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After 22 fires in 28 days, fire department urges residents to show caution, use judgment

With 22 fires through the first 28 days of 2020, Winston-Salem’s firefighters are asking the city’s residents to exercise caution in order to prevent future fires.

Whether it’s because of an overloaded outlet or someone falling asleep with a lit cigarette, Winston-Salem Fire Department Capt. Kevin Shore said most of the structure fires thus far in 2020 were easily preventable.

Of the 22 fires, eight were a result of unattended cooking, seven started from overloaded electrical outlets and four started because of “discarded smoking materials.”

Some of the electrical fires started because someone had a space heater plugged into a power surge strip along with other electrical devices, Shore said. While heaters are commonly used in winter months because of the cold, surge protectors aren’t designed to handle the electrical current a space heater constantly requires, leading to a circuit overloading.

Recurring problems with blowing fuses or tripping circuit breakers, or discolored wall outlets, may be a sign that the circuit is overloading, according to the National Fire Protection Association.

When it comes to kitchen fires, Shore and Belcher say smoke detectors and stovetop fire-suppression canisters can help prevent almost all of these fires from growing out of control.

“If those people had (suppression canisters) there would be smoke in the house but not as much fire damage,” Belcher said.

Sometimes, Shore said, the same person will have multiple kitchen or cooking fires over several years, which can be frustrating.

In 2019, the city’s fire department responded to 226 structure fires for the year, or one every 38 hours. Winston-Salem Fire Department Capt. Christopher Belcher said the number of structure fires in Winston-Salem is higher than the national average.

Because of that number, firefighters often find themselves overextended. One house fire requires about one-third of the fire department to respond, Shore said, leaving the rest of the city underserved.

In total, Winston-Salem has 19 fire engine companies, five ladder truck companies and one rescue team. For comparison, Greensboro’s fire department has 24 fire engine companies and 11 ladder truck companies.

There is also a staffing disparity between the two departments, as Winston-Salem has, at minimum, 89 firefighters working on a daily basis, whereas Greensboro has at least 151 firefighters working on a daily basis, Shore said. The additional resources mean more time to do fire prevention education and increased fire coverage for Greensboro’s residents.

Additionally, education on fire prevention doesn’t seem to be as important to the general public as it once was, Belcher said.

“I think they’re not as educated well in fire safety,” Belcher said. “We would go to schools and provide information on fire safety, and nowadays all they want to do is see the fire truck. We’ve tried to push it out, but it’s difficult to do.”

The fire department will install suppression canisters for residents in low-income housing for free, Shore said. The same goes for smoke detectors if the ones currently installed are more than 10 years old.

To inquire about a smoke detector or a suppression canister, people can call the fire department at 336-773-7700, or visit the website at www.cityofws.org/176/Fire-Department.

Big day for Business 40: All remaining bridges open Friday

All the remaining vehicular Business 40 bridges will open between 9 a.m. and 4 p.m. today, state highway officials said, with an 11 a.m. “special announcement” that could reveal when the freeway will reopen.

The bridges that carry Marshall and Cherry streets over the Business 40 work zone will open, as will High Street from Brookstown Avenue to Marshall Street, and the Brookstown underpass beneath the renovated downtown freeway.

Winston-Salem Mayor Allen Joines will join highway officials and others in the 11 a.m. announcement at BB&T Ballpark.

Joines said he’s been sworn to secrecy in advance of the announcement.

“I think it is extraordinarily exciting to be close to the end,” Joines said. “As I will say tomorrow, I am so impressed with Pat Ivey and his crew, Flatiron construction ... they have done an amazing job.”

Ivey, the division engineer for the N.C. Department of Transportation, will be speaking during the announcement.

Flatiron Constructors Inc., Blythe Development Co. and HDR Engineering partnered on the $100-million makeover.

Larry Shaver, the resident engineer for the N.C. Department of Transportation, said that while the final coat of pavement is not yet on the renovated freeway and many approaches to the bridges, the freeway would open to traffic before that final top-coat is applied in phases later on.

Just the reopening of the last bridges would be a major announcement for residents and businesses owners who have struggled with awkward closures.

Newly-striped lanes could be seen east of the Peters Creek Parkway bridge on a still-closed section of the downtown freeway on Thursday.

