I never get much sleep on the night before a column is to be published about something controversial. That’s even truer when I write a news or feature story. My biggest concerns? Did I get it right? Was it fair? And, did I screw it up in some way? I’m a worrier by nature and when it comes to reporting, it’s especially so. That’s been the case for more than 30 years.
Over the past 20, though, I haven’t written many news or feature stories of note. Oh, I type up crime briefs or write the occasional book review — but the process of coming up with a story idea, doing the research, conducting interviews, organizing and crafting the actual article is something I haven’t done in a long, long time.
Last week that changed with a story headlined “Warning sign.” It was about the Winn-Dixie shootings 20 years ago in Burlington. It was a 72-column-inch look at how city police conducted business on April 1, 1993 in comparison to today when such shootings are far more common. My original idea was to write a short column about it. I wasn’t even sure I could write a complex story like that one anymore.
But I had so much great information from Times-News stories written during that time by former colleagues Chris Cary, Jim Wicker, Vonda Hampton and Susan Shinn as well as fresh interviews with retired police chief John Glenn and former Burlington officer and current Sheriff’s Office spokesman Randy Jones that the story took on a life of its own.
I’m glad I wrote it, even if it did mean a sleepless Friday night and Saturday morning. The story got tremendous feedback from readers who offered a variety of comments and recollections. My friend and historian Walter Boyd said many in his circle liked the story quite a bit. And my longtime friend and former boss Don Bolden paid me the best compliment. “You should do more of these,” he said.
I put together some comments and observations.
Here are a few.
About Gerald Snead
One of the most interesting tidbits came from a colleague at the Times-News now who was in another line of work in 1993. Winn-Dixie gunman Gerald Snead was one of his employees on the day of the shooting.
He recalled that Snead was quite agitated when he left work that day. In fact, my colleague was so concerned about him that he called his house and left a message asking Snead if he was OK. He never heard back from Snead, of course. By that time, Snead was shot and killed by police when he refused to drop his weapon after killing one woman and wounding two others inside the grocery store. But police did question my colleague several times after the incident.
“Did Snead have mental problems as the SBI noted,” I asked.
“Not when he took his medication,” my colleague said.
Another fascinating reflection about Snead came from Ted Nelson, a longtime friend who lives in Winston-Salem. Ted, a Graham native, was a reporter with me on my first job out of college at the Reidsville Review. Small world time on this one.
“The summer before this happened I was with my wife, Carolyn, and our 13-year-old daughter, Gina. We were at Disney World in Florida and Gina wanted to ride Space Mountain. We had been on the ride before so we didn’t want to ride it that day. We were talking to a group of people we had met from Burlington. A young man in the group volunteered to take the ride with Gina, so we said that would be OK and he did. We never saw him again until I turned the TV news on the evening of April 1, 1993. There was a picture of Gerald Howard Snead, the man identified as the shooter that day in Burlington — the same man Gina rode on Space Mountain with the summer before. Our jaws dropped and we looked at each other in disbelief…”
And another acquaintance had this to say about Snead.
“I grew up with Gerald Snead, went to school with him for 12 years, rode the same bus … always a quiet kid, not so good at sports, lonely even in a group of people, later delivered pizzas for Dominos, the owners and I were talking about Gerald last night, as a matter of fact. They told me Gerald would obsess over the fact that he was 2 cents short of tip money. Maybe this was the only control he ever had over his short, sad life, who knows?”
Who knows, indeed
About Pam Pike
My longtime friend and former Jacksonville Daily News colleague Patricia Smith grew up in Alamance County. She knew Snead’s victim Pam Pike.
“This was very sad. Pam Pike was the younger sister of one of my best friends in high school, and I got to know her when I’d spend the night with my friend. Later on, if Pam saw me out somewhere, she’d always say hello. One time, I remember, she yelled across the post office parking lot to say hello. I also remember sitting the Jacksonville Daily News newsroom (I was on the business page at the time) and seeing the story come across the wire). I called my parents that night to find out if it was the Pam Pike I knew.”
Location, location, location
Walter Boyd had a question about just where the Winn-Dixie store was located in New Market Square at the time of the shooting. I wrote that it was later moved after the shooting to a space now occupied by Harris Teeter. He didn’t live here when the shopping center was built and only remembered Winn-Dixie being on the corner. He said current Harris Teeter employees say the shooting took place inside where the store is now.
When I first started to research the incident, a locator map by then-Times-News graphic artist Elizabeth Landt placed the store in the general vicinity of where TJ Maxx is located today. I verified this with John Glenn. Now Walter has it down to record in his ongoing history book of Burlington.
On that day
Got a note by email Sunday from Mike Newsome who appreciated the story but it certainly brought back memories.
“I was one of 2 paramedics in the first ambulance to arrive on scene. The call first came in as “hostage situation”, soon changed to “heart attack”. We were directed to go behind the building and as I got out I saw several policemen, guns drawn, waving us back. I later found out the gunman had not been brought down about that time. In a couple more minutes the back door flew open. Just inside a cop was doing CPR on an elderly man. He had had a heart attack at the back of the store when this all started. We put him in the truck, his wife up front. A fireman drove the ambulance to Memorial Hospital while we were doing our thing. The patient lived several days as I recall, but never regained consciousness. Thanks again for the story.”
And a commenter on Facebook offered this memory.
“Remember like it was yesterday. I was at the intersection when police came from all directions and my husband at the time worked for Serv-Pro who went in and cleaned up from it. It affected him as well to see all the carnage.”
A reporter reflects
Vonda Hampton was on the team of reporters who covered the shooting on April 1, 1993 for the Times-News. I sent a message to her via Facebook for some of her thoughts. This is what she wrote in return.
“I remember the shooting well and it’s hard to believe twenty years have passed since that day. I was sitting at my desk when news of the shooting came over a police scanner that was situated on police beat reporter Chris Cary’s desk, which was left of mine. Times-News reporter Murray Glenn and photographer Sherry DiBari ran from the newsroom immediately and arrived at the store in time to hear the final shots being fired. Murray Glenn told me later that when the shots rang out, he ducked for cover, but Sherry “ran towards the store,” camera in hand. I recall a number of reporters, myself included, standing in the store parking lot, interviewing bystanders and waiting for news on casualties and motive. We stood there for what seemed like forever and the updates were few and far between.
“Once the victim’s name was known, I was pulled off the store and sent to the home of Pam Pike and her fiancé at the time. I was told not to come back without talking to him, but that proved to be impossible. The couple lived in a modest house down a winding road in Graham. There was a car in the driveway when I arrived but despite repeated knocks, no one came to the door. I waited a long time and finally left a note in the door, asking for an interview. I returned to the house multiple times that day and sat in the driveway waiting for him, but never connected with her fiancé. In the years since, I have often wondered what happened to him, and if he ever married someone else.
“That Winn-Dixie was a central, bustling place where I shopped for groceries. You could hardly run in without seeing someone you knew from the community. Following the incident, I never passed or entered the store again without thinking about the shooting, Pam Pike, and her fiancé. If I passed it today, I would still think of them.”
My thanks to all who contributed to this story and subsequent blogs about it. And perhaps Don is right, I need to do these kinds of stories more often.