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Jury selection underway for Borlase murder trial

BOONE — Jury selection began on Monday, Feb. 14, for the trial of Tristan Noah Borlase, 20, who is charged with two counts of first-degree murder in the deaths of his parents.

The jury selection and trial is being presided over by Judge Greg Horne, who said during the start of the court session that the trial was expected to take three weeks.

During the jury selection process, according to the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts, the judge and attorneys will ask potential jurors questions to determine their suitability to serve on the jury, a process called voir dire. The attorneys also may exclude a certain number of jurors without giving a reason.

Prosecution is being handled by District Attorney Seth Banks’ office and Borlase is being represented by defense attorney Garland Baker.

On April 10, 2019, the Watauga County Sheriff’s Office responded to 1174 Orchard Road for a 911 call related to the disappearance of three family members. Jeffery David Borlase, 43, and Tanya Maye Borlase, 44, were subsequently found dead outside of the home, the Watauga Democrat previously reported. The following day, Tristan Borlase — then 17 years old — was arrested and charged with two counts of first-degree murder.

An affidavit filed the next day stated that interviews revealed that Borlase had been seen with “blood on his face and hands” by a family member at the scene. Borlase reportedly left the scene, and Watauga officials were notified the following day that he had been detained in Johnson County, Tenn., after a traffic stop. He was subsequently brought back to Watauga County.

In the following months, search warrants were issued for roughly 30 items such as surveillance camera footage, cell phones, a rug, a Ford F-150 truck and several other items.

Previous reporting by the Watauga Democrat states court documents indicate the bodies appeared to have been removed from the residence. Documents state that authorities believed that “... an altercation occurred inside this residence that led to the demise of the male individual and the female individual located outside of the residence.”

The medical examiner’s reports, which were sent to the Watauga Democrat in August 2020 indicated the manner of death of both persons as a homicide, with a knife listed as the weapon.

The autopsy report for Jeffrey Borlase listed multiple stab wounds to the left chest and back. Additional injuries included incised wounds on the arms and hands, abrasions on the scalp and forehead and blunt-force trauma to the torso and extremities.

The report of Tanya Borlase’s autopsy indicates she was stabbed multiple times, including in the left chest, back and arm. Multiple sharp-force injuries to the left arm were “likely consistent with defensive-type injuries,” the report said, and there were blunt-force injuries to the head, neck, torso and extremities. The report noted asphyxial injuries that “could have been sustained during compression of the neck.”

Knight in shining armor: Local resident gives out flowers on King Street to make people smile

BOONE — While walking along King Street, one might think they’ve stepped back in time to the middle ages.

Enter Nicholas Thaxton, a local resident from Boone. Thaxton dresses in full armor every month or so and walks around King Street handing out flowers. His goal? To make people smile.

“There’s a lot of different reactions,” Thaxton said as his armor clanked around. “Some people are like ‘what the heck is that guy doing?’ Other people are really excited to see me and really happy. Some put the biggest smile on their face and throw the biggest wave they can. I hand out flowers to some people and they’re really happy.”

Some people want to take pictures with Thaxton — or Sir Thaxton, Knight of Boone — which he is happy to stop and pose for. He said some children can be a little intimidated by his armor and height at first, but otherwise love it.

Some of Thaxton’s armor is stainless steel and some is mild steel, which he gets from Epic Armory — a manufacturer of various products for Live Action Role Play or LARPing.

On Feb. 13, Thaxton was handing out flowers to people on King Street since Valentine’s Day was right around the corner.

“I just like doing this. It’s for fun,” Thaxton said. “I like it when people smile for this.”

Board of Ed splits 3-2, keeps masking in place for now

This story was updated at 9 p.m. on Feb. 17 with more information.

BOONE — The Watauga County Board of Education voted on Feb. 14 to keep masks in place in the school system for now.

The board did discuss calling an emergency meeting to discuss the mask mandate if COVID-19 case metrics trended downward.

Board member Steve Combs made a motion to make masks optional starting on Feb. 21. Combs and Jason Cornett voted for that motion while Jay Fenwick, Marshall Ashcraft and Gary Childers voted against it. Because the vote to make masks optional failed, the current policy requiring masks for students and staff at Watauga County Schools stays in place.

