Tragedy and Triumph: A regional year in review

Published 12:00 am Thursday, December 30, 2004

Stories compiled and selected by Jonathan McElvy, editor and publisher

Greene County

Bingo brings joy, concern

Like any other community, Greene County had its share of successes and failures during 2004. Unlike most, however, the biggest success also was thought by some to be its biggest failure. The top stories from Greene County over the past year include a mix of everything.

1. Bingo revitalizes Greenetrack

After the dogs stopped racing in Eutaw years ago, the stretch of road between Highway 43 and Interstate 59/20 was anything but a must-see event. On Jan. 6, 2004, cars once again began to fill the spacious parking lot.

Cloaked by county and state officials, former State Sen. Charles Steele and Greenetrack CEO Luther Winn officially cut the ribbon on the opening of bingo at the old dog track and, as expected, citizens came by the hundreds to take their chances at winning a jackpot.

For many, the revitalization of Greenetrack was the shot in the arm so many around Eutaw have lacked. The obvious success of Greenetrack has pumped money into local schools and has provided jobs to some in the area.

2. Pink and Greene just don’t seem to mix

What started – literally – as a novelty turned into a full-blown fiasco for Boligee residents early in 2004.

A pink building, appropriately named the Pink Palace, opened for business in January and offered patrons a wide array of adult entertainment and novelty items. Word spread quickly about the taboo store and nearly every local official in Greene County responded.

Assistant District Attorney Alex Braswell gave Sheriff Johnny Isaac the OK to close the Pink Palace because store owners had not acquired the proper business license.

Eventually, though, a license was the least of anyone’s worries. On Feb. 5, 2004, the building once full of risqu/ items became a pile of soot after a fire scorched the pink building.

On March 8, Isaac publicly said that preliminary investigations concluded the fire was likely the result of arson and that the Alabama Department of Forensics would analyze evidence from the scene. At the time, Isaac said it would take more than a year for the analysis to come back from forensics.

3. E-911 comes close to falling off the map

Citizens in Greene County came perilously close, in 2004, to having no emergency response system. Simple ambulance needs and law enforcement requests would have gone unanswered because there was not enough money to operate the county’s mandated E-911 system.

The need to meet state deadlines for the new E-911 system was magnified because Greene County was the last of 67 Alabama counties to have a proper response system in place.

The biggest hindrance to implementing the system was a lack of funding, and public officials spared few resources in attempting to find the money, even asking private donors for support. Along with private fundraising, the county, in June, had not received promised money from Greenetrack and those supporting fundraisers at fire departments withheld their money in fear of its real use.

4. With the successes also come the failures

Most hailed the virtual re-opening of Greenetrack as a positive economic step for the entire county. Socially, however, there were plenty of after-waves.

For starters, two employees at the race track were arrested for stealing from bingo jackpots. Apparently, the theft was planned by the suspects and the incident brought negative attention to Greenetrack.

Also, a gas station located next to Greenetrack was robbed at least twice after the opening of bingo in Greene County. Numerous studies have linked an increase in crime to gambling, and the robberies offered some measure of proof to the argument.

Finally, the Greene County Commission apparently was left out of the public payouts promised by officials of the race track. Initially, the commission was under the impression that it would receive a percentage of the revenue, but an attorney’s failure to obtain signatures of the commission resulted in a break of that agreement.

Greenetrack also found itself to be the subject of media scrutiny across the region. Though officials at the track initially indicated an openness toward their finances, they have since closed the books on profits and have not disclosed much in the way of actual money taken in and distributed to county agencies.

5. Warrior fights through tough battle

In June, board members at Warrior Academy seriously considered the option of merging its school with West Alabama Prep in Demopolis. The idea became reasonable after Warrior lost many of its upper-school students and realized it didn’t have the numbers to field athletic teams.

On June 11, 2004, the leadership of the school decided to nix the WAP option, even though some students at the school had already transferred to Demopolis and Tuscaloosa Academy.

What could have been the end of the school’s history ended on a positive note. The school rebounded and, thus far, has had a successful 2004-2005 school year. The board also has received the support of numerous charitable organizations and has maintained a presence in Eutaw.

Hale County

Ballots rule year of news

A triumphant sports team and unpaid public servants made a lasting impact on Hale County in 2004. In the end, nothing could compare with the endless reports on election controversies over the past 12 months. Because of that, election news made up three of Hale County’s top five stories of 2004. Below is The Times’ Top 5 stories for the past year in Hale County.

1. Endless election controversies go on

Whether it was a Hale County Commission primary with two candidates spending more time in front of the Democratic Committee than on the campaign trail or a mayor’s race that still lingers in court, the top story in Hale County must be the overarching dilemma facing the election process.

The problems, which ranged from questionable absentee ballots to oddly drawn district lines, raised the ire of citizens and the attention of the Alabama Attorney General. In fact, the problem was so disconcerting that Attorney General Troy King sent agents from the Alabama Bureau of Investigation to begin a report on the problems. The agents, however, did not come to a conclusion because they were pulled from Greensboro to investigate other crimes around the state.

