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Evicted for the holidays: a padlocked house, a legal maze, and a powerful landlord

When Mamie Green moved into her one-story duplex apartment, it signaled a fresh start. Her apartment – one half of the white house with red brick pillars on Harvard Avenue – was a place she could finally call her own.  

It had one bedroom and a kitchen in the back. It wasn’t perfect, but it was hers. 

A high electricity bill set her back on her rent. She had lost her job in March 2020 and was also grieving: Over the course of 18 months, she’d attended one too many family pandemic funerals.  

But unpaid rent is unpaid rent in the eyes of the court – loss and limited income aside. And without the protection of the federal eviction moratorium, Green, like many, found herself in court in defense of her home. 

On Nov. 17, she stood on the same porch she used to wave to neighbors from, as the Durham Sheriff’s department padlocked the door. Rick Soles, the property manager, put the key in the lock himself, she says. 

Green’s eviction story offers a view into a world often unseen by the public. It’s a world in which landlords can evict tenant after tenant in 90 minutes of court, a world where a complex legal system with costly court fees dictate the rules, and a world where even victories have consequences, as the eviction hearing itself still stains rental records.  

Harvard Avenue

Doctors once told Green, 53, she would never be able to live alone again. After five strokes left her right side paralyzed, she learned to talk again and retook her first steps, for the second time. 

The roles reversed between a mother and child – she lived with one of her daughters for five years as they cared for her while she recovered. Doctors told her she should move to a nursing home or continue to live with one of her four daughters.  

She uses a wheelchair and a cane now, but Green proved the doctors wrong. She moved into her new home on Oct 1, 2018 – by herself – regaining some independence with her new set of keys.

PHOTO: Mamie Green says her place on Harvard Ave. was “my castle…my home.”

“I felt so happy and thriving that Rick Soles rented to me,” she said camly, reflecting back to her first few years in the house. “It ain’t the best apartment in the world, but it’s a roof. I can say, ‘This is my castle, this is my home’.”

The lease was straightforward. She would cover electricity, water, gas and trash, among other basics. The landlord covered landscaping. Rent, $595 per month, was due the first of each month. 

Green wore many professional hats. She once was a DJ – playing songs for Durham Public School functions and other events – with her own business. She ran a cleaning business and taught dance. Whatever it took to pay the bills. 

Most recently she worked for Angelica’s Corporation – a company that supplies linens for hospitals – folding clean items piece by piece before they were distributed. Like many, in March 2020 she was laid off and applied for unemployment benefits, only to see a delayed check months later.

Her electricity bill then skyrocketed. She thinks she was charged for the entire house, not just her side of the duplex, she says. So she fell behind on rent. 

In January 2021, a $29.75 late fee was billed with her rent. Then again the next month, and another one the next. 

Green’s story is that of a pandemic nightmare – job loss, family deaths and an impending eviction. 

Round-faced with a ready smile, Green is upbeat and mild-mannered. But sometimes when talk turns to her eviction, she starts to cry. It’s not that she wants pity; in fact, she wants people to stop telling her they’re sorry for her. She just wants Soles to be held responsible for his actions. 

Her mom had died of the virus in a nursing home early in the pandemic. She was told the home would be closed to visitors because of social distancing restrictions, robbing her of a proper goodbye. 

Ten days later, she found her brother dead in his car outside his house.

Next it was her cousin, who died of COVID-19 as well. Four days later, another cousin. On June 15, 2021 she buried her father. It was one year to the day she did the same for her mother. 

“We were like peas in a pod. I could lean on them,” she said in between pauses and tears. “My support system is gone. They’re all in heaven.” 

When Soles started charging her late fees with her rent, Green began to pawn off her old DJ equipment – disco lights, Bluetooth electronics – whatever she could. Every dollar helped.

“I was doing whatever a mother would do or a person in my position would do to keep a roof over her head,” she said. 

But as of September, she owed Soles $3,658.75.

The combination of state and federal eviction moratoriums meant that while her debt grew, Soles could not kick her out of her home. But then on August 26, a U.S. Supreme Court ruling pressed play on an eviction scene that was previously paused for 14 months. 

Lost loved ones and unemployment aren’t legal reasons to miss rent under North Carolina General Statutes. Soles knew this to be true. Green, like many, learned this the hard way. 

Small Claims Court

 In Courtroom 3A of the Durham County Courthouse, small claims hearings are a depressing movie on repeat. In the gray courtroom with mahogany benches, the stage is set: plaintiff to the right, defendant to the left, the magistrate – the highest power in the room, both legally and literally – up above, behind a plexiglass screen, a subtle reminder of the past year. 

It’s Friday, Nov. 12 and starting at 9 a.m., Soles takes his place in the plaintiff’s seat. He fills the docket this morning with 63 summary ejectment hearings –legal jargon for eviction – in an hour and a half span. 

This is not Soles’ first time in Courtroom 3A. In fact, some say he’s a regular. 

Sarah D’Amato, an attorney for Legal Aid of North Carolina, who works in the Eviction Diversion Program, knows him well. She says he has “found his niche in the subprime housing market.”

Although Legal Aid only represents 10% of eviction cases in the county, according to D’Amato, she has challenged Soles in court numerous times, helping tenants he hopes to evict. 

There’s a pattern to Soles’ properties, she says. They are often in poor shape and offered at a lower cost. Plus, he tends to turn a blind eye to previous eviction filings or poor credit from prospective tenants’ applications. 

In fact, he is more well known for adding numerous eviction filings to his tenants’ rental histories, once they sign a lease from him. 

In North Carolina, the first step in the eviction process is when a landlord files a “Complaint in Summary Ejectment” or an eviction complaint. A court summons informs tenants they are being evicted and orders them to make an appearance in court, where a magistrate will hear their case. Failure to appear means an automatic eviction.

 Sixty-three cases back-to-back is a purposeful move by Soles: As the property manager and plaintiff, he sets the time and date of these hearings.

In a gray and white striped polo, he takes his seat with a stack of papers before him. He knows the drill – sitting stone-faced and serious – and frankly just wants his tenants’ rent. 

Tired of being beat up about evictions which could have been avoided by making payment plans instead of attacking landlords,” he wrote in an email in response to questions. 

One by one Magistrate Terry Fisher calls each tenant to the stage. They take the seat to the left, for the defendant. 

Fisher asks Soles to read the address of the property, state the monthly rent and outstanding balance. 

Four reasons constitute a legal eviction – failure to pay rent, remaining after the date of the lease, a broken lease agreement or criminal activity, such as drug trafficking. In most cases, Soles argues for the first reason. 

Next, Fisher asks the tenant to explain. Cases take only a few minutes each. 

According to Jesse McCoy, a supervising attorney for the Civil Justice Clinic at Duke Law, the three most common defenses for missed rent are unemployment, illness and transportation issues. McCoy hears these reasons in 60% of cases, he says, but none of them are legal defenses. 

One woman tells Fisher she had COVID-19 and was out of work for 25 days. 

Another man is in the same boat, 40 days out of work after a positive COVID-19 test. A household income sustained by two jobs quickly fell to zero when his wife had to quarantine at home. 

