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Defense attorney asks court to dismiss charge against Forsyth County man in human-remains case

Four years ago, Winston-Salem police and Forsyth County sheriff’s deputies searched the property of Jason Michael Mitchell and found human remains that have never been publicly identified.

Four years later, his case has not gone to trial and it’s not clear when it will.

Because of that, Mitchell’s attorney, John Bryson, is asking a Forsyth County judge to dismiss the pending criminal charge against Mitchell — one count of felonious destruction of a human body or remains to conceal a death. Bryson said Mitchell’s constitutional right to a speedy trial is being violated.

Mitchell’s wife, Mary Utleye Mitchell, 52, is facing the same charge. A trial date for her case also has not been set. They have not been charged with murder. Mary Mitchell’s attorney, Michael Grace, has not filed a similar motion asking that her criminal charge be dismissed

Winston-Salem police seized nearly 250 items from the property the Mitchells shared at 3555 Brookbank Drive in Pfafftown in June 2015, including two motor vehicles. 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, which was filed on June 18 in Forsyth Superior Court.

None of those items have been returned to Jason Mitchell, Bryson said.

“No attempt has been made to return any of these items even though it is obvious that most, if not all of these items, have little or no evidentiary value to the case,” Bryson wrote.

Forsyth County Chief Assistant District Attorney Jennifer Martin said Thursday that she could not comment on a pending legal matter. The Forsyth County District Attorney’s Office initially been assigned Brian Taylor to prosecute the case, but he left the district attorney’s office in July 2017. The case was then assigned to Derek Gray, but he too left, in August 2018. Both Taylor and Gray now work as criminal-defense attorneys.

Martin said the case has not yet been assigned to another prosecutor and a trial date has not been set.

Jason and Mary Mitchell were indicted in March 2017, which moved their cases to Forsyth Superior Court, where prosecutors could start turning over evidence to defense attorneys, set a trial date or negotiate a plea deal.

Typically, it takes months or even years to resolve a felony case, depending on the seriousness of the charge. First-degree murder cases in which prosecutors are requesting the death penalty can take the longest to resolve and are often the most expensive criminal cases.

But Bryson said in his motion that the charge Jason Mitchell is facing is a lower-level felony and even after four years, there is no trial date.

“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,” he said in court papers.

Bryson filed a motion for a speedy trial in Jason Mitchell’s case in August 2018. Forsyth County prosecutors never filed a written response to that motion, Bryson said.

Mitchell is free on a $75,000 bond that he posted in 2015. But Bryson argues that Mitchell has suffered “severe prejudice” because of the trial delay.

“First, it should be noted that his passport has been kept from him for four years thus preventing him from international travel during this time,” Bryson said. “More importantly though, is the amount and value of the property seized from him four years ago that has been kept from him despite his repeated attempts to reclaim at least some of those items.”

Mitchell is particularly concerned, Bryson said, about the two vehicles, which likely have been stored outside, destroying any value they may have had.

Mitchell estimates the value of items seized to be more $100,000, according to Bryson.

Officials with the Forsyth County Sheriff’s Office, which was also involved in the investigation of the human remains, have been tight-lipped on details. They and Forsyth County prosecutors have refused to say if the body has been identified.

The case has been linked to Gordon Reid, a 61-year-old man who was reported missing on Feb. 4, 2015. Reid’s name appears on a court order sealing a search warrant for the Mitchells’ house. But attorneys for the Mitchells said in motions last year that prosecutors had not turned over any evidence of Reid being dead or of the remains having been identified as his.

The only possible connection known publicly is that Reid was last seen at 158 Motor Road, next door to a house owned by the Mitchells. The search warrant in the case is still sealed.

The sheriff’s office sent the remains to the N.C. Office of the Chief Medical Examiner’ in Raleigh and then to the FBI’s lab in Quantico, Va.

When those agencies couldn’t identify the body, the sheriff’s office used Bode Cellmark Forensics Inc. in Lorton, Va., a private lab that says on its website can provide forensic-genealogy services to law-enforcement officials for violent crimes against individuals, such as homicide, or for identifying human remains.

No date to hear Bryson’s motion has been set.

Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center nurse, 3 other men rescue woman from burning car on U.S. 52 after8-car wreck

Jeff Johnson of Winston-Salem was driving north toward Pilot Mountain on U.S. 52 Thursday with his two sons when he saw a burning car in the southbound lanes of the highway in Winston-Salem.

A wreck involving eight vehicles had just happened at 2:43 p.m. on southbound U.S. 52 near North Martin Luther King Jr. Drive, Winston-Salem police said.

Johnson, 46, a triage nurse at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center, said he saw the wreck’s immediate aftermath and quickly pulled over to the side of the highway. He jumped over the dividing median and ran toward the scene.

He joined three other men to pull a woman out of a burning car, which a tractor-trailer had rear-ended, said Johnson, who has also worked as an emergency-room nurse at Wake Forest Baptist.

“When I ran up to the car, I heard her screaming for help,” Johnson said of the woman. “All we saw were hands coming out of the car. It took all of us to pull her out of that small window.

“We were able to pull her out at the last minute,” he said. “Another 35 seconds, and that car would have completely engulfed in flames. She was pretty distraught, and understandably so.”

After Johnson and the other men rescued the woman, emergency-medical technicians quickly treated her, put her in an ambulance and took her to a local hospital, Johnson said. Amid the chaos, he and the other men didn’t get the woman’s name, and they didn’t identify themselves to each other.

“I didn’t do it alone,” Johnson said. “There were three other guys. Thank God they were there.

“I wish I knew their names,” said Johnson, who has worked as a nurse at Wake Forest Baptist for 15 years and also works part-time as an emergency-room nurse at Hugh Chatham Memorial Hospital in Elkin. “I shook their hands at the scene.”

The rescued woman and seven other people sustained injuries that weren’t considered life-threatening and were taken to a local hospital, police Lt. Todd Hart said. The car’s fire burned the woman’s clothes, Johnson said.

“My prayers go out to her and her family,” he said. “I hope she makes a speedy recovery.”

“I have seen plenty of burns, (and) plenty of trauma,” Johnson said of his work as a nurse. “But that’s the first time that it occurred right in front of me.”

Hart said the wreck happened when the driver of a southbound tractor-trailer struck one vehicle on U.S. 52, kept moving and hit a number of other vehicles. The semitruckeventually stopped.

The impact of the tractor-trailer crushed the rear section of the woman’s car, Johnson said.

The woman’s car was burning in the middle of southbound U.S. 52 South, he said, and no drivers were able to travel by that wreckage. When Winston-Salem firefighters arrived, they quickly put out the car fire, Johnson said.

“I think of myself as a person in the right place and the right time,” he said. “There was a person in need.

“If I didn’t stop where there was somebody alive in a car engulfed in flames, I would have been haunted by that,” Johnson said. “I had to try. I don’t think of myself as a hero. I was just trying to help another person. I had to do something.”

The N.C. Department of Transportation said that the wreck closed all southbound lanes on U.S. 52 near milepost 110 — North Martin Luther King Jr. Drive. It also led to the closure of the left and center northbound lanes. All the lanes were reopened by about 6:40 p.m., police said.

Officers are investigating the wreck, Hart said.

Allison Lee Isley/Journal  

Officials work the scene of a eight-vehicle wreck Thursday that shut down a section of southbound U.S. 52 near North Martin Luther King Jr. Drive in Winston-Salem. Eight people were taken to a local hospital, but none sustained life-threatening injuries.

Winston-Salem Fire Department  

In this still image taken from video, Winston-Salem firefighters extinguish a car fire that resulted from the wreck Thursday.

Eden KFC obliterated in early morning explosion

EDEN — The explosion threw debris a quarter-mile away, damaged nearby businesses and rattled houses as far away as the Virginia state line.

Ed McCain, the manager of the local Papa John’s Pizza restaurant, was heading home from a late shift about 12:40 a.m. Thursday when he saw the KFC restaurant at 123 N. Van Buren Road explode.

“It shook my car like you wouldn’t believe, but there were no flames,’’ said McCain, 38, who watched a $10 bill float by amid the shower of debris.

“I was freaking out, and I just pulled over in the Sheetz parking lot,” he said. “I’m just happy to be alive.’’

