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Family finds closure more than 6 years after son's death
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LENOIR — A local family has finally found closure more than six years after a beloved son was shot and killed.

In September 2016, Jaron Odell Soots, 26, of Lenoir, was accidentally shot in the head by his friend, Matthew Phillips, while Phillips was handling a loaded gun. The two of them, along with Jaron’s twin brother, Jake, were hanging out together and drinking alcohol at Phillips’s house. Jaron was airlifted to Johnson City Medical Center in Tennessee, but he later succumbed to his injuries.

Jaron’s family has waited the last six years for this case to finally be resolved and for justice to be served. On Tuesday, March 14, Phillips took a plea deal and was convicted of felony involuntary manslaughter. He was sentenced to 24 months probation and 26 hours of community service, because Jaron was 26 years old when he died, the judge said.

Detective Shelly Hartley of the sheriff’s office was the on-call detective at the time of the shooting.

“They were all best friends. Nothing was uncovered in the investigation that showed that it was not an accident,” she said.

Jaron was a graduate of West Caldwell High School. He loved fishing, hunting and tinkering on his cars. He was employed by Cajah’s Mountain Quick Lube at the time of his death. According to his father, Steven Odell Soots, and stepmother, Lee Ann Soots, Jaron loved his job and would take the skills he learned in the trade to improve his own and his brother’s vehicles.

After Jaron died, Cajah’s Mountain Quick Lube framed his work shirt with a program from his funeral and hung it in their lobby. A few years ago, while the building was undergoing renovations, staff decided to gift the framed shirt to Jaron’s family.

Steven and Lee Ann remember Jaron as a kind-hearted young man with a smile that could light up the room.

“He was a laid back, good ol’ country boy,” said Lee Ann. “Honest as the day is long, and sweet-hearted as you can get.”

During the court case on Tuesday, the judge allowed Lee Ann to read a statement prepared by the family. She said it felt good for them to be able to share their side of the story.

“[Jaron] was a loyal, trustworthy, dependable friend and coworker that would give you the shirt off his back or the last dollar in his wallet,” the statement read. “He was always there to lend a hand to his sister, Katie, and he was the softer, quieter half of his twin brother, Jake.”

Jaron left behind the love of his life, Brittany, who he called “his greatest catch.” According to Lee Ann, the two were inseparable. Brittany is married with children of her own, now, but she still keeps in touch with Jaron’s family.

Lee Ann and Steven said they feel relieved that this ordeal is finally over.

“We both feel like it should have happened six and a half years ago,” said Lee Ann. “It didn’t have to be this way. When you do something wrong, you need to be held accountable for it, and you need to take responsibility for your actions. I feel like, had [Phillips] done that initially, things would have been a whole lot different for everybody … He could have moved on with his life, and we could have, too, without this cloud hanging over us all the time.”

Lee Ann and Steven hope that their family’s tragic loss can be a lesson for people to take firearm safety seriously.

“Under no circumstances ever do drinking and firearms go together,” said Lee Ann. “That’s the biggest issue, and people really need to think about it. We have good ol’ boys here, we like to play with our guns, have a little beer, and there’s nothing wrong with that, but it can be deadly when mixed together. You don’t drink and play with firearms at the same time.”

Jaron’s brother, Jake, and older sister, Katie, are both married. Katie has two children, and her eldest child has the same initials as her uncle, J.O.S.

“The world doesn’t stop,” said Steven. “We keep moving on. So many great moments and then it hits you, he’s not here to see it. It just never goes away, and it will never go away, I’m sure. The hardest thing is seeing all these big changes and events and he’s not here to see them.”

College's athletics, students lead Walker Stadium makeover
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LENOIR — The historic Walker Stadium is a landmark in Caldwell County. For generations it has been the home to many teams such as Lenoir High School’s Bearcats, the Lenoir Kings and the semi-pro Lenoir Oilers, hosting some of the greatest baseball games and playoff tournaments in the region.

