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Beer Trumps Paying Unjust Imprisonment Settlement

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To start, the settlement pertained to a murder case. In 2000, Fairview resident Walter Bowman was shot to death in his home by masked invaders. Five men were imprisoned. Two, Robert Wilcoxson and Kenneth Kagonyera, were given fifteen-year sentences, but they were set free by the North Carolina Innocence Inquiry Commission after only eleven years. In July, the county agreed to pay Kagonyera $515,000, and it settled for an undisclosed sum with Robert Wilcoxson. Wilcoxson’s settlement was expected to be considerably larger because, unlike Kagonyera, he was not serving time for other, unrelated charges. Both men had filed federal lawsuits against the county.

The Innocence Commission did not exonerate three other men imprisoned for the murder. Teddy Lamont Isbell, Sr., Damian Miguel Mills, and Larry Jerome Williams, Jr. continued to serve their sentences. Isbell served six years after pleading guilty to robbery, and Mills and Williams were convicted of second-degree murder. All men claimed they were falsely imprisoned, and that they had been frightened into making false confessions. They reportedly feared authority and were distrustful of then-Sheriff Bobby Medford’s administration.

The case of Isbell, Mills, and Williams is unusual, but not unprecedented, in that their convictions have yet to be overturned, even though the Innocence Commission said it had the names of three other men it believed were guilty. County Attorney Curt Euler justified settling out of court because it would not be fair to exonerate this one and that one, while leaving three others in the same predicament in jail. Euler estimated going to trial could cost the county $1 million per year per man. That would come to $42 million on top of what had already been paid Kagonyera. Euler further wanted to settle before any charges were cleared, as he estimated the county would owe double in damages for arresting officially innocent men.

On August 4, the commissioners had a closed-door session, after which they emerged to approve settlement amounts. Isbell would get $240,000; Mills, $512,250; and Williams, $750,000. Following the vote, the county was authorized to publish the amount paid to Wilcoxson, and that was $5,125,000. So, all-told, it looked like taxpayers would be on the hook for just over $7 million. Adding the costs of legal services, it was estimated the amount would be closer to $8 million, but three insurance companies are expected to cover about $3 million. During the public meeting, the spin from the commissioners was that Euler had done a yeoman’s job in talking the price down from $17 million. For comparison’s sake, the county’s annual operating budget is $368 million.

And that leads us to selling the land. The 137-acre tract has perhaps one of the most interesting deed histories in the area. Though located in Buncombe County, it became Henderson County property as part of the 1995 water agreement. Terms required Henderson County to build a sewage treatment facility on it, and its ownership was to revert to Asheville should the land not be conveyed to the Metropolitan Sewerage District by 2012. Two 2-year extensions were added to the contract. Then, in April of 2014, Henderson County agreed with Asheville to sell the property within two years and split the proceeds 50-50. The Henderson commissioners agreed to put the property on the market in September.

Allegedly, Henderson County had received several offers higher than $6 million. But in March of this year, when the county was about to close, Henderson County Manager Steve Wyatt ran to Buncombe County in the eleventh hour to try to get a better deal. Henderson County would get the full asking price, $6,815,000, and Buncombe County would have the tract for an amazing economic development inducement. With the same secrecy enshrouding GE’s Project X, somebody leaked to the local daily that this project had the mysterious code name, Bravo IV. A little searching on the Internet revealed a Bravo IV on several local government agendas in Southern Seaboard states. The minutes of one local government linked the name with negotiations with Deschutes Brewery. Operating out of Bend, Oregon, Deschutes is the sixth largest craft brewer in the country. Its presence in Bent Creek would give the area three of the country’s ten top craft brewers.

The Buncombe County Commissioners whisked into their chambers in an emergency meeting, and voted 4-3 to buy the land. The Republicans on the board, Joe Belcher, Miranda DeBruhl, and Mike Fryar, were opposed; arguing even if members of the public had been given advance notice of the vote, they wouldn’t have a clue what the unnamed economic development project was. Commissioner Brownie Newman at the time divulged the project would create middle-class jobs and be good for the environment.

So when a resolution to sell the land appeared on the Buncombe County Commissioners’ agenda for their October 6 meeting, members of the public were wondering what had happened with Deschutes. It was sure to be an interesting meeting, but when it came time for the commissioners to discuss the item, County Manager Wanda Greene called for a closed session to discuss some important developments. After a purgatoriously protracted recess, the commissioners re-emerged and voted unanimously to remove its consideration from the agenda. Chair David Gantt remarked toward the end of the meeting that the commissioners had accomplished a lot. Within a day, news sources were announcing the arrival of representatives from Deschutes in the area.

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