December 31, 2013

Economy, law and order dominate 2013

Charles Oliver

— The year 2013 may be remembered as the year the local economy finally began to bounce back from the Great Recession, with several major employers announcing big expansions. And one of the area’s most outspoken local leaders announced he had his eye on the state government’s top job. Several major criminal cases that started in 2012 also wrapped up this year.

Signs of recovery

The recession officially ended more than four years ago, but the meager growth registered nationally didn’t seem to trickle down to the Dalton area, where unemployment remained well above the national average. But 2013 brought strong signs that the floorcovering industry, which underpins the local economy, is finally rebounding, with some of the biggest players in the business announcing expansion plans that could create thousands of jobs.

Engineered Floors unveiled plans in May to invest $450 million in northwest Georgia during the next five years, including a plant now under construction in Whitfield County, which would create some 2,000 jobs.

In September, Shaw Industries announced a $100 million investment in Whitfield County, including expanding an extrusion plant in Dalton and building 535,000 square feet of new warehouse space just south of the city, that will add 175 jobs.

Mohawk Industries gave the local economy an early Christmas present when it announced early in December an $85 million conversion of plants in Dalton and Rome that will add 420 jobs over the next two years in Dalton and maintain 230 jobs in Rome.

Industry officials gave credit to a growing housing market, which is boosting demand for  products.

And just days before the year ended, the Georgia Department of Labor announced that the unemployment rate for Metro Dalton — Whitfield and Murray counties — dropped to 9.4 percent in November, down from 9.9 percent in October and the lowest the rate has been since October 2008.

Faith in government?

Three men, including two Murray County sheriff’s deputies, pleaded guilty to various charges stemming from a 2012 incident involving drugs being planted on the vehicle of a woman who had accused then-magistrate judge Bryant Cochran of sexual harassment.

The sheriff’s office charged the woman on Aug. 14, 2012, with possession of meth after the drugs were discovered during a traffic stop. The man who was driving her home was also charged, but District Attorney Bert Poston dropped those charges less than two weeks later, citing information from the Georgia Bureau of Investigation (GBI).

The officer who made the arrest, former deputy Josh Greeson, and his supervisor, former captain Michael Henderson, both pleaded guilty in federal court to obstruction charges after they admitted they lied during the GBI inquiry into the matter before eventually admitting to investigators that Cochran had given a tip to be on the lookout for the woman’s vehicle. Greeson was sentenced in September to 10 months in prison plus a year on probation. Henderson was sentenced in October to a year and a day in prison, plus a year on probation.

The man who admitted to planting the drugs, Clifford J. Joyce, pleaded guilty to conspiring to distribute meth and was sentenced in December to 18 months in prison.

Cochran has been the target of numerous investigations, including an ethics inquiry during which he resigned after admitting he had pre-signed a handful of warrants and a workplace sexual harassment lawsuit that is ongoing. He has not been criminally charged and has denied any wrongdoing.

GOP primary showdown

Dalton Mayor David Pennington filed forms in July to raise money for a run for governor. And in November he officially announced he would challenge incumbent Gov. Nathan Deal in the 2014 Republican primary. That same month, Pennington bested Deal 65-35 percent in a straw poll among the Georgia Republican Assembly, and he tied Deal with 41 percent of the vote in a straw poll at a joint meeting of the Coweta and Fayette County Republican Parties.

Deal’s campaign got into a sniping contest with Pennington’s in December, when Deal’s chief of staff, Chris Riley, reportedly sent a text to Pennington’s campaign chairman, Dalton businessman Phil Neff, saying that if Pennington “wants to throw rocks, he shouldn’t live in a glass house. Out of respect for you, I have withheld.”

Neff called the text “a show of arrogance.” Pennington said he wasn’t letting the dispute distract him from his campaign.

“This first six months we’ve been out there speaking and trying to build up our ground game. We’ve been very pleased with how that is going. We’ve had hundreds of people across the state of Georgia sign up to help our campaign,” Pennington said. “We thought we’d still be begging for meetings. But we’ve been overwhelmed. I can’t get to all the places I’ve been invited to.”

State School Superintendent John Barge has also said he will challenge Deal in the GOP race, while state Sen. Jason Carter has said he will seek the Democratic nomination for governor.

Life in prison

Adolph Ray “Sonny” Neal pleaded guilty in February in Whitfield County to the May 2012 stabbing death of his wife Jessica Brittany Neal and the fatal beating of her grandfather Don William Shedd. He was sentenced to life in prison without parole.

