Take a look back at the top stories of 2014 in Forsyth County

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By Bertrand M. Gutierrez/The Winston-Salem Journal 

Murder, marriage and the death of Maya Angelou were just some of the events that defined the news for Forsyth County in 2014. Here’s a look at the stories chosen by reporters and editors at the Winston-Salem Journal:


Reynolds makes a deal

Reynolds American Inc., Lorillard Inc. and Imperial Tobacco Group Ltd. agreed to a $27.4 billion deal, one that shook Tobacco Road and rose to become one of the largest business transactions in the Triad.

If approved by federal regulators, the three companies each stand to benefit in their own way. Reynolds would get Lorillard’s Newport, which is the No. 2 cigarette brand in the overall U.S. market and the No. 1 menthol brand. Lorillard shareholders would get a 15 percent stake in Reynolds. And Imperial would get, at minimum, traditional cigarette brands, blu eCigs, and Lorillard’s operations and about 2,900 workers.

Reynolds and Lorillard have set Jan. 28 as the date for asking their respective shareholders to approve Reynolds’ $27.4 billion offer for its rival.

The manufacturers announced their deal July 15, essentially for Reynolds to gain top U.S. menthol brand Newport.

In a joint regulatory filing, Reynolds said it has scheduled its meeting for 9 a.m. at its headquarters in downtown Winston-Salem. Lorillard set its meeting for 10 a.m. at the Ballantyne Hotel in Charlotte.


Winston-Salem mourns death of Angelou

Maya Angelou, born Marguerite Annie Johnson in St. Louis on April 4, 1928, died in her sleep May 28 at her home in Winston-Salem. She was 86.

More than 2,200 attended a private memorial service June 7 at Wait Chapel on the campus of Wake Forest University, where she taught for about 32 years.

Her spirit seemed to be on full display, through musical tributes by such artists as Lee Ann Womack, BeBe Winans and Valerie Ashford Simpson of Ashford and Simpson, and through reflections from former President Bill Clinton, first lady Michelle Obama, talk show host and close personal friend Oprah Winfrey, and Angelou’s son, Guy Bailey Johnson.

The Rev. Serenus Churn of Mount Zion Baptist Church also offered a public memorial May 29.

Angelou was best known for her six autobiographical works, particularly her first memoir, “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings,” and her poems, including “On The Pulse of the Morning,” which she read at President Bill Clinton’s inauguration in 1993. She also wrote plays, screenplays and television scripts. In 2011, she received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor.


First gay marriage in Forsyth County

On Oct. 13 outside the Forsyth County Government Center, Mary-Ann Ellis and Robin Idol became the first same-sex couple in Forsyth County to get married. By the end of the day, 14 marriage licenses for same-sex couples and one marriage certificate had been issued in the county, according to the county’s Register of Deeds Norman Holleman.

State law had prohibited same-sex marriages for years. And in 2012, voters statewide approved a constitutional amendment reinforcing the ban. But a U.S. Supreme Court action in October set in motion a series of rulings that toppled same-sex marriage bans in several states, including North Carolina.

On Oct. 10, U.S. District Judge Max O. Cogburn Jr. struck down North Carolina’s ban, a ruling that fell in line with an earlier announcement by the U.S. Supreme Court that it would not hear an appeal of a July decision by the 4th Circuit for the U.S. Court of Appeals in Richmond, which had struck down Virginia’s ban and has jurisdiction in North Carolina. The Supreme Court, in effect, let the 4th Circuit’s ruling stand.

But the issue has not been entirely settled.

Separately, Chief U.S. District Court Judge William Osteen Jr. issued an order granting requests by outgoing House Speaker Thom Tillis and Senate leader Phil Berger seeking to intervene in the cases.

Osteen agreed with Cogburn that North Carolina’s ban must be struck down. However, Osteen differed on whether the Republican leaders should be allowed to enter the cases.