“When you’re behind on the rent, I have to do what the law says,” Fisher replies, as he signs off on complaint after complaint. 

He reminds tenants they have 10 days to appeal the ruling to District Court, in another effort to keep their home. Or they can strike a deal with Soles to pay off the remaining balance. 

If there is no action taken in 10 days, the landlord can padlock the door. 

Appealing the case may allow tenants to remain in their home, but doing so also subjects them to the tangled mess of the court system. For those without legal counsel or the ability to pay a rent bond – a court fee that allows you to remain in your home while your case continues – their case ends at small claims court. 

But for tenants whom Legal Aid advises, an appeal to District Court allows for more legal work and defense on their behalf, according to D’Amato.  

One flaw in the legal system haunts tenants regardless – an eviction filing will appear on a tenant’s rental history no matter the case outcome. Green learned the consequences of this. 

Pandemic Protections

Throughout a pandemic where stay-at-home orders became rule of law, legally removing someone from their home through an eviction was nothing but contradictory. 

Both state and federal governments agreed – the CDC Eviction Moratorium meant landlords could not evict tenants. Doing so would only contribute to the spread of the virus.  

But McCoy knew this day would end soon. And the prognosis was bad. An extended pause on evictions could only signal a mass influx of summary ejectment filings to come.

“Talk was a tsunami of evictions once the moratorium goes away,” said McCoy. “That evictions are going to be going left and right.” 

Yet he felt Durham County was better situated to handle this wave than most areas. Since 2017, an Eviction Diversion Program has helped mediate landlord and tenant disputes in court and provided legal counsel for those facing eviction. 

The problem existed long before the pandemic erupted. Durham once had the highest eviction rate among North Carolina’s ten largest counties, according to Duke Law.

From 2010 to 2018 the average cost of rent steadily increased from $792 to $1,014 across the county. Although evictions have decreased over the last decade, the county’s rising housing prices and continued development downtown present a predicament.  

The looming threat of post-moratorium evictions signaled to McCoy that something else still needed to be done. 

So he, along with Charles Holton, director of the Civil Justice Clinic, created a pop-up Eviction Advice Clinic in the Durham County Courthouse on Friday mornings.

Housing law is confusing to the average person. McCoy knows that. So the clinic offers a wealth of information about aid and assistance, and breaks down legal jargon. 

“We could be a one-stop shop, where people who are in need of emergency rental assistance will be able to come and apply for the emergency rental assistance, as well as get information about or just legal advice about an eviction case or generally about their housing situation,” he said. 

Now, North Carolina Central University is operating a similar clinic on Wednesday mornings. 

In May 2021 the Durham Emergency Rental Assistance Program (ERAP) opened, approving applicants on a first come, first served basis. Applications, found on the Durham County Department of Social Services website, were then prioritized by looming eviction filings and income. 

These funds provided $13.9 million dollars in assistance to 2,389 households. But after processing over 4,000 applications, DSS closed the application due to insufficient funds in October.  

This leaves over 3,000 applications pending.

Green was one of many who was approved for ERAP funding. But Soles didn’t accept rental assistance. And with one eviction now on her rental history, the prospect of finding a home in a limited rental market is a new challenge in itself.  

Moving Out 

 When Green first moved into the white house on Harvard Avenue, the previous tenant lingered to give her a necessary warning:

The apartment had black mold – so much mold that it made the tenant’s young daughter sick, Green was told. There were also rats. Lots of rats. 

Green wrote these things down for Soles. But he did nothing, she says, her voice racing with anger. So Green bought a bottle of Clorox for $5 a bottle. She now laughs at the thought that she could clean it herself. 

Her brother bought her a new bed for the apartment. Soon, rats chewed through its base. So he bought her another one. The same thing happened again. 

Next, Green went to Aaron’s Furniture to buy another replacement. It would ultimately take her two years to pay off the cost of the bed. But that bed too, succumbed to gnawing and little bite marks. 

Green filed a complaint with the City of Durham Neighborhood Improvement Services. An inspection of the house found cracked ceilings, foundational issues that allow pests to get in, and no functioning windows in the bedroom, among other violations.  

“LANDLORD REFUSES TO FIX HOME FOR DISABLED RESIDENT’S HOME,” reads the inspection review. “CANNOT USE RAMP AND LANDLORD REFUSES TO FIX ISSUE.”                          

Rats were not her only house guests: bees and other bugs also found a way in through cracks in the ceilings and holes in the wall. 

“I bought all these supplies to keep this thing fixed up, like I’m running school or hospital,” she said. “I don’t have that type of money.”

When she told Soles about her unwanted guests, she says he told her it was his “job to keep someone in the house, not keep stuff out.” 

With an impending eviction, Green knew her best bet was to move.

     PHOTO: Green lived in a duplex apartment in this house on Harvard Avenue.

When she was approved for ERAP funding, she was given the same advice. She was told Soles was refusing rental assistance funds and instead taking his tenants to court. 

Green had previously applied for an apartment in the new Willard Street complex through Durham Housing Authority. Over a year later, her application was approved. 

“It’s gonna be a blessing to be out of this nerve-wracking house that’s driving me crazy,” she told herself. “I felt like this was going to be a new start for me.” 

She offered Soles a settlement agreement, in hopes of erasing his eviction filing from her record. 

He rejected it. Instead, he wanted to see her in court. 

Green first faced Soles in small claims court on Oct. 13. She appealed the judgment, sending the case to District Court, and paid a prorated rent bond to stay in her house through October. 

But at the start of each month, another payment to the court is due. For November, she owed $595, one month’s rent, to fend off eviction while her case was in court. 

That money, she did not have. 

Instead of packing her bags for her move to Willard Street, Green found herself packing  boxes with nowhere to go. 

Soles told her she had four days to vacate the apartment. With an eviction filing on her rental history, Willard Street would no longer rent to her. She also lost her Section 8 housing voucher, which would have covered half of her new rent. 

“You just cost me my house. You just cost me my apartment. And you just cost me my Section 8,” she said, defeated. “He yanked the rug up from under me. He shattered my life.”

 With the little money she had saved, Green paid $89 a night to stay at La Quinta Inn. But she could only afford three nights. 

Now, she is staying with a friend in Graham, 30 minutes from Durham. She has not lived outside of Durham in almost 50 years. Her stuff is dispersed among family and friends – keeping her belongings in their cars, homes and storage units. 

As a disabled woman, the instability and stress do no favors for Green’s health. She found herself in the hospital the other week, with doctors telling her that her blood sugar, blood pressure and potassium were all off.  

“We are going to say him evicting you is the reason you’re in this predicament,” doctors told her. 

With the case appealed to District Court, Green and D’Amato will have another chance to bring up the habitability issues with the Harvard Avenue home in January. 

If she wins, the eviction can be dismissed. The file will remain on her history, but in future rental applications she can clarify that she has not been evicted. 

If Soles wins, the ruling will stand. Regardless, Green is still in the hunt for a new home – the same fresh start Harvard Avenue once gave her. 

“’I’m not giving up. I’m a fighter,” she said. “He just opened up a can of worms.”

