Betty Wood does not seem like she’d be in a fracas involving felony handgun charges, police from five agencies and court cases in three jurisdictions in two different states.
The 68-year-old widow and grandmother lives in a small but immaculate home in southeast Roanoke. It’s hard to imagine her driving south on U.S. 220, firing a pistol at a car she says was twice wrongfully taken from her last year. Or her pointing the weapon at the other driver’s face at a stoplight along U.S. 220 in Clearbook.
Wood did both Nov. 3, according to police and court records in Franklin and Roanoke counties, statements in a Rocky Mount courtroom Wednesday and an interview I did with her Thursday. That date was the second time in 2018 that the same High Point, North Carolina, man drove away in her car.
It’s no ordinary vehicle. The candy-apple red 1950 Ford coupe is a serial winner at local car shows. Wood showed me an impressive shelf of trophies it’s won. Her late husband, Wayne Lee Wood, spent 18 months carefully restoring the car, which has the cartoon character Betty Boop painted on its trunk.
Wayne Wood, a diesel mechanic who later went into the vehicle restoration business, died in 2010. Betty, who’s retired after careers as a telephone company operator and in retail sales, still speaks of him reverentially. “He treated me like a queen,” she said.
Wood decided last summer to sell the Ford and use the proceeds to pay off debt. On Facebook Community Marketplace and other websites, she advertised the vehicle at $45,000. The ads were up for a couple months, Wood said. By August, she’d had plenty of nibbles from people across the country.
“But none of them could afford it,” she told me. So she took down the ads. “I decided [Wayne] built that car for me,” Wood said. “I was glad that nobody could buy it.”
A few days later, still in early August, Wood received a Facebook message from the man in High Point. He wanted to buy the car and said he had cash, she said. Wood said a friend of hers from church cautioned her to accept only a cashier’s check from a bank.
The guy showed up late in the afternoon Aug. 13. Two women drove him to Wood’s house. He didn’t even want to test drive the Ford, Wood said. She insisted. They all went for a short ride.
Back in the kitchen of her home afterward, the man gave Wood a check in an envelope. Wood signed over the title. Wood said she didn’t examine the check until after he’d left. It was no cashier’s check, Wood said. And there were other abnormalities.
The check was written for $48,500 because the man also had purchased accessories. But the amount was written in the “Pay to” line where Wood’s name should have been, Wood said. The buyer’s name was written in the amount line. Wood’s name was written on the signature line.
That afternoon, a teller at Wood’s Tanglewood-area bank doubted the check was negotiable and told her to bring it back the following day. Wood said that evening, she was able to get hold of someone at the North Carolina credit union the check appeared drawn on.
“He said, ‘Ma’am, I’m so sorry to tell you this, but that is not our check,’” Wood told me.
Wood called Roanoke police and posted a Facebook message about the Ford, with photos, asking people to be on the lookout for it.
“It was all over the United States,” Wood said.
Three days later, a High Point repair shop called. A bolt that secured one of the Ford’s shock absorbers had come loose and fallen out. The guy who’d driven off in Wood’s car took it to the shop to get it fixed.
Employees there recognized it from Wood’s Facebook post. The shop owner called Wood and High Point police.
Some friends of Wood’s drove to the shop to retrieve the Ford the following weekend. By Aug. 20, it was back in Wood’s garage. But that’s hardly the end of the story.
The man knocked on Wood’s door Nov. 3, a chilly Saturday. He showed up out of the blue, Wood said, telling her he’d taken a bus from North Carolina to Roanoke and caught an Uber to her home.
“He said, ‘Let me in and we’ll work this out,’” Wood said. “He said, ‘How can we make this right?’ I said, ‘We can’t. I’m not selling the car.’”
Wood said she thought he was going to return the Ford’s keys. He claimed police in North Carolina had them. That was untrue.
Wood stepped out of her kitchen for a moment to look for her phone. “I was going to call the police,” she said.
After she left the room, the man hit the electric switch to her garage door, went outside and fired up the 1950 Betty Boop Ford coupe. Wood heard the car start from her bedroom, where she was looking for her phone. By the time she got back to the kitchen, the man was pulling the Ford out of her driveway.
She jumped in her SUV and took off after him. In that vehicle was her .38 revolver, which Wood said her sister gave her 10 years ago. It was loaded but Wood said she’d never fired it.
Wood caught up with the Ford on U.S. 220 in Clearbrook, where it was stopped at a red light. Pistol in hand, she climbed out of her SUV and walked up to the driver’s window.
“I pointed the gun in his face,” Wood said. He looked scared, she added.
“He said, ‘Oh, I’ll turn around and take it back,’” Wood said. “But when the light changed [to green] he took off.”
Without a coat and wearing slippers, Wood jumped back in her SUV and chased the Ford. At one point, she said, they were south of Clearbrook in a construction zone with the Ford in the left lane and Wood’s SUV in the right. She fired the pistol at the passenger-side rear tire, she said. The bullet hit the road.
“Nobody else was around,” Wood said.
