RONDA — Political opponents of the mayor of Ronda wired his 18-year-old houseguest with a camera and secretly recorded video of the mayor’s wife smoking marijuana in their home while the mayor was there.
The videotape was brought to the Winston-Salem Journal just as a bill giving Ronda voters the power to recall elected officials awaits final approval from North Carolina’s governor.
While the footage clearly shows marijuana use in the home of Victor Varela, it also illustrates starkly divided political lines running through this small Wilkes County town of fewer than 420 people.
Varela, a Democrat, noted that the video was set up by Ronda residents Andrew Wood and Kevin Reece, a Republican whose wife ran against Varela for mayor before she died in 2010. Reece was nominated for a vacant town commissioner seat but failed to win the spot.
Varela also contends Reece and his great uncle Manuel Wood have a vendetta against him for various reasons, primarily Varela’s efforts to develop a nuisance ordinance that would require Reece to remove roosters from near his home. Reece exports roosters from Wilkes County and has about three dozen on his property.
Reece says he does not participate in cockfighting and sells the roosters only for breeding purposes. He said part of the autistic son's therapy is caring for the roosters.
The video obtained by the Journal shows Reece and Andrew Wood setting up Murray with a hidden camera. The video depicts Varela’s wife, Teri, smoking marijuana with Josh Murray, now 19, while the mayor sits next to her in their living room. Andrew Wood said he went public with the footage because its contents demonstrate inappropriate behavior by an elected official in a county wrought with drug problems.
Victor Varela doesn’t do drugs in the video, but he does appear indifferent while his wife and Murray smoke marijuana as the mayor eats and goes about mundane business around the house. At one point in the video, Teri Varela discusses growing marijuana when she lived in Miami years ago. She said she would do so again but “the only problem is being married to the mayor. That wouldn’t be right. But if it were up to me, yes, I would. In a minute.”
Teri Varela also tells Murray not to disclose any information about them or their home.
“Just be careful,” she says in the video. “Don’t get into any trouble because you’re going to make us look like idiots. If you (expletive) up, don’t say you stayed here. … Actually don’t say anything about us, period. Don’t say you’re staying at the mayor’s house. Don’t even say you smoked pot. Keep everything about this house private. … I’m serious. Everything that happens in this house is private, completely private. You being here, whatever I do, whatever we do, is completely private, and I pray you respect that.”
Murray replies, “I promise I will.”
The video was shot in early November and is not quite 40 minutes. It concludes with Murray saying he’s leaving the home to visit a friend in Elkin. Before exiting he receives words of encouragement from the Varelas regarding the teenager’s future, including an offer from Victor Varela to help Murray get a job in Asheville or attend community college. Victor Varela said he has known Murray and his family since Murray was a child and offered him temporary shelter because Murray was homeless.
Victor Varela said he hadn’t seen the video until he was shown a portion of it by the Journal earlier this month, but he was aware of its existence. He grimaced slightly as he watched the footage. When asked why he didn’t stop Murray from driving after smoking marijuana, Varela conceded his lack of action may have been inappropriate.
“What can I do about that?” said Varela, 51. “I told him (Murray) I didn’t want the stuff in the house in the first place. I told him ‘I don’t like this.’ I had an argument with my wife about it, and she’s very headstrong. I was like ‘OK, what am I going to do?’ I should’ve left.”
Teri Varla said, "Once again this is nothing more than a sorry attempt to exploit me to get to my husband. The choices I make to relieve my constant (back) pain are my business and nobody else's, including my husband's."
Teri Varela was charged with misdemeanor simple possession of marijuana and paraphernalia during her husband’s initial mayoral campaign in 2007. The incident shortly before Election Day stemmed from an unrelated matter being investigated at the Varela home by the Wilkes County Sheriff’s Office. The police report indicated Victor Varela was not present at the time.
The case was dismissed in August 2008 under the condition that Teri Varela stay on six months of unsupervised probation, undergo assessment and completion of a drug treatment and education program and carry out 24 hours of community service. Despite his wife’s predicament, Victor Varela still managed to win the election and was re-elected in 2011 with more than 69 percent of the vote in a town with 260 registered voters.
That’s led some citizens and town officials to say the contents of that video are irrelevant. Their focus, they say, isn’t what happens during Victor Varela’s personal time, but rather how he’s performing his duties as the town’s mayor.
“When they’re in their house, I don’t care what they do,” said town commissioner Brenda Miller. “It’s none of my business -- that’s his personal life. It doesn’t affect what’s going on with the town. If it did, then it would be an issue.”
The video’s release is another development in what has been a contentious second term for Victor Varela, a New York City native.
Wilkes County Sen. Shirley Randleman and Rep. Jeffrey Elmore filed bills last month that would allow Ronda residents to vote on a recall referendum in the next election. It easily passed both the House and Senate and is awaiting the governor’s signature. After that, it would be placed on the Nov. 5 ballot. If approved, Ronda’s elected officials could be removed after the filing of a recall petition. Calls to Randleman and Elmore seeking comment were not returned.
The recall issue in Ronda materialized in October when a petition asking for Varela’s ouster was started by Reece and town commissioner Rex Ashley. The petition was signed by 76 residents, eclipsing the 62 votes Varela received when he was re-elected in 2011. It also came on the heels of the town’s regular monthly meeting during which Maria Soots was named a town commissioner.
Ashley and Commissioner Sam Foster, both Republicans, supported Reece to fill the seat vacated two months earlier with the resignation of Bradley Combs. Miller and Commissioner Wanda Blackburn supported Soots, a Republican, to round out the five-person panel. Ashley and Foster abruptly left the meeting when it became apparent Varela would break the tie and award the seat to Soots. Varela said information he received from the UNC-Chapel Hill School of Government indicated that their exit counted as votes in support of Soots, so the mayor’s tie-breaking vote was not necessary.
Reece, who concedes he approached Randleman and Elmore about filing the recall bill, has maintained the petition is not related to his failed attempt to secure a commission seat and is not retaliation for Varela’s first mayoral election victory. Varela defeated Reece’s late wife, Derrie Cheek Reece, 90-65.
Reece also contends the petition doesn’t stem from the nuisance ordinance that Varela began researching last year. It would outlaw raising roosters within town limits. The ordinance is to be included in a comprehensive review of all town laws by a consulting firm that will present its overview at a public meeting on April 29.
“I got 69.9 percent of the vote last time, and I have a track record of being effective, and people liking what I’ve been doing,” Varela said. “This whole thing has been started by roosters, primarily, I think. That’s really what it’s all about. … You wouldn’t believe how many people call me, saying for me to hang in there. I even got a card in the mail from someone telling me I’m a good mayor.”
Varela also has contested the validity of the petition. He said residents have come forward to say it’s not their signature on the document. Reece, however, says every name on the petition was signed either in his presence or in front of Manuel Wood, his great uncle who served on the town board for seven years.
Reece said efforts to remove Victor Varela are based on his lack of transparency to the board of commissioners and that the mayor is “rarely available for citizens,” leaving the town to be run by a clerk who is “overworked.”
“It’s not personal. It’s not about me and him,” Reece said. “It has nothing to do with the fact Kevin Reece raises chickens. If it was any other board member or town official … I don’t care who does these things, if anybody does these things I’ll call him out on it.”
Houseguest with a camera
Murray was a houseguest of the Varelas for only about three days and later moved in with Reece.
Reece said the plan to make the video came about after he bumped into Murray at a restaurant. Murray told him he was staying with the Varelas and alluded to drug activity in the home.
Reece said he didn’t compensate Murray in any fashion to record the video. Reece said the only time he gave Murray money was when he gave him $20 for gas to go job hunting. Reece later kicked Murray out of his home when Murray “came back reeking of marijuana,” Reece said.
That was in December. Since the first of the year, Murray has had legal issues across North Carolina. He was bonded out of a Bertie County jail in eastern North Carolina last month and has been arrested in Durham and Pasquotank counties on charges ranging from possession of stolen goods to larceny.
He has an April 23 court date in Wilkes County on a reckless driving citation. During a brief phone interview April 4, Murray said Varela offered him wine -- a claim Varela denied.
Reece himself has had his own legal issues, having accumulated a felony criminal record for charges ranging from possession of burglary tools to receiving stolen goods. He readily admits to his past misdeeds, saying he regrets what he “did when he was very young,” and he hasn’t been charged with any crimes since 2004.
A computer records check showed no criminal offenses for Victor Varela.
‘Dead set against drugs’
Meanwhile, both Varela and Reece confirm they’ve discussed the video in question.
An audio recording of a conversation between the two -- provided by Varela -- has Reece asking Varela to better focus on his mayoral duties while seeking help for drug and alcohol addiction. Varela denies he has a substance abuse problem.
But while Varela only recently saw the video, it has made its way around Wilkes County and into Winston-Salem. Various residents of Ronda as well as a few local officials have seen at least portions of the video.
A copy was also delivered to Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center where Varela works as a cancer researcher. Medical center spokesman Mac Ingraham declined to comment on the video.
Reece said he has never blackmailed or used the video as leverage to prompt Varela’s resignation. But Varela produced a copy of a recorded phone conversation with Manuel Wood in which Wood says the video would disappear if Varela resigned.
During that conversation, Wood alludes to the possibility of Reece giving the video to Varela’s employer and various news outlets. Varela asks whether his resignation would “stop the video from going anywhere,” to which Wood simply responds “yep.”
Wood said he made the call on his own.
“It (drug use) shouldn’t be happening here or anywhere else,” Wood said. “I don’t think especially the town officials should be allowing that to happen in their residence. But it’s been happening all over town. I’m not pinning it against one person. I’m dead set against drugs. I don’t care where it’s at.”
Sticking with the job
Despite the contentious atmosphere extending from one end of Ronda’s short main street to the other, Varela said he’s not going to step down.
He points to the completion of a $4 million, two-stage sewer project that was completed during his first term in office as proof of his effectiveness as mayor. Varela also notes the deal he finalized in April 2010 to purchase water from the nearby town of Elkin. That move has helped alleviate some of Ronda’s water issues without the need to create additional infrastructure.
“He has been very hardworking,” said Elkin Mayor Lestine Hutchens. “He has been a good leader for eastern Wilkes County, looking ahead for citizens’ needs for clean water. We are fellow mayors and talk frequently about issues that might have some meaning for us. I believe he has the best interests of the town of Ronda at heart and tries to improve the town’s life.”
Varela shakes his head when asked why he chose to dip his toes into the frigid waters of small town politics. For him, he says, the satisfaction of public service doesn’t always outweigh the scrutiny that’s come with it.
“I don’t intend to quit. I started a job, and I intend to finish it,” Varela said. “Would I go into this knowing this is where I would be today? I’d probably have to have my head examined if I thought that was the case. So I don’t know the answer to that.
“Actually, I do know the answer to that. Because of the effect it’s had on my wife, I wouldn’t go through it again. But she understands, and she’s a trooper.”