PHOTO ABOVE:  A orange notice shows that Durham deputies padlocked Mamie Green’s house after Rick Soles ordered her evicted for failure to pay rent.

 

 

People skills. Check. Saying yes. Check. This is no ordinary bureaucrat.

Trial Court Administrator E. Deneen Barrier’s desk is a mess.

Pushed into a corner beside her monitor, an enormous stack of jumbled documents dominates the space. Barrier thumbs through the pile as she hunts for a jury selection calendar, flipping past paperwork from seemingly every department in the Durham County Courthouse.

Similar “pockets of danger,” as Barrier refers to them, litter the office. They include a thick stack of papers labeled “shred and destroy,” a mountain of boxes and scrambled files, and a whiteboard calendar still reading “May 2021.”

Barrier wears many hats in the courthouse, all of them involving keeping operations as smooth and organized as possible. But she doesn’t see bureaucracy the way most people do. Some might associate court management with red tape and closed doors, but Barrier said she’s centered her career around creativity, openness and a willingness to say “yes.” 

And sometimes that means learning to work with chaos.

“It’s a Broadway show,” Barrier said, referring to the courthouse. “It’s the lights, it’s the cameras, it’s the props—it’s all that.”

The problem-solver

Barrier’s office sits at the top of the courthouse, on the ninth floor — the same floor as the judges’ chambers and the District Attorney’s office. Her window offers astonishing views of downtown Durham surrounded by a sea of trees.

Barrier loves discussing her work. Dressed in slacks and a tie-neck denim blouse, she is a dynamic, engaged speaker, sometimes asking questions of her interviewer or moving around the room to illustrate a point. Her descriptions of her duties often flow from administrative jargon to moving accounts of courthouse drama.

As trial court administrator, Barrier handles tasks such as coordinating civil hearings and scheduling juror summonses. But the full scope of her duties extends far beyond that.

In May 2020, Barrier also became the courthouse’s COVID-19 coordinator. Since then, she has worked with other top-tier court officials to establish the numerous shifting health precautions the courts have adopted over the past 20 months. 

Barrier is one of the courthouse’s two disability access coordinators, providing equipment like hearing aids and crutches to those who need them for court. And judging from the many visitors, phone calls and emails she received on a recent Tuesday morning, many court employees consider her their go-to problem-solver.

One of Barrier’s first challenges that day came from a person wanting to bring a service animal to court. In her 17 years working there, Barrier had never received such a request. But she knew who could help.  

She sent a quick email to, and left a voice message for, the disability access coordinator at the Administrative Office of the Courts, which oversees judicial functions for North Carolina.  Then she waited.

‘Oil upon those troubled waters’

Barrier recalled one occasion where she spotted a man arguing with an arbitrator after he’d missed his hearing. She told the man that the case was out of the arbitrator’s hands, but that she could reschedule it for him.

He turned his frustration on Barrier. He ranted for the entire trip to the ninth floor, and when they left the elevator, he was still too distraught to be reasoned with.

“He’s bent down like this,” Barrier said, crouching and staring at the floor with tense hands framing either side of her head. “He’s just, ‘This is not right, this is not fair.’”

Not wanting to tower over him, Barrier said she crouched to his level. She asked if he had a certain document, and he handed it to her. She copied it for him and rescheduled his case. Then she gave him her phone number and email address. That way, he could double-check the time before coming to court.

“He said, ‘You know what, I want to apologize for my behavior earlier,’” Barrier said. “’You know, you just come to the courthouse and people tell you things, and this case is for a lot of money.’”

Barrier sympathized. “I’ve been to places and people just tell you, ‘no,’” she said. “And then you find out, it’s not true.”

Barrier said she focuses on finding ways to get people a “yes.” And her coworkers bear witness to those efforts. The first time Clerk of Court Archie Smith — the courthouse’s chief administrator — met Barrier, she was dealing with a particularly disagreeable woman whose case was being transferred to Superior Court.

“She spread oil upon those troubled waters,” Smith recalled. “The next thing you know, they’re walking off together like best chums.”

Trial Court Coordinator Suzanne Hansen, who works under Barrier, marvels that her boss “never forgets a face or a name.”

Employees and laypeople alike frequently find themselves in Barrier’s wing of the courthouse, lost. Everyone in the wing is happy to give directions, Hansen said. But, she said, Barrier likes to accompany a person to make sure they get to the right place.

A ‘muddled’ work-life balance

During a recent interview, Barrier handled various mini crises typical of a Tuesday morning in the courthouse.

She got a response on her service animal question within half an hour: They are allowed in courtrooms, but a judge can order them removed if they interrupt proceedings.  

Barrier’s next challenge came from two out-of-county court interpreters who said other courthouses usually provide badges to ease their comings and goings. The Durham County court interpreter, Maria Owens, appeared sheepish as she approached Barrier.

Barrier immediately opened a cabinet and pulled out an ID card labeled “court reporter.”

“Can you send an email to me and we can work on getting interpreter badges?” she told Owens after handing her the badge.

Barrier remains in her office until 7 p.m. most evenings, Hansen said. And when she goes home, Barrier said she often takes calls at night and on the weekends.

Asked about work-life balance, Barrier said, “I don’t think I really have one. I think it’s all just muddled together.”

This devotion has limited her personal life. Barrier said she’s too busy to take care of so much as a “hermit crab,” even if she kept it in her office.

“It would surely die,” she said.

The note wall

 But Barrier doesn’t regret the time she devotes to her career. Instead, she sees her “work family” as essential to her life.

A portion of a wall in Barrier’s office testifies to her impact on this “family.” Countless cards, notes and letters clutter the space, many attesting to Barrier’s kindness and service.

“Dear Deneen, Maria and Patty,” Barrier’s former boss, Kathy Stuart, wrote in a handwritten note to Barrier and two others. “Thank you for traveling 350+ miles to Richmond last month so that you could surround me with love on a tough evening.” 

“Thank you again for your usual, wonderfully professional courtesies extended to me during my recent stop at your courthouse,” wrote attorney John Bussian in a typed letter. “Arranging hearing time within 24 hours and a way to obtain a copy of the file within minutes are truly remarkable feats of public service. No wonder I feel, in all the other courts in which I appear across the country, none approach the Durham County Superior Court!”

Barrier pointed out that she spends more time with her coworkers than she would with a spouse and children at home. She fought to contain her emotion while looking at the notes.

“Sometimes, when it’s tough and you need a bit of support, it’s good for me to go to that wall,” she said, blinking back tears.

 

PHOTO ABOVE: Deneen Barrier sits at her desk at the Durham County Courthouse. Photo by Josie Vonk, the 9th Street Journal.

 

 

Despite COVID safety measures, trials collide at courthouse

In defiance of the sign outside, marking its maximum capacity at 16 people, Courtroom 7A was packed.

Twenty-five prospective jurors occupied almost every bench not cordoned off for social distancing. They sat not just on the blue X’s designating assigned seats, but also in half the chairs of the jury box, as well as a bench normally reserved for the defense’s friends and family.  

This wasn’t supposed to happen. 