The North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services announced Feb. 10 updates to the StrongSchoolsNC Public Health Toolkit focusing on strategies that are most effective at this stage of the pandemic, like vaccines, boosters, testing and masking and no longer recommending individual contact tracing in K-12 schools.

Additionally, NCDHHS recommends students and staff no longer be required to stay home from school following a COVID-19 exposure, unless they have symptoms or test positive. Similar updates will be made to the ChildCareStrongNC Public Health Toolkit. Updates for both toolkits will go into effect Feb. 21.

Cornett said his goal from day one is to keep children in school and since a big part of the quarantine requirement is off the table, he felt good to go to a mask optional setting in the school system.

“I challenge everybody to think about that,” Cornett said during the meeting. “It’s easy when the decision is not yours to make, but it’s a lot.”

Combs said now that the playing field has been changed in regards to quarantine rules, he felt there was no need to continue having required masking in schools.

Childers said he is concerned about the possible negative side effects of masking on some children, which he said could be social or academic. He was also concerned that if they ended the mask requirement, staffing in schools could be impacted.

Ashcraft talked about the current rate of transmission, but mentioned a lot of progress when talking about quarantine requirements.

Fenwick talked about how health officials have said the peak of the Omicron surge will end in the end of February and how the cases were declining overall in the school system, but still at higher levels.

For the week ending on Feb. 11, according to the school system, 104 students tested positive and 14 staff members tested positive.

After the motion by Cornett failed to pass, the board talked about meeting again if the transmission level of cases dropped.

“What I’m hearing tonight is that there’s intention among all of you to move towards a mask optional decision,” Watauga County Schools Superintendent Scott Elliott said. “I just ask for a week at whatever point to be able to begin to prepare staff. There are some parents who are going to be upset or disagree, or whatever reaction you want to characterize, about the decision to move to mask optional and need a few days to make a decision for preparations for how to respond to that.”

Starting on Monday, Feb. 21, WCS school nurses will no longer conduct large-scale contact tracing of close contacts. The school system will no longer quarantine students or staff members after an exposure to a sick person.

In a statement after the meeting, Elliott said that first and foremost, the only goals of the Watauga County Board of Education throughout the pandemic have been to respond to it in a way that keeps students and staff safe and allows them to remain in school to the greatest extent possible.

“That has meant following numerous state and federal laws, regulations and guidance through complex and changing conditions,” Elliott said. “While research evolves and opinions change, the goals have not. Any claim to the contrary is simply false.”

Public Comment

Before the board voted on the mask requirement, they heard from five public commenters. The first was Christy McAlister.

She told the board that it’s important for them to consider that there are countries around the world that have said the pandemic is over and have done away with restrictions. She said she knows the board is in contact with other boards and they should consider what they are doing. Caldwell County moved to mask optional in its school system and Avery and Ashe counties have had mask optional in place for some time.

“It’s important, I feel, to look at not just the decisions that they’re making, but how you can honor as many people as possible and their freedom of choice and their medical decisions that they want to make for themselves and their families so that the parents, students, children have the option if they feel safer wearing a mask that they do so and if they feel that the risks of masking — both known and unknown — are more than they want to risk, that they have the option to (not wear a mask),” McAlister said.

The next speaker was a senior at Watauga High School, Montana Stetter. She said the first time she spoke before a board was when she was 11 years old and she spoke before the Watauga County Board of Commissioners with concerns over being about to breathe with an asphalt plant being built. She said she was at the meeting that night because she “can’t breathe.”

Stetter said it wasn’t due to air pollution, but due to the requirement to wear a mask in school. She said she has never suffered from asthma, but for the past “many months I’m winded walking upstairs or small hills” which she said was a correlation to wearing a mask for more than a year now. She said the mask requirement was also hypocritical since they don’t have to wear masks at football games or sporting events.

She said being forced to wear a mask has been a mistake, but “it’s not too late yet.”

The next speaker was MariAnne Williamson, a licensed clinical mental health counselor with a practice in Boone. She said she is also a mother to two young boys who are in the school system.

