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Rocky Mount Academy pitcher Emily Winstead, seen here in the Telegram’s 2019 softball pitcher of the year series, has 110 strikeouts in 44 innings pitched this season. Winstead and the Eagles will compete in the NCISAA 2-A state championship series against Wayne Christian School. The best-of-three series begins Friday.

Authorities arrest suspect in activist's murder


A Rocky Mount man is in custody in connection with the fatal shooting of a community activist more than a month ago.

Michael Edward Palmer, 42, is charged with first-degree murder of Johnny Cunningham, 60, and is jailed without bond in the Edgecombe County Detention Center, District Court records in Tarboro said.

The Edgecombe County Sheriff’s Office late Wednesday afternoon on Facebook issued a call for public assistance in helping locate Palmer.

Palmer was arrested late Wednesday evening in Rocky Mount by a member of the Edgecombe County Sheriff’s Office, as well as by the Nash County Sheriff’s Office and the Rocky Mount Police Department, Edgecombe County Detective Lt. E.W. Muse told the Telegram in an email.

Palmer was taken into custody without incident, Muse said.

Palmer is the lone suspect in the case and there was a motive for what happened to Cunningham, but no further details will be released because an investigation is continuing, Muse said.

Cunningham, in addition to having long been an activist, frequently spoke during the public input phase of Rocky Mount City Council regular meetings.

Edgecombe County deputies the morning of April 8 went to conduct a welfare check at Cunningham’s residence in the 3000 block of Old Battleboro Road, which is northeast of the city. Cunningham’s body was found next to his truck in his driveway.

The District Court records list the date of the alleged offense as April 7.

State law specifies first-degree murder as a killing carried out with a prior thought or prior plan. A conviction on a charge of first-degree murder can carry a sentence of life imprisonment or the death penalty.

A check of State Public Safety records shows a man with the same date of birth as Palmer having a history of convictions, mostly in Nash County, although not in roughly a dozen years.

The records show convictions in Nash County:

  • In 2008 for delivering/selling illegal drugs, possession of illegal drugs, unauthorized use of a motor-propelled conveyance and larceny.
  • In 2003 for possession with intent to sell a controlled substance.
  • In 2000 for breaking and entering vehicles and larceny.
  • In 1999 for possession of illegal drugs.

The records also show a conviction in 1999 in Granville County for attempted breaking and entering of vehicles.

The posting by the Edgecombe County Sheriff’s Office on Facebook said Palmer had listed an address in the 100 block of Burnette Street, which is in Southeast Rocky Mount.

Restoration Project

Carlos Padilla Euceda was part of a crew doing exterior work Tuesday on the May & Gorham Building at the Five Points intersection. Real estate developer Jesse Gerstl said the plan is to restore the two-story structure.

Council hears plan to reopen meetings to public

Assistant City Manager Elton Daniels outlined a plan to the City Council that would reopen council meetings to in-person viewing starting early next month.

The specifics would end a more than year-long procedure of the council conducting business without the public allowed in the audience seating area of the council chamber.

Daniels told the council that in the council chamber, 20 seats would be made available to the public and three seats would be designated for members of the media, with considerations for social distancing as a safety measure against COVID-19.

Daniels also said that municipal department heads and support staff would be allowed to return to the council chamber and would be in reserved seating.

He said that people wanting to speak during the public comment period of council regular meetings would continue to be escorted into the council chamber one at a time.

Daniels provided the details of the plan near the end of the council work session on Monday afternoon.

Daniels also said that the plan would be for the council to continue having work sessions in the council chamber. Prior to the spread of the coronavirus, the council work sessions had been held in a conference room adjacent to the council chamber.

He said that unless Gov. Roy Cooper issues a statewide executive order instructing otherwise, people entering City Hall would have to continue wearing protective masks.

Daniels said the plan would be to let the local boards, commissions and committees respectively decide whether they want to allow in-person viewing of their meetings or to conduct their meetings virtually.

Cooper, as the coronavirus began to spread, on March 10, 2020, declared North Carolina to be in a state of emergency. He subsequently issued executive orders placing COVID-19-safety-related restrictions on movement, scores of businesses and services and on the sizes of mass gatherings, but he eventually modified or eased back many restrictions.

