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Sexton: Remembering a small businessman who played a big role in saving train depot

It was just a single email, one of hundreds flowing through the great electronic river. But it exuded anticipatory excitement and stood apart from the pile.

The use of ALL CAPS and the much-maligned exclamation point — an old pitchman’s gimmick — signaled the arrival of something big.

Grand Opening! Winston-Salem Mayor and City Council invite you to the UNION STATION GRAND OPENING

And it’s true. The re-opening of the old, new Union Station over by Winston-Salem State University is, and will be, a big honking deal for the city.

Just getting the deed took years, more than $1.3 million and a hardball move by city officials willing to invoke eminent domain — some might call it bullying — and another $11.1 million to restore the old depot.

It is a big deal and certainly worth an exclamation point.

Still, in reading about it and recalling the details, it’s difficult not to think about Harvey Davis, a genial small businessman caught in the middle of it all. Davis died last Tuesday. He was 82.

Growing a business

Davis Garage, a towing and auto-repair shop, has been doing business in Winston-Salem since 1939.

Davis’ dad started it, and Harvey, with the help of his son Chris, nursed and grew it into a solid, smartly run small business.

Along the way, in 1975, Harvey had the foresight to buy the old Union Station. The building had fallen into disrepair and become something of an eyesore — and a pain to neighbors who wanted something to be done.

It was so bad that city burghers once considered demolition a viable option. And then Davis plunked down $55,000 for the former train depot. He fixed it up to suit his needs and set about expanding his operation.

The Davises kept their heads down and minded their own business.

Then the city, in the throes of the cyclical redevelopment fever, took notice of a historic property that it once might have been happy just to bulldoze.

A federal grant worth some $1.3 million came this way in 2004, and officials began thinking about ways to expand the city’s transportation footprint.

In order to do that — and get even a whiff of any future high-speed rail projects — Winston-Salem would need … an expandable transportation hub.

Preferably one near railroad tracks.

Negotiations began and went nowhere fast.

The short version of a long story played out like so many others: The city offered one price and Davis wanted another.

The city’s final offer was for $681,900. Harvey Davis figured, correctly as it turns out, that it was worth a lot more. Lawyers suited up and decided seizure through eminent domain for the public good was the way to go.

A final price of $1.35 million was negotiated, and plans to move Davis Garage were made.

Harvey looked to buy one piece of land but couldn’t get it rezoned to suit his purpose. He settled on another, the current spot on Old Lexington Road but couldn’t get relocated fast enough to suit the city.

So the Winston-Salem City Council voted in November 2012 to toss Davis Garage from the former train depot within 30 days. And then Union Station just sat.

Building a legacy

Davis Garage relocated, and business suffered for it.

Auto repair dried up, and a half dozen mechanics moved on.

Towing operations sustained it.

“We went up there (Kapp Street), and it was kind of out-of-sight, out-of-mind,” Chris Davis said in April 2015. “Anytime you move a business more than a block away, you almost have to start over.”

The city helped with relocation and the first year’s rent for a temporary spot.

Officials might have resorted to hardball tactics to get what they wanted, but they moved to soften the blow afterward.

And the truth is that getting $1.35 million for a train station that cost $55,000 is a good return on investment.

Still, a lot of that was needed to buy new land on Old Lexington Street and for staying afloat when repair business dipped.

But Harvey had other matters on his mind — leaving something for his family. “I had struggled with it because I wanted to leave a legacy for my children,” he said once.

Meanwhile, the city finally lurched into action with Union Station. In 2016, council approved spending $11.1 million to restore the depot, which was built in 1926 to serve rail passengers.

The finished product — formally and grandly opened Sept. 7! — will be a nice addition to the city. It will complement growth on campus at WSSU just across Martin Luther King Jr. Drive.

Union Station will be something of which the city should be proud. It’s a big honking deal.

But progress always comes with a price. Sometimes it involves disruption and upheaval.

It’s ironic — and sad — that the formal rebirth of Union Station comes so close to the death of Harvey Davis. He was a gentle man, firm in his convictions and in his faith.

“Dad was really comfortable where he was at,” Chris Davis said Monday about his father’s passing. “The last thing he said to me was ‘Tell the Lord I’m coming.’ … He was ready.”

Fun before phonics: Community gathers to greet North Hills kids on first day of school

The 500 students at North Hills Elementary School learned something Monday that had little to do with numbers or nouns.

Through high fives and hugs from football players, soccer players, law enforcement officials, community members and school staff, the kids discovered on the first day of school how much people care.

