YEAR IN REVIEW 2015: September

Fire destroys East Franklin store

At the intersection of Highway 81 and Highway 93, a community meeting spot burned Monday.

East Franklin neighbors drove by throughout the morning Tuesday to see the smoldering convenience store. One of them was Marvin Ergle, who has lived in the community just about his whole life. “This is where everybody goes around this community,” Ergle said. “All these old folks’ benches,” he added, gesturing to the pile of blackened, smoking wood debris, “I don’t where they’re going to sit now. Some of them just come up here and sit all day long.”

Jason’s store, as it’s known in the community, was closed at the time the fire started. It was a popular spot in East Franklin to get a tank of gas or pick up a few groceries.

“It was a very important store to the community, and it’s going to be missed,” agreed Fire Chief Rodney Alexander. “It was a social gathering place at times.”

Officials with East Franklin Fire Department got the call about 9:30 p.m. from 9-1-1 dispatch. One firefighter who responded to the scene said it was already fully involved when they arrived. Stopping the flames took about three hours. Primarily, it was the wooden roof, atop the cinderblock building, that burned.

Blue Springs Volunteer Fire Department also responded to the scene, and the Franklin County Sheriff’s Department was on hand, as well.


Elzie Malone and attorney Billy Underwood answer media questions following proceedings in September at the Franklin County Courthouse.
Elzie Malone and attorney Billy Underwood answer media questions following proceedings in September at the Franklin County Courthouse.

Judge considers injunction

In a hearing before Judge Terry Dempsey, attorneys for the cities of Russellville and Red Bay and Franklin County and the attorney for Elzie Malone and Pleasant Bay Ambulance Service brought witness testimony in the matter of Pleasant Bay’s continued operation in the county and cities, without city licenses and without being the sole provider for the county – for Dempsey to consider a request for an injunction to stop such operation.

Testimony addressed multiple angles of the ongoing conflict between Pleasant Bay and the cities of Red Bay and Russellville and Franklin County – whether Malone’s state license permits him to operate in the county; what the ambulance inspection standards are and who bears the responsibility for initiating an ambulance inspection; and the bid process and selection for Franklin County’s sole ambulance provider.

The EMS Committee of Franklin County was charged with developing guidelines for a county-wide ambulance service, which would be applied to any city that opted in, EMS committee member Roy Gober testified. Gober was subsequently questioned about the bid process, the pre-bid conference and the circumstances surrounding the selection of Shoals Ambulance to receive the bid.

Additionally, Underwood brought up a 1999 letter in which Franklin County attorney Roger Bedford indicates the county cannot regulate private ambulance service, which will be further addressed when the hearing continues Oct. 6. Bedford said times and circumstances have changed since he made that statement.

The hearing has been set to continue, but been postponed, multiple times since September, for varying reasons.


Russellville rocketry team sponsor Mark Keeton received recognition as the National Space Club Huntsville Educator of the Year Award in September.
Russellville rocketry team sponsor Mark Keeton received recognition as the National Space Club Huntsville Educator of the Year Award in September.

Keeton named Educator of Year

Russellville rocketry team sponsor Mark Keeton has received recognition as the National Space Club Huntsville Educator of the Year Award.

Keeton said he was stunned when principal Dr. Karen Thorn told him he had been chosen for the award. “I didn’t have much of a reaction at first because I was pretty shocked to hear the news,” he said. “Once it all sunk in, I felt extremely honored to win such an award from a well-respected group.”

Keeton said the Russellville rocket team’s success in Paris, France, this summer allowed him to be nominated.

Established in 1996, the National Space Club Huntsville Educator of the Year Award is presented to an educator who has made an outstanding contribution in kindergarten through twelfth grade in the STEM disciplines. Keeton, in his fifth year of teaching English at Russellville Middle School, said he knows it “sounds odd that an English teacher won an award for education in the STEM field.”

“A large part of the competitions RCS Engineering participates in deal with writing proposals, writing scripts, performance and public speaking. This is where I feel my knowledge and theatre background becomes an asset to the team,” Keeton said. “You could say that it’s STEM(E) education with a silent ‘E’ at the end: Science, Technology, Engineering, Math (and English).”

Keeton was honored for his award at the 27th Annual Wernher von Braun Memorial Celebration dinner at the U.S. Space & Rocket Center Oct. 29.

“It was an amazing experience,” said Keeton, describing the black tie awards dinner. Keeton, along with the rest of the attendees, got to hear from astronaut Mike Massimino – the first man to “tweet” from space. In addition to a small trophy, Keeton received a sum of money to be used for RCS Engineering’s rocketry and robotics programs.

“Buying the necessary materials to compete in rocketry and robotics competition gets very expensive, so the funds will help out greatly,” Keeton said.

