Valdosta Daily Times

January 1, 2014

Top Ten Stories of 2013

Kay Harris and Dean Poling
The Valdosta Daily Times

VALDOSTA — Each year, Times employees select 10 news stories from the previous 12 months that had the greatest impact on the community and the largest response from readers.

Tragedy again dominates the list following the deaths of several young men and women in separate incidents. A large explosion and fire, the loss of an historically sentimental site, issues in local government decisions, SPLOST, and large construction projects round out the top 10 for the year.

1. The Death of Kendrick Johnson

One of the earliest stories of 2013 became not only the top story of the year but a story that dominated the year.

On Jan. 11, 17-year-old Lowndes High student Kendrick “KJ” Johnson’s body was discovered in a rolled-up wrestling mat inside the school’s old gym. He’d been missing since the previous day.

Law-enforcement officials and a state autopsy determined the teenager’s death to be accidental, caused by positional asphyxia, claiming he became trapped upside down in the mat while trying to retrieve a shoe.

The Johnson family did not accept the state’s findings. They believed someone killed KJ. By spring, the family began a vigil outside the Lowndes County Judicial Complex, which continued throughout the remainder of the year. They carried posters bearing the disfigured face of the dead teen and demanded Justice for KJ.

The family won the right to exhume Kendrick Johnson’s body for an independent autopsy. This second autopsy claimed to find blunt-force trauma to the neck and determined the death to be non-accidental.

Throughout the year, the case drew more attention from rallies in Valdosta to becoming a social-media phenomenon to national news coverage.

The family demanded a coroner’s inquest, which has not been granted, and a federal investigation, which is under ongoing review by U.S. Attorney Michael Moore’s office.

The KJ story now continues into 2014.

2. City of Valdosta Sewer Woes

Following a massive flood event in April 2009 which threatened to overwhelm the Withlacoochee Wastewater Treatment Plant, Valdosta City officials tried to obtain more than $93 million in federal funding to replace the plant, while not making any provisions to keep it from being overwhelmed again. Four years later, in February 2013, another heavy rainfall caused flooding which again emptied raw sewage into backyards, businesses, and the Withlacoochee River.

The city shut the plant down this time entirely, allowing millions of gallons of untreated raw sewage to flow directly into the river, causing brown-outs, warnings and closures downstream in Florida. The Times’ investigations turned up similar events dating back more than 20 years, with a total of more than 300 million gallons of untreated and partially treated sewage released into the Withlacoochee.

Following lawsuits and a consent order from the Environmental Protection Agency, the city is under time constraints to relocate and rebuild the plant, replace pump stations, and replace gravity lines with force main lines. To date, the city has obtained loans from the Georgia Emergency Management Agency for water/sewer issues, with an outstanding loan debt of more than $93 million.

With the passage of SPLOST VII, the city will be able to pay back a large portion of the loans for the new plant and affiliated projects within the next seven years.

3. A tragic loss in Brooks County

In early July, a single vehicle accident took the lives of three Brooks County High football players shortly after leaving practice. Jicaree Watkins, Shawn Waters, and Johnie Parker died in the accident while a fourth player, De’Vron Whitfield, was seriously hurt but recovered from his injuries.  The loss affected the entire community, which pulled together for the sake of the families. Several players paid homage to their lost teammates by wearing their numbers and jerseys throughout a stellar season, which saw the Trojans all the way to the state semi-finals.

Coach Maurice Freeman helped his players recover from the tragic loss of their friends and inspired them to perform at their peak all season, not losing a single game at home all year.

4. Lowndes County solid waste woes

The Lowndes County Commission voted in 2012 to award a contract to Advanced Disposal for solid waste collection in the unincorporated areas of the county in exchange for low rates.

At the same time, commissioners closed the solid waste and recycling centers throughout the county, angering residents who still have no place to take yard waste, certain recyclables, and bulk trash.

The contract went into effect on Feb. 1 amidst much confusion, with a number of issues in the initial months as residents adapted to the change.

