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A Courthouse Moment: ‘I really want to burn this…building down’

On a sunny September morning, the picture window near Courtroom 4D is framed by blue sky. It’s around 9:10 a.m. in the Durham County Courthouse and about five people mill about the corridor. A defendant scrolls through his emails and mutters nervously, as bursts of R&B music echo from someone else’s cell phone. Lawyers scold their clients: “Don’t lie to me.”

By 10:30 a.m., the people in the hallway have had their cases heard. But Tyi’sean Matthews, now in the courtroom, still waits. 

Finally, he walks out. The slim 21-year-old in a blue-and-green plaid shirt and dark pants shouts to no one in particular, “I really want to burn this f—ing building down, and it’d be easy.”

Then he looks at the ground, shoulders hunched, eyes cast downward.

A wide-eyed bailiff swiftly emerges behind him. Positioned between the courtroom door and Matthews, the bailiff gently and repeatedly explains that his case will be heard when his public defender, Rebekka Olsen, finishes her business upstairs in Superior Court. 

Matthews’ nearly 90-minute wait pales in comparison to the year and half his case has been stalled in Durham’s legal system. The COVID-19 pandemic has stressed the already-busy Durham County Courthouse, forcing those caught up in the system to put their lives on hold. The young man just wants to get home to his dogs. 

To an unconvinced Matthews, the bailiff further explains that the public defender will be coming any moment now.  Under the threat of being charged with failure to appear if he leaves, Matthews resigns to roaming down the hallway.

He holds his phone as he walks, looking into the screen. He shouts again, threatening to  “blow up downtown Durham.” 

Matthews returns to the courtroom, phone still in hand. He tells the person on the other end that he is “sitting here doing nothing.” A bailiff approaches, and he hangs up. Then District Court Judge Amanda Maris looks over the near-empty courtroom and asks about the matter involving “the gentleman in plaid.” 

Olsen walks in shortly after. Judge Maris greets them with “Good morning,” as Matthews stands, now silently composed. His head hangs so far forward that his short locks obscure his face.

In his initial outburst, Matthews, who faces charges for larceny of a firearm and breaking or entering a motor vehicle, claimed that he’d already made seven appearances related to the case. Judge Maris says it’s unclear why, but the court file shows his case has been postponed 10 times.

Later, in response to questions about Matthews’ case, Olsen does not say whether her client knew she would be delayed this morning.  In an email, she does stress that she has been to court with him twice — in late February and again today.

In the courtroom, Assistant District Attorney Andrew House says that his office has not assigned a prosecutor to Matthews’ case nor subpoenaed the relevant witness. Judge Maris describes the lack of progress in the case as “unacceptable.”

The prosecution and defense settle on a day to convene again. “It will be the last court date,” Judge Maris promises Matthews.

Her assurances bring him little comfort.

“I really don’t care,” Matthews says a few minutes later, outside the courthouse.  “They could have just thrown me in jail for 45 days….The judge couldn’t tell me sh– about nothing, and she’s supposed to be the top person in the building….I could just go disappear on you stupid motherf—ers, and y’all never see me again.” 

 Then he rides away on his skateboard. 

 

Courthouse Moments: capturing the human drama of justice in Durham

A local courthouse is a cauldron of human drama. 

The Durham County Courthouse is no exception, as every day thousands of people — judges and prosecutors, victims and defendants, clerks and court reporters, relatives and witnesses — pour through the doors of the boxy, gray complex to play their role in the life-changing events that unfold there. 

In recent weeks, reporters at The 9th Street Journal have chronicled these events in a collection of stories we call Courthouse Moments: A young man, furious that his case is repeatedly postponed, shouts about burning “this…building down.” A Guatemalan immigrant wins custody of his son. A man struggles to avoid being evicted from the home he loves. A cousin of George Floyd shows up to contest a traffic ticket.

Those are just a few examples of these short, colorful pieces, which take an intimate look at the courthouse’s day-to-day grind, mainly through the lens of ordinary people. The stories will deepen your understanding of Durham’s legal system, but more important, they’ll stir something inside you. 

There’s anger and humor, confusion and insight, joy and anguish — everything you might expect in a place like the courthouse. They aren’t meant to be the last word, just snapshots. But we hope their impact lingers.

-STEPHEN BUCKLEY, Co-Editor, The 9th Street Journal

At top: the Durham County Courthouse. 

Field of memories: Even without a home team, the DAP is Durham’s baseball home

On a humid Tuesday evening in July, more than 150 baseball fans sit scattered across the stands of the Historic Durham Athletic Park. Grandparents, families and toddlers have flooded through the old gates to watch the Rockhounds and Thunder go head to head. 

Sweltering in the heat, boys 13 to 15 years old take turns at the plate. Their coaches are  volunteers in the Long Ball Program, part of a Major League Baseball youth outreach initiative. A crack of a bat echoes out into the downtown neighborhood as the Rockhounds make a daring run to first base.

Durham Athletic Park — the DAP — was the home of the Durham Bulls from 1926 to 1994. A block away from Durham Central Park, the ballpark famously served as the backdrop for the 1988 movie Bull Durham, a romantic ode to baseball that helped put this little Southern city on the map. 

The team’s popularity exploded in response to Kevin Costner and Susan Sarandon’s saucy depiction of minor league baseball. In 1995, the Bulls moved a few blocks south to their newly constructed Durham Bulls Athletic Park (DBAP), where the team still plays today. 

The DAP remained standing but was poorly maintained until its renovation in 2009. Then the old park found new life as the home field for the N.C. Central University Eagles — but that era came to a close this year when NCCU, citing COVID-related budget cuts, eliminated its baseball program.

With the primary tenant gone and the surrounding downtown Durham rapidly developing, many wonder what lies ahead for this old ballpark. 

The DAP remains full of life this summer, hosting several youth league games each week. The Bulls — who manage their old park under contract for its owner, the city of Durham — are optimistic about its future. The ballpark’s next era remains unclear, but city leaders say plans are forming and the DAP is here to stay. 

Cars parked outside El Toro Park, circa 1927. Durham Historic Photographic archives, North Carolina Collection, Durham County Library

The story of Durham Athletic Park is a story of resilience, constant evolution and, above all, a love of baseball.

