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Crime
Man found not guilty in 2014 murder

A Greenville man is free more than five years after his arrest on charges he killed a friend with a shotgun after a party in north Greenville in 2014.

Stephon Averill Rogers, 27, walked out of Pitt County Superior Court on Friday after he was found not guilty of first-degree murder and felony firearm possession in the Sept. 21, 2014, death of Brandon Terell Smith.

Rogers was accused of shooting Smith several times with a shotgun on Gum Road, just outside the city limits near Pitt-Greenville Airport. The killing occurred five months after Rogers was convicted of a previous felony firearm charge, according to prosecutor J.B. Askins.

The Pitt County Sheriff’s Office responded about 5:25 a.m. to a report of a man lying on the side of Gum Road. When deputies arrived, they found Smith’s body in a ditch in front of a warehouse.

According to authorities, Smith and Rogers had attended a party at a nearby home before the shooting and got into an argument.

After the verdict, Rogers’ attorney, Robert Harris, said he was very pleased that jurors used common sense and saw the inconsistencies in the testimony offered by two state witnesses, Shaquilla Smith and Latoya Brown.

While testifying earlier in the week, both women admitted to drinking and said they told police different stories because they didn’t want to be involved. They said they corrected their accounts and implicated Rogers after detectives noted their stories weren’t adding up.

Harris added that Rogers has expressed sorrow for what happened to Smith but also said he didn’t kill Smith.

“Mr. Rogers maintained his innocence throughout the whole time,” Harris said. “Of course, he’s expressed a lot of sympathy for the family because, of course, ultimately the victim was his friend. He was very sorry by this end and what happened.

“We are very pleased with (the verdict) but obviously there’s still sadness because we’re saddened for the victim,” Harris said.

The real tragedy, according to Harris, is that Brandon Smith’s killer got away.

“We’re sad for their family, and I’m saddened the true people responsible will not be brought to justice and that it’s going to end here,” Harris said.

After the court adjourned, Rogers was quickly ushered out of the courtroom. Prosecutor J.B. Askins was not immediately available for comment, and Brandon Smith’s family did not wish to talk about the case or the jury’s verdict.

District Attorney Faris Dixon issued a statement later on Friday extending thanks to the jurors. “While we honor and respect the decision of the jury, we are saddened for the family of Brandon Smith,” the statement said.

Outside the courtroom, friends and family members of Rogers were visibly pleased as they called people and told them the news.

Friday’s verdict came after a three-day trial that included testimony from Rogers and co-defendant Kaonte Daniels, still charged with accessory after the fact, as well as witnesses Smith and Brown.

The women said they saw Rogers with a gun after the party at an apartment in Moyewood. Rogers said, “I caught a body” and “I got a body,” they said.

But Harris in his summation reminded jurors that the women also said they had been drinking and that earlier accounts to investigators were inconsistent.

“It’s horrific what happened to Brandon but you might not be looking at the right person,” Harris told jurors.

Prosecutor Askins in his summation said the witnesses had no interest in misleading jurors despite earlier inconsistencies.

“What interest or bias does Ms. Smith or Ms. Brown have?” he asked.

Askins also brought up Rogers’ criminal history including an assault with a deadly weapon conviction in April 2014.

“Doesn’t that speak to (Rogers’) dangerousness? Isn’t that the type of lawlessness that the laws of this state is designed to protect you, the public, from?” Askins said.

“Stephon Rogers deserves to spend the rest of his life in prison for the murder he committed,” he said.

Earlier on Thursday, Rogers took the stand and blamed Smith’s death on Daniels, who threw the house party and was with Brandon Smith before he was killed.

Daniels testified on Wednesday that Rogers chased Brandon Smith and another man around with a shotgun before firing several shots. Rogers then forced Daniels at gunpoint to drive him away from the scene. Daniels said.

Askins disputed Rogers’ testimony against Daniels, saying fear of being convicted of first-degree murder was behind the claim.

“Isn’t it interesting that after five years, (Rogers) tries to pin this horrific crime on Mr. Daniels?” Askins asked the jurors.

Correction

Thursday’s story on the trial incorrectly reported information about the arrests of Rogers and Daniels. Rogers was arrested before Daniels turned himself in to authorities.


News
Grant loss ends west Greenville after school program

The closure of a low-cost after-school program serving youth in west Greenville this month is leaving some parents in the lurch because comparable programs are scarce and have waiting lists.