The City Council has since April 13, 2020, been conducting work sessions and council regular meetings in the council chamber minus the public in the audience seating area. That procedure has included work sessions and council regular meetings being broadcast via Facebook, although the broadcasts more recently have been via YouTube.

Department heads, support staff, business owners, leaders and officials needing to make presentations to the council have been allowed into the council chamber to do so.

The Planning Board also has for months been meeting via teleconferencing.

During the April 26 council regular meeting, City Manager Rochelle Small-Toney announced she and her team were preparing for the possibility of reopening all municipal public facilities, including the council chamber for council meetings.

Small-Toney’s announcement came roughly five days after Cooper and state Health and Human Services Secretary Dr. Mandy Cohen, in an update about the state’s response to the coronavirus pandemic, laid out a timeline for lifting current safety restrictions by June 1.

During Monday’s council work session, Councilman Lige Daughtridge made clear that while maintaining safety is important, if a lot of the public shows up for a council meeting, then hopefully the city can accommodate as many of them as possible.

Daughtridge recommended having department heads remain in the break room adjacent to the council chamber, as they have been doing for council work sessions and regular meetings, so more of the public can be in the council chamber “because we are serving the public.”

“I don’t think we should forget that,” he said.

Daughtridge said he is specifically suggesting that if the public is going to take the time to come to the council chamber to participate in government, then “we should allow them to be in this room.”

Daniels said the only thing he and his team would be concentrating on is not necessarily the who but the what as far as the maximum capacity goes.

Daniels said that if alterations need to be made so department heads remain outside the council chamber but nearby and the public is in the council chamber, then that is the council’s discretion.

Small-Toney said, “I think what we’ll do is just play it by ear because sometimes we don’t have many members of the public.

“And if we don’t have many members of the public, then, of course, we’ll have the directors here to support the council and the administration and any questions that we might have,” Small-Toney said.

Councilman Andre Knight told Small-Toney that when staff members come to a council meeting, their respective subject area is on the council agenda and that she may have to refer to that respective staff member to answer council members’ questions.

“So I don’t see 15 to 20 staff members sitting in the gallery,” Knight said. “But I do see those subject areas of the department heads in the gallery … just in case we have a question or the city manager has a question of the staff person.

“So I just want to make sure that our city manager has the support staff that she needs to ask our questions and the public’s questions,” Knight said.

Daniels said that was the thought process behind having the department heads in the council chamber.

Daniels said that is because if that department head is in his or her office or in the break room when a topic involving that department head comes up, then time is needed to allow him or her to enter and exit the council chamber.

Daniels said the plan, which he noted is a recommendation, would take effect on June 2.

The Nash County Board of Commissioners, the Nashville Town Council, the Tarboro Town Council and the Edgecombe County Board of Commissioners are allowing the public into their respective meetings with safety precautions.

Deputies nab suspect after high-speed chase

A 41-year-old Kinston man was arrested on multiple charges after he crashed his vehicle following a brief, high-speed pursuit by Edgecombe County Deputy Majorr Spruill.

While Spruill was conducting business checks about 1:30 a.m. Sunday during a routine patrol in the area of N.C. 43 and Bulluck School Road, he noticed a vehicle in the parking lot of the Dollar General.

The deputy made contact with the driver, identified as Herman Lee Barnes, who was asleep in the driver seat. He got Barnes, who appeared to be intoxicated, to wake up. However, when he asked Barnes to shut the vehicle off, Barnes sped out of the parking lot onto N.C. 43 headed toward Rocky Mount.

Spruill initiated a vehicle pursuit that reached speeds of more than 100 mph and continued until Barnes crashed his vehicle on N.C. 43 near Nobles Mill Pond Road. Barnes was transported by EMS to the hospital.

Barnes was charged with felony flee to elude; reckless driving; no operator’s license; driving while impaired; resist, obstruct and delay; failure to heed to blue lights and siren; and open container.

Barnes was treated and released where he was brought before the magistrate and served on his charges. He was released to a family member due to the extent of his injuries.

Rise in virus cases slows in area

The COVID vaccine will soon be available to more teenagers in the area as vaccinations seem to be having a positive effect on the health of the Twin Counties.

The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued a statement Wednesday endorsing the safety and effectiveness of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine and its use in 12- to 15-year-olds. The CDC now recommends that this vaccine be used among this age population.