Elsewhere, paving crews were busy on sections of the freeway as well.

Workers were installing concrete sidewalks beside the approach to the Marshall Street bridge and other finishing touches were being applied.

C.J. Johnson, the president of the Winston-Salem Dash, will also be on hand to make remarks during Friday’s announcement.

The Winston-Salem Dash have announced a “Pop-Up Party” on Saturday from noon to 2 p.m., one that will allow people to walk on the freeway between Peters Creek Parkway and Brookstown Avenue.

“People said they wanted a chance to walk it, to touch it, to do things they won’t be able to do after it opens,” Shaver said.

The Dash announcement says the party is being held to celebrate, now that “Salem Parkway, through downtown Winston-Salem, is about to reopen.”

Dash officials said their Saturday event would include a DJ, activities for children, $2 hot dogs and beer and $1 soft drinks, coffee, water and popcorn. For more details, visit www.milb.com/winston-salem.

Joines famously announced last year that it was possible Business 40 could reopen around Christmas.

State officials quickly walked that back, but it was true that there was a chance Business 40 could have opened by the end of 2019, had every break fallen the right way.

As it stands, the reopening of the last bridges over the work zone will come a little over 14 months after Business 40 was shut down on Nov. 17, 2018.

The two pedestrian bridges being built as part of the project will remain under construction, and workers will be constructing noise walls and carrying out other activities even after cars flow on the highway once again. Final completion of the project is set for sometime this summer.

Testimony coming? Abrupt acquittal? Trump trial edges on

WASHINGTON — Senators peppered President Donald Trump’s defense and accusers with final questions at his impeachment trial Thursday night ahead of a crucial test on witnesses, the focus shifting from details of the charges to whether it was time to simply acquit and conclude the trial.

The vote on witnesses, expected today, could lead to an abrupt end of the trial with the expected acquittal. Or, less likely, it could bring days, if not weeks more argument as Democrats press to hear testimony from former national security adviser John Bolton and others.

Thursday’s testimony included soaring pleas to the senators-as-jurors who will decide Trump’s fate, to either stop a president who Democrats say has tried to cheat in the upcoming election and will again, or to shut down impeachment proceedings that Republicans insist were never more than a partisan attack.

“Let’s give the country a trial they can be proud of,” said Rep. Adam Schiff, the lead prosecutor for House Democrats. Americans, he said, know what it takes for a fair trial. He offered to take just one week for depositions of new witnesses, sparking new discussions.

Trump attorney Eric Herschmann declared the Democrats are only prosecuting the president because they can’t beat him in 2020.

“We trust the American people to decide who should be our president,” Herschmann said. “Enough is Enough. Stop all of this.”

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell was toiling to keep today’s vote on schedule even as the trial is unearthing fresh evidence from Bolton’s new book and raising alarms among Democrats and some Republicans about a Trump attorney’s controversial defense.

In a day-after tweet, Trump attorney Alan Dershowitz, complained about the portrayal of his Wednesday testimony when he said a president is essentially immune from impeachment if he believes his actions to be in the “national interest.”

That idea frustrated some inside the White House, who felt Dershowitz’s claim was unnecessary and inflammatory — irking senators with a controversial claim of vast executive powers. But those officials left it to Dershowitz to back away, wary that any public White House retreat would be viewed poorly by the president.

“I said nothing like that,” the retired professor tweeted Thursday.

His words Wednesday: “Every public official that I know believes that his election is in the public interest. And if a president does something which he believes will help him get elected is in the public interest, that cannot be the kind of quid pro quo that results in impeachment.”

Asked about it as one of the first questions Thursday, Democrat Schiff, said, “Have we learned nothing in the last half century?”

Schiff drew on the lessons of the Nixon era to warn of a “normalization of lawlessness” in the Trump presidency.

“That argument — if the president says it it can’t be illegal — failed when Richard Nixon was forced to resign,” Schiff told the senators. “But that argument may succeed here, now.”

Trump was impeached by House last month on charges that he abused his power like no other president, jeopardizing Ukraine and U.S.-Ukraine relations. Democrats say Trump asked the vulnerable ally to investigate Joe Biden and debunked theories of 2016 election interference, temporarily halting American security aid to the country as it battled Russia at its border. The second article of impeachment says Trump then obstructed the House probe in a way that threatened the nation’s three-branch system of checks and balances.

