Year in review: Public safety officials busy with heroin, cigarettes, fires in 2013

By Joe Beck

Illegal drug and cigarette sales commanded heavy attention from public safety officials throughout the Northern Shenandoah Valley in 2013 along with a pair of murders that shook Shenandoah County and several fatal fires. Area fire departments found themselves putting out real fires and figurative ones in the form of the dissolution of one local department and a shortage of volunteers in many jurisdictions.

Law enforcement steps up efforts to curb heroin use and sales

A stunning increase in the number of heroin deaths and non-fatal overdose cases led to an expanded police crackdown on the drug throughout the area.

As of early December, law enforcement officials believed at least 20 people died from heroin overdoses and 100 more suffered non-fatal overdosesin 2013.

Authorities blamed much of the rise in addiction on former users of oxycodone and other prescription drugs turning to heroin. Traffickers shuttled between the Northern Shenandoah Valley and Baltimore, where heroin has been cheaper and easier to obtain and use than other drugs.

Law enforcement officials launched several major enforcement initiatives, including one in June that led to the arrests of 94 in Frederick, Shenandoah, Warren, Clarke and Page counties and area towns and cities.

Woman accused of murdering toddler in death penalty case

Nicole Dawn Miller, 25, could become only the 41st woman executed in the United States after being charged with capital murder in the death of a 20-month-old toddler left in her care.

A criminal complaint states Woodstock police found the boy in Miller’s apartment on June 3 with “numerous bruises on his face and body that appeared suspicious.” Miller has contended the boy may have fallen off a bed or that he was pushed off the bed by her son.

The boy died two days later at the University of Virginia Medical Center in Charlottesville.

Edinburg man charged with first-degree murder

Less than two weeks after police arrested Miller, Shenandoah County authorities arrested Claude Delmus Shafer Jr. and charged him with first-degree murder after a day and a half investigation into the death of Phyllis Henrietta Kline.

Deputies found Kline’s lifeless body in her home. They had been summoned by members of her church who had become concerned when Kline did not appear at Sunday services. The church members went to her home and called deputies when they saw signs that something was wrong.

The Office of the Chief Medical Examiner issued a preliminary finding that Kline was stabbed to death.

Security gets new attention after man with board unsettles school officials

The tragic shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., had its own non-violent echo in Shenandoah County when a man made an unsettling entrance into a local school by the same name.

Shenandoah County deputies arrested Christopher Gerrit Johnson of Strasburg and charged him with disorderly conduct in a case that continued to linger throughout 2013. A jury trial is scheduled for March 14 in circuit court.

Johnson is accused of entering Sandy Hook Elementary School in mid-December 2012 – days after the Newtown school massacre – with a board bearing the words “high powered rifle.”

Johnson’s attorney, David Silek, has argued that his client’s actions at the school did not constitute disorderly conduct and raised issues of freedom of expression.

Shenandoah County school officials conducted three public safety forums in early 2013 to hear ideas for school safety improvements from parents and other community members.

Former SAAA executive director Helen Cockrell pleads guilty to embezzlement

Helen Cockrell’s guilty plea in mid-September to three counts of embezzlement involving the Shenandoah Area Agency on Aging came after an investigation begun in August 2011 found irregularities in the agency’s finances.

The ensuing turmoil led to staff reductions, financial turmoil and months of fear for the agency’s survival that has abated in the last year.

Cockrell is scheduled to be sentenced Jan. 10 in Warren County Circuit Court. Her plea agreement with the prosecution calls for two felony counts to be reduced to misdemeanors after a year if she performs 200 hours of community service, pays SAAA $10,674 in restitution and adheres to good behavior. The reduction to misdemeanors would be accompanied by the imposition of a suspended jail sentence.

Fires claim lives of area residents

The death and destruction left by the worst residential fires in 2013 continued to be felt months afterward in the affected communities.

The death of Pauline A. Hockett, 72, in Front Royal led county fire officials to launch an educational campaign aimed at discouraging hoarding.

Gerry Maiatico, the county fire marshal, said fire crews trying to rescue Hockett found their efforts hampered by combustible material that blocked doors as crews worked their way through the house.

Hockett was the first of two fire fatalities in Warren County after a five-year interval in which no lives were lost.

Phyllis Washington Smith also died in a fire at her home in Front Royal. Firefighters managed to save two of Smith’s relatives and a third family member escaped on his own.

In Winchester, a grand jury indicted Sherry Cruz, 34, on a charge of first degree murder stemming from the death of 2-year-old Christian Cruz in a fire at their residence on Kent Street on June 18. She is also charged with arson.

Authorities said the fire started in the living room, and Cruz was the only adult at home when the fire started.

Former Shenandoah Farms fire department remains a thorn in county’s side

The scandal-ridden past of the defunct Shenandoah Farms Volunteer Fire Department continued to haunt Warren County officials who searched for ways to staff the fire station without paid career firefighters.

A judge formally dissolved the department in August after county officials concluded that the department needed a new leaders and rank and file volunteers to clean up the department after years of financial irregularities.

But only a few volunteers stepped forward to replace the former members. Paid firefighters continue to fill most of the gap in the following months, despite efforts by county Fire Chief Richard E. Mabie to build a new volunteer force at the station.

Animal cruelty case gains worldwide attention

Russell E. Ebersole, owner of a kennel in Stephenson, gained worldwide attention on the Internet but not the kind he would have liked.

Ebersole’s conviction on several counts of animal cruelty stemming from his treatment of dogs in his care at Aberdeen Acres Pet Care Center led to an outcry from dog lovers everywhere.

The most obvious sign of outrage was an online petition that drew more than 3,000 signatories from around the world calling for the maximum sentence to be imposed on Ebersole.

Circuit Judge Clifford L. (Clay) Athey Jr. sentenced Ebersole to two years in jail, a $10,000 fine and four years unsupervised probation.

Shortage of volunteers plagues area fire departments

Chief Mabie’s recruiting troubles with the former Shenandoah Farms company were only part of a much larger problem for many fire departments trying to cope with shrinking numbers of volunteers among firefighters and EMTs.

Shenandoah County was one of 14 departments chosen statewide for participation in a federal program created to increase volunteer recruitments.

Chief Gary Yew said he still believes there are enough potential recruits that can be found by targeting segments of the population most likely to sign up for fire or ambulance crews.

Authorities target illegal cigarette tax operations

Local, state and federal officials stepped up their efforts to snuff out illegal but highly lucrative cigarette sales.

A case in U.S. District Court in Harrisonburg illustrated the eye-popping sums of money to be made in schemes that involve selling cigarettes from low tax states such as Virginia to smokers in New York and other high tax states.

The case involved 10 defendants and a global conspiracy whose members paid more than $20 million for approximately 925,000 cartons of cigarettes bought from undercover law enforcement agents as part of the “Valley Tobacco” investigation.

In Winchester, authorities arrested a New York City man and charged him with possession of untaxed cigarettes after executing a search warrant and finding 480 untaxed cartons in his motel room.

Contact staff writer Joe Beck at 540-465-5137 ext. 142, or jbeck@nvdaily.com