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Posts published by “Ben Leonard”

Ben Leonard is a senior at Duke University studying journalism and public policy. He covers the Durham County Courthouse for the 9th Street Journal. Ben is also an investigations editor at the Duke Chronicle and has previously interned at the Tampa Bay Times, NBC News and The Center for Investigative Reporting.

Bars, nail salons and a head shop are among recipients of COVID-19 relief funds

Editor’s Note: After we published this story yesterday, we asked about a recipient that seemed odd to us – Ascot Diamonds, Inc. a chain jewelry store that received $20,582 but did not appear to have a store in Durham. Today, Deputy City Manager Keith Chadwell told us they had sent us the wrong list and gave us a new list without Ascot Diamonds included.

Why was Ascot Diamonds included on the first list? Chadwell told us that was a mistake of the city’s vendor, Carolina Small Business Development Fund, due to a “data population error.” 

We’re retaining the list below, with Ascot Diamonds, since that is what the city originally sent us. We’ve posted the new spreadsheet the city sent us today here. It also contains changes in the list of loan recipients, removing Ascot and adding a $10,807 loan to Quality Academy Home Daycare. 

Just a reminder: The 9th Street Journal filed a public records request for this list July 23, so the city has had almost six weeks to get us the correct list.

– Bill Adair

An eclectic group of businesses ranging from bars to nail salons to a head shop received grants or loans from the city’s COVID-19 small business relief program, according to records released Monday.

The city had been boasting about the program for weeks but didn’t release the list of recipients until Monday after a public records request from The 9th Street Journal. Among them: a $10,000 grant for Hunky Dory, a store specializing in “beer, records and dankness,” a $10,000 grant for artist Maya Freelon – the sister of just-appointed City Council member Pierce Freelon – and a $20,000 loan for Pour Taproom. 

Local businesses got about $915,000 from a $1 million Duke University contribution for grants and $225,000 in loans from Durham’s $2 million fund. Eight businesses got loans that averaged about $28,000 and 124 got grants that averaged $7,500. 

Of the 124 grants, 19 were given to barber shops, hair salons, nail salons or other personal care businesses and 15 were given to food and beverage-related businesses. As for the loans, two were given to bars or breweries, two to beauty and nail salons, one jewelry store, one plumbing, heating and air-conditioning contractor, a restaurant and a mental health/substance abuse treatment facility. 

In July, Durham had boasted of giving out hundreds of thousands in relief in a several-month process, but city officials said they didn’t know which businesses got the cash until now. Carolina Small Business Development Fund (CSBDF), a Raleigh-based small business lending nonprofit which managed the program, had committed to disclosing to Durham which businesses got the money monthly but did not comply with that requirement. 

A full list of the grants and loans can be found below.