The KFC closed about 10:30 p.m. Wednesday and was empty at the time of the blast. No injuries have been reported, said Eden Police Chief Greg Light, who added that he felt the explosion at his house a couple of miles away.

Light said early on that investigators do not suspect foul play.

Officials are still investigating the cause, but employees reported smelling natural gas at the restaurant earlier in the night and witnesses said it felt like a gas explosion. Some described smelling sulfur, which is associated with natural-gas leaks, just after the KFC erupted.

Residents from as far away as Draper and Ridgeway, Va., reported feeling the explosion.

Randy East said he was taking an evening break outside the Sheetz convenience store across the street the KFC when the building blew to pieces.

“I was setting a cup of coffee down, getting ready to say something, and it blew the cup of coffee out of my hand,’’ said East, who worked in the gas industry for 20 years.

“It sounded like a 155 round went off.’’

He said it was a gas explosion, “one massive boom where the gas built up in a pocket.’’

Security-camera footage from nearby Eden Drug showed a violent explosion that sent fire balls into the highway and adjacent parking lots. Witnesses said they saw a few fire flare-ups but mostly smoke and rubble.

“My trailer was just shaking,’’ said Joshua Harris, recalling the shock waves he felt at his nearby Kennedy Street home.

If ruled a gas explosion, it would be the third such disaster in the United States since April 10, when a major blast in downtown Durham destroyed four buildings, killing two people and injuring 25.

Five days ago in Plantation, Fla., a gas leak caused a vacant pizza eatery at a shopping center to explode, injuring 20 people, officials report.

A slew of agencies responded to the Eden explosion: firefighters, investigators from the Rockingham County fire marshal’s office, Piedmont Natural Gas officials, and Greensboro-based agents from the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, along with numerous other Rockingham County law-enforcement agencies and rescue workers.

Piedmont Natural Gas officials on Thursday afternoon said company technicians had completed testing all gas lines in the area of the KFC explosion and deemed them safe.

Gas lines to the KFC site were promptly shut off after the utility learned about the blast from Eden officials, PNC spokesman Jason Wheatley said.

By Thursday afternoon, demolition workers had razed the structure’s splintered remains, hauling away loads of timber, concrete, dry wall, roofing and debris scattered along the busy thoroughfare.

The 900-foot-long section of North Van Buren Road in front of the KFC between Moore Street and Stadium Drive was closed to traffic for about 14 hours.

Eden’s oldest restaurant, King’s Inn Pizza Parlor across the street from KFC, sustained blast damage to its trademark stained-glass windows, but opened for business by 3 p.m. Thursday.

The concussive force left several of the establishment’s diamond-motif windows concave and splintered.

By Thursday afternoon, crews had removed the compromised panes and sent eight windows to Union Grove for repair at Statesville Stained Glass, King’s Inn owner Bill Rhyne said.

He said he expects to have the 50-year-old windows back in place in three weeks.

KFC officials said in a statement Thursday that the company plans to rebuild in the same location after officials conclude their investigation. The Eden restaurant employs 20 workers, roughly six of whom clocked out two hours before the explosion.

Contributed image 


Gerald Hege bill would prohibit felons with expunged records from running for sheriff

A state House bill addressing felons running for sheriff — loosely known as the Gerald Hege legislation — cleared a second committee step Thursday.

House Bill 863 was recommended by the House Finance committee and sent to Rules and Operations. It would become law when signed by the governor.

As expected, the bipartisan bill does not name Hege, who was sheriff of Davidson County from 1994 until he resigned in 2004. He was not mentioned during the committee discussion.

However, Hege is apparently the only sheriff candidate in recent memory that the bill would affect. He pleaded guilty in 2004 to two felony counts of obstruction of justice after facing 15 felony counts.

HB863 is at least nine years in the making, a once-unanticipated follow-up to a successful 2010 state constitutional amendment that prohibits felons from running for sheriff.

Bill co-sponsor Allen McNeill, R-Randolph, said Thursday that HB863 would end any potential confusion about whether a general statute can supersede the state Constitution.

“This clarifies that a felony expungement does not allow someone to serve as sheriff,” McNeill said.

