Davin Eldridge – Staff Writer
The judge was quiet and reserved, yet was noticeably stern. With each new item on the docket called out by the state, the honorable William H. Coward followed along closely. He handled it swiftly, tacking on the occasional audit of some small detail with District Attorney Jason Arnold, who, in turn, never missed a beat nor lacked a sufficient answer.
It was business as usual on the far end of the bar, and rambunctious as always throughout the rows of plain wooden pews. Scattered throughout were a few dozen locals, many of whom had waited in line in the hall beyond the courtroom since 8:30 a.m. They sat patiently waiting for their name to be called, carrying on in a familiar fashion, whether or not they knew one another. Eventually, the clamor they produced rose to kindergarten proportions, before the Bailiff once again repeated, “You need to be quiet. Now.”
The room hushed again for the moment. Most of the pews were filled with folks who the state alleged to have committed low level offenses; driving while license revoked, possession of a joint, drug paraphernalia, communicating threats. But there were also a few higher profile cases set to be rattled off from the docket.
Then there was the case of 47-year-old Ronan Byron MacGregor, former curator of Franklin’s Scottish Tartan’s Museum, who was indicted on one felony count of embezzlement in 2017. The defense was represented by Franklin attorney Rob Hensley, according to the Macon County Clerk of Court.
Whereas the other cases were borne out of allegations of a more nefarious nature, MacGregor’s seemed somehow out of place to some of his fellow county residents.
But unlike many of his neighbors on the docket, MacGregor had hardly ever been charged with anything that even remotely resembled embezzlement. His first encounter with the law was back in May 2004, when he wound up in Jackson County district court for criminal speeding – 76 miles per hour in a 55 mph zone. A little more than two years later he’d get another citation by another state trooper, this time for having an expired registration.
About a decade later, MacGregor found himself facing a felony indictment that few could hardly say they saw coming.
“The Tartan’s Museum was embezzled?” said Matthew Houser, 27, a visitor from Boone who came to Franklin to check out this year’s Scottish Heritage Festival for his third time. “Those three words just don’t seem to go together – Tartan, museum and embezzlement.”
Despite the offense having been reported once before by Asheville’s WLOS-TV right after MacGregor made bail – few others from Franklin seem to be familiar with the case at all.
“The board of directors was surprised and shocked,” recalls Franklin Police Chief David Adams, who initially investigated the allegations right after museum board members first reported the theft. “There was definitely some kind of discrepancy. The board did what they were supposed to do, and were good stewards of the community by letting the authorities know and properly reporting it.”
What few details there are surrounding the case remain nearly as limited to the public today as they did when MacGregor was first arrested.
“I hadn’t even heard about it until just now,” said Travis Tallent, Franklin’s Human Resources Officer. “I’ve only been with the town for about a year now, but no, I had no idea.”
Adams said between credit cards and cash, more than $70,000 was discovered to have been missing from the museum’s coffers. Board Director James Akins was still in disbelief when Chief Adams arrived.
According to court documents, the offense allegedly occurred somewhere between as early as New Year’s Day 2010, until as late as September 2014. MacGregor wasn’t officially charged until years later, when on Sept. 5, 2017, he was indicted on one felony count of embezzlement by employee of a charitable organization.
The former museum curator was shortly out on a $10,000 bond after being processed in Buncombe County. His first court appearance wasn’t until Dec. 18.
While the alleged theft comes as much of a shock to locals today as it did four years ago, Adams was less incredulous.
“It can happen anywhere,” he said. “From convenience stores, to a large store. You’d be surprised when and where money gets stolen, or the kinds of people who would steal.”
MacGregor – who changed his name from Roger Byron Greeson Jr., the year after he began at the museum in 2003 – was known locally as the tall bearded curator who always wore kilts, helping visitors track down their ancestral tartans.
Once Adams had taken the report, he handed it over to Detective Tom Ammons of the State Bureau of Investigations, which assumes authority over cases of that nature.
Finally at MacGregor’s June 25, 2018, court appearance, District Attorney Jason Arnold had the case continued until Sept. 17. Arnold said, “the state’s still negotiating the matter in discovery” with the defendant’s legal counsel, Robert Hensley. There still remained some unresolved issues between both parties, he added.
Down the street, the museum remained quietly alive, busy with the occasional visitor from off the street. Assuming MacGregor’s old role, the museum’s new curator, Daniel Williamson, thanked another local for their interest after helping them determine their family’s colors. Despite the allegations, and the museum’s numerous setbacks, year-after-year, Williamson said the museum will live to see another day.
“It hasn’t really negatively impacted us, actually,” said Williamson. “It was mentioned back when it first got reported, but it never really gets brought up. A lot of people really haven’t heard.”
Museum volunteers, along with Williamson – its only paid employee – have been working hard to secure the museum’s future. It’s all about financial viability, improved fundraising and the sacrifice of only a few locals who spare a few hours a week to help out.
“It’s like night and day,” said Williamson, who also runs a house cleaning service on the side to make ends meet. “I mean, sure, the museum would have been better off if [the stolen funds] were still here, but things are on the up and up, I’d say.”
This year’s Taste of Scotland festival helped the museum realize some its best gift shop sales to date, as well as a renewed interest on the part of the public to donate to the world’s last remaining tartan museum. But its survival depends on a lot more than its gift shop or charity.
“We’re helping people find their heritage,” said Williamson. “The earliest Appalachian settlers were Scots-Irish. They went to Pennsylvannia through the wagon trail and down through Appalachia. You look at the names around here. Most of them are the same names of some of the oldest families to settle this country.”
Indeed, at least some 1,500 clannish surnames have been estimated by the museum to claim a Scots-Irish origin, said Williamson – including his own.
“That’s why we’re here,” he said. “Preserving and celebrating our roots.”
According to Tallent, the Town of Franklin alone has given the museum approximately $10,000 in grants over the last five years, after receiving nothing last fiscal year. The Tourism Development Authority granted it some $5,200 to help it market events to tourists.
The museum is now aiming to eventually purchase the building it’s currently in. It’s planning a haunted museum tour in October, and has kicked off a #savethetartans campaign to raise awareness about its place in Appalachian society.