Ohio State Fair stunt show goes back nine generations

Angelina Nock sized up the 70-foot pole planted in the Ohio State fairgrounds before shimmying her way to the top with monkey-like expertise.

She tempted the pole’s flexibility, intentionally waving it side to side as she dangled by one foot and whirled in a circle upside-down. State Fair patrons released a collective gasp when she plummeted face first down the pole, safely catching herself just before the ground.

The 26-year-old is far from a novice in stunt entertainment, and she is especially no stranger to the sway pole — it’s her family’s signature stunt from centuries ago.

The “Nerveless Nocks,” the Sarasota, Florida-based stunt family — who claim nine generations in the circus business — are descendants of Swiss Circus Family Nock, Switzerland’s first official circus, established in 1840.

“When I was growing up, I thought everyone’s family did this,” Angelina said. “Once I started school, I realized we were different.

“Their playground was in the schoolyard. My playground was this,” she said, motioning to the metal contraptions behind her.

The Nock family brought their act to the United States in 1954 when Eugene Nock Sr., Angelina’s grandfather, emigrated from Switzerland to join the Greatest Show on Earth alongside then-owners John and Henry Ringling North. Eugene and his wife, Aurelia, performed for years alongside one another, eventually bringing their son, Michelangelo, into the family business.

Now, the tale has come full circle for Michelangelo, 51, who is performing with his daughter at the Ohio State Fair through Aug. 5. Performances of The Nerveless Nocks All-American Stunt and Thrill Show are at 2, 4:30 and 7:30 p.m. on weekdays and Sundays, and at 12:30, 4:30 and 7:30 p.m. on Saturdays.

“It’s in our blood,” Michelangelo said. “I am blessed that my kids want to do it. I love performing with my daughter.”

The troupe also includes four additional stuntmen who are not family members. Despite the brutal July heat baking the metal bleachers, the performance draws an audience that fills three sets of bleachers.

“Those people are real daredevils,” said 11-year-old Andrea Lab from Dover after getting her photo taken with the Nocks. “I was scared they were going to fall. It was really cool.”

Stunts include performers doing motorcycle tricks in a metal globe, handstands on top of 10 stacked chairs, daring balancing acts in spinning wheels, and of course, the signature sway pole act.

“That act is always appealing,” Michelangelo said. “There are no safety nets. There are no crash pads. It is death defying. People want to see that risk.”

Among the awe-struck crowd is Aurelia Nock, 81, who despite her age, joined her family on the road to see her son and granddaughter perform every day at the State Fair.

There are currently four Nerveless Nock acts touring the country, each featuring about one to two family members.

“What we do might be unique, but we’re just like any other family,” Angelina said.

Originally published by The Columbus Dispatch on July 27, 2018.

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Lancaster reaches out to military through letter-box campaign

LANCASTER — Carla Schorr holds the key to the “mailbox” in Lancaster’s Veterans Square.

Every week, she kneels on the sidewalk and empties the box, gathering an overflowing, colorful bundle of letters. In her arms, she holds various shades of construction paper scribbled with crayon drawings, neat cursive phrases decorated with glitter and formally typed sentences on white computer paper from people who have dropped them off at the non-Postal Service box. Tucked inside each letter are expressions of gratitude to active-duty military members.

Schorr, 47, was born and raised in Lancaster, the birthplace of Civil War general William Tecumseh Sherman and a town that takes pride in patriotism. Passers-by strolling down Main Street can spot local military members’ faces displayed on “Hometown Heroes” banners hanging from streetlamps. Families and downtown workers flock to Veterans Square on a sunny day to eat lunch beside the black marble memorial and historic World War II cannon.

But Schorr wanted to do something to make an impact outside the town. Coming from a military family, she knows the hardships troops face when they are deployed overseas: loneliness, sadness, hopelessness.

She hoped to curb those negative feelings with “Operation: Letters to Soldiers.”

When the letter box debuted in April, she wasn’t expecting much. A couple hundred letters over a few months, if anything. But after a social media post, the community sprang to action. A local artist donated his time and talents to paint the box, decorated in a camouflage and American-flag design with two service members on the side. The owner of a local furniture company donated a protective coating.

