There’s big trouble in little Cherryville. For over a year, the 5,700 residents of the small Gaston County town have experienced a series of FBI raids, federal indictments, and government scandals.
Twelve of the town’s public employees have been arrested, suspended, or dismissed in the scandals. Kelly Martin served many of them at the Home Folks Cafe on Main Street.
She says Cherryville used to be “just a small town place--everybody knew everybody. A good friendly place.”
But, Martin says that changed near the end of 2011. The mayor’s office found some discrepancies in city payments. That triggered an investigation, and ultimately the FBI got involved. In December, the finance director, Bonnie Alexander, and the city clerk suddenly resigned on the same day. Two months later, the town’s ambulance and emergency service shut down due to financial problems.
In May, Jennifer Hoyle, the utilities supervisor, was dismissed. The city manager followed her, the next month. And then, the FBI charges started to come down. Hoyle and Alexander were charged independently with embezzling more than half a million dollars in city funds. Acting Mayor Brian Dalton says there was just no oversight.
“The checks and balances weren’t there,” Dalton says. “The only person who did payroll in the City of Cherryville was the finance director. Nobody was looking over her shoulder, in my opinion, to make sure it was being done correctly, or that there was nothing improper going on.”
Alexander is accused of writing almost half a million dollars in checks from the city to herself. Meanwhile, Hoyle is accused of banking almost $100,000 in extra charges to utilities bills.
Then, in October, the FBI indicted six men, including Hoyle’s husband and three Cherryville police officers—that’s 20 percent of the police force. Martin says that, compared to the alleged corruption at city hall, it was small potatoes.
“I don’t think our police department took anything from the citizens,” Martin says. “I think that was just a monkey thing they took upon themselves to do.”
The FBI ran a sting operation, where it hired the men to run protection for supposedly stolen TVs, cars, chainsaws, and other equipment. The FBI has accused the men of misusing their official positions to provide transportation for goods they believed stolen. All of the men have pleaded, or agreed to plead, guilty.
As part of that fallout, the police chief and another sergeant were suspended, and the chief eventually resigned.
On Tuesday, the Justice Department also announced Alexander and Hoyle have agreed to plead guilty for embezzling. Now, the town is trying to move on.
“We received a pretty black eye, I’ll call it, through all that’s taken place,” Fire Chief Jeff Cash says. Cash also served as interim city manager and mentors the new police chief. “And, through that, even great employees have suffered a lack of trust … [and] building the trust back of our community and our citizens is the biggest challenge.”
“It just tears me up,” says Phyllis McSwain, who lived in Cherryville for 50 years. “They went to school with my kids. I loved them. I knew some of them when they were born. It just tears me up to know they let corruption take over their lives.”
Cherryville is still filling the vacancies at city hall and in the police force, and the city has established new rules for public officials to try to prevent any future embarrassments. But, most residents aren’t blaming the city or the police. They just chalk it up to one really bad year.