“I first want to say thank you all for serving our community, especially in these last couple of difficult years. I also want to say we love our school and love our staff and teachers,” Williamson said. “I’d like to appeal to the board members to vote for making masks optional. From a psychological perspective, I believe we are in denial if we say that months rolling into years of all-day masking is not harming our children.”

She said her son has reported crying in class out of frustration of not understanding a concept, but instead of the teacher recognizing his emotion and helping him, he was able to hide the emotion behind his mask.

“This lack of connection is unhealthy and leads to loneliness and anxiety in children, just some of the many compounding factors of masks,” Williamson said.

She said the constant reminders to pull up his mask has caused anxiety in one of her sons and a fear of getting in trouble, and an “irrational fear” that he could be a danger to others.

“When I realized his entire grade was being made to wear masks outside on the playground and got his teacher to tell him he did not have to, he felt the pressure to still wear a mask because he didn’t want to be the only one, he wasn’t sure that he wouldn’t be looked down on or shamed, and wondered if he might be harming others,” Williamson said. “Why are these messages ok?”

She asked the board to consider and vote for “what is right, not simply comply with a COVID-19 restriction that is clearly causing significant psychological harm and is evidently not having the COVID-19 mitigating effect that we had hoped it would.”

The fourth speaker was Hilary Silver who is a mother of three students at an elementary school in the system.

“We all want to protect our kids,” Silver said. “Through the singular focus on preventing this one disease, we’ve created a blind spot. So we dismiss harm done through stringent measures like school mask mandates as means to an end.”

She said in that fear, children have been stripped of a right to a normal childhood.

“Kids have sacrificed so much for so long in the name of preventing a virus they generally tolerate well and offering marginal protection to adults,” Silver said. “Have we fully considered the ramifications on an entire generation?”

Silver said her youngest — in a mask since kindergarten — cannot see the teacher demonstrate phonics, her verbal and literacy skills compromised. She said her child’s cognitive ability is not “collateral damage.”

“Beyond making my son feel like he’s going to pass out in P.E., these seemingly innocent masks can cause physical harm,” Silver said. “See, too much exposure to microbes causes disease, but so does too little. Immune systems get fine tuned during childhood. Interrupting this training predisposes them to autoimmune disorders.”

Silver asked the board to vote with their conscience and show the kids “you care about their future and make masks optional. Show them they’re more than just collateral damage.”

The final speaker was Michael Ackerman, a candidate for U.S. Congress. Ackerman said that during the last six month he and other parents have tried to engage the board in civil discourse. Ackerman said that “members of this board have engaged in a practice that is more in lines of ‘shut up and listen,’ and ‘we are in charge and we do not answer to you.’”

“Your policies have physically harmed our children, emotionally harmed our children and have robbed our children of learning that in many cases will never be recovered,” Ackerman said. “This is not just about a single policy. It is about forgetting your role as public servants to which you all swore an oath.”

Ackerman then quoted the Declaration of Independence to the board and then said it is “with great sadness and resolve that I do stand before you tonight and inform you that you have left us with no other option but to serve each of you with letters of intent to file claims against your surety bonds.”

He told the board that they have 72 hours to abide by the demands listed in the letters or intent and that failure to do so would result in claims against each of the boards surety bonds.

Surety Bonds is a website that lists out how surety bonds — contracts guaranteeing that specific obligations will be fulfilled, according to the North Carolina Department Insurance — to “stop the tyranny fight back,” according to the website.

A typical surety bond identifies three parties to a contract and spells out their relationship and obligations according to the NCDOI. The parties are:

• Principal – The party who has initially agreed to fulfill the obligation which is the subject of the bond. Also known as the Obligor.

• Obligee – The person or organization protected by the bond. This term is used most frequently in surety bonds.

• Guarantor or Surety – The insurance company issuing the bond.

The Bonds For the Win website also links to a YouTube page named “Our Great Awakening,” a slogan of QANON — an internet conspiracy theory.

According to the North Carolina School Boards Association, North Carolina law does not require local board of education members or superintendents to post bonds. The North Carolina School Boards Trust — NCSBA’s risk management program — does not provide surety bonds for board members or superintendents, according to the NCSBA.

Elliott confirmed that he reviewed the letters of intent that were given to board members at the Feb. 14 meeting.

