The News Courier in Athens, Alabama

December 30, 2012

The Top 12 of 2012


The News Courier

Editor’s note: The following capsules, which appear in no particular order, are what The News Courier’s newsroom staff determined to be the top local stories of 2012.

From staff reports

3 murder cases

Three people were murdered in Limestone County during 2012. Trials are pending for suspects in two of the three cases. The suspect in the third case has not been identified.

Barbara Delaney

The trial for James Paul "Jamie" Pigg, 34, of Lydia Corey Road will be scheduled sometime in 2013.

Pigg is charged with murder in the March 27 death of his grandmother, Barbara Delaney, 68, at her home at 18796 Lydia Corey Road. An autopsy showed Delaney died of blunt-force trauma to the head. Pigg, who was reportedly angry about being evicted, allegedly struck her in the head multiple times with a hammer and then shot her.

He pleaded not guilty to the crime in July due to mental disease or defect and remains in the Limestone County Jail with bail set at $50,000.

Brandon Hydrick

Athens brothers Brandon, 26, and Ryan Hydrick, 25, had left a cookout and marshmallow roast near Piney Creek on Sept. 29 and were heading home when they got lost about 3 a.m. on Fennell Lane, a dead-end road in Tanner. Joel Patrick Moyers, 52, who was staying in a mobile home owned by his mother on Fennell Road, saw the Hydricks stop in the night and became suspicious. He grabbed his assault rifle and a flashlight and headed out to investigate. When Ryan, who was driving, saw Moyers approaching he decided to leave the area.  Moyers attempted to flag down the truck to get the license number but Ryan continued past him. Moyers fired what he later told sheriff's officials was "a warning shot,"  which pierced the tailgate, the back wall of the cab, the back seat and the front passenger, killing Brandon. Initially charged with felony murder and released on a $260,000 bail, a grand jury indicted Moyers on Dec. 7 on a charge of capital murder. Upon learning of his upgraded charge and surmising his bail would be revoked, Moyers attempted to harm himself, was hospitalized and later arrested.  No trial date has been set.

Sharon Wellington

Athens Police are still investigating the murder of a 32-year-old woman who moved here from South Carolina and was active in a Rogersville church. Police believe she was stabbed to death in her Elm Street apartment by someone she knew. They have interviewed a person of interest but have made no arrest.

A fellow member of Southside Church of Christ in Rogersville discovered Wellington’s body about 7 p.m. Nov. 30, in her second-floor apartment at 1410 E. Elm St. where she lived alone. The church member had gone there to see about Wellington after not hearing from her for a couple of days. Wellington, who had worked in the past but was not working currently, came from South Carolina, where she still has family.

Tax hike

Some angry residents chastised Athens City Council members and Mayor Ronnie Marks in November following a swiftly proposed and approved 1 percent sales tax increase.

The increase, which will boost the sales tax from 8 to 9 cents on every dollar spent, will take effect in January 2013.

The increase is expected to generate about $3 million in additional revenue for the city each year. About half will go to schools and economic development.

Council members who backed the hike — Mignon Bowers, Milly Caudle, Jimmy Gill and Harold Wales — believed the city needed the money to do more than make ends meet each year, such as establishing a fleet-management system for streets, sanitation, police and fire vehicles; road repair and paving; economic development; and other projects.

Councilwoman Caudle explained it best by saying without the increase, the city would just continue as it had in the past to "kick the can down the road" when faced with the need for new vehicles, paving and other big-ticket projects.

However, some residents and business owners, still struggling after years of nationwide recession, believed the council was both sneaky and uncaring in raising the tax.

Some said the increase would prompt shoppers, especially those in eastern Limestone County, to shop in Madison or Huntsville. Others said the city government, which had at least $3 million in reserve, should live within its means.

Still others were outraged that the council called a work session to discuss the possibility of a sales tax hike and then announced at that work session that they planned to pass the hike even before the public could comment. Many also disapproved of the timing of the vote, believing the three newly elected council members should have been allowed to vote on the matter rather than the three about to leave office.

