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Widow of slain city worker Terry Cobb just trying to survive day by day

LaToya Cobb chose her words carefully. She’s had time for reflection since her husband was shot to death by a co-worker with the city’s sanitation department, and she wanted her thoughts to come across clearly.

She wants people to know something of the man she loves, of course. Those things are easy to discuss; recalling the good times, precious memories of raising a family, put a smile on her face during a very dark time.

But there’s more that she needs to say.

Difficult though it may be, Cobb also wants people — strangers who perhaps have heard only a cursory account — to know something about the way Terry Lee Cobb Jr. died in a spasm of workplace violence at the Johnson Municipal Services Center.

Her idea — her hope — is that by sharing such things, maybe, just maybe, someone else won’t find themselves where she is, feeling what she’s feeling, heading into a new year and trying to make sense of tragedy.

But where to begin?

“I hate it,” Cobb said. “My best friend, lover, husband, protector, father of my children … he’s gone. Over something so senseless.”

Workplace violence

By now, most of the city knows the basics about what happened to bring LaToya Cobb to this point.

Early Dec. 20, about 6:30 on a Friday morning, a man armed with two handguns barged into a breakroom at the Municipal Services Center and shot 48-year-old Terry Cobb at close range.

A second sanitation department employee, Curtis Peterson, 60, was wounded. Police chalked his injuries up as “collateral damage.” Terry Cobb was the only person targeted directly.

The gunman, 61-year-old Steven Dewayne Haizlip, ran outside the building after the shooting and lay in wait for the police officers he knew would be responding quickly and in large numbers.

When police arrived, Haizlip raised a weapon and fired at uniformed officers. One, Sgt. Cameron Stewart Sloan, was struck twice. Force was answered with overwhelming force; Haizlip died where he fell.

The whole thing was over in a matter of minutes, and what happened next amounted to confusion and chaos as investigators worked to sort fact from fiction and to pry truth from rumor.

At the Cobbs’ house, meanwhile, the fog of an early morning was lifted by disbelief as Cobb learned what was taking place.

Terry Cobb, as he almost always did in the pre-dawn darkness of a workday, kissed his wife, told her that he loved her and asked her to call him when she woke. “It was 5:24. He was out the door,” Cobb said.

The next thing Cobb remembers, the phone was ringing. Her husband’s former supervisor, recently retired, a father figure to Terry and godfather to two of the Cobbs’ children, was on the line.

“He said ‘Come down to the yard. Get yourself together,’” Cobb said.

The kids were still asleep, she said, and she didn’t understand at first. The oldest is 20, the youngest 13. But she didn’t want to leave them in bed.

“I said, ‘Just get Terry to call me,’” Cobb said. The answer was direct. “He can’t.”

Then she understood. “I thought they were resuscitating him,” she said. “I guess it was shock. I was numb.”

What happened next only made a tragic situation worse.

Cobb said she rushed to the city yard and gave her ID to a police officer stationed at the front of the Lowery Street property.

“I sat outside the gate from maybe 10 after 7 until maybe 9:30, 9:45,” she said. “No one came out to talk to me. Nobody.

“I wanted to get to my husband. But I had to wait.”

Damon Dequenne, an assistant city manager, wrote in an email Tuesday that official notification of next of kin varies by circumstances.

“This incident required a search of the entire facility to verify that no other assailants or victims were present,” he wrote. “In addition, maintain the integrity of the crime scene and having positive identification of the victim are paramount before notification can be made. Next of kin notifications are made as soon as possible once all the other necessary processes and procedures allow for us to do so.”

Still, even in the confusion, it doesn’t seem much to ask to have someone in an official capacity looking for a new widow or standing ready to console a confused 44-year-old sitting alone and scared for hours just a few steps from where her husband had been slain.

Rumor-mill kicks in

Investigators, obviously, were swamped. A workplace shooting of this magnitude, on city property, that left two city workers dead — one at the hands of police — demanded answers. Quickly.

The eyes of the nation, if only for a nanosecond, would be on little old Winston-Salem.

Rumors and third-hand information, as they tend to do, flew. And much of the “information” was incorrect.

At a news conference that afternoon, officials reported that Haizlip and Terry Cobb had some sort of long-standing disagreement, a feud of sorts, which had boiled over the previous afternoon.

“There wasn’t a disagreement, a feud or whatever,” Cobb said. “Haizlip was driving too fast and Terry told him to slow the truck down. That was it.”

Cobb reeled off the top of her head the names of the other members of her husband’s crew. She said they’d all been to her house and recounted what happened.