Worth a run in the bottom of the ninth

For nearly a century, the DAP has stood unmoving as the city of Durham grew and evolved around it. The occupants are always changing, but its concrete walls remain impervious to the ebb and flow of time. 

No matter what, the DAP endures.

It was known as El Toro Park when the Durham Bulls played their first game there in 1926. The stadium was renamed Durham Athletic Park when the city purchased the property in 1933. After a few years of vacancy during the Depression, in 1939, the DAP’s wooden grandstand burned to the ground, with the groundskeeper barely making it out alive. It was quickly rebuilt, this time with steel and concrete. 

The Durham Bulls, circa 1930. Durham Historic Photographic archives, North Carolina Collection, Durham County Library

In 1951 the DAP was the backdrop for Percy Miller Jr.’s debut as the first black baseball player in the Carolina League. The Bulls played off and on there until 1972, when the team folded. 

Then in 1980, owner Miles Wolff revived the Durham Bulls, filling the ballpark with 4,418 fans the first night. In the steaming North Carolina summers of the 1980s, the DAP was the place to be. Retired sportswriter Kip Coons, who covered the Bulls for the Durham Morning Herald (and who appears in Bull Durham), remembers the DAP in its prime. 

“Most nights, it was 4000 [fans], 5000, standing room jammed in. And it was loud,” retired sportswriter Kip Coons says. Ninth Street Journal photo by Rebecca Schneid
“Here on a bad night, it was 3000 [fans]. Most nights, it was 4000, 5000, standing room jammed in. And it was loud,” Coons said. 

He recalls a deafening roar in the small stadium, with fans shouting at the players on the field when they weren’t playing up to snuff. With a narrow foul territory and a field-level press box, the DAP was an intimate ballpark. 

Regularly breaking minor league attendance records, the fans made Bulls games special. Coons said his friend Brian Snitker, now manager of the Atlanta Braves, used to say that, “the crowd in Durham was worth a run in the bottom of the ninth.” 

This culture was partially why Bull Durham director Ron Shelton made Durham the setting for his now-classic film. Shelton, who had played in the minor leagues himself, wanted to capture ordinary baseball in small-town America.

And as Coons watched the movie’s premiere, he knew Shelton had succeeded. The Bulls players were laughing and joking in the theater until the scene where a player was released from the team. 

“It was like a church. It was so quiet.” said Coons. “Because all the players realized, ‘Damn, that could be me tomorrow. I could be out of baseball.’ And when they reacted like that, I realized at that moment, Ron Shelton has nailed it.”

Bull Durham’s authenticity made the film a national hit, grossing $50.8 million and earning recognition as one of the best sports movies of all time. It helped revive minor-league baseball as a nationwide pastime and “shot Durham into national consciousness,” said Susan Amey, president & CEO of Durham’s tourism marketing agency, Discover Durham

Ninth Street Journal photo by Grace Abels

Suddenly, everyone wanted to see the Durham Bulls play, and the team began to outgrow the aging DAP. In 1990, a crowd of 6000-plus had the venue bursting at the seams. 

When Jim Goodmon bought the Bulls that same year, plans for a larger ballpark were announced. The team played its first game in the new Durham Bulls Athletic Park in 1995, and three years later, the Bulls became a Triple-A minor league team — the highest before the majors.

The city began to blossom, too. 

“I think Durham’s financial and cultural renaissance directly results from the Bulls’ success as a minor league franchise,” Coons said. 

The Durham Bulls Athletic Park was one of the first visitor features downtown, along with Brightleaf Square, the American Tobacco Campus, and the Durham Performing Arts Center, Amey said. The restaurants, hotels, and shops were quick to follow. 

As the team moved on to bigger and better things, the DAP was mostly forgotten. After the Bulls’ departure, the old park was used occasionally for festivals and softball, but the facility was rundown and the field poorly maintained.

In 2009, as a part of a broader move from the city to improve its facilities, the city gave the DAP a $5 million facelift. Renovations were done to improve the structure, surplus seating was removed, and the field was restored to a professional level playing surface.

Minor League Baseball operated the refurbished stadium for a few years as a training area for umpires and groundskeepers. Management, paid for by the city, was passed in 2012 to the Durham Bulls, who remain dedicated to the space.

“We kind of consider ourselves caretakers of the museum, so to speak,” said Scott Strickland, who manages the DAP for the Bulls. “And that’s a lot of responsibility, but it’s a whole lot of fun, too.” 

Old park, new life

NCCU’s baseball program revived the Historic DAP, bringing life and a full schedule to the venue for more than a decade. The Eagles’ daily practices and games occupied most dates September through November and January through May. The team’s final regular season game on home turf was a 6-1 victory over Florida A&M on May 15. 

That would have been a pretty full calendar for a normal field, but due to the few baseball stadiums in the area, the demand for the space was high, so Durham School of the Arts and Voyager Academy also play several games there each year.

In summer, the DAP schedule is packed with youth games.

“I’d say we have activity in the ballpark six days a week,” said Joe Stumpo, the DAP’s head groundskeeper. The ballpark hosts traveling youth teams that play four games a day Thursday through Sunday. The rest of the dates are filled by the Long Ball program, a youth league that provides an alternative to expensive travel teams. 

Families find seats in the stands to watch youth teams play at Durham Athletic Park. Ninth Street Journal photo by Grace Abels

For youth leagues, the historic nature of the DAP continues to draw in a younger generation. 

“I think that’s why we get so many more people coming,” said Patricia James, founder of the Long Ball Program. “That is our drawing card. When they find out this is our home field.” 

The view from the stands isn’t bad, either. 

“I guess it’s neat for me to see my son play on a field that Hall of Famers have played on,” said Courtney Smith, mother of 14-year-old Bryce. Smith attended Bulls games here as a kid, so “it’s a lot of younger memories that come back” when she visits the park.

Strickland was sad to see NCCU ending its program, but he isn’t worried about filling the new hole in the DAP schedule.

To Strickland their departure just means the next evolution of the DAP. While the venue has always been able to host non-sporting events, from dance recitals to Mayor Bill Bell’s retirement, the building constraints and field protection made them quite expensive and hard to squeeze into the calendar. 

With NCCU off the schedule, “We’ll be able to be a little more selective on the type of events that we do,” he said. Strickland envisions it will look more like a normal baseball field schedule peppered with concerts, movies and other non-sporting events.