Today it is the official home of the Cobras, the nationally ranked baseball team of Caldwell Community College and Technical Institute.

In the 2022 season, the Cobras went 49-9, won the Region 10 Division III Championship and the NJCAA Mid-Atlantic District Championship Series, earned the No. 1 seed going into the NJCAA Division III World Series in Greenville, Tenn., and finished third at the NJCAA World Series. In this year’s preseason rankings, the Cobras were No. 5 in the nation in Division III.

As the 2023 baseball season began, the team wanted to be part of the new preservation efforts to restore the stadium and provide some much-needed maintenance around the ballpark.

“Cobra Baseball strives to compete nationally and one area in which we have an opportunity for growth as a program is our baseball facility,” said Jeff Link, CCC&TI athletic director. “Walker Stadium is full of history, and we are proud to call it our home. However, it needs some TLC.”

To hometown players and fans alike, the stadium is filled with memories. Maggie Murray, a native of Caldwell County, came on board as associate athletic director at CCC&TI in fall of 2022 and soon realized an opportunity for service that’s close to her heart.

“My father played high school baseball at Walker Stadium and now I am able to support the Cobras on the same field,” Murray said, referring to Steve Sime, who played in the outfield from 1963 to 1965 for the Bearcats.

“Lenoir High School played all home games at Walker Stadium — great ballpark!” Sime recalled.

Murray enlisted the help of colleagues, student-athletes and community members to clean the grounds and facilities, pressure wash and paint the steps, handrails and buildings in the Cobra colors of orange and blue.

“The recent pressure washing and painting has breathed new life into the stadium,” Link said. “It is so exciting to see our student-athletes, faculty, staff and community members coming together to work on projects that will enhance the stadium and improve the gameday experience for our student-athletes and fans.”

Ryan Parrish and Ryan Fox, both redshirts for the Cobras this year, understand the significance of preserving Walker Stadium for their team and community.

“Whenever your facilities look good, you have more pride in it,” said Parrish.

Fox agreed with him.

“It was an awesome experience to be able to help make Walker Stadium a better place. It’s a great feeling,” he added.

Head coach Gage Parham said, “Our players and staff are really excited about the work that has been done to Walker Stadium and are honored to play on a field so rich in Caldwell County’s history.”

It’s a history that lends a testament to baseball in Caldwell County, the stadium being named for Verlon and Albert Walker, two brothers from Lenoir, both nicknamed “Rube,” that went on to have professional baseball careers.

Like so many others with personal ties to Walker Stadium, Murray grew up listening to these kinds of stories and will one day be able to tell her own.

“I’m so honored,” she said. “I feel the historical spirit every time I enter the gates.”

That spirit is perhaps even more prevalent for Steve Sime.

“I’m so glad to see Walker Stadium being returned to its historic glory and it’s even more special to me that my daughter is a part of the renovation project. I can’t wait to go watch the Cobras play,” he said.

Thanks to these volunteer efforts to preserve history, they’re also preserving the future.

“We still have several areas of Walker Stadium that are in need of care,” Link said. “But the recent efforts will hopefully spur community interest and efforts in helping to make Walker Stadium a premier venue in NJCAA baseball.”

Jackie Woodruff works in marketing at CCC&TI. Her father Clyde Woodruff pitched many games at Walker Stadium for the Hudson High School Hornets against the Lenoir High School Bearcats from 1959 to 1962, as well as for the Tri County League sponsored by Rooster Bush.

Plans underway for new Broyhill Family Foundation Clinical Lab
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LENOIR — The Broyhill Family Foundation Clinical Lab will be a part of UNC Health Caldwell’s planned $33 million expansion, the hospital announced Friday.

The new lab is much needed and will be used for analyzing clinical specimens to obtain information about the health of a patient to aid in the diagnosis, treatment and prevention of disease. The current clinical lab was last renovated nearly 40 years ago.

