WEST JEFFERSON — U.S. Attorney Andrew Murray announced Thursday, April 30, that an ongoing multi-agency drug trafficking task force investigation has resulted in lengthy prison sentences for two methamphetamine traffickers.
U.S. District Judge Kenneth D. Bell sentenced Ashley D Walker, 33, of Lansing, to 120 months in prison and five years of supervised release. Cody R. Oakes, 31, of Boone, was also sentenced to 120 months in prison and five years of supervised release.
U.S. Attorney Murray was joined in making the announcement by Vincent C. Pallozzi, Special Agent in Charge of the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, Charlotte Field Division; Ronnie Martinez, Special Agent in Charge of the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s Homeland Security Investigations in Charlotte; Robert Schurmeier, Director of the North Carolina State Bureau of Investigation; Ashe County Sheriff B. Phil Howell; Watauga County Sheriff Len D. Hagaman, Jr.; and Boone Police Department Chief Dana Crawford.
According to filed court documents and the sentencing hearing, from 2018 until July 2019, Walker was a member of a drug conspiracy trafficking methamphetamine in Ashe County.
In addition to trafficking methamphetamine, Walker previously admitted that, on two occasions, she and her co-conspirators participated in drug-related robberies of competitor drug dealers. On Dec. 17, 2019, Walker pleaded guilty to conspiracy to distribute and to possess with intent to distribute methamphetamine, and possession with intent to distribute methamphetamine.
Walker was one of 10 people arrested as part of a joint operation between the Ashe County Sheriff’s Office and the N.C. SBI, dubbed “Horton Hears a Who.” The operation also involved the arrest of Drew H. Hoffman, 46, of Lansing, whose May 4 arrest for the 1.9 pounds of methamphetamine he was found with is believed to be the largest drug arrest in Ashe County history, according to the ACSO.
In Oakes’ case, court records show that Oakes conspired with Jared Pardue, who at the time was incarcerated in Georgia, to buy methamphetamine from Pardue’s supply source in Georgia. Oakes then transported the methamphetamine back to Western North Carolina and sold to it to local dealers.
According to court records, from January to June 2019, Oakes trafficked approximately 3.5 kilograms of methamphetamine from Georgia to Watauga County and elsewhere. Oakes pleaded guilty on Nov. 5, 2019, to conspiracy to distribute and to possess with intent to distribute methamphetamine, and possession with intent to distribute methamphetamine. Pardue has pleaded guilty to federal drug trafficking charges for his role in the conspiracy and is currently awaiting sentencing.
Both defendants are currently in federal custody. Federal sentences are served without the possibility of parole.
The two defendants were prosecuted as part of an ongoing Organized Crime Drug Enforcement Task Force investigation. According to court documents, since 2015, more than 200 individuals have been prosecuted, and more than 100 pounds of methamphetamine, $1 million in cash, and 60 firearms have been seized, as a result of the investigation.
The COVID-19 pandemic has brought many changes to daily routines, including those of both teachers and students as they have adjusted to remote learning for the remainder of the 2020/21 school year.
Teachers everywhere are working tirelessly to tackle the challenges of online learning while experiencing the loss of physical interaction with their students.
Ashe County Schools recently announced and congratulated the five teachers from each school in the district who were selected for Teacher of the Year via their Facebook page.
Kelly Lopp, a science teacher at Ashe County High School, was selected as the school’s TOY for this year.
Lopp said what she enjoys most about her job is daily interactions with her students and being able to learn more about them as individuals through building relationships with them.
“It is interesting seeing how they change and mature from ninth grade until they graduate as seniors. It is also gratifying to see former students and have them tell you what you taught them in class really helped them,” Lopp said.
Lopp said online teaching has been a challenge for her because she tends to be more old-school and less skilled with technology in comparison with her younger peers and students. She has taught for 33 years and said she feels she has a handle on what works for teaching the skills necessary for students to be successful in science for high school and college. According to Lopp, checking for understanding as she is teaching is a concept she finds more difficult because she cannot see students’ faces or check their work and point out issues immediately, as she can while in the classroom. She said the personal connection is not there and she misses that aspect of traditional teaching.