July Grants

Amy T Farrar DDS PLLC 2020-6-25 $10,000.00
Cargo and Co LLC 2020-6-18 $5,837.00
Living Arts Collective 2020-6-19 $8,480.67
Re Entertainment 2020-6-18 $907.17
southern cross group llc 2020-6-18 $10,000.00
LE NAIL SPA 2020-6-18 $10,000.00
A1 lock and safe of North Carolina Inc 2020-6-26 $10,000.00
Durham School for Ballet and the Performing Arts 2020-6-26 $10,000.00
Carson Efird LLC 2020-6-26 $10,000.00
Bungalow LLC 2020-6-20 $10,000.00
Heal Tree LLC 2020-6-18 $10,000.00
Happymess at Outsiders 2020-6-18 $8,779.86
HUNKY DORY DURHAM LLC 2020-6-19 $10,000.00
Blackspace LLC 2020-6-18 $8,123.00
Brown Jiu Jitsu Academy 2020-6-27 $10,000.00
Indulge Catering LLC 2020-6-26 $10,000.00
Goes to 11 LLC 2020-6-18 $10,000.00
Blue Corn Inc 2020-6-28 $10,000.00
The Bella Shea Ramirez LLC 2020-6-22 $5,637.83
Family Greens 2020-6-27 $10,000.00
36 North LLC 2020-6-25 $10,000.00
Rogue Business Solutions LLC 2020-6-18 $7,179.83
Allure Me The Hair Estate INC 2020-6-19 $6,385.00
LUXURY NAILS SPA 2020-6-19 $10,000.00
Rock Fury Industries LLC 2020-6-18 $6,524.83
Lucys Pet Care LLC 2020-6-23 $10,000.00
AGT Express LLC 2020-6-18 $10,000.00
Denoble Law PLLC 2020-6-28 $10,000.00
MA Solucion Professional Inc 2020-6-27 $1,704.17
SA Core LLC 2020-6-18 $10,000.00
Omar Beasley Bail Agency 2020-6-25 $10,000.00
Point A B Consulting 2020-6-28 $5,638.00
Wendy Allen 2020-6-25 $10,000.00
Allways Handy Home and Garden LLC 2020-6-28 $2,102.00
Mid South Fencers Club Inc 2020-6-26 $10,000.00
A2Z College Planning 2020-6-25 $6,230.00
MTS Speech and Language Services Inc 2020-6-24 $10,000.00
The Endurance Collective 2020-6-21 $6,118.17
Kendall Corporation LLC 2020-6-18 $10,000.00
Wright DIY LLC 2020-6-18 $10,000.00
Elevate MMA Academy LLC 2020-6-18 $10,000.00
MICHAEL E POCINKI 2020-6-28 $340.67
Comfort CUisine 2020-6-27 $1,722.00
Yama Inc 2020-6-19 $10,000.00
The Famous Chicken Hut 2020-6-20 $10,000.00
Lets Eat Soul Food llc 2020-6-26 $113.17
TGX Development LLC 2020-6-24 $4,270.50
The Curated Curl and Co Hair Loft 2020-6-19 $9,601.00
The Law Office of Katie A Lawson PLLC 2020-6-18 $6,042.00
Nancy Frame Design LLC 2020-6-24 $6,301.00
Yinsome Group LLC 2020-6-25 $1,293.17
HuthPhoto LLC 2020-6-26 $3,907.33
Stan Coffman 2020-6-24 $10,000.00
Principal Janitorial Services LLC 2020-6-22 $2,259.50
Empower Dance Studio 2020-6-24 $8,203.17
Suzanne Faulkner 2020-6-26 $5,190.00
Pro Shop Solutions LLC 2020-6-24 $7,526.83
The ZEN Succulent LLC 2020-6-26 $10,000.00
Scatterbugs Vintage Inc 2020-6-24 $10,000.00
The Artisan Market at 305 LLC 2020-6-19 $3,424.50
Triangle car Service llc 2020-6-23 $10,000.00
Sonic Pie Productions LLC 2020-6-22 $8,949.17
Jeannette Brossart 2020-6-28 $2,141.00
doora arts and crafts 2020-6-28 $2,583.67
Methodical Magic  LLC 2020-6-18 $10,000.00
JMS Catering 2020-6-23 $2,064.67
Medrano 1205 2020-6-18 $10,000.00
VILLAGE ITALIAN PIZZERIA LLC 2020-6-23 $10,000.00
PARKS BARBER SHOP 2020-6-18 $10,000.00
John William Scotton 2020-6-22 $5,101.83
Lakewood Hairquarters and Retail Inc 2020-6-18 $10,000.00
Nailz 2020-6-28 $5,057.50
BCause It Takes A Village LLC 2020-6-18 $10,000.00
Rushin Global LLC 2020-6-18 $5,514.17
George Stevens Insurance Agency Inc 2020-6-19 $10,000.00
Judith Romanowski Attorney PLLC 2020-6-18 $10,000.00
Next Level Tax Services 2020-6-19 $3,278.67
Community Expert Solutions Inc 2020-6-26 $3,338.33
PecanBacks Inc 2020-6-24 $10,000.00
Tysha h Cox 2020-7-19 $3,694.33
Echo Family Group Inc 2020-7-22 $10,000.00
NewSchoolInvestmentsLLC 2020-7-20 $6,856.17
Little Mangum Studio LLC 2020-7-23 $6,154.50
Alpha Nano Tech LLC 2020-7-20 $10,000.00
United KB LLC 2020-7-24 $10,000.00
Kathy Smith Yoga LLC 2020-7-22 $10,000.00
Alexandra Hamer 2020-7-22 $2,874.00
Green Ribbon LLC 2020-7-24 $10,000.00
The Pinhook 2020-7-23 $10,000.00
Maya Freelon LLC 2020-7-24 $10,000.00
Scorpions School Of Martial Arts 2020-7-21 $4,270.17
Triangle Gluten Free LLC 2020-7-20 $853.67
Vo Family LLC 2020-7-23 $10,000.00
Rapid Results Fitness 2020-7-24 $10,000.00
October Forever 2020-7-22 $1,341.67
SOLAY Counseling and Research Center 2020-7-27 $9,605.67
CC AND P ASSOCIATES LLC 2020-7-27 $10,000.00
True Colors In Home Daycare 2020-7-27 $2,311.67
Modu Martial Arts 2020-7-29 $10,000.00
The Pampered Woman 2020-7-28 $10,000.00
Full Strength Flexibility 2020-7-28 $4,780.00
Veda K Brewer 2020-7-29 $779.33
Croissanteria LLC 2020-7-27 $6,197.17

August Grants

Matthews Somatics LLC 2020-8-3 $3,017.00
Jadas Mens Accessories 2020-8-1 $549.17
Shirley S Abraham 2020-8-2 $2,718.83
Getaway Travel Inc 2020-7-30 $10,000.00
Elegant Nail 2020-8-6 $10,000.00
Last Minute Event Planning 2020-8-11 $637.50
Wood Water LLC 2020-8-11 $10,000.00
Clean Hands Painting LLC 2020-8-5 $10,000.00
LEE NAILS 2020-8-14 $10,000.00
A AND P PAINTING INC 2020-8-13 $10,000.00
Borders Barbershop LLC 2020-8-4 $5,629.50
HT Travel Inc 2020-8-20 $8,742.67
WORLD CLASS TAKWONDO ACADEMY 2020-8-20 $10,000.00
HOLSEN C VASQUEZ MENDEZ 2020-8-20 $10,000.00
LE NAIL SPA 2020-8-25 $10,000.00
Luxury Nails Spa 2020-8-25 $10,000.00
Principal Janitorial Services LLC 2020-8-25 $2,259.50
Infinity Benefits Group Inc 2020-8-24 $3,894.67
CASTRO REMODELIN LLC 2020-8-22 $10,000.00
Glimmer and Glow LLC 2020-8-23 $2,465.00
Ronalds Unisex Barbershop 2020-8-27 $7,948.50