The Durham County Courthouse has taken a cautious approach to jury trials during the pandemic. These proceedings were paused between March 2020 and January 2021 over COVID-19 concerns. And since restarting jury trials, administrators have fought to ensure that no more than one of them happens at once.

But the last week of September, for the first time in a year and a half, two jury trials overlapped. This unexpected event, the cause of the crowd in Courtroom 7A, left court officials bending rules and making last-minute judgment calls.

“In my mind, I couldn’t see it,” Trial Court Administrator E. Deneen Barrier said, “but apparently it happened.” 

How it happened

There are two ways in which limiting jury trials helps prevent COVID-19 spread.

For one thing, it reduces the number of people in the courthouse at any given time. And in Superior Court, where the county’s most serious civil and criminal disputes are settled, the one-a-day strategy keeps proceedings socially distanced in the spacious Courtroom 7D.

Courtroom 7A, a fraction of the size, typically hosts civil matters that don’t need a jury.

But courthouses are complicated, and sometimes things don’t go as planned. As defendants take plea deals and plaintiffs settle out of court, many scheduled jury trials never make it to the courtroom.

“A lot is up in the air when everybody walks in the door,” Barrier said.

The morning of Sept. 27, it was still unclear whether a scheduled criminal trial would start that day, Trial Court Coordinator Suzanne Hansen said in an email. Another jury trial was set to begin in civil court on Sept. 28. However, Hansen believed this would be postponed if the criminal trial moved forward.

The criminal trial did move forward – but Judge Michael O’Foghludha, who was to preside over the civil case, pushed for his proceedings to begin anyway. He got his way, resulting in the surprise double-booking.

Last-minute questions

The criminal jury trial involved an alleged assault, kidnapping and strangling in June 2018. And the civil trial stemmed from a September 2019 incident in which a Prius struck the plaintiff while she was crossing Duke University Road. 

Prospective jurors for the civil trial gathered downstairs, while those assigned to the criminal case milled around the seventh floor of the courthouse, wearing red “juror” badges. The court had empaneled these Durham residents the previous day.

Meanwhile, in Courtroom 7A, O’Foghludha briefed attorneys in the civil case on how a jury trial would work in a room that hadn’t seen one since before the pandemic. O’Foghludha had ready answers to basic questions about where the courts would hold prospective jurors and who would be in the courtroom at any given time. 

And he appeared in good humor, as he voiced his thoughts on dismissing prospective jurors.

“They may be terrible jurors, and you may not want them. In fact, you probably don’t want them,” he told the attorneys. “But I’m not excusing them from doing their civic duty.”

The clerk, meanwhile, appeared stressed. The trial would wind up taking a toll on the woman, who took a day off from work after it concluded.

O’Foghludha still had to resolve some issues on the fly.

Would jurors and attorneys get separate bathrooms, or would they need to share one? (They’d be sharing.) Could a deputy give jurors directions to the courtroom, or would they need an escort? (After consulting with the bailiff, O’Foghludha decided that would depend on how well jurors responded to instructions.)

At one point, even the judge tripped over the tricky logistics. He’d originally been talking as if 30 jurors would be in the courtroom at once, but realized midway through the briefing that there would only be 25.

Finally, with most details settled, O’Foghludha heard a few pretrial motions and then called for jurors to enter.

A grueling process

Selecting a jury is rarely quick or simple. But Courtroom 7A’s limited seating made this empanelment even harder than usual.

O’Foghludha acknowledged the challenges while welcoming prospective jurors.

“I know the question that’s on everyone’s mind right now is, ‘Oh my, how long is this going to take?’” he said.

To begin, the clerk called 12 names from a stack of shuffled index cards. She then had the 12 line up at the center of the courtroom and assigned each a juror number. Those who weren’t called exited.  

None of this is standard practice in the Durham County Courthouse, where everyone would typically have remained in the courtroom for the next leg of the proceedings.

Even with this smaller crowd, Courtroom 7A still exceeded its maximum capacity of 16 people. In addition to the prospective jurors, the room also held six representatives for the defense and prosecution, as well as the defendant and plaintiff’s spouses, the judge, the clerk, the bailiff and the court reporter. That’s 24 people.

Everyone present was masked, although one man’s mask kept slipping. None of the prospective jurors complained about the number of people in the room. But they generally respected social distancing.

Between 11 a.m. and 4:15 p.m., the prosecution asked a series of questions to determine if any of those summoned were ineligible to serve on the jury.

Some judges allow lawyers to dismiss prospective jurors as soon as they hear something disqualifying. However, O’Foghludha said he’d seen interviewees try to copy what others said in hopes of being disqualified. So he instructed the prosecution to hold off on challenges until it had asked everyone all of its questions. 

The first round of interviews ended with five of the 12 released. A deputy arrived with their replacements, and the prosecution began a new interview cycle.

The seven who’d already been interviewed watched from the benches in weary resignation.

During pretrial proceedings, O’Foghludha told the court he hoped to finish the trial by Oct. 1. In reality, the trial lasted until Oct. 7, with jury empanelment concluding on Sept. 29.

The jury found the plaintiff was not entitled to any damages.

The criminal trial, which ran as usual in Courtroom 7D, finished empaneling jurors toward the end of Sept. 27 and ended with a not guilty verdict on Sept. 29.

Will this happen again?

Before the pandemic, the Durham County Courthouse commonly held multiple jury trials on the same day, said Barrier, the court administrator. It could host up to four at once, though this strained courthouse resources.

The courts will someday return to that level of activity, but it’s unlikely to happen any time soon. September’s double-booking does not mark a shift in the courthouse’s overall approach.

“It’s just happenstance,” Barrier said.

PHOTO ABOVE: Users of the Durham County’s Courthouse must practice social distancing as a COVID safety measure. By Josie Vonk, The 9th Street Journal.

A Courthouse Moment: ‘I love where I stay.’

It’s a Monday morning in Durham County’s eviction court, and Joseph McMoil’s home of four years is on the line. 

McMoil, a stout 51-year-old man, shuffles to the witness stand. Dressed in a faded navy-blue T-shirt and old jeans, he settles into a swivel chair and gazes out at the smattering of people in the courtroom. 

“Mr. McMoil, what do you want me to consider as it relates to your case?” Judge Shamieka Rhinehart asks. 

For eviction cases in North Carolina, defendants are not guaranteed counsel, so McMoil represents, and testifies for, himself. 

Um … um … the fact that the times that I missed the rent,” McMoil mutters into the microphone. “During that time, I wasn’t receiving as much of a gross amount of money as I usually do. Because of my work.” 

When McMoil’s employer, a retirement home in Durham, reduced his hours early on in the pandemic, his income shrank to $1,800 a month, according to court documents. From April to September 2020, he couldn’t pay the $868 monthly rent for his apartment on Campus Walk Avenue. 

Though McMoil has paid his monthly rent since September 2020, he still owes $10,104.36 in accumulated rent and late fees, according to court documents.

Morreene LLC, the company that owns the apartment, wants an order for possession of the property. 

McMoil’s plight isn’t unique. With the pandemic causing layoffs and diminished hours throughout Durham County, many tenants have struggled to pay rent. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s eviction moratorium ended in late August, meaning many more Durham residents could face eviction in the coming months. 