“I consider it an honor to have been chosen since I teach with some of the best in the teaching profession,” Lopp said. "These teachers truly care about the wellbeing and education of students and work hard every day to help them achieve the skills necessary to be successful not only in their future educational endeavors, but life itself.”
Danny Eldreth, who teaches seventh grade science and math at Ashe County Middle School, was selected as the school’s TOY.
The 2020/21 school year is Eldreth’s 19th year in the classroom and he said he is fortunate to have a job he loves.
When asked about the best part of his job, Eldreth said it is the students.
“It is such a joy to work with kids,” Eldreth said. “They tend to be very forgiving, kind and they bring such energy to one’s day.”
Eldreth said the transition to remote learning has been the greatest learning curve he has experienced in his tenure as an educator. However, he said he is a man most blessed because he works with amazing colleagues and the parents of the students he teaches are very kind and generous.
“I am not the best teacher on my hallway, much less an educator worthy of the title ‘Teacher of the Year’ when one considers the amazing colleagues I’m blessed to work with at ACMS,” Eldreth said. “To be voted Teacher of the Year is very humbling and quite an honor.”
Preston Roberts, a fifth grade teacher at Mountain View Elementary School, was chosen as the school’s TOY.
Roberts said the number one thing he loves about his job is the relationships he gets to build with his students.
“This crazy time has brought on many struggles as a teacher, but the biggest downfall is not being able to be in the classroom with my kids,” Roberts said.
He said he is extremely excited that he was selected because this is the first year he is eligible for TOY since it is his fourth year teaching.
“I had secretly thought multiple times that it would be a huge personal achievement if I was the TOY my first year being eligible, but never thought it would actually happen,” Roberts said. “I am extremely grateful of the title, but don’t feel any more deserving than anyone else at MVES.”
Cara Elliott, a first grade teacher at Westwood Elementary School, was selected as the school’s TOY.
Elliott said what she enjoys most about teaching first graders is teaching children to read and it is amazing being able to watch. She said she also enjoys teaching children with special needs in her class, especially autism.
“My daughter has autism and I want to spread awareness about autism every day,” Elliott said. “With awareness comes acceptance.”
She said what she misses the most right now is seeing her children every day and being able to lay eyes on them, give them high fives and know for a fact they are safe with her throughout the school day. Elliott said although she has been teaching for 14 years, she still feels like she has no idea what she is doing every day because teaching is just that hard.
She said this school year has been especially hard because she is having to teach first grade from behind a computer screen.
Her son is also a senior at Ashe County High School and it has been difficult to see the class of 2020 miss their final memories of high school.
“When I found out I won Teacher of the Year for Westwood, I was truly humbled that my colleagues would vote for me,” Elliott said. “I was honored to get even one vote because every teacher I work with deserves this award. It is so hard to know all that each teacher does every day.”
Dawn Powers, a first grade teacher at Blue Ridge Elementary School, was selected as the school’s TOY.
“I was absolutely blown away to be chosen as the Teacher of the Year at Blue Ridge among so many wonderful and deserving people,” Powers said.
Powers said these are certainly challenging times for education and the best part of the job, time spent with the children, has been drastically reduced. However, Powers said she has seen amazing things happen during this time, including how people have come together and risen to the occasion.
Powers said parents, grandparents, teachers, cafeteria workers and staff are all working together for the good of their kids, not only their education but all of their needs including those of their hearts, minds and bodies.
“There’s more encouragement, more understanding, and more kinship than ever before,” Powers said. “I’m honored to be a small part of a school and community who have stepped up and collectively said, 'We can do this, and we’ll do it together'. That’s the heart of Blue Ridge Elementary. That’s the heart of Ashe County.”