City leaders are ready for the DAP’s next evolution as well.

“We want to increase its usage. But we are in the early stages of thinking about that,” Mayor Steve Schewel said. He sees it as a “fantastic public asset” that ought to be used by more of the Durham community. Conversations between the city and Durham Bulls are in their infancy, but Schewel said new information should be available in a few months.

A piece of Durham’s soul

While the Durham Athletic Park has witnessed almost 100 years of a morphing Durham landscape, the last 30 years have been particularly astounding. 

Downtown Durham and the streets around the DAP are crowded with big apartment buildings, new nightlife, and large construction equipment dedicated to building more and more each year. 

Because of the limited land available, the 5.4 acres of land the DAP occupies is valuable real estate. For reference, in 2019, a plot of 0.6 acres across from the farmers market sold for $3.3 million. Several new developments around the ballpark will begin construction soon. 

The DAP is valued at $8.2 million and developers say it would surely fetch more if the city decided to sell it, but Schewel says that’s not an option. “In my 10 years on the council and as mayor, I have never heard a single conversation about selling the property. That is not going to happen,” Schewel said.

Surprisingly, some local developers agree. 

“I would frankly, as a developer, be disappointed to see that go from the neighborhood,” said Ben Perry of East West Partners, the developers in charge of the Liberty Warehouse apartments up the road on Foster Street.

They see it as precious green space, a recreational amenity, and a protected view. 

“Who doesn’t like to look at a baseball field at night. It’s just a beautiful view-shed with activity and life” said Paul Snow, a developer and commercial appraiser who worked on a nearby condo property.

“I think that it is such an important part of that neighborhood that nobody is wishing to see that gone,” Snow said. Perry said a place like the DAP has a different kind of value to the community. “It can’t always be measured in dollars and cents,” he said.

The truth of it is: People just love this old ballpark. 

For Kip Coons, the DAP was where he learned to be a sports writer.  For Joe Stumpo, it was where he had his first full-time job at 19. For Scott Strickland, it was where he watched baseball as a kid with his dad. For Courtney Smith it is where her son plays baseball with his friends.

For others, it is the background in their wedding photo, where they hit their first home run, or maybe just where they walk their dog. 

“I think it’s a connection for generations,” said Stumpo “I just think this place has a lot of history to a lot of people.”

After so many years, Durham Athletic Park has firmly established itself as a part of the city’s identity. 

“I think it carries a little piece of Durham’s soul in it,” said Amey. “It’s something that residents treasure.”

“If I sit here, you know, I expect to see Annie Savoy walk by,” retired sportswriter Kip Coons said. Ninth Street Journal photo by Rebecca Schneid

Places like the DAP are important to keep not just because of their history. “There are ways to preserve memories. Some of them are museums, and some are natural things like parks, and some are just living memorials like a baseball stadium,” Coons said.

When Coons stands by the old ticket booth, the memories come flooding back — from the DAP’s heyday in the 1980s, and from the movie version, too.

“If I sit here, you know, I expect to see Annie Savoy walk by.” 

At the top: The Bulls are long gone and the NCCU Eagles played their last game in May, but the DAP is busy with youth baseball this summer. Ninth Street Journal photo by Grace Abels

Durham leaders: Night of vandalism at odds with racial-justice movement

By Cameron Oglesby
and Henry Haggart

After Durham’s most violent night in months of protests, Mayor Steve Schewel blamed unidentified outsiders for busting windows, spray-painting graffiti and hijacking “righteous” dissent.

“The people who inflicted this damage last night are not advancing the cause of justice,” Schewel said Thursday during a press conference. “What they’re doing is co-opting this movement for racial justice for their own purposes.”

Street protesters Wednesday damaged at least 13 buildings, both public and private, and left a church with repairs that will cost tens of thousands, the mayor said. 

Because the police department had no warning of what was coming, they were unable to arrive in time to stop the vandalism, Durham Police Chief Cerelyn Davis said.

For months, police have steered clear of confronting peaceful protesters calling for fundamental changes to policing locally and nationally. That’s because the department supports their free speech, Davis said.

From now on, officers will be more visible, she vowed.

“That is the strategy that we feel that we have to take at this point, not in an antagonistic way, but in a manner that our community members know that we are there and we’re paying attention,” she said.

Neither Schewel or Davis offered any specifics on the identities of the people they accused. Most in the crowd participated in the vandalism, Davis said.

“The folks that were just inflicting the damage last night were white, I just want to be really clear about that,” the mayor said. “This is an attempt to co-opt a racial justice movement.” 

A left-behind banner lay crumpled on the ground after Wednesday’s vandalism spree downtown. Photo by Henry Haggart

On Wednesday night, an estimated 75 or more people gathered at CCB Plaza downtown for a protest advertised to express outrage over a Kentucky grand jury indicting only one of the three police officers involved in the killing of Breonna Taylor in her home on March 13.

Chanting “No Justice, No Peace” and “Defund the Police,” the group of mostly white men and women marched through the center of downtown Durham, making stops at the police department headquarters and the Durham County Justice Center. 

As the march progressed, protesters at the back of the group threw trash cans, scooters, traffic cones and other objects they found on the streets into roadways to block police patrol cars following them. Officers exited their vehicles to clear the obstacles but kept their distance.

Occasionally, small groups of protesters would run to a sidewalk, umbrellas raised to conceal their faces, and spray paint messages like “say her name” and “burn it down” on the sides of buildings

Protesters with umbrellas also harassed members of the press trying to photograph or film them, including following and briefly surrounding a 9th Street journalist.

The Rev. Paul Scott, founder of the Black Messiah Movement in Durham and a Black nationalist, was downtown Wednesday to observe the protest.

“They got a Black Lives Matter rally going on. As usual — no Black people. See they got a civil war going on. And they’re doing these things in our name, in the name of Black Lives Matter. But no Black people!,” he said during a video he made Wednesday night and posted on Facebook. 

When asked Thursday if the city police could have handled Wednesday night any better, Scott said this: “I think if they were Black teenagers, they would have been dealt with a lot more harshly. I think there’s a double standard. And I think it’s a classic example of white privilege.”

