A Forsyth County judge stopped a plea hearing Tuesday and sent a Winston-Salem man accused of making threats of mass violence to Raleigh for an evaluation to determine his competency to stand trial.
Dennis Alexis Maldonado, 22, of Rickard Drive in Winston-Salem was scheduled to plead guilty Tuesday in Forsyth Superior Court to two felony counts of making a false report of mass violence on educational property and one misdemeanor count of communicating threats. He is accused of making threats directed at Walkertown elementary and middle schools and toward Forsyth Medical Center. He is also accused of threatening a Forsyth County sheriff’s deputy.
But midway through reviewing the plea transcript with Maldonado, Judge David Hall became uncomfortable with whether Maldonado understood the purpose of the hearing and what he was doing.
Dressed in an orange jail jumpsuit, Maldonado answered most of the questions as if he understood what was happening and he entered a guilty plea and admitted that he was indeed guilty of the alleged crimes.
Then Hall asked Maldonado if there was a plea arrangement in his case, and this is where Maldonado stumbled. He said he didn’t understand. Hall asked him if he understood what a plea arrangement or a plea deal was.
Maldonado couldn’t answer.
Hall reviewed a mental-health evaluation conducted in August that determined Maldonado was competent to stand trial. Hall then asked Maldonado a series of questions, including whether he could describe the crimes of which he was accused. He couldn’t.
Hall asked if he could name his attorney, who is Artrese Ziglar. He did name her, and when asked what she was supposed to do for him, he replied, “Fight for my case.”
When Hall asked what the purpose of the hearing was, Maldonado repeated, “Fight for my case.”
“I’m not comfortable proceeding,” Hall immediately said after Maldonado’s response. Hall ordered that Maldonado be sent to Central Regional Hospital in Butner for an evaluation.
“I think he has been evaluated,” Forsyth County Assistant District Attorney Jessica Spencer said.
“He’s going back,” Hall said.
The charges against Maldonado stem from incidents in May 2018. On May 22, 2018, Maldonado allegedly told Winston-Salem police Officer N.C. Ferrell and reportedly posting on Facebook that he was going to “shoot up” Wakertown elementary, middle and high schools and also said, “I”m going to start an active shooting.”
Investigators with the Forsyth County Sheriff’s Office also accused Maldonado of making threats to kill two of his family members. In October 2018, Maldonado is alleged to have told Winston-Salem police Officer A.M. Cobbs that an act of mass violence was going to happen at the Walkertown schools. He is also alleged to have made a threat against Forsyth Medical Center.
On March 31, Maldonado allegedly threatened to hurt Deputy James B. Money of the Forsyth County Sheriff’s Office.
Spencer said in a previous court hearing that Maldonado made the threats to the Walkertown schools because he wanted to be famous.
In May 2018, a group of parents whose children attended the Walkertown schools protested the bond Maldonado received. They said they wanted the law changed so that anyone threatening a school wouldn’t be let out on bail.
That was before additional charges were filed against Maldonado in October.
At a May hearing, Spencer asked that the judge increase the bond from $10,000 to $15,000. Forsyth District Judge Laurie Hutchens ruled that the bond would stay at $10,000.
Maldonado was being held in Forsyth County jail on a total bond of $62,500.
A new court date for Maldonado has not been set.
The Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Board of Education voted down Tuesday night a mandatory African American history course for the school system.
Barbara Burke, the vice chairwoman of the school board, was the sole supporter for the course, with seven members voting “no.” School board member Marilyn Parker was not present.
After the vote, the board unanimously approved an infusion program recommended by Superintendent Angela P. Hairston.
Hairston’s recommendations include four courses as electives for students in every high school — African American Studies, Latin American Studies, American Indian Studies and Ethnic Literature. Each course would be worth one full credit and have standard and honors course options.
Advocates of a mandatory African American history course showed up in full force, helping to nearly fill the auditorium in the Education Building on Bethania Station Road in Winston-Salem.
Of the nearly 28 people who spoke during the public sessions, the majority of them backed the mandatory course.
“I want to bring a little truth serum to this discussion around an African American studies class,” Miranda Jones of Local Organizing Committee said to the board prior to the vote. “This will not be easy, much like being black in Winston-Salem or trying to teach under Euroscentic curriculum isn’t easy. The truth is, most of my people don’t think we’ll get this class, just like most of us never thought we’d live to see a black president, just like most of us thought we’d never see a black woman chair.”
Winston-Salem City Council Member D.D. Adams said that she attended segregated schools from 1960 to 1971 and that forced segregation occurred the summer before her senior year.
“During my 12 years of public education, I don’t remember anyone really teaching me about African American history,” Adams said. “Let that sink in for a moment. I remember North Carolina state history. I remember U.S. history, and I remember world history, but not African American history. ... My African American history was the history my mom and my dad gave me.”
She said that African American children need to know their history, “not later, but now.”
Lillian Podlog of Hate Out of Winston said she was there as a community member.
She applauded Hairston for listening to the community but said it is not an either-or question in terms of the mandatory class and Hairston’s recommendations.
“There is no way that we can have an infusion curriculum and then there is not time for students to set aside and to learn black history,” Podlog said.
After the vote, some people rushed out of the meeting, voicing their disappointment.
JoAnne Allen, said she supports a mandatory course.
“Infusion is fine for the lower grades, but we need something mandatory to go along with it,” Allen said. “If our children can learn world civilization and all this U.S. history and all that, what’s the difference between that and learning black history? There is no difference.”
