The world did not end in 2012, as some predicted, but there were numerous people for whom the year represented lives forever changed.
The Daily Citizen news staff compiled a list of some of the top local stories of the year.
Murray County Chief Magistrate Bryant Cochran won re-election during the summer but resigned a short time later after he admitted to pre-signing — though not distributing — a handful of warrants. He was also under investigation for allegedly making sexual propositions to several women on the job. He has denied the allegations.
One of the women, through her attorney, accused Cochran of having the Murray County Sheriff’s Office participate in a scheme to plant drugs on her vehicle. The woman was arrested, but the district attorney said within a few days he would not press charges.
The Georgia Bureau of Investigation was brought in to investigate, and the U.S. Department of Justice also became involved. Those investigations are ongoing, and several people have been subpoenaed to appear before a federal grand jury in Atlanta. Sheriff Howard Ensley fired two officers, saying they lied during the investigation, but he declined to go into detail.
Ensley, who has been in office for 24 years, was defeated during the November election by Gary Langford, a retired law enforcement officer.
Earlier in the year, Brittany Pittman defeated first-term incumbent Greg Hogan for sole commissioner. Hogan, a former mayor of Eton, had won a special election July 19 of last year to replace former sole commissioner David Ridley, who resigned. Pittman also sought the office then.
Late in the year, Murray native Gale Buckner, who has held numerous high-profile positions with state government, returned to the county to serve as chief magistrate judge after being appointed by the four Superior Court judges of the Conasauga Judicial Circuit.
Pittman, for one, was pleased.
“I think it (Buckner taking office) will restore a lot of the professionalism that needs to be in Murray County,” Pittman said. “I’m looking forward to working with her to make Murray County a better community.”
Law enforcement officials said Adolph Ray “Sonny” Neal was on the run for a week before authorities caught him in Whitfield County and charged him with murdering his wife and her grandfather on May 24.
Neal was 49 at the time and is accused of stabbing to death Jessica Neal, 27, and beating to death Don William Shedd, 69. 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.
Neal was indicted by a grand jury in Whitfield County Superior Court in November. District Attorney Bert Poston said he is expected to be arraigned sometime early next year. Neal is still in jail without bond.
Varnell officer charged in newspaper carrier’s death
James Smith, a former Varnell police officer, was indicted in October for first degree vehicular homicide and reckless driving in the March 5 death of Willard Leon Thurman, a contractor newspaper carrier for The Daily Citizen.
Officials said Thurman died after Smith’s patrol vehicle collided with Thurman’s Dodge Neon. Police Chief Lyle Grant said an internal investigation showed Smith violated several department policies, including speeding while not on an emergency call. Family members said Smith and Thurman were friends.
Thurman’s family sued for $750,000 in Whitfield County Superior Court, but they dropped the lawsuit and said in August they had settled it for an undisclosed amount.
Tent City closed
City of Dalton officials closed the homeless camp on Elk Street, commonly known as Tent City, in April. Some of the residents said they had lived there three years or more.
City officials announced plans to close the camp in 2011. Mayor David Pennington said the camp not only violated city ordinances but that it was inhumane to allow people to live like that.
City officials said some of the dozen or so camp residents found shelter with family or friends. The city worked with local agencies and nonprofits to move the other residents into apartments and shelters. But some of the residents said they preferred living in the camp, and some joked with reporters that they might put up tents in their apartments to feel more at home.
But before they left, residents held an “open house” to thank members of the community who had helped them over the years by bringing food, blankets and other items.
In May, after the last of the residents had left, public works crews cleaned up gravel and debris from the site and put down mulch. City officials said at that time that they planned to close any other homeless camps they found in the city.
The Bad News Bears
A mother bear and two cubs roamed the streets of Chatsworth for about 10 days in September and October. The bears were spotted rummaging through garbage cans and climbing trees in various locations across the city.
Many residents tried their best to spot the bears, but authorities worried that the mother might hurt someone if she thought they were trying to harm one of the cubs. Officials said black bears aren’t normally aggressive, but if they feel threatened they are capable of doing serious harm.
Chatsworth police officers shot the bears with rubber bullets in an attempt to scare them of. But that didn’t work. Finally, agents from the Georgia Department of Natural Resources managed to tranquilize the bears. They planned to relocate them to a wilderness area. But then they discovered a tag on the mother’s ear that showed she had already been relocated once from the Big Canoe area to the Cohutta Wilderness.
Officials decided then that the bears had become accustomed to humans and even if relocated would come back to a populated area in search of food. They then euthanized the bears.
“It’s not something we look forward to doing, and thank goodness we don’t have to do it very often. But in a situation where ... we’re looking after public safety as well, and we take a bear we’ve already tried to relocate and it doesn’t take ... it’s just not prudent to turn a bear like that loose. We hate to have to make those kinds of judgments, but what else should we have done? There’s just not many options when you get to that point,” said Northwest Georgia Game Management Supervisor Chuck Waters.
Miracle on the Westside
Whitfield County held the ribbon cutting for its new Miracle Field, a special synthetic baseball/softball field for those with physical or mental disabilities, in September.
According to officials with the company that made the field, there are just 15 Miracle Fields in Georgia. The closest one is in Rome.
“We intended this thing to be a regional facility, not just for Whitfield County. As it gets better known, we expect it will be used frequently and by people from all over this area,” said Whitfield County Board of Commissioners member Gordon Morehouse at the dedication.
The facility, which includes a handicap-accessible playground, covered pavilion for spectators and plenty of handicapped parking, was made possible in part by a $100,000 federal grant and some $250,000 in donations from the community.
The Mohawk Industries Foundation, Community Foundation of Northwest Georgia and North Georgia Electrical Membership Corp. provided significant donations. Paul Byrum’s Bluegrass Bands Helping Hands released a CD and held a concert to raise money, and hundreds of people from across Whitfield County kicked in time and money to make the Miracle Field a reality.
