A local citizen questioned what she described as a “show of force” by Hillsville Police Department officers during the annual Flea Market and Gun Show over Labor Day weekend. Julie Combs spoke to Town Council at the September 11 regular meeting about the incident which involved a minor.
“I am Julie Combs and for those of you who do not know, my husband (Mike) happens to be a County Deputy and my sister happens to be a town hall employee. I want to make it clear right to begin with that I’m not here as brown (uniform) versus black (uniform) or Town versus County. It’s a matter of right and wrong. It’s the only thing. The only issue I want to address here this evening,” said Combs. “It’s not a slur to either party. I just happened to witness first hand at the flea market this weekend a show of force by the Hillsville Town Police towards a 16-year old female. I witnessed intimidation and embarassment to a 16-year old our family dearly loves, who is our son’s girlfriend.”
A map given to council by Combs showed the location of vendors in the Magic Mirror parking lot at 613 West Stuart Drive. She said Taylor Spanger was operating a ten-by-ten sized booth titled “Taterbugs” there and was selling vinyl clings (decal stickers) and Yeti brand cups. Combs said the incident occured that Sunday afternoon. Combs said Spangler was selling Yeti cups which she and her husband Mike had helped her and her mother Alena secure from a firm in Mount Airy (N.C.).
“On Sunday afternoon, we were slammed at the kitchen because it was lunchtime. What Mike heard was Michael screaming for his father, ‘I need help! Taylor is surrounded by cops!’ When we got out there she was surrounded by five Town Police officers. They were all in uniform. One didn’t have a badge. They were saying he might have been training, I don’t know for sure. And I did not know any of the officers,” Combs said. “I’m used to Mike Combs and his generation of police officers whether it be in the County or Town Police. I’m used to the older officers if I may say, without sluring anybody. I didn’t know them. They were all young. Wesley, Shannon Goad and the ones I am used to working with were not present. Or Alan Gravley. Mike knew some of them. Officer Edwards was the one who did most of the talking. Officer Brady was on his cellphone with Yeti Corporation while they were surrounding Taylor’s tent.”
She said Officer J. Edwards questioned Taylor to why she had some colored Yetis on the table for display. Combs said Spangler was not given an opportunity to answer his questions about two cups on a table in the booth. The officers said their impression was the cups were on display. Combs said they were told the cups were finished cling orders waiting to be picked up and Spangler was selling only black and stainless steel Yeti cups. She said some officers left in search of the colored cups.
“It wasn’t long after that Officer Edwards came back and told Taylor she was in the clear, however she wouldn’t be doing more clings for the colored cups because they had been confiscated. Taylor went on with her business. She was highly intimidated and embarassed as any 16-year-old would be,” Combs said. “Because this incident was witnessed by classmates, who she goes to school with on a daily basis who were visiting her, in front of Taylor’s parents and her sister, in front of my son, Michael, in front of me and Mike and all of my family who was helping out in the kitchen, it happened in front of our adopted flea market family who comes there every year. They all witnessed it. Nothing like that happened to anybody on our lot before. To our knowledge there wasn’t an attempt to purchase a cup undercover to verify its authenticity prior to this happening. This all appeared as a cloud of black, during prime time on Sunday at the flea market. She’s 16. She’d made the purchase of $900 of real Yeti cups to help pay for a new car they had just got. She’s local. She was surrounded by what we think is a pretty well-respected Deputy, his family and the community. They didn’t back off whatsoever and they kept cutting off Alena and Taylor. They would ask questions but not give them an opportunity to respond. Just rude. Short. To the point. Without giving them a chance to tell their side of the story.”
Combs said HPD Detective Alan Gravely called her husband later to get details about the incident and wondered how officers found Spangler among 13 vendors.
“The only thing I have to say is what Taylor has said about the weekend. She said, ‘Why did it take them until Sunday afternoon to find us?,” said Spangler’s mother, Alena.”She did the math. We knocked our prices down on Saturday after lunch to be able to sell anything. She’s hurt because she had two of her volleyball (team) players with her plus a couple who’d come to help. Four classmates with her and so it was a big deal for her. She shook all night. She said she still couldn’t believe why they didn’t go to the other vendor first. That’s how Taylor sees it.”
Combs said someone had the led the group, directing the other officers, and was this correct behavior to model for the one officer in training with the other four?
“Our main concern is we are local. There was a police officer on site. That didn’t make a difference, even when Mike came out from the kitchen and said what’s going on? Nobody backed down. They came on, times five for a 16-year old Carroll County resident, a straight-A student at Carroll County High School,” said Combs.
Officer Edwards explained the four came straight to Spangler’s tent because another Yeti cup vendor came to them three times with complaints about cheaper cups being sold as namebrand cups. Chief Wesley Yonce said officers took 42 Yetis from another local vendor which were later taken back. Yonce told Combs if she didn’t know these officers likewise they didn’t know them. He said the Department learned in previous encounters some vendors would simply take off running when they saw officers approaching.
“That’s why we go in groups. We go in force in case something happens. We didn’t know it was you all. I’d already left that day. This guy knew there was fake Yetis being sold. He’d paid $35 for them so he came across to CVS three, if not more times. He didn’t know the name of the tent he just knew it was in the parking lot. You were not being targeted,” said Yonce. “I wasn’t there but there is no protocol for the flea market. I mean, it’s a different situation for everything we do. I told the other vendor it is not illegal to possess them but it is to sell them. It’s only illegal if you made money from them. We didn’t charge anybody. I’m sorry it upset people but we were just doing our job. There’s no way we are going to find everybody in the flea market who sells fake items. If we shut everybody down we won’t have a flea market.”
Edwards said the officers primarily spoke with Spangler’s mother. He said he didn’t remember anybody speaking directly with the minor. Combs said Spanger was standing beside her and both were talking. He said State Code would not allow officers to take a minor to the side for questioning without a guardian present.
“Afterwards we discovered that they were selling the real thing. They did have the counterfeit ones on display. Myself and officer Johnson and Smith went down the street and found the other location where they had the counterfeit Yetis. Sgt. Brady and Officer Atkins stayed there after we discovered the fake ones. I went back personally to explain it to them. I personally spoke with her mother. She shook my hand. I did say they probably wouldn’t be getting any more business from the other folks. Mike came over and told me he really appreciated them coming over and telling them what was going on. I said, ‘No problem. Didn’t want to leave you guys hanging.’ That was pretty much it.”
Edwards later told the group he felt they acted according to standard operational procedure in connection with the incident and he was the senior officer there and accepted full responsibility and that the way the officers involved conducted themselves was top notch. He said if council felt they could have done anything differently to please let them know.
Councilman Greg Yonce said it was “an unfortunate situation.” He said he felt if officers had recognized it, it would have played out differently. He said it was a learning experience for all.
“Hopefully, nothing like this will happen again. I want our guys to do their job and be confident doing their job but at the same time I want local and people from out of the area to feel comfortable when they are interacting withour police,” said Yonce.
Mayor Gregory Crowder said he felt it isn’t the Police Department’s job to enforce something for a company which is not present.
“That’s something we are going to be talking about soon. We have 150,000 people in town and 16 of us. There’s more work to be done than going around chasing someone’s bootleg property,” said Crowder. “I know that’s something we can rectify. My view is if the company is not here to represent their product we don’t need to be representing it for them.”
David Broyles may be reached at 276-779-4013 or on Twitter@CarrollNewsDave.