“The first day is when you let them know they’re back home, to make sure all the kids feel that this is a safe place,” said German Garcia Martinez, the school’s parent involvement coordinator. “This is your home.”

About 54,700 students in the Winston-Salem/Forsyth County School system returned to class Monday. To spark a little excitement, the school system had special events at five elementary schools, including North Hills, which is on the city’s north side, off Indiana Avenue.

Dressed in their school uniforms, backpacks decorated with trucks and unicorns strapped to their backs, the kids walked through a tunnel of folks there to wish them well, showering them with positive messages and applause.

Jamal Bethune was among the football players from Winston-Salem State University who got up early to greet the kids.

A junior linebacker from Raleigh, Bethune realizes that he can serve as a role model for young kids.

“Everyone was a kid once upon a time, and when you’re younger, you look up to the older guys, so I’ll do something like this whenever I get a chance to brighten up a kid’s day,” Bethune said.

The football players made an impression on Lameika Gaither’s daughter, a first-grader.

When she saw the Rams awaiting her arrival, she exclaimed to her mom: “That’s cool. There’s football players.”

“She’ll probably talk about this all day,” Gaither said.

There was an added layer of excitement at North Hills. Earlier this month, the school received $50,000 from private donors as part of a new partnership with the Forsyth County Sheriff’s Office.

That money will be used toward reducing the cost of out-of-town field trips, the school’s backpack program and new school uniforms for each student, said Tiffany Krafft, who has been North Hill’s principal for 10 years.

Patsy Murrill, who retired from the school last year but was back on Monday to volunteer, said the donation was unexpected.

At the ceremony to announce the donation, she expected to hear of a $100 donation.

“I was blown away,” said Murrill, between dispensing hugs to students as they paraded past. “I got on the phone and told people, ‘North Hills just got blessed today.’”

The donation also marks the beginning of a new partnership with the sheriff’s office. Many staff members were on hand Monday to greet the kids, including Capt. Stacy Shepherd.

“This builds relationships with the kids, so they can see us as the human beings that we are,” she said. “It builds trust that they can carry with them their whole lives.”

Decora Mankins enjoyed the hoopla, but the fifth-grader is ready to put a summer of swimming behind her and hit the books.

“I’m excited to learn new stuff, new science, new math strategies, new reading strategies,” Decora said.

She offered some advice to the kindergarten students.

“Just do good and listen to your teacher. Listen every minute because you never know when you’re going to be asked stuff again,” she said.

Child pornography charges against App State intern who worked as a high school athletic trainer

A former Appalachian State University student who interned as an athletic trainer at Watauga High School faces indictment on 21 counts of production of child pornography, enticement of a minor and other offenses, federal authorities said Monday.

Frank Darrell Cromwell, 23, of Boone is charged with nine counts of production of child pornography, four counts of distribution, receipt and attempt receipt of child pornography, three counts of enticement of a minor, two counts of cyberstalking a minor, one count of interstate communication of threats, one count of advertising of child pornography and one count of possession of child pornography, the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Charlotte said in a statement.

“This individual allegedly tried to gain access to children by obtaining employment in places where he could embed himself with underage boys, including a high school, a summer camp, a middle school and a behavioral healthcare facility,” U.S. Attorney Andrew Murray said. “Protecting our children from predators is one of our highest priorities. I urge parents to have a conversation with their children about the dangers of online communications and social media, where predators can use fake names and profiles to weave a heinous web of lies to lure young and innocent children.”

Cromwell’s attorney, Rahwa Gebre-Egziabher of Charlotte, couldn’t be reached Monday for comment.

Cromwell was being held Monday in the Mecklenburg County Jail, the Mecklenburg County Sheriff’s Office said. Information about his bond wasn’t immediately available.

Cromwell is scheduled to appear Sept. 10 in U.S. District Court in Charlotte.

Cromwell is accused of using a cellphone app and other means to contact and entice minor male victims to produce and send to Cromwell sexually explicit images and videos of themselves, the U.S. Attorney’s Office said. Court documents allege that Cromwell misled the minors to believe that he was female, used female names and images to entice the minors to produce and send to him child pornography and to engage in sexual activity, the U.S. Attorney’s Office said.

Cromwell’s alleged behavior began as early as March 2018, and investigators say they have identified 10 victims. Cromwell met some of the victims through his Appalachian State internship as an athletic trainer at Watauga High School, the U.S. Attorney’s Office said.

Cromwell is accused of committing offenses while he was a student at Appalachian State, federal court documents say.

Cromwell graduated from Appalachian State in May 2018, said Megan Hayes, a university spokesman. He received a bachelor’s degree in athletic training, a university document says.