Democrats played a video showing the many times Trump called on Russia or China to intervene in U.S. politics, voicing his own belief such information could be helpful in a campaign.

The president has argued repeatedly that his dealings with Ukraine have been “perfect.”

Even though McConnell has not yet locked down the votes, the calendar he engineered at the start of the trial two weeks ago is now proving immovable as Democrats are pressing hard to force the Senate to call more witnesses to testify.

Republican Sens. Susan Collins of Maine, Mitt Romney of Utah and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska have expressed interest in hearing from Bolton and the others. But their votes may not be enough.

In a Senate split 53-47 with a Republican majority, at least four GOP senators must join all Democrats to reach the 51 votes required to call witnesses, decide whom to call or do nearly anything else in the trial.

Business partner of former Forsyth County commissioner Everette Witherspoon sentenced for failing to file federal tax return. Witherspoon is currently facing federal tax-fraud charges.

The business partner of former Forsyth County commissioner Everette Witherspoon was sentenced Tuesday to six months in prison on a charge of failing to file a federal tax return.

Willie Lee Cole Jr. of Greensboro is also the sixth person to be charged in connection to a tax-fraud scheme that operated out of Fast Tax of Winston-Salem. However, the indictments do not allege that he filed any false tax returns for anyone else, including himself.

Cole was indicted in September on three misdemeanor counts of failing to file an individual tax return for the years 2013, 2014 and 2015. Forsyth County prosecutors allege that in each of those years, Cole earned a six-figure income from co-owning Chris’s Rehablative Services LLC. Witherspoon founded the mental-health company in 2009 and described it on his Facebook page as one of the largest providers of “Psycho Social Rehabilitation services in North Carolina.” He also claimed that he had expanded his business to Atlanta.

Cole is also connected to Witherspoon in another way — the two men were co-owners of Quick Taxes LLC in Greensboro. Another co-owner of that business, Claudia Shivers, is serving nearly two years in prison after she was convicted on one count of conspiring to defraud the United States by filing false tax returns.

In a news release Thursday, federal prosecutors said U.S. Magistrate Judge L. Patrick Auld sentenced Cole to six months in prison. Cole pleaded guilty to one count of failing to file a tax return on Sept. 27, 2019, less than a month after he was indicted. Auld also ordered that upon his release from prison, Cole will serve one year of supervised release and pay $179,547 in restitution.

Andrew Farris, Cole’s attorney, declined to comment when reached at his office on Thursday.

Witherspoon was indicted in October 2019 on three counts of filing a false tax return and one count of failing to file a tax return. Federal prosecutors alleged that Witherspoon did not report income he made as a Forsyth County commissioner and that he underreported income from Chris’s Rehablative Services. Indictments did not accuse Witherspoon of filing false tax returns for anyone else.

Witherspoon served two terms on the Forsyth County Board of Commissioners. In 2018, Tonya McDaniels defeated Witherspoon for a seat on the board during the Democratic primary and went on to win the seat in the general election.

The former commissioner not only co-owned Quick Taxes LLC in Greensboro but also co-owned Fast Tax of Winston-Salem. Shivers owned the Winston-Salem tax preparation business with a third person, S. Wayne Patterson, a former magistrate and past president of the Winston-Salem chapter of the NAACP. Patterson, a former lawyer, was also convicted of filing false tax returns and was sentenced 13 months in prison.

Federal prosecutors alleged that Shivers, Patterson and two other people who have since been convicted — Kristyn Dion Daney and Rakeem Lenell Scales — conspired to prepare 519 false tax returns for Fast Tax and Quick Taxes that claimed $1.3 million in fraudulent tax refunds.

Both tax preparation companies have since been dissolved for failure to file annual reports, according to records from the N.C. Secretary of State. It is no longer active in North Carolina.

Chris’s Rehablative Services has dissolved twice — first in 2012 and then again in 2017 for failure to file annual reports. The company is no longer active in Atlanta after the company was involuntarily dissolved for failing to file annual reports and for failing to maintain a registered agent.

Witherspoon is scheduled to go to trial on his charges on March 9. He is out on a $10,000 secured bond.