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911 calls, communications describe scene leading to officer-involved shooting

BOONE — A communications log and 911 calls describe some of the circumstances that led to a Watauga man being fatally shot by a Watauga County Sheriff’s deputy along Hardin Road in the late hours of Saturday, March 30.

The man, Andrew John Mason, 22, of Boone, was pronounced dead at Wake Forest Baptist Hospital in Winston-Salem following emergency surgery, according to Watauga County Sheriff Len Hagaman.

The WCSO said in a statement that Deputy Adam Gragg encountered Mason walking in the roadway after responding to reports of “a suspicious male going onto the property of residences attempting to gain entry” in the area of 2145 Hardin Road.

“The deputy stepped out of his vehicle to speak with the individual and was attacked,” Hagaman said in the March 31 statement. “A violent struggle ensued and a deputy discharged his firearm, striking the suspect.”

Gragg has been placed on administrative leave per WCSO protocol, and the N.C. State Bureau of Investigation is investigating with the district attorney’s involvement, the sheriff’s statement noted.

According to Watauga County Emergency Services, the original 911 call came in at 11:24 p.m. The 911 caller said that a young man with blonde hair was beating on her door, screaming obscenities and demanding to be let in.

Second and third 911 callers at 11:39 p.m. and 11:40 p.m. both said that a man was screaming while walking up Hardin Road.

Hagaman declined to answer questions on whether Mason was armed or if he was observed to be under the influence of drugs and/or alcohol, saying those answers will be a part of the SBI’s inquiry. When reached on March 31 and April 1, the NCSBI declined to discuss details of the case, saying it was an ongoing investigation.

Mason’s mother Patricia Shupe, of Vilas, said the description of Mason’s actions she was told by the SBI sounds “out of character” for him. Shupe said she was notified of his death at 5 a.m. on Sunday, hours after the incident.

“He made me so proud,” Shupe said. “He was very responsible. He went to work every day, just a normal 22 year old, just a regular young man. He was saving money to go to China.”

“He was not a violent man, he’s not a punk,” Shupe said.

According to a log of radio communications from the incident, Gragg was the first officer to arrive on scene at 11:31 p.m. At 11:40 p.m., officers were advised that the suspect was at an abandoned house along Hardin Road. Two more officers, identified by WCSO Patrol Commander Captain Justin Wood as officers Cody Brown and Dan Plane, indicated they were on scene at 11:41 p.m.

An ambulance was texted, which means they were notified a call was about to go out, at 11:43 p.m. A minute later, at 11:44 p.m., a Code 2 call, explained by Watauga dispatchers as meaning emergency traffic should go to a scene as quickly as possible, was made and an ambulance was logged as being en route at 11:45 p.m.

Seconds after the ambulance was logged as being en route at 11:45 p.m., officers began first aid, according to the communications log.

The log provided doesn’t indicate when shots were fired. When asked about a lack of notes on the shots being fired or the suspect being down, the Watauga County Emergency Management office, a separate entity from WCSO, said the dispatcher who took the notes would have to answer that, but that the dispatcher was not available on April 2.

According to the log, the flight status of potential medic helicopters that could service the area was requested at 11:49 p.m. An ambulance arrived on scene at 11:56 p.m. and left the scene at 12:17 a.m. The last WCSO notes regarding the flight status came at 12:24 a.m., advising it would be 24 minutes before a helicopter would arrive.

Mason was originally transported by Watauga Medics to Watauga Medical Center, then airlifted to Wake Forest Baptist Hospital in Winston-Salem. Following emergency surgery, Mason was pronounced dead.

WCSO administrators were notified at 11:50 p.m. and the NCSBI was notified at 12:27 a.m.

“These things are not easy,” Hagaman said on April 1. “It’s sad for everyone involved, the officers, the family, the county and the citizens. It’s just a sad state.”

Shupe questions the use of force.

“Why would they have to use deadly force?” Shupe said. “He wasn’t armed, he was in his pajamas for God’s sake. Why would you shoot him?”

“I’m going to keep at this until I get answers,” Shupe said.

According to a WCSO shift report, on March 31, deputies responded to an address to assist the NCSBI, which was investigating a residence later determined to be Mason’s home address along Hardin Road. The log says the residence was found unsecured with the front door open.