Jones said she was not shocked by the vote because there were indicators of the outcome all along.
“It’s clear that we will just actively campaign against them except for Burke,” she said.
Winston-Salem Police Chief Catrina Thompson is apologizing for the presence of a stuffed monkey in a police cruiser, a sight someone captured in a video and posted on Facebook, calling it racist.
In a link to the Facebook video that police released, the Facebook poster, who identifies herself as Divine Deva, films through the window of a car she is riding in toward a police cruiser in the next lane.
Zooming in on the face of the stuffed monkey, the Facebook poster says that the police have a monkey in the rear of the police car and that it is “the most racist thing I have ever seen.”
Thompson provided a photograph of the stuffed monkey along with her statement. The monkey appears to have a hat and dreadlocks associated with Rastafarian culture.
Thompson said that the stuffed monkey was removed from the patrol vehicle and that steps are being taken to make sure something like that doesn’t happen again. She said she understands why people were offended.
“In the future, we will confirm our stuffed animals are not offensive,” Thomson said. “I apologize to any community member that found this circumstance to be offensive.”
She said police routinely carry stuffed animals in their patrol cars to calm children who have been traumatized by anything from a fire to an act of violence. She said an investigation showed there was no ill intent behind the placement of the stuffed monkey in the police car.
According to the Facebook link, the monkey was noticed and filmed about 9:06 a.m. Monday. The woman posting the video said on Facebook that the worst part about the incident was that it was her son who pointed out the monkey.
The Facebook user who posted the video could not be reached Tuesday night.
Thompson said she became aware of the video circulating on Facebook on Monday afternoon and immediately began to investigate what was going on. She determined that the monkey was one of several stuffed animals in the patrol car, and that they are put on the front bracket of an interior protective shield so they can be in easy reach of the officer.
“I bring this episode to your attention in the spirit of transparency, because I realize that citizens have found the display of the monkey stuffed animal appearing to be riding in the rear seat of a marked patrol car to be offensive,” Thompson said.
She said that various organization donate stuffed animals to the police department and that officers have been carrying stuffed animals in their cars for 20 years under the program.
“The stuffed animals have proven to be a successful initiative for the WSPD,” Thompson said. “We have taken administrative actions to change the appearance of the display of the stuffed animal, specifically the monkey, to ensure no one else is offended. I assure you this will not reoccur.”
Thompson went on to say that police receive training to be sensitive to juveniles and minorities, and that the department also does training in bias-free policing.
Winston-Salem City Council Member Vivian Burke, who was chairwoman of the city’s Public Safety Committee for 36 years and still sits on that panel, said Thompson took the right approach handling the complaint.
Police “must be cautious and aware of the feelings of the citizens of the community,” Burke said. “I would hope that would be one of their No. 1 duties, to make sure their cars would not be carrying anything to offend anyone. Sometimes something like that can create a problem if we are not careful.”
The Winston-Salem Police Department will purchase gunshot detection technology, allowing police to monitor 3 square miles in the city for gunfire.
The gunshot detection system is made up of an array of sensors installed in an area of the city. It will detect noises that equate to gunfire and triangulate the location where the shots originated, according to Lt. John Leone of the Winston-Salem Police Department.
A grant of nearly $700,000 from the U.S. Justice Department will pay for the system for three years, according to police Lt. Gregory Dorn.
It’s not clear where the sensors will be located in Winston-Salem, and police have been mum about the exact methodology the department will use to deploy the system. Leone said that the placement decision will be data-driven and that the department will work with technology vendors to deploy the sensors most effectively.
In a news conference Tuesday afternoon, Dorn said vendors and Justice Department representatives will evaluate potential sites before making a decision.
The announcement comes on the heels of an approximately 50% rise in gun violence in Winston-Salem over the past four years, according to police statistics.
So far in 2019, police have received 1,708 calls reporting gunshots, according to data obtained by the Winston-Salem Journal. Since July 1, at least 68 shootings have taken place in the city, with six people killed and 21 injured.
It is possible there have been more than 68 shootings since July 1 — police have received 654 calls reporting gunshots in the same time span — but about 80% of “gunshot incidents” go unreported, according to a 2016 study by the Urban Institute, a research group based in Washington.
In an ideal scenario, the gunshot detection system would work to deter shootings from ever happening to begin with, Dorn said. At the very least, the technology should rapidly improve police response time.
As it stands, the average 911 caller waits between 3 and 4 minutes after a shooting before dialing the phone, according to Dorn. Gunshot detection technology would notify police officers within seconds, sending a notification to their cellphones or patrol car laptops.
“It could help save lives,” Dorn said.
He called the technology plug-and-play in terms of integration.
Realistically, police would not be able to implement the technology until February or March at the earliest. The city must go through the bidding process, choose a vendor, install the technology and integrate it with its 911 dispatching technology, according to police.
Some vendors, Leone said, will install the hardware for police.
“Some of the vendors will utilize some of the infrastructure in place, and some vendors will negotiate with businesses and homeowners to install (hardware) on their structures,” he said.
With any government-sponsored installation of monitoring devices come privacy concerns. Leone and Dorn said, to their knowledge, the sensors detect only gunfire or noise closely associated with it.
“When they detect noise ... the only noise that gets reported to us is actual gunfire,” Leone said. “It’s not we’re listening into phone calls or what’s going on your street.”
Should the gunshot detection system prove effective after the three years, it will be up to the city of Winston-Salem to decide whether it wants to continue with it and pay for the monitoring service, according to police.