Instead of leaving the letter box in just one place, Schorr decided it should travel during the academic year. She took it to local schools so students could correspond with military members.

In just four months, the box collected more than 1,600 letters.

“It means a lot to them knowing they’re being thought about and missed by total strangers,” Schorr said of service members.

The initiative costs nothing except time, Schorr said. All materials and labor were donated, and community members don’t even need a stamp.

Schorr, Rise Reality Co. and a nonprofit called Key to Giving teamed up with the United Service Organizations of Central and Southern Ohio, which places stamps on the letters and disperses them to U.S. military personnel around the globe.

“Just a simple message from a 7-year-old saying, ‘You’re my hero,’ means so much,” said Sue Ann Carroll, the community-relationships coordinator for USO of Central and Southern Ohio. “And the whole story of the ‘traveling mailbox’ really adds to that.”

Schorr has been contacted by communities across the country wanting a military mailbox. She said she plans to begin filling orders in the winter, charging about $500 for materials and shipping, with all proceeds going to veteran services.

She hopes people will leave return addresses on the letters so that kids can become “pen pals” with military members, with hopes they can meet someday.

The “mailbox” will hit the road again in August, visiting schools and other places in the community. By October, the box will need cosmetic work after seasonal sun damage to the paint, so Schorr is engaging Lancaster High School students by running a contest for the next design.

Lancaster Mayor David Scheffler, who is a Vietnam veteran, said he was not surprised by the patriotic city’s response to Operation: Letters to Soldiers.

“To see our community react in such a positive way is so heartwarming.”

Originally published for The Columbus Dispatch on July 23, 2018.

Demonstrators protest immigration policies in downtown Columbus

A woman dangled more than 30 feet above fellow protesters along Front Street in downtown Columbus, attached by a harness to a crudely constructed tripod. At the base sat a man, whose arms were duct-taped around the wooden poles that supported the woman.

They were among 12 people arrested on charges of disorderly conduct, trespassing and resisting arrest Monday at a “solidarity rally” held to call for the abolishment of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. The agency has come under heavy public criticism over the separation of undocumented immigrants from their children at the border, and delays in meeting a court order to reunite them.

The two protesters with the tripod were determined not to leave until local officials took action to defy ICE. Police closed Front Street between West Broad and Gay streets during the demonstration of about 100 protesters and onlookers.

The woman, who hung from the structure that displayed a sign that said “ICE ruins lives here,” was suspended for about an hour before the Columbus Fire Division arrived. Several firefighters were raised on a ladder truck to meet the woman on her level. They removed her from her harness and brought her down to the street to be arrested at around 10:30 a.m.

Officers then detached the man from the base of the structure and carried him by his arms and feet into a police vehicle. Shortly after, officers disassembled the tripod and worked to safely bring down the three-story-tall structure.

While they used a chainsaw to break down the wood, protesters continued to chant, bang drums and wave their signs from the sidewalks. Police cleared the road and traffic was flowing on Front Street by 11:15 a.m.

Protesters moved the rally to the Broad Street entrance of the LeVeque tower. Police said several protesters entered ICE offices in the tower prior to the floor being shut down. Five people in the office were arrested for trespassing: one from Millfield in Athens County; two from California and two from Florida. Names of others arrested have not yet been released.

Organizers demanded local authorities end all aid to ICE and stop deportations in Ohio. Several other rallies have been held this month in Columbus to protest ICE and the separation of families at the Mexican border.

“No one is helping us or listening,” organizer Ruben Herrera said of local and state officials. “We must take these radical actions to be heard.”

Originally published by The Columbus Dispatch on July 9, 2018.

National veterans program expands with Newark location

NEWARK — Matthew Dowling used to cover his face with dark sunglasses and a beard, the epitome of what he called a “big, bad veteran.”

He didn’t want people to look at him. He was in his 30s, with a wife and two kids. But despite the 17 medications he was on, he was nearing a decision that too many veterans consider: suicide.

