2012: A year in review
This past year was a busy one in Franklin County with events taking place from municipal and county political races to recognizing the one-year anniversary of the horrific April 27, 2011 tornadoes to school news to drug round ups to troops coming home and everything in between.
Here’s a look back at some of the biggest stories that made 2012 the year that it was.
• One of the major school-related stories from 2012 was the ongoing efforts to rebuild the tornado-damaged Phil Campbell High School.
Funding issues were the main concern at the beginning of the year until Franklin County Schools Superintendent Gary William announced in February that the school board had received a commitment from the Alabama Department of Finance to provide $25 million in funding for the new school.
“This is great news for our school systems and for the Phil Campbell community,” Williams said. “This letter of guaranteed assistance is a load off our shoulders here at the board of education and it will give assurance to the employees and students at Phil Campbell that they will have a new school that will be a safe and secure place to learn.”
Williams said the $25-million figure from the department of finance was determined after FEMA and the insurance company had given their estimates for assistance.
He said of that $25 million, $4.2 million had already been used on cleaning up debris from the tornado, getting the mobile units the students are currently using up and running for this school year and partial work done to the stadium to make sure it was functional for this past football season.
He said another $2 million would be earmarked for site work and drainage issues; $1.5 million would go towards architect expenses and $200,000 would be set aside for testing and commission, leaving over $17 million for the actual construction of the buildings.
“With this money, we will be able to rebuild the classroom buildings, which will house the actual classrooms, the computer and access labs, the home ec classroom and the ag classroom,” Williams said. “The money will also cover the administration pod, the gymnasium, the band room, the auditorium, the ag shop and the media center as well as completing the finishing touches on the stadium.”
Williams said the school would also feature safe rooms that would be large enough to accommodate each student, faculty and staff member at PCHS.
• Even though funding had been secured earlier in the year, the school board still ran into problems when it came to getting the old building torn down so construction could begin on the new building.
After months of haggling with insurance companies, FEMA and other snags along the way, the old Phil Campbell High School building finally came down on July 25, and it was a bittersweet day for Phil Campbell residents.
For over 50 years, Phil Campbell High School stood tall and proud – a pillar of the community and a symbol of the pride and closeness the people of this small town share.
But in one day’s time – in a matter of minutes – that once proud symbol was ravaged and ransacked by the deadly tornado that destroyed most of the town.
With progress taking place all around the destroyed high school, the residents couldn’t help but notice that their school, their constant symbol and source of pride, was being left behind on this road to recovery.
“Coming up on the demolition, I definitely have mixed emotions,” Superintendent Gary Williams said at the time. “We worked hard to get to this point, but the day I got the call from the contractor about setting a firm date for the demolition, I was actually standing in the gym where I spent those 11 years as a coach and teacher. It was like it really hit me at that point that the school, the gym – all of it would soon just be a memory.”
“It’s sad for me to think that [my two sons] will never get to experience being part of this school,” Phil Campbell resident Lisa Hall said, “but I want to make sure they know that it was a great place.
“It will be neat to tell them stories about all the pep rallies in the gym, and where my favorite classrooms were and about the benches where we hung out – just things about the high school that made it special.”
Williams, along with many other community leaders and residents, were on hand when the walls finally came down and they were able to witness the newest chapter in Phil Campbell’s educational history.
“This school is going to be safer, more functional and an all-around better learning environment for our students, who have been our main priority throughout this whole process,” Williams said. “It will be something the town can truly be proud of because, really, the pride this town has was never actually tied up in the brick and mortar of the school building – it’s a pride in the people and traditions associated with the school, and that will carry over into this new building too.”
• One issue local school employees and supporters were glad to see was the passage in March of the one-cent sales tax that goes to support county and city schools.
Thanks to the positive vote from county residents, the tax will remain in place for another two years.
The sales tax passed in every precinct and ultimately passed by a margin of 1,805 votes, which was a vast improvement from the 500-vote margin from two years ago.
“I am humbled by this tax vote and the support it has received,” Franklin County Superintendent Gary Williams said. “It is good to see the citizens care about the children of Franklin County and the education they receive.”
