Crumpler resident Frederick P. Hammer was arrested and charged with murder after fleeing the county following the Jan. 24 shooting deaths of Ron and Fred Hudler and John S. Miller Jr. at the Hudler tree farm in Grassy Creek, NC and Grayson County, VA. The deaths were determined to have occurred on the Virginia side of the farm.
Hammer was extradited from Florida and brought to Grayson County where he is being held in jail. Pre-trial motions are scheduled to begin on Jan. 9, 2009 in Grayson County.
Altogether, Hammer faces a total of 16 charges which includes three counts of malicious wounding, statutory burglary, robbery, grand larceny, possession of a firearm by a convicted felon, four counts of using a firearm in the commission of a felony. The list includes four counts of capital murder, one for the commission during an abduction, two in the commission of a robbery, and a fourth charge was brought against Hammer for committing more than two murders within a three year period.
Hammer is also a person of interest in the disappearance of Crumpler resident Jimmy Blevins, missing since February 2007. In the fall of 2007, Jimmy’s family heard of law enforcement officers digging on Hammer’s property and using cadaver dogs in the search. As the last person supposedly to have seen Jimmy before he disappeared, Hammer has been questioned in the case.
Another tragedy in January resulted in the paralysis of then 18-year-old Tiffany Jones. She was thrown from a vehicle in an accident and hit the pavement, which broke her neck and left her paralyzed from the chest down. The community rallied around Tiffany, participating in a huge fundraiser, helping her parents, Jeff and Lisa Jones, renovate their home to accommodate Tiffany’s special needs, and coming out in force to welcome her home from Atlanta where she had been undergoing treatments. Today, Tiffany talks to groups about her experiences and encourages people to wear their safety belts in vehicles while she continues to work on her recovery.
Springtime brought the primary, setting the stage for November’s general election. Democrats and Republicans vied locally, along with a few Libertarian candidates, for opportunities to run for local, state and national office. Most believed the Democrats would fare well due to the unpopularity of President Bush and the war in Iraq, but Ashe County defied the odds come Election Day by choosing three Republicans to sit on the board of commissioners. Voters returned incumbents Judy Porter Poe and Larry Rhodes to office and gave a seat to former Commissioner Gerald Price. The board then proceeded to elect its first woman chair by naming Poe to the top spot. The controversial land transfer tax failed in Ashe in the primary as it has everywhere else, which led the board to raise taxes in July with approval of the 2009 budget.
July also brought the rainiest day ever for the Christmas in July Festival. It was really a washout with rain from start to finish for the one-day festival, but visitors still came and most vendors were pleased with their sales.
In the midst of America’s birthday month, Ashe Countians were shocked to learn of allegedly criminal actions by local attorney Michelle Shepherd. Shepherd was charged with embezzlement and obtaining property by false pretenses and indicted by an Ashe County Grand Jury on 26 class C felonies totaling in excess of $3.3 million and one class H felony in excess of $59,000. Numerous victims were identified as not having prior mortgages paid off, or did not receive monies from the sales of properties or other matters. There are also more than 238 victims identified by Shepherd having charged clients for title insurance policies, but never purchased the policies. Shepherd was also accused of being engaged in the practice of “check kiting” involving fraudulently inflating bank balances with non-existent funds, which led to an additional 10 class C felony charges.
The investigation continues and there are numerous civil actions being pursued against Shepherd by concerned parties. A concurrent investigation by the North Carolina State Bar led to Shepherd tendering her license to practice law in the state.
Ashe County honored its soldiers and veterans with a tremendous outpouring of patriotic fervor in August with the annual Armed Forces Tribute held at Ashe County Park. This year’s event was televised live on North Carolina public television and had live feed from Iraq and Afghanistan with active duty military personnel able to talk to family members back home and they could even see each other.
Wildly fluctuating gas prices hit Ashe County in the late summer with prices skyrocketing overnight on Sept. 12 due to a hurricane battering the Gulf Coast and shutting down refineries, and a panic by consumers. It astonished many who had not seen lines at gas stations since the shortages of the 1970s.
On a Friday afternoon in mid-September motorists rushed to gas stations across the country after hearing reports of possible shortages. Prices jumped to over $5 at one station in Ashe, resulting in the owner being fined for gouging, and drivers lined up for hours trying to fill their tanks. Stations ran out of gas and set limits for days after the crisis. Even months later, when prices have dropped to well below the pre-crisis level, consumers are still nervous about the future supply and looking for ways to save fuel and energy.
The gas crisis and corresponding oil prices seemed to be simply a prelude to the economic crash of late October when mortgage companies collapsed and Wall Street went into a tailspin. Presidential candidates Barack Obama and John McCain went to Washington to participate in the congressional debates to bail out Wall Street, followed by requests from auto manufacturers for a similar bailout.
The economic downtown has had its effect on Ashe County as businesses lack for customers and industries lay off workers. But even before the slowing economy was made so glaringly apparent, a major industry in Ashe announced the closing of another plant. Leviton Manufacturing/Southern Devices had closed two of its facilities (tool shop in Jefferson and river plant on NC 163) and announced in April the planned closing of its facility in Jefferson (the Jefferson plant) by the end of this year. That leaves one Leviton facility (the town plant in West Jefferson) where the company once had four in Ashe, and several hundred fewer jobs. Catawissa Lumber closed in West Jefferson in October, some retail businesses are closing their doors, and everyone is wondering just what lies ahead in 2009.
The year ended on a positive note as two families in Creston, operating River Ridge Tree Farms, continued Ashe County’s legacy of bringing national attention to the Christmas tree industry by providing this year’s White House tree. The families of Rusty Estes and Jessie Davis hosted the White House representative in October to choose the tree and again in November just after Thanksgiving to cut and transport the chosen tree to Washington, D.C. The giant Fraser fir graces the White House Blue Room this holiday season, decorated with ornaments from around the country, and the Ashe County families were able to travel to the nation’s capitol to present the tree to First Lady Laura Bush.
Another positive note for the county this year was the effort to temporarily save a handful of jobs in the Christmas tree industry and ultimately a wild and scenic part of Ashe County that led to the Pond Mountain conservation project to protect nearly 2,000 acres.
In November, Blue Ridge Rural Land Trust received the gift of a promise for the last part of a $14 million project to buy and protect about 1,800 acres of Pond Mountain, in some of Ashe County’s most rugged and unspoiled terrain.
The land being purchased was owned by Christmas tree farmer Dale Shepherd, who left it to his foremen Mark Johnston and Chris Shumate, who had been buying the land at the time of Shepherd’s death. Developers came knocking, but wanted only to pay for the land not the trees. And neither Johnston nor Shumate wanted to see the mountain developed, so they went to the National Committee for the New River, which led to the Blue Ridge Rural Land Trust taking on the conservation project. Other partners have joined the effort, and when all is said and done, Pond Mountain will be owned by the state and managed by the NC Wildlife Resources Commission as game land. It is hoped that in addition to hunting, the mountain will be a draw for many recreational activities, and enjoyed by the public, leading to the protection of additional properties in the immediate area.