Elections director fired; replacement has rough start

Heads rolled at the Forsyth County Board of Elections.

Kim Strach, executive director of the N.C. Board of Elections, fired Rob Coffman, the director of the Forsyth elections board, on Jan. 17 because of errors made with the Tobaccoville Village Council recount in November 2013.

Coffman showed “an apparent disregard for ensuring an accurate result” in the Tobaccoville contest, Strach said.

Strach’s action was triggered in part by Ken Raymond and Stuart Russell, the Republican members of the Forsyth board, who had filed a petition with her office to fire Coffman.

After Interim Director Lamar Joyner ran a smooth primary in the spring, Steve Hines, who was the board’s pick to permanently replace Coffman, had a rough start as director.

Several discrepancies surfaced during the general elections, including hundreds of ballots being counted late.

According to Hines, 864 curbside early voting ballots had not been counted Election Night, though the final accounting of those ballots did not affect outcomes. Also, the vote totals for Precincts 13 (Sedge Garden Elementary School) and 32 (Northwest Middle School) had to be adjusted because there were some duplicate votes. Hines attributed it to administrative error.

Bodies found in yard at Clemmons home

2 bodies found in Clemmons backyard

Clemmons, a small southwestern Forsyth County municipality just shy of 20,000 people, is a place where cows, two state-of-the-art medical parks, and subdivisions stocked with modest brick ranch houses and grand McMansions quietly coexist within a five-mile radius.

The place has its charm — and its secrets.

Law-enforcement officers discovered a gruesome one in October. They unearthed the remains of two men — Joshua Wetzler and Tommy Dean Welch — buried in the backyard of a Clemmons home. The bones apparently had lain there for five years. Law-enforcement officers found them Oct. 5 in shallow graves at a home on the 2700 block of Knob Hill Drive. An autopsy indicated that both men had been shot to death.

Arrested in connection with their deaths were Pazuzu Algarad, Amber Burch and Krystal Matlock, who will make court appearances April 30, according to court officials. There were reports that Algarad performed regular satanic rituals and animal sacrifices at the house.

Algarad and Burch are each charged with one count of first-degree murder and accessory after the fact to first-degree murder. According to arrest warrants, Algarad killed Wetzler in July 2009, and Burch helped him bury the body. Then, in October 2009, warrants allege, Burch killed Welch, and Algarad helped her bury the body.

Matlock is charged with accessory after the fact to first-degree murder. She is alleged to have helped with the burial of Wetzler.


First eugenics compensation payments made

Elaine Riddick received a telephone call that had been more than 40 years in the making.

Riddick, a victim of North Carolina’s eugenics program, said she received word from the state that they would send her a eugenics compensation payment at the end of the month.

“I have been fighting this for over 40 years,” Riddick, 60, said in October.

From 1929 to 1974, the state sterilized about 7,600 people, many against their will. Last year, North Carolina set aside $10 million to be divided equally among victims of the N.C. Eugenics Board program.

Victims had until June 30 to submit a claim form.

The first eugenics compensation payments were to be sent out by Oct. 31, and a second payment will be sent to victims in 2015.

As of October, 213 victims had qualified for compensation, according to the Office of Justice for Sterilization Victims.

Chris Mears, a spokesman for the Office of Justice for Sterilization Victims, said all claims have been forwarded to the N.C. Industrial Commission for ruling.

Riddick said she was told by the state that the first payment would be $20,000.


Johnson ousted from WSSU board of trustees

Vic Johnson’s tenure on the Winston-Salem State University board of trustees ended Dec. 5.

The UNC board of governors voted unanimously to remove Johnson after he refused to resign over an alleged breach of confidentiality during WSSU’s search for a new chancellor. The decision was effective immediately after the vote.

The chairman of the UNC board of governors said he doesn’t know of another trustee in the University of North Carolina system that has been removed in a similar situation.