Two years later, the 37-year-old Newark resident sits and laughs among the people who saved his life. And as he watches his son fishing on the lake, he says he can’t believe he ever thought he was beyond help.

According to a study released in June by the Department of Veterans Affairs, 20 veterans choose suicide every day.

Save a Warrior, a nonprofit organization aimed at saving the lives of veterans and first responders suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and depression, wants to change that. The group runs “war-detox” programs that have saved hundreds of lives, it says. Now it’s planting roots at a new facility in Licking County.

The retreat center, which previously served as a horse farm and vacation home, is the first and only facility that the organization owns. The program also operates in Malibu, California, but Save a Warrior rents that space.

The new center in Newark, called “Warrior Village,” provides many new opportunities in Ohio, which has the sixth-largest veteran population in the United States, said Adam Carr, executive director.

“It’s a very patriotic and philanthropic state,” Carr, who went through the program himself before joining the staff, said of Ohio. “People here really support veterans, which is important.”

In the past six years, 607 people have gone through the five-day program in California, led by people who have gone through the program themselves. Save a Warrior has a heavy focus on mindfulness, meditation and learning to cope with trauma and depression, with support from other veterans.

Dowling said daily meditation was his big takeaway from the program and said it has helped him cope with stress in everyday life.

“Every day of my life gets better. I don’t want that to sound generic, but it truly does,” Dowling said. “I thought I was alone. It changed my whole world, and I couldn’t be more thankful for it.”

Anyone who feels they are in need of help can sign up on Save a Warrior’s website and a staff member will reach out within 48 hours to discuss aligning schedules with the program. There are about 300 people on the waiting list, but for many, Save a Warrior CEO Keith Ritz said, waiting isn’t an option.

Between Malibu and the new program in Newark, the organization will be able to accommodate nearly the same number of people in 18 months as it had in the past six years combined. The first Save a Warrior program in Newark will begin at the end of August and there will be five programs in the fall. For 2019, 14 are planned, including an all-women’s program.

The program, which costs about $3,500 per person, is funded by donors and free to those who go through the application process. Transportation is not included.

Central Ohio is the perfect location for the new facility, Carr said, because a majority of the country can reach Newark in a day’s drive.

The organization allotted a $1.5 million budget for the space and renovations in Newark. It purchased the 47-acre plot of land in December 2017, which includes a pond and several furnished buildings, for $787,000. The group plans to build a stone labyrinth, to be used for self-reflection, and a ropes course that allows for team building. The organization also will be working with PBJ Connections, an equine-therapy center in Pataskala, on the war-detox programs.

According to surveys collected prior to and following the program, symptoms of depression and PTSD decreased for participants. One of the people helped by Save a Warrior was Patrick Atkinson, who now works with development and finance for the organization.

His wife, Nichelle Atkinson, was pregnant with twins when Patrick left to complete the program in Malibu. She said he returned much happier with a renewed sense of life.

“He came back a whole new person,” said Nichelle Atkinson, who now serves as the director of development. “It was perfect timing. Bringing two new kids into the world, I needed a whole person.”

Originally published by The Columbus Dispatch on July 5, 2018.

Canal Winchester uses minnows as well as pesticides in mosquito battle

As urban forester Dick Miller hoisted 50 pounds of minnows and waded into muddy wetlands, he swatted away mosquitoes buzzing in his ear. He slit the bag open and released thousands of tiny fish into the water, freeing them to do what they do best: eat and kill.

Instead of pesticides and chemicals, Canal Winchester is using a more-natural approach to get rid of pesky mosquitoes for the summer. Members of the city’s urban forestry department released 11,000 fathead minnows into five wetland areas and ponds around the city this week in hopes of decreasing the mosquito count during a particularly wet and hot season. The minnows — which Miller called “voracious eaters” — consume mosquito larvae in the water before they mature.

The city’s program is the only one of its kind in the area and complements what Franklin County already does to prevent mosquito-population growth, such as spraying pesticides. Miller said the city has been releasing minnows for three years, and he believes the approach is more efficient — and definitely more natural.

