Story of the year: The Baker House burns

December 30, 2013

Staff report

The Baker House, Richmond County’s only homeless shelter and Rockingham’s only soup kitchen for more than 20 years, was gutted by fire in August. The loss was selected as The Richmond County Daily Journal’s story of the year.

On Aug. 14, however, it caught fire and burned to the ground. The fire in The Baker House began in the building next door, a vacant two-story building formerly owned by Privett Furniture Store. The fire weakened the walls and supports and burning rubble fell into the homeless shelter.

Fire departments from five different districts arrived to help put out the fire, but power lines fell and the fire departments couldn’t advance until the power company came out and cut the power. The lines fell five to ten minutes after firefighters got on the scene, but the power company took 35 minutes to arrive. After that amount of time, there wasn’t much to be done to save the building.

The Mental Health Society of Richmond County owned and operated the Baker House and the board still continues with the soup kitchen in Hamlet. Arthur B. Thompson Jr., chair of the Richmond County Mental Health Society, said that it would take at least $70,000 to rebuild the Baker House on its current location. Any attempts by the society to relocate the homeless shelter have been met with resistance from local officials. The city is enforcing ordinances that prohibit organizations from distributing food or other assistance in certain areas of the city.

John Massey, board planner for the city’s Board of Adjustments, said there are two forms of use that the board deals with, permitted and conditional. Permitted uses are approved administratively and conditional uses, like the Baker House, require more scrutiny, meaning there could be adverse impacts on the community surrounding the building. Many in the community feel that the text needs to be changed to permitted use. This would allow the shelter and soup kitchen to be located anywhere within a Highway Business (B-3) zone. The Baker House land is designated as such. There have been offers for a temporary shelter, but those areas are not designated B-3.

“The places that we wanted to set up, city council simply said no,” said Thompson. “We had plans to use two churches and they just flat out told us we couldn’t do it.”

Plans on what’s next for the Baker House are unknown at the moment. Thompson is waiting on a report from a structural engineer to decide which direction to take the shelter. The Mental Health Society and Baker House receives a substantial part of its support from a governmental unit or the general public.

“We’re going to have to have some money infused by the county,” said Thompson. “We depend totally on contributions.”

No. 2 Voorhees sentenced for embezzlement

In a case of what some called questionable justice, former Rockingham Police Chief Robert Voorhees was fined $100 after being charged with embezzling $33,000 of city money.

Voorhees, 43, also was ordered to pay $584.50 in court costs, 12 months’ probation and was required to surrender his law enforcement license. He faced a maximum of 25 months in jail but a 45-day confinement was suspended.

Under the plea agreement, Voorhees remains eligible for his city pension.

Voorhees resigned in February 2012 as chief, a position he’d held for nearly 10 years. He worked for the city for 21 years.

Judge Mark Klass noted Voorhees and his charitable contributions to the community. The lesson, kids? Steal, but spread the wealth.

No. 3 Hamlet city manager accepts contract

A contract offered behind closed doors caused many to question the terms and reasoning behind the contract.

Hamlet City Manager Marchell David was offered and accepted an employment agreement that included a buyout term worth one year of her salary if she was ever involuntarily separated from her job.

The contract was to honor David’s 20 years of service to the city of Hamlet, but the timing of the contract did raise some eyebrows. It was effective on Oct. 10 — less than one month before the Nov. 5 election that, as rumor had it, could have jeopardized her position.

What was a two-day story turned into a five-day story when David and other city officials refused to release a copy of the agreement that is, by law, a public document. The contract became available to The Daily Journal only after the newspaper submitted a request for public information. Even so, David insisted the terms of the contract were confidential.

No. 4 Discovery Place KIDS opens

The highly anticipated children’s museum finally arrived in Rockingham to a crowd of 2,241 people in its first weekend — making Richmond County the place to be for many of the surrounding communities.

In just its first day, the museum had 1,152 visitors who were thrilled with the local themes of the museum — exhibits such as produce, animal care and a speed shop.

The project was five years in the making as the city of Rockingham purchased the former McKenzie Furniture building in downtown Rockingham as the permanent home for the museum.