Loans

Jayk’s,LLc 2020-7-2 $30,000.00
The Glass Jug 2020-6-19 $35,000.00
Fernandez Community Center, LLC 2020-6-21 $35,000.00
Celine Vu, INC 2020-6-22 $33,000.00
Silver Spoon Restaurant 2020-7-10 $35,000.00
Saloon Salon, LLC 2020-6-18 $15,000.00
Ascot Diamonds, Inc. 2020-6-26 $20,582.00
Quad Triangle Taproom LLC 2020-6-18 $20,000.00

9th Street Journal staff writer Ben Leonard can be reached at ben.leonard@duke.edu

Group running Durham business fund has kept city in the dark

The group running Durham’s $2 million COVID-19 small business relief program was obligated to tell the city which businesses got the cash. But the city has yet to find out. 

In July, Durham officials boasted in a press release about giving out hundreds of thousands of dollars in loans. Yet over a month later, they admit they still don’t know where the money went. 

The city is supposed to get a monthly report. The Carolina Small Business Development Fund (CSBDF), a Raleigh-based small business lending nonprofit, committed to disclosing which businesses got money from a fund of $2 million in publicly-funded loans and $1 million Duke-backed grants, according to a copy of the contract between the city, Duke University and the group obtained by the 9th Street Journal. 

The contract said the group “shall provide monthly reports” to Durham and Duke that included the amount of money paid to individual businesses and the business’s names, along with aggregate data about the owner’s gender, race and ethnicity. 

Durham has gotten aggregate data, but not the business names and the amount they received, according to Deputy City Manager Keith Chadwell. Both Durham and the group were aware of the requirement, according to Chadwell, but haven’t exactly been in a rush to comply.  

The information will be available to the public “within the next two weeks,” Chadwell said in an email to the 9th Street Journal. But his promise is would have the information being public more than six weeks after Durham’s self-congratulatory press-release, and well past the requirement in the contract. 

“Generally, if a valid contract requires a party to do something and that party fails to do that thing in the set timeframe, they have violated the contract,” Charlotte-based First Amendment attorney Beth Soja said. 


There’s no apparent reason for the delay, Soja said. There weren’t any exemptions in the contract that would preclude the group from handing over the information to Durham. 

There also doesn’t appear to be anything in the contract that specifies what would happen in the event of the contract being violated. 

Carolina Small Business Development Fund President and CEO Kevin Dick declined to comment for this story, saying Durham would respond “in order to represent the entire effort.” 

The group was slated to give out cash over multiple months, with a first wave of loans and grants announced July 21 and a second round to follow. 

So far, the group has approved eight businesses for Durham-backed loans for a total of $259,000, with $1.6 million in loans remaining, according to Brian Smith, the city’s senior economic development coordinator. That’s more than $32,000 per loan. 

Little is known about those businesses, except that they range from sectors like the  “personal care services” industry to beverage manufacturing to an alcoholic “drinking place.” The group has also given out about $849,000 in Duke-backed grants to 115 Durham businesses, or an average of about $7,400. Most of those businesses are retail, accommodation and food services, arts/entertainment/recreation, professional services and “other services.”

Durham officials boast of giving aid to small businesses, but don’t know where the money went

Three weeks ago, city and county officials boasted in a press release that they doled out hundreds of thousands of dollars in loans and grants to dozens of small businesses. 

But which ones actually got the cash? Twenty-plus days later, not even Mayor Steve Schewel seems to know. Schewel and other city officials claim they don’t know the recipients because the selection was done by a private group.

This much is known: 115 businesses have been approved for a combined $224,000 in Durham loans and about $800,000 in grants from Duke via the Durham Small Business Recovery Fund. The fund is made up of $1 million from Duke and about $2 million from Durham public funds. 

But city officials admit they are in the dark about which businesses got the money. Raleigh-based small business lending nonprofit Carolina Small Business Development Fund (CSBDF), which administered the program, didn’t give Durham a list of businesses that got the cash, according to Andre Pettigrew, director of the city’s Office of Economic and Workforce Development. 

Mayor Steve Schewel – Photo by Henry Haggart | The 9th Street Journal

Pettigrew said the program is now in the midst of another round of funding (with about $1.6 million in Durham loans and more than $200,000 in grants remaining) and the group isn’t planning on giving city and county officials a full list of businesses receiving the funds until this second and final round is complete. The only information city officials have received was aggregate demographic data of the business owners and the industries the recipients are in, Pettigrew said.

The 9th Street Journal filed a public records request for a list of the recipients, but the city referred it to the Small Business Development Fund and its president and CEO, Kevin Dick, who would not release the list. He said the group is consulting its attorneys about confidentiality issues for applicants that could arise from releasing business names because the group is a non-profit, not a government entity. 

Without a copy of a contract between Durham and the group, it’s hard to know whether a non-profit is answerable to public records laws, Raleigh-based First Amendment attorney Amanda Martin told the 9th Street Journal. Pettigrew did not respond to a request for a contract in time for publication, nearly two weeks after first being asked. Government contracts are public record, according to the North Carolina General Statutes, Chapter 143 Article 3

Schewel said that when he received the aggregated data on the grants and loans given out, he didn’t think it was crucial to know the names of the businesses at the time. He says he’s now looking forward to the list. 