There’s a good chance the election controversies in Hale County will, again, dominate the headlines in 2005.

2. Southern claims AISA championship

Head Coach Shaun Bonds and the Southern Academy Cougars made history when they beat Shelby Academy 13-0 on Nov. 26 to win the Class 1A AISA State Championship.

What set the championship apart, however, wasn’t that Southern won a state title; rather it was the way they won it.

For most of the 2004 season, this football team rode on the shoulders of star running back Erik Montz. One game before the playoffs, however, Montz went down with a season-ending knee injury.

Rather than falling apart, Southern’s players rallied and waltzed through the playoffs and won a state championship anyway.

3. Mayoral election causes stir

Late in the evening hours on Sept. 14, outgoing Greensboro Mayor John E. Owens walked into the City Hall lobby and announced that J.B. Washington had officially won the mayoral race against opponent Vanessa Hill. Near pandemonium ensued, with supporters taking to the streets in celebration.

The excitement shown that night was just the start of things to come – in large part because of the manner Washington won the race. In terms of physical ballots cast on Sept. 14, Hill actually led the mayoral race 620-511. But after controversial absentee ballots were counted, Washington had picked up 199 extra votes and won the election.

As of now, the election is still meandering through the court system, but Washington has taken his place as Greensboro’s new mayor.

4. Fields-Knox fued lingers on

The dispute between Hale County Commission candidates Lois Fields and Elijah Knox started long before the June 1 Democratic primary.

Knox, from Akron, qualified to challenge Fields for her seat, and Fields went to work on Knox’s qualifications. She argued, to the Hale County Democratic Party, that Knox wasn’t actually a resident of District 2. The Hale County party agreed and disqualified Knox from the race.

Knox, however, took his case to the Alabama Democratic Party and an executive committee ruled that Knox was, indeed, a proper resident of the district.

On June 1, Knox defeated Fields and Fields again began a series of challenges which, at one point, earned her a win from the county party. Again, however, the Alabama Democratic Party trumped Hale County Democrats and awarded the election to Knox.

5. Friends, students plug at progress

While much of the news from Hale County focused on questionable election practices, it’s impossible to overlook the good work of groups like Friends of Hale County and the Auburn University Rural Studio in Newbern.

The work of those two organizations went far to improve the quality of life for those in need and their tireless energies toward progress made them one of the top stories in Hale County in 2004.

Perry County

Senseless acts trump good

It’s a hard argument to say anything was more important to the Perry County community in 2004 than much of the progress that was made in both Marion and Uniontown. From restoration projects to expanding industries, it’s difficult to say the top stories of Perry County weren’t positive in nature this year. Unfortunately, one tragic event replaced all that was good in 2004.

1. Murders should not have happened

When a Uniontown farmer found Lawrence Alvin Smith and Kenneth Dixie dead in a soybean field, police and state law enforcement began an investigation that resulted in one of the most complicated and tragic stories in Alabama this year.

A man named Charlie Bennett was arrested and charged with murder in the deaths, and it turned out that Bennett should have never been in Uniontown in the first place.

Just two years ago, Bennett pleaded guilty to charges of bank robbery and assault. He was sentenced to four years in a state penitentiary for the assault and eight years in a federal prison for the bank robbery.

Because his was a federal charge, Bennett was supposed to serve his entire sentence, and he shouldn’t have been released from prison until August 2010. Instead, he left Alabama’s prison system on May 1, 2004, and 49 days later, he allegedly murdered Smith and Dixie.

2. Quick deal offers new jobs to county

On March 23, 2004, Perry County Commissioners were whisked away in a stretch limousine after they approved a company’s bid to build a new prison just east of Uniontown.

The prison, according to commissioners, will employ anywhere between 120 and 150 people and will include an annual payroll of up to $3 million. Construction was set to begin earlier this year and should conclude in mid 2005.

A company called LSC Corrections Services Inc., in Clearwater, Fla., was the only group to receive consideration for building the new prison, which Gov. Bob Riley said would be used to lighten the load on over-crowded prisons across the state.

While the economic impact of the project was enough to make this one of 2004’s top stories, the interesting deal and limousine ride after commissioners approved the prison gave this story an angle that still seems a bit mysterious.

3. Sunday alcohol bill wins twice

There weren’t many public discussions on an Alabama Senate bill former State Sen. Charles Steele pushed through Montgomery last year, but there probably should have been.

Steele introduced a piece of local legislation that legalized Sunday alcohol sales in Perry County, setting off a small fury in a community that has the state’s only all-women’s Southern Baptist College.

Once the bill passed the Senate and Alabama House, Gov. Bob Riley vetoed the measure, but that wasn’t the end. Both the House and Senate overrode Riley’s veto, paving the way for legal Sunday alcohol sales in Perry County.