The county and Advanced Disposal sued Deep South Sanitation for continuing to operate past Feb. 1 in the unincorporated areas of the county. The litigation is ongoing and is in the hands of the Georgia Supreme Court.

5. Explosion and fire at Perma-Fix

Three employees were severely injured in an explosion at the Perma-Fix of South Georgia chemical plant in Valdosta in August.

Black smoke billowing from the massive fire which followed the explosion could be seen for miles, as first responders poured onto the scene to battle the blaze. The entire plant was engulfed and destroyed, but nearby businesses were saved. The area was cordoned off and evacuated until firefighters could ensure it was safe to return.

The plant in the Azalea East Industrial Park has been located in Valdosta since 1974. Perma-Fix handles a variety of chemical waste, which is processed and disposed of in accordance with federal regulations.

6. SGMC opens new patient tower

South Georgia Medical Center’s new Dasher Memorial Heart Center and Patient Tower opened in August following nearly two years of construction. The $64 million, five-story building holds state-of-the-art medical facilities, including new heart cath labs, high-tech monitoring stations for nurses, and 96 modern patient care rooms.

Several areas of the original SGMC building, dating back decades, were moved into the new facility, freeing up space for additional patients and overflow as needed.

7. Highway 84 Overpass.

Work began and continues on the West Hill Avenue/Highway 84 Overpass. The work has slowed traffic along the east-west route for several months. Motorists are advised to continue being aware of ongoing construction. Because of limited maneuverability, large trucks should avoid West Hill Avenue completely.

Last week, the Georgia Department of Transportation noted the work is progressing faster than expected — 20 percent ahead of schedule.

The completion date was set for Dec. 31, 2014, a year from now.

“The project is expected to be completed before the current completion date of Dec. 31, 2014 and should not need an extension for project time,” Brian Starling, assistant area engineer for Valdosta’s GDOT, said recently. “If unexpected circumstances arise warranting a time extension, such as excessive amounts of inclement weather, unforeseen need for extra work, etc., then the need to extend the project time could become a possibility; but that is unlikely to occur at this stage of the project.”

8. SPLOST passes.

Despite being defeated in the 2012 election, Valdosta and Lowndes County officials placed SPLOST VII on the 2013 ballot.

In 2012, SPLOST VII would have been used for a library and faced vocal opposition. In 2013, the special purpose local option sales tax was designated to fund infrastructure issues such as the city’s waster water treatment plant; it still faced opposition but nothing like the previous year’s anti-SPLOST sentiment.

Come the November election, SPLOST VII passed by about a 70-30 ratio of the registered voters casting ballots. With its passing, the 1 percent sales tax continues today and for the next six years.

9. Remerton Mill torn down.

Both sides had arguments to make their respective cases in this story set in Remerton, a city within the city limits of Valdosta.

On the one side, some wished to save the old Strickland Mill building. After all, if not for the mill being established a hundred years ago, there would be no Remerton.

On the other side, the mill had been gated off and empty for years, with no plans for its renovation or use.

In the end, the mill came down this year. Its demolition means another piece of Remerton’s past has vanished. Another change in the evolution from a town that once sat in the shadow of a cotton mill but is now being swallowed by the expansion of the neighboring university.

10. VSU student murdered

In December 2012, Valdosta State University was rocked by the murder of 17-year-old freshman Jasmine Benjamin, who was discovered dead on the couch of a fifth-floor study room in Georgia Hall.

The cause of death: asphyxiation. The Georgia Bureau of Investigation determined that Benjamin had been murdered.

On Jan. 11, authorities arrested Darien Joseph Meheux, then-18, a former VSU student who had dated Benjamin. He is charged with murder in the case.

Meheux’s trial is scheduled for the Jan. 13 session of the Lowndes County Superior Court, according to a court docket released before Christmas.

The murder was the first reported on the campus, which also saw several violent incidents during the year, leading to changes in security at the university.