The one-cent sales tax, which was implemented in 2010, generated $857,009 for the city schools from July 2010 through June 2011 and county school officials said their system received about $1.2 million over that same time period.
School officials said in these tough economic times where they have been cut 23.5 percent in proration and receive zero money for textbooks, they need all the help they can get.
Russellville City Schools Superintendent Rex Mayfield said the tax was absolutely imperative to their operations, especially if their budget for the upcoming school year is as bad as some officials have projected.
“This one-cent tax will allow us to maintain the current teachers and programs we have,” Mayfield said. “Losing this money would have been devastating for us as a school system, but it would have been devastating to the students. We want to give them the best education possible and funding like this helps us be able to do that.”
• One other school-related event that elicited a response from across Franklin County and the surrounding counties was when a Franklin County school bus overturned after colliding with a pick-up truck on Nov. 1.
Officials at the scene said the bus, driven by Rebecca Gober, 58, of Vina, overturned near Alabama 172 and Overton Farm Road in Hodges about 3:20 p.m.
Authorities confirmed there were 29 students, all from Vina School, ranging in age from kindergarten to high school students, on the bus at the time of the wreck.
Franklin County Schools Superintendent Gary Williams, confirmed that 20 students were taken to different hospitals and all were treated and released with injuries ranging from bumps and bruises to a small concussion, but none of the students received broken bones or any other serious injuries.
Officials said at the time the wreck occurred, the bus was on its regular route heading west on Alabama 172 and was turning off the highway onto Overton Farm Road when Channing Haithcock, 20, of Vina, who was the driver of the 2004 Chevrolet Silverado pick-up that was also heading west, ran off the highway and struck the bus from behind, flipping it over.
The truck struck the bus in the area of the back right tire.
“It’s your worst nightmare to receive a call like this,” Williams said.
• In March, residents on the west end of Franklin County elected a new member to the Franklin County School Board.
Mike Shewbart, who serves as director of the Red Bay Parks and Recreation Department, defeated incumbent Ralph Winchester 528 votes to 314 to capture the District 5 school board seat in the Democratic primary.
Shewbart faced no Republican opposition in the general election and began serving his first term on the school board in November.
“This is really an honor and I look forward to working with our school board and teachers to help our students,” Shewbart said.
Government and Politics
2012 was a very political-oriented year with elections taking place in each municipality as well as county-, state- and nation-wide.
• At the Circuit Court level, incumbent Circuit Clerk Anita Scott defeated first-time political opponent Jeff Barksdale in the March Democratic primary and ran unopposed in the general election in November to secure another term.
Also running opposed in the March primary and November general elections were Circuit Judge Terry Dempsey, who secured another term, and District Judge Paula McDowell, who also secured another term in office.
“I am so appreciative of all the support I’ve received during this election,” Scott said. “This has been such a humbling experience for me and I don’t know how to thank the people of this county for putting their faith in me to continue serving them as their circuit clerk.”
• The County Commission has a much different look than it has for the past few years and the vote was actual quite historic since the traditionally Democratic Franklin County elected not one but three Republicans to office – a first in the county’s recent history.
East Franklin resident William Bishop won the Democratic nod in District one but ultimately lost to Republican candidate Chris Wallace in the November general election.
Incumbent District 2 commissioner Howard Hutcheson was defeated by Wyman Pounders in the Democratic primary. Pounders ran unopposed in the general election to secure his seat.
District 3 commissioner Greg Smith opted not to seek re-election, which left his vacant seat up for grabs between Democrats Randy Hargett and Mark Holland and former commissioner and Republican candidate Rayburn Massey. Hargett ultimately received the Democratic nomination but was defeated by Massey in November.
The District 4 commissioner seat is the only one that did not change this year. Red Bay’s Don Hastings was elected to a second term, beating political newcomer Anthony Bentley.
