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Posts published by “Joel Luther”

Despite local critics, experts love how Durham water tastes

By Cameron Oglesby
and Kathleen Hobson

Ask random people to compare tap water from Durham and Chapel Hill and expect results as clear as mud.

9th Street Journal reporters learned that last week after setting up a blind taste test outside the Durham Co-op Market. 

Tony Krawzzyk said Chapel Hill tap water tasted like something you never want to eat: plastic. His companion, Heather Izzo, found Durham water to be metallic.

The North Carolina American Water Works Association and Water Environment Association does not agree. At its annual conference this month, judges there deemed tap water from the city of Durham more delicious than 10 other competing water systems — including Chapel Hill’s drinking water provider

Why is Durham water, a top winner in 2018 too, tasty? Vicki Westbrook, assistant director for the Durham Water Management Department, credits the source. Durham draws water from Lake Michie and Little River Reservoir, “high quality” human-made lakes in northern Durham County. 

“We’re very lucky,” Westbrook said. “The areas around them are relatively undeveloped and they’re the headwaters so they don’t get as much runoff compared to downstream reservoirs like Falls Lake,” she said. 

The overall quality and taste of the water in these reservoirs varies from year to year, a fact that may explain Durham’s 12-year drought winning the best-tasting title between 2006 and 2018, she said. 

The actual treatment process at Durham’s Daniel M. Williams and Brown Treatment Centers is “fairly consistent” with other public water system techniques, Westbrook said. “We may add some things here or there like other cities, but generally, the process is the same.”

The fact the water department used chemicals to suppress algal growth in the lakes for the past two springs may have helped. “There are a large variety of algae that will grow in lakes, generally because the water is not moving as it would in a river or stream. Algae in the blue-green algae family tend to create taste and odor issues,” she said.

Heidi Kippenhan said she likes tap water from Chapel Hill and Durham. Photo by Kathleen Hobson

Durham’s water supply is not free of any trace contaminants. Westbrook said the city is working to maintain quality water in part by protecting its sources. “We’ve been trying to preserve the water quality by purchasing the surrounding buffer areas around the lakes,” she said.

The North Carolina American Water Works Association water-tasting competition isn’t scientific, but it’s surprisingly systematic. “The folks who have been managing this contest have a very specific ritual they go through,” Westbrook said. 

During the weekend conference, all tap water submissions must be turned in by 5 pm on Sundays. Samples are refrigerated at a consistent temperature until Tuesday when the water is tasted after reaching room temperature. 

The water is served in cups no bigger than Robitussin cups, said Westbrook, and judges use a swirl and swish technique familiar to wine tasters. Judges eat little crackers between each sample to cleanse their palates.

Some of the judges have tasted water for this competition, which Chapel Hill water’s provider has won in the past, for over 25 years.

Outside the co-op, things were looser. Anyone willing was invited to stop by a dark brown card table, take sips poured from identical blue jugs and join a makeshift case study.

Allison Sokol and Chase Johnson, two Duke University public policy graduate students, preferred a Durham sample — marked A— to water from Chapel Hill — marked B. Sokol displayed how fine-tuned some people’s water palates are today.

“Sample A is better. It tastes more like spring water to me. And Sample B tastes more like tap; like filtered. Sample B tastes more stale to me,” Sokol said. 

Johnson agreed, Sample B is “kind of heavy” whereas Sample A is “a little lighter,” she said. 

But after an hour of canvassing, the final results were four votes for Durham, four for Chapel Hill, suggesting the two might not be that far apart.

As she left Joe Van Gogh across the street from the co-op, Heidi Kippenhan had only nice things to say about Durham water, despite preferring what Chapel Hill serves up. “I drink water straight from the tap all the time and I have no complaints,” she said.

At top: Alison Sokol points to an unmarked jug holding Durham water during an impromptu taste test while her companion, Chase Johnson, makes up his mind.  Photo by Kathleen Hobson

Some evidence in Bishop case to be tossed out

By Ben Leonard and Kristi Sturgill

In a stunning blow to prosecutors, a Durham judge ruled Monday that much of the evidence in the Alexander Bishop case should be tossed out because of reckless or untruthful work by the lead investigator.

After hearing three days of testimony from the investigator and other Durham police officers, Judge Orlando F. Hudson Jr. agreed to suppress evidence from search warrants that had provided much of the case against Bishop, a 17-year-old boy accused of killing his father William Bishop with a dog leash.

Allyn Sharp, Bishop’s attorney, questioned Huelsman for hours over two days of hearings. Photo by Ben Leonard | The 9th Street Journal

“The investigator either was untruthful or showed a reckless disregard for the truth,” Hudson said. “As a result of that, the court has to act.”

Monday was a long day for Tony Huelsman, the lead investigator.