Terry Cobb was a heavy equipment operator; he was working the mechanical arm of a brush collection truck that Thursday afternoon.

In doing so, stabilizing arms come out of either side of the truck to steady it for moving unwieldly, heavy loads.

Haizlip, her husband’s crew members told her, was supposed to be three blocks away but had driven his truck too fast and too close to where they were working. And Terry Cobb Jr. was not happy about it.

“They started arguing about it. I’m sure (Terry) said some choice words,” Cobb said. “He could be direct.”

The city, through Dequenne, declined to comment on that aspect. “Once the investigation has been completed, we will determine what comments, if any, we are able to make at that time,” he wrote in an e-mail.

One thing Cobb will not abide is the rumor, still in circulation, that her husband spat on Haizlip.

“I’m tired of people saying that Terry spit on him,” she said. “If nothing else, I know my husband. He’s straight up. … Anybody who knows Terry knows he’s not a spitter. That’s not his character. He’d just hit you.”

Either way, an argument over erratic and careless driving, is that worth a man’s life?

Last moments together

As you’d expect, the days after Terry Cobb’s murder have been a blur for his family and friends.

One minute, a wife is getting an early-morning kiss goodbye and the next, she was trying to hold her family together and plan a funeral —less than a week before Christmas.

The night before Terry Cobb died, he and his wife took the family out to celebrate the 13th birthday of Bryce, their youngest. “It was the last time he saw his dad,” Cobb said.

The boy and his father had a special bond. Bryce, who has cerebral palsy and survived an operation in 2012 for a brain tumor, talked to his dad about “guy stuff” — fast cars and motorcycles.

Bryce’s operation prompted Terry Cobb to give up his own motorcycle. He loved it, but he knew he couldn’t take any chances. Doctors had told the family that the surgery carried risks.

“They said it could be like handing us a baby back, like we had to start over,” Cobb said. “But by the grace of God, he woke up walking and talking.”

She shared that story for a very specific reason. She wants people to know that experience, difficult and frightening, will help her deal with this one.

“I do know the Lord and what he will provide,” she said.

The weekend immediately following Terry Cobb’s death was particularly rough. They had planned on doing their holiday shopping and putting up a tree. The spirit of the season was extinguished by a phone call.

“We didn’t do Christmas,” Cobb said. “How do you put it? It wasn’t a good time. Just a dark cloud over all of it.”

For now, Cobb will try and focus on the good times and precious memories. She opened her conversation about her husband by talking about the cruises they’d taken in recent years and the fact that Terry liked surprising her with jewelry.

She laughed when asked about a nickname of his, “Boo-Boo,” that appeared in his obituary. “That came from before I knew him, from his friends growing up,” she said. “I wasn’t allowed to call him that.”

To provide for his family, Terry Cobb worked two jobs. Many days, he’d leave the city yard and go directly to UPS, where he was a part-time driver.

For fun, he loved to dance and just about any kind of music you care to name. The Eagles were a particular favorite. Jazz, too.

“Oh, what’s his name? I can see his face,” Cobb said, trying to recall a particular artist her husband enjoyed. “If I had (Terry’s) phone, I could tell you. But the police still have it.”

That was the only point during a 45-minute conversation where she came close to losing her composure.

“I broke down in the mall getting his suit,” Cobb said. “He had a suit, but I wanted him and Bryce dressed alike. And I’m sitting there, thinking ‘I’m wearing a black dress for my husband’s funeral. This is not what I should be doing.’”

Coping with grief

If she had let her emotions flow again, it would have been completely understandable. But Tuesday morning, in a conference room at the law firm of Crumpler, Freedman, Park and Witt, was neither the time nor the place.

That was a time to talk about what her family had lost, what they’ll need to do to move ahead and to speak for her husband.

“I do all my own legwork,” she said. “I wasn’t going to let it all linger on. The way I felt — the way I feel — is that this was senseless and could have been prevented.”

She said that the Monday after her husband’s death, she went to City Hall to check into Terry Cobb’s benefits.

Specifically, a death benefit; there was a funeral to plan — and pay for — and time was at a premium.

“I feel like maybe they didn’t know what to say or hadn’t discussed it,” she said. “Or maybe they just didn’t know how.”

Questions will arise again and again in the coming weeks and months on whether supervisors intervened the day it happened in the dispute between Haizlip and Cobb or whether a workplace shooting could have been stopped.

