By the numbers: Top news stories of the year

Pending Rockingham Speedway foreclosure laps the field 

By Kevin Spradlin

Let’s be clear on what this article is and is not. This article is a report of most-read news stories on since April 28, 2014. Why that date? Simple: That’s the date the digital newspaper went live. So it doesn’t include some great happenings that took place the first one-third of this year.

That’s a perfect segue into what this is not: This report is not a top news stories of the year based on impact or overall importance to the community as judged by The Pee Dee Post‘s editorial board. It is, instead, only by number of readers — yup, people just like you — of the stories offered on between April 28 and now.

This is the third of a seven-part series to close out the year, looking back on the top videos, news and sporting events of 2014. The remaining schedule includes:

Dec. 24 — By the numbers: Top videos of the year
Dec. 25 —  By the numbers: Top Sports/Outdoor stories
Dec. 26 —  By the numbers: Top News stories
Dec. 27 —  Super 7 Business stories
Dec. 27 — Fantastic 15 Photos of the Year
Dec. 28 — Super 7 Feel-good stories
Dec. 29 — Super 7 Sports stories
Dec. 30 — Super 7 Stories of the Year – final

No. 1 — Bank requests ‘immediate and exclusive custody’ of Rockingham Speedway (47,713)

The race for the most-read news story of the was so one-sided that, if it were possible for a race car driver to win first and second place in NASCAR, this would have been that opportunity. Through Dec. 25, a total of 47,713 readers logged on to to read about the Rockingham Speedway’s impending foreclosure. The second most-read news story this year attracted 34,130 readers — a difference of 13,583 sets of eyes.

Kevin Spradlin |

Kevin Spradlin |

On Sept. 18, after no small amount of time perusing a case file — a public record — inside the Richmond County Judicial Center, The Pee Dee Post broke the story about the takeover of Rockingham Speedway.  Track co-owners Andy Hillenburg, of Harrsburg, N.C., and Bill Silas, of Stuart, Fla., owed $4,532,796.23 as of Aug. 8 and were due in Richmond County Superior Court a week later.

The speedway is situated on 244.24 acres. The land alone is valued at about $2.5 million. Hillenburg and Silas purchased the track for $4 million in 2007 from Speedway Motorsports Inc. at an auction that had fewer than 10 bidders. Hillenburg worked as the on-site manager to build and promote the sport of racing. NASCAR abandoned the track in 2004. Hillenburg worked to bring lower-tier racing back and, in 2012, brought back NASCAR truck racing — but it wasn’t the same, and the gate receipts demonstrated fans knew the difference.

The final blow to Hillenburg’s efforts might have come in October 2013, when NASCAR’s Camping World Truck Series schedule was released sans Rockingham. One month earlier, NASCAR officials announced the the K&N Pro Series East series in November 2013 had been canceled.

Kevin Spradlin |

Kevin Spradlin |

On Sept. 25, the Post once again was first to report that a deal seemed to be in the works, and that Judge W. David Lee was asked to grant an extension to the parties in order to allow them to reach an agreement that would keep the speedway out of foreclosure. Hillenburg and a small army of attorneys were involved in the discussions, as was Craig Northacker. Northacker is a forensic certified public accountant and executive director with, an organization that aims to assist American military service members from separation of service through stable, good-paying jobs. The idea is to rejuvenate the American economy through veteran leadership and labor, Northacker said at the time.

The Post owned the original story for 26 hours — a luxury not likely to be afforded anytime in 2015 as the digital newspaper looks to become a member of the Associated Press and the North Carolina Press Association. Once that happens, it’s likely news outlets across the country will pick up such a story within minutes.

Thankfully, other credible news outlets in the region and across the country that did pick up the story the day after the Post‘s breaking news item attributed The Pee Dee Post. Readers flocked to to get the latest. That was the good news. The bad news is that the increased web traffic stretched our shared server. Our hired IT consultant — who likely made more money from the Post than the Post did in September — said it was a good problem to have. He was right.

While working out the technical kinks to ensure reader access, it became apparent in those 26 hours, if not already, that The Pee Dee Post was a reliable source of timely and accurate information that readers wanted to know about.

From the standpoints of business and local journalism, it’s noteworthy to point out this fact: the number of readers going to, still less than eight months old, often exceeded the number of readers visiting the website of the long-established Richmond County newspaper as indicated by the Richmond County Daily Journal‘s own reporting. The answer to the question is yes, there is plenty of room for two media outlets in Richmond County. And as the number of paid print subscribers continues to dwindle, the online information wars will only continue.

As it stands, the judge signed a consent order that put on hold foreclosure proceedings and allowed Hillenburg and Silas to work to find a new owner or arrange an auction by Jan. 1.

No. 2 — Rockingham main detained in shooting (34,130)

A neighbor described the events that took place outside a Pecan Street home as  “a peaceful, beautiful day turned into a nightmare.”

Kevin Spradlin | Eric Louis Whitfield, in handcuffs, is escorted by Rockingham Police Department officers less than 10 minutes after a report of a shooting on Nov. 11 at a Rockingham home. The victim, Mack Dewey Smith III, died later that afternoon.

Kevin Spradlin |
Eric Louis Whitfield, in handcuffs, is escorted by Rockingham Police Department officers less than 10 minutes after a report of a shooting on Nov. 11 at a Rockingham home. The victim, Mack Dewey Smith III, died later that afternoon.

It’s a nightmare that, so far, has no ending. The initial report, read by 34,130 people, of a person with a gunshot wound in the early afternoon of Veterans Day, Nov. 11, brought swift responses by the Rockingham Police Department and FirstHealth EMS to the home, located off Richmond Road.

