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Winston-Salem police see spike in motor-vehicle thefts in past year

In the blink of an eye, it can happen.

Turn on your car and run inside to grab your coffee or the jacket you didn’t think you’d need for the day. Come back outside and your car has been stolen from your driveway.

Within the past year, Winston-Salem has seen a sharp increase in the number of motor-vehicle thefts. These thefts include cars, SUVs and pick-ups only: In 2016, there were 670 thefts, said Cpl. Carla Davis, a field service bureau investigator for the city. Last year, there were 946, a 41 percent increase.

In 2018, from Jan. 1 to Feb. 21, the city has already had 142 motor vehicles stolen, Davis said. That surpassed the number of vehicles stolen in the same time period last year, which was 132. Davis said the reason for the increase is unclear, but the thefts do often occur in similar circumstances.

“It’s a crime of opportunity,” Davis said. “You’re only inside two, three, four minutes, and you don’t see someone walking down the road. I equate it to someone laying a $100 bill on the table. It’s temptation.”

Most of the vehicles stolen are unoccupied and running, she said.

There are a few, however, that were stolen through another method, Davis said. Some were taken by someone going into an unlocked car and finding the valet key to the vehicle inside, she said. Or a person found keys to a different car that was parked in the same driveway.

There is no one particular make or model stolen more than another, and there is not one part of the city that saw an increase over another, Davis said. The cars also run the gamut from older to newer.

“There are no two cars stolen in one spot,” she said, though she allowed that SUVs and cars were stolen at a higher rate than pick-up trucks.

In 2017 and 2018, of the offenders arrested in connection to the crime, all were 14 to 20 years old with the exception of one, who was 13, Davis said. This leads her to believe part of the reason for the thefts is the age group thinking it’s easier to ride somewhere than walk.

“There’s no common reason sometimes, it’s been, ‘Just because I can,’” she said.

There have been eight repeat offenders, Davis said.

Vehicles have been found by police at the mall, parks, churches and apartment complexes — anywhere there might be other cars, she said. They’ve also been found near neighborhoods where suspects have lived. Occasionally, they’ve been found on the interstate, out of gas. Police have recovered about 85 percent of the stolen vehicles.

Davis said the other 15 percent are likely sitting in parking lots somewhere. Winston-Salem police are working with area law enforcement agencies on similar crimes, she said.

When people do get their cars back, they aren’t always what the owners may want. About 20 percent have exterior crash damage, Davis said. About 30 to 40 percent have interior damage, including cigarette burns or liquid or food spilled inside. Property is also often stolen from inside the vehicles.

“Everything in a car can be gone, from laptops, cell phones, change, firearms,” Davis said. “Don’t leave anything of value in your car that can be seen. It’s cheaper to fix a broken window than re-key an ignition system. Most people don’t want to break a window if they don’t see anything to take. And don’t put anything under your seats, because that’s the first place they look.”

She urged people to record serial numbers to guns and electronics, making it easier to track them if they’re stolen.

If you do get your vehicle returned by police but don’t have your keys returned as well, Davis encourages owners to take action.

“Do something to disable it until you know if insurance will pay to rekey it,” she said.

This can be as simple as taking the battery out of the car.

Davis said the police rely on the public to help them recover vehicles and catch the thieves.

“Go to P2C (an online reporting system) or call police if you see something or a car that’s been sitting for a while. We’ll ride over and check it out,” she said. “My success is incumbent upon the public. In today’s society, any information is helpful to us.”

Judge vacates order that prosecutors said had stalled investigation into death of 2-year-old boy; trial is scheduled for September

A Forsyth County judge vacated a court order Friday that prosecutors said was preventing the testing of physical evidence in a case involving the death of a 2-year-old boy nearly three years ago.

Charles Thomas Stacks, 32, is charged with first-degree murder in the death of Jaxson Sonny Swaim, who died Aug. 19, 2015 at Brenner Children’s Hospital. Winston-Salem police found the child three days earlier at a house in the 5400 block of Grubbs Street. Jaxson had abrasions all over his body and head injuries. Stacks was not Jaxson’s father but had been friends with Jaxson’s mother, Candace Swaim, and had been taking care of him.

