Valdosta Daily Times

January 1, 2013

Top News Stories of 2012

Kay Harris and Dean Poling
The Valdosta Daily Times

VALDOSTA — By Kay Harris

and Dean Poling

The Valdosta Daily Times

Each year, staff members at The Valdosta Daily Times are asked to vote on the top stories of the year, based on the amount of interest the topic received from our readers and the significance of the story. While there were a number of noteworthy issues in 2012, the following are our Top Ten news stories of the year.

1. DJ Slain: On Jan. 20, 2012, Stephon Edgerton a.k.a. Juan Gatti, a popular on-air personality at WGOV, was shot three times outside the radio station around midnight, shortly after finishing his shift for the night. Edgerton was able to use his cell phone to call 911 and describe his assailant as a white male wearing a mask before succumbing to the injuries.

A family man with three children, his wife Hilda Edgerton told The Times that he was “a great father, a great husband, a great musician and just a great person. He didn’t deserve to die.”

Despite pleas for help from his family and friends and an outpouring of support from the community, the Lowndes County Sheriff’s Office has not made an arrest in the murder and no suspects have ever been named.

2. Lake Park Council: The year began on a sour note in Lake Park when newly elected mayor Ben Futch was sworn into office on Jan. 4 only to immediately dismiss two employees who had been with the city for more than 30 years.

Futch replaced longtime City Clerk Ann Peterson and long-time Police Chief Bert Rutland, voting to break the council’s two-to-two tie over the issues. The after-effects of the decisions were disastrous, and at least three clerks came and went in a matter of weeks as Lake Park residents complained about their water bills and more. The dismissed employees filed suit against the city, and two council members resigned, preventing the city from holding meetings without a quorum. In early July, after a contentious confrontation with Mayor Pro-tem Sandy Sherrill, Futch resigned.

One of the council members who had resigned in protest, Eric Schindler, was elected in November to be Lake Park’s new mayor.

3. LOST/ SPLOST/ T-SPLOST: The last year of Ashley Paulk’s tenure as Lowndes County Commission chairman was a contentious one with the City of Valdosta, as city officials refused to accept the county’s offer to keep the percentages the same for the split of the Local Option Sales Tax, a one penny tax that does not have to be voted on by residents, but must have the signatures and agreement of all of the municipalities and the county in order to continue to be collected every five years. The issue is now in the court system.

Citizens did have to choose whether or not to support two other penny taxes this year, the SPLOST and the

T-SPLOST. The Transportation SPLOST was an ill-advised gamble on the part of the Georgia General Assembly, creating large regions and forcing communities to vie for what little funding the Department of Transportation was making available. With little support from elected officials and a strong opposition organized by the state’s Tea Party, the tax was defeated in most of the state in the July primary election.

In November, a weary citizenry voted down the renewal of the Valdosta-Lowndes County SPLOST tax, which would have taken effect on Jan. 1, 2014. Despite several high-profile projects, citizens said they were tired of hearing elected officials fight over their tax dollars, and voted not to renew the one cent tax. Officials have not yet decided whether to pursue having the issue on the ballot in November 2013.

4. Prison violence: Following a tumultuous couple of years at the Valdosta State Prison, with numerous stabbings and acts of violence, two gang-related events in July brought the issue to a head.

On July 4, at least 10 inmates were transported to the emergency room at South Georgia Medical Center suffering from stab wounds and other injuries. A gang fight reportedly broke out in one of the common areas involving more than a dozen inmates. A few days later, several more inmates were involved in a similar altercation and had to be transported to the ER.

Less than a month later, Warden William Danforth was among several wardens reassigned by the state Department of Corrections. State officials said his transfer was not related to the violence at the prison.

In November, for the first time in several years, The Times was allowed back into the prison to cover a story, this time an uplifting tale of inmates and the Malachi Dads, an organization that works behind the prison walls to teach these men how to be fathers to their children.

5. Hahira ethics hearings: Following charges that he violated the ethics of his office, in January 2012, a specially appointed ethics committee ruled that Mayor Wayne Bullard did not act in an unethical manner in his dealings with a local trash collection service in which he was formerly affiliated.

The ethics meetings became quite contentious, with heated debates on both sides of the issue. The allegations were brought forth by citizens, and after the hearings, the ethics panel ruled that the charges were unfounded and Bullard had not done anything illegal.