For the probate judge’s race, former District 1 commissioner Stratt Byars and Russellville resident Chris Nichols were defeated by Connie Green in the Democratic primary, but current Probate Judge Barry Moore, who was appointed to finish out the unexpired term of Probate Judge Mike Green after his unexpected death, won the general election by a margin of 6,134 to 4,677.
“I am humbled by the support shown in being elected as probate judge and chairman of the county commission, and I would like to thank all the citizens of Franklin County for going out to exercise their right to vote,” Moore said.
“Having three Republican candidates elected in this county is a rare feat, but as elected officials, we are here to help and represent all of the citizens of Franklin County, whether they’re a Republican, a Democrat or an Independent.
“I am excited about working with the newly elected commissioners and would like to congratulate them on their elections as well. I think together we will be able to accomplish many things for our county.”
• 2012 was a time for municipal elections in Russellville, Red Bay, Phil Campbell, Vina and Hodges, but the municipalities on the west of the county managed to avoid an election.
Both the city of Red Bay and the town of Vina were able to sit out this municipal election season since neither municipality had candidates facing opposition at the end of qualifying.
“The main benefit to avoiding a municipal election is the money it saves the city,” Red Bay City Clerk Linda Holcomb said. “This will save us at least $6,000 and could even possibly have saved us up to $11,000 if we had to be involved in a run-off situation. That money can now be utilized in other areas that will benefit the city.”
In Red Bay, the incumbents who were basically re-elected to their positions included Mayor Bobby Forsythe and council members Mike Kennedy, Mike Stockton, David Tiffin, Charlene Fancher and Brad Bolton.
In Vina, those who were elected, or re-elected in some cases, include Mayor D.W. Franklin, and council members Mary Mahhock, Bill Moomaw, Robert Moomaw, Marshall Rogers and Denieta Cantrell.
• In Phil Campbell, Roy Nagle defeated Dale Moody in the Place 1 council race, Danny Brown ran un-opposed for Place 2, Eddie Barton defeated Melissa Mohr in Place 3, Lynn Landers defeated Kent Owen for the Place 4 seat and Jim Cartee won re-election in Place 5 by outpolling John White.
In the mayor’s race, Steve Bell became the town’s new mayor, defeating Greg Williams, James (Jimmy) Paul Rice and Gary Reed.
“Really, the citizens of Phil Campbell will just see a lot of the same activities taking place that were taking place before, because I’ll be assuming the role of managing what’s already in place,” Bell said.
“Obviously, the biggest thing the town is still having to deal with is the recovery from the tornado, and the current leadership has done an excellent job in that area.
“I’ve been coming to the council meetings and sitting in on their discussions to get me up to speed on where they stand on several issues, and we’ll just continue to move forward from where we are now.
“We’re building back strong and I’m excited to see what the next few years hold for the town of Phil Campbell.”
• In the city of Russellville, three incumbents, William Nale in District 2, Gary Cummings in District 3, and Lanny Hubbard in District 4, all won their bids for re-election and were joined by newcomers David Palmer in District 1, who defeated incumbent Jeff Masterson, and Jamie Harris in District 5, who filled the seat left by David Grissom.
Grissom opted to give up his seat to run for mayor and ultimately defeated Mayor Troy Oliver by a margin of 1,501 votes to 711.
“This whole campaign, I have tried to relay to the voters what my motto would be for the next four years if I were elected as mayor, and that motto is ‘teamwork,’” Grissom said.
“To effectively run a city government, I believe you need to have everyone from the mayor to the council to the department heads to the employees working together.
“In my opinion, no one person who works for the city is more important than another – a councilman is just as important as a department head, the mayor is just as important as a city employee – because we all should be working together for one common goal – serving the citizens of Russellville in the best way possible.”
Crime and Courts
• Fulfilling a vision he had when he first ran for office, Franklin County Sheriff Shannon Oliver worked with Russellville Police Chief Chris Hargett and the Russellville Police Department to form the Franklin County Multi-Jurisdiction Drug Unit in March, which provides officers who work solely on drug-related cases and follow up on tips of possible drug activity in the area.
“Drugs affect every family in this county to some extent, whether it’s through a family member using or selling drugs or a family member having property stolen by someone looking to make money to buy drugs, it just seems to be everywhere,” Oliver said.