“This is public money and it should be public information,” Schewel said about the loans. 

He later clarified by saying that while he didn’t believe the grants were actually public money, “it is a City Contract and should be public.”

Still, the group has been given sweeping powers to award the money. It green-lit eight of 29 applicants for Durham loans, for an average of about $28,000 per business. Among the approved businesses include two in the “personal care services” industry, one eatery, one beverage manufacturing company, one building equipment contractor, one alcoholic “drinking place,” a “jewelry/luggage/leather goods” store and an outpatient care center. 

The program also approved 107 out of 196 grant applications for a total of about $800,000. Most of the grant applications accepted were in retail, accommodation and food services, arts/entertainment/recreation, professional services and “other services.”

Durham ultimately granted the group power to disperse the grants and loans because of a lack of bandwidth in the city government to do so and because of the group’s “expertise.” 

“This is what they do, they make loans and administer programs like this for small businesses, and are especially focused on minority-owned businesses,” Schewel said. “They have the expertise and it’s not what the city does. So much of what we do in the city is contracting out to those with expertise.” 

Schewel emphasized that neither he nor the rest of the City Council had seen a list of the individual loans. Schewel and the City Council had expected to get a list with the final report in “the next month or so.”

How Steve Schewel put muscle into Durham’s “weak mayor” system

On March 13, the nation was just beginning to realize the danger and rapid spread of the coronavirus, but “Les Misérables” was still scheduled to play that night at the Durham Performing Arts Center. That made Mayor Steve Schewel uneasy. 

In New York, Broadway was shut down. The World Health Organization had just declared COVID-19 a pandemic. And Schewel had just learned of Durham’s first COVID-19 case. 

The show couldn’t go on in Durham, he thought. 

So Schewel called DPAC’s leaders and asked about their plan. They said the 2,712-seat venue couldn’t close without a government order, which would allow it to get out of contracts without paying damages, according to Schewel. He called people in Gov. Roy Cooper’s office, but they weren’t ready to make that call.

Schewel was. 

DPAC leaders wanted to stay open for a couple more shows, Schewel said. But he felt they had to shut down.

Without consulting the City Council, Schewel declared a state of emergency that banned large gatherings effective at 5 p.m. that day, effectively turning off the lights at DPAC. 

“That was the big moment where it all became clear where my role had to change,” Schewel said last week. 

In ordinary times, Durham’s mayor has more ceremonial than actual power. The mayor runs council meetings and makes committee appointments, but in many ways, the city manager actually wields more power.

Yet Schewel’s declaration of emergency, which is allowed under the city’s Code of Ordinances, gave him powers that put muscle into Durham’s “weak mayor” system. Using that authority, plus a keen understanding of county and state politics and a mastery of the media (he is the former publisher of Indy Week), Schewel has taken a firm grip on Durham’s COVID-19 response, issuing an aggressive stay-at-home order and mandating masks before any other North Carolina locality.

“He’s been out front. He’s in the news,” said Robert Korstad, a professor in Duke University’s Sanford School of Public Policy who has studied the history of Durham. “I live in Chapel Hill and I barely know who the mayor is. That’s not true in Durham.”

Unmasking Schewel’s face-covering, other COVID-19 policies 

Schewel’s newfound muscle can be seen in his bold actions to mandate mask-wearing in public. 

After issuing a stay-at-home order for the city March 25, Schewel worked with the county to update the order, the second time requiring Durham residents to wear masks in places such as grocery stores when it’s not possible to have a social distance. 

Working with Wendy Jacobs, chair of the County Board of Commissioners, Schewel’s mask mandate came more than two months before the governor issued a statewide order. Even Mecklenberg County, home to the state’s virus epicenter, Charlotte, waited for the state to require mask-wearing. 

In a reversal from its previous position, the Centers for Disease Control had recommended Americans wear masks in early April, but few jurisdictions required face coverings when Schewel enacted his requirement. 

Since April, the evidence has mounted in that mask mandates make a significant impact in slowing the virus’ spread. A June 1 analysis of 172 studies found face mask use could cause a major reduction in the risk of infection. Most Durhamites wear masks and socially distance properly, Schewel said. 

“I think that was a good call. Everyone’s doing it, even the vice president of the United States,” Schewel said (before Trump wore a mask in public for the first time last week). 

Schewel has filled a leadership vacuum not just locally but also at the national level, City Council Member Mark-Anthony Middleton said. 

“We’re seeing the numbers now go in the wrong direction in many states around the country because of a dearth of national leadership, so many state and local leaders have been left to fend for ourselves in many cases,” Middleton said. “It has placed leaders like Steve Schewel front and center to save our own lives at the municipal level.”

To be fair, Schewel hasn’t done all of this on his own. He has worked closely with Jacobs and has often consulted the City Council and health experts, City Council Member Charlie Reece said. Earlier in the pandemic, Reece said Schewel would talk with him and other Council members every few days. Middleton said Schewel kept the Council well-informed on his decisions with regards to his emergency powers. 

Still, Schewel has been the face of the city.

