the device 80 times in 2009. Some departments have reclassified Tasers as less lethal, instead of nonlethal. Others have clarified their policies after the U.S. Department of Justice urged agencies not to use Tasers, if possible, on small children, the elderly, people with heart disease or pregnant women.

It's good to see Taser policies evolve as we learn more about this effective - and very painful - weapon. --Cleve R. Wootson Jr.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

NC ranks 11th in meth production nationwide

See how North Carolina compares with other states.

North Carolina investigators took down 235 meth labs last year, the 11th highest in the country. The state numbers reflect an increase in production seen across the country. After several years of decline, meth lab busts rose from 6,095 in 2007 to 10,247 last year.

The top 10 last year:

1. Missouri
2. Tennessee
3. Kentucky
4. Mississippi
5. Michigan
6. Alabama
7. Ohio
8. Arkansas
9. Illinois
10. Florida

We reported on Sunday that the production of methamphetamine in North Carolina appears on record pace, with nearly half of the meth labs discovered in primarily rural communities near Charlotte. One alarming impact, experts say, is that more children are being exposed to dangerous chemicals as their parents find easier ways to mix ingredients to make the highly addictive drug.
North Carolina had 157 busts in 2007 and 235 last year. And South Carolina's 26 lab busts in 2007 jumped to 124 last year.

Check out the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration graphs to see how the Carolinas rank compared to the rest of the country since 2007.

Visit the DEA website for more statistics.

-- Franco Ordoñez

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Waiting for answers about alleged police misconduct

When police use force to subdue a suspect, part of my job as a reporter is to scrutinize what happened, to help the public determine whether officers’ actions were appropriate.

Last week, my colleague and I spent hours talking to witnesses about events surrounding a police shootout with -- and arrest of -- a robbery suspect.

Police say Malcolm Xavier Springs shot a man in a robbery on West Trade Street then shot and injured a police officer during a foot chase before the officer shot Springs in the abdomen. The police statement said nothing more about Springs' arrest. But eight people in the neighborhood told us that during the arrest, as Springs lay handcuffed (and apparently wounded) on the ground, several police officers hit, stomped and kicked Springs.

We published stories about these events on March 20, 21 and 22. The Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department then issued a special request for witnesses to come forward with information about the shootings and the arrest.

The department has declined to answer our questions about the arrest. But it sought to assure the public that investigators are reviewing the shooting -- as well as the arrest -- saying in a written statement: “In an effort to preserve the trust and confidence of the community, the CMPD investigates all accusations of officer misconduct.”

We may or may not hear from police about whatever their investigation concludes -- or whether any officers are disciplined. In two previous instances in which witnesses questioned the department's account of police shootings, the officers involved were cleared but the official explanations did little to address the discrepancies raised.

We will continue to seek answers in the Springs case. You should also know we do not publish allegations of police misconduct lightly.

The shooting between Springs and Officer Brent Harrison happened at 1:30 a.m. on a street with few overhead lights. Several people who said they saw what happened had just been awakened by sirens or gunshots. They might have been groggy. Most said they were scared.

We know from research and experience that eyewitness accounts can be inaccurate. We ask a lot of questions to be sure people are speaking from their own recollections, and not simply repeating things they’ve heard. We also ask for details to help us scrutinize their accounts, as well as their credibility.

What did you see? How far away were you? Where were you watching from? Could you see and hear well from there? Could you be fuzzy on details because of the early hour? How long did the events last? Was there any point when you couldn't see what was going on? Are you sure? Can we go over it all again? The questions can go on and on.

We also compare witness accounts. Are they similar, or are there discrepancies? Are they too much alike? Did the witnesses seem credible? Did they have a good vantage point?

Police may also be asking witnesses such questions. But we won't know unless or until they offer a detailed accounting of their investigation. Stay tuned.

-- Cleve R. Wootson Jr.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Questions linger in woman's death

The missing fliers for Janet Simpson have been taken down. Family and friends, who had hoped for her safe return, mourned her loss at a memorial service. But the questions still linger.

Simpson had been missing for nearly three months when her body was discovered floating in the Catawba River on Feb. 23.

Charlotte-Mecklenburg police haven’t said whether her body revealed any evidence that might indicate homicide or suicide.

It could be weeks – or even months – before the autopsy is completed. It’s possible a cause of death may not be able to be determined, depending on the state of her body.

Simpson, a 56-year-old mortgage broker who liked to garden and travel, was last seen Dec. 5 leaving the Liberty East Restaurant on East Independence Boulevard after breakfast. Her SUV was found days later in Belmont, not far from the river.