WEST JEFFERSON – In light of the COVID-19 pandemic and a decision by the festival board of directors, the 2020 Christmas in July Festival has been canceled. This family-friendly tradition will return in 2021.
The Christmas in July Festival draws thousands of visitors each year and takes months to plan. Given the uncertainty for what the next few months hold with regard to this pandemic, and keeping the health and safety of everyone in mind, the festival committee made this very difficult decision to cancel for 2020.
The festival was scheduled to be held July 3-4, 2020, in downtown West Jefferson. While the committee is incredibly disappointed to not hold this annual summer tradition in our community this year, they understand the need to be extra cautious for the sake of our community. The festival also consulted with the Appalachian District Health Department who stated “the event draws large crowds that feasibly cannot be supported over the next few months.”
The Christmas in July Festival is committed to supporting our community and our small businesses in the months ahead and will be offering local support in page for future updates on special programs and promotions that will be held in support of our local businesses.
Celebrating a “reopening of Ashe County” in grand style will show our residents, businesses and visitors alike that our community is strong, resilient and come together during tough times.
The festival wishes everyone health and wellness during this uncertain time and hope you will mark your calendar for the 2021 Christmas in July Festival which will be held on July 2-3, 2021, in Downtown West Jefferson.
ASHE COUNTY — After just more than two months since the first case of COVID-19 (novel coronavirus) was confirmed in North Carolina, the state has had more than 12,000 confirmed cases.
Ashe County’s fifth case of COVID-19 was announced Wednesday, April 29, the first in more than two weeks. AppHealthCare announced the first Ashe case’s confirmation April 3, a second positive April 7, a third the next day and the fourth April 10.
In a release to the public, AppHealthCare encouraged those who attended a funeral service operated by Boone Family Funeral Home or visited the establishment between March 19 through April 2 to contact public health staff by calling the AppHealthCare office in Ashe at (336) 246-9449 for an interview to determine whether or not guidance about the possible need for self-quarantine would be required.
As of Monday, May 4, there have been 80 COVID-19 tests done in Ashe, according to AppHealthCare.
The next day, there were 9,568 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in North Carolina, with 342 dead, according to NCDHHS. This includes eight cases in Watauga County and eight in Allegheny County, according to AppHealthCare. Presumptive and confirmed positive cases are in 99 counties across the state.
Organizations from the international to the local level are encouraging people who feel sick or are symptomatic to stay home and receive medical treatment.
In a series of executive orders since March 14, Gov. Roy Cooper has closed schools, limited the size of gatherings, instituted a stay-at-home order, shut down non-essential businesses, limited the capacity of businesses still in operation and barred dining in at restaurants.
As of presstime, Cooper has announced his intention to outline the state’s reopening but has not offered firm details.
Ashe County declared a state of emergency March 22. The county was followed by the towns of West Jefferson, Jefferson and Lansing.
An amendment to the county’s state of emergency declaration shortly after banned short-term rentals in the county, with the goal being a reduction in travel by non-residents. The town of Jefferson however, will not be banning short-term rentals in town limits.
The Ashe County Courthouse will remain open as usual, but residents are encouraged to take advantage of online resources or to call the needed office.
The Ashe County Airport will remain open, but no public visitors are allowed. The landfill and convenience sites will remain open to the public.
West Jefferson is closed to the public. Utility payments can still be made via the drop box located inside the first set of double doors at Town Hall using check, correct change or mail payments, and other business with the town, where possible, can be done by calling the town offices at (336) 246-3551 during normal business hours.
At the Jefferson Board of Aldermen meeting March 16, the board voted unanimously to close Jefferson Town Hall to the public. As in West Jefferson, Jefferson Town Hall will continue to operate and fulfill its normal duties, and can be reached at (336) 846-9368.
According to Lansing Town Clerk Marcy Little, Lansing Town Hall has been closed. She added it is being recommended people do things over the phone at (336) 384-3938 or via the drop box located out front. The town also closed the public restrooms in the Lansing Creeper Trail Park.