The chase continued through Boones Mill. Somewhere south of there, Wood fired another shot at the Ford’s rear tire and missed again, she said. The Ford ran a red light at Wirtz Road, near the Dairy Queen, Wood said. A little ways south of that intersection, Wood was able to get her SUV ahead of the Ford.
She was trying to slow it down, she told me. But it peeled off at the Rocky Mount exit when it was too late for Wood to make that turn.
A little ways south on U.S. 220, Wood stopped where a state trooper had pulled over another car. She said she was telling the trooper about her vamoosed 1950 candy-apple red Ford coupe.
“About that time, [the Ford] zoomed past us, Wood told me. “I told the trooper, ‘There’s my car!’ ”
The trooper told Wood to stay where she was and gave chase, she said. He pulled the Ford over a couple miles down the road, in the parking lot of a business. Wood doesn’t recall the name.
The driver told the trooper that Wood had shot at him with a pistol. Soon, a Franklin County Sheriff’s deputy pulled up on Wood, who was waiting in her SUV. “He told me to lock up my car and get in his vehicle,” Wood said.
The deputy took her to the parking lot where state police had pulled over the Ford. Roanoke County and Rocky Mount officers showed up, too, Wood said. Police found themselves with a head-scratcher.
The Ford driver still had the title Wood had signed over to him back in August. Wood said she tried to tell the police she’d gotten a new title and registration from the Department of Motor Vehicles after the car was returned to her the previous summer.
The man from High Point told police a different story. He claimed he and Wood “had a relationship,” said Deborah Caldwell-Bono, Wood’s attorney. He showed them the title Wood signed and said she called him earlier that day and told him to pick up the car.
Wood said a female Roanoke County officer read Wood her rights, and asked whether she wanted to waive them.
“And I said, ‘I’ll tell the truth anytime,’ ” Wood said.
She told the officer the entire story – including how she pointed her handgun at the driver in Clearbrook and fired twice at the Ford along U.S. 220.
Wood estimated they all were with the police in the parking lot for about six hours as various law enforcement agencies tried to sort out the mess. Some officers departed and more arrived because their shifts changed, Wood said.
“The state police didn’t want nothing to do with it,” Wood said. “[The trooper] said it was too much for them to handle.”
It was dark by the time police decided what to do, Wood said. Officers arrested her.
Roanoke County police charged her with a misdemeanor, brandishing a firearm. Franklin County deputies, meanwhile, charged her with two felony counts of shooting at an occupied vehicle. Police took Wood to jail in Rocky Mount. A magistrate set her bond at $10,000.
Police dropped off the driver of the Ford — the ostensible “victim” in this case — at a shopping center in Rocky Mount. He found a ride out of town. Police ordered both the Ford and Wood’s SUV impounded.
Tommy Moore of Garden City, who’s been friends with Wood for 45 years, arrived in Rocky Mount at 3 a.m. Nov. 4 to bail her out.
Accompanying Moore was a retired Roanoke Sheriff’s captain Wood also knew. He recommended Wood hire Caldwell-Bono, based on his previous observations of her in court.
“ ‘That’s the kind of lawyer you need,’ ” Wood said the man told her.
On Feb. 20, prosecutors dropped the misdemeanor brandishing charge after the “victim” failed to show in Roanoke County General District Court.
Wednesday in Franklin County Circuit Court, Caldwell-Bono recited the unusual circumstances of the case, and noted that before her arrest Wood had never appeared in court. “She’s very trusting — too trusting,” Caldwell-Bono said.
In a plea deal, Wood pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge of brandishing a firearm, amended down from one of the felony charges. Franklin County Assistant Commonwealth’s Attorney Dwight Rudd agreed to drop the other felony charge.
“She’s learned from this,” Rudd told Judge Clyde Perdue. “We don’t perceive any criminal behavior coming from her in Franklin County — or anywhere else for that matter.”
“You handled this the wrong way,” Perdue told Wood. “From what I understand, you were a little cavalier in this situation.” He sentenced her to two months, all suspended.
Virginia authorities did not charge the man from High Point, who was identified in court Wednesday as Levan la Forrest Sanders. Rudd called the case “a complicated civil dispute between the two parties.”
Roanoke Assistant Commonwealth’s Attorney John McNeil said that because Wood’s bank never formally accepted the check Sanders gave Wood, Virginia authorities were precluded from filing criminal charges in relation to it.
“Her remedies are in civil court, rather than in criminal prosecution,” McNeil said.
According to the Guilford County, North Carolina court clerk’s office, Sanders faces a June 14 hearing in High Point on a charge of possessing a stolen vehicle stemming from a different case in 2017.
Wood told me Thursday she’s learned her lesson. It’s an expensive one.
Counting attorney’s fees, towing and impound charges for two vehicles and $1,000 she repaid her Moore for her bail bondsman — plus some other expenses — the case has cost her more than $11,000 so far. Wood said she refinanced her house to afford that.
At the least, she’s still got her classic car. The 1950 Betty Boop Ford coupe is now secure in a different garage — one that’s locked in multiple ways, with no electric garage door opener.
It might be the prettiest antique car I’ve ever seen.
‘I’m never putting it up for sale again,” Wood said.