Durham Social Services  (DSS) offers rental assistance, and Legal Aid, a nonprofit law firm, helps residents navigate the court system. But eligibility for rental assistance depends on earnings: residents can qualify only if they make less than 80% of the county’s Area Median Income, which is $48,400.  

McMoil says he doesn’t qualify now that his income has returned to pre-pandemic levels. 

“Have you thought about applying for any of the [COVID-19] assistance that’s available?” asks Charles Carpenter, a tall, thin attorney representing Morreene LLC. 

“I’ve called all those numbers,” McMoil says, exasperated. “I’ve tried, yes. They are looking into what I make presently and [the fact] that I’m doing well now.” 

Carpenter pauses. “But you do acknowledge that there still are a number of months of rent that remain unpaid?” 

Yes,” McMoil says. “I’ve stayed at this place for a long time. Before [COVID-19], I paid every time. I was a good outstanding resident.”

“We don’t doubt that, Mr. McMoil,” Carpenter says. His shoulders droop. He appears to hold no enthusiasm for evicting McMoil.  

“I was a very good resident before this happened,” McMoil says, his voice growing desperate. “So if you make it where I pay a little extra and catch up or come to an agreement where I can improve it, I would very much like to stay. I love where I stay.”

A long silence hangs over the courtroom. Rhinehart glances back and forth between Carpenter and McMoil. 

Anybody want to be heard?” she says, her chin resting on her hand, exhaustion in her voice. 

Just briefly, Your Honor,” Carpenter says. “We certainly feel for Mr. McMoil. I will point out, to his benefit, that when we proceed, that doesn’t cut off his avenue of discussion with us about the possibility of working something out.” 

Suddenly, the mood in the courtroom shifts. Despite McMoil’s testimony about his failed attempts to qualify for DSS rental assistance, Rhinehart sits up in her seat and asks a lawyer to find the phone number for the program. Various attorneys talk over one another, trying to find the contact information. 

“Mr. McMoil, we’re trying to get you some help, OK?” the judge calls out amid the hubbub.

When the commotion dies down, Rhinehart issues her judgment: “Mr. McMoil, it is unfortunate that I have to grant possession to the claimant. They met their burden.” 

“However,” she quickly adds, “you did hear Mr. Carpenter state that although I have entered a judgment, that they may still be willing to work with you.” 

Judge Rhinehart recommends that McMoil go immediately to the third floor to find DSS representatives and assigns someone to escort him there. 

McMoil walks slowly down the aisle, a gloomy look on his face. He has lost his home for now, but maybe there’s still a chance to save it. 

 

The Regulator Bookshop to reopen in early June

The Regulator Bookshop, the iconic Ninth Street store that has been shut down for the pandemic, plans to reopen its doors in early June. 

Co-owner Wander Lorentz de Haas told The 9th Street Journal that employees are busy restocking and preparing for customers to return in the next two weeks. 

“I think every staff member is just really excited to reopen and get back to showing people great books,” said Lorentz de Haas.

Like other bookstores, The Regulator closed in March 2020. The store was able to adapt to the pandemic by offering customers curbside pickup or delivery for books ordered online or by phone.

But while many other stores have reopened to the public, The Regulator kept its doors shut. That left many Durham bookworms puzzled. As crowds returned to Ninth Street, it seemed every other shop was open. Why not The Regulator?

“We didn’t feel in a particular rush to do it,” Lorentz de Haas said, “we just want to reopen right.”

Their top priority was to guarantee COVID safety. Elements that made the store unique suddenly posed challenges. “The veteran staff combined with the small intimate store during a pandemic became two huge problems for us” said Lorentz de Haas. 

All staff are now vaccinated and the building has improved air filtration. 

Shutting the store was also a wise business decision.

Their “survival strategy” was to return much of their inventory back to publishers for credit. Keeping a full inventory would be pricey, especially if only a limited number of shoppers would be permitted in the store. So they lowered their inventory, shut their doors, and focused on getting online orders to customers. 

“We basically converted the store into a warehouse.”  

As a result, the inside of the store had been transformed. Now, they are restocking and returning the store to its familiar layout. While they have not settled on a specific date, they expect to open in the first two weeks of June. 

In a time where independent bookstores are threatened by corporate giants such as Amazon and Barnes & Noble, owners of The Regulator were pleasantly surprised at the quantity of orders they have received, especially last summer and over the holidays. 

“The support has been tremendous,” said Lorentz de Haas. “I did not expect that we would be doing as well as we did through the first of the year and even since then.” 

Ready to leave memories of COVID times in the past, they are glad to get back to what they are good at: selling books in-person. 

Bookstores are for browsing. 

“Any of the books we have in the store you can find online – no question about it, but many of them, some of the ones that become our bestsellers, you really have to do some digging to find them,” said Lorentz de Haas. 

But while The Regulator will remain the small, quirky place it has always been, it reopens to a transformed Ninth Street, with a not-very-quirky Chase Bank branch on the opposite side of the street – “Now we have the Rockefellers across from us.”

Despite the increased commercialization of the area, Lorentz de Haas said they see the store as the anchor of Ninth Street. “We just signed a big lease extension, so we’re here to stay.”

Boutique furniture store with loyal following powers through the pandemic

Business has returned to normal for the boutique furniture store Vintage Home South. But when the pandemic struck in March 2020, owners Jennifer and Rich Devlin were not sure their Ninth Street store would survive the month.

January and February 2020 had been their best start to a year since they opened their doors in 2016. So a 50% drop in revenue in April, their second-worst month ever, hit hard.

“We’re thinking, ‘Holy crap! What are we going to do and how long is this going to go on?’” Rich Devlin recalled.

They had cash to survive four months only. If that ran out, they would consider selling rather than going into credit card debt, as they had done to get started.

It would take decisive action to stay afloat in the “refined casual” furniture business. A ramped-up focus on customer service and sharp upticks in the housing and home décor markets have done it for them – so far.

Last spring, as soon as they could leave their house, “we would go to the store five or six days a week and go, ‘Okay, what are we going to do to make money today?’” Jennifer Devlin said.

Mary Moyer, the shop’s only full-time employee, saw the Devlins’ drive. “They weren’t gonna sit around and see what COVID had in store,” Moyer said. “They got busy, and they did a website.” The new online shopping site attracted new customers from all over the country and now contributes 5% of total revenue.

The Devlins also started making Instagram videos. There were instructional furniture videos, such as “Wall Décor Hanging 101.” Others were light-hearted; one of them featured their one-take singing to announce the website launch, with Rich playing guitar and their dog sitting on Jennifer’s lap. Old and new customers watched.

Every day, Jennifer and Rich Devlin asked themselves: “Okay, what are we going to do to make money today?” Photo by Samuel Rabinowitz

Rhonda Fawzi, a Wake Forest resident, learned about Vintage Home South from a WRAL news feature when lockdowns began. Seeing Jennifer on TV, she thought, “I need to support this chick. I’d probably like her. She’d be my friend.”

A patron of local boutiques, Fawzi made her initial shopping trip to Vintage Home South via video call, something Jennifer started to try to stay afloat.

