For almost 25 years, Tanya Tise hasn’t thought much about the man who killed her husband. And that couldn’t have been easy.
Lt. Aaron Tise Jr. — Gerome to Tanya — died early on the morning of June 26, 1992, when his police cruiser was crushed by a stolen road grader driven by a man named Conrad Crews.
Just 19 at the time, Crews had been released early from prison despite a five-year sentence handed down four months before for firing a shotgun into a vehicle occupied by two police officers. That would be mighty hard for anybody not to think about.
“Honestly, after (he was sentenced) I just put him out of my mind,” Tise said.
That changed three days after Christmas when she received a form letter from the state parole commission about Conrad Crews and case number 92024331.
“This letter is to inform you that, as required by North Carolina law, the Post-Release Supervision will soon be reviewing the above named offender for parole consideration. This letter informs you of the opportunity to provide your views or information that you want the (commission) to consider in reaching a parole decision.”
Views and information? About a cop killer, sentenced to life in prison, but who is up for parole?
After putting Conrad Crews out of her mind for so many years, Tanya Tise has thought about little else since opening that letter.
Tanya Tise apologized unnecessarily after opening the door to the home that she and her Gerome bought not long after the birth of Michael Tise, their only child.
“I’m sorry for the mess, but I live in here,” she said with a smile.
The “mess” she was worried about was a small pile of old newspapers and a couple large boxes filled with handwritten police reports, supplements and documents detailing the last few minutes of her husband’s life.
She’d kept the newspapers for the day a grandchild might ask about what happened to Grandpop. (Sadly, those dreams faded when Mike Tise died from cancer in 2010. He was 39.) The police reports, supplements and other papers only arrived in the last few weeks.
“They said I’d have to get familiar with all this before the hearing,” Tise said. “I wasn’t ready to look at all of this. There’s been a lot of crying. I read it for a while, then I have to get up and walk around some.”
The facts about Lt. Aaron Tise’s death have never been in dispute.
About 1:30 a.m. June 26, 1992, police responded to a call about teenagers fooling around with heavy construction equipment parked near the Lakeside Apartments off New Walkertown Avenue. Officers spent 30 minutes looking around, but after finding nothing of note, they left.
Two hours later, they were back, having been summoned by a report of a road-grader being driven down East Drive. Tise, the shift lieutenant in charge of the east side of town, and other officers pulled on to the side of the street to investigate.
Tise saw the grader coming at his car — one witness estimated the speed at 35 mph — and tried to escape through the passenger door. But the grader smashed into the cruiser and pushed it onto Tise, crushing him.
Witnesses said the grader dragged Tise and his car for about 15 yards before Tise was thrown clear. The road grader careened into a second police car and three other vehicles before it came to a halt a short distance away, across New Walkertown Road.
About an hour later, at 4:30, officers went to Tise’s home to take his family to Forsyth Medical Center.
“Will Fine, he just retired, knocked on the door and said ‘There’s been an accident. The lieutenant has been hurt,’” Tise said. “He knew, but he just couldn’t say. He just said ‘I’ve just been sent to get you.’”
They were met at the hospital by then-police Chief George Sweat and a police chaplain. “They just said ‘We lost Aaron,’” she said. “From then on, I was just in a fog.”
Four young men, Crews, his brother Jamarus Crews, 16, Derrick Frierson, 19, and Theo Witherspoon, 19, were charged the next day with first-degree murder, assault and larceny. A month later, the charges against the younger Crews and the other two were dropped when prosecutors said they didn’t have enough evidence to convict.
Conrad Crews, who’d been identified as the one driving the road grader, was indicted for first-degree murder. Then-District Attorney Tom Keith said in a statement that he intended to seek the death penalty.
“As I recall, the second officer (Dan) Dodder couldn’t identify the person,” Keith said last week. “Crews’ defense was that he’d already jumped out. But there was someone behind the wheel. And he killed Aaron.”
A crash reconstruction showed that someone had steered the road grader down East Avenue, a winding road, until it crashed on other side of New Walkertown with Tise’s car still underneath it.
A year later, in July 1993, Crews pleaded guilty to second-degree murder and agreed to leave sentencing up to a judge.
Even if Crews got a life sentence — which he did in July 1993 — the law at the time allowed for the possibility of parole.