“We’re not prepared to comment on this until the Police finalize their investigation,” Dequenne wrote. “Additionally, this information would also be part of the personnel files of Mr. Cobb and Mr. Haizlip, and thus, not subject to public disclosure.”

City employees, Dequenne wrote, are all given some training about conflict resolution and personal security upon hire and during orientation.

As for the new year and the days immediately following, Cobb said she will stay busy trying to keep her kids occupied and as positive as possible.

“I feel sorry for both families,” she said of hers and that of Steven Haizlip. “Somebody else lost a husband, too. I’ve made a peace with myself. God drove me in the right direction. I can’t go to heaven if I hold a grudge and hate somebody.”

She’s trying to impart that same attitude to her children, too.

“I have forgiven him (Haizlip), but I can’t forget,” she said. “You can dislike it. I don’t understand, and I probably never will.”

Encourage young people to achieve, speakers say during Emancipation commemoration

An annual commemoration of the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863 focused on various themes of liberation on New Year’s Day, as speakers called for helping young people achieve their dreams.

A large audience gathered at New Bethel Baptist Church on North Trade Street to hear songs of inspiration and words of encouragement, and to see the awarding of scholarships to seven students.

The commemoration is held each year to mark the day in 1863 when President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation announced freedom to all slaves living in parts of the South that were still held by the Confederacy.

The event, sponsored by the Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Emancipation Association, also marked the conclusion of the seven-day Kwanzaa celebration of African American culture.

The church’s pastor, the Rev. Kendall Jones Sr., said that the legacy of slavery left many people with “psychological chains” that can limit their ability to achieve their dreams.

People can’t control how they’re labeled, he said, “but we do have power to accept or not accept the label that’s placed on us.

Jones told how he was the kind of student labeled “least likely to succeed” as he grew up and went to school.

In response, Jones said, he wrote a story that was passed around to members of the class that told how “I too have a dream.” When the teacher came across the story, he said, she cried.

Years later, at a high school reunion, classmates told him to approach that teacher and tell her all he had done with his life. But he didn’t do that, he said, because “I did not do it for her.” Jones then appealed for people in the audience to put more effort into helping the young people of today:

“We need to touch some of these young people and let them know that they, too, can achieve,” Jones said.

Giovanni Gerald, who won a scholarship from the Emancipation Association in 2019, came back to talk briefly about how she had learned the importance of knowing both the struggles and the triumphs of African American history.

“It is imperative that young minds ... have a heightened awareness of the events that led up to the emancipation,” she said.

Several speakers, including Winston-Salem City Council Member D.D. Adams of the North Ward, stressed the importance of voting, or pointed out that a federal judge’s ruling means that voters will not have to present photo ID when they cast ballots during the March 3 primary.

State Republican leaders have asked the department of Justice to seek a stay of that ruling. A department spokeswoman said Tuesday that the office is reviewing the judge’s order.

Speaking in favor of diversity, Jones said racism “does more damage to the racist than the one it is directed to,” and called on people to “choose to love in the face of hate.”

In what appeared to be an oblique reference to President Donald Trump, Jones said “love trumps hate” and called on people to turn out to vote in 2020 like they did in previous elections in support of former President Barack Obama.

The following students were awarded scholarships by the Emancipation Association: Najashi Shameel Belchor, Taylor Nicole Martin, Stephen Natheniel Minor, LaJada Antone Flowers, Todd Javaun Ryan, Darian James Lowe and Allen Xavier Choyce.

Larry Woods retires from HAWS

Larry Woods retired as chief executive of the Housing Authority of Winston-Salem on Dec. 31, concluding a run of more than 13 years as the leader of the agency that provides public housing in Winston-Salem.

“Everybody knows a leader when they see one, and he has been an exceptional leader,” said Arthur T. King, who chairs the HAWS Board of Commissioners. “He grew up in public housing, so he knows the kind of pull that environment can have on one’s ambition. He lifted himself up by his own bootstraps, and looked at ways to try to help others do so as well.”

King said the board is deep into the search for Woods’ replacement, and should have someone lined up by mid-January.

Woods got a standing ovation in late 2006 when he took over the leadership of HAWS at a troubled time. The previous year, the authority had forced out an executive director after a federal audit had revealed more than $4 million in unauthorized spending.

Woods also took over at a time when the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development was sending less money to housing authorities. The response, Woods said at the time, would have to include running the authority as “a business model with a social conscience.”

Woods said he told his board 15 months before his retirement that the day was coming, to give the commissioners time to search.