Council members, believing the hike was critical to growth and unsure whether the newly-elected-but-not-yet-installed council members would approve it, moved quickly to ensure the measure would pass.

Councilman Jim Hickman opposed the increase because of citizen opposition, uncertainty about the need, and the pressure to promptly approve it.

Rattlers roll

After 25 playoff appearances, the storied Tanner High School football program brought back its first state championship and became the first county school in the Super Six era to claim a Blue Map trophy.

Top-ranked Tanner (14-0) defeated No. 4 Washington County 28-14 in the Class 2A Super Six championship game at Auburn University’s Jordan-Hare Stadium Dec. 7.

The Rattlers set a school record with 14 victories in 2011, but the season ended with a bitter 34-14 loss to Elba in the 2A title game in Tuscaloosa.

During this year’s playoff run, Tanner dispatched Sand Rock, Walter Welborn, Fultondale, Reeltown and Washington County by a margin of 180-28.

Tanner edged 3A state champion Madison Academy 13-7 in the season opener, did not trail all season and produced five shutouts, including three in the playoffs. The Rattlers scored 45.2 points per game while holding opponents to 7.1 per contest.

The offensive line of Baltazar Rubio, Austin Lewter, Shamaud Baker, Tray Fletcher and Seth Smith paved the way for more than 4,000 rushing yards by running backs Hayden Stephens and Fred Rich, quarterback Johnathan Fletcher and fullback Kyle Shoulders.

Greg Maclin, Shoulders, Stephens and Rich were named to the All-State team, and Rubio was chosen All-State honorable mention. Rich, the 2A championship game MVP, is this year’s Class 1A-3A area player of the year.

In the past four seasons, Tanner has compiled a 49-4 record with four region championships. During coach Laron White’s 10-season tenure, the Rattlers have finished 105-21 with 10 playoff appearances.

Tornadoes return

The morning of March 2 dawned with a memory. As the skies darkened, the people of Limestone County couldn’t escape the visions of 10 months prior when the worst tornado outbreak in four decades hit the state.

However, forecasters were saying if tornadoes struck that day, they would be nowhere close to the severity of the April 27 storms.

A severe thunderstorm warning was issued for Limestone County at 9:12 a.m., but a tornado touched down only minutes later around the intersection of U.S. 72 and Lindsay Lane. It spun up so fast that some sirens remained silent as people scrambled to find anything resembling shelter.

The EF3 twister damaged homes in the Canebrake subdivision before striking out toward Madison County in almost the exact path as the April 27 EF5 tornado.

Homes that were just starting a new life were again pummeled with winds up to 160 mph. Limestone Correctional Facility was hit head on — a dorm was heavily damaged and a dog sucked out of the K-9 unit kennels.

A smaller, weaker tornado, an EF1, hit the Thach community that afternoon. Thirty-eight deaths, including one in Alabama, occurred in the storm outbreak that week.

In all, 270 structures were damaged in Athens and Limestone County.

Cemetery vandalized three times

November is typically a time to celebrate veterans, count blessings and visit loved ones.

But for the members of Little Ezekiel Missionary Baptist Church, it was also a time to grieve, reflect and restore after its cemetery in southern Limestone County was vandalized three times in successive weeks in November.

Hatchett Cemetery, which is located among cornfields on a remote portion of Bridgeforth Road, has nearly 200 marked graves. The small, fenced-in cemetery is the final resting place for dozens of prominent families, including several veterans.

Ardmore Monument Company conducted a survey and estimated at least $17,000 in damages. Many of the grave markers were toppled, chipped and split into shards or slabs.

Little Ezekiel, which has about 200 members, has held four community workdays and has pledged to fully restore the burial grounds. Eight grave markers have already been replaced.

Robert Allen Muse, 21, of Falkville, was arrested Nov. 26. He was charged with three counts of first-degree criminal mischief. His initial bail was set at $150,000 cash only, and Muse spent 21 days in the Limestone County Jail.