“There was no premeditation, so we couldn’t get first-degree,” Keith said. “(Crews) killed a police officer, and that’s as serious as you can get. We got about as much as we could get out of it.”
Long before the morning he ran over Lt. Tise, Conrad Crews had been in trouble.
He was on probation for possession with intent to sell and deliver a counterfeit controlled substance in June 1991, when he and another man were arrested for firing a shotgun at two police officers who had stopped them on suspicion of armed robbery.
He was convicted of two counts of discharging a firearm into the officers’ vehicle and sentenced in October 1991 to five years in prison. He was released four months later due to overcrowding.
“With that previous conviction, if (the N.C. Department of Correction) had kept him …. If I was Mrs. Tise, I’d be pretty upset,” Keith said.
Of course she is.
But it’s the whole process, that letter from the parole commission, that’s torn open old wounds and brought back long-ago memories.
“The morning it happened, I just wanted to go back to the bedroom, go back to sleep and then get up from this bad dream,” Tise said. “I never woke up from it. It just stinks.”
So here she finds herself, sifting through boxes of reports and records and thinking about what she’ll write — and say — to the parole commission when she’s afforded her time to speak.
Perhaps she’ll show them her husband’s wedding ring, right there next to hers, on her finger where she’s worn it since another police lieutenant slipped it to her the day he was killed. Someone offered to have it resized so it wouldn’t hang loosely.
“I want it just like it was when it was taken off,” she said.
Maybe she’ll talk about the kind of man he was, a family man who loved being outdoors and spending time with his son.
Or perhaps she’ll discuss just how difficult it was to move forward with her life following the death of her high-school sweetheart. A picture of the two of them together at the very first senior prom held at West Forsyth High hangs by their front door next to a photo of Mike and his prom date.
“It’s funny looking at them side by side like that,” she said. “That’s why I put them there.”
It’s also possible that Tise, if asked, will talk about the struggle to forgive Conrad Crews for what he robbed from her.
“I’m just not there yet,” she said. “And the good Lord will have to understand.”
When the hearing rolls around, probably in mid-April, members of the commission will have reviewed the contents of a parole investigation including records about the crime, Crews’ previous criminal record, his conduct while in the prison system and input from court officials, interested parties and the victim’s families.
“Records is all they have to go by,” Tise said. “I want to tell them that I lost the love of my life. That’s what I lost, and I’m a different person because of that. You either stay down or you get up and move forward. And it doesn’t take much to knock you back down again.”
Since going into the system in 1993, Crews has racked up 86 infractions including sexual acts, stealing from other inmates, disobeying orders, fighting, threats and possession of an illegal substance. His most recent infraction was in July 2014 for theft.
“He has been eligible for parole since 2002,” said Jerry Higgins, a spokesman for the N.C. DOC. But this will be Crews’ first hearing. If he’s denied, Crews won’t be eligible for another hearing for three years.
Tanya Tise, a policeman’s wife, understands better than most that the parole commission has to follow the law whether she likes it or not. She knows that back in 1993, a life sentence didn’t really mean life and that Conrad Crews, an admitted cop killer, might one day walk out of prison.
“I’m sure he’s sorry,” she said. “But is it for getting caught or what happened? I just pray they make a sound judgment. Naturally I don’t want (parole), but this is life. God forgives anything. But I can’t forget what they found up on that street.”
The economic and political winds fiercely swirling around the firearms industry have enveloped Sturm, Ruger & Co.
In December 2016, at the end of the second term of the Obama administration, Ruger reached a peak of 2,430 full- and part-time jobs — more than double its 2008 total of 1,145.
Last week, the company disclosed that it had eliminated 28 percent of that workforce, or 680 jobs, including at least 70 at its production plant in Mayodan.
Ruger’s headquarters is in Southport, Conn., along with other production operations in Earth City, Mo.; Newport, N.H.; and Prescott, Ariz.
The breakdown: 368 full- and 312 part-time jobs. The previous public acknowledgement: very little outside of confirming that it cut 60 nonproduction jobs companywide in January. The workforce is at its lowest level since 1,441 at the end of 2012.
Christopher Killoy, Ruger’s chief executive, told analysts that all temporary positions were eliminated during the second half of 2017. It had 310 at the end of 2016.
The cause and effect of the ebb and flow?