“Mayor Schewel has also been especially good at making difficult decisions in a clear and direct manner,” Reece said. “He has done a great job with the impossible task of weighing the various needs and interests of all the people of our city, and of charting a course through the COVID-19 pandemic that offers our community the best chance of emerging on the other side of this unprecedented public health crisis in the best possible shape.”

How Schewel got Durham on board with his COVID mandates

Schewel, a public policy professor at Duke, has been very strategic in explaining his bold policies.

When he announced the mask mandate, he got videos from Duke men’s basketball head coach Mike Krzyzewski, Duke football coach David Cutcliffe and North Carolina Central University men’s basketball coach LeVelle Moton that showed them wearing masks and encouraging others to do the same. He knew the coaches were popular role models in the Bull City.

“If this is going to work, voluntary compliance is what’s going to make it work,” Schewel said. “We need to explain to people why it’s important, for them to believe it, and then for them to do it.”

With his messaging on masks, Schewel struck a good balance between personal freedom and people’s responsibility to protect each other, Middleton said. 

“We didn’t turn Durham into a police state making sure people were indoors or social distancing,” Middleton said. “He appealed to our sense of community not just for ourselves but to each other and for one another. We didn’t have to do it with the force of fine or imprisonment and people just complied.”

His actions haven’t been universally popular. Schewel recently got an unsigned letter at his home written in purple marker calling him a “sanctimonious little dictator.” 

“They hurt my feelings when they said I was little!” Schewel quipped. 

Schewel’s stay-at-home order also caught the attention of Liz Wheeler, a host on the conservative One America News Network. 

“Now, the lockdown is indefinite. This happens if you give politicians power. They abuse it,” Wheeler tweeted

Schewel says he hears a lot of opinions from across the spectrum. 

“There has been lots of criticism,” Schewel said. “But also I feel a lot of support. Most people in Durham understand the importance of social distancing, face coverings and the actions we’ve taken when we needed to shut down businesses in Durham.”

Middleton is among his supporters. 

“We were fortunate to have a leader whose temperament was led by science and compassion to be making decisions during this time,” Middleton said. “I give him very high marks in what was an impossible situation, where there’s no pamphlet or textbook on how to handle these things.”

Lessons of history

The few modern mayors that have brought strength to Durham’s mayor system have shared several key traits, according to Korstad, the Duke professor who has studied the city’s history. 

One of those traits is charisma and strong networks, shared by Schewel and three others. 

The first was Emanuel Evans, a Democrat who served from 1951 to 1963. The first Jewish mayor of Durham, Evans was able to bring together Black and white labor unions and the white business elite towards desegregation, unlike many other Southern mayors, Korstad said. 

His successor, Wense Grabarek, who served from 1963 to 1971, also used his strong personality and community ties in support of the Civil Rights movement, Korstad said.

After Grabarek left office, Durham didn’t see a mayor last in office more than four years until Schewel’s predecessor, Bill Bell, took office in 2001. He brought deep ties to Durham after serving on the school board and had been Chair of the Board of County Commissioners. Bell had more of a political presence than his predecessors, Korstad said, allowing him to strength ties with Duke, build coalitions and tackle issues like poverty and inequality. 

Schewel follows in the mold of a “strong” Durham mayor in part due to his charisma and deep ties in Durham, but has also brought policy chops to the table. 

A faculty member at Duke’s Sanford School of Public Policy and formerly a faculty member at North Carolina Central University, Schewel brings a deeper level of engagement to policy issues than even Bell, Korstad said, and could handle the city manager role easily.

The Duke alumnus also has another advantage that Bell didn’t always have: a supportive City Council and a strong ally in Jacobs, Korstad said. 

“He’s got a lot of capital. Folks know that he’s invested,” Middleton said. “Even if you disagree with him on policy, there’s no question as to his love for the city. When you’ve built up that reservoir of capital, it’s time like these you can draw on it.”

At top, photo of Steve Schewel by Henry Haggart | The 9th Street Journal

Medical examiner drops “homicide” from Bill Bishop’s cause of death

More than five months after prosecutors dropped murder charges against Durham teenager Alexander Bishop for killing his father Bill Bishop, the North Carolina Medical Examiner has reclassified the cause of death from homicide to “undetermined.”

The state medical examiner made significant changes to the revised report, which was signed Friday, removing several key facts and saying that “no information was available” about the dog leash at the center of the homicide case.

Previously, the report said that Alexander found Bill unresponsive with the leash wrapped around Bill’s neck three times, with the leash handle on his arm and the family dog, Winston, still attached. Now it merely says Bill was found unresponsive, “possibly with a dog leash on this neck.”

It is unclear what Friday’s surprising development means for the future of the case. Prosecutors dropped charges in February, citing insufficient evidence. Bill Bishop’s girlfriend Julie Seel says the Durham District Attorney’s Office made the wrong decision in dropping those charges and has called for a new homicide investigation in a letter to Gov. Roy Cooper and Attorney General Josh Stein.

In February, Sarah Willets, spokeswoman for the District Attorney’s Office, told the 9th Street Journal that charges could be refiled against Alexander. At the time, she declined to comment when asked if prosecutors would continue to pursue charges against him.

The 9th Street Journal has reached out to Willets and Alexander’s attorney, Allyn Sharp, for comment. Neither responded in time for publication.