According to court records, Mason was convicted of a traffic offense in June 2018 and of misdemeanor possession of marijuana paraphernalia in 2015.

Hagaman said that Gragg has been with the WCSO since May 2017. Gragg was in the U.S. Marines from 2006-2012 and attained an associate’s degree from Caldwell Community College and Technical Institute, his Bachelor of Science degree from Appalachian State University and his basic law enforcement training certification from Mayland Community College in Newland.

Along with WCSO, Hagaman said that Boone Police and Watauga Medics were on scene and that Appalachian State University Police answered Boone Police’s calls while they were assisting.

An autopsy will take place “today or sometime early this week,” Hagaman said on April 1. Pathologists at Wake Forest Baptist Hospital, which handles autopsies for Watauga County, declined to give preliminary autopsy findings, directing comment to the NCSBI.

The details of the investigation will be released at a later date, District Attorney Seth Banks said. The NCSBI said there was no timetable for the investigation to be completed.

Asphalt plant prevails as NC Supreme Court denies appeal in Rainbow Trail case

RALEIGH — The Supreme Court of North Carolina has declined to hear an appeal in the Rainbow Trail asphalt plant case, meaning Appalachian Materials could proceed with construction.

“Appalachian Materials is very pleased that the appellate court’s ruling has been upheld,” said D.J. Cecile, manager of Appalachian Materials. “At this time, Appalachian Materials intends to proceed with situating an asphalt plant at the Rainbow Trail site.”

“If the (N.C.) Supreme Court won’t hear it, that means the (N.C.) Court of Appeals’ judgment stands (that) dismisses the lower court’s ruling,” said Lou Zeller, executive director of the Blue Ridge Environmental Defense League, an intervening party in the case. “To the average person, it is unfair for the permit to be allowed.”

The denial decision, made March 27, was released March 29 in Appalachian Materials vs. Watauga County. The Supreme Court of N.C. consists of a seven-judge panel, made up of six Democrats and one Republican.

The petition release notes that Justice Mark Davis — a Democrat who made a previous ruling on the case while on the N.C. Court of Appeals — did not participate in the March 27 decision.

“The Supreme Court of North Carolina is the state’s highest court, and there is no further appeal from its decisions on matters of state law,” the court’s website states.

The denial means the November 2018 N.C. Court of Appeals ruling in Appalachian Materials vs Watauga County will stand.

In September 2017, Watauga County Superior Court affirmed a Watauga County Board of Adjustment’s 2015 decision to deny a high impact land use permit to Appalachian Materials for the purposes of building an asphalt plant off Rainbow Trail.

In 2015, the Watauga County high-impact land use ordinance prohibited high-impact facilities within 1,500 feet of an educational facility, which Watauga County Planning and Inspections Director Joe Furman cited in denying Appalachian Materials a HILU permit in July of that year.

The N.C. Court of Appeals’ decision stated that the Margaret E. Gragg Education Center — the Watauga County Schools system central office — did not qualify an as an educational facility, reversing a finding of fact that the Watauga County Superior Court made.

“While we maintain the Margaret Gragg Education Center is an educational facility, we were not party to, and have no further comment on the case at this time,” said Watauga County Schools’ spokesperson Garrett Price.

Messages to Watauga County and the attorneys involved in the case were left on April 2. Messages to the intervening parties Terry Covell, Sharon Covell and High Country WATCH (Wataugans Against Toxins Close to Home) were also left on April 2.

This story is developing. Check for updates.

Source: Watauga County GIS 

Proposed Rainbow Trail asphalt plant site: Outlined in red is Radford Properties’ proposed asphalt plant site on Rainbow Trail off of N.C. 194. The site is close to the North Ridge Circle and Market Hills Drive neighborhoods.

Photo by Thomas Sherrill 

The 2100 block of Hardin Road in Watauga County, where officers were dispatched at midnight on Saturday, March 30.

Town council to consider land swap with county to save historic building

BOONE — After asking Watauga County to reconsider the removal of a building on Water Street, the Boone Town Council is considering a swap of land to save the structure.

The county purchased a former law office and apartment building — referred to as the Turner Law Office building — at 136 N. Water St. in Boone. County Manager Deron Geouque said the county accepted the purchase price for the building in July and closed on the property in November.