Muse posted a $75,000 secure bond and was released Dec. 19, after a bail-reduction that morning with District Judge Jerry Batts. The bail stipulations include an 8 p.m. curfew, turning his Kawasaki motorcycle over to his father and refraining from entering the county unless he has a court appearance or a meeting with his public defender, Garry Clem of Athens.

Controversial choice

In an effort to find a permanent home for court programs, the Limestone County Commission purchased a seven-acre property on the northern outskirts of the city.

The commissioners at the time — Gerald Barksdale, Bill Daws, Bill Latimer and Gary Daly — approved buying the L&S Shopping Center property for $525,000 from former owners Dick and Billy Smith in May.

The property was valued at $800,000, according to Chairman Stanley Menefee, who opposed the purchase.

The County Commission has proposed moving Community Corrections, Pardons and Paroles and county maintenance from a 16,000-square foot office space in the Crutcher Shopping Center on South Jefferson Street to the L&S site on North Jefferson Street.

The L&S property is comprised of the former Foodland grocery store and Fred’s Discount Store, a trio of rental houses, a closed restaurant and a handful of buildings still in use, including a barbershop and a space used for Hispanic Alcoholics Anonymous meetings.

The county declined to renew a four-year lease with owner Jimmy Greenhaw to remain long term at Crutcher, which costs $2,500 per month to rent. Earlier this month the commission voted to reject bids to renovate the Fred’s building because all three bids were over the $300,000 estimated budget.

The commissioners are currently trying to decide whether to build a prefabricated metal building on the L&S site or purchase a ready-to-use structure to house Community Corrections and an 11-foot-by-7-foot Emergency Management Agency equipment trailer.

U.S. 72 shooting

One of the most bizarre crimes in Athens' history occurred in September when an angry young motorist shot a passing motorcyclist then turned himself in and confessed to authorities.

After arguing with his father at their Whiteville, Tenn., home the afternoon of Sept. 10, 20-year-old Noah Andrew McGlawn got into his green SUV for a drive and eventually wound up on U.S. 72 East in Athens. At the same time, 23-year-old Brandon Matlock of Athens was westbound on 72 East, when he drove past a green SUV traveling in the lane next to him.

Matlock told Athens Police that as he glanced at the SUV he was passing, he saw the driver point a handgun at him. McGlawn fired his .22-caliber pistol at Matlock, striking him in the right shoulder and right, lower back. Matlock managed to stop his black and white sport bike in the median and walk across two eastbound lanes of traffic to seek help at Eagle Up Driving Range.

McGlawn, who committed the drive-by shooting and fled, later stopped at a convenience store-gas station and telephoned central dispatch, telling the dispatcher he had shot a motorcyclist. Officers arrested him without incident. During questioning, McGlawn told investigators he was angry with his father, who wanted him to go to trade school, and he "just felt like shooting someone."

Initially charged with attempted murder and shooting into an occupied vehicle, McGlawn was denied bail after he told authorities if released he would do it again. McGlawn’s father told The News Courier his son suffers from a mental disability. Matlock was formally charged with attempted murder Oct. 31 following indictment by a Limestone County grand jury.

Although most shooting are senseless, Police Chief Floyd Johnson described the incident as totally bizarre and out of character for Athens. “I’ve been doing this (police work) 30 years and this was a cold act," Johnson said.  "It was just a matter of who he was going to shoot.”

Sentencings

Several high-profile cases were wrapped up this year as Limestone County judges prescribed sentencing for a variety of crimes.

In March, 27-year-old Joshua Ray Cowan of Elkmont was sentenced to 75 years for his role in a home invasion, robbery and beating of Tanner couple Shirley and Charlotte Haney. He also received 10 years for third-degree burglary and 40 years for two counts of second-degree kidnapping, which will be served concurrently.