Some of the other changes to the autopsy report included removing discussion of evidence that was tossed from the case in October by Superior Court Judge Orlando F. Hudson Jr. He excluded the evidence because he found the lead investigator’s statements to get search warrants were false or were in “reckless disregard of the truth.”

That included the claim about the leash being wrapped around Bill’s neck three times, as well as a claim that Alexander found Bill on the floor, when Alexander had actually told investigators he found him in a chair.

In the revised report, the core medical facts remain the same.

The autopsy still says Bill was strangled with a “ligature,” some kind of cord-like device. Because of the strangulation, he died from a lack of oxygen to the brain, the report says. The manner of death has been switched to “undetermined” from “homicide” after the circumstances surrounding Bill’s death became “unclear.”

Four forensics experts previously told the 9th Street Journal these same medical facts indicated it was highly unlikely that Winston could have killed Bill.

The autopsy still says Bill had an enlarged heart and an 80 percent blockage in his heart’s left main coronary artery and a second left coronary artery. Bill’s ex-wife and family have argued that Bill died of a heart attack.

These same experts also shot down that explanation, saying such a blockage could cause a cardiac event, but that it wasn’t likely he died of a heart attack.

Staff writer Ben Leonard can be reached at ben.leonard@duke.edu

Jail worker died of COVID-19, but Sheriff’s Office won’t discuss

Durham County detention officer Alexander Pettiway Jr., 55, died last week and his death certificate is very clear about the cause of death: “COVID-19 / acute hypoxic respiratory failure.” 

But several days after his death, the Durham County Sheriff’s office won’t acknowledge why he died or give any details on where he worked or if he could have exposed inmates or other staff at the county jail. Spokesman David Bowser said the office can’t discuss the cause of death or details about Pettiway because it is a “personnel” issue and his privacy is protected under the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPPA). 

Bowser could only offer assurances that no inmates had tested positive for the coronavirus. He did not say if there had been any changes in procedures following Pettiway’s death. The sheriff’s office and the death certificate conflict on the day of his death: the office says Saturday, and the certificate says Friday. 

Last week, the Sheriff’s Office had announced that six Durham County Detention Center staff tested positive for COVID-19, but also declined to say where they worked or how much the workers interacted with others. 

The office’s lack of details doesn’t sit well with Durham defense attorney Daniel Meier. 

“It’s a huge frustration there is not more transparency,” Meier told The 9th Street Journal. “I get the reluctance to name specific names, but it is important to know as much as we can.” 

Along with others, Meier has to go into the jail frequently to visit clients via video kiosks, so he said it would be helpful to know if he had come into contact with any staff that had tested positive. He said he also is frustrated that the sheriff’s office didn’t directly tell local attorneys that staff had tested positive for the highly infectious virus. 

Meier said he and other lawyers are criticized for filings asking for relief for clients due to the dangers of COVID-19 in jail, but there isn’t enough information to know that the jail is safe. 

“They say it’s not [dangerous], but won’t provide the information for us to know that,” Meier said. 

Meier noted that Durham County Sheriff Clarence Birkhead did tell CBS17 last week that one of the six that tested positive worked with inmates and that “a majority of the six employees worked on the first floor of the detention center where intake and booking occurs.” 

But official statements from the communications office have lacked those details. The release about Pettiway’s death offered condolences and, without drawing a direct connection, pointed out the steps the sheriff implemented more than a month ago to slow the spread of the virus. 

The jail took steps to fight the spread of coronavirus on March 16, including banning all in-person and video visitation, using video kiosks for client meetings and having all first appearance hearings via video conference. The medical staff has been conducting COVID-19 screenings and making masks available to inmates. 

Amid coronavirus outbreaks plaguing jails and prisons nationwide, Durham County District Attorney Satana Deberry has worked to reduce the jail population. The jail is well below capacity with only 259 inmates out of a possible 736. Deberry also has worked to cut the state prison population by green-lighting modified sentences for some prisoners. 

“The Durham DA’s Office extends its deepest condolences for the loss of Senior Detention Officer Pettiway, a dedicated public servant. Our thoughts are with his family and the entire Durham County Sheriff’s Office,” Deberry told The 9th Street Journal via a spokesperson. “We will continue to review cases individually and make recommendations regarding release conditions based on public health and public safety.”

To reopen, Durham needs more coronavirus testing, ramped-up tracking of possible infections, mayor says

In order to reopen, Durham needs two vital things: more coronavirus testing and the ability to keep tracking down people unaware they were exposed to the virus, Mayor Steve Schewel told the 9th Street Journal. 

Both will allow local officials to reduce the spread of the highly infectious virus by isolating people who have coronavirus and alerting others who may have it, reducing the chance they’ll expose others.

“We will be gradually re-opening things that we think will be safe,” Schewel said.

What kind of tests could get the job done here and how people will access them? That’s not yet clear, according to Wendy Jacobs, chair of the Durham County Board of Commissioners.

“People at local, regional, state and national levels are exploring right now,” she said. “We know we need rapid, easily excessive testing for covid and antibodies, coupled with tracking and tracing.”

Schewel anticipates that Durham’s stay-at-home orders will remain more stringent than statewide orders, with rural areas hosting fewer cases likely opening up sooner than more densely populated areas such as Durham.

