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Teenagers testify Absher bought them booze, allowed pot smoking

Defense attorney Doug Pearson (right) consults with Michael Absher. Defense attorney Doug Pearson (right) consults with Michael Absher.

EDITOR'S NOTE: The Hendersonville Lightning is withholding the names of the juveniles in this report. They are referred to as Witness 1, Witness 2 and Witness 3.

Three teenaged boys testified in court Friday that group home founder and operator Michael Absher drove them to a high school where they bought marijuana and later bought them alcohol, which the boys consumed at the group home with his knowledge.
The stunning testimony came in a daylong trial in Henderson County District Court, where Absher faces charges of allowing the juveniles to consume alcohol and of contributing to the delinquency of a minor. The case has only just gotten started and Absher has yet to put on his defense. When Judge Patricia Young ordered potential witnesses out of the courtroom, seven or eight people walked out, including the three boys who testified Friday and other boys who are expected to testify on Absher’s behalf when the case resumes on Tuesday morning after the three-day holiday weekend.
Absher, who impressed dozens of supporters with his inspiring personal story of rising from homeless as a teenager himself to founding Only Hope WNC, took notes on a legal pad, consulted a thick notebook with details of his defense and spoke with defense attorney Doug Pearson as the teenagers testified about what happened in November and December 2016. Absher faces misdemeanor charges of aiding and abetting alcohol consumption by a minor and contributing to the delinquency of a minor. A member of the School Board, Absher, 28, is the founder and leader of Only Hope WNC, which operates a nonprofit group home on Allen Road in East Flat Rock.
Because of the potential for conflict of interest among other elected officials in Henderson County, the case involves a judge and prosecutor from Buncombe County — District Court Judge Patricia Young and Assistant District Attorney Jeremy Ingle.
The first witness was a 16-year-old student at Henderson County Career Academy and Innovative High School who was terminated from Only Hope on April 1 after violating group home policy. During cross-examination, Pearson drew from the witness that he was on probation for a fight that caused injuries serious enough to send the victim to Mission hospital for reconstructive surgery. The witness also acknowledged that he had been kicked out of Only Hope for fighting. When Pearson asked him if he had been disciplined for shoving Absher against a wall, the boy said no, that had happened in a car.
The witness testified that he came to live at Only Hope in early November 2016 based on his probation officer’s recommendation because of instability in his home life with divorced parents.
The boy, 15 at the time, testified that Absher helped the teenagers buy pot by giving them a ride and money.

“So the defendant would actually take you to where you would purchase marijuana?” Ingle asked.
Yes, the witness said.

The boys said Absher knowingly permitted their pot smoking in a bathroom of the residence where there were no video cameras.

Asked about their relationship at that time, Witness 1 said, “By that time he was kind of my friend and guardian.”
The first witness and the next two, all 15 at the time, testified to what happened about a week before Christmas in 2016.
Absher drove Witness 1, the one living at the home, to pick up Witness 2 and Witness 3, at the home of Witness 3 that afternoon or early evening. The three boys were friends who had known one another for around a year or so and hung out at school, Balfour Education Center at the time, played basketball at Etowah Park and played video games on Xbox. Only Witness 1 lived at the group home.
That night, according to their testimony, after Absher picked them up, they got pizza. Then Absher drove them to West Henderson High School, where one of the boys bought marijuana, the witnesses said.
“He (Absher) gave me $50 and (Witness 2) had $20,” Witness 1 said. “It was decided we’d get high and have a good time.”
None of the boys testified that Absher ever participated in smoking pot.
Back at the house, the teenagers asked Absher to go out and buy them liquor.
“They argued back and forth and Michael finally told (Witness 1) to shut up and he’d go,” Witness 2 said.
Absher drove to the ABC store and came back with Fireball Cinnamon Whisky, regular Smirnoff and pineapple Smirnoff vodka, one of the boys said. Absher told the boys how to conceal the alcohol use.
“Michael said there was no cameras in his room, to take it in there,” Witness 2 said.
All three testified that they did not give Absher money for the booze and that he never told them they should not be drinking alcohol.
“At any time did Michael prevent you or hinder you from drinking alcohol?” Ingle asked.
“No,” Witness 3 said with a chuckle. “Not at all.”
At 2:51 p.m., two questions into Pearson’s adversarial cross-examination, Witness 1 stood up and tried to leave the witness stand.
“Whatever happens happens,” he said. “I’ve given enough of my time for this.”
Judge Young warned him that he was not free to leave and, although she could not force him to stay and answer questions from the defense, she would have to strike his testimony for the state if he would not sit for the cross-examination. After a 15-minute recess, Witness 1 returned to the stand.
Pearson tried to establish that Witness 1 had made the allegations against Absher in retaliation for being kicked out of the house. The defense attorney pointed out that the teenager never told law officers, a school resource officer or any other authority about drinking alcohol and smoking pot at the house until after April 1, 2017, when he was thrown out.
Witness 1 also testified that Absher had ordered a vacuum storage container for pot and two smoking pipes from Amazon. He had made Snapchat pictures of those items and sent them to Henderson County sheriff’s Detective Aaron Lisenbee, the lead investigator in the case. Also part of the case are the witness’s Snapchat photos of pot in the home and one at West Henderson High, where the witnesses said they bought pot.


D.A. drops threat charge


One Absher charge did get resolved on Friday.
The state agreed to drop a charge against Absher for communicating threats. The charge was brought by Tony Carswell, an East Henderson High School teacher, after a dispute over Absher’s failure to sign in when he visited the high school. Absher, who had filed a complaint of his own accusing Carswell of threatening him, said Friday that he had dropped his complaint earlier.