He noted how police officers approached three youngsters with guns drawn at a city apartment complex last month while looking for an armed suspect. A 15-year-old, the oldest in the group playing outdoors, was handcuffed. Wednesday night was “white anarchists getting a police escort,” Scott said.

The assault on property downtown by a majority white crowd comes just as many restaurants and other businesses are beckoning paying patrons to return after six months of bleak disruption from the coronavirus pandemic.

Just last week, Downtown Durham Inc. launched The Streetery, a project to transform downtown into a socially distanced and entertaining eating experience, equipped with lights and performances on Friday and Saturday nights.

A front window of Viceroy, an Indian restaurant and British pub on West Main Street, was damaged Wednesday night, said co-owner Smita Patel. The restaurant’s landlord asked them to put up plywood, but she and her team do not feel unsafe.

“Overall, I think we still feel safe, we always have, and Durham is doing a good job of keeping people together,” Patel said. “It does affect our business, of course, the boards being up, but we’re hoping that we won’t regress back to how it was a couple months ago.”

Thursday’s press conference was a short, solemn event, with Chief Davis saying she didn’t view violence during Wednesday’s protest as a response to what many consider inadequate action against officers involved in the shooting death of Breonna Taylor. Instead, it was people “taking advantage of an opportunity to express other ideology.”

Police are investigating whether they can identify those who did the damage, a group that, she said, dispersed quickly.

“We are still looking at the video footage,” Davis said, to identify who they can.

9th Street reporters Rebecca Schneid and Charlie Zong contributed to this report.

9th Street journalists Cameron Oglesby and Henry Haggart can be reached at cameron.oglesby@duke.edu and henry.haggart@duke.edu

At top: Two men clean up broken glass Thursday outside 5 Points Gallery on East Chapel Hill Street. Photo by Henry Haggart

The Bull Durham house, then and now

From the outside, the Bull Durham house at 911 N. Mangum St. looks pretty much the same as it did in the famous 1988 baseball film. The windows are big and a mix of styles, typical of the home’s Queen Anne architecture. A swing still hangs on the front porch. 

But inside, there is barely a trace of the erratically wallpapered, chaotically cluttered home where Annie Savoy, played with passion and wisdom by Susan Sarandon, seduced a series of Bulls players, most notably Ebby “Nuke” LaLoosh (Tim Robbins) and Crash Davis (Kevin Costner). Today, the home is transformed into an embodiment of southern minimalism. 

The garish wallpaper is gone (understandably) and the walls now display a spectrum of muted pastels. Instead of Annie’s large collection of candles, the home is filled with natural light. It is very southern chic, with plenty of open space, simple colors, and vintage-esque furnishings. 

We know these details because the sale of the house is pending (asking price: $1.15 million) and, when it was on the market, it even had its own website, thebulldurhamhouse.com, complete with a virtual tour. Stroll through the house (virtually or in person) and you won’t see many signs of Annie or Crash or Nuke – except for the tub.

“For me, the scene I’ll never forget was the infamous bathtub scene with Annie and Crash,” says Jarin Frederick, the real estate agent selling the home for Urban Durham Realty.

“The clawfoot tub is still in the home today!” says Frederick, referring to the location of one of the most famous moments in the film. The tub scene is all kinds of steamy, with Costner and Sarandon finally consummating their love affair surrounded by dozens of burning candles. They share passionate kisses and the camera pans away as the water splashes out the candles’ flames. 

Is the tub now in a different room? It seemed larger in the film, but maybe that’s an optical illusion.  But if you’ve got $1.15 million, who cares? You can recreate this moment of movie magic, even if you have a bit less space for candles. 

Even before it was on the big screen, the house, built in 1880, carried an air of celebrity. It has been granted historical status both locally and nationally as the “James S. Manning House.” 

Manning was a reputable Durhamite, first as an attorney and judge, later a state senator and eventually as the North Carolina’s attorney general. He remained in the home until 1912 when he resettled in Raleigh. After the Mannings relocated, the house changed families a few times until it eventually became vacant. 

The garish wallpaper is gone and the home is now filled with natural light. Photo by Taylor McDonald, courtesy of Urban Durham Realty

That’s how it stood in 1986, when Ron Shelton, a director, screenwriter, and former minor league infielder, saw the house while scouting locations for the film that would eventually become Bull Durham. Shelton has said in interviews that the filmmakers chose Durham because of its minor league team and its skyline of dilapidated tobacco warehouses, which complement the romantic allusions of the movie. 

But Bull Durham wasn’t entirely shot in Durham. A batting cage scene was filmed in Garner at what is now a mini-golf course; the bar where Nuke and Crash first meet is in Raleigh; and the baseball diamond where LaLoosh is interviewed about pitching in “the show” was in Arlington, Texas.

The Manning house, though, is less than a mile from the Durham Bulls stadium where the team played in the 1980s and where much of the film was made.

What a difference 30 years (and a little decorating) can make. When Annie lived there, the house was decorated with a seemingly endless collection of tchotchkes: buddhas, goddesses in various forms, and baseball memorabilia. Each room had its own statement wallpaper (usually floral) and the whole place was candlelit by night and sunlit by day. 

In a desperate attempt to seduce Nuke during what he thought to be a celibacy-induced winning streak, Annie shouts that she detests cute – she wants to be “exotic and mysterious.” That describes her home, too, a workshop for her new age mysticism.

Today, the home is spacious with four bedrooms and 3.5 bathrooms, a front and back porch as well as an office, family room and living room. In the film, the house was painted a fading mint color. Now, it’s a slate gray, the classic mismatched windows accented with a bright red like the stitches of a baseball. It’s so nice it looks like it’s been on the cover of Southern Living.

Frederick says the owners have taken good care of it. “When you walk through the home you are immediately aware of the love and commitment the  homeowners made the last 13 years in preserving this historic Durham treasure,” she says. 

The website highlights a laundry list of restorations and updates since 2007. These range from lighting fixture updates to larger renovations, like the addition of a garage and workspace in the backyard and the refurbishment of the front porch where Crash awaited Annie’s return from the ballpark in the film’s last scene.  

Annie joins him on the porch, and the two sit under cover as rain comes down around them. She rambles about the non-linearity of baseball and Crash kindly tells her to shut up. Eventually the two move inside. Much is left unsaid as they dance in front of Annie’s shrine to the religion of baseball. 