Accused of using false information to get search warrants, he often stuttered when trying to explain the decisions he made. Allyn Sharp, Bishop’s attorney, grilled him for hours, asking pointed questions with a smile. 

It’s not clear how much evidence will be left in the wake of Hudson’s ruling. The defense will now submit a filing to argue what evidence should remain that wasn’t obtained from improper search warrants. 

In Sharp’s closing statement, she argued that once the tainted evidence is removed from the case, a few simple facts remain: William Bishop was found unresponsive in a chair, and that Alexander Bishop said he found him with the leash wrapped around his neck. 

Another piece of evidence that will be left, she argued: Alexander Bishop told an EMS supervisor that his father had been emotionally abusive, had just gotten divorced and was having issues with his new girlfriend. 

The case isn’t complicated, Sharp said.When you remove those material misstatements and omissions, it is simply a death that is tragic, but not suspicious,” she said.

Bishop was charged with killing his father by wrapping a dog leash around his neck in April 2018. Internet search records obtained from his phone indicate he looked up how to manage the financial assets of a dead family member.

As she did in court last week, Sharp grilled Huelsman over a mistake he admitted in the search warrant process. Huelsman had filed search warrants based on “missing” gold bars, which suggested that Bishop could have killed his father in an attempt to claim his inheritance.

The problem? Much of the gold was not in fact missing. 

A purchase order showed that William Bishop had sold the $462,773 of gold. Huelsman, who testified that dates are important to him, had failed to notice the sale was in August 2016, almost two years before William Bishop died.

“You didn’t find the date relevant at the time?” Sharp said. 

“That’s correct,” Huelsman responded.

In her closing remarks, Sharp criticized Huelsman’s error.

“It’s unreasonable and untrue that Investigator Huelsman did not know exactly what it was when he saw it,” she said.

Huelsman said he didn’t intentionally mislead magistrates or judges in his search warrants. 

In the search warrant, Huelsman had considered Alexander Bishop’s internet history “suspicious.” But there was a key detail that Huelsman had erased in the search warrant: the date of those searches.

If they had come before his father’s death, they could have pointed to premeditation. But Sharp pointed out that Bishop searched gold conversion on April 29, 2018, eight days after his father had died. 

“What’s suspicious about searching for it eight days after he died?” Sharp asked. 

“What makes it suspicious is everything that happened before this,” Huelsman responded. 

Beth Hopkins Thomas, the assistant district attorney, said in rebuttal that there were other reasons to be suspicious of Alexander Bishop. 

“The fact that he’s contending his dog strangled his father is where the suspicion is for this case, your honor,” Hopkins Thomas said. 

She also argued that the internet searches weren’t “totally reasonable” given the circumstances and called the defense’s motions to suppress evidence “antics over semantics.” 

Sharp also challenged the credibility of William Bishop’s girlfriend Julie Seel. Sharp said  Huelsman overlooked potential issues with the information she provided.

That included a tip about a small hypodermic needle and a clear glass bottle found in Alexander Bishop’s bedroom. Investigators seized them when Seel made them “relevant,” telling Huelsman that Alexander Bishop was an advanced chemistry student and she encouraged Huelsman to ask Bishop’s teachers about any missing chemicals. They turned out to be from a sand art Christmas gift Seel had given him. 

Sharp also suggested Seel lied about having served in the Army Special Forces, saying the first woman to make it through the training did so in 2018. Seel told the 9th Street Journal that she served in the 12th Special Forces group from 1990 to 1994. 

Sharp also asked Huelsman about a Rolex that Seel wore. She claimed William Bishop gave her, rather than having taken it from him.

“I don’t believe she took the watch to gain anything,” Huelsman said. “I believe she was wearing the watch to help her through a hard time.”

Sharp also asked Huelsman if he was aware of notes from William Bishop’s final therapy session saying that he believed “the relationship was ending or over.” Huelsman said he had received the notes but he didn’t remember that detail. 

Alexander Bishop had a blank expression throughout most the hearing, staring forward and yawning frequently. 

But after about three hours of cross-examination of Huelsman, he started crying while Sharp was asking questions about Seel and the syringe. Sharp put her arm around him and continued asking questions. 

Monday’s ruling was a surprise because the previous ruling from Hudson, made last Thursday, favored the prosecutors. Hudson rejected Sharp’s argument that statements Alexander Bishop made at the scene couldn’t be used because officers didn’t read him his Miranda rights. 

On Monday, Hudson also ruled on two other motions presented by the defense, one requesting return of electronic devices owned by Alexander Bishop and his mother Sharon Bishop and another requesting all relevant documents for discovery. 

Hudson also set deadlines for documents to be turned over to Bishop’s attorneys and for police to return devices they had gotten from Bishop and his mother because of search warrants.

