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Jail death sparks state investigations

It was about 5:15 p.m. on March 13 and Mark Leamon, a jailer at the Jackson County Jail, was in the midst of his routine visual check of the male inmates incarcerated there. It’s an oft-repeated exercise, a quick check to make sure that everybody’s safe and obeying the rules.

This must be the place

art theplaceMy friend died yesterday.

Way up in New York State, 1,000 miles or so away from me, my friend passed away. And he left us all for no reason. He didn’t save a kitten from a burning building. He didn’t rescue a baby from a car wreck. He didn’t give his life in an attempt to save others. He died, simply, because of drugs.

The only lesson may be that there is no lesson

op frOne of my wife’s childhood friends lives near Wilmington. Her daughter, a senior at Appalachian State, died last week in a tragic car accident. We went to the service two days after Christmas. 

One of the young lady’s sorority sisters had the courage and strength to speak, but could only do so with six or seven of her friends surrounding her, literally helping her keep standing and keep talking at times when she was overcome. When they got to the podium — most of them in tears — it was as if the grief, already overwhelming, was multiplied by 10.

Kindness can make difference between ‘waving’ and ‘drowning’

op frThe reason that the death of Robin Williams seemed so particularly shocking, so cruel, even so personal, very nearly like a betrayal, is that when we think of him — his body of work, his persona, everything we know about him — our very first thought is of an irrepressible life force the likes of which we have never seen on the stage or screen. It was obvious from the very first minute that he captured America’s imagination as Mork from Ork on the 1970s television sitcom “Happy Days” that Williams was that rarest of birds — a complete original. He would remain so for nearly 40 years, not only continuing to find new ways to make us laugh, but by taking unexpected turns into drama, revealing depths that we hadn’t been able to imagine, perhaps giving us a glimpse of the darkness deep inside that eventually pulled him under.

This must be the place

art theplaceThis sucks. 

One of the finest actors, comedians and pop culture icons of our lifetime, Robin Williams, gone, just like that — a bright flame, snuffed out.

Landslide kills railroad worker

fr drewsnowskiA Waynesville man who works for Norfolk Southern Railway was buried and killed by a landslide in the middle of the night Sunday while surveying tracks for storm damage following a weekend of unrelenting rains throughout the region.

Dogs’ anti-freeze deaths sadden families

Two dogs in the rural countryside of Upper Crabtree in Haywood County died from antifreeze poisoning last week, a tragic fate that has left the dog owners wondering whether it was an accident or malicious deed.

Pat and Stone Reuning and their 4-year-old son woke up on Christmas morning to find their dog Badger staggering and throwing up profusely. The progression of symptoms was rapid and alarming. Pat had to make lots of noise inside so her son couldn't hear Badger having seizures in their backyard, and by the afternoon the dog was clearly in such agony that Stone shot it.

Their neighbor's dog, Abraham, started to show the same signs the next day, and his owner Ryan Sutton rushed him to the vet.

Unfortunately, it was too late. Antifreeze poisoning has to be caught within four to five hours after it is swallowed for treatment to save the animal's life, said Dr. Kristen Hammett, the owner and senior veterinarian of Waynesville Animal Hospital.

As soon as they got home, Sutton's wife typed up a flyer about the antifreeze poisoning and set out on a mission, hoping whoever had left antifreeze out would put it up and everyone with dogs — which is just about everyone in Upper Crabtree — would keep them close.

"She went to every neighbor in our immediate area," Sutton said.

Sutton called one neighbor who he knew "does a lot of mechanicing" and asked if he'd possibly left out used antifreeze.

"He said he knows better," Sutton said. "It is so well known that it is toxic, not just to dogs but to little kids, too."

That's what makes Sutton and the Reuning's so suspicious of the antifreeze poisoning.

"At first, I thought it was an accident. I really did," Pat said. But now she's not so sure. "Someone has been out here poisoning dogs — that's what we think," she said.

Badger and Abraham went everywhere together, whether loafing at each other's house or adventuring about. They mostly roamed on the Sutton's 150 acres but occasionally would stray. Dog owners are supposed to keep their dogs on their own property, according to Haywood County's animal laws. But, it's almost a given that in rural areas like Upper Crabtree, dogs can be found wandering.

"People used to let their dogs roam in this community, or at least they used to," Pat Reuning said.

"I growed up in Crabtree, and that's the way most people did," Sutton added.

Abraham is the second dog Sutton has lost to antifreeze poisoning in less than two years. Both were English Setter bird dogs, which run about $1,500 each not counting the hours of personal time spent training them. Sutton, an avid bird hunter, plans to buy another, but this time will put in an underground fence.

"I don't want another one to die. I am going to have to protect my investment this time," Sutton said.

Sutton said they will probably never know for sure whether it was an accident or deliberate.

"We thought and thought about what could have happened. It seems somebody is doing it on purpose," Sutton said.

One of their neighbors has complained about several dogs in the area, including Badger and Abraham.

Just before the antifreeze poisoning, Abraham was caught eyeing the neighbor's chickens so the neighbor tied him up until Sutton could come over and get him back.

Just before Sutton's last dog died a little under two years ago, Badger was caught eyeing the chickens and was accused of picking one off.

The neighbor had called Haywood County Animal Control to complain more than once about dogs in the neighborhood.

Haywood County Animal Control investigated the antifreeze poisoning last week several days after it occurred. If someone did it on purpose, they could be charged with animal cruelty.

"You have to be able to prove that the person deliberately set it out and was malicious about it. Whether they were upset with the person and the animal was going to pay the price or whether they were upset with the animal," said Jean Hazzard, the director of Haywood animal control.

Hazzard said she has not seen a case of deliberate antifreeze poisoning.

