BY JERRY STERNBERG
When we last saw Sheriff Lawrence Brown, high noon was approaching in the range war between Brown and the members of the Asheville Junior Chamber of Commerce, who were incensed by the sheriff’s raid of their statewide annual powwow that resulted in the embarrassing arrest of several out-of-town guests. That plus the juniors’ concern about gambling and corruption in the county created a perfect political firestorm.
Enter, stage right, a canny little Republican gunslinger named Garland E. Crouch. He was a major driver and financier of the small but determined local Republican Party, which had been kept at bay for generations by the formidable Democratic machine.
Despite the opposition of the Junior Chamber, most of whose members were Democrats, no credible candidate was willing to oppose the powerful sheriff in the 1962 Democratic primary. Crouch, recognizing a political vacuum, urged the Republican Party to nominate his foreman, Harry P. Clay. They did, and when the election went down and the smoke had cleared, there was a new sheriff in town.
Harry Clay was a big bear of a guy with a booming voice, a hearty laugh and a ready smile. You just could not help but like him. He had a bluegrass band called Clay’s Rangers that played at political and charitable events and was very entertaining. Several of his deputies were in the band. I don’t know if they were recruited as deputies because they played in the band or they were deputies who just happened to have musical talent and were asked to join.
I got to know Harry and G.E. through a business deal in which my partner and I subcontracted the demolition of the Langren Hotel (see “The No-Tell Hotel,” July 27, 2014, Xpress). Pat Wagner, who’d come to town to manage the new Northwestern Bank building, decided that we needed to have numerous meetings concerning this project. The Langren property was being torn down to make way for a parking garage, and Wagner insisted that he, G.E., Harry and I hold these meetings out at Art Shepard’s outstanding restaurant on Tunnel Road.
It seems that Mr. Wagner (another larger-than-life character that I may write about in a future column) had cut a deal with Mr. Shepard, who was going to open a second restaurant on top of the Northwestern Bank building. All these dinners would be paid for by a reduction of the first month’s rent. Who could resist such important meetings?
Occasionally we would begin with a preliminary sit-down in the sheriff’s office, where we would sample the latest batch of confiscated white whiskey. I never developed a taste for that vile stuff, so I would take the obligatory sip, make some comment about texture and bouquet, and pray that I didn’t go blind.
As you can imagine, these meetings got quite lively at times. One night, Art was serving fresh lobster. Somebody got the idea that since G.E. was a backwoods old country boy who’d probably never had a lobster, they had the waiter serve him a big live one on a plate. He sat there calmly, just looking at the thing, while we all awaited his reaction.
All of a sudden he took his huge ham fist and slammed it down on the back of the lobster, cracking its shell. It sounded like a bomb went off, and the whole restaurant turned around to see him meticulously picking the meat from the lobster and eating it while the claws were still moving.
It was so gross we all had to leave the table. The sheriff laughed so hard I thought he was going to have a heart attack. After that, G.E. would chuckle loudly and ask were they going to serve lobster at dinner tonight.
Distraught about the election of the first Republican sheriff since Reconstruction, the Democrats set about retaliating. City police raided one of the local supper clubs run by an outspoken Clay supporter.
Clay, not a man to be defied, wasted no time in responding. He staged a raid on the Asheville Water Department offices, on what’s now South Charlotte Street, while the regular Friday afternoon poker game was in session upstairs. The sheriff aimed to embarrass Jesse Jayne, the superintendent of maintenance, who was an important lieutenant in the Weldon Weir machine.
But a lookout seated at the first-floor entrance reached over and pressed an alarm button on the wall, and by the time the sheriff and his minions reached the third floor, all they found was a bunch of guys sitting around smoking and telling jokes.
As Clay walked back down the steps with egg all over his face and the sound of laughter in his ears, he took out his pocketknife and cut the wire running up the wall to the buzzer. He waited three weeks and then raided the place again. On the way in, Clay saw the lookout frantically pushing the button, but when the sheriff got to the top of the stairs, Jayne and many of his employees were busted. This made for some unpleasant media coverage for the Weir machine.
As most of you may know, the sheriff is the most powerful official in Buncombe County, answering to no one but the voters. Harry Clay was re-elected for a second four-year term, which tells me that the voters were satisfied with his service. Still, Clay was an enigmatic sheriff, to say the least. To my knowledge he had no law enforcement experience, and his personal habits were less than sheriff-esque, but he was a strong, charismatic leader who got the job done.
His association with less-than-reputable people confounded me, considering the level of trust he held with the public. He hired several deputies whose character was so questionable that the only way they could be distinguished from the prisoners in the jail was to identify which side of the bars they were on.
I asked him once why he employed such people, and he told me that they knew every bad guy for 200 miles around. He instructed them to go out and talk to these fellows and tell them, “We know who you are, and you’d better stay out of Buncombe County.” For the most part, this seemed to work, as there was very little property crime and the county remained at the low end of the spectrum for murders, armed robbery and assaults.
Sheriff Clay was friends with Bob Greenwood, who ran the racetrack and also some nefarious gambling operations. Bob was a really big, tough, billy badass, known as a man not to be trifled with. Harry and Bob went down to South America for a vacation. On the way back, both men got drunk in an airport and got into a fight. They practically had to carry Buncombe County’s high sheriff off the plane by the time the two arrived in Asheville.
Harry was the first Buncombe sheriff to take advantage of the electronics age. Up until his tenure, the police and sheriff’s radios were built into the car. But the county bought new portable radios that you could talk on from anywhere, and this set Harry free.
Alvin Ledford ran a poker house on Merrimon Avenue, and Harry occasionally sat in on the game, as I did. Since the sheriff is pretty much always on duty, however, he would have to take any radio calls that came in. One afternoon when we were playing, he got such a call and very officially answered his portable, “Car 1, Leicester Highway.” You see, he was working at all times.
I don’t have any stories or personal knowledge about the county’s more recent sheriffs. There were rumors of alcoholism, gambling and womanizing by sheriffs and deputies alike, but this has been true for many of our elected officials, all of whom have been sworn to uphold the law. Before any of us passes judgment or throws the first stone, though, keep in mind that over the past century, Buncombe County has been a very safe place to live, and that is the bottom line for all of us.
I do know that lowest point in county law enforcement was the heartbreaking tenure of Sheriff Bobby Medford, who’s alleged to have caused several innocent people to serve years behind bars. Buncombe County taxpayers have been forced to pay millions of dollars in legal settlements as restitution in those cases.
Because of his personal demons and corruption, Medford was convicted of serious crimes; careers were destroyed, and the sheriff and several deputies received prison sentences.
On the bright side, I believe our current sheriff, Van Duncan, is the most professional and capable lawman we’ve ever seen around these parts. He not only runs a good department but, through his training and leadership, has met the awesome challenge of the ever-burgeoning drug problem. Duncan does business in a quiet, efficient manner that gives us confidence that our sheriff is out to protect us at all times.
Next time: the most notorious poker game ever.
Asheville native Jerry Sternberg is a longtime observer of the local scene. His new book, The Gospel According to Jerry, 85th Birthday Edition, is available at the Grovewood Gallery, Gallery of the Mountains at the Grove Park Inn, the Estes-Winn Antique Car Museum and the Battery Park Book Exchange. The price is $25 per copy, and all proceeds will be donated to Helpmate. The book can also be ordered directly from Helpmate, either online (email email@example.com) or by mail (P.O. Box 2263, Asheville, NC 28802).