Looking back at 2016’s top stories

Looking back at 2016’s top stories

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The popular craft beer festival Suds On The Square got a taste of Hollywood as TV and movie stars Chris Pratt and Anna Faris took in the festivities in June. For more of our favorite photos from 2016, flip to the back page. (Photo by Dean Breest)
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In mid-April, a drunk driver crashed into this sign at Starr’s Mill High School. (Staff Photo by Christopher Dunn)

From Staff Reports

With 2017 knocking on the door, the time is ripe to look back at some of the biggest stories around Fayette County in 2016.
The year kicked off with a momentous occasion for Fayetteville, as Ed Johnson was sworn in as the first black mayor in the history of the city.
“We are standing on the precipice of history in Fayette County and Fayetteville,” Johnson said at his swearing-in ceremony. “We stand on the shoulders of those who have gone before us, and certainly they have done great things in the City of Fayetteville.”
Johnson was a former council member who beat Greg Clifton, the incumbent, in the race for mayor. Kathaleen Brewer and Harlan Shirley were also sworn in to start the year as new members of council.
Longtime U.S. Congressman Lynn Westmoreland announced in January that we would not seek reelection. He was first elected to Congress in 2004 for the Third District, which includes a large portion of Fayette County, after twelve years as the 104th District representative in the Georgia General Assembly.
“After a busy fall in Congress, I finally had the opportunity for quiet reflection over the Christmas break,” Westmoreland said in a press release. “I spent time in prayer and with my family, and with their blessing have decided I will no longer seek reelection for Georgia’s Third Congressional District.”
A hotly-debated chapter finally was closed in mid-January, with both the Board of Commissioners and the Board of Education approving a settlement of the NAACP’s voting rights lawsuit first brought back in 2011. As part of the settlement, they approved a districting plan that has four seats elected via districts and a fifth seat to be chosen via at-large voting, and the county defendants agreed to pay $125,000 towards legal fees for the plaintiffs.
The agreement came with several key points, including noting the agreement was “solely to avoid the further burden of litigation” and came with no admission of wrongdoing. It also required that the plaintiffs acknowledge there was no intentional racial discrimination on the part of the county in their use and defense of the at-large voting system.
“This decision is not easy for any of us here, and that is because we love this county,” said Oddo, who added that he thought the county’s odds of prevailing on appeal were not good in his opinion and would have represented a much bigger chunk than the $125,000 legal fees they paid. “They could perhaps have topped two million dollars and no at-large district with it. Instead, we’re paying a nominal amount. It’s a bitter pill but a much less bitter pill to swallow.”
J.C. Booth Middle School got a scare late in the month when a carbon monoxide issue left a number of students feeling nauseous. The boiler at the school malfunctioned, causing carbon monoxide to be drawn from the boiler into the air handling unit, dispersing it into the building. Eighteen students went to the school clinic complaining of headaches, prompting the principal to call the maintenance department for the Board of Education for assistance.
Many parents were upset at the school’s response, in part because the school remained opened despite knowing there was an active CO leak, and parents were not notified until the next day.
CO detectors are not currently required by state law, but the school system vowed to address it, along with procedures and protocols related to potential evacuations in the event of future leaks.
In early February, Fayetteville Police nabbed a man they say masterminded “pigeon drop” cash scams in the city since at least 2006. Thomas Richardson, 63, of Lithonia is suspected to have participated in 17 pigeon drop crimes in Fayetteville alone and was wanted in other states as well.
The so-called “pigeon drop” scam is when a person pretends to have found a large sum of money on the ground and asks a victim if it is theirs. The perpetrator then engages the victim in a discussion about sharing the money, somehow determining that it was probably ill-gotten cash that would be impossible to track back to the person who dropped it. At some point in the scam, the victim is convinced to withdraw a large sum of money from their own bank and to hand it over to the perpetrator in hopes of being included in sharing the seