In the past year, the town manager decided to leave after eight years in Garner, someone spray painted anti-cop graffiti on the new Garner police station, a Johnston County mother complained that a sign commemorating her late son was missing, and the Garner Magnet High School boy’s basketball team won the high school state championship.
A lot more happened in 2015.
Here’s a look at the top 10 stories from 2015 in Garner and Cleveland.
Killer in Westchester homicide was a hitman
The man responsible for shooting a local barber in an apartment complex parking lot on Seventh Avenue two years ago, was apparently a hitman ordered to kill the barber.
Ramon Black, of Savannah, Ga., was convicted in a Wake County court room on Aug. 7 of first-degree murder for shooting and killing Kyevon Gales, 37, on a summer evening in July 2013. Black was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
Evidence presented to the jury suggested another man wired Black $200 around the time of the killing to rent a car to drive from Savannah to Garner. Black and the man, Marion Sharpe, kept in contact throughout the time Black was in Garner until the killing was carried out, according to phone records presented at the trial.
Prosecutors said Sharpe had been in an altercation with Gales in Jacksonville a couple of months earlier when Gales allegedly stabbed Sharpe in a nightclub.
Gales had recently moved to Garner with his wife and was a barber at Diamond Kutz Barbershop in the Forest Hills shopping center on Fifth Avenue. He was said to have been fleeing Jacksonville in fear of retribution from the stabbing, according to an affidavit filed by prosecutors in July.
Emails from Garner Police Chief Brandon Zuidema and court filings suggest Sharpe hired Black to kill Gales.
Sharpe was killed June 30. He was found at his home in Jacksonville with a gunshot wound, and investigators in Onslow County have ruled his death a homicide. It is unclear whether the two cases are connected.
Black’s girlfiend, Ciara Jefferies, who admitted to driving her boyfriend from Georgia to Garner so he could shoot and kill the man took a plea deal in the case in return for her testimony.
Town Manager leaves for Burlington
The final year of the town manager’s tenure in Garner wasn’t exactly the smoothest. He had come under fire earlier this year by the town council for not reviewing the 2015-16 budget document carefully before it was released.
The town inadvertently released the names and salaries of employees in the fire department, which hurt morale because some firefighters wondered why others made more than they did. Although their salaries are public information, no other department’s salaries were released in the budget document.
During Watkins’ 2014 annual review, council members set several goals – including building a better relationship with a fire department that suffered from the lingering effects of 2010 embezzlement charges against a former employee.
The town council held multiple closed door meetings with and without the town manager following the release of the document.
Then last month, it was reported that Watkins was hired by the Burlington City Council to serve as their city manager.
Watkins will make $174,000 at his new position, nearly $30,000 more than he makes currently, according to the Times-News. Watkins now makes $147,451 per year.
In his resignation letter, Watkins said his last day will be Jan. 4 and that he will start his new position on Jan. 11.
State’s first Cabela’s opens in Garner
The long awaited Cabela’s finally opened its doors in Garner in April.
Despite a drizzling rain, more than 3,000 – many dressed in camouflage gear and rain boots – brought umbrellas and lawn chairs and waited for the store at White Oak Crossing to open.
The first few in line had gotten there as early as a week in advance, camping out in the store’s parking lot.
The opening ceremony started with a ribbon-cutting that involved a Cabela’s employee shooting an arrow from atop a 25-foot high tripod. The shooter hit the target and the crowd went wild.
It is North Carolina’s first Cabela’s. The outdoors mega store is 105,000-square-feet. It has also been an impetus to other retail stores and restaurants coming to the area. Since Cabela’s opened its doors, Five Guys, City Barbeque, Starbucks, Blaze Pizza, T-Mobile, Lady Jane’s Haircut, Longhorn and Carolina Ale House have also opened.
Others such as Panera Bread, Zaxby’s and Sheets have also announced their plans to come to White Oak.
Vandalism threatens police
The phrase “Kill a cop save a child” was spray-painted in white over a mural painted by local artist Vince Wood on the new police headquarters.
The police department had not yet moved into the police station.
A few days later, property owners in the Garner Village shopping center, off Aversboro Road near U.S. 70, less than a mile from the police station, discovered their businesses were tagged with the same message.
Garner police originally offered $1,000 for any information leading to the arrest of the person who vandalized the mural, but soon upped the reward to $5,000 with the help of the town and businesses that were tagged.
Zuidema said there were no cameras near the shopping center nor the new police station.
No arrests have been made in the case but the police department continues to investigate.
Zuidema said in October the police department is treating these incidents as if they are a real threat to the police department. The police department set up a Go Fund Me page to pay for repairing damage to the mural and raised $2,000 in less than 24 hours.
Garner (28-1) completed its magical, dominant season, in which it avenged its only loss with a 70-64 state 4A boys’ basketball championship victory against Charlotte’s Ardry Kell High School.
Julius Barnes finished with a team-high 26 points and was named the game’s MVP.
The Garner senior point guard had just watched as Charlotte Ardrey Kell completed its erase job on what had been an 18-point first-half deficit, taking its first lead of the night with 5:37 left to play.
The Knights’ half-court defense forced Garner into mistakes in the third quarter, and Steven Santa Ana led the charge with 19 points in the quarter, including a 3-pointer just before the buzzer to make it 47-45.
But Barnes quickly drove down court, pulled up and drained a 3-pointer, then hit another nine seconds later on Garner’s next possession to put the Trojans back in control for good.
Thomas Allen’s timely scoring drives and solid defense by Nick Kuhns against Santa Ana in a box-and-one defense helped Garner keep its lead during the final three minutes. Santa Ana didn’t hit a 3-pointer during the final 3:34.
The Trojans hit 9-of-12 free throws over the final 80 seconds.
Allen, Garner’s Most Outstanding Player, finished with 16 points and Kuhns added 13.
JCS superintendent to retire
Johnston County Superintendent Ed Croom announced that he will retire this spring.
Croom, 50, was named superintendent in December 2008 when he was promoted from deputy superintendent of administrative services. He said he will retire effective March 1.
It was an emotional announcement for Croom, made to an even more emotional school board. He started his career in Johnston County as an agriculture teacher at Princeton High School in 1988 and spent all but three years of his 27-year career in the county. He also was principal of South Johnston High School from 2003 to 2008 and the school system’s workforce development director from 1995 to 1997.
While Croom was superintendent and Johnston County grew, school enrollment climbed to more than 34,000 students.
Croom said he was leaving because of legislative changes to the state’s retirement system. In August 2016, the state’s qualified excess benefits arrangement (QEBA) will expire and employees who retire after that could lose tens of thousands of dollars in pension money. The current federal pension cap is $210,000 and in 2013 the General Assembly created the QEBA to pay the difference for some high-earning pensioners.
Faye Gardner dies
Faye Gardner, a longtime Garner resident, fomer James R. Stevens Award recipient and former Tar Heel of the Week, died last month from complications with cancer.
She was 73.
She had struggled with cancer for many years.
Gardner was born in the Johnston County town of Pine Level, where she spent her early life on a farm, but then moved into town when her father took a job.
She met and married her husband in Pine Level, and the couple moved to Garner in the 1970s to be closer to their jobs in Raleigh.
She worked for Wachovia (now Wells Fargo) for 35 years before retiring 15 years ago.
For the last eight years, Gardner had served as the vice president of operations at the Chamber of Commerce here. She continued to work part-time during her struggle with cancer.
Many people in the town describe her as one of the most influential leaders in Garner. She was the leading force behind the Garner Veteran’s memorial in Lake Benson Park.
Sign goes missing
The Greater Cleveland Athletic Association’s reaction to a Johnston County mom’s plea to get her late son’s missing sign back above a baseball field caused quite the uproar in the Cleveland community.
The sign, which read “The Brandon Spence Baseball Field,” once hung above Field 2 at the Greater Cleveland Athletic Association complex behind the old Cleveland Elementary School. Brandon was 14 when he was hit and killed by a truck while trying to cross N.C. 50 on his dirt bike in 2009.
The family noticed the sign was missing in July and asked the Greater Cleveland Athletic Association what happened to it. Amy Spence, the mom, also requested it go back up.
For days, no one knew for sure what had happened to the sign. Some speculated it was removed. The GCAA says that after investigation, it was determined that the sign was destroyed in a storm in late 2014 or early 2015.
Spence said she worried when she didn’t receive a response in a timely manner and posted on Facebook asking for help in her search for answers. Many in the community rallied around the family.
Board members instead accused her of bullying by starting a social media campaign against them. Spence defended herself at a meeting of the board, saying it was not her intention to be harmful.
The GCAA’s board gave Spence and her family three options to remedy the situation and the family chose to have sign resurrected, which included certain conditions, including apologizing to the GCAA’s board of directors.
Spence later apologized.
Council rescinds letter
Not long after the Garner town council sent a letter asking to eliminate its only early voting site, it voted to rescind the request.
The town council agreed at first to eliminate the early voting site for this year only and sent a letter to the Wake County Board of Elections requesting the elimination of the site.
All the races for council and mayor were unopposed. Town manager Hardin Watkins said it would save the town $7,000.
However, resistance from residents, after this paper’s story was published resulted in the council changing their mind. They asked to rescind the letter and kept the early voting site, shortening the number of days and time to vote.
Garner is one of the three municipalities in the county with an early voting site. The second is in Cary. The third is downtown Raleigh at the Wake County Board of Elections.
Early voter turnout in Garner tends to fluctuate from year to year depending on who and what is on the ballot. In 2009, 243 voted early in Garner. In 2011, with five town council candidates vying for three seats, 396 voted early. In 2013, with three candidates vying for two seats and a bond, 127 people voted early in Garner.
With the candidates running unopposed, the expectation was that the turnout this year would be low again.
And it was.
Even among voters casting ballots on Election Day, turnout was abysmal. Only 3.9 percent of registered voters cast a ballot, including early voters. However, those that did want to vote early were able to.
Google fiber in Garner
Google will web the Triangle with thousands of miles of fiber-optic cable in the coming years, connecting homes and businesses in seven municipalities to the Internet through its high-speed Google Fiber service.
Company representatives announced their plans to much fanfare in January, with Gov. Pat McCrory on hand at the the N.C. Museum of History to welcome an upgrade that is a giant leap for the region’s Internet connectivity.
Google Fiber will deploy in Raleigh, Durham, Carrboro, Cary, Chapel Hill, Garner and Morrisville. The company hasn’t announced when service will begin.
The Triangle is one of four metropolitan areas to join Google’s Internet service in the recently announced expansion, which is Google Fiber’s largest yet. The company chose the Triangle, Atlanta, Charlotte and Nashville from a pool of 21 metropolitan areas.
Google’s service, which is now operating in only three markets nationally, offers speeds about 100 times faster than a typical broadband connection.
Tech advocates say that kind of access opens up new uses for the Internet, including the transfer of huge files for scientific research. It can also make YouTube load instantaneously, or record eight TV shows at once, or allow for band practice across the Internet, according to Google.
A gigabit connection should cost about $70 per month; Google also will sell television access for about $60 more.