In photo above, Allyn Sharp, Bishop’s attorney, questioned Huelsman for hours over two days of hearings. Photo by Ben Leonard | The 9th Street Journal

At Bishop hearing, lawyers spar over search warrants

By Ben Leonard, Erin Williams and Swathi Ramprasad 

The second day of a hearing in the case of Alexander Bishop, a 17-year-old boy accused of killing his father with a dog leash, was a battle over search warrants. 

Prosecutors and Bishop’s attorney sparred over the warrants and the evidence they provided, accusing each other of “fishing expeditions.”

Allyn Sharp, Bishop’s attorney, said some evidence should be suppressed because of misconduct by the lead investigator, Tony Huelsman. 

But prosecutor Beth Hopkins Thomas said there was no proof Huelsman was intentionally misleading when he sought the warrants. 

“The claims here are incredibly opaque and getting into semantics instead of getting into substantive material issues,” Hopkins Thomas said of Sharp’s arguments. 

Late in the day, Sharp noted that Huelsman had executed about 22 search warrants and asked him to explain what criminal evidence he’d uncovered.

Hopkins Thomas was quick to object.

“Your honor, it’s a fishing expedition,” Hopkins Thomas said. “She is trying to get our lead investigator to lay out his entire testimony before the trial.”

As in the first day of the hearing, Sharp played videos from April 18, 2018, when officers were called to the Bishop home in exclusive Hope Valley. In one video, Alexander’s mother Sharon recounts calls with her son, noting that the first one had connection problems.  Sharp raised doubts about the calls because of the connectivity problems, which Huelsman failed to mention in his search warrant. “Isn’t it true that you didn’t include anything about that because you were afraid that would discredit the statement that you were claiming Alexander made to his mother?” Sharpe asked.

“No,” Huelsman responded.

Sharp tried to poke holes in Huelsman’s account, suggesting that he withheld details to bolster his case. She said he conveniently ignored discrepancies about the location of the leash and how it was wrapped around William Bishop’s body. 

She emphasized there were conflicting statements about the location of the leash on William Bishop’s arms. In Huelsman’s search warrant application, he included a statement from an anonymous friend of William Bishop who said Bishop had severe nerve damage and reduced mobility in his right arm. But she said Huelsman did not include body camera footage of Alexander telling officers the same detail, which would have bolstered his explanation that the dog caused the strangulation.

Sharp repeatedly challenged Huelsman’s contention that marks on William Bishop’s neck indicated he’d been strangled by Alexander. She said evidence suggested it was possible the marks were caused by the dog pulling the leash.

But Huelsman said, “I’m not sure a dog on a leash could do that damage.”

The search warrants and the evidence used to justify them were the focus of Thursday’s hearing.

One of Huelsman’s warrants cited “suspicious” web history including searches for “how to calculate the value of an estate, the value of the price of gold per ounce, and how to transfer bank accounts after death,” Sharp said in the motion. She said Huelsman purposely deleted a sentence that showed these searches were made after William Bishop, his father, died. 

On the stand, Huelsman said he didn’t have a particular reason for deleting the sentence, saying it was common to make edits. Later in questioning, he said he probably got rid of one of the sentences because they “kind of say the same thing.”

“Investigator Huelsman has been picking and choosing what supports his suspicions while leaving out the investigative work he has done that has proven those things to be false,” Sharp said earlier.  

Sharp called it “a fishing expedition. These are general warrants.” 

Sitting beside Hopkins Thomas, Michael Wallace, head of the Homicide and Violent Crimes team for the Durham County District Attorney’s Office, argued Sharp was really the one with the rod and reel in trying to get the evidence dismissed. Her arguments were really the ones that were false, misleading and disregarding the truth, Wallace said. 

“What we’re having right now is a fishing expedition,” Wallace said. 

The lawyers also began discussing gold bars that had been listed as “missing” to justify search warrants. After obtaining Alexander Bishop’s cell phone search history that showed him apparently searching for the price of gold, Huelsman said investigators became interested in the location of the bars. 

But in fact William Bishop had sold the gold to a Florida coin dealer and police knew or should have known. Sharp argued in the motion that using the purchase order as justification for the search warrant was “intentionally false and/or reckless to the truth.” 

On the stand, Huelsman said later in his investigation he found that there are about 50 separate ounces of gold still unaccounted for. 

The sparring turned trivial at times.

Hopkins Thomas got tripped up on a name and laughed during Huelsman’s testimony. Sharp objected. 

“I’m going to ask that Ms. Thomas try to control the laughter,” Sharp said.  

Judge Orlando F. Hudson Jr. agreed, pausing and softly telling her to control her laughter. 

“I was not aware that I laughed,” Hopkins Thomas said. 

The hearing came a day after a motion to suppress other evidence was dismissed. Hudson still needs to address other motions, one requesting electronic devices be returned to Bishop and one requesting the full case file. The hearing will resume on Monday.