“When you fog, within minutes, it’s on the ground, and it’s not killing anything after that,” Miller said. “It all helps, but with the minnows, you’re releasing a native fish in their native habitat in their native state to do what they do best without any chemicals or pesticides.”

Miller said he can’t quantify the program’s results, but he said it’s so simple that it was worth a try. It’s relatively cheap, too, at $425 for about 11,000 fish. In comparison, Canal Winchester paid $6,200 to the Franklin County Health Department for mosquito control in 2017.

“For a few hundred dollars and a little bit of time, why not?” he said. “How could it not help?”

Summer hikes or barbecues might be disturbed by a larger mosquito population this year because of a particularly wet few months. According to the National Weather Service in Wilmington, June’s temperatures and precipitation have been above average. Rainfall and heat create ideal breeding conditions for some species of mosquitoes that lay their eggs in standing water.

Fortunately, Miller said, most mosquitoes are simply a nuisance.

The Ohio Department of Health has tested 27,000 mosquitoes in 33 counties this year. Of those, six tested positive for West Nile virus, a disease carried by infected mosquitoes that can be deadly. Three of those positive tests were in Franklin County. There has been no documented human case of West Nile in Ohio this year, said Richard Gary, the state public-health entomologist.

The Franklin County Health Department — whose jurisdiction is the entire county outside Columbus and Worthington — uses a variety of methods to deter growth of the mosquito population. The department targets larvae early by locating standing water and releasing bacteria that affects only mosquito eggs. But as the summer goes on and mosquitoes hatch, the county begins fogging with pesticides. The county also responds to calls about high mosquito activity and will spray specific areas.

People who do not want pesticides in their neighborhood can fill out a no-spray request on the county health department’s website. Columbus Public Health has a similar request process for city residents. Some people prefer this option if they have specific concerns about allergies, health or the environment.

“You can’t ever get rid of mosquitoes,” Miller said. “They’ll always be there, but we can manage them as best we can.”

Originally published by The Columbus Dispatch on June 14, 2018.

Investigators hope bones reveal identity of serial killer’s victim

She’s the one nobody knows.

After serial killer Shawn Grate, 41, was sentenced to death Friday in Ashland County for the aggravated murder of two women, there was a feeling of closure and relief among family members and their communities.

But there’s a woman whose family and friends don’t even know she was murdered.

More than a decade after police uncovered her body in a roadside ditch in Marion County, Ohio authorities are expanding the search to identify another woman Grate confessed to killing. He was not charged with her murder and told investigators he believed her to be a magazine saleswoman, but did not know her identity. Authorities believed Grate when he told them he said he dumped her body in a roadside ditch off Victory Road and returned months later to burn it, leaving nothing but her bones.

Recent scientific discovery regarding those bones may have helped authorities uncover where she was from, getting them one step closer to finding out about the life of a woman who met a tragic end.

The Ohio Bureau of Criminal Investigation and Marion County Sheriff Tim Bailey requested help from law enforcement in Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas in a public bulletin sent Tuesday morning. The request was made after recent isotope analysis of the victim’s bones by the University of South Florida, where the remains were sent for testing.

Oxygen isotope values indicate she was likely born in one of the six states, according to the bulletin. The test also revealed she likely spent the last five years of her life in Texas, Florida or the Caribbean. A full DNA profile has been generated from her remains, but no matches have been found. The victim was 15 to 30 years old at the time of her death. She had brown hair, was between 5-foot-3 inches and 5-foot-9 inches and weighed 100-150 pounds.

Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine said expanding the search to those states increases the likelihood of someone recognizing the woman’s face based on a previous sketch and a facial reconstruction created last year. The bulletin requests that authorities in those states also examine missing-persons reports and contact the Marion County Sheriff’s Office if any case is a potential match.

“We want to do everything we can to notify the relatives and friends,” DeWine said. “We feel a moral obligation to do everything we can do (to identify the victim.)”

Bailey said his office has spent the last 11 years dealing with the frustration over the the case, following leads all over the country and even the world. He remains hopeful about discovering her identity.

“We are going to continue to persevere and work this with the idea that eventually, somewhere, somehow, we’re going to find out who this young woman is,” he said.