Staff writer Carmela Guaglianone can be reached at carmela.guaglianone@duke.edu

At top, photo of the Bull Durham house by Henry Haggart | The 9th Street Journal

“You have to let go,” says TROSA founder Kevin McDonald as he steps aside

When Kevin McDonald woke up the morning after his first round of electroshock therapy, he couldn’t remember how to make coffee. He used to drink it every morning – strong with some cream. That Saturday he stopped. 

But the shock therapy continued, and so did his memory lapses. Scrolling through Facebook, he found himself staring at unfamiliar names and faces. And when he drove into the complex of TROSA, the Durham organization he founded 26 years ago, he couldn’t remember the security guard’s name. 

Eventually, McDonald, who served as the President and CEO of TROSA since its inception, decided he had a choice to make: hold on to the organization, or allow someone more capable to take over.   

In the decades since McDonald started TROSA (the Triangle Residential Options for Substance Abusers) with $18,000, an abandoned school building and a four-burner stove, the organization has helped hundreds of people recover from substance abuse and become a cornerstone of the Durham community. TROSA moving vans help Durhamites schlep their stuff to new homes, TROSA yard crews keep lawns trim and TROSA cleaning crews prepare Cameron Indoor Stadium before almost every Duke basketball game. 

But after 26 years running the organization, McDonald knew he needed to hand over the reins. On July 1, he stepped aside to a role as “founder” as Keith Artin, the organization’s longtime chief operating officer, became president and CEO.  

“I just knew in my heart of hearts that you have to let go,” McDonald said.  

***

When I called McDonald over Zoom recently, he appeared on my screen wearing a white button-down shirt that matched his large white beard. Since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, McDonald, who is 72 and has trouble breathing, has worked from home. Despite the isolation, he’s enjoying life. 

“I’m drinking Coca-Cola instead of Diet Coke,” he chuckled. “I’m splurging, man.” 

McDonald is no stranger to letting go. Because his dad was an officer in the Air Force, McDonald never got to settle down. He was born in Winthrop, Massachusetts, but he grew up across the South – Alabama, Louisiana, Virginia and Florida. 

As a Yankee with a Boston accent, McDonald struggled to fit in, and developed feelings of shyness and social anxiety. His mother was also physically and emotionally abusive, he said. 

In 1959, when McDonald was 12, his family moved to Germany, where his father served as commander at an air base. His anxiety and lack of confidence continued to fester. 

He escaped with alcohol, frequenting local bars as a young teenager. “I wasn’t shy there, after I had some drinks,” he said. By the time he left Germany in 1963, alcohol had become a major problem in his life, he said. 

The family moved to California, and he started partying and drinking more. Eventually, his drinking problem became so severe that his dad delivered an ultimatum. “My way or the highway,” his father told him. McDonald took the highway. He was 17. 

After high school, he enlisted in the Air National Guard, in the hope of making it into the Air Force Academy. He started carting drugs from Northern California to Los Angeles, but wore a short-haired wig during his military training so he’d look clean-cut. 

McDonald didn’t make the Academy and then started snorting heroin, which spiraled into more trouble. Soon he was robbing pharmacies to get drugs. But he got caught twice in three months. The first time, he was bailed out; the second time, he received a sentence of 20 years in prison. (A defense lawyer found a way to reduce that to three months.) 

Instead of spending years in prison, 32-year-old McDonald headed to Delancey Street, a substance recovery program that would become the model for TROSA. At Delancey, McDonald began to learn how to care for other people, and—even more difficult—to accept other people’s care for himself.  

“The hardest thing for me was to receive, to let people care about me, get close to me. That started happening too,” he said during an interview with Frank Stasio on “The State of Things.” 

During his 12 years of working at Delancey, McDonald visited Greensboro, North Carolina to help set up a substance recovery facility. There, he met many of the people who would later invite him to set up a similar program in Durham. 

Inspired by his own treatment, McDonald decided to start one when he moved to Durham. He told his wife Sue about his plans during their wedding dance. 

TROSA soon took off, earning large donations from the Chamber of Commerce and support from the community, including volunteer work from a Duke fraternity. Combining work-based training, counseling and education, the program helped hundreds of residents recover from substance abuse problems. TROSA’s lawn care, thrift store and moving company have each won readers’ awards from Indy Week. 

Even as the program grew into a big success, McDonald kept his eye on the day when he would have to move on. 

“It’s what’s important for the organization, not the founder, not individuals in the organization, and I really believe in that,” he said during his 2015 interview on “The State of Things.”   

***

Roughly the same time as that interview, McDonald began experiencing more severe bouts of depression, which had been a chronic problem. He had more trouble finishing tasks and getting out of bed. People who knew him well could tell that he was a little colder, a little harder.  

He went to a psychiatrist, who eventually recommended that he undergo electroshock therapy.

He ended up going through 19 rounds of the therapy before deciding to stop. He says the treatment left major gaps in his memory. He once had a knack for remembering names and faces. Now, when TROSA residents greeted him, he would have to say, “Hi, what’s your name?” – and he felt terrible about it. He used to be able to give speeches from memory, but now he had to write them down. 

Around that time, McDonald was also diagnosed with Parkinson’s, a brain disorder that can lead to physical decline and short-term memory loss.  

“It was scary,” he said. “It was like, I went inside myself. And, how am I going to adapt to this one? How am I going to beat this?” 

But as the memory lapses continued, McDonald realized that some things in life can’t be overcome – only endured. He decided it was time to step down at TROSA.

“Nobody realized but me where it was,” he said. “And so I just said, ‘July, I’m out.’ And it was the right thing to do.” 

McDonald’s voice cracks when he talks about the support he got from his staff, particularly after he announced he was stepping down. 

“I just was so emotionally blown away by people caring so much. I’ve cared a lot of about people in my life, and I’ve given everything I got for a lot of years, but I don’t expect people caring about me.” 

Does he regret stepping down? 

“Oh no,” he said. “I worked hard, man.” 

Actually, he’s quite happy. A person he trusts is in charge, and, as founder, he can still be involved. 

“I’m ain’t laying down, and I’m gonna help people.”

Of course, he’s had to adapt to his new role. With Artin in charge, he’s learning to follow orders instead of giving them.

“I don’t need to be a general,” he said. “Rank? I’m past rank. I’m Kevin.” 

