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Remembering Milton Sawyer Jr.

Vigil held for slain storekeeper

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Steve Bateman, who attended Northeastern High School with Milton Sawyer Jr., leads a prayer at a vigil for Sawyer at Waterfront Park in Elizabeth City, Friday evening. Sawyer died Thursday morning during a confrontation with an intruder who had broken into his house, the Pasquotank sheriff said.

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By William F. West
Staff Writer

Saturday, August 4, 2018

Generous. Kind. Loyal. Charismatic.

All are words being used to describe Milton Sawyer Jr., 55, who died Thursday morning following what the Pasquotank sheriff says was a confrontation with an armed intruder in his house in Northeastern Terrace. The intruder assaulted both Sawyer and his wife before fleeing with money, jewelry and other valuables from their home.

With many of those who knew Sawyer — a local businessman who operated the Treasure Hunter antiques store in downtown Elizabeth City — still in shock over his death, about 50 people gathered at Waterfront Park Friday night for a prayer vigil to remember Sawyer and pray for his family.

Among those in the crowd was Pasquotank Sheriff Randy Cartwright, a neighbor of Sawyer’s in Northeastern Terrace and whose agency is investigating Sawyer’s death. So far, no suspects have been identified in the home invasion and attack on Sawyer and his wife, Cartwright said earlier on Friday.

Steve Bateman, who like Sawyer graduated from Northeastern High School just down the road from Northeastern Terrace, led the prayer at Friday’s vigil.

“Hopefully, they can come up with the answer to what has happened here that bring the people to justice,” Bateman prayed.

Noting that gossip always seems to flow in the wake of someone’s death, particularly someone so well known in a small community, Bateman also asked for God’s help reining in things being said about Sawyer.

After Bateman’s prayer, a number of those in attendance talked about Sawyer. A number like James Atwell were still coming to grips with his death.

“It’s just a tragedy,” Atwell said. “I’m still in shock. I can’t comprehend it.”

Atwell said he attended Friday’s vigil because his son and Sawyer’s son are friends. Like many of those who knew Sawyer, it’s not just his death that’s so unsettling: it’s also the violent way that he died.

“That’s the thing. It could happen to anybody, any one of us. It’s crazy,” Atwell said.

Atwell said residents will have to pull together as a community to deal with the tragedy.

“I just hope they (the authorities) find who did it,” he said. “I mean, this is ridiculous.”

Also in attendance at Friday’s vigil was Northeastern High School Band Director Wayne James.

James remembered Sawyer, who graduated from NHS in 1981, as a top-notch drummer when he played in the school band under then band director Scott Callaway. James said Sawyer remained both loyal and generous to his alma mater, often volunteering to help set up band camps for students.  

James, who is four years younger than Sawyer, also described Sawyer as someone who didn’t base his interactions with people on their race, religion or social class.

“He didn’t care whether you whether you white, black, Jew or gentile,” James said. “It didn’t matter to him, brother. If he could help you, he would.”

James said his mother, Pennie James, 85, is heartbroken because she’s an antiques aficionado and had gotten to know Sawyer well.

“You think you’re safe in your home,” James said, describing his own disbelief about how Sawyer died. 

Because of road construction work, North Road Street in front of Sawyer’s shop has been closed to vehicles for several weeks. Since his death, however, pedestrians have found their way to drop off flowers and to leave written tributes to the late store owner.  

Kelvin Oliver said he’s talked with a number of those who dropped off tributes.

“It’s really sad,” Oliver said of the violence that led to Sawyer’s death. “I’ll tell you, Elizabeth City is getting really bad right now.”

Oliver cited the holdup of the local Kay Jewelers at the Shoppes at Tanglewood a week ago and the fatal shooting of a Perquimans County man in the Weeksville area last month.

Oliver, 57, said he had known Sawyer since the early 1980s. He said he would stop by the Treasure Hunter a couple times a month.

He described Sawyer as a “good guy,” adding, “He looked out for everybody, I’ll put it that way.”

Elizabeth City Downtown, Inc. Director Deborah Malenfant also paid tribute to Sawyer through a post on its Facebook page.

“He was a man with a playful and charismatic demeanor and a bold and lovable personality, always ready to give a smile, a hello, a hug and a laugh,” Malenfant said in the post. “This is a small community. We all feel the pain when something like this happens. Our hearts go out to his family and to the many, many friends who knew and loved him.”

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