Gun Drugs Booze

Editor's note: This is the first in a three-part series about crime in Haywood, a series that starts on a week for citizens across the country are observing National Police Week.

While there is plenty of crime in Haywood County, local law enforcement officials say most have every reason to feel safe here.

In addition, they see that social media posts make it appear that crime is more serious and prevalent than it really is.

Officials concede there has been an increase in some types of crime, but say it is relatively focused and not necessarily violent.

"We have not had a lot of random acts of violence, you know, like someone just showing up and kicking someone's door in and attacking them for no reason,"  said Waynesville Police Chief Bill Hollingsed.

Hollingsed said that even when it comes to homicide, there is rarely a case where officers don't immediately have a good idea of who committed the crime.

"Most of the time, it's not a who done it," he said, noting that it might take a while to make an arrest because of the time needed to process some evidence such as DNA. "It may be matter of tracking them down, but there's probably some relationship there."

The drug trade

When Hollingsed came to Waynesville in the late '90s, and for about the next decade thereafter, methamphetamine dominated the drug trade.

Waynesville Lt. Tyler Trantham said that especially prior to laws that made it impossible to buy pseudoephedrine in bulk, local police were "working meth labs almost weekly."

"You'd have people walk into the drug store and clear the aisles of pseudo and walk out," he said. "It was constant all the time."

Once it became tougher to get precursors for meth, with demand for the drug in the county sky-high, suppliers had to figure out a new way to get the drug into Western North Carolina. Like any other legal or illegal product, for every demand, a supplier will find a way.

"We did see an influx of drugs coming in from other areas," Trantham said.

All these years later, the path methamphetamine takes to Haywood has been just about standardized. Produced in Mexico, the drugs are smuggled by cartels to Atlanta. Once there, someone will drive down to Atlanta from Western North Carolina, by the drugs in bulk, bring them back to the region, and distribute them to those in the local drug trade.

First Sgt. Scott Smith heads up the North Carolina Highway Patrol Office in Clyde that is responsible for covering all state roads in Haywood and Jackson counties. He said the prevalence of major thoroughfares in Haywood can bring a certain amount of crime, even if it's just traffickers passing through.

"The interstate brings extra crime," Smith said. "That's just the way it is. We keep getting more and more arrests with [drugs]."

And of course, meth isn't the only drug on the local scene. For about the last decade, opioids have gotten a hold of Haywood County, tightening their grip on the population a little more every year.

In the quiet town of Maggie Valley, which sees far less crime than some other areas of the county, Police Chief Russ Gilliland said that while bikers used to cause some trouble, that problem has been replaced by transients who are traveling with drugs, mainly on Soco Road.

"The biggest thing we see is the drug abuse," he said. "We find that in traffic stops, and there's a lot of it. It's every week, and it's a lot of prescription drugs."

Haywood County Sheriff Greg Christopher, along with Hollingsed, has been working hard at the state and local levels to fight the opioid epidemic. Christopher highlighted the fact that the drug has long tentacles and has reached people from just about every walk of life.

"It's over a spectra of persons," he said. "We're seeing people with $250,000 per year income and people who make less than $5,000 a year. They're both in the same situation, but at the end of the day, their families are being affected."

Trantham agreed that the scourge of opioids and methamphetamine, as well as alcohol, have turned a lot of families upside-down. Specifically, he noted an increase in kids being raised by people other than their parents.

"We're going to have a society here in a couple years, where some people, maybe even a majority of which, were raised by grandparents," he said.

Hollingsed speculated that if it weren't for drugs and alcohol, the majority of crime in the county would cease to exist.

"I always say if it wasn't for impairing substances, we'd have very little to do out here," Hollingsed said.

The social media effect

Law enforcement officials in the area believe that while crime rates have risen slightly, there are a lot of misconceptions regarding the ways in which crime in Haywood has changed.

Hollingsed, who came to Waynesville from the much larger Orlando Police Department, said the nature of narcotics sales have changed with advances in technology.

"You'd drive down to a certain neighborhood and a dealer would come out, and you'd buy it through a window of a car on the street," he said. "But now street drug sales are obsolete. There's no reason to stand out on the corner and sell drugs or set up a drug house. You text each other and meet at Walmart or whatever."

Technology has also heightened people's awareness of certain crimes, which has shifted the perception to one that makes the problem seem worse than it really is.

Trantham is the head of Waynesville Police Department's patrol division, meaning he sees first-hand the difference between the actual state of crime in the county versus the perceived state.

"There are all these different avenues now to communicate with the public, so it's out there more," he said.

In some cases when someone offers a photo or a first-hand report of what they saw on social media, it can stoke unnecessary fears in the public.

In the Facebook comments section of a Feb. 28 Mountaineer post regarding human remains found off Russ Avenue in Waynesville, people tied the discovery of the body to another body found in another creek weeks prior.

"Starting to think our small town has a serial killer to [sic] many dead body's [sic] being found in creeks in that area," one comment mentioned.

"Social media makes the public more aware of what's going on around them," Hollingsed said, noting that people are much more aware of certain investigations. "The bad part of that is all the rumors start here when people look at that."

Christopher said he thinks it's important to point out that violent crime hasn't risen quite as sharply as many may think, despite the fact that chatter on social media might indicate otherwise.

"I don't believe crime has increased as much as social media makes it appear," Christopher said. "We had two murders out in the county this past year … and both were domestic violence situations, sadly."

Trantham said that people's awareness of more serious crimes that occur and subsequent investigations, while not possessing the knowledge of how those investigations work and how long they can take, makes for a lot of impatient people, which leads to rumors.

"With society how it is today, people want those instant results, and if they don't get it, they make it up," Trantham said. "I would just say that we have to be patient and sometimes we have to understand that if we're doing the best job we can, and we don't want to get the wrong results because we push the envelope somewhere we don't need to push it, and that's happened before in law enforcement."

Jurisdictional blurring

Another change law enforcement professionals and those working the in justice system have seen is the more transient nature of those committing the greatest number of crimes in Haywood County.

Perhaps no one sees the blurring of jurisdictional boundaries quite as well as District Attorney Ashley Welch, who covers Cherokee, Clay, Graham, Macon, Swain, Haywood, and Jackson counties. Welch said she sees some of the same people getting arrested in all the counties across her district.

"One of the things I noticed when I took office was that we had defendants hopping from county to county and committing crimes and maybe the people in Haywood County weren't aware a person committing crime there has a long history in Macon and has been doing it for years," she said.

Welch noted that while sometimes criminals can cross jurisdictional boundaries and fly under law enforcement's radar, local agencies have been taking the initiative to mitigate that problem.

"That is changing," she said. "They've gotten really good about being more proactive and communicating with each other across county lines."

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