As to the surety bond claims, Elliott said “we are assured by our local board attorneys and state-level school organizations that school board members are not required to be bonded, nor are any employees except those responsible for the direct handling of funds.”

“The bond documents I provided to a community member through a public records request make clear that the bonds cover the employees who handle our money. Board members are not covered and are not required to be covered,” Elliott said. “As I understand it, the community members that have asserted there are such bonds are following very misguided information from someone on the other side of the country. Some of them might not realize this, but others of them certainly do know it and are using this as an attempt to intimidate the board. So far the board has not given this any attention as a part of their decision making process.

This story was updated with additional context for one public comment speaker.

ARHS initiates process to explore options for the future

BOONE — As part of its ongoing commitment to securing a healthy future for the region, the Appalachian Regional Healthcare System Board of Trustees announced Feb. 15 it is exploring a potential relationship with a like-minded, not-for-profit organization that would accelerate access to new technology and expand local healthcare services for the High Country.

“Our goal is to always do what’s best for the community and we know that meaningful relationships and a willingness to embrace innovative collaboration are often required to succeed,” said ARHS Board Chair Thomas Dale. “This decision comes on the heels of a robust strategic planning process and reflects the Board’s vision to deepen our primary care base, ensure accessibility, especially for our more vulnerable populations, and sustain and enhance the level of services we currently provide today.”

ARHS is in a position of strength, both clinically and financially, which allows for the exploration of a range of options from some of the most respected healthcare organizations in the region, the system announced in a press release.

The Board is not considering a merger, looking to change its not-for-profit status, be acquired by another health system or relinquish its local governance structure or local leadership. It is looking for a relationship that could propel the organization forward in ways that would be difficult to accomplish alone.

To chart the right path forward, the ARHS Board of Trustees identified specific qualities of any potential relationship, including:

  • A desire to support ARHS’s vision of serving the community
    • with ongoing investments in services, technology, equipment and facilities.
  • Experience with rural health care
    • and firsthand knowledge of the unique attributes of serving rural communities.
  • Technology infrastructure expertise
    • that would allow information technology and electronic health record systems to interface with each other and transform ARHS’s technology into a state-of-the-art IT platform.

    “We’re focused on providing quality care close to home and value our ability to remain an independent, not-for-profit health system. This is the High Country way, but we also recognize that a relationship with a like-minded organization could accelerate growth in ways we simply cannot achieve alone,” said ARHS CEO Chuck Mantooth.

    What this means for patients and the community

    Nothing changes today as ARHS is still exploring options. Even if ARHS decides to have a relationship with another organization, patients can continue to see their doctor, the same friendly and caring team members and access the services and clinics as they always have.

    Some of the benefits of a potential relationship include:

  • Greater access to capital resources.
    • A relationship with a larger organization can provide smaller health systems like ARHS the ability to purchase large capital items at a reduced cost because the larger organization has contracts, services and technologies in place.
  • Technology advancements.
    • A high priority need for ARHS is access to a fully-integrated Electronic Health Record system that creates a single medical record for patients everywhere they receive care within the health system, which is not something we can access or execute alone. ARHS needs assistance with implementing a world-class EHR that enables patients to use one portal for all their health care needs and allows them to take a more active role in their care.
  • Expanded services.
    • Relationships also increase ARHS’s ability to bri

    ng in new subspecialty services to the region which means patients don’t have to travel out of the area for care.

    “Today’s announcement marks a promising next step as we look forward to ensuring quality healthcare services for generations to come,” said Mantooth. “As we move through this process it is important to remember that our number one focus is on providing exceptional care for our patients.”

    Hagaman considers Durham family murders case 'closed'

    WATAUGA — Sheriff Len Hagaman declared at a Feb. 11 press conference that, in his mind, the case is closed regarding the triple homicide of the Durham family from 1972. 

    The Watauga County Sheriff's Office announced on Feb. 8 that a tip from a Georgia sheriff’s office has helped the Watauga County Sheriff’s Office bring closure to a 50-year-old triple homicide case that occurred in Boone on Feb. 3, 1972, known locally as the Durham Case.

    "The case is closed in my mind," Hagaman said. "There's no way of totally verifying what actually happened because the players are deceased."