“In a way, we will be fortunate to have the experience of others to learn from. They will be opening up ahead of us, and we can observe and learn from what they do,” the mayor said.

Durham’s city and county order has generally grown more strict since March 25. On Friday, the city and county updated a joint stay-at-home order to mandate people wear face masks. That starts today in public or private places where they cannot socially distance, including grocery stores and public transit. 

But a staggered reopening has begun here to a degree, Schewel said. Durham had shuttered farmers’ markets except for delivery and curbside pickup, but markets came up with a plan to open safely, through handwashing protocols and social distancing, he said. 

Schewel’s analysis on what’s needed before Durham can lift its stay-at-home orders echoes Gov. Roy Cooper’s outline for reopening North Carolina and its economy, which statewide orders shuttered on March 30.

Cooper last week said the state will analyze data on hospitalizations, new confirmed cases, protective equipment, deaths and hospital capacity to decide when to loosen a statewide coronavirus emergency order. He called for more testing and contact tracing too

New York state is starting random antibody testing of its residents to estimate how many people were likely exposed and, it’s hoped, now have immunity to coronavirus. Durham county and city officials would look at rates of infection here as well as monitoring coronavirus outbreak numbers in other counties since many people who work in Durham commute from other areas, Schewel said.  

Durham County had 416 confirmed cases of COVID-19 as of Sunday and five deaths. That number is up from 349 cases as of Tuesday, and the updated figure includes more than 100 cases at local nursing homes, including 86 at Durham Nursing and Rehabilitation Center. 

Schewel thinks the Durham County Department of Public Health is doing well in its contact tracing but said he is concerned that it may not have the capacity as more infections are detected. As is the case across the nation, Durham will need more tracing volunteers, Schewel said. 

The local health department has done contract tracing on every single positive case detected in the county so far, Jacobs said. That entails identifying all of those who may have been exposed to someone with coronavirus and urging them to stay-at-home. This has helped reduce large clusters of the virus, she said. 

Jacobs noted that Durham has a low rate of community spread of the virus at just 20% of detected cases. The other 80% were travel-related or due to known contact with someone with the virus, she said. 

The true scale of coronavirus is unknown across the country due to limited testing. But organizations are working to increase testing capacity in North Carolina.

Cooper on Wednesday announced a partnership with Duke University, East Carolina University and the University of North Carolina on testing and tracing to better capture the virus’ spread. Duke is expected to help Durham County with contract tracing too, Jacobs said.

The North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services had its first Testing Surge Workgroup meeting Friday, which Cooper said would formulate a plan to increase testing. Michael Datto, Medical Director for Duke University Health System Clinical Laboratories, is included in the group, along with DHHS officials and other medical experts. 

At top: Two women look over information posted outside Durham County Department of Public Health, whose hours and services not related to coronavirus have been reduced during the outbreak. Photo by Corey Pilson

Bill Bishop’s former girlfriend asks for his homicide case to be reopened

Two months after prosecutors dropped charges in the death of Durham real estate developer Bill Bishop, his former girlfriend is asking authorities to give the case another look. 

Julie Seel says the Durham District Attorney’s Office was wrong to drop murder charges against Bill’s teenage son Alexander and has written a letter to a host of government officials, including Gov. Roy Cooper and Attorney General Josh Stein, calling for a new homicide investigation. 

“Bill deserves better than the horrible injustice of his death, the poor investigation of his death, the poor defense of his death, the poor decisions in his case to throw out evidence, and the poor choice to dismiss charges,” Seel wrote in the letter, which she posted on a Facebook page she called “2 Year Anniversary: The Unresolved Homicide of William “Bill” Bishop.”

Alexander told first responders on April 18, 2018 that he found his father unconscious in an armchair, his dog’s leash wrapped around his neck, with the dog still attached. Bill died a few days later. 

Almost a year later, in February 2019, Alexander was charged with killing his father. By October 2019, the judge tossed much of the evidence against him due to sloppy police work, but the case was seemingly proceeding as normal as recently as February, when prosecutors suddenly dropped the charges, citing insufficient evidence. 

Seel called for the dismissed evidence to be returned, saying it was “arguably wrongfully dismissed,” and said it should be taken to a grand jury outside of Durham. 

“The City of Durham deserves better than the many horrible injustices of their justice system, which is well known and ignored by many of the elected officials and people who have sworn to serve and protect, and yet do nothing,” Seel’s letter reads. “Do something, Attorney General Josh Stein, namely your job.”

The Facebook page has a photo of  Martin Luther King Jr. with the quotation, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere”) as well as links to news coverage of the case.

The Durham DA’s Office had appealed the tossing of evidence before it dropped the charges. 

In the letter, Seel also called for an investigation into why prosecutors dropped the charges. 

In December, Alexander’s attorney, Allyn Sharp, asked the judge to hold Durham County District Attorney Satana Deberry, Huelsman and Assistant District Attorney Beth Hopkins Thomas in contempt for failing to turn over evidence. Sharp also asked for the case against Alexander to be dropped. The charges left all of them facing the prospect of up to six months in jail. 

In a Feb. 3 letter, Sharp noted no hearing on the motion was on the calendar, so Sharp accused Deberry of dawdling in scheduling a hearing in which she would need to defend herself.  Three days later, prosecutors dropped the charges. 