“We just didn’t have the manpower to stay on top of every single complaint or tip we received,” he said. “Money is tight right now for all the agencies and we didn’t have the resources to follow up on everything, so the drug unit was a good solution.”
In their first few months of operation, the drug unit had over 80 cases turned into the Franklin County District Attorney’s Office for prosecution.
• To further crack down on the county’s drug problem and to send a clear message that drugs will not be tolerated in the area, 126 people were arrested throughout the day on April 2 in the largest drug raid in Franklin County history.
Deemed “Operation Spring Clean,” the raid was a joint effort involving over 80 law enforcement officers from several federal, state, county and city agencies.
According to Franklin County Sheriff Shannon Oliver, the Franklin County Drug Unit along with the Franklin County Sheriff’s Office and the Russellville Police Department, with assistance from the Red Bay Police Department, had been investigating and compiling cases for months to present to the grand jury and have a wide-spread pick-up with many arrests.
“Something like this really makes a big impact and sends the statement that we’re serious about getting our county cleaned up,” Oliver said.
“We have done drug raids in the past and it really seems to leave an impression on the community,” Russellville Police Chief Chris Hargett agreed. “People sometimes wonder what we spend our time doing because we can’t let people know that we’re planning something big like this and that it takes months of investigating and planning to pull it off.
“In my 21 years of law enforcement, I don’t ever remember a raid this big. It’s a great morale boost to our men to see the months of hard work and investigating finally paying off.”
• The community was stunned in August when state and federal agents raided two local pharmacies.
On Aug. 8, officers with the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Federal Drug Administration, Health and Human Services, the Alabama attorney general’s office and the Alabama Board of Pharmacy arrived at Franklin Health Mart Pharmacy, located just off U.S. 43 north of Taco Bell in Russellville, and Russellville Pharmacy in the Franklin Shopping Center.
Officers quickly began accessing both companies’ computers. Several hours later, agents were seen loading files and boxes into vehicles and on to at least one utility trailer.
No arrests were made and investigators hinted that evidence seized at the scene could take some time to comb through.
Officials did say the investigation was not related to the quality of the medications at the pharmacies and both were open the following day and have remained open, even though several Franklin Pharmacy confirmed they were laid off several days after the raid.
• One of the biggest court stories of the year was the announcement that came from the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals on Oct. 5 that the conviction and death sentence of Christie Michelle Scott, 34, was officially upheld.
Scott was found guilty of the murder of her 6-year-old son, Mason, who died in a house fire that started in his bedroom at the Scotts’ home at 180 Signore Dr. in Russellville on Aug. 16, 2008, at 2:30 a.m.
Christie Scott had managed to escape from the house with her youngest son who was four years old at the time. Scott’s husband, Jeremy, was out of town in Atlanta on business when the fire occurred.
Fire investigations are standard in cases that result in fatalities, and once the investigation commenced, officials said investigators began noticing things that just didn’t seem to match up.
“The first red flag of the investigation was the smoke detector, which seemed to have been ripped from the wall and didn’t match the way a normal smoke detector would have looked if it had still been attached to the wall and fully functional at the time of the fire,” Franklin County District Attorney Joey Rushing said.
“That was the first of many oddities and details that pointed to Christie Scott’s involvement in the fire.”
Scott was accused of intentionally setting the fire that led to Mason’s death and was originally charged with Mason’s murder in September 2008 when a grand jury found enough information to charge her with three alternative counts of capital murder – one which accused Scott of intentionally killing her son by starting a fire for the purpose of monetary gain, one which accused Scott of intentionally killing her son as a result of committing first-degree arson, and one which accused Scott of intentionally killing someone who is less than 14 years old.
After four weeks of testimony – deeming it the longest trial in Franklin County’s history – and two days of deliberating, the jury returned with a guilty verdict for all three alternative counts of capital murder, and Circuit Judge Terry Dempsey sentenced Scott to death on Aug. 5, 2009.
