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‘Everyone is hurting'

Owner of Sun-drop describes a difficult 2 months since murders at soda bottler

By Adam Bell
abell@charlotteobserver.com

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  • If you know something about the Sun-drop shootings, call Concord police at 704-920-5000 or Cabarrus County Crimestoppers at 704-932-7463. A $50,000 reward is offered.

    Police said they are searching for a black man in his 20s, from 5-foot-5 to 5-foot-10, with a slim build and shoulder-length dreadlocks. At the time of the shootings, he was wearing blue jeans and a white T-shirt, and carried something as he left the Sun-drop plant.



CONCORD Photos of Donna Barnhardt's granddaughters frolicking in the surf still melt across her screensaver at the Sun-drop Bottling Co.

Behind the computer, sympathy cards line the window, a few feet from the front door.

Two months ago, someone walked through that open door, snatched money and vending machine change, and gunned down Barnhardt and job applicant Darrell Noles. Police are still looking for the killer.

This week, company president John King and his wife, Connie, sat in his office a few yards from the scene and discussed the shootings. They wore red “JusticeForDonna.com” wristbands from Barnhardt's family. Connie's eyes were red-rimmed from tears.

It has been, John said, a tough two months.

On the morning of June 13, Barnhardt, a company secretary, was planning to leave work early for a family vacation in Myrtle Beach. Departure was about two hours away.

The Kings and their daughter were already at the beach, relaxing at Oak Island, when the phone rang. A worker asked John whether he had heard what was going on. He hadn't.

He soon learned the victims were Barnhardt, 59, a well-liked 18-year Sun-drop veteran, and Noles, 44, whose wife drove him to Sun-drop so he could apply for a job.

John turned on the TV and saw an aerial shot of his plant. He couldn't watch.

Connie was driving back from a walk on the beach when her husband told her what happened. She pulled over to the side of the road, shaking and crying for 10 minutes, saying over and over, “No. No. No.”

On the drive back to Concord, the family fielded calls from worried friends. Connie told them they were safe but not fine: “I don't know when we'll be fine again.”

John dropped off his wife and daughter at their house, then went to the plant. He waited three hours before police let him in. The bodies were gone, but the crime scene had not been cleaned up.

A real crime scene doesn't look the way it does on TV, he said, without elaborating.

The Kings were invited to meet with both families the next night.

“That was so hard,” Connie said quietly. “Grief is so private, but you want to be there out of respect.”

A few days later, the Kings arranged for counselors and police to talk to their workers.

The family has been in the soda bottling business for more than a century and has long been active in the community. They consider their 24 workers family; their son works there, too, as does Connie's brother, who was in the building at the time of the shootings.

“This is our place,” Connie said. “Every part of it is personal.”

Another sad turn involved Noles' widow, Tressy. She was arrested this month on charges of embezzling from her former company.

Police said they have no indication the cases are related. But the arrest forced the Kings to indefinitely postpone a fundraiser they were organizing for the Noles family.

“Even with her charges, we are not feeling anything bad about Tressy. She has been through so much,” Connie said. “I don't want people to forget what happened to Donna and Darrell, and the people that they were.”

The magnitude of the events, John said, usually hits him when he prepares to leave for the day and walks by Barnhardt's desk.

“Everyone is hurting,” he said. “It'll never be the same.”

At the end of the interview, King escorted his visitor out of the building. He locked the door behind him.

Adam Bell: 704-786-2185

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