For days, authorities used sonar equipment and cadaver dogs to search a stretch of the river, but they weren’t able to locate her body until it surfaced last month.

Police have not said whether they believe Simpson’s body was in the river for the length of her disappearance.

Factors that affect a submerged body’s ability to float include water temperature and depth, bodily gases, and underwater obstructions, according to a 2006 article published in the FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin.

Suicide remains a possibility, although relatives and friends have said they don’t believe Simpson would take her own life.

In 2007, 358 people committed suicide by drowning in the U.S., according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But that number made up only about 1 percent of all suicides that year.

The CDC reports that poisoning, such as a drug overdose, is the most common suicide method for women.

Speaking to reporters last month outside the restaurant where she was last seen, Simpson’s ex-husband and longtime friend Mike Stephens said her family was glad to finally have some closure.

“But that's just the first piece of the puzzle,” he said.

--Meghan Cooke

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Prosecutor returns to Gastonia to try murder case

Bill Stetzer

Bill Stetzer left the DA’s office in Gaston County in December to head the homicide team in Mecklenburg County.

But the 42-year-old veteran homicide prosecutor had some unfinished business in Gaston County – the prosecution of the man accused of murdering 20-year-old UNC Charlotte student Irina “Ira” Yarmolenko in 2008.

Stetzer, pictured above, returned to Gaston County this week to join Assistant District Attorney Stephanie Hamlin in handling the murder trial of Mark Bradley Carver.

“I worked two years on the case,” Stetzer told the Observer. “I established a relationship with the victim’s family. I didn’t think it was appropriate to walk out on the family or my co-counsel.”

Yarmolenko’s body was found beside her car on the banks of the Catawba River in Mount Holly, where authorities say she had gone to take photographs.

A bungee cord, ribbon and drawstring were around her neck. The autopsy concluded that asphyxia was the cause of death.

Carver and his cousin, Neal Leon Cassada Jr., were charged with killing Yarmolenko. Cassada died in October of apparent natural causes.

Prosecutors on Tuesday began presenting their evidence against Carver. The trial is expected to last less than two weeks.

Carver, 42, of Gastonia, faces life in prison if convicted of first-degree murder. Gary L. Wright

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Homicide Day update: debating death

Prosecutors announced Thursday they will not seek the death penalty against brothers Aaron and Akeem Ashford. The brothers are accused of shooting a mother of six outside the north Charlotte strip club where she worked.

Four other defendants, prosecutors said, will also not be tried for their lives. The defendants are: Shea Cook, Willie Lennon, Zachary Rogers, and Jonathan Smith.

The murder case against Davon Landell Thomas, scheduled to enter a plea of guilty or not guilty on Thursday, was postponed. Thomas is accused of killing his girlfriend, Tigist Yemane.

– Gary L. Wright

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Homicide Day: Weighty day in court

Thursday is homicide day in Mecklenburg County, when the court system deals with some of its weightiest cases -- defendants who have been charged with murder.

The proceedings are held once a month in an administrative courtroom and don't include any murder trials that might be going on down the hallway at the Mecklenburg County courthouse.

Up first, usually, prosecutors announce which defendants they'll seek the death penalty against. They generally don't elect to put the defendants on trial for their lives.

Some defendants are scheduled to enter either guilty or not guilty pleas. Prosecutors often don't know how the defendants will plead until they arrive at court. If the defendant pleads guilty, he's usually sentenced that same day.

Here are some of the cases in court Thursday:

Akeem and Aaron Ashford: The brothers are accused of shooting a mother of six outside the northern Charlotte strip club where she worked. Prosecutors are expected to announce whether they'll seek the death penalty against the Ashfords.

Davon Landell Thomas: He is scheduled to enter a plea of guilty or not guilty. He's accused of killing his girlfriend, Tigist Yemane. Yemane was an Ethiopian immigrant who came to the United States for a heart operation that saved her life.

Fisgerald Kilgo: Kilgo is scheduled to enter a plea of guilty or not guilty in the killing of Drew McDonald Thompson, who was shot in the parking lot of the Hilton Garden Inn on Statesville Road. Police believe the shooting was drug-related. Thompson's killing was one of five homicides police investigated during six days in the Spring of 2009.

Most of the proceedings are open to the public, and take place in courtroom 5350 starting at 9:30 a.m. -- Cleve R. Wootson Jr. and Gary L. Wright