"Sometimes it is not always deliberate. You would be surprised the people who don't realize that dogs will lap it up. It is sweet to a dog," Hazzard said.

For Pat, she is still struggling to explain this first encounter with death and loss to her 4-year-old.

"So far he is still saying 'When is Badger coming back? When is Badger coming home?'" Pat said. "It breaks my heart."

The unusual, toxic properties of antifreeze

It takes just a thimbleful of antifreeze to kill a cat, less for a bird, a smidgeon more for a dog.

Once lapped up, the animal dies a highly unpleasant death in 24 to 72 hours.

Antifreeze tastes sweet to dogs but even the far more finicky pallets of felines have a weak spot when it comes to antifreeze, said Dr. Kristen Hammett, the owner and senior veterinarian of Waynesville Animal Hospital.

The first symptoms manifest almost immediately, with the pet essentially acting like a drunken sailor — staggering, wobbly and often throwing up. Then it clears up, leaving the owner to assume whatever had gotten into their pet is all better. But within a few hours, the irreversible damage of kidney failure has set in, with gruesome and agonizing seizures and convulsions. Blood tests and a kidney examination can confirm antifreeze poisoning.

"It is not something we see every month, but it is not rare," Hammett said. "Sometimes it is accidental, sometimes it is malicious."

In the summer, Hammett always keeps an eye out in parking lots for the telltale green sheen of an antifreeze leak, occasionally spewed out by an overheated radiator. If she spies it, she heads inside and implores the store owner to clean it up right away. She has seen cats die after licking spots of antifreeze from their owner's driveway.

Home mechanics should always dispose of used antifreeze immediately after changing their coolant, she added.

The treatment for antifreeze ingestion is an unusual but surprisingly simple trick of chemistry.

Antifreeze in and of itself is not toxic. The active ingredient, namely ethylene glycol, is technically harmless — except enzymes in the liver convert it into another substance, and that substance causes complete kidney failure.

The treatment for swallowing antifreeze is an IV of grain alcohol straight into the blood stream.

"It keeps the liver so busy converting the grain alcohol it lets the antifreeze pass through the body unchanged," Hammett said.

— By Becky Johnson

Swain DSS investigated for cover-up in child’s death

The Swain County Department of Social Services falsified records relating to the abuse and neglect of a 15-month-old baby who later died, according to an investigation by the Swain County Sheriff’s Office and the State Bureau of Investigation.

The specific charge being investigated is “obstruction of justice being infamous, done in secrecy and malice, and/or with deceit and intent to defraud.”

The social worker who handled the case, Craig Smith, altered his reports, falsifying a hospital visit and doctor’s exam that never occurred, according to law enforcement statements.

Smith claims he did so at the direction of his immediate superior, Candace Lassiter, according to a search warrant executed by the SBI at the DSS office in Bryson City.

ALSO: Suspicious death of 15-month-old prompts SBI to seize Swain DSS computers

DSS Director Tammy Cagle and Program Manager T.L. Jones met with Smith after he had falsified the reports, according to the warrant. Smith said Cagle told him at the meeting “we have to get everything in order and everything straight.”

The SBI seized computers and records from Swain County DSS offices this week. Workers were put on lock down during the raid and those with appointments to meet with DSS case workers had to come back another day.

Fifteen-month-old Aubrey Littlejohn was in the care of her great-aunt Ladybird Powell when she died on Jan. 10. Abuse and neglect are considered contributing factors, according to law enforcement records, but the investigation is still pending and no charges have been filed yet. The autopsy report is not yet final.

DSS had been to Powell’s trailer several times to investigate claims of abuse and neglect of children in Powell’s custody.

The investigation into Swain DSS was launched after Swain County Detective Carolyn Posey uncovered discrepancies in DSS records and found holes in the accounts from DSS social workers.

Posey had initially been assigned to investigate Aubrey’s death and determine what, if any, charges should be filed.

Over the course of the investigation, Posey encountered delays getting DSS records. When she finally got the reports she found there were missing pages and other things that didn’t add up.

For example, one report said that Aubrey had been seen by a doctor and was normal with no signs of injury. But when Posey called that doctor, she found that that the doctor in fact had never seen Aubrey.

Posey had interviewed several relatives and neighbors who witnessed abuse and neglect of Aubrey while in Powell’s care. Relatives said they had repeatedly informed DSS of the situation, made reports and requested intervention but got no response.

Information gleaned from relatives about the baby’s condition and treatment was “in direct contrast to the information provided by the Department of Social Services’ employees: Misty Tabor, Craig Smith, Candace Lassiter, Angela Biggs, T.L. Jones and Tammy Cagle,” the warrant states.

DSS Program Manager T.L. Jones and and DSS Director Tammy Cagle told Posey their agency had only received two reports of abuse and neglect, which Poesy noted was “in direct contrast” to what she had been told by relatives claiming they had made numerous reports.

Posey was aided in her investigation by Danny Cheatham, a private investigator hired by the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians to assist in the inquiry into Aubrey’s death.

Once Posey and Cheatham discovered what appeared to be cover-up by Swain DSS, they alerted District Attorney Mike Bonfoey, who in turn called the State Bureau of Investigation.

Gibson case highlights larger problems

When the jury came back with a not guilty verdict in the case against Michelle Gibson, many across the country let out a collective sigh of relief. Gibson had been charged with second-degree murder after her 8-year-old son died from heat exhaustion in a car while she worked a double shift at a Sylva nursing home.

An outpouring of support

When Rose Smith read about the tragic death of an 8-year-old boy left in a car in the parking lot of Mountain Trace Nursing Home in Webster last May, her heart sank.

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