The Post was the first to report the shooting had occurred — within about 30 minutes of the shooting being reported to the Richmond County emergency dispatch center. Forty-five minutes later, the Post was the first to report the gunshot victim, Mack Dewey Smith III, had died.

A few hours after that, the Post reported — first again — the shooter, Eric Whitfield, had been released. Whitfield had been taken into custody within nine minutes of FirstHealth EMS being dispatched to the scene. Proving that real detective work takes longer than a standard episode of Law & Order, Rockingham police officers arrested Whitfield on Dec. 5 — again, was the first place to read of the arrest.

 No. 3 — Police respond to shooting at Rockingham home (28,260)

The Post does not generally make a habit of reporting suicides. Only in exceptional circumstances will the Post publish a report of a suicide. Such exceptions include if the victim is a local dignitary or high-profile person in the community or if there was collateral damage — such as a murder-suicide.

In the case of a shooting on Dec. 2, however, the Post was not aware exactly what was going on when a reporter arrived on scene of a reported shooting at a home in East Rockingham.

There was no official statement from the Richmond County Sheriff’s Office shortly after the shooting, and first-responders were seen donning hazmat gear — indicative of a possible meth lab — before going into the house. There was no meth lab, and once the Post learned it was a suicide, we offered no follow-up.

But one thing was, once again, made clear — the Post can be counted on to report what taxpayer-funded agencies are doing in a timely and accurate manner. As the report garnered 28,260 readers, it’s evident that’s what visitors to expect.

No. 4 — Feds arrest 5 on meth charges (21,266)

Only one day after the report of a shooting in East Rockingham, an alert reader tipped off the Post newsroom about federal and local law enforcement personnel at homes in Ellerbe. Instead of sitting on our duff, the Post went out to investigate — and were not-so-politely asked to leave.

methFrom a distance, a Post camera snapped photos of investigators armed with high-powered assault rifles milling around in what seemed to be a lighthearted mood. Only later that afternoon were the details learned — members of federal and Richmond County law enforcement agencies completed a day-long sweep that resulted in the arrests of four men and one woman.

Authorities were acting under a federal sealed indictment issued by a grand jury convened by the U.S. Attorney’s Office, Middle District of North Carolina, based in Greensboro. Arrested were Larry Shane King, John Monroe Wilson, Michael Anthony Treece, Lisa Raines Tingle and Richard Allen Mabe.

This is a story that anyone who wanted to log on to — for free — and read it here before anywhere else.

No. 5 — Police: Woman charged with murder (16, 155)

A surprise was in store for first-responders as they tended to 51-year-old Lee Charles Covington on Oct. 17 after a report of a traffic accident on Rockingham Road.

Medics determined Covington had injuries to his chest area that were not constant with the wreck. Covington was taken to FirstHealth Richmond Memorial Hospital, where he was pronounced dead after Emergency Department personnel confirmed that he had been stabbed.

Shanita Love, 28, has been placed in Richmond County Jail and held without bond after being charged with first-degree murder. After being stabbed, authorities said Covington tried to drive himself to the hospital.

No. 6 — Report: Shooter released (12,513)

No one else touched it. Thanks to a source, The Pee Dee Post was able to confirm late Nov. 11 that the man put into police custody within minutes of the Veterans Day shooting at a Pecan Street home was released.

No one from the Rockingham Police Department would say why Eric Louis Whitfield was released.

Authorities said Whitfield claimed self defense. A source said Mack Dewey Smith III, who later died of the single gunshot wound from a .22-caliber firearm, had threatened the man with a knife.

That’s when Whitfield allegedly reached for his gun. Court documents indicated that a dispute about who owned a smelly dog in the home, which they shared with Whitfield’s girlfriend and mother, led to the fatal shooting.

No. 7 — Hamlet woman cashes in on $1 million prize (11,927)

Hamlet resident Ellie Puckett’s Christmas was made that much merrier when the final episode of MTV’s “Are You the One?” aired on Dec. 8. Puckett celebrated the evening at Fatz Cafe in Rockingham.

Ellie Puckett on MTV's "Are You The One"

Ellie Puckett on MTV’s “Are You The One”

Fans of the adult reality show, in which 10 men and 11 women were housed at an expansive mansion in Puerto Rico in an effort find their “perfect match,” seemed to appreciate Puckett’s direction style of confrontation. There was little doubt at any point in the show what Puckett was thinking.

Puckett shared the $1 million cash prize with 20 others.

From the start of the season finale, it didn’t appear as if Ellie would be matched well with Nathan, a young man from Michigan. There was, to say the least, tension. Ellie accused Nathan of not courting her aggressively enough; Nathan responded that he couldn’t — not when Ellie was spending time  with another man each night.

In a kitchen scene, Nathan tells Ellie she reminds him of her best friend. Ellie takes that as a positive.

“Obviously, that’s God giving you a sign,” Ellie said.

“Yeah,” countered Nathan. “Not a good one.”

Nathan said being with Ellie might be like sleeping with his sister.

In the aftermath of 10 perfect matches being made on set, located at a sprawling home in San Juan, Puerto Rico, Puckett called it “the best experience of my life.”

“Sometimes we wanted to kill each other,” Puckett said.

Honorable Mention

* Volunteer first-responded alleges suspension due to Facebook post (11,043)

* Armed robbery suspect held on $20,000 bond (10,480)

* Autistic 7th-grader beaten on school bus (10,366)

Filed in: Latest Headlines, Outdoors, Sports

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  • bdavid

    i enjoy reading the Peedeepost. I think you are doing a wonderful job Kevin. Keep up the good work!

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