Could prosecutors have dropped the charges to avoid the hearing?

“The timing certainly raises questions,” Daniel Meier, a criminal defense attorney who ran against Deberry in 2018, told the 9th Street Journal in February. 

In February, Deberry and Hopkins Thomas declined to comment on the timing of dropping the charges. Sarah Willets, a spokesperson for their office, declined to explain why the charges were dropped beyond that there was insufficient evidence in February and declined to comment further on Friday. 

Deberry takes steps to help reduce state prison population

Durham County District Attorney Satana Deberry is approving modified sentences for some state prison inmates to reduce the spread of the coronavirus.

Deberry’s office has agreed to modify the sentences of nine convicted drug traffickers, spokesperson Sarah Willets told the 9th Street Journal. Judges have approved the reduced sentences.

Deberry said in a news release that her goal is to identify inmates who can be “safely” released from prison. Her office will review those set to be released soon, convicted of non-violent crimes and those vulnerable to illness due to age. 

“Releasing individuals who do not pose a danger to the public can prevent them from being exposed in prison, create a safer environment for those who remain there, and help protect our entire community during this pandemic,” Deberry said in the release.

Deberry said coronavirus outbreaks in state prisons made this step necessary. Social distancing is not easy to achieve in jails and prisons, she said, which could allow the disease to spread quickly and put inmates, staff and their families in harm’s way. She also said inmates are more likely to have underlying health conditions that put them at a higher risk of contracting COVID-19. 

Deberry’s office is also mulling a few other motions for appropriate relief filed before the pandemic based on other issues, and intends to “treat these requests with the same urgency as those filed in light of COVID-19.”

In March, Deberry announced measures to reduce the county jail population. She moved to release or modify the sentences of those in the jail who don’t pose a public safety threat, are above 60 years old or have underlying health conditions. 

There are currently 260 inmates in the jail, according to the Durham County Sheriff’s Office, well below its capacity of 736. There is no target jail population that Deberry is trying to achieve, Willetts said. 

“We all have a responsibility to try to stem the spread of COVID-19,” Deberry said in the release. “Releasing individuals who do not pose a danger to the public can prevent them from being exposed in prison, create a safer environment for those who remain there, and help protect our entire community during this pandemic.”

Durham toughens local restrictions aimed at slowing coronavirus

Durham’s stay-at-home order is about to get more stringent, limiting public and private gatherings to no more than five people and placing new public health requirements on businesses. 

The amended measure, effective Saturday at 5 p.m., merges Durham city and  county orders. 

“We are amending the order to respond to questions that have arisen since our original orders were issued and to respond to violations of the initial order,” Mayor Steve Schewel stated in a news release.

The new rules call for businesses allowed to remain open to “to do their best to protect their workers and customers,” according to the release. Durham Police and the Durham County Sheriff’s Office will enforce this provision.

“We have also strengthened the enforcement provisions of this order to ensure that all businesses and residents take the order seriously,” Schewel wrote.

Durham Police officers have responded to 10 reports of violations of the original city order and people “immediately complied,” Durham Director of Public Affairs Beverly Thompson told the 9th Street Journal on Friday. No enforcement actions have been taken. 

“The Durham Police Department’s goal is to work collaboratively as possible with the public and businesses toward ending this pandemic,” Thompson said. “Everyone wants this to be over as soon as possible so we can get back to normal.” 

What exactly can businesses do? Thompson suggested store managers mark their floors to show how far apart customers should stand from each other in check-out lines. They can put plexiglass at cash registers between cashiers and customers, she said. 

“While we realize that some supplies such as masks and thermometers may be hard to get, we expect business to make every effort to protect customers and their employees by frequently cleaning surfaces, doors, carts, etc.,” on top of keeping individuals apart, Thompson said.

The order also bans sports that require players to share equipment. That includes tennis, which the original city order allowed. It does not ban golf. It restricts farmers’ markets to pick-up and delivery services only. It requires that people who work inside local homes, including building contractors, wear masks. 

Like stay-at-home orders everywhere during the coronavirus outbreak, these rules are intended to slow the spread of a contagious pathogen that can cause serious disease. Cases of COVID-19 were still ticking up locally this past week, with Durham County documenting 172 cases by Friday, according to Durham County.

The true extent of coronavirus infection here and everywhere else is unknown due to limited testing.

Gov. Roy Cooper declared a state-wide stay-at-home order that went into effect Monday. Durham’s March 26 stay-home order banned gatherings of more than 10 people and trips on public roads except for approved “essential” tasks and outdoor exercise.

Limiting people’s physical contact with one another is slowing spread of the virus, Schewel said in his announcement. Statewide, one projected curve for coronavirus spread has flattened some, according to estimates from the University of Washington’s respected Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation.

On Tuesday, the model projected more than 2,500 coronavirus deaths in North Carolina by Aug. 4. Now, that number has nearly been cut in half, to just over 1,500. Projected hospital bed shortages went from about 1,500 to 200 as of Wednesday.

The research institute is expected to release updated projections Saturday. 

At top: Durham officials are using social media posts to remind residents that they must isolate themselves, including this message on Twitter.

Editor’s Note: This story was updated Friday evening to include the latest number of diagnosed COVID-19 cases from Durham County.