“The clinical lab is vitally important to the care of our patients and is essential for accurate diagnosis and developing treatment protocols,” said Dr. Sarah Hamler, pathologist at UNC Health Caldwell. “The new Broyhill Family Foundation Clinical Lab will provide our clinical and anatomic pathology teams with an expanded space and new equipment which will enhance quality, efficiency, and safety in the clinical lab and for our patients.”

The new space will be equipped with state-of-the-art clinical analyzing equipment. All heating, cooling, ventilation and electrical requirements will also be renovated to accommodate the new equipment and space needs. The revamped work flow will allow lab personnel to complete their work effectively and efficiently.

“We consider UNC Health Caldwell such a vital part of our community.” said Sheila Triplett Brady, executive director of the Broyhill Family Foundation. “Our Foundation is excited to support the hospital’s upcoming $33 million expansion efforts to address the hospital’s critical needs in the clinical lab.”

The Caldwell Memorial Hospital Foundation will be announcing a capital campaign later this spring that will support the growth at UNC Health Caldwell.

For more information, contact Foundation Director Virginia Hoyle at 757-5524 or

Local chef to feature on 'Barbecue Country'
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LENOIR — Wil Rion, the kitchen manager for the Bethel Colony of Mercy in Lenoir, has been invited to be a contestant on The Country Network’s upcoming new television series, “Barbecue Country.”

“Barbecue Country,” airing this summer, will showcase the best backyard grillers in the country. Twelve professional pitmasters and 12 backyard cooks will pair together in teams of two in a competition and elimination style contest until one of them is crowned the BBQ Backyard Champion.

Rion was first introduced to The Country Network (TCN) when he actually cooked for studio executives in Fort Worth, Texas, last year.

“They reached out to me and said they’re doing a new TV show,” said Rion. “They asked me to send a tape in, so I sent a video of me cooking with different stuff, talking smack and joking around with my staff … they loved it, and they asked me to be on the show.

“It’s exciting,” he continued. “I really don’t know what to expect. I’ve never been on TV before.”

Rion has been the kitchen manager for Bethel Colony of Mercy (1675 Bethel Colony Road in Lenoir) for three years. He was born and raised in Georgetown, South Carolina, and grew up shrimping, crabbing, and cooking seafood in the backyard with his family. His passion for food continued to grow when he started his first restaurant job at the age of 12.

He moved to Asheville and worked as chef for a few years before COVID-19 struck and restaurants had to close down. He said that Bethel Colony reached out to him to ask him to work in their kitchen. He now feeds about 60 men three meals a day, every day of the week.

“Bethel gave me an opportunity to run a kitchen and do what I want to do,” said Rion. “Food has always been a soul cleaner to me, and cooking it has been a soul cleaner for me. It’s what gets me out of bed.”

Bethel Colony of Mercy is a nonprofit, non-denominational Christian ministry for men suffering from alcohol and/or drug addiction.

“The beautiful thing about working at Bethel is that I’m able to share and connect with these people during trying times in their lives,” Rion said. “Food is what connects me to them … cooking is what gets them to trust me. I can reach them, help them start working on their issues, help them grow and become better members of society, or draw them back to their families again. I attribute all of that to food.

“I thought I was committing career suicide at Bethel, but it’s been one of the biggest blessings I’ve ever had,” he added.

Filming for “Barbecue Country” will take place in Nashville, Tennessee until Sunday, March 26. Rion said he’s looking forward to exploring the many delights of the city, such as the Grand Ole Opry and the high-end cutlery store Coutelier, which Rion described as “CandyLand for chefs.”

“I’m going to get my knives sharpened for the competition, and I’m going to buy sayas, which are sleeves for my blades,” he said.

Be sure to catch “Barbecue Country” on The Country Network and social media this summer.

For more information about Bethel Colony of Mercy, visit

“The amount of lives we impact every year at Bethel, it’s mind boggling,” said Rion. “We’re not only helping that one student, we’re helping every single family member and loved one they have. We’re impacting more lives than we meet, and that’s a huge motivation for me.”