After the murders, a week-long manhunt for Neal involving hundreds of law enforcement officers ended when a passerby saw someone meeting Neal’s description in Varnell and contacted police.

Carrier killed

Former Varnell police officer James Smith pleaded guilty in July to first degree vehicular homicide and reckless driving in the death of Leon Thurman, a contract newspaper carrier for The Daily Citizen. Thurman, 70, was killed when Smith crashed his patrol car into Thurman’s Dodge Neon early on March, 5, 2012, while Thurman was delivering papers.

Information from a black box in Smith’s patrol car, submitted by the district attorney’s office, registered Smith driving at 104 mph just seconds before the crash in the 2500 block of Cleveland Highway.

Varnell Police Chief Lyle Grant said in 2012 an internal investigation showed Smith was not on an emergency call when the crash happened. Smith resigned during that investigation.

Smith was sentenced by Superior Court Judge Cindy Morris to 10 years probation, a $2,500 fine in addition to court fees, 300 hours of community service and to being banned from working as a law enforcement officer again.

Who’s out of control?

The Dalton Police Department suspended officers John Gurrieri and Steve Collins for two days without pay and required them to complete 40 hours of service at a youth group after they were caught on tape in November cursing in the presence of middle school students on a school bus.

Collins and Gurrieri were called to the bus by 911. A school bus dispatcher called 911 after the bus driver said she believed the students were “getting out of control.” But school administrators said they reviewed the video and didn’t see any unruly behavior from students that put the bus in danger or required police intervention.

The driver of the bus, Cynthia Hall, said she was fired by First Student, the transportation company used by Dalton Public Schools. Hall said she had been mocked, cursed and ridiculed by several students on the bus for months leading up to the incident.

‘People to kill’

A rumor of a bomb swept through Coahulla Creek High School in Whitfield County in early November, prompting many students to stay home.

A student at the school had been arrested on Oct. 16 after authorities said they discovered a “hit list” in his backpack. The list, titled “Menschen zu toten/Ziele” (German for “people to kill”), named five students, four teachers and an administrator the student wanted to kill, law enforcement officials said.

According to an incident report from the sheriff’s office, the student threatened to bring a gun to Coahulla Creek and shoot people he felt “mistreated” him. The report also stated the student knew where his father’s guns were and how to use them, and also that he had blueprints to build an explosive device.

The possible threat and subsequent arrest were not made public by school officials. School officials and law enforcement officials declined to name the student who was arrested. But many students learned about the incident, and some said they thought the bomb threat might be related to that.

Betraying trust

In March, Morris sentenced former Dalton State College professor Monte Salyer to life in prison, without eligibility for parole for 30 years, after a Whitfield County jury found him guilty of sex acts with a child relative and two young girls he befriended at church.

The girl testified during the trial about the molestation, as did a then-17-year-old victim and a then-21-year-old victim.

New leadership

Change came to the leadership of local schools in 2013.

In March, the Whitfield County Board of Education hired Judy Gilreath as the system’s next superintendent. She had served as an assistant superintendent for the past six-and-a-half years. Gilreath replaced Danny Hayes, who had announced his retirement earlier in the year. A former principal of Pleasant Grove Elementary, Gilreath was chosen by the school board as one of four finalists for the superintendent position in 2010, when the board hired Hayes.

Just weeks after taking her post, Gilreath announced the school system would end its eight-year partnership with the Schlechty Center to provide state-mandated training for teachers and other school employees. The partnership had cost the school system over $1 million and had been controversial in some quarters. Gilreath said the reason she ended it was that the school system now has enough people trained in Schlechty methods that it can conduct the training in house.

Also in March, the Dalton Board of Education named Steve Bartoo principal of Dalton High School, replacing Debbie Freeman. Bartoo had been serving as associate principal of the high school. Freeman announced her retirement, effective at the end of the school year, in October 2012.

The board had been searching for a successor since January, but board members gave no advance notice they would be selecting a new principal at the meeting where they appointed Bartoo.

Rallying around Hannah

Whitfield County and the Greater Dalton community rallied around Hannah Locke, a then-15-year-old student at Coahulla Creek High School who was severely injured in April when a vehicle crossed the center line on Dawnville Road and struck a vehicle in which she was a passenger.

The accident caused a spinal injury that left her with little sensation or motor control below the chest, and local groups and organizations hosted a number of prayer vigils and fundraisers for her and her family.