9th Street Journal reporter Chris Kuo can be reached christopher.kuo@duke.edu

In photo at top: Kevin McDonald in his home. He now splurges and has a real Coca-Cola. Photo by Henry Haggart | The 9th Street Journal

Durham Primary 2020: Live coverage

NATALIE MURDOCK WINS STATE SENATE PRIMARY

Natalie Murdock’s primary night watch party ended in gleeful dancing and cheering, music carrying onto the sidewalk outside Beyu Caffe in downtown Durham.  

At 10:45 p.m., Murdock took center stage to declare victory as the likely next state senator for North Carolina District 20. The excited crowd, filled with the Democrat’s family, friends and supporters, whooped and chanted. 

“I think it’s a testament to me working in the community for so many years, it’s a testament to my hardworking team, and it’s a testament to the women’s vote,” said Murdock, a Durham Soil and Water District supervisor.

Murdock held the watch party with Durham Public Schools Board of Education candidate Jovonia Lewis, who ran unopposed in her district. Their collaboration was symbolic of Murdock’s efforts during her campaign to uplift other women running for office in North Carolina. 

Natalie Murdock gives a victory speech during her watch party on Super Tuesday. Photo by Rebecca Schneid

In her victory speech, she highlighted the struggles of black women in Durham County, specifically around health care and homelessness.

“This evening shows the power of black women,” Murdock said. “Black girl magic is a very real phenomenon… Who better than us to go into government and say ‘we need this representation and we deserve it?’” 

Her mother, Christine Murdock, told 9th Street Journal she saw tonight as the culmination of her daughter’s long-time interest in government and hope for change-making.

“I know she just wants to help the people of Durham — that’s her goal,” she said. “I’ve seen this coming years ago, since she ran for president of the student body in fourth grade. It’s in her blood.”

Murdock publicly recognized that a significant portion of the district voted for Pierce Freelon, who came in second. 

Durham County’s voter turnout was up nearly 2% from the 2016 primary election. Just under 90,000 people voted, which is about 39% of those eligible. According to a 9th Street Journal analysis, part of that gain may have involved one-stop early voting, which saw nearly 12,000 more participants this year.

Murdock said she is prepared to win over Freelon’s voters. 

“I think it’s very important that I represent the entire district, not just the people that voted for me, so I will try to reach out to all individuals,” Murdock said.

Murdock emphasized her commitment to Democrats flipping the state senate, and thanked organizations like Emily’s List, a PAC that helps Democratic women get elected to office. 

“From here on out, I am determined to take that Senate by at least one seat, so that we can actually fund Medicaid, so that we can actually fund education, so that we can actually do something with our roads and bridges,” she said.

The crowd clearly felt her energy, exploding into cheers and chanting as she finished her speech: “We are going to take that Senate!” — Rebecca Schneid

9th Street reporter Jake Sheridan contributed to this post.

County Commissioner Heidi Carter speaks to supporters after winning one of five Democratic primary spots. Photo by Victoria Eavis

WINNING DESPITE ACCUSATIONS

After it was clear Heidi Carter very likely secured another term as a county commissioner, she stood off to the side, arm in arm with her husband.

Looking exhausted, she had just given a victory speech at the People’s Alliance election night gathering at Motorco Music Hall.

Despite a recent letter from county manager Wendell Davis accusing her of harboring inherent bias towards people of color, she secured a nomination for the Durham County Board of Commissioners. 

To win, Democratic candidates needed to be a top-five vote getter out of a field of 15 candidates. Carter finished third with 12.85% of the vote.

That win all but guarantees her another term because Durham voters lean Democratic by wide margins.

“My passionate advocacy for our school children has not waned at all. My desire to make sure we have more widespread prosperity in durham continues to drive my actions,” she said earlier on Tuesday, before she knew the fate of her campaign.  

The turbulence started about two weeks ago, after Davis’ letter went public. “Since 2016, you have demonstrated a consistent pattern of disparate treatment towards me and employees of color,” Davis wrote in his letter. “Bigotry is cloaked in the most liberal of circumstances,” Davis he closed.

Carter “unequivocally” denied that her actions are racially motivated or biased. 

Davis’ criticism and Carter’s response ignited passionate criticism and support for the commissioner. 

Mayor Pro Tempore Jillian Johnson reaffirmed her support for Carter, along with the People’s Alliance. City council member Javiera Caballero endorsed Carter Monday.

The county manager could not be reached for comment on Tuesday. Commissioners announced plans this week to start an independent investigation into his accusations against Carter. — Victoria Eavis.

BUILDING A FOUNDATION

Pierce Freelon reveled in the atmosphere of his election night watch party at NorthStar Church of the Arts.  

“My mom is here. I’m in the house my father built. My best friends are playing,” he said, pointing to the front of the church, where a jazz band had taken over the altar. “It feels like home. There’s a good vibe.”

Freelon’s State Senate District 20 campaign slowly fizzled out as the votes rolled in — but the band kept playing. Natalie Murdock won with 45.2% of the vote, and Freelon came in second with 37.1%. Gray Ellis placed third with 17.7%. 

Murdock kept the lead all night, though Freelon made small gains. Attendees of the watch party-turned-jazz-concert didn’t seem to notice when the projector switched from an anime fight scene to election results. 

When the results first showed up around 8:15, Murdock had 2400 votes on Freelon. As that window narrowed by a couple of hundred, some supporters clapped and bobbed their heads. It could’ve been the music or the votes. 

Pierce Freelon checks election results with his wife, Katye Proctor Freelon. Photo by Corey Pilson

Freelon was dancing on stage when the next update — and incremental gain — came. Then he took the mic. 

“Bull City! How’s everyone doing today?” Freelon shouted over the music. “I know that whatever happens tonight, we’re going to do great. We’re going to do good. We’re building a foundation.”

As Murdock’s lead widened, the three dozen supporters at NorthStar left. Freelon ran back and forth from the back of the sanctuary to the computer up front, refreshing it every few minutes.

“I’m mostly just feeling disappointment at the results so far, but also a genuine sense of gratitude for the campaign we ran,” Freelon told 9th Street Journal. He added that he didn’t plan to concede until all precincts reported. 