It was launched by a $6.6 million gift from the Cole Foundation and the Richmond Community Foundation, a contribution that was facilitated by Foundation for the Carolinas.

No. 5 Suspected bank robber caught by ankle monitor

One tip to Richmond County Crime Stoppers led investigators to take a closer look at a suspect in the bank robbery at Community One Bank. It was the ankle monitor that actually got the suspect caught.

Phillip Jamal Jones was arrested by Rockingham Police Department officers with assistance from the Richmond County Sheriff’s Office, crime stoppers and the Richmond County probation and parole office.

The ankle monitor that Jones wore, after recently being release from prison, placed him inside the bank at the time of the robbery where he allegedly assaulted a female bank employee and stole $2,122 in cash.

Just goes to show it’s probably best to not wear something that will allow authorities to track your every move while allegedly committing a crime. Wannabe criminals, please leave your GPS watches at home.

No. 6 Hamlet looking for owners of seized cars

Hamlet city officials started the search to find individuals who owned cars that might have been wrongfully seized and disposed of after encounters with Hamlet police officers.

Up to two dozen cars were caught up in the controversy, which involved Hamlet police officer Michael Veach, under the supervision of former Police Chief John Haywood. Some of the cars were scrapped with at least one sold to a car dealer in town.

The city council directed the police officers to determine whether or not the cars should have been disposed of. The city decided to pay fair market value for each vehicle that was wrongfully seized and discarded. After being cleared of criminal wrongdoing by the State Bureau of Investigation, Haywood was hired by the Rockingham Police Department. A second SBI investigation is under way.

No. 7 Humane Society transfers animal shelter to Richmond County

The animal shelter in Richmond County became a county-owned and managed after years of being run by the Humane Society.

The Humane Society could no longer do its job of finding good homes for the animals while dealing with its financial struggle along with its inability to keep the building up to code.

The county’s main goal in taking over was to maintain the building and outside structure so the Humane Society could focus more on rescues and networking.

The only change in the operation of the shelter was that the new director now reports to County Manager Rick Sago. The complete changeover took effect on May 1.

No. 8 The Rock shuts down

Many in Richmond County were let down at the announcement of the 2014 NASCAR Camping World Truck Series schedule. The locations listed did not include the county’s beloved track “The Rock.”

The Rockingham Speedway was opened in 1965 and hosted NASCAR events until 2004. Andy Hillenburg, president of the speedway, purchased the track at auction in 2007. The track reopened a year later and in the fall of 2011 it was announced that the truck series would make its appearance at “The Rock” spring of 2012.

The news of NASCAR once again leaving the track was heart breaking to Hillenburg, but he took comfort in the fact that NASCAR does want to be here. The track right now is just not prepared to host a NASCAR event, said Hillenburg. There was no available update on when, or if, the track might be NASCAR-ready.

No. 9 Dannell Ellerbe stars in Super Bowl XLVII

Hamlet native Dannell Ellerbe played a starring role as his Baltimore Ravens held off the San Francisco 49ers to win Super Bowl XLVII, 34-31, in New Orleans. The linebacker’s final play as a Raven come on a fourth down, goal line stand in which he rushed 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick. The pass fell incomplete.

Ellerbe, an undrafted free agent in 2009, led the team that game in tackles (nine), including one for a loss.

A month later, Ellerbe signed a five-year, $35 million contract with the Miami Dolphins, which, like the Ravens, finished 8-8 this season and out of the playoffs.

No. 10 Car strikes blind pedestrian

A blind pedestrian was struck by a privately owned vehicle on Nov. 29 in downtown Rockingham.

Mark Tyler, 58, was walking in the cross walk in front of R.W. Goodman furniture store and made it three-quarters of the way across the street before being struck by an oncoming vehicle driven by Marjorie Terry, 63, of Hamlet.

According to the accident report both played a role in contributing to the incident. Tyler, the pedestrian with a guide dog, was cited for failure to yield the right of way. Terry, meanwhile, was cited for inattention.

Officers with the Rockingham Police Department declined to elaborate on what distracted Terry.