Hege had his felony convictions expunged in 2018, benefiting from a law signed by Gov. Roy Cooper in 2017 that was designed to make it easier for felons to resume normal civic life.

"This is an attempt to close a loophole in the law that we're trying to close forever, for anybody," McNeill said.

"Most people are forgiving people for those who have rehabilitated their lives from when they made foolish decisions, likely when they were younger.

"But there's a difference between giving someone a chance, and them running and being elected sheriff."

Expunged convictions count

HB863 would mandate that any candidate for sheriff disclose all felony convictions, including expunged convictions, when filing as a candidate.

The bill would bar anyone with a felony conviction, even with an expunction, from being an eligible candidate. The legislation allows an exemption for an unconditional pardon of innocence.

County commissioners would be prohibited from appointing an interim sheriff with a felony conviction, including expunged convictions.

HB863 would apply to 47 counties, including Alamance, Alleghany, Davidson, Davie, Forsyth, Guilford, Randolph, Rockingham, Stokes and Surry counties in the Triad and Northwest North Carolina.

That counties were identified because state law requires their commissioners to appoint an interim sheriff based on the recommendation from the previous sheriff's county party.

A potential candidate who fails to file the felony disclosure would not be allowed to have their name on the ballot. Any votes for the candidate would not be counted.

The N.C. Sheriffs’ Education and Training Standards Commission would be responsible for verifying the candidate disclosure with the N.C. Administrative Office of the Courts, as well as conducting a criminal history records check of potential candidates through the N.C. Department of Public Safety.

The commission would be able to access confidential personal information about potential candidates.

Hege’s history

Hege tried to cut a larger-than-life profile with his souped-up “Spider Car,” military-styled office bunker and crying teddy bears painted on the walls of the jail.

Hege was indicted on 15 felony counts related to and including embezzlement, racial profiling, obtaining property by false pretenses, endangering the public and intimidation.

By pleading to two felony counts, Hege avoided a trial and possible time in prison.

There were legislative efforts — Senate Bill 351 in 2009, and Senate Bill 1178 and companion House Bill 1959 in 2010 — that would not allow a felon to run for sheriff.

Hege ran for sheriff in 2010 while a convicted felon, getting about 25% of the Republican primary vote against then-incumbent Sheriff David Grice and former state trooper Terry Price.

Hege’s defeat appeared to have made the bills moot for legislators.

Meanwhile, another bill introduced in 2010 presented voters with a constitutional amendment that expressly forbids criminals from serving as a sheriff. Voters overwhelmingly approved the amendment in November 2010.

The operative phrase in the law that the amendment was based on read that no person is eligible if they’ve been convicted of a felony … “whether or not that person has been restored to the rights of citizenship in the manner prescribed by law.”

The law signed by Cooper in 2017 allowed felons with no more than one conviction to petition the court to have their record expunged.

When multiple felony convictions occur at one time, the law counted those as one conviction.

Hege went to court and had his convictions expunged.

“I don’t have a record,” Hege said. “It’s like I never had one.”

Hege filed to run for sheriff in February 2018.

In April 2018, the Davidson Board of Elections — evenly split among Democrats and Republicans — voted 3-1 to allow Hege to continue his candidacy following a citizen complaint.

The four board members grappled with the language in the state constitution, which they said seemed conflicting.

At that time, anyone who is seeking to hold a license or certification from the criminal justice Education and Training Standards Commission could be compelled to say whether they’ve had a record expunged, according to the statute.

The statute states an expunction doesn’t mean a license will be suspended or revoked, but the commission has the option.

Sheriffs, however, are not required to hold a license or certification.

In the May 2018 primary, Hege got 3,494 votes, or 16.3% of the vote.

Richie Simmons, a retired N.C. Highway Patrol sergeant, had 11,229 votes, or 52.6%, while Grice came in a distant second place with 4,865 votes, or 22.8%.

Because there was no Democratic sheriff candidate, Simmons was unopposed in the general election.

McNeill said the bill is in part is in response to the Davidson election board's legal dilemma.

"We are hopeful this bill will forever settle this issue for the loophole that the constitutional amendment didn't address," McNeill said.

"How do you prove a candidate is a convicted felon if their record has been expunged. The amendment did not covered that technical possibility, but this bill does."