“Durham is an incredibly unique city. It’s resilient. It’s creative. It’s dynamic. And I think our campaign is all of those things also,” said Freelon. “I hope, if nothing else, it was a reflection of this city, and that the people who have helped mold me are proud of the job we did and are ready for what’s next.” 

And what is next? 

“Sleep, in the immediate future,” said Freelon, laughing. “I’ll start there and see where we go.” 

 He walked out of the church while the band kept playing. — Jake Sheridan

Gray Ellis talks with supporters at his watch-the-vote gathering at Bull McCabe’s Irish Pub Tuesday. Photo by Corey Pilson

DEFEATED BUT GRATEFUL

When around 70% of precincts had reported and state Senate candidate Gray Ellis was still polling in last place, his supporters started trickling out of Bull McCabe’s Irish Pub.

First they hugged Ellis and took photos with him. “It was an honor and a pleasure. I’m proud of you Goddammit!” one woman yelled on her way to the door.

Ellis, a local lawyer, political newcomer and transgender man, finished last with 17% of the vote on primary night. 

The Democrat said he was proud of that outcome given that he was in the campaign for only eight weeks without the endorsements from major local political action committees.

“It’s great that folks in Durham showed how accepting they can be. Hopefully I have played a part in opening more hearts and minds to acceptance of folks who feel they have no opportunities or voice,” Ellis said. 

Ellis’ drive to win a primary and take a seat previously occupied by former state Sen. Floyd McKissick was clear in campaign finance reports. His campaign committee spent $71,024.19, with political consulting the largest single expense, according to Board of Elections data.

Most of the money came from Ellis himself, the candidate said Tuesday night. 

As of Feb. 11, the campaign raised $7,369.33, board records show. Matthew Lewis, the  campaign finance manager, said donations reached about $14,000 by primary day. 

As of Feb. 14, Natalie Murdock raised $29,024.00 and spent $19,775.81. Numbers were not available for Pierce Freelon. 

As Ellis’ election results watch party waned, cheers and chatter from  neighboring Bernie Sanders supporters took over. 

“I’m proud of running a campaign that showed who I really was,” Ellis said as the night and his campaign ended. — Victoria Eavis

CHANGE FOR COUNTY COMMISSIONERS

Three out of four incumbent Durham County commissioners — Wendy Jackson, Heidi Carter and Brenda Howerton — won Tuesday’s Democratic primary vote. So did two newcomers, Nimasheena Burns and Nida Allam, with 56 of 57 precincts reporting. Incumbent James Hill finished second to last in the 15-person race.

MURDOCK’S TO LOSE

With 25 of 40 precincts reporting, Democrat Natalie Murdock is maintaining her lead in the race for a state Senate seat.

WAITING AND WATCHING

Natalie Murdock, the early front-runner in the Democratic state Senate primary race, checks preliminary vote counts with supporter Antonio Jones at Beyu Caffe. Photo by Corey Pilson

EARLY RESULTS

Earliest results from the Board of Elections include just absentee votes. It’s impossible to know if what we see here will hold.

But this early, the race for the Democratic nomination for state Senate District 20 is between Natalie Murdock and Pierce Freelon.

EARLY VOTING

At least 17.7% of registered voters in Durham County didn’t wait until Super Tuesday to vote. 

A total of 40,614 people cast their ballots via one-stop, or in-person early voting. Even though that figure doesn’t include mail-in votes, it’s well past the 13.6% of registered voters who voted early in the 2016 primary election. 

9th Street Journal crunched a voter history report to get an idea of how early voting trends are changing. 

Two populations — all early voters in 2016 (one-stop, curbside and mail-in) and one-stop early voters in 2020 — seem similar in race and gender. 

The proportion of unaffiliated voters, however, jumped from about 15% in 2016 to about 27% in 2020. In North Carolina, unaffiliated voters can choose which primary they participate in.

The proportion of Republican voters decreased from about 17% to 5%. The proportion of Democrat voters barely declined — 68% to 67% — but over 7,700 more Democrats voted early this year. 

Over 46% of the early vote came in the last three days of the early vote period. Durham County’s eight one-stop voting sites saw a major uptick during this time. The analysis doesn’t include absentee ballots. 

One reason early voting might be up: There was more time to vote. Early voting lasted 10 days during the 2016 primary and 17 days this time around.  — Jake Sheridan

Campaign signs have been everywhere for weeks in Durham, including outside Southwest Regional Library in Durham. Photo by Corey Pilson

Editor’s note: Yes, Durham voters are tuned into presidential politics this Super Tuesday. They are also making decisions with immediate local impact.

Whoever wins one Democratic primary vote will very likely be Durham’s next District 20 state senator. Three candidates Natalie Murdock, Pierce Freelon and Gray Ellis are competing to be the fresh face who succeeds longtime state Sen. Floyd McKissick in Raleigh. 

Voters will also decide whether County Commissioner Heidi Carter will have a spot on November’s ballot, allowing her to run for re-election. Durham County Manger Wendell Davis recently accused Carter of being biased against him and all people of color, igniting passionate criticism and support for the commissioner.

Follow 9th Street’s live coverage of this and more as it unfolds, right here …

‘It was like a bomb’

Freddy DiVallerino was trimming trees on the 100 block of North Duke Street when he heard the explosion.

“It was like a bomb,” he said. “I had my back turned, and when I looked around I saw glass and chunks of the building hitting the ground.”

One person was killed and at least 17 people, including a firefighter, were injured after a gas explosion rocked downtown Durham Wednesday morning. Residents blocks away felt the blast and wondered what happened. But for those nearby, there was no doubt that something enormous and lethal had just occurred.

DiVallerino owns Freddy’s Tree Services. His staff was working on the landscaping in front of the Ingram Collection, a private museum of Porsches, right before the explosion.

Video of the immediate aftermath of the Durham gas line explosion Wednesday, shot by Freddy DiVallerino. Graphic language included. Used by permission. (Click here if you have trouble viewing.)

He said he began to smell gas around 9:30 am and told a nearby employee to call 911 and the gas company. Members of the Durham Fire Department, dispatched at 9:38, arrived quickly and evacuated people from businesses on the block.

DiVallerino was standing in the parking lot outside the Ingram Collection at 111 North Duke St. when the blast struck at 10:07 am.

“I was screaming, cussing,” he said. “But I knew I had to look for people, because someone might still be in there.”