Meanwhile, meetings of local government boards including different boards of aldermen and the Ashe County Board of Commissioners have seen their meetings canceled or changed to being electronic.
The Lansing Board of Aldermen held a meeting via video conference Tuesday, April 14, with the West Jefferson Board of Aldermen following suit a week later. The board of commissioners held its meeting April 20 with doors closed to the public, who could instead only watch online.
On March 12, Ashe Memorial Hospital’s expanded visitor restrictions went into effect. The hospital asks that those who are not members of a patient’s immediate family refrain from visiting unless absolutely necessary, regardless of the visitor’s age or health status.
Local assisted living centers Margate Health and Rehabilitation Center and Forest Ridge Assisted Living have enforced visitation restrictions to protect residents from possible exposure to COVID-19.
Margate announced they are limiting visitation, making exceptions for cases involving significant issues, emergencies and terminally ill residents.
Forest Ridge Assisted Living announced that all visitation has been restricted, at any Ridge Care Senior Living’s assisted living and memory care communities in North Carolina, South Carolina, and West Virginia. Exceptions to these restrictions will only be made for extenuating circumstances and must be approved and scheduled by each community’s executive director. These restrictions will remain in place until further notice.
The N.C. State Parks announced Elk Knob State Park, Grandfather Mountain State Park, New River State Park and Mount Jefferson State Natural Area are closed as of March 27.
Also closing are recreation facilities at recreation sites in the National Forests in N.C. were temporarily shut down. The closures include picnic pavilions, shooting ranges and all restrooms.
These shutdowns are in addition to previous announcements about developed campgrounds, several large developed day use areas, visitor centers and Off-Highway Vehicle trail systems, which remain temporarily shut down.
The Ashe County Public Library has closed for the foreseeable future, announcing March 28 that curbside pick-up options would also be shut down.
The Ashe County Arts Council announced they have closed the Arts Center to the public. If anyone wishes a private viewing of the exhibit on display at the time, please contact the Arts Council at (336) 846-2787. The Arts Council has canceled all events in the foreseeable future, and are hoping to find dates to reschedule to. The Ashe County Little Theatre has postponed their next production, “Who’s On First?,” with no new date yet set.
The Florence Thomas Art School announced through June 1. The annual Flapjack Breakfast Fundraiser, all classes and scheduled events have been postponed.
Ashe County Parks and Recreation has suspended all sports leagues until further notice, refunds will be considered if leagues are eventually canceled. At the same time, Ashe Park has been closed.
In line with major sports leagues around the world, the North Carolina High School Athletic Association announced Thursday, March 12, it would suspend high school athletics until at least Monday, April 6. It was later decided to cancel the season entirely, following Cooper’s decision to cancel schools entirely March 24.
Family Central’s park office is closed but staff can be contacted at (336) 982-6185 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. The gym and workout room at Family Central will be closed until further notice.
MerleFest 2020 was canceled Friday, March 13, in a decision made in collaboration with the town of Wilkesboro.
At the Ashe County Detention Center, new inmates are being quarantined for anywhere from 15 to 30 days upon arrival. Air filters have been added in between the Detention Center’s four pods, hopefully keeping any disease contained should it arrive.
Ashe County Sheriff’s Office deputies are now doing as much as they can remotely, and have also been instructed to avoid entering confined spaces, instead opting to conduct business outside. Sheriff Phil Howell said the ACSO still wants people to know they are in the community.
According to Ashe County Emergency Management Coordinator Patty Gambill, citizens can call (866) 462-3821 for more information.
While schools have been closed since March 16, Cooper declared April 24 that the spring semester would not resume. Students have been taking classes online, while school boards at every level have been working on what is next.
For continued updates and more information regarding the COVID-19 pandemic, visit www.ashepostandtimes.com.
Bailey Little contributed reporting to this story.