Grate was arrested on Sept. 13, 2016, after the bodies of Elizabeth Griffith and Stacey Stanley were found in his Ashland house. Their bodies were discovered after a third woman Grate abducted was able to escape and call the police on his phone while he was sleeping. Since his arrest, Grate confessed to three additional murders, including the Marion County woman and two other Richland County women. The Richland County Prosecutor’s Office is currently reviewing the Richland County cases.

Anyone with information on the identity of the female found in Marion County is urged to call the Ohio Bureau of Criminal Investigation at 740-845-2406 or Marion County Sheriff’s Detective Chris Utley at 740-382-8244 ext. 5120.

Originally published by The Columbus Dispatch on June 6, 2018.

Group plans alternative Pride celebration

Some local activists have a message for people of color within the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer community: “Pick a Pride.”

Ariana Steele, the co-founder of Black Queer & Intersectional Columbus, is offering an alternative to the annual Stonewall Columbus Pride festival and parade which draws hundreds of thousands of LGBTQ people and their supporters Downtown. Steele’s group is planning its own event, Columbus Community Pride, on June 16 — the same day as Stonewall’s parade.

The move to create a separate Pride event, which will take place at Mayme Moore Park in the King-Lincoln neighborhood, was prompted by a series of events last year that Steele said illustrated Stonewall Columbus’ inability to accommodate marginalized groups within the LGBTQ community.

Last summer, four protesters — two of whom regularly attended meetings of Steele’s group — were arrested after interrupting the Stonewall Columbus Pride parade. Steele said the four were protesting the lack of intersectionality — a term used to describe accommodating multiple identities within a movement — as well as the “overwhelming” volume of police at Stonewall Columbus Pride.

″(Collaboration with police) makes it not inclusive because people of color historically have had bad experiences with police,” Steele said. “By collaborating with the police for their Pride … Stonewall is showing they’re not taking into account the needs of people of color in their community.”

Three of the protesters were sentenced in March to community service and probation. A fourth protester was accused of reaching for an officer’s gun during the incident. That case is still pending.

Steele and BQIC co-founder Dkeama Alexis began thinking about changes after the arrests. They organized protests in support of the #BlackPride4 and began planning what they call a more-inclusive Pride festival.

Columbus Community Pride kicks off June 2 with a dance party at The Summit, 2210 Summit St., and will be followed by a series of educational events leading up to the June 16 festival.

Through fundraising, all events will be free to the public.

“We make an explicit effort to hear the most-marginalized voices,” Steele said. “When I say marginalized, I mean folks who are black and trans and poor and disabled and immigrants.”

BQIC hired a black, trans-owned security company to monitor the festival. There will be about eight security guards, and they will be armed, Steele said.

Unlike Stonewall Columbus, Columbus Community Pride organizers say they will not accept corporate sponsors.

Stonewall Columbus officials say the the scope of the annual Pride festival requires a police presence.

The annual festival attracts 500,000 to 700,000 people, so security is not only a city requirement but necessary for protection, said Stonewall Columbus Pride coordinator Sabrina Boykin.

“While I completely understand and respect (BQIC’s) perspective, we still have a need to make sure that the very credible threats we are given every year … are not threats that are carried out,” she said.

Stonewall Columbus was required by the court to testify “involuntarily” during the #BlackPride4 trial and sent a letter requesting leniency in sentencing and no jail time, said Stonewall Columbus Interim Director Deb Steele.

Deb Steele — no relation to Ariana Steele — said Stonewall Columbus is “very much” in support of BQIC’s event and message.

“Stonewall does not have a monopoly on Pride,” Boykin said. “Pride is something that should be experienced in every community. … I think it’s wonderful they’re doing their own Pride.”

But, Boykin said, the growth of the Stonewall Columbus Pride event and having corporate sponsors aren’t necessarily a bad thing.

“It wasn’t that long ago that people were being fired for marching in the parade,” Boykin said. “The fact that we can march proudly with our corporate sponsors is a true testament to how far we’ve come. It’s something I wouldn’t want to take away from those employees.”

Originally published by The Columbus Dispatch on June 1, 2018.