4. Woman, children die in trailer fire

Around 1:30 a.m. on Wednesday, May 5, a woman and her four children were killed in a trailer fire in Uniontown. The tragedy shocked citizens in Uniontown and became one of the top stories in 2004.

According to an investigation by local law enforcement, power had been cut off from 24-year-old Viola Fikes’ trailer and it appeared candles being used as light were the reason for the blaze.

Along with Fikes, Emanuel Lane, 9, WyQuise Fikes, 6, Shakemia Ward, 4, and Sekira Fikes, 1, were all killed in the blaze.

5. Citizens temporarily win landfill dispute

The story started more than a year ago, and it’s likely to last another year, but in 2004, Perry County citizens won a small battle against the County Commission and its plan to build a landfill near Uniontown.

During the first week of 2004, commissioners held a public hearing at R.C. Hatch High School and heard from both young and old alike.

One of the most poignant arguments against the landfill came from Rev. J.R. Murdock.

“If you vote for a landfill, we will not vote for you,” he said. “This is not a black thing and this is not a white thing. We’re all concerned.”

The arguments apparently won out. At its Jan. 27 meeting, members of the Perry County Commission decided to table the idea of a landfill while the Alabama Department of Environmental Management researched the location and effects of such a project.

Sumter County

UWA resolve rescues city

Any discussion on the Sumter County community must make mention of the University of West Alabama and its impact on the local economy. There were plenty of events that made a lasting impact on the county, but in 2004, UWA dominated the news.

1. UWA regroups, solves problems

In late 2003, the UWA Board of Trustees learned that their institution had been placed on academic probation. In large part, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools said the board’s micromanagement of the university affairs was chief among its concerns.

On June 8, 2004, members of the board made a resounding statement to SACS and the UWA community when it unanimously appointed Alex Saad as the new chairman. The election brought an end to a divisive period between factions led by Preston “Mann” Minus and Dr. Tom Umphrey, where – in essence – the university had two boards.

In the board meetings following Saad’s appointment, members showed no signs of resorting back to the tactics of years past.

On Dec. 7, 2004, SACS held its annual meeting in Atlanta and announced that UWA had fulfilled its obligations and removed the university from probation.

The changes at UWA, and SACS’ subsequent announcement eliminated the possibility of the university losing its accreditation, which would have resulted in the loss of millions of dollars.

2. Blaze results in regional help

On Wednesday, March 18, a raging fire consumed an entire paper warehouse in Livingston, but the lasting story in the blaze was what happened after the sparks began their destruction.

With every possible hand on site to help contain the inferno, officials in Livingston sent out a call to all area fire departments that could respond. At least 10 fire engines from across the region responded, and they weren’t the only ones. Volunteers from across the community came to the aide of firefighters, bringing water and food through the course of the fight.

In all, fire departments used about 3,000 gallons of water per minute to squelch the blaze, but it took nearly a week – and constant attention – before the warehouse of Southwest Paper Sales was safe.

3. Vaughan acquitted of assault charges

On Oct. 19, 2004, Cuba Police Chief Chris Vaughan was cleared of charges that he assaulted a murder suspect in July 2003.

Anthony Collins, who was shot by Vaughan, claimed the police chief had no reason to fire six shots at him, but a Marengo County Jury thought otherwise. During the altercation between Vaughan and Collins, the suspect was carrying a gun and apparently threatened the police chief.

The two real breaks in the case for Vaughan’s attorneys came when a state law enforcement official testified that the police chief had defended himself properly. In fact, Alabama Bureau of Investigation agent Greg Hodges testified that he would have shot the suspect much sooner than Vaughan did.

Defense attorneys also got help from the accuser – Collins. During testimony, the victim repeatedly took the Fifth Amendment and refused to answer pertinent questions to the case.

4. New prison leans heavy on the wallet

After what seemed like years of planning, the Sumter County Sheriff’s Department officially opened a new county jail on Thursday, July 1, 2004.

On that day, prisoners were transported by squad cars to the new jail and local leaders said the improved facilities would better protect the Sumter community. At the price Sumter County paid for the new detention center, the company should be extremely safe.

According to County Commissioner Ronnie Beard, the price tag for the new jail began at $2.5 million.

“Before we get through, it will probably wind up costing $4.6 million, but it’s a nice facility,” Beard said.

The new Sumter County jail can hold 136 inmates, as opposed to a capacity of 53 at the old jail. It also has a computer system that allows guards to constantly view the actions of inmates.

5. Bought block? Well not exactly

A Birmingham man provided one of the most intriguing stories of 2004 in West Alabama – and especially in Sumter County.

Roderick Pompey entered the York scene with plenty of pomp and circumstance in January 2004. He placed a bid of $120,000 to buy eight buildings in downtown York, promising to revitalize the culture-rich community.

The promises didn’t last long, though, and Pompey’s purchase never went through. Even still York Mayor Carolyn Gosa and civic leaders have made continued strides toward improvement in the city.