“The university stands ready to assist law enforcement and Watauga County Schools with their investigations into this matter,” Hayes said in an email.

Cromwell worked as an athletic trainer at Watauga High during the 2017-18 school year, said Garrett Price, a spokesman for the Watauga County Schools.

Cromwell also is accused of using the following names online and on social media to contact the young victims: “Savannah,” “princesssav222,” “lickmeup5020,” “Sav,” “frankie5020,” “Lauren,” “Sydney,” “Sarah,” “Lily,” “Kaylee,” and “Stephanie.”

If Cormwell is convicted on all 21 counts, he faces 170 to 420 years in federal prison and a $5.25 million fine, the U.S. Attorney’s Office said.

Anyone with information about the allegations against Cromwell can call Boone police at 828-268-6938.

Human remains found on Forsyth couple's property in 2015 are still not identified

Four years after human remains were found on the property of a Forsyth County couple, prosecutors are still trying to identify those remains, according to new court papers filed in Forsyth Superior Court.

Jason Michael Mitchell, 38, and his wife, Mary Utleye Mitchell, 52, are facing the same criminal charge — one count of felonious destruction of a human body or remains to conceal a death. In other words, Forsyth County prosecutors allege that Jason and Mary Mitchell buried a body on their property, even though they knew the person didn’t die from natural causes. They have not been charged with murder. Law-enforcement officials found the human remains in June 2015 at the couple’s property at 3555 Brookbank Drive.

Over the four years that the case has been pending, Forsyth County prosecutors and officials with the Forsyth County Sheriff’s Office have declined to say whether the human remains were identified. But the remains have been linked to a Winston-Salem man named Gordon Reid, 61, who was reported missing on Feb. 4, 2015. His name appears on a court order sealing a search warrant for the Mitchells’ house.

However, according to court papers filed this month, prosecutors have not been able to identify the remains because no DNA can be extracted for testing. The sheriff’s office had sent the remains previously to the N.C. Office of the Chief Medical Examiner in Raleigh and then to the FBI’s lab in Quantico, Va. After that, the sheriff’s office used Bode Cellmark Forensics Inc. in Lorton, Va., a private lab that says on its website it can provide forensic-genealogy services to law-enforcement officials for violent crimes against individuals, such as homicide, or for identifying human remains.

Now, Forsyth County prosecutors have sought to have samples from the human remains tested at the University of North Texas. The school won’t initiate testing until October and a final report from that testing won’t be available until March 2020.

Attorneys for Jason and Mary Mitchell filed court papers this month saying the new testing only delays a case that they say has dragged on for four years and violated the Mitchells’ constitutional right to a speedy trial. Chief Assistant District Attorney Jennifer Martin did not immediately respond to an email message seeking comment.

John D. Bryson, attorney for Jason Mitchell, filed a demand for a speedy trial in August 2018, a little more than a year after the couple was indicted. The Mitchells’ cases were never calendared so that a trial date could be set, according to court papers. Bryson filed a motion to dismiss based on a speedy-trial violation on June 18.

He filed an amended motion on Aug. 16.

Michael Grace, attorney for Mary Mitchell, filed a motion to dismiss on Aug. 21.

According to both motions, Forsyth County prosecutors sent the attorneys new information that samples of the human remains had been mailed to University of North Texas on March 29.

Grace and Bryson both acknowledge that two prosecutors — Brian Taylor and Derek Gray — who had been assigned the case have left. Assistant District Attorney James Dornfried is now prosecuting the case. But they also argue that seven months after Bryson filed a motion for a speedy trial, prosecutors “initiated yet a third round of forensic testing, which will, by conservative estimates, delay any trial proceedings that could occur in this case until March 2020, almost 18 months following Defendant’s demand for a speedy trial.”

They also note that the Mitchells are facing low-level felonies that could result in probation if they are convicted.

Jason and Mary Mitchell have been out on bond since they were first arrested in 2015, but their passports have been seized. Prosecutors also seized nearly 250 items, including two motor vehicles. None of those items has been returned, Grace and Bryson said in their motions.

Police found 10 machetes, guns, ammunition, knives, swords, computers and other items, according to an inventory list of the search warrant attached to Bryson’s motion to dismiss.

Many of those items are likely now useless, particularly the two vehicles that Jason Mitchell believes have been stored outside, Grace and Bryson said in court papers.

“The length of delay here is presumptively prejudicial and the State does not appear to have justification for such an excessive delay on such a low-level felony,” they said in court papers.

They call the delays “egregious” and the charges against both should be dismiss, Grace and Bryson argue.

A date for hearing the motions has not been set.