Friday is the final day for the Youth Excelling for Success program, operated by East Carolina University out of the Lucille Gorham Intergenerational Community Center. ECU is ending the 10-year-old program because its operating grant wasn’t renewed, officials said.

About 25 children are enrolled in the program, said Dennis McCunney, ECU director of intercultural affairs. Their parents were notified earlier in the fall about the program’s closure so they could make arrangements for new after-school care when public school classes resume Jan. 6.

The program is ending because the four-year, 21st Century Learning grant from the N.C. Department of Public Instruction that funded operations ended in the spring, McCunney said. Reserved funding from the community center foundation account, along with a grant administered by the City of Greenville and some ECU programming dollars allowed the program to operate through this month.

“We are currently looking for other funding opportunities,” said Erik Kneubuehl, associate vice chancellor in student affairs.

“This has always been a grant-funded program,” Kneubuehl said. “We’ve applied for several grants in the last year that we didn’t receive. Right now there is no current outstanding grant proposal out there. Our next window of opportunity for a grant for this type of facility is going to be in the spring.”

Continuing operations until Friday required a last-minute budget adjustment right before Thanksgiving.

The $25,000 U.S. Housing and Urban Development grant the city administers for the program had to be modified to cover staff salaries for the month of December. The change was approved on Nov. 27 in an emergency meeting of the Affordable Housing Loan Committee.

The YES Program was launched in 2008 as a summer and after-school program, according to the Gorham center.

Open to second- through eighth-graders, the program focused on cultural enrichment, STEM activities, community engagement, volunteer opportunities and parental involvement, along with homework assistance

Families pay a yearly fee of $25 for their children to attend.

Faith Smith’s 9-year-old twins, Evan and Ethan, started their second year in the program this fall. They love it.

“The activities they do, they have ECU students who come and work with them, help with homework and do crafting activities. They have field trips on the weekends,” Smith said. “They expose them to a lot of things that I have not been able to expose them to.”

Smith said she is lucky because her mother will help her with the twins after school until she can find a similar program, with retired educators working with the children.

Finding any quality after-school program, much less one with former educators leading it, is going to be extremely difficult, said Tameca Sutton, whose 6-year-old son Levious joined the program this fall.

“A lot of programs have a waiting list or the price is a little steep for parents,” Sutton said. “You are now going to have to have extra funds to stretch. It’s a real struggle but we are going to make it.”

Sutton was a physical education teacher for the YES program for seven years. She only left because she needed a permanent full-time job with benefits when her son was born.

“Each and every staff member is like family,” she said. “They are very close. A lot of them used to work in the school system. It was comforting because they have experience with managing behavioral issues and teaching experience.”

Three teachers and two coaches work in the after-school program, Kneubuehl said. Because they are classified as part-time ECU employees, their contracts won’t be renewed. The three full-time employees will remain at the community center.

Other programming offered at the community center will remain unchanged, McCunney said.

“We run a senior program for local senior citizens where they gather at the center a few times a week for fellowship, a book club and to work on custom quilts,” he said. Fitness and nutrition education programs will continue, along with the community garden.

Outside groups also will rent the space and host everything from men’s leadership conferences to NAACP gatherings, McCunney said.

The Lucille Gorham Intergenerational Community Center was born out of discussions between ECU leaders and Greenville officials about ways the college could become part of the city’s plans to revitalize a 45-block area of west Greenville.

The city purchased three acres of the former St. Gabriel Catholic Church site bordered by West Fifth, Ward and West Fourth streets for the purpose of establishing the community center.

Since that time ECU has funded the salaries of the professional staff and the center’s operational budget. The cost of facilities maintenance and repairs has been shared by the university and city.

Kneubuehl, McCunney and the after-school program families remain hopeful about the program’s future. Kneubuehl said his office will be applying for new grants this spring.

“They may be closing right now but they won’t be closed forever,” Sutton said. “I have faith in them. They will continue to find funds.”


News
JPII seeks new zoning for school, athletic complex

The owner of a high school athletic complex whose lighting and sound systems have garnered multiple complaints has requested new zoning that could eliminate restrictions and allow greater use of the complex.

The corporation 4JPII is seeking office-residential (high density multi-family) zoning for the 31 acres along East 14th Street where John Paul II Catholic High School and its athletic complex is located. The school and grounds are currently zoned residential (medium density multi family) and the athletic complex is zoned residential-agricultural. The properties are further regulated by special-use permits.