DiVallerino said he jumped through the window of Prescient, a construction company at 115 North Duke St., in the worst-hit building. “The walls were collapsed, the ceiling was collapsed,” he said. “I went to the second floor and yelled for any survivors, but I didn’t hear anything back. Then I knew I had to get out of there.”

A few minutes later, tall flames roared from the roof of the building, which quickly collapsed.

Casey McCollough, an inspector for the NC Department of Transportation, said he was waiting for co-workers in his truck a block from the blast.

“I heard the loudest explosion I’ve ever heard in my life,” McCollough said. “Then I see a man running down the sidewalk. His face was full of glass, his back and arms had glass in them, and his hair was completely burnt off,” he said.

“He was just walking past the sidewalk when the explosion happened,” said McCollough, who said he took out his first aid kit from his truck and waited for an ambulance to help the man.

Durham firefighters remained on the block where the explosion occurred all day Wednesday. (Photo by Katie Nelson)

The cause of the blast is under investigation. Durham police spokesman Wil Glenn Wednesday morning said it appeared that a construction worker damaged a gas line. “The gas leak was caused by a contractor drilling under the sidewalk. He hit a two-inch gas line,” Glenn said.

The collapsed building also included Kaffeinate, a coffee shop. The building housing the Ingram Collection was also severely damaged.

At midday, Fire Chief Robert Zoldos said that the Durham Fire Department will continue searching for any remaining victims. “Units are starting search and rescue operations,” Zoldos said. Tunneling and “delayering” the damaged buildings could take days.

City officials closed the blocks surrounding the site of Wednesday’s explosion to everybody but emergency responders. (Photo by Katie Nelson)

Ethan Stansbury, a Duke University junior, said he was across the street in his West Village apartment when he felt the blast.

“I thought a truck had crashed into the side of our building,” he said. “The windows of our apartment blew inwards, so there’s glass all over. It knocked stuff off our walls, too.”

When Stansbury went outside, he saw chaos. “People were crying, and there was glass and debris in the streets three blocks away. There were broken windows everywhere, and water leaking from pipes in the parking deck two blocks over.”

This is not what city officials were expecting today, the 150th anniversary of Durham’s founding.

“It’s a sad day,” said Mayor Steve Schewel, who also emphasized how well front-line emergency workers responded to the disaster.

“It’s also a day that I feel a lot of gratitude and pride for the way the employees of the city and county have responded,” he said.

(Alex Johnson contributed to this article)

Photo at top from video shot by Freddy DeVallerino. Used by permission.

‘It was like a bomb’

By Cameron Beach
and Alex Johnson

Freddy DiVallerino was trimming trees on the 100 block of North Duke Street when he heard the explosion.

“It was like a bomb,” he said. “I had my back turned, and when I looked around I saw glass and chunks of the building hitting the ground.”

One person was killed and at least 17 people, including a firefighter, were injured after a gas explosion rocked downtown Durham Wednesday morning. Residents blocks away felt the blast and wondered what happened. But for those nearby, there was no doubt that something enormous and lethal had just occurred.

DiVallerino owns Freddy’s Tree Services. His staff was working on the landscaping in front of the Ingram Collection, a private museum of Porsches, right before the explosion.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=q3sm4rThKSc?&w=600&h=400]

Video of the immediate aftermath of the Durham gas line explosion Wednesday, shot by Freddy DiVallerino. Graphic language included. Used by permission. (Click here if you have trouble viewing.)

He said he began to smell gas around 9:30 am and told a nearby employee to call 911 and the gas company. Members of the Durham Fire Department, dispatched at 9:38, arrived quickly and evacuated people from businesses on the block.

DiVallerino was standing in the parking lot outside the Ingram Collection at 111 North Duke St. when the blast struck at 10:07 am.

“I was screaming, cussing,” he said. “But I knew I had to look for people, because someone might still be in there.”

DiVallerino said he jumped through the window of Prescient, a construction company at 115 North Duke St., in the worst-hit building. “The walls were collapsed, the ceiling was collapsed,” he said. “I went to the second floor and yelled for any survivors, but I didn’t hear anything back. Then I knew I had to get out of there.”

A few minutes later, tall flames roared from the roof of the building, which quickly collapsed.

Casey McCollough, an inspector for the NC Department of Transportation, said he was waiting for co-workers in his truck a block from the blast.

“I heard the loudest explosion I’ve ever heard in my life,” McCollough said. “Then I see a man running down the sidewalk. His face was full of glass, his back and arms had glass in them, and his hair was completely burnt off,” he said.

“He was just walking past the sidewalk when the explosion happened,” said McCollough, who said he took out his first aid kit from his truck and waited for an ambulance to help the man.

Durham firefighters remained on the block where the explosion occurred all day Wednesday. (Photo by Katie Nelson)

The cause of the blast is under investigation. Durham police spokesman Wil Glenn Wednesday morning said it appeared that a construction worker damaged a gas line. “The gas leak was caused by a contractor drilling under the sidewalk. He hit a two-inch gas line,” Glenn said.

The collapsed building also included Kaffeinate, a coffee shop. The building housing the Ingram Collection was also severely damaged.

At midday, Fire Chief Robert Zoldos said that the Durham Fire Department will continue searching for any remaining victims. “Units are starting search and rescue operations,” Zoldos said. Tunneling and “delayering” the damaged buildings could take days.

City officials closed the blocks surrounding the site of Wednesday’s explosion to everybody but emergency responders. (Photo by Katie Nelson)

Ethan Stansbury, a Duke University junior, said he was across the street in his West Village apartment when he felt the blast.

“I thought a truck had crashed into the side of our building,” he said. “The windows of our apartment blew inwards, so there’s glass all over. It knocked stuff off our walls, too.”

When Stansbury went outside, he saw chaos. “People were crying, and there was glass and debris in the streets three blocks away. There were broken windows everywhere, and water leaking from pipes in the parking deck two blocks over.”

This is not what city officials were expecting today, the 150th anniversary of Durham’s founding.

“It’s a sad day,” said Mayor Steve Schewel, who also emphasized how well front-line emergency workers responded to the disaster.

“It’s also a day that I feel a lot of gratitude and pride for the way the employees of the city and county have responded,” he said.

Photo at top from video shot by Freddy DeVallerino. Used by permission.