In May, Judge James Woodroof Jr. sentenced 58-year-old evangelist Austin Nichols Jr. of Athens to three consecutive 30-year sentences for the rape of his 14-year-old granddaughter.

Woodroof also ordered the victim to attend counseling and for Nichols to pay the costs associated with it. Nichols will also have to register as a convicted sex offender.

In September, Woodroof sentenced an Athens mother to life in prison for the sexual abuse and torture of her 6-year-old daughter. Suzanne Bennison, 45, was ordered to serve two concurrent life terms on the two felony charges. She received a life sentence because she had two prior felony convictions.

A 43-year-old woman convicted of murdering her lover was sentenced to life in prison on Oct. 11. Lisa Mechelle Pate of Arab was convicted in August of killing 59-year-old James Miller of Athens.

They met and began an affair while working at Redstone Arsenal for the Army Corp of Engineers. Miller was shot three times at his north Jefferson Street home, reportedly after an argument with Pate.

Lastly, a 39-year-old Ardmore man was sentenced earlier this month to 50 years in prison in the 2009 shooting death of his nephew.

Woodroof, in his sentencing of Keith George, called his actions on the night of March 16, 2009, “intentional, aggressive and heinous.”

George argued that he shot 26-year-old Rusty George in self-defense.

Elections

With 2012 being an election year, Athens and Limestone residents had the opportunity to choose new representation on a local, state and national level.

The March 13 Republican primary set the stage for the Nov. 6 elections, with Rick Santorum receiving the most votes of the GOP presidential nominees. After Mitt Romney was nominated at the Republican Convention on Aug. 30, he easily carried Limestone County and Alabama, but lost nationally to President Barack Obama.

Limestone voters also helped re-elect Mo Brooks to a second term as the fifth congressional representative and helped send ousted Chief Justice Roy Moore back to Montgomery.

After winning in the March 13 primary election, circuit court clerk candidate Brad Curnutt, probate judge candidate Charles Woodroof and County Commission candidate Steve Turner all defeated their Democratic counterparts in November.

County Commissioner Bill Daws, the Democratic incumbent, lost to Republican challenger Ben Harrison, while License Commissioner Greg Tucker was the lone Democrat to emerge victorious in November. Tucker defeated Republican challenger Ronnie Coffman, who is also head of the Limestone County Republican Party.

Athens residents also had the opportunity to choose a new mayor and council on Aug. 28. Mayor Ronnie Marks easily won re-election by a 1,900-vote margin.

District 2 Councilman Harold Wales and District 3 Councilman Jimmy Gill faced no opposition in the election, while District 1 Councilwoman Mignon Bowers and District 5 Councilwoman Dr. Milly Caudle chose not to seek re-election.

Winning election to those seats were Chris Seibert in District 1 and Wayne Harper in District 5. District 4 incumbent Jim Hickman was defeated by challenger Joseph Cannon.

New chiefs

Athens chose two of its own this past year to lead its police and fire departments into the future.

Opting for in-house candidates to replace retiring police and fire chiefs, the City Council chose Capt. Floyd Johnson as police chief in February and Fire Prevention Chief Tony Kirk as fire chief in June.

The appointment of Johnson was an easy one for the council. After interviewing him Jan. 25, it was clear each of the five council members intended to look no further.

Johnson had been serving as interim chief since Jan. 1, after longtime Police Chief Wayne Harper retired Dec. 31, 2011.  Johnson began working for APD as a dispatcher in 1982, working his way up to captain in 2009, at which point he oversaw the investigative division and served as public information officer.

The department employs 58 full-time personnel, including 47 officers with arrest powers.

The retirement of Fire Chief Danny Southard on Feb. 1 due to health problems prompted an initial in-house search for a new fire chief.

That resulted in three in-house candidates, only two of whom had fire department experience — Kirk and Battalion Chief David Andrews. 

After interviewing the in-house candidates, however, the council decided to open the search to outside applicants. Following those interviews, the council decided to stick with its internal candidates. Kirk had been a supervisor for 21 of his nearly 26 years with AFD, becoming fire marshal for the department three years ago.