“I probably bought $100 worth of stuff from her, and she drove it to my house!” Fawzi said. “Doesn’t that strike you as something?”

Jennifer and Rich Devlin had met in 1998 while they both worked at a Ritz-Carlton hotel in San Francisco in the catering and banquet department – where, as Jennifer put it, “you dazzle them with customer service.” This “lost art” of customer service underpinned their founding of their own business.

Acquiring a new customer in Fawzi helped. But an existing customer base pulled Vintage Home South through the pandemic. Customers have continued to purchase despite delivery delays, sometimes waiting up to 24 weeks for a piece that would normally take four, largely due to raw material shortages and understaffed production lines.

Some have followed Jennifer’s interior decorating design consultations from in-person to video-call format. The consultations provide approximately 20% of total revenue and have been important for client relations, leading to more furniture purchases and repeat customers.

In some ways, lockdown even helped business.

“Now everybody’s trapped at home,” Jennifer said. “Because people were fed up with sitting on uncomfortable furniture, they came in over the summer and bought all this furniture.”

Her observations match the recent spike in the home décor market due to work-from-home. Salesforce’s 2020 Q2 Shopping Index noted a 134% increase in digital sales of home goods. Upward trends in home sales have also increased business. For example, Fawzi is using Vintage Home South to furnish her new Wake Forest home.

The new business made September 2020 the second-best month in Vintage Home South’s five-year history, and business has been solid since then. But the Devlins still worry about continued effects of the pandemic.

“All of the unpredictability that’s thrown in from this otherwise not normal stuff going on, that’s been the biggest stress,” Rich Devlin said. “How long is this going to go on? Is there ever going to be a regular normal again?”

9th Street Journal reporter Samuel Rabinowitz can be reached at samuel.rabinowitz@duke.edu

Top: When the pandemic struck in March 2020, Jennifer and Rich Devlin were not sure their Ninth Street store, Vintage Home South, would make it to April. Photo by Samuel Rabinowitz

Bars are back in Durham. How did they survive?

People fill the outdoor seating along Durham’s sidewalks downtown, on Ninth Street and everywhere in between. Friends dance with beers in hand. Music blares out, permeating the street. The night seems unrecognizable compared to its hard lockdown a year ago. 

Life is back at Durham bars.

Gov. Roy Cooper eased COVID-19 restrictions in late March, raising indoor bar capacity from 30% to 50% and lifting an 11 p.m. alcohol curfew. Before that, many bars went a full year without significant income and faced harsher limitations than other establishments, like restaurants and breweries. 

To keep taps flowing, some bar owners got creative. They changed menus, set up shop outside and asked regulars for support. But not every bar made it, and the ones that have stayed open aren’t all following COVID-19 restrictions. One Durham nightspot – Shooters II – has recently drawn official complaints about the breaking rules, city officials say.

When the pandemic hit, Kingfisher cocktail bar owners Sean Umstead and Michelle Vanderwalker recognized that restaurants could open up much earlier than bars under state health rules. So, they became a restaurant, transforming their parking lot into a burger joint, QueenBurger, in August.

Hunky Dory, a hybrid retail and bar space on Ninth Street, increased outdoor seating to accommodate beer-hungry Durhamites. Manager Taylor Bates said that by creating more standing space and spots outdoors and staying vigilant with cleaning and distancing, the bar has been able to bring back much of its customer base. New drinkers are coming in too.

Many of our regulars have been vaccinated, and our employees as well. And that gives everyone another layer of peace of mind,” Bates said. “It’s been so nice to have people come in and start having this normalcy back in their life.”

Crowdsourcing and fundraising have also saved bars. The Pinhook created a Patreon, where bar owners and employees sell art and host online events, like karaoke. Arcana Bar and Lounge opted for a similar strategy, selling tickets to virtual poetry shows, bi-weekly art shows, and recipe cards. 

“The Patreon contributions, combined with other employment, will hopefully be enough to allow us to reopen when it is right to reopen, without taking on crippling personal debt,” Arcana owners Lindsey Andrews and Erin Karcher wrote on Patreon in January. Andrews and Karcher are beginning a soft reopen for Arcana, according to an April 12 post.

Durhamites drink inside Flying Bull Beer Company, a Ninth Street spot with front and back patios that opened up during the pandemic. Photo by Sho Hatakeyama

Downtown Durham Inc. CEO Nicole Thompson has seen a significant increase in people venturing downtown as the states slowly lightens rules.

“It’s obviously been gradual and our nightlife looks a little different right now. People aren’t staying out as late, and they’re still wearing masks. But, people seem to be more comfortable,” Thompson said. “People want to be out again. They missed downtown, they’ve missed the places that they haven’t been able to visit in over a year.”

Running dry

For some bars, though, crowdsourcing and creativity weren’t enough. The Atomic Fern, which used to be located on Parrish Street downtown, fell victim to the pandemic’s financial burden. Despite Twitch streams, Facebook lives, and a GoFundMe started by a group of bar regulars, the business couldn’t pay rent. A landlord evicted The Atomic Fern in February, and the bar won’t be reopening.

Owner Kevin Slater pins the closure on state and city apathy. For bars like his with no outdoor seating and little indoor capacity, the government didn’t provide enough financial relief and legal support, he said

“Even if we were able to open up at 30% capacity indoors, that still ends up being only eight people plus staff. That doesn’t pay the bills,” Slater said. “We didn’t want to reopen. We’re in the middle of the pandemic, so we knew that it felt irresponsible to reopen.”

Slater filed a lawsuit against Durham and North Carolina for damages of $25,000 in January. Though he doesn’t anticipate his lawsuit going anywhere in court, he hopes to make a statement and point out the frustrations of small business owners. He said he feels that he and the bar community were ignored. 

“The government is saying now ‘Look we’re letting you reopen and now you can make money and you can pay your landlord,’ but, really, how sustainable is that? Bottom line: we’re all going to still be in debt,” Slater said. 

Stepping out of line 

Though most bars have been compliant with COVID-19 safety guidelines, Assistant City Attorney Anna Davis said some may have broken the rules. Davis said her office has only received a COVID-19 citizen complaint-driven report for one spot: Shooters, a favorite bar of Duke undergraduates.

Davis received multiple citizen complaints about unmasked crowds at Shooters in November. In response, she sent owner Kim Cates a letter right before Thanksgiving asking her to comply with COVID-19 health restrictions. 

After that, Davis said complaints mostly decreased. On April 5, however, Davis’s office received a report from the Durham Health Department citing violations at Shooters. The Duke Student Government president and Durham Mayor Steve Schewel expressed concerns too, she said. When law enforcement visited Shooters a week later to observe, though, they saw no restrictions violated, Davis said.

“It tends to be a game of Whack-a-Mole with these people,” Davis said. “They step out of line, but then once there are complaints, people get back in compliance.”

Schewel said nightlife crowds — specifically at Shooters — are one of the city’s greatest concerns as new variants of COVID-19 start spreading in Durham.

They’re loosening restrictions, but it’s critical that the city stays vigilant,” Schewel said, citing large crowds of indoor, unmasked young people. 