An autopsy report showed that Jaxson died from bleeding between the surface of his brain and its outer covering that was caused by a blunt-force head injury. Jaxson also had bite marks on his body that were later identified as human, prosecutors have said.

Forsyth County prosecutors are pursuing the death penalty against Stacks. A trial is scheduled to start the week of Sept. 17.

At a hearing in Forsyth Superior Court on Friday, Assistant District Attorney Jennifer Martin said that an order signed by Judge Andy Cromer on Aug. 11, 2017, has kept analysts at the State Crime Lab from testing physical evidence that Winston-Salem police detectives seized. That includes a hair found on a Louisville baseball bat that could either belong to Stacks or to Jaxson, according to a motion Forsyth County prosecutors filed seeking to vacate Cromer’s order.

The physical evidence also includes DNA and 50 hair samples taken from Stacks, red-colored stains taken from near a table leg and from a corner in a bedroom at the house, and a blood and hair sample taken from the autopsy of Jaxson, the motion said.

Attorneys Nils Gerber and Stephen Ball are representing Stacks. Assistant District Attorneys Amara Hunter and C. Ruffin Sykes are prosecuting the case along with Martin.

The issue during the hearing was what might happen if certain physical evidence, particularly DNA, can’t be re-tested after it has been analyzed. Stacks, Gerber said, has the right to examine the evidence against him, including DNA and other biological evidence.

Martin and Hunter argued, however, that defendants have the right to examine and challenge that evidence after it has been tested, not before.

Another issue was that the order was signed after an ex parte hearing, which, in this case, meant that prosecutors were not present when Cromer heard the matter on Aug. 11, 2017. Gerber said in court that prosecutors were notified about the order on Aug. 14, 2017. Prosecutors said they did not realize the consequences of the order until they submitted a rush order to the State Crime Lab on Jan. 22 to have the evidence tested.

A lawyer with the State Crime Lab told prosecutors that the crime lab could not test the evidence because of language in the court order. The second paragraph of the order said that “all of the above agencies are prohibited from consuming all trace, blood or DNA evidence of Jaxson Swaim, or the defendant or anyone else whose trace, blood, or DNA evidence was obtained, without prior notice and order of the Court,” according to the motion.

Martin said in court Friday that the order has stalled the criminal investigation for seven months. Cromer, who presided over Friday’s hearing, said that was not his intent.

Cromer vacated the order but he wanted to set up safeguards to make sure parties are notified if analysts realize that a piece of evidence can’t be re-tested after analysis. Gerber offered several options, including the possibility of a defense expert being present in the lab.

Martin objected strongly to any suggestion that defense experts be in the lab. The State Crime Lab has specific protocols to protect the integrity of its work, she said. She also said it would create burdens if the State Crime Lab had to notify prosecutors about evidence that could not be re-tested.

Gerber said he understands that it might be burdensome, but he reminded Cromer that his client’s life is on the line, if he is convicted of first-degree murder and gets the death penalty.

Cromer ultimately ordered that the State Crime Lab notify prosecutors if certain evidence gets to a point where it can’t be re-tested.

Martin said requiring that would likely delay the trial for months.

BB&T says online, mobile banking working again

BB&T Corp. said Saturday that its online and mobile banking services are working and its service systems "have substantially recovered" from an outage that has lasted nearly two days.

An equipment malfunction at a data center disrupted the financial routines of millions of BB&T Corp. customers beginning late Thursday afternoon.

The interruption of services has drawn unflattering reactions on social media, both locally and nationally, as customers tried to get money out of an ATM or when checking if the direct deposit of their paycheck had shown up.

"As our systems continue to recover, we want our clients to be aware account information may only reflect transactions made through Thursday night," the bank said in a statement Saturday.

"Our systems are still processing updates, and we expect account information to become current later today."

The bank said it would reimburse customers for any fees they are assessed related to the outage, as well as waive its fees.

