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Taylor May Be Sued Over Bank Killings

On May 16, 2003, at exactly 1:36 p.m., the panic alarm sounded at the police department in Greer, a small town in the Upcountry of South Carolina.

Within minutes, police descended on a green mobile-home trailer at the end of a dead-end road in front of Interstate 85 that housed the newest branch office of Blue Ridge Savings Bank, a thrift owned and controlled by Rep. Charles Taylor, the North Carolina Republican and banking tycoon.

Inside, police found a horrifying scene that has haunted Greer and the surrounding community to this day. Three people, the single bank employee on duty and two customers, had been shot dead at close range.

The crime — among the deadliest bank robberies in recent U.S. history — remains unsolved, with no witnesses, no suspects and few leads.

Now, the surviving family members of the two murdered customers — James Barnes, 62, a longtime professor at the University of South Carolina, and his wife, Margaret, 58 — are preparing to file a wrongful-death suit against Taylor, according to court filings.

Claims may be brought asserting that the seven-term lawmaker and the other directors of his closely held bank are liable because they allegedly chose to locate the branch office in a trailer at a vulnerable location and failed to ensure that the branch office complied with government-mandated security requirements.

Taylor, the chairman of the bank’s board, and the six other directors, who include his campaign treasurer as well as the bank’s president, relatives and political allies, haven’t yet been served with a complaint.

The two daughters and son of James and Margaret Barnes initially filed suit against Blue Ridge Savings Bank in January. In April, after taking a deposition from the contractor hired by Blue Ridge to install security equipment at the trailer, the plaintiffs sought permission from the judge overseeing the case to amend their complaint and add claims against Taylor and the other board members “for negligence, negligence per se, gross negligence, recklessness, willfulness and wantonness in failing to carry out their duties under the Bank Protection Act to ensure the enactment of a proper security plan for the branch bank, for which the bank’s directors are personally liable … and which contributed to the deaths of Mr. and Mrs. Barnes,” according to court records.

U.S. District Judge Henry Herlong granted the motion on June 4, giving permission for the family to add Taylor and the other directors to the original complaint. The plaintiffs haven’t filed an amended complaint yet. Lawyers for the family and Blue Ridge Savings Bank are scheduled to meet July 21 for a court-mandated mediation session which may determine whether the case moves forward.

Deborah Potter, a spokeswoman for Taylor’s Congressional office, said the Congressman was unaware of any lawsuit involving himself personally and seemed “genuinely surprised” to be asked about it. She said he was aware of a lawsuit filed against the bank but said it was being handled by the bank’s insurance company.

“It was a tragic thing for him and for everyone connected to Blue Ridge Savings Bank,” she said of the robbery and homicides. “You can imagine how horrible something like this must be.” She noted that the bank continues to offer a $100,000 reward to anyone with information leading to the arrest and conviction of the killers.

“Obviously this was a tragedy for the Barnes family as well as the Blue Ridge family, which lost a very valued employee,” the bank’s attorney, Kurt Rozelsky, told Roll Call.

In court papers, the bank has denied allegations that it was responsible for the deaths. Rozelsky, who said he couldn’t comment on pending litigation, said he doubted that the plaintiffs would move forward to formally name Taylor and the other directors in an amended complaint. “I think that’s as much legal maneuvering as anything else,” he said.

The Barnes family members, who have never publicly spoken about the crime, declined to comment for this story, as did their attorney, Val Stieglitz, of the Columbia, S.C., law firm Nexsen Pruet Jacobs & Pollard.

If mediation talks fail, a civil trial is scheduled to begin after Nov. 2 and would likely put a spotlight on Taylor and the thrift he actively manages while simultaneously serving full time in Congress. After seven terms in the House, Taylor has risen to become a “cardinal” who chairs the Appropriations subcommittee that controls spending on national parks and public lands.