“It is a big relief that [the court] not only upheld the decision but that it was a unanimous decision that the verdict and death sentence should be upheld,” Rushing said. “There wasn’t a dissenting or concurring opinion at all. It was just completely unanimous.”
Rushing said the case would now be reviewed by the Alabama Supreme Court, who could overturn the decision or affirm it, in which instance the case would move on to the federal appeals process.
One-year anniversary of April 27, 2011 tornados
• Without a doubt, some of the most significant events in Franklin County this year were the memorial services and dedication in remembrance of those who lost their lives during the April 27, 2011, tornado outbreak that claimed the lives of 26 Franklin County residents.
The first of the memorial services took place in the East Franklin community on April 22 and honored the memories of the five people who perished in that community: Jeff Cotham, Charlene Crochet, Donald Heaps, Kelli Thorn Morgan and Michael Morgan.
“This was a special service for our community,” said William Bishop, who organized the event. “We are a tight-knit community and everybody knows everybody out here so that really made it hard on us to lose five of our people to the tornado.”
A monument was placed adjacent to the community’s war memorial and pays tribute to those five victims of the storm.
The next event paying tribute to the one-year anniversary of the storms was a visit from Gov. Robert Bentley, who toured the East Franklin Community and Phil Campbell on April 26.
Bentley met with community members, talked to victims’ families, visited the two different memorial sites, and observed the progress being made by Franklin County’s citizens.
“I well remember the first time I came here after the tornadoes and how devastated it was,” Bentley said. “I am on my fourth day of touring the state and everywhere I’ve been, people have made tremendous progress. I am just very impressed.
Bentley said even with all the progress that has been made this year, the state still has a ways to go.
“Right now we are still involved in the long-term recovery process, but we’ll keep moving forward,” Bentley said. “There are things we need to work on in Northwest Alabama like the highway systems and getting more industry.”
Bentley said he never could have done all the work it takes to recover from something of this magnitude on his own.
“Recovery like this has to take place at the local level and go from the bottom to the top instead of the top down,” he said. “The first responders, the mayors, the city officials, county commissioners and representatives have all done their job and worked together well. Even though the state was in charge of the recovery, the support from the local communities was crucial to rebuilding.”
Bentley moved from Franklin County to Marion County that same day where he took part in the groundbreaking ceremony for the new Wrangler distribution center that would be built in place of the one that was destroyed.
Wade Hagedorn, manager of the plant, addressed the crowd of 200 people who gathered for the event.
“When people are faced with adversity, they can do one of two things: They can retreat in fear or they can press forward in faith,” Hagedorn said. “I am so glad I work with people who decided to press forward in faith.”
The VF Corp. decided to expand the distribution center to be one of the most efficient and high-tech distribution centers operated by the company, according to Jim Templeton, distribution director for VF Corp.
The expansion will also provide about 50 new jobs, which Sen. Roger Bedford said will help to stimulate the devastated economy of the area.
“This [groundbreaking] today is probably one of the most important things that has happened in this entire state,” Bentley said. “I want to thank VF and Wrangler because they didn’t have to make the decision to build back. But I think they knew that it would be a good decision mainly because the quality of workers we have here make it a great company.”
The final dedication service was held on April 28 at the newly completed Phil Campbell Memorial Park in the downtown area.
The park was a project taken on by the Phil Campbell Civitans that features a playground, a fountain, benches and a granite memorial featuring all the names of the tornado victims who lived in Franklin County.
“I’m glad that this park is a happy thing and not just a sad memorial,” said Evelyn Ashlyn, who lost her 10-year-old grandson, Ethan Knox. “This would have been something Ethan would have loved because he was always wanting to play outside. We’ll think of him always when we come here.”
Phil Campbell Park and Recreation Director Rita Barton said the park was a sign of growth in her town.
“Standing in this park today is very surreal because it means my dreams to have a park in our town have become a reality,” she said. “It’s a place we can reflect and remember but it’s also a place we can all come together as a community.
“It’s wonderful to see the kids playing on the playground today and I hope this is the start of something new and bigger for Phil Campbell.”