    Billy Wayne Davis, 81, currently a resident of a correctional facility in Augusta, Ga., is believed to be the only surviving perpetrator in the Durham Case. Other perpetrators have been identified as Billy Sunday Birt, Bobby Gene Gaddis and Charles David Reed, all deceased.

    The Feb. 8 press release stated that interviews with two sources corroborated evidence from the Durham Case crime scene, and the circumstances of the crime were similar to a 1973 case in Georgia, known as the Fleming Case, in which Birt, Gaddis, Reed and Davis were all involved. Led by Birt, Davis, Reed and Gaddis were part of a loosely organized network known as the Georgia-based “Dixie Mafia,” which is thought to have engaged in dozens of violent crimes in Georgia and elsewhere across the Southeast in the 1960s and 1970s.

    During those interviews, Davis implicated Birt, Gaddis and Reed as engaging in a hired “hit” in the North Carolina mountains, one where they almost got caught during a bad snowstorm. Davis claimed to have acted only as their getaway driver, and that it was the other three men that entered the house that night.

    The 2019 lead first surfaced when Birt’s son, Shane Birt, was at the White County Sheriff’s Office to participate in research for a book about crimes that had taken place in Georgia, including the Fleming Case. Shane Birt shared that he was very close with his father, and recalled a story Birt had told him during a prison visit when he admitted to killing three people in the North Carolina mountains during a heavy snowstorm, remembering that they almost got caught.

    Courtesy Watauga County Sheriff's Office 

    Clockwise from top: Billy Wayne Davis, Bobby Gene Gaddis, Charles David Reed and Billy Sunday Birt.

    Hagaman said at the press conference that he hopes the case is also closed in the mind of the community. He said he's not sure how he could answer speculation on who allegedly "hired" the hit because there's no one left to interview. 

    Hagaman said that Davis — in prison in Georgia — never really indicated who might have hired the hit. Hagaman said that the way Birt operated, he would have never really revealed who hired them for the job to any of his comrades. 

    "That's speculation, but I just really don't think that he would share that," Hagaman said. 

    Officers asked Davis if he knew who hired the hit and Hagaman said he didn't respond. 

    After 50 years of leads that led to dead ends, Hagaman said the conclusion of this case came "totally out of left field."

    Hagaman said he was relieved that this case has added some closure for the families involved. 

    "My regret is that there were a lot of people since 1972 that would have loved to been standing here and saying that this is solved, we've got closure," Hagaman said. "That's the only regret because we worked many, many, many hours on the road."

    Hagaman said the investigation led them to burn the road between Watauga, Wilkes and Winston-Salem following all the leads over the years.

    The “Dixie Mafia" is thought to have engaged in dozens of violent crimes in Georgia and elsewhere across the Southeast in the 1960s and ‘70s. Hagaman said there isn't any indication they have had any dealings in the area outside of the Durham murders. 

    The FBI described the Dixie Mafia in 2012 as “a loose confederation of thugs and crooks who conducted their criminal activity in the Southeastern United States."

    In 1972, the Watauga Democrat reported that Mr. and Mrs. Durham were natives of Wilkes County. She was the daughter of Mr. and Mrs. Calvin Church of the Purlear Community. He was the son of Mr. and Mrs. Coy Durham of the Lomax Community.

    Prior to coming to Boone in November, 1969, after purchasing the Buick agency from G. C. Greene Jr, the Durhams resided in Mount Airy. The name of the firm was changed from Greene Buick-Pontiac Co. to Modern Buick-Pontiac Co. The new dealership became effective Nov. 18, 1969.

    Mr. Durham graduated from Appalachian State University in 1941 with a degree in history and physical education. He taught one year at Mount Pleasant School in Wilkes County after World War II. For the last six years before coming to Boone. Mr. Durham operated the Mount Airy Auto Loan and Sales Finance Co. Prior to that, he was associated with Home Finance Company for 13 years.

    Triple homicide case solved after 50 years

    BOONE — A tip from a Georgia sheriff’s office helped the Watauga County Sheriff’s Office bring closure to a 50-year-old triple homicide case that occurred in Boone on Feb. 3, 1972, known locally as the Durham Case.