The House, worried that a lawmaker who holds two jobs would inevitably face conflicts of interest and be distracted from Congressional duties, decided in a major reform 25 years ago to establish rules designed to prevent lawmakers from moonlighting. Those restrictions include sharp limits on the amount of outside income Members can earn and a ban on compensation for providing services that involve a fiduciary relationship.

But the House ethics committee hasn’t looked at Taylor’s outside activities, despite numerous news stories suggesting potential conflicts.

‘A Micro-Manager’

Taylor, who founded Blue Ridge in 1978, holds a majority interest in the bank through a holding company he controls. The Congressman is worth up to $71 million, according to recently filed personal financial-disclosure forms that list diverse interests in banking, insurance, forestry and real estate. Former bank officials have testified that Taylor is a vigorous, hands-on manager. The bank, with $196 million in assets, has grown rapidly, and prospered even during a still-lingering criminal investigation that led to the conviction of Hayes Martin, the bank’s former president, in 2001.

Taylor, who sits on the panel that controls spending for the Justice Department, wasn’t questioned by either the FBI or by federal prosecutors in the case that involved Martin and bank clients despite court testimony and statements that implicated him to a bank-fraud and money-laundering scheme.

Martin, who is still awaiting sentencing, described Taylor in statements to the FBI as “a micro-manager.” He said that Taylor “maintained constant contact with the bank, either physically or telephonically — 10 to 11 calls per day.” He also noted that Taylor “would regularly call him and ask, ‘How much money have you made for me?’ And, ‘When can you pay me dividends …’ i.e., how profitable is the bank?”

Last year, Taylor, through a spokesperson, denied to Roll Call Martin’s allegations about his degree of involvement in the bank’s operations, and disputed Martin’s character.

While avoiding questioning during the criminal probe, Taylor may not be able to avoid answering questions about his personal management role in the bank’s operations if the Barnes wrongful death suit proceeds in South Carolina.

Bank-security experts familiar with the case said the branch office in Greer — the first Blue Ridge facility outside of North Carolina — appeared to have serious and obvious security flaws.

“My understanding is that security was almost nonexistent,” said Barbara Hurst, a former security officer who edits the Bankers’ Hotline, a newsletter that advises banking officials on requirements that must be followed under the 1968 Bank Protection Act.

“I work for the financial industry, but this is one time I have no sympathy with the bank, sorry to say,” she said. “In this case there was simply not enough security put in place, nor was there follow-up on the part of the board of directors.”

The videotape from the security camera inside the bank was missing, the Spartanburg Herald-Journal reported in the days after the crime. A person familiar with the case told Roll Call that it hasn’t been determined whether the missing tape was never loaded by bank employees, or if the assailants took it. Either prospect points to a security breach, since the recording system is supposed to be in an inaccessible location, in order to preserve evidence. In addition, the bank had no cameras outside the trailer.

Instead, police and FBI investigators painstakingly pieced together portions of surveillance tapes taken by nearby businesses on the dead-end road to identify a late-model red Oldsmobile Alero that they believe is linked to the crime. But the car hasn’t been found.

Experts also criticized the practice of staffing the bank office with just one employee.

“Having a single employee on duty is a fatal mistake,” said John Kennish, a Connecticut-based security consultant.

“The first firm strike against the bank is that you do not ever put a solo person in a branch like that and leave them alone. Because what’s in a bank? Money,” he said, adding that the opportunity for an easy hit would attract criminals.

“While there may not have been a pattern of crime activity in that area, the fact is that it sat on an Interstate. And Interstates today are like the roads were 150 years ago, they are conduits for crime,” Kennish said. “Anytime you have an Interstate, you will find that crime just walks up and down the shoulder.”

On April 15, 11 months after the 2003 crime, an armed gunman attempted to rob a Blue Ridge employee in the bank’s parking lot before the office opened. The assailant fled when the employee ran, according to an account in The Greenville News.

In their April 26 motion, the plaintiffs also sought permission to bring claims against Taylor personally, alleging that he is the owner of the single-wide trailer and is liable for the “design and propriety of the trailer used as the branch bank location,” according to court filings. Taylor, through a spokeswoman, and the bank’s attorney both said that the bank, not Taylor, owns the trailer.