6. Lowndes-Lanier tornado: On Saturday, March 3, 2012, a tornado swept through north Lowndes and Lanier counties. The tornado destroyed homes, left some people homeless and caused light damage to the Louis Smith Memorial Hospital in Lakeland.

The tornado struck at approximately 1 p.m., touching down approximately a mile or two north of Moody Air Force Base, traveling through the Walker’s Crossing area, heading toward Lakeland.

The twister ranked as an EF-3 on the Enhanced Fujita Tornado Scale, according to the National Weather Service’s office in Tallahassee, Fla. The Enhanced Fujita scale ranks tornadoes from EF-0 (winds reaching no more than 85 miles per hour) to EF-5 (winds over 200 mph.) An EF-3 ranking means the winds were between 136 mph and 165 mph, according to reports from March.

In the following weeks, volunteers helped clear debris while others helped those most affected by the storms.

7. VSU student found dead: On Nov. 18, 2012, Valdosta State University students discovered an unresponsive freshman on a couch in a fifth-floor study room of the campus’ Georgia Hall.

Jasmine Cathleen Benjamin, 17, was pronounced dead. Initially, authorities reported the student appeared to have died of natural causes, but a subsequent autopsy altered the nature of the investigation.

Benjamin’s family lives in Lawrenceville, which attracted the attention of Atlanta-area media to the case. Some North Georgia media resources claimed authorities called the death a murder, but Valdosta police and other authorities denied ruling the death a murder while they awaited toxicology reports.

The case also gained additional media attention as Benjamin’s family reported learning of their young daughter’s death via a Facebook posting.

8. High-ranking retirements: The past year marked major milestones in the number of high-ranking Lowndes County and Valdosta officials retiring or announcing their retirements.

After serving 51 years with the Lowndes County Clerk of Superior Court office, and 30 years serving as the clerk of court, Sara Crow announced she would not seek reelection in 2012. “Sara is, in my opinion, the living definition of a great public servant,” retired Southern Circuit Judge H. Arthur McLane said in 2011. “She demands the best from her staff, but she also demands the best from herself.” With the end of the year, she officially retired.

After serving 40 years as the Lowndes County Juvenile Court judge, Wayne Ellerbee announced he would retire from the position. Known for his no-nonsense approach, he could be as tough on parents as he could be on the juveniles facing charges in his court. Ellerbee retired this past fall.

After 16 years as Lowndes County sheriff and the past four as the Lowndes County Commission chairman, Ashley Paulk opted not to run for office in 2012. “Lowndes County has been blessed with a great public servant,” Georgia Attorney General Sam Olens said during a recent farewell reception for Paulk. His retirement from 20 years of public service became official Monday, Dec. 31.

Since August 1995, Frank Simons has served as Valdosta’s police chief. This week, his tenure as the Valdosta Police Department’s top law-enforcement officer is expected to come to an end as Simons retires after 41 years in police work. During his 17-plus years in Valdosta, he reorganized the police force and led the VPD to becoming a nationally accredited department.

9. VSU presidents: Valdosta State University welcomed a new president early in 2012 while bidding farewell to a former president.

In July, Dr. William McKinney became VSU’s latest president following the year-long tenure of beloved Interim President Dr. Louis Levy. With degrees in chemical engineering, history and philosophy of science, McKinney served four years as vice-chancellor for Academic Affairs at Indiana University-Purdue University prior to the Georgia Board of Regents selecting him as VSU’s new president.

In early October, former VSU President Dr. Hugh Bailey passed away. He was 83. Bailey served as Valdosta State president from 1978-2001. During this tenure, Bailey led the transition from Valdosta State being a college to achieving university status, fielded the first Blazers football team, and set the stage with academic programs and structures such as the University Center which VSU knows today.

“Every president leaves his or her unique mark in a university’s history,” McKinney said at the time of Bailey’s passing. “It is rare, however, to find a mark so transformative as President Bailey’s. Dr. Bailey’s legacy on our campus is apparent not only in its physical structure, but also in its spirit of strong community that we all value so highly. He set the high standard against which all future VSU presidents have been judged, and for his vision and leadership I will always be thankful.”

10. No zeroes: A Lowndes County School System policy of not giving zeroes and other extremely low grades caused a stir. Then Lowndes County Superintendent Steve Smith explained the policy: “We discourage giving zeroes or other extremely low grades for incomplete, missing, or failing assignments as they reflect an adverse statistical inequity for a student’s final grade. Instead, we suggest giving an incomplete, evaluating the reasons for the failure, re-teaching the material, and re-assessing.”