He was also honored by the Russellville City School board in December.


Hodges makes plans for Bear Creek Education Center

A feeling of yesteryear hung in the air as a small group recently toured the Bear Creek Education Center and Overton Farms. If you search online for Bear Creek Education Center, you will find that it is listed as “permanently closed,” but with a little elbow grease and a little rehabilitation money, Mike Franklin is determined to change that.

Franklin, director of Rock Bridge Canyon Equestrian Park, isn’t the only one who has a vested interest in seeing the cabins, dining hall, dormitories and historic sites returned to their former glory. It’s part of the vision of Hodges as a whole, and it’s been a pet project for Rep. Johnny Mack Morrow.

“Hodges has committed its future to this project,” Morrow said. “The Town of Hodges’ future is tied to this project.”

“It is,” Franklin agreed. “Either the project goes or the town goes, and that’s a fact. Hodges has put all of its resources behind these projects.”

The vision is making Bear Creek Education Center and Overton Farms a major tourist destination in Hodges, as Rock Bridge Canyon Equestrian Park is becoming.

Help to get the site “back on its feet” has already begun in the form of free labor offered by the Back Country Horsemen, who voiced their commitment to doing whatever they can to help realize the vision for Bear Creek Education Center.

Representatives from Franklin County Development Authority, Colbert County Development Authority and other agencies were encouraged to consider lump sum donations to help make this project happen, during the recent tour. Several representatives were optimistic about the project being worthy of funds, and work has begun in earnest. In October, a task force was organized to promote the vision for the education center.


Death row convict appeals sentence

Following her denied direct appeals to the state court of criminal appeals, the Alabama Supreme Court and the U.S. Supreme Court, convicted murderer Christie Scott has filed a Rule 32 petition to overrule her conviction because of “ineffective assistance of counsel.”

Scott, 36, of Russellville, was convicted of capital murder in July 2009. She was found guilty of starting a fire Aug. 16, 2009, at her family’s home, in which her 6-year-old son died.

The original trial began in June of 2009, and testimony lasted for approximately four weeks – the longest trial in Franklin County’s history. Although the jury recommended a sentence of life in prison without parole, Franklin County Circuit Judge Terry Dempsey handed down the death sentence.

According to the district attorney’s office, Dempsey will, in the near future, issue an order for the state attorney general’s office to file a response to Scott’s 50+ page brief within a certain window of time, after which Dempsey will determine if and when to hold the Rule 32 hearing and whether to grant Scott’s request for a court-appointed attorney.

District attorney Joey Rushing explained that this is step four in a ten-step appellate process Scott can pursue.

Scott is only the second person in Franklin County in the modern justice system to have been sentenced to death. She is being held on death row at Julia Tutwiler Prison for Women.


Russellville native Madeline Grace Mitchell Gwin, at age 26, is thought to be the youngest winner in Mrs. America history.
Russellville native Madeline Grace Mitchell Gwin, at age 26, is thought to be the youngest winner in Mrs. America history.

Russellville native wins Mrs. America

When Mrs. Alabama America heard her name announced as the new Mrs. America, she was shocked.

“I wasn’t expecting to win, just because of my age,” said Mrs. America Madeline Grace Mitchell Gwin, who, at age 26, is thought to be the youngest winner in Mrs. America history. “I just didn’t think I would be crowned the winner. I almost hit the floor when I won. I was just ecstatic.”

Gwin, a Russellville native, won the Mrs. Alabama America pageant in March. For the Mrs. America pageant, she flew to Las Vegas Sept. 19 for the whirlwind weeklong competition at the Westgate Resort and Casino that included swimsuit, evening gown and multiple rounds of interviews.

Tuesday interviews gave Gwin the chance to share with each judge why she believed she stood out from the other contestants. She chose to highlight her ability to overcome adversity and keep a positive outlook on life. “My experiences I have dealt with in my life – I was in a nearly fatal car accident in 2008 where I was told I was never going to be able to walk again … I was in a wheelchair for almost three months,” Gwin said. That, along with her reality TV show experience with Bear Grylls, made her “totally unique from the other girls.”

Throughout the Mrs. America pageant, Gwin had to answer one important question: Why do you want to be Mrs. America? Her answer is simple: to continue speaking to young girls about never giving up on their dreams and believing in themselves – drawing on her unique experiences.

“I plan to continue telling my story to women across the United States,” Gwin said. She wants to encourage girls to “always live life to the fullest” and said she also plans to work with the Wounded Warrior Project.

Follow Gwin’s new Facebook page, Mrs. America 2016 – Madeline Gwin, to stay updated on news and follow her journey to Mrs. World.

Dec. 3, 2015, is Madeline Mitchell Gwin Day in the City of Russellville, as proclaimed by Mayor David Grissom and the City Council.


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