A zoning-permit form filed by the bank on Nov. 21, 2001, lists Taylor as the owner of the trailer. An application to open a new branch office that was filed with the Office of Thrift Supervision on Nov. 26, 2001, indicates that an “affiliated person” would lease the building to the bank, but it didn’t name Taylor. Land records show the bank purchased the land for the trailer in January 2002 for $390,000.

Responding to questions by federal regulators, the bank stated in a Dec. 26, 2001, letter obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, “The building is a modular unit already owned by Blue Ridge Savings Bank. The unit was previously used as the building our West Asheville branch operated from. It has been unused since approximately 1993-1994, and has been fully depreciated for several years.”

The letter by the bank said the trailer, obtained from a mobile-home dealer, was renovated in 2000, but the expenses for that work were withheld under a FOIA exemption.

Hurst, of the Bankers’ Hotline, said it is unusual for a bank office to be housed in a mobile-home unit, since actual buildings offer far greater security advantages for the protection of customers, employees and money.

Neither court records nor interviews have shed light on why Blue Ridge decided to locate its Greer branch in a trailer. The branch location in West Asheville, N.C., that was previously home to the trailer that ended up in Greer is today still housed in a green trailer.

‘Alone All the Time’

When James and Margaret Barnes entered the trailer, they were greeted by 56-year-old Sylvia Holtzclaw, a single mother of two and an experienced bank teller who had worked for about a year with Blue Ridge Savings Bank, first in Hendersonville, N.C., and then just over the border in her hometown of Greer, a city of 16,800 where friends and family described the Sunday school teacher as a beloved and popular figure at church, fire department functions and high school football games.

The Greer branch office formally opened for business on Sept. 11, 2002. Despite expressing fears to friends, Holtzclaw was regularly required to work alone in the trailer. “She was there alone all the time,” one source told Roll Call on condition of anonymity.

In an interview, her son, David Holtzclaw, said that his mother “stayed there a decent amount by herself.” David and his brother Kevin, a firefighter who also works for a local rescue squad, had even purchased a portable police scanner for her as a Mother’s Day present, “because she was down there so much by herself. She wanted to have something to listen to,” he said.

In fact, David delivered lunch to his mother less than 45 minutes before the alarm sounded. When he arrived, she was alone at the bank, and he stayed with her a few minutes, he recalled. When he left, she locked the door behind him, a practice she regularly followed when working by herself, according to a source knowledgeable about the case.

David said he won’t talk about issues involving the bank or Taylor.

“The only thing I will comment on is to say that I talked with [Taylor] the day of my mom’s burial. He was there,” David said.

David Holtzclaw also declined to comment on the lawsuit filed by the Barnes family. Under South Carolina law, David and his brother appear to be barred from filing suit against Blue Ridge because employees are prevented from filing claims for injuries against their employers outside of the worker’s compensation system, even in instances where there may be negligence on the part of the employer.

Although the discovery process in the Barnes suit against the bank is in the early stage, the plaintiffs have already focused on the electronic lock and the trailer door, which the court filings allege were defective.

Perry Peacock, owner of Peak Controls, a North Carolina security contractor that provided equipment and advice to Blue Ridge, testified about the security lock placed on the door of the trailer, according to court records.

“The Plaintiff believes and is informed that this was the incorrect device, which contributed to the death of” the Barneses, according to the plaintiffs’ motion of April 26, 2004.

The bank, the plaintiffs charged, was negligent for the “selection, operation, and maintenance of the door to the branch bank, and also for failing to take reasonable steps to prevent and/or repair the door from sticking, or respond to reports of the door sticking, all of which contributed to the deaths of Mr. and Mrs. Barnes.”

Rozelsky, the bank’s attorney, denied the plaintiffs’ allegations about the lock and door. Peacock did not respond to messages.