The substantial — and thus far unfounded — fears that the federal government under the Obama administration was going to restrict gun sales and ownership.
During the Obama years, sales tended to boom, and the share prices of publicly traded firearms manufacturers rose, following a mass shooting tragedy.
In August 2016, Ruger went all in on its support of the National Rifle Association’s legislative agenda, pledging to provide up to $5 million that includes donations from guns sold through the November general election.
Ruger pledged in August 2013 to create at least 473 jobs in Mayodan as part of an overall $25.7 million plant project to help meet surging demand for its pistols and rifles.
The Mayodan workforce was at 334 in the fourth quarter, down from 403 in the first quarter, according to employment data collected by the Rockingham County Center for Economic Development, Small Business & Tourism.
Killoy told analysts in Ruger’s third-quarter earnings report that the Mayodan plant is using 75 percent of its production space after the company moved some production from other plants there.
With President Donald Trump pledging his support for the firearms industry and Second Amendment rights, most of those concerns have dissipated even as Trump said last week that he would consider tightening some background checks on purchasing those products and raising the age to 21 for buying certain assault weapons.
The estimated sell-through of Ruger’s products from the independent distributors to retailers decreased 17 percent in 2017 from 2016. For the same period, the National Instant Criminal Background Check System background checks fell 11 percent.
The result: Ruger reported Wednesday that fiscal 2017 sales were down 22.1 percent, to $522.3 million, while fourth-quarter sales fell 26.9 percent, to $118.2 million. It had a 50.3 percent decline in fourth-quarter net income, to $10.3 million.
Killoy said there was “decreased overall consumer demand in 2017 due to stronger-than-normal demand during most of 2016, likely bolstered by the political campaigns for the November 2016 elections.”
He said that 2016 was “the second-highest year for Ruger for both sales and earnings. This surge in demand likely pulled some 2017 sales back into 2016.”
Referring to the 2017 job cuts, “we were mindful of the impact that would have on our people, operations and profitability,” Killoy said.
“However, we had to make some difficult decisions,” he said. “We developed a strategic plan focusing on not (filling) positions vacated through attrition and the reduction of overtime while carefully monitoring our head count.”
Killoy said Ruger “is better positioned to succeed in 2018” at the current workforce level, although he cautioned that “the review of our workforce and our business needs occurs every couple of weeks.”
Ruger is not the only firearms manufacturer taking such a sales hit.
Remington Outdoor Co., which filed for bankruptcy protection Feb. 12 with a restructuring plan in place, has just 150 employees at its former headquarters in Mayodan.
Through the third quarter of fiscal 2017, Remington’s sales had fallen by 27.5 percent, to $466.7 million. It reported a $60.5 million loss, compared with a $19.1 million profit at the same time in 2016.
Even with Ruger flirting with over-saturation in its current production status, Killoy told analysts that the company is “watching that closely” in terms of Remington’s debtor-in-possession status.
Creditors tend to want to sell assets acquired in bankruptcy sooner than later.
“I mean, Remington is a great company,” Killoy said. “It’s been around since 1816. They’ve got some great brands and great products.
“We think given our strategy and our capital structure, with no debt and $63 million of cash on hand, (it) may provide some opportunities down the road if they present themselves.”
Ruger is feeling turbulence from some investors after the Feb. 14 school shooting in Florida that killed 17 people.
For example, mutual-fund giant BlackRock told firearms manufacturers Thursday that it wants to “understand their responses” to the Florida school shooting.
BlackRock owns 17 percent of Ruger and 11 percent of American Outdoor Brands through its various mutual fund indexes.
“We focus on engaging with the companies and understanding how they are responding to society’s expectations of them,” BlackRock spokesman Ed Sweeney said.
Bank of America Corp. issued a similar statement Saturday, saying it plans "to engage the limited number of clients we have that manufacture assault weapons for non-military use to understand what they can contribute to this shared responsibility."
Killoy told analysts that “like all Americans, we also struggle with the shock and sadness of these horrible events.”
“We continue to stand by our model as arms-makers for responsible citizens, but we are people, too, and are impacted when tragedies like this occur in our communities.”
The Ruger reduction represents another example of the vulnerability of corporations, particularly manufacturing, to evolving customer buying patterns, locally including Dell Inc., Caterpillar Inc., Hanesbrands Inc. and Reynolds American Inc.