Local school finances
Officials from Dalton Public Schools and Whitfield County Schools joined the ranks of those in other public school systems by pushing for an Education Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax (ESPLOST). It goes into effect Jan. 1.
Roughly 54 percent of voters approved the 1 percent tax in a July election after much debate. It is expected to generate up to $105 million over five years — up to $68.65 million for the county school system and up to $36.35 million for the city system. The money will go toward a number of projects, including paying off money borrowed for previous ESPLOST projects as well as renovations to Dalton Middle School, Morris Innovative High School and several other smaller projects.
County school officials also voted to raise taxes from $14.76 per $1,000 of assessed value to $18.76 on the same amount. Officials said a combination of the poor economy, increased insurance costs, state budget cuts and other factors led to the decision. The school system approved a budget of $97.7 million in expenditures and $94 million in revenues for the fiscal year that begins July 1. The budget is up from $89.1 million in revenue and $94.1 million in expenditures for the current fiscal year.
City school officials kept their tax rate at $7.85 per $1,000 of assessed value but approved an increased budget. The budget officials passed in June was for $61.3 million in expenditures — $6.3 million more than for the current year.
More from law
• A former college professor charged with sexual crimes against at least three underage girls was scheduled to plead guilty to some of the charges in Whitfield County Superior Court earlier this month but in a last-minute decision said he wanted to go to trial instead.
Monte Salyer of Rocky Face, who resigned from teaching English as a second language at Dalton State College after his arrest in February, faces two counts of rape, one count of statutory rape, three counts of child molestation, five counts of aggravated child molestation and one count of criminal attempt to commit a felony. He is scheduled to go to trial the week of Jan. 7.
• Tunnel Hill resident Daniel Densmore, 32, of Standing Road, was sentenced to life in prison without parole after he confessed in June to the shooting deaths of Julious Wayne Smith, 61, and Krista Babb, 14, in September 2011. The two were found dead at Smith’s home at 136 Honeybee Way off of Mount Vernon Road. Prosecutors said Densmore attempted to start a fire in the home to destroy evidence and also stole Smith’s wallet and a gun.
• Emilio Canales Jr. of Dalton was charged in the April 29 shooting deaths of his father, Emilio Canales Sr., and his brother, Francisco Emilio Canales. He is also charged with shooting his mother, Deborah Canales, who survived. Canales awaits a court date.
• Poston was sworn in as district attorney for Whitfield and Murray counties in February. He was appointed by Gov. Nathan Deal to fill the remaining term of Kermit McManus, who retired at the end of January. Poston was unopposed for re-election.
recommends combining some city and county services
After studying ways to combine Whitfield County and Dalton services for almost a year, a commission delivered its report in July.
The General Assembly created the commission last year, at the request of local officials, to study a possible merger of the two general governments and, if the commission thought such a merger was feasible, to draft a charter for the unified government. Residents would have voted on that charter in November.
But commission members found there were several obstacles to merging the two governments. In particular, commission members could not find ways to overcome certain obstacles, such as the differing alcohol laws in Dalton and unincorporated Whitfield County and differing freeport tax exemptions on inventory.
Instead, they voted 11-3 to recommend merging the governments’ public works, parks and recreation, and law enforcement patrol services. The sheriff is required by the state constitution to provide jail services, courthouse security and warrants, so those can not be merged.
Voters reject regional transportation tax
Voters in a 15-county northwest Georgia region, which included Whitfield and Murray counties, gave a resounding defeat to a proposed 10-year regional transportation Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax (TSPLOST) during the July general primary. Voters across the region voted 89,472 (67.61 percent) to 43,002 (32.39 percent) against the tax, which was expected to raise $1.5 billion.
Whitfield County residents rejected the tax by 7,923 votes (70 percent) to 3,396 votes (30 percent). Murray County residents turned down the tax by 3,354 votes (54.97 percent) to 2,747 votes (45.03 percent).
A state law passed in 2011 required each of Georgia’s 12 regions to vote on the 10-year transportation SPLOST. Only three districts approved the tax.
The world did not end in 2012, as some predicted, but there were numerous people for whom the year represented lives forever changed.
- Local News
‘Destined for something big’
Tunnel Hill resident Myra Baker said she knew her grandson, Ron Wilbur, a contestant on NBC’s “The Sing-Off,” was “destined for something big” from the time he was little.
Graduation rates rise for most area schools
A majority of local high schools saw increases in their graduation rates since last year, reflecting a statewide trend, data released Wednesday shows.
Former Bobcat debuts on NBC’s ‘Sing-Off’
Ron Wilbur is just one person in a group of 12, but the tenor is making a name for himself on national television.
Tennessee earthquake shakes through area
Residents in northern Murray County reported hearing something like an explosion after a small earthquake centered six miles from Wildwood Lake, Tenn., shook the surrounding area Tuesday evening.
Making his life count
Zach Norville came to Dalton with a used car, an alarm clock and a degree in textile engineering.
Officials: One dead after driver hits power line
A Dalton man is in jail after crashing a car into a power line early Sunday, killing one passenger and injuring another, Georgia State Patrol officials said.
Jonas helped build Dalton arts community
Peggy Jonas believed the arts should be inclusive, not exclusive.
Whitfield budget hearing draws few comments
The Whitfield County Board of Commissioners plans to spend $40.7 million on law enforcement, the courts, recreation and public works in its 2014 general budget.
‘Something all of us are proud of’
How do you convince a small town lawyer to join a school board when he refuses at first after being asked by several friends?
Fired bus driver tells her side of the story
She says they made fun of her age.
She says they ridiculed her voice.
She says they parroted her.
She says some even cursed her.
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