Johnson had been accused of leaking to the public the names of finalists in the school’s search to replace retiring Chancellor Donald Reaves. Joan MacNeil, the chair of the board of governors’ Committee on University Governance, recommended Johnson’s removal. MacNeil said the recommendation was based on reports that Johnson “shared confidential information about applicants outside of the search process and engaged in other conduct not appropriate for a trustee.”

Johnson’s term was set to expire in 2017.

Johnson, a 1961 graduate of WSSU who was appointed to the board of trustees in 2009 and reappointed in 2013, maintains he did nothing wrong. But he said he’s glad the process is over.


Restaurant’s co-owner pays price for charity

A 15 percent discount offered at Mary’s Gourmet Diner reminded us of the old saying: No good deed goes unpunished.

For years, Mary Haglund, a co-owner of the restaurant, had allowed her staff to offer random 15 percent discounts to patrons who prayed, meditated or had a moment of silence before their meals. But the story of one particular prayer discount went viral after Christian recording artist Chris Bremnes received the discount and then posted approvingly on Facebook about it. The Freedom From Religion Foundation, based in Wisconsin, soon complained in a letter to Haglund. Concerned about the threat of a lawsuit, she stopped the practice.

“People are just jumping to this conclusion that it is a Christian thing. It is not tied to Christianity. It could be something spiritual between you and your idea of what God is, or it could be you in a moment being grateful to the universe,” she said.


Plea deal in death of Hasani Wesley

Billy Roger Bailey, a minister in Walkertown, was facing charges of involuntary manslaughter and passing a stopped school bus in the 2012 death of Hasani Wesley, a sixth-grader at East Forsyth Middle School.

In April, his case ended in a mistrial.

Rather, Bailey pleaded guilty to misdemeanor death by motor vehicle in June and was sentenced to a 30-day active jail sentence and supervised probation for 30 months.

Lawyers for Hasani’s parents, Odina and Norris Wesley, later filed a lawsuit against Bailey and the Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools Board of Education, alleging that his actions and the board’s negligence led to Hasani’s death.

The lawsuit alleges that Bailey didn’t slow down when he saw the bus and that he was texting on his phone at the time of the incident. Bailey testified during the trial that the bus had flashing yellow lights on and that he did not see Hasani on the road. He also testified that he was not on the phone.

Hasani, 11, was killed the morning of Dec. 19, 2012.

As he crossed Old Hollow Road to catch a school bus, he was hit by a Jeep driven by Bailey. Hasani was thrown 125 feet and later died from multiple fractures and internal injuries, according to the lawsuit.

His death spurred new legislation named after him — the Hasani N. Wesley Students’ School Bus Safety Act — which stiffened penalties for drivers who illegally pass stopped school buses.


Ex-female impersonator enters GOP primary

The three-candidate Republican primary for state Senate District 31 got interesting last spring.

As it turns out, one of the GOP candidates, Steve Wiles, who supported North Carolina’s constitutional amendment against same-sex marriage, once worked as a female impersonator at a gay nightclub in Winston-Salem and was gay at the time, according to a co-owner of the nightclub and a former employee.

Wiles, now in his mid-30s, was in his early 20s when he worked at the now-defunct nightclub, Club Odyssey, according to co-owner Randy Duggins and former employee Gray Tomlinson.

“He is Mona Sinclair,” Duggins said, referring to Wiles’ female persona.

Wiles’ responses ranged from categorical denial to tacit admission.

“I have already apologized to the people who matter most to me for the things I did when I was young,” Wiles said.

He had filed papers to run in the Republican primary May 6 against state Sen. Joyce Krawiec of Kernersville and East Bend resident Dempsey Brewer for the largely conservative district, which comprises Yadkin County and rings around most of Forsyth County.

Krawiec won the primary and went on to win the general election.

Journal reporters Meghann Evans, Arika Herron, John Hinton, Michael Hewlett, Lisa O’Donnell and Wesley Young contributed to this article.