“I have been there 13 years, and I think we have done a great job of turning it around,” Woods said. “We think we have left our mark on Winston-Salem. I was also able to bring many of our innovations and concerns to Washington, D.C., and have been invited to meet with other innovative groups. We view ourselves as in the vanguard of low-income housing.”

From 1999 to 2006, Woods had served as deputy director of the Wilmington Housing Authority. Taking the helm here, Woods vowed to clean up the image of HAWS and put public housing in better condition, too.

“Repairing the relationship of HAWS with the federal government will be a big feather in his cap,” said Derwin Montgomery, a former member of the Winston-Salem City Council long active on housing issues. “We had our differences at times in how we move forward on housing policy. But there existed and still exists a mutuality of respect.”

Woods faced controversies along his way, most recently when HAWS announced plans to sell the Crystal Towers housing tower for the elderly and disabled to a private developer, only to have the Winston-Salem City Council give a flat “no” when HAWS asked the city to endorse the deal.

Nearly everyone agrees Crystal Towers needs repairs, but many are saying that it would be wrong to eliminate housing for the poor located so close to downtown.

D.D. Adams, who chairs the city council’s general government committee — one of its jobs is to monitor housing — said Wednesday she wishes the city and HAWS had worked more closely together on housing issues.

Adams and other city officials were disappointed when HAWS failed on a couple attempts to get a $30 million Choice Neighborhoods grant to improve the Cleveland Avenue neighborhood. Another attempt is currently in the works.

“I think he has done the best he could do,” Adams said, commenting on Woods’ tenure. “If we had started earlier on the Choice Neighborhoods initiative and worked together, we would have fared better. I commend them for applying for it. It could have been better if we had been on top of our game and realized we can’t do anything by ourselves anymore.”

HAWS is an entity run independently of the city, although the mayor appoints the members of the HAWS board.

Woods said not getting the Choice Neighborhoods grant would rank among his two major disappointments during his time over HAWS. The other would be not getting a Moving to Work designation that would give HAWS more flexibility in spending. Both efforts may yet bear fruit under Woods’ successor.

HAWS created the Cleveland Avenue Master Plan in 2010 with the goal of transforming a community that had become blighted, Woods believed, by the concentration of too much public housing in the area. That was an outdated model, he said, calling instead for an approach that would encourage people of different incomes to make their homes in the neighborhood.

Even then, it was seen as an effort that would take 15 or 20 years to bring about.

In 2013, HAWS introduced a new housing concept called “Step-Up” housing in the Cleveland Avenue neighborhood with the opening of The Oaks at Tenth. Featuring 50 modern apartments with separate entrances, the apartments were designed, Woods said, to have a feel and appearance that didn’t say “public housing.”

The apartments also came with work requirements. Woods said the idea was that people who lived there would eventually move into private housing, opening up spaces for new tenants. Another Cleveland Avenue development, Camden Station, opened in 2015.

Showing off the modern apartments, Woods said the hope was that the work requirements and other aspects of the program would help residents climb out of poverty.

Montgomery, who now represents N.C. House District 72, said Woods “rightfully pushed forward the perspective of individual responsibility in the creation of Step-Up housing.”

“But at the same time, that bumped heads with the economic realities,” Montgomery said. “Where are the jobs and opportunities?”

JoAnne Allen, a candidate for mayor who has been actively opposing the sale of Crystal Towers, faults Woods for not taking a stronger line with the city in terms of asking for help for housing needs. Woods should have been pushing for help with the maintenance of Crystal Towers, she said.

“It is unfortunate that Woods has gone along to get along with the city and others,” she said. “You have all these individual lives in your hands, and when you do not do your job, you have failed.”

Woods said the proposal to sell Crystal Towers arose from HUD encouragement to look at how private industry operates in property management: If a property becomes too expensive to maintain, sell it off and put the proceeds into modern housing with lower maintenance costs.

Mayor Allen Joines called the idea of selling Crystal Towers, even though he disagreed with it, an example of how Woods has been willing to make hard decisions.

“I think Larry did a great job of righting the ship,” Joines said, referring to the chaotic conditions Woods faced on arrival here. “He got it going in the right direction, got her finances well in place. He had to make some hard decisions, some not so popular, but ones that had to be made — getting some of the unprofitable projects into profitability. He took some of the older housing projects and had them redone.”

Woods said he and his wife Carolyn are moving to Raleigh, where they can be closer to children and grandchildren. He likes to fish, plans to take up woodworking, and maybe do some small-engine repair. But he hasn’t totally thrown in his housing hand:

“I’ve gotten calls from individuals asking to do consulting work,” he said.