According to county records, the structures on the property — located across from the Watauga County Administration Building — were built in 1925 and 1953.

The county planned to remove the building currently sitting on the land in order to add parking spaces for courthouse facilities. Geouque said that initially the county could gain 40 to 50 parking spaces at the surface level. Since the county already owns the “Ginn lot” adjacent to the Turner building, Geouque said there would be the potential to add a second level of parking in the future. As the Ginn lot is situated higher than the Turner space, Geouque said the county could extend a level of parking above the Turner space to Water Street, adding an additional 50 or so spots — for the potential of an extra 100 spaces.

Geouque added that this plan would be dependent on when the county could gain the funding for the second level of parking. If this were to happen, he said the hope would be to construct the parking structure so that there could be a potential to add even a third level down the road. However, he said this would be contingent on if the town would allow the county to add height to the structure.

All of these plans are up in the air and could change based upon a potential deal made between the town and the county. The Boone Town Council discussed the county’s purchase of the building at its Dec. 18 meeting, as it was in an area being inventoried by the Boone Historic Preservation Commission for designation by the state as a local historic district. The town subsequently sent a letter to the county requesting it reconsider the removal of the building.

At a meeting of the Boone Historic Preservation Commission in February, the idea of a property swap between the town and the county was discussed. Geouque attended the meeting, where it was proposed that the town-owned Queen Street lot — opposite from the Ginn lot across Queen Street — could be swapped for the county-owned Turner House space.

Geouque said the county was open to this option, and last week sent a letter to the town suggesting the exchange. This letter came after the Boone Town Council met on March 21 and heard from BHPC Chairman Eric Plaag on the matter. Boone Town Manager John Ward said council members directed Plaag to make a presentation to the Watauga County Board of Commissioners to inform them on the history and importance of the Turner building.

Ward said the town had not heard about the land swap prior to the letter. The Boone Town Council is planned to further discuss, consider and provide direction on the contents of the letter at either its April 16 or 18 meeting.

Both Geouque and Ward voiced concerns about parking downtown.

“Anything and everything is on the table. We’re willing to work with the county and try to identify solutions,” Ward said.

Geouque said the county is engaging an architect to conduct a feasibility study for downtown public parking and county facilities. With long-term plans in mind, the county is considering moving several of its operations toward the area of the Watauga Department of Social Services and Project on Aging offices along Poplar Grove Connector.

According to Geouque, the county could potentially move its offices in between the Watauga Health Department and the human services building, leaving open the current administrative building for court operations. The thinking would be to have all of the government operations up the road for a “one stop shop,” with all of the judicial operations in one area as well, Geouque said.

Two arrested after leading police on foot chase

BOONE — A 22-year-old and a 17-year-old from Durham were arrested on April 1 after leading police on a foot chase near Watauga High School.

According to Boone Police, officers were dispatched at 3:33 p.m. to the 1200 block of N.C. 105 in reference to a silver Chevrolet Malibu driving in a careless and reckless manner. Officers located the vehicle traveling east on East King Street, whereafter the vehicle turned right on Eastridge Drive at a high rate of speed and continued into the parking lot of the Quality Inn.

Based upon an investigation, police stated it was discovered that the two occupants of the vehicle entered the Quality Inn and discarded drugs and a stolen firearm. The two suspects then fled the scene on foot and officers recovered the stolen firearm and drugs, Boone Police stated.

At one point the chase was near the area of Watauga High School, where people were gathered for a middle school track meet. Officers created a perimeter and Officer Petey Hausley and Officer Miranda Britt utilized their K9s — Simba and Meeka — to track the suspects, according to Boone Police. Both suspects were apprehended within an hour.

Muhammad Isa-Ismail Muhammad, 22, of Durham, was charged with possession of a stolen firearm, possession of a firearm by a felon, possession with intent to sell and deliver marijuana, felony possession of marijuana and felony maintaining a vehicle. Muhammad was taken to the Watauga County Detention Center and was issued a $50,000 secured bond.

The 17-year-old, also of Durham, was charged with possession of a stolen firearm, possession with intent to sell and deliver marijuana, felony possession of marijuana and possession of a firearm by a minor. The minor was also taken to the Watauga County Detention Center and was issued a $25,000 secured bond.