In the cases of Caterpillar, Dell and now Ruger, their decision to build a plant in the Triad to deal with production backlogs wound up contributing to over-saturated production levels when sharp decline in demand occurred.
Ruger has been made eligible for up to $9.46 million in performance-based incentives from the state’s Job Development Grant. There was another $4 million in state incentives related to employee training and infrastructure construction as well as $1.79 million in local incentives.
How much Ruger has been paid in state incentives could not be retrieved from the N.C. Revenue Department last week.
Rockingam County economic officials said Ruger has been paid $88,758 in incentives by Mayodan and $98,035 by the county. Incentives are based on 50 percent each of meeting job-creation targets and achieving capital investment criteria.
“Investment and employment are reviewed each year,” said Jan Critz-Yokeley, the director of the county economic agency.
“If the company does not meet and maintain the investment and employment requirements, then the company agrees to a reduction by the county and the town of the pro rata share offered as a financial incentive. Annual installments would be reduced accordingly.”
Killoy has expressed confidence that Ruger would be able to adjust to retailers buying fewer products “in an effort to reduce their inventories and generate cash,” along with “aggressive price discounting and lucrative consumer rebates offered by many of our competitors.”
Analysts with Zacks Equity Research said Ruger has been able to offset some of the decline in gun sales by shifting its production focus toward concealed-carry products and modern sporting rifles.
These products, like the Mark IV pistols, Precision Rifle and the LCP II pistol, represented 30 percent of firearm sales for the company through the first three quarters of fiscal 2017.
“We expect to witness more progress in the new business line,” the Zacks analysts said. “Customers have recently started spending their discretionary income on concealed-carry products and modern sporting rifles, which might hurt the company’s flagship firearms product line.
“Although Sturm, Ruger is gradually shifting its focus to commercial sporting products,” the analysts said, “whether it will succeed at the end or not, remains a question.”
Chancellor Elwood Robinson enjoys the opportunity to have a conversation about Winston-Salem State University and how this historically black college has and continues to play a vital role in the Triad.
Robinson recently had the chance to do just that, appearing at a forum with other administrators from historically black colleges and universities that aired Feb. 19 on UNC-TV.
Their conversations were followed by a showing of the documentary “Tell Them We Are Rising,” which chronicles the origins, significant events and current state of HBCUs in America today.
In his remarks at the forum, Robinson touted some of the successes that WSSU has achieved, such as it having the highest percentage of seniors in the UNC system who are able to find a job within six months of graduation, according to a 2014 study by the N.C. Department of Commerce.
And WSSU has a mobile health clinic, Rams Know H.O.W. Mobile Unit, which helps serve and educate citizens primarily in the East Winston area — and will soon have a second one up and running, Robinson said.
“I’m excited about the work that I do every day, and the students that come here and the kind of culture that we’re trying to create — a culture around excellence,” he said.
And as the university enters its 126th year, Robinson said he believes this HBCU can continue to do great things for its students, its alumni and the community.
Robinson sat down the Winston-Salem Journal to discuss the importance HBCUs play today, their dedication to quality education and how WSSU stands out.
His answers have been edited for length.
Q: How would you describe the state of HBCUs in America, and in North Carolina, today?
Answer: That’s an interesting question, and I think it’s a complicated question to ask. I think HBCUs, like most institutions in higher education, there’s certainly diversity in terms of the status of them. Some are strong and some are not so strong, but I think they mirror what’s happening in higher education in general. I like to think and really believe that the HBCUs in North Carolina are probably in better shape than HBCUs in other states around the country, and I think that’s probably because we have a mixture of state-supported institutions, as well as private institutions. So overall, I would say that HBCUs in North Carolina are relatively strong.
Q: HBCUs were obviously very important for America in times of segregation, but how would you describe their importance today in the 21st century?
Answer: I think they’re probably even more important today than ever before. They’re more important today because of the history and tradition of which they were founded. When we think about HBCUs, the reason why they exist was because there was no place for African-Americans to go to receive any higher education. As times have changed and the world has become more diverse and opened up, opportunities are there for folks to go and receive an education anywhere that they want to receive an education. We have to make sure that our institutions are strong, our programs are strong for anyone who wants to come here and they’re relevant, because we have a history and tradition of those individuals who came to HBCUs, there are legacies involved in that. If your mother or father went to an HBCU, or Winston-Salem State University, it is quite likely that you would also want to go to that university as well. So those institutions have built a legacy and a history associated with that, but those institutions have become increasingly more diverse. Here, in Winston-Salem State University, we’re 69 percent African-American, so 31 percent of the students who come here are other than African-American.