"We are carefully reviewing the cause of this issue, and taking steps to make sure this doesn't occur in the future," the bank said. "We are deeply sorry this has happened and we're committed to making this right for our clients."

According to the bank, its debit, credit and prepaid cards are unaffected, although some customers commenting on BB&T’s Facebook page said they have had difficulty in using them.

An outage map showed the biggest repercussions were being felt in Charlotte, the Triad and the Triangle, as well as in Atlanta, Washington, Maryland and Philadelphia.

The bank has 2,044 branches in 15 states. Its corporate headquarters are in Winston-Salem.

It was an untimely service breakdown given BB&T’s latest marketing pitch is “All we see is you,” and the bank had avoided having a major customer-service issue, unlike many of its peers.

BB&T’s social-media officials tried to put salve on the glitch via its website and Facebook page with a brief explanation of what happened, service updates, apologies and answers to customer questions.

By 12:45 p.m. Friday, BB&T had restored use of its ATM machines and automated Phone24 service.

By 3:30 p.m. Friday, it posted a notice that branches would stay open extra on Friday and branches that are normally open Saturdays would have two additional business hours.

Roger Beahm, executive director of the Center for Retail Innovation at Wake Forest University, said BB&T’s service issue particularly is intrusive given that “today people take digital-banking services for granted, just as they do electricity or gasoline.”

“When those necessities are suddenly taken away, people persevere through resourcefulness until the crisis is over, but they don’t forget easily,” Beahm said.

As Friday progressed, BB&T’s Facebook page filled with customer comments complaining about the inconvenience and limited access to their money, and decrying the lack of a backup system to quickly correct the issue.

“I get direct deposit with my job and I finally was able to access my account just a short time ago, but my account did not reflect my check,” Rafael Pena wrote on BB&T’s Facebook page.

“My bills are set up to be paid via direct deposit, so if no money is in my account for it to be withdrawn, I not only get an overdraft fee from BB&T but a fee from the institution that tried to take payment and was sent back. This error is costing me money, heartache and time.”

Dana Ann Houser wrote “screwing with people’s finances is way beyond major.”

“I’m a nurse. We work weekends. Need gas in the car to get there,” Houser wrote. “I have four kids. I’m sure they’ll want to eat ... before Tuesday.”

BB&T responded with a post saying, “We will work with clients who have incurred fees or experienced other challenges.”

BB&T reported in October 2012 and January 2013 being among several national and super-regional banks whose online services had been cyberhacked by groups sponsored by the Iranian government, causing “denial of service” disruptions.

“At this time, we have no reason to believe this issue is related to cybersecurity,” BB&T spokesman Brian Davis said Friday.

John Sweeney, an advertising professor at UNC Chapel Hill, said the longer BB&T customers are affected by the limited service, the more it could have “a lingering impact and increasing damage.”

Beahm said BB&T’s biggest potential concern is from “image erosion. ... The bank cannot afford to close its eyes on its customers.”

In January, BB&T said it plans to spend up to $50 million to expand its presence in digital financial technology as part of a cost-cutting initiative.

Chris Marinac of FIG Partners, a financial-services firm, said BB&T has emerged as an industry leader with digital banking. That represents a 180-degree turn from when BB&T was known for taking a toe-dipping approach to new technology and strategies.

“BB&T, even as a $220 billion bank, has become more nimble because it has realized how much costs it can take out of its system through digital,” Marinac said. “It is laser-focused on this effort, not waiting around for other banks to try it first.”

In April, BB&T top executive Kelly King’s enthusiasm for plugging artificial intelligence and robotics into its back-office, customer-service and compliance operations raised eyebrows with analysts and economists.

BB&T has joined Wells Fargo & Co. and other national and super-regional banks in spending hundreds of millions of dollars to pursue what they believe will be significant future cost savings from data mining of customer patterns.

“We will be pretty aggressive about that,” King said. “We just think there are huge ways to reduce cost in the backroom by the use of that.”

According to analysts, financial institutions have been slower adapters of AI and robotics.