“I have already placed an order for more Pfizer vaccine that we will set aside for use for 12- to 15-year-olds,” Nash County Health Director Bill Hill said in an interview Thursday. “We usually order the Moderna vaccine because it is easier to store, but the Pfizer vaccine is the only vaccine approved right now for younger people.”

Before this recommendation was issued, the Pfizer vaccine was approved for use in people 16 years of age and older and was the only vaccine approved for residents under the age of 18.

Hill said he hopes to soon be able to administer this COVID vaccine to children in this age range. This news is especially important as new COVID cases are becoming more apparent in younger residents in Nash County.

Since April 1, Nash County has reported 102 positive COVID-19 cases in 5- to 19-year-olds, according to data reported Thursday by the Nash County Health Department.

“Though most children with COVID-19 have mild or no symptoms, some children can get severely ill and require hospitalization. There have also been rare, tragic cases of children dying from COVID-19 and its effects, including multisystem inflammatory syndrome in children or MIS-C,” CDC Director Rochelle P. Walensky said Wednesday in a statement.

This official CDC recommendation follows Monday’s FDA decision to authorize emergency use of the Pfizer vaccine in 12- through 15-year-old adolescents and is another important step to getting out of the COVID-19 pandemic and closer to normalcy, Walensky said.

Walensky added that the decision to vaccinate a child is one that can be discussed with the child’s health care provider.

“Some parents have already made plans for their adolescents to receive a COVID-19 vaccine. Understandably, some parents want more information before their children receive a vaccine. I encourage parents with questions to talk to your child’s health care provider or your family doctor to learn more about the vaccine,” she said.

Vaccinations are starting to have an effect on local COVID case numbers, though more work needs to be done, Hill said.

The state Department of Health and Human Services reports that 31.5 percent of Nash County residents have had at least one dose of the vaccine and 27.2 percent of residents are fully vaccinated.

On Thursday, Hill said that 36 new cases of COVID had been reported since Monday in Nash County.

“That is the lowest number I have had to report in a long time,” Hill said.

The new cases bring the cumulative total to 11,189 positives reported in Nash County since the pandemic began.

Area hospitalizations also are dropping with only 12 COVID patients currently admitted to Nash UNC Health Care. However, the news is not all good, as five of those patients are under intensive care.

“There are fewer patients, but they seem to be sicker right now,” Hill said.

No new COVID-related deaths have been reported this week, and the Nash County COVID death toll remains at 183.

In Edgecombe County, 26.6 percent of the population has had at least one dose of the COVID vaccine and 22.9 percent are fully vaccinated, according to the state Department of Health and Human Services.

That department also reports the cumulative total of COVID cases in Edgecombe County at 5,576. That number has increased by 10 since Monday.

So far, 116 Edgecombe County residents have lost their lives to COVID.

Both Nash and Edgecombe counties are showing marked improvement on the latest COVID County Alert System map released Thursday by the state Department of Health and Human Services.

Edgecombe improved from the orange, or substantial risk, tier to the yellow, or significant risk, tier with a 6.7 percent positivity rate based on reports from April 25 to May 8.

Nash County also improved, moving from the orange to the yellow tier in the most recent county alert ratings report. Nash County now has a 5.8 percent positivity rate.

Both counties were among the 32 North Carolina counties that improved on the latest report.

Local tax preparer sentenced to federal prison

A Rocky Mount woman was sentenced Tuesday to serve 24 months in prison and to pay restitution for her past crimes of filing false tax returns on behalf of area clients.

Priscilla Evans, 65, conspired with others to file false tax returns for the 2011 through 2016 tax years for clients of Community Tax Services LLC in Rocky Mount. According to court documents, Evans and her co-conspirators filed tax returns that claimed false education credits, among other illegitimate items, in order to fraudulently generate clients’ tax refunds.

On July 14, 2020, Evans pled guilty to the charge. According to the sentencing Tuesday, Evans will be spending the next two years in prison. She also is required to pay $229,000 in restitution for her crimes.

According to the IRS, the three-year scam Evans participated in resulted in a loss of more than $2 million in tax dollars.

G. Norman Acker III, acting U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of North Carolina, made the announcement Tuesday after sentencing by U.S. District Judge Louise W. Flanagan. The Internal Revenue Service Criminal Investigations unit assisted in this investigation.