Q: What are some of the achievements of WSSU that a lot of people might not be aware of?
Answer: There’s a huge history and tradition of educating teachers in the state of North Carolina. You can go around North Carolina now and you can see individuals who are in leadership positions, individuals who contributed to the overall educational climate of this state came from Teacher’s College in Winston-Salem State University. Take that transformation now to health care, now being the third largest producers of nurses in the state of North Carolina. Oftentimes, people don’t realize that. And the one thing that they don’t realize and I always ask folks when I go around, if you ask someone of the 17 institutions, for the 16 higher education institutions in North Carolina, which institution … the seniors when they graduate, they’re employed six months after graduation at the highest percentage, which institution is that? Very few people would think Winston-Salem State University. The work that we do in the community, we not only have a motto of ‘Enter to Learn, Depart to Serve,’ it’s something that we live. It’s something that we put in our curriculum. It is something that we make sure is part of the WSSU experience. So when students come here, no matter what they major in, they’re thinking about how I can give back, how I can contribute to my community. And the work that we do in Winston, in and around health-care screenings with our mobile unit is second to none. No one else in this country does the kind of community work that we do here at Winston-Salem State with one mobile unit, now two mobile units we’re very excited about, going into hard-to-reach areas in East Winston, in and around Winston-Salem and in our rural counties, that’s where we make a difference, that’s the story that we have to tell.
Q: What do you think are some of the biggest misconceptions about HBCUs today?
Answer: People think of HBCUs as black institutions, and I think that’s the biggest misconception that we have in this country when people think about HBCUs. Since I’ve been in the HBCU world, but particularly since I’ve been here as chancellor, telling the story about who we are, that we are just a great institution that wants to deliver education at the highest possible level. And I do that primarily because of the foundation on which this university was founded, by Simon Green Atkins. When they asked him in 1892 what kind of institution he wanted to create, and what would he teach at that institution for recently emancipated slaves? And he simply said, ‘Well, what do they teach in Harvard?’ So wanting to create an institution where you delivered a wonderful, high-quality education, that’s what these institutions are about. What I hope that people take away from this interview, is that when you think about Winston-Salem State, you want to get a degree in history, you want to get a degree in nursing, if you want to get a degree in any of our majors that you’re coming here and you’re going to have a faculty that’s well-prepared, a faculty that wants to make sure that they’re preparing you for 2020 and beyond, making sure that you have the kind of essential skills that are necessary for you to participate and create the next new workforce.
Q: In the documentary “Tell Them We Are Rising” one woman mentioned while she’s unpacking her dorm room that she’s attending an HBCU because it’s a safe space for her. What do you think of that description? Do you think that’s an accurate description for a lot of students who come to HBCUs?
Answer: We work every day to make sure that that happens — that it is a safe place for students when they come. That’s part of our core values, our institutional core values. We want to make sure that when you come here, that you can maximize your potential. And one way of maximizing your potential is feeling good about who you are, by embracing yourself and seeing yourself in the work that you’re doing. So that’s really important to us that it is a safe place not only from the psychological and self-esteem perspective, but it is a safe place where you can come and you can get a good education and don’t feel threatened, don’t feel like you’re in an environment where you’re going to be bullied, but feel like you’re in an environment that you want to be cared for and nurtured and receive the kind of social support and that will enable you to be a successful student.
Q: What do you think needs to be done moving forward to ensure that HBCUs — nationwide, here in North Carolina, here at WSSU — that they are strong and vibrant institutions of higher education?
Answer: You know, first of all, I think that it begins by telling the story about HBCUs and Winston-Salem State University, letting the region, the state and the world know about this institution and the great things that are happening. That’s what I try to do every day, is tell the story of Winston-Salem State University. If you think about all the constituents that are necessary for the university to be successful, we need to engage in them more, we need to have conversations with them about how they can support the work that we’re doing. It’s one thing to allow a student to come to your university. I think having those kinds of conversations and connections will go a long way to making sure that we sustain these institutions well into the future.