In photo above, Bishop’s attorney, Allyn Sharp, seen with her laptop, sparred with prosecutor Beth Hopkins Thomas, center, when lead investigator Tony Huelsman was on the witness stand. Photo by Bill Adair | The 9th Street Journal

Clarification: An earlier version of this article contained a description of a video police interview with Sharon Bishop. The meaning of her comments in that video is unclear, so we have removed that passage.

In Courtroom 7D: Tears, dramatic videos and questions about a homicide investigation

Correction: This story has been updated. An earlier version incorrectly said that Bishop said in his 911 call that he found his father on the floor.

This story was reported and written by Niharika Vattikonda and Erin Williams

Alexander Bishop wept as the video played on the big screen in Courtroom 7D. It showed police arriving at his Durham home and working feverishly to save the life of William Bishop, his father.

The dramatic video, recorded by body cameras worn by Durham police officers, was the focus of a hearing Wednesday morning. It showed William Bishop unconscious on the floor as police officers urgently gave him CPR.

As the video played in court, Alexander Bishop removed his glasses and buried his face in his hands, sobbing.

Allyn Sharp — an attorney for Bishop, a 17-year-old boy accused of killing his father — questioned officers about whether they had followed proper procedures. Judge Orlando F. Hudson Jr. held the hearing to consider Sharp’s motions that contend Bishop was the victim of shoddy police work.

One of the motions asked the court to sanction prosecutors for failing to provide Bishop’s attorneys with all the search warrants and evidence related to the case. Another asked that investigators return Bishop’s and his mother’s electronic devices that were seized during a search.

The other two motions sought to dismiss evidence found as a result of search warrants and statements Bishop made when he was first questioned. 

Alexander Bishop at a hearing on Sept. 11, 2019 | Photo by Cameron Beach, The 9th Street Journal

Those statements were the focus of much of the testimony Wednesday. Sharp questioned whether the statements Bishop made at the scene were lawfully obtained. But at the end of the day, Hudson denied her motion to suppress the evidence from that questioning. The hearing will continue Thursday on the other motions.

Wednesday’s testimony from police provided new details about the investigation and the early suspicions that officers had when they arrived at the Bishop home on April 18, 2018. 

When Officer Austin Farley asked Bishop about his relationship with his father, Bishop described him as emotionally abusive. “He went on to state that he wasn’t too concerned if his father didn’t come back,” Farley testified. “He also stated that he would be afraid of what his father did if he did survive.” 

Officer Samuel Kimball overheard Bishop’s remarks to first responders, and he testified that he was struck by the way Bishop talked about his father. 

“I noticed that he was consistently referring to his father in the past tense,” Kimball said. 

At that point, William Bishop still had a pulse and would not be pronounced dead until three days later in a hospital. 

“Usually grieving relatives or someone in this situation is still referring to their family member in the present tense,” said Kimball.

In her motion, Sharp argued that police officers unlawfully interrogated the teenager in the house without advising him of his Miranda rights. Officer Matthew Garvin testified that they were simply securing the scene. 

Sharp responded that for the purpose of Miranda rights, the only standard that applies is whether a reasonable person — in this case, a reasonable 16-year-old — would think that they were being held in custody. If that was the case for Bishop, then questioning him without an attorney or a parent present violated due process.

As a part of her cross-examination, Sharp played another clip from a body-cam video from one of the officers. “Keep an eye on the son. Make sure he doesn’t go anywhere,” Kimball says on the recording.

But the officers also testified that they were not ready to read him his Miranda rights.

“Did you at any point advise Alexander of his rights?” Sharp asked Officer Matthew Garvin, another police officer who responded to the call.

“I did not,” Garvin said. Two other officers on the stand also testified that Bishop was not read his Miranda rights.

However, Beth Hopkins Thomas, the assistant district attorney, argued that the “free to leave standard” — interpreted as whether the defendant thinks they’re in custody — does not apply under North Carolina law, which demands a “totality of the circumstances” analysis. 

She said Bishop was allowed freedom of movement, the officers themselves did not make explicit statements that he was in custody, and no restraint or intimidation was used to keep the defendant in the house. 

In his 911 call, Alexander Bishop said repeatedly that he thought his father was dead and suggested twice that the family’s dog may have strangled him by twisting a leash around his father’s neck. Police began to focus on Bishop as a suspect, and a grand jury indicted him in February. 

In July, Bishop’s attorneys filed motions to throw out most of the evidence, including statements made by the defendant. The motions also claimed that the lead homicide investigator omitted key facts to obtain search warrants.

At the hearing, officers testified about their growing suspicions while they were at the Bishop home.

After Kimball turned off his body cam, he met with other officers to discuss what they had found. He sent one of them to find Bishop, “just to monitor his movements out of caution,” Kimball said.

Hopkins Thomas, the assistant district attorney, asked Kimball what he thought at that point.

“I said that either it was a suicide or the kid did it.”