The request is scheduled for consideration at 6 p.m. Tuesday during the Greenville Planning and Zoning Commission meeting at City Hall, 200 W. Fifth St. Final consideration would fall to the City Council at a later date.

“This rezoning is a little different because we are dealing with a fully developed project,” said Thomas Barnett, Greenville’s director of planning and development services. Most rezoning requests are made when the property is undeveloped, he said.

Staff recommended denying the rezoning request in its memorandum to the Planning and Zoning Commission. Staff said the office-residential zoning is not in compliance with the Horizons 2026 Community Plan or the city’s future land use and character plan map.

Staff also expressed concerns that the rezoning could potentially be considered “spot zoning” because all the surrounding property is zoned for residential use, including First Christian Church, which is across the street from the school and complex.

The Daily Reflector reached John Paul II Catholic High School Principal Craig Conticchio on Friday to ask why the rezoning was requested. He said he did not want to comment until after Tuesday’s meeting.

The high school and its athletic complex currently operate under special use permits issued in 2015 and 2017 that have placed conditions governing how the facilities are used.

If the rezoning request is approved, the special-use permit conditions placed on sound, lighting and rental use will no longer apply to the property, Barnett said. Zoning documents also indicate a variety of new commercial and residential uses would be allowed should the current or future owner decide to use the property differently.

John Paul II Catholic High School moved to 2725 E. 14th St. after 4JPII, a limited liability corporation, purchased the building that once housed Unity Free Will Baptist Church in July 2014. The corporation received the special-use permit to operate as a school in January 2015.

In the fall of 2017 4JPII sought permission to build an athletic complex in an open field near the high school. In a Nov. 24, 2017, request, 4JPII manager Richard Balot said he and his wife wanted to build the athletic complex because they “believe in the benefits of a Catholic education and the good JP2 has been doing.”

News of the proposed athletic complex generated concerns from residents in adjacent neighborhoods, including Planter’s Walk and Quail Ridge, who worried about lighting, noise and traffic congestion.

The school worked with residents and city officials to develop a special-use permit approved by Greenville Board of Adjustment in December 2017. Ten conditions that had to be met were included in the permit. Three of the conditions focused on lighting:

  • “No lighting shall be directed toward or placed in such a manner as to shine directly into a public right-of-way or residential premises.”
  • “No lighting shall illuminate any public right-of-way, street or any adjoining or area property in such a manner as to constitute a nuisance or hazard to the general public.”
  • “Lighting shall be located and shield to prevent the light cone of all exterior fixtures from encroaching beyond the property boundary line and into any adjacent public right-of-way or dwelling.”

Other conditions said only students and teams from the high school or St. Peter’s Catholic Church could use the facility and “third-party agencies” can’t use the facilities; no outdoor amplified sound is allowed expect during sporting events; no parking or driveways are permitted along the perimeter abutting residential homes.

Another condition said the special use permit would be “automatically terminated” if the school no longer operates at the location or “the proposed athletic complex is used for any other purpose other than being operated under a part of the campus.”

Construction on the complex began in 2018.

In May, the lighting system for the athletic fields and parking lots were erected and residents started saying the lights were shining too brightly on their property and in their homes. The contractor and the complex owner met with the neighbors and started making adjustments in the lighting.

Barnett said as the summer progressed, some residents who initially complained said their problems were resolved, but then new individuals come forward and said they were having problems.

Staff visited on July 12 and the contractor continued to make adjustments, according to the city. On Aug. 22, 4JPII filed an application requesting the property be rezoned to office-residential.

“From what we have been told, (the owner) wants to let other organizations use the facility,” Barnett said. That request can be accommodated without rezoning by asking the Board of Adjustments to amend its conditions, he said.

Five days later, on Aug. 27, staff was asked to place the rezoning application on hold, but the owner did not withdraw it, said Chantae Gooby, chief planner.

Once the first football games were played at the athletic complex, complaints about the lighting continued to be filed along with noise complaints.

Assistant City Manager Ken Graves, along with Barnett and members of his staff, held a joint meeting with the complex owner, the contractor and the neighboring property owners in an effort to resolve the dispute.

It was determined that the PA system’s speakers and some of the lighting were out of alignment after Hurricane Dorian swept through the area Sept. 6, Barnett said. The systems were adjusted.

On Nov. 14, 4JPII contacted planning staff and said they wanted to proceed with the rezoning request, Gooby said.

Four days later, the city issued a compliance letter which stated the conditions set in the special use permit had been met.