When Kirk was nominated and the council was about to vote,  Councilwoman Caudle said that if the council's mindset was to hire from within then it should have looked at the internal candidates and awarded the job to the best person based on education, experience and other qualifications and not seek outside candidates. She believed Andrews who was only 35 but had an impressive resume and seemed forward thinking was the most qualified in-house candidate. In the end, the council voted 3-0 with Caudle and Bowers, who is a friend of the Andrews family, abstaining. Caudle congratulated Kirk and said she believed he would be a qualified chief.

Development

Despite an ongoing sluggish economy, Athens and Limestone County worked — and succeeded — in 2012 to attract new industry and businesses.

Though announced in 2011, the county granted a sales tax abatement in February to Carpenter Technology Corporation in the amount of $8.162 million through July 2014 and a property tax abatement of more than $13.9 million over 10 years.

The city of Athens agreed to build a $3.5 million electrical substation in southern Limestone to power the plant, and agreed to install gas pipelines to the facility. The city placed a value on the scope of work at $375,000.

In April, CTC officials broke ground on the $500 million facility, scheduled to open in early 2014. In August, officials announced there had been 900 job applications received for 14 posted positions.

Also in February, Elkmont-based Electricfil announced it would hire 200 new employees through 2017 as part of a $9.5 million growth plan. The expansion will make the Elkmont location the North American headquarters for the company.

In late-March it was announced that Limestone topped the state in capital investments in 2011. A total of seven new industrial projects and existing companies’ expansions provided $539.2 million in total capital investment for Limestone County.

In April, the Athens Planning Commission gave conditional-use approval for an oil re-refinery, to be located on North Jefferson Street. The operation would cost about $40 million to build and could hire up to 30 employees who would earn $18 to $22 per hour. The commission has still not approved a final site plan for the project.

In June, the commission again approved a one-time sales tax abatement for a new industry to be located in Ardmore’s Dekko Industrial Park. Advanced Technical Manufacturing was expected to hire about 35 workers.

On the development front, the City Council in February rezoned 20 acres of property for a mixed-use facility that will require reopening Old Decatur Road. Developer Bill Ming said the project would combine residential and commercial projects, including a 60-unit apartment complex for residents aged 55 and older.

In November, Ming announced he would develop a 31,925-square-foot shopping center on U.S. 72, just west of Walmart. The project, dubbed Athens Shoppes, is expected to provide 100 to 150 jobs and be a mix of retail and restaurant establishments.

Athens also had four new restaurants open in 2012, including Cottonjohns, located on U.S. 72; Los Trojas, located in the Publix shopping center; New Texas Pizza Buffet, located just south of the Courthouse Square; and Picasso’s, also located on U.S. 72 near Starbucks.

Work continues this month on an IHOP, to be located where Back Yard Burgers was located. The project is being developed by Birmingham-based Cox Developments and will open be open by early spring.

Alabama Shakes explode

An infinite series of events and decisions led up to this moment, and if any one thing had changed it would be impossible to say if the Alabama Shakes would be where they are today.

This February, the Shakes are nominated for not one, but three Grammy awards: best new artist, best rock performance and a technical award.

The group that hales from Athens is comprised of lead singer and guitar player Brittany Howard, lead guitarist Heath Fogg, bassist Zac Cockrell and drummer Steve Johnson.

The group released an EP recorded in Nashville during summer 2011, and it seemed like only seconds passed before their song “You Ain’t Alone” was featured on a holiday ad for Zales Jewelry and media critics worldwide were listing them on one “artists to watch in 2012” list after another.

The big moment came this April with the release of their first full-length album, “Boys & Girls.” It peaked at No. 8 on U.S. charts, but in the United Kingdom, the album earned a gold rating and hit No. 1 on the U.K. Record Store chart.

This year has been good to the Shakes, with television and concert appearances worldwide, and 2013 only looks better.