I received a jolt last week as I read the list of people who had signed up for Gov.-elect Nikki Haley's transition team. There I saw a name I have not heard of or seen in print for more than a decade — Derick Close.
I have never met Close, but our careers became strangely entangled in 1998. And I am wiser for the encounter.
I was news editor for Creative Loafing, an alternative newsweekly in Charlotte, N.C., when I started digging on a story that came to my attention. In the blighted Westside of Charlotte there were the predictable problems: violence, poverty, poor schools, industrial pollution — and noise.
In December 1996, Sam and Patsy Gordon bought a 1,000-square-foot ranch-style house in the largely black Wandawood Acres neighborhood and moved in with their three children. Only then did they realize they had a problem.
In an innocuous-looking brick building some 30 yards from their back door was a company called Panther Racing Engines, where NASCAR engines were built and tested. Anyone who has ever been to a stock car track knows the ungodly noise these machines make. This was the racket the Gordons had to live with, day and night, in their new home.
The Gordons started making what turned out to be more than 200 calls to the police to enforce the city's 60-decibel noise ordinance, and they made dozens of trips to present their case to city council. At first the police were cooperative. They took a decibel reading of 92 and fined PRE $200. City Council was also enthusiastic in their support of the Gordons. When the city manager argued that the police could not take action without a specific complaint, Mayor Pat McCrory said, "With all respect, I disagree. I think we've been passive, and I think we could have arrested people for breaking the law."
The Gordons thought they had won the day. But then something curious happened. The city had agreed to sponsor mediation between the Gordons and the still anonymous owner of PRE. At an April 1997 meeting, Sam and Patsy Gordon were introduced to a genial, well-dressed young businessman named Derick Close.
The Gordons did not recognize the name, but the city officials in the room and up the political food chain certainly did.
Derick Close was a member of the Close family of Fort Mill, S.C., (17 miles south of Charlotte) and an heir to the Springs Industries textile fortune.
At the time, his brother-in-law Erskine Bowles was President Bill Clinton's White House chief of staff. Since then Bowles has twice been the Democratic nominee for U.S. Senate from North Carolina. Today he is co-chairman of the bipartisan National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform.
His sister Crandall Close Bowles was in line to become CEO of Springs Industries, and his brother Elliott Close had been an unsuccessful Democratic nominee for U.S. Senate from South Carolina in 1996.
While Derick Close was the silent owner of Panther Racing Engines, he very publicly owned a NASCAR racing team, part of the Carolina Panthers NFL team, and part of the Charlotte Knights AAA baseball team.
Sam and Patsy Gordon knew none of this. All they knew was that their support on city council suddenly seemed to evaporate. More disturbing to me was the fact the Charlotte Observer also appeared to be cowed by the Close mystique. In the early months, they had written three stories on the conflict. After Close was ID'd as the owner of PRE, the Observer blacked out the story.
For a year the Gordons continued to call police and appear regularly at city council meetings. They wondered why all their apparent friends at City Hall had suddenly gone silent and why the Charlotte Observer had lost interest in their plight. I picked up the story early in 1998 and quickly connected Close to PRE. On March 4, 1998, my story "Close Call" ran in Creative Loafing, publicly identifying Derick Close for the first time as owner of Panther Racing Engines.
On March 19, my editor received a letter from Close's attorney. My editor showed it to me, and we discussed it briefly. Apparently, he took it much more seriously than I did. He killed my next story on the Close-PRE-City Hall connection and shut down my investigation. I resigned in protest.
For me, it was a sobering moment. It meant that sometimes the good guys don't win, that sometimes having the angels on your side and all your facts in order are just not enough.
See Will Moredock's blog at charlestoncitypaper.com/blogs/thegoodfight.