Local News

Town Deals With Three Separate, Sudden Deaths

Posted August 11, 1998 7:00 a.m. EDT

— In the last two weeks, Erwin residents, who recall just one murder in the last 30 years, have buried three natives. Two died at the hands of others.

``We are doing a lot of praying,'' said Estelle McCoy, 66, standing outside the Lowe's Foods store in the town of 5,000.

In the wake of the deaths, and in the sudden glare of media attention, the town residents seem to be drawing closer.

``If you're not kin to 'em, you growed up with 'em,'' Arlene Priebe, 66, a retired Erwin police dispatcher.

A former Triton High School cheerleader was the first of the three deaths. Tommi Byrd, 24, and her boyfriend were shot to death at a campsite in the Linville Gorge Wilderness Area on Aug. 1. Authorities have charged James Andrew Finley Jr., of Hickory, with first-degree murder.

Three days later, police discovered the body of Erwin native Reubin McNeill, 46, in Raleigh. The Apex school principal was last seen at a meeting here at the Oak Grove AME Church. Police have two suspects in custody and are seeking a third.

Then on Sunday, 17-year-old Max Draughon, a Triton High School football player, died after suffering heat stroke during practice. He was also president of the student body.

If residents didn't know the victims, they were connected in some way.

At Sherry's Bakery, billed as ``The Sweetest Smelling Corner in Town,'' Pat Williford folded white cake boxes and talked about her connections to the deaths.

Williford used to work at the Byrd family's grocery store, before they sold out to Lowe's Foods.

Ralph Byrd performed Williford's mother's funeral. Williford used to go to school with McNeill at Erwin High School, before it was named Triton High School.

And Williford likes to think that, sometime, Draughon may have come in here for a donut or a sandwich from the grill.

``Everybody's your neighbor,'' she said. ``There's a close bond. You feel the pain even though you don't know the person.''

``It will take the town a long time to get over this.''