9th Street reporter Rebecca Schneid can be reached at rebecca.schneid@duke.edu

At top: Mask-wearing bar-goers drink inside Boxcar, a Geer Street joint where visitors can play arcade games. Photo by Sho Hatakeyama

Teaching through the pandemic, she tells her 4th-graders: ‘You are capable and you are smart’

Shutting down

On March 13, 2020, only one hour and 45 minutes remained in the school day when Lindsay Johnson, a fourth-grade teacher at Forest View Elementary, learned that all Durham Public Schools were shutting down.

Teachers immediately wondered what this would mean for their students, and for DPS families. They sent parent volunteers running to their copy machines, to prepare as much school material as possible to send home with students. They frantically bagged up the healthy snacks donated each week by a local nonprofit, so the food would not go to waste when students left the school. 

When school buses arrived to take the students home, no one knew how long they would be staying there. 

“We had to make sure — if this is our last moment with our kids, for whatever length of time — they have everything that we can give them,” Johnson recalled. “We all hugged our kids and saw them off to the buses, not knowing what this was going to mean for the months ahead.”

Johnson, 28 years old, has been a teacher for seven years. As her students drove away that afternoon, she figured that DPS would just have to reschedule spring break. This pandemic would blow over, and the school community would be back together in about a week. 

One year later, students had yet to return to Forest View Elementary.

Transitioning to the new normal

While DPS staff developed plans to continue learning during the unfolding COVID-19 pandemic, Johnson kept in touch with her 21 students and their parents via telephone. She checked in to make sure they were OK and gathered information on what resources each family needed for remote instruction. Educational materials were distributed by mail and at scheduled pick-up locations. 

Students had learning packets to complete each week. Not every student had access to a device that would allow for classroom Zoom sessions, so teachers stayed in touch with them individually. 

But some students couldn’t Zoom or video chat; for a geometry lesson, Johnson texted pictures of drawings to them.

Johnson often taught each lesson three different times, depending on the group of students and their means of learning. 

Most of her students had family computers or parents’ smartphones, so she scheduled Zoom lessons with them. For other students, Johnson taught the same lesson using the mobile app Duo to video chat. But some students couldn’t Zoom or video chat; for a geometry lesson, Johnson texted pictures of drawings to them.

Forest View Elementary fourth graders at recess. Photo by Sho Hatakeyama

Teachers offered whatever emotional or academic support they could. Johnson met with her students about their packets three times a week for an hour and a half. 

“Some of us were leading morning meeting sessions, and really focusing on social and emotional learning. Some of us tried to create a semblance of normalcy for students and went more of the academic route,” Johnson said. 

“[The protocol] was: however you can get connected with your students, whatever you need to do to provide whatever it is they need — academics or social and emotional — do what you can. It varied from building to building and class to class of what that looked like.”

Even with the new difficulties this pandemic year would bring, Lindsay Johnson kept her focus on making each child feel confident and successful. 

She had known she wanted to be a teacher since she was a student herself, growing up in Fayetteville. Her seventh-grade teacher pushed her out of her comfort zone by encouraging her to answer questions in class. 

“You have the ability to achieve whatever it is you want, and I’m going to help you build those skill sets to do what you want to do in your life.”

“I thought to myself, ‘I’m not smart, I’m not that kid,’” Johnson recalled. “But she continued to show me that I was capable and I was smart. It doesn’t feel good to feel that you’re not smart. 

“I want to be the person that shows every student I come across, that you are capable and you are smart. You have the ability to achieve whatever it is you want, and I’m going to help you build those skill sets to do what you want to do in your life.”

With her fourth-graders, Johnson held social hang-out days, math lessons, reading lessons and science demonstrations. She hosted a book club for students who wanted more interaction with each other.

Her nine- and ten-year-olds were accustomed to using technology for games and entertainment, not for school. The transition to remote learning was difficult at first because Johnson had to teach her students how to use technology in a way to help them learn. She taught them the basics of finding links, understanding a URL bar, and how to refresh a web page. 

In August, the start of the 2020-2021 school year paired Johnson with a new group of fourth-graders — children she’d never had the chance to meet in-person before the pandemic hit. It posed an even greater challenge for building relationships. 

“Connecting with my students was one of my biggest worries,” Johnson said. “Being a fourth grade teacher, I normally see the kids come down the hall, and I normally see faces.”

Each teacher at Forest View Elementary holds a 30-minute meeting with their class at the start of each day, and this has helped Johnson connect with her students. The meetings are focused on community-building, with teachers sharing meaningful quotations and asking students about how they are feeling. Sometimes a school counselor will join the session.

“Sometimes the topic of the day hits really close to home, and students need more time to process and think about how they’re feeling,” Johnson said. “We take that moment to address where students are and how they’re feeling — because if they’re not processing those emotions, then starting the day would be a disservice to them. If we were to just start straight into academics, I think we would’ve seen a lot of kids disengaged.”

Teacher Lindsay Johnson with her fourth graders at Forest View Elementary. Photo by Sho Hatakeyama

The constraints of remote instruction have made it difficult to cover as much academic material as in the past, she said. Teaching computer skills and focusing on emotional support takes time away from the standard subjects of reading, writing, math, science and social studies. 

“If the students aren’t emotionally prepared or feeling supported, they’re not going to be in a head space to learn academically,” Johnson said. “There are so many other factors that we had to account for in this virtual setting that decrease the amount that we can actually cover in a school year, if we were to remain virtual versus being in the classroom.”

“I would rather ensure every child has a foundation in math than to throw everything I got at them, math-skill-wise, and see what happens.”

Rather than rush to teach her students each individual skill in fourth-grade math, she slowed down to focus more on the fundamentals.

“Math is so intricate, with so many skills and foundational pieces. So if you don’t have the foundational understanding and you continue to build on it, that house is gonna crumble,” Johnson said. “I would rather ensure every child has a foundation in math than to throw everything I got at them, math-skill-wise, and see what happens.”

Returning to in-person learning

When the DPS school board decided on March 2 to begin returning to in-person instruction, educators worried about the risk of increased exposure to the coronavirus. Johnson’s phone was flooded with text messages from fellow teachers, sharing resources on places they could get vaccinated. 

Forest View Elementary resumed in-person instruction on March 15. Two days later, Johnson received her second dose of the vaccine. 

“It felt like a weight was lifted off my shoulders,” she said. “Not that I let my guard down, because safety is still the number-one concern. It sounds weird, but it was like I wasn’t scared of death or the prospect of getting terribly ill any more.”

According to the DPS COVID Dashboard, Forest View Elementary has had zero positive COVID-19 cases since reopening, however DPS elementary schools as a whole have had 27 cases among students and 15 cases among staff since March 2021. 

“It’s been really good to see students in the building,” Johnson said. “You can tell that they’re enjoying themselves. But … students are slowly but surely realizing that just because we’re in the building doesn’t mean things are gonna be like how they were prior to COVID.”

Although students and teachers are together again at school, they wear their masks and maintain social distance in the classroom and on the playground. Collaborative work, which normally would entail a table group with shared supplies that students would use to create something together, is often virtual.  

The challenges of virtual learning are not over. Johnson is teaching a hybrid fourth-grade class now, with 10 students in person and 12 online. 

“I’m still accounting time for making sure the students online feel connected and part of the classroom, and making sure I’m dividing my attention among both groups equitably,” Johnson said. “It’s a delicate dance. It’s definitely a dance that can be exhausting at the end of the day.”

“We’re still all in this together, even though there are some students who are physically in the buildings and some students who are at home.”

Johnson continues to use virtual platforms in her physical classroom. The students with her in the classroom have their laptops and tablets, and they often connect online to collaborate with students who are learning from home. 

Forest View Elementary School reopened its classrooms, with social distance procedures in place, on March 15. Photo by Sho Hatakeyama

“So we’re still all in this together, even though there are some students who are physically in the buildings and some students who are at home,” Johnson said.

The challenges that the pandemic has posed on the education system are strong, but Johnson says she is still working based upon her belief that every child has a right to a quality education. 

“Fourth graders are like sponges soaking everything up,” Johnson said. “It gives me a sense of hope for what our future can be.” 

9th Street Journal reporter Kathleen Hobson can be reached at kathleen.hobson@duke.edu

At top:  Fourth grade teacher Lindsay Johnson with her students at Forest View Elementary School.  Photo by Sho Hatakeyama

9th Street Journal reporter wins state journalism award for revealing inmate’s death

For revealing a Durham County jail inmate’s lethal exposure to coronavirus, 9th Street Journal reporter Dryden Quigley has won the 2021 Frank Barrows Award for Excellence in Student Journalism.

The North Carolina Open Government Coalition award recognizes student journalists whose work uses public records, open meetings or press access to shine light on how government performs.

In October, Quigley published a story revealing that Darrell Kersey died of COVID-19 at Duke Regional Hospital after contracting coronavirus while in the custody of Durham County Detention Facility.

The High Point man was sentenced to a state prison term by then. But he remained in the county jail due to pandemic-related delays in moving people to state prisons.

Sheriff Clarence Birkhead did not disclose the fatal exposure. Quigley, a Duke University senior, did after obtaining Kersey’s death certificate and scouring county and state records.

Those records detailed who was detained in the Durham County facility, Kersey’s criminal case and sentencing, and COVID-19 deaths among state prison inmates.

“During the past year, a wave of COVID-19 cases and related deaths occurred in North Carolina prisons and jails. Quigley’s use of public records and inmate databases situated Kersey’s death in the context of a statewide — if not nationally significant — story about health and safety in carceral facilities,” today’s award announcement states.

Read more about the award and Quigley’s work here.

At top: Dryden Quigley, a Duke University senior, covers Durham County for The 9th Street Journal.

Durhamites use their wits and each other to land coronavirus vaccines

A neighborhood email list promising leftover vaccines launched Bruce, a diabetic Durhamite, on an odyssey. In want and need of a COVID-19 shot, the 76-year-old said he walked through pouring rain to the vaccination clinic at Duke University.

When he arrived, soggy but hopeful, the nurses told him he had been misinformed — they were not taking walk-ins. 

“It wasn’t the end of the world, but the principle of it just seemed so crazy,” said Bruce. “It’s just the whole vagueness and randomness of it all, you know?”

Bruce, who got the shot days later, isn’t alone. As the gates inch open, Durhamites are still hustling to get jabbed, flooding social media sites for tips to lock down fast-filling vaccination appointments or get leftover shots.

On reddit pages and Facebook groups, through neighborhood email lists or by word of mouth, people are sharing insights about how to get immunized faster. Many report signing up on waitlists for multiple vaccination sites in and outside of Durham. Some have driven hours to get to well-stocked clinics.

Most people The 9th Street Journal asked about their vaccine quests declined to share their full names. But their stories display how hard some people are working to get vaccines.

Becca had more luck than Bruce as a walk-in. She got her first dose of the Moderna vaccine Tuesday by simply showing-up at the Walgreens on Fayetteville Street at the end of the day. Nabbing the leftover dose saved Becca from driving two-and-a-half hours from Durham to a coastal Onslow County clinic that she heard about on her neighborhood email list. But the shot stood for more than saved time. 

“It means freedom!” cheered Becca as she waited 15 minutes in the store for potential post-vaccination side-effects. “It means I can hug my friends and go to the gym, and it means I can not stress about ending up in the hospital.”

Social media crowdsourcing 

Durhamites discussing out-of-county vaccination options are flooding the r/bullcity reddit board.

User u/_Brandobaris_ said he couldn’t find vaccine appointments via the state health department, county health department or Walgreens when he became eligible in late February. So, he got creative.

“Using friends and reddit, I found hiDrb.com and a couple other NC counties and pharmacies,” he wrote. He joined their waitlists, too. 

Ultimately, though, it was his wife’s incessant refreshing of the Walgreens vaccination site that ended up saving the day, he reported. She managed to get them both appointments at a location in Chapel Hill last week, where they received their first doses. 

Lisa, a 42-year-old Durhamite whose health issues place her in Group 4, told 9th Street that she had visited over 16 websites trying to find a vaccine appointment. Her plea for help on the r/bullcity page generated hundreds of responses and guidance on where to get a vaccine. Lisa said she has a jab scheduled for Wednesday in Greensboro.

“It’s really difficult,” she said. “I’m a very savvy computer user, so I can’t imagine what it’s like for someone who’s less computer-savvy or doesn’t have a computer to try and navigate all this. There’s just too much information and not a single repository to have it all in one place.”

Vaccine voyages

Security guard Jamal Patterson welcomed people to the Blue Devil Tower vaccination site at Duke University on Wednesday. He hoped to nab a spare vaccine at the end of his shift. Photo by Olivia Olsher

Bruce said he got on Duke Health’s vaccination waitlist back in December. But after weeks of waiting, he started looking elsewhere. He decided to call the Duke Primary Care Clinic. They put him on their waitlist, too. 

“And then again, weeks go by and nothing happens,” Bruce said. 

After his fruitless walk through the rain, he finally found the correct email to request an appointment. He received his second dose on March 2. 

Bruce knew he wasn’t the only person having trouble. He said a friend has a competition among loved ones to see who will drive the farthest in order to get the vaccine. The friend’s nephew claims the top spot, having driven two-and-a-half hours to the Hertford County town of Ahoskie.

Jamal Patterson, a security guard from Graham County working at a vaccination clinic at Duke’s Blue Devil Tower on Wednesday, said he hoped to secure a leftover vaccine at the end of his shift. His boss said that extra doses might be available to him and his co-workers, he reported. That didn’t work out on two previous days, but he wasn’t giving up.

“At the end of the workday, if they have some leftover, I can be like ‘Hey!’” he said, hopeful it would be his day.

To schedule a vaccination appointment in Durham County when eligible, sign up for the county health department’s vaccination scheduling list. Or use the state health department’s tool to find local vaccine providers. 

9th Street Journal reporter Olivia Olsher can be reached at olivia.olsher@duke.edu.

At top: James Spruil waits to receive a coronavirus vaccine at the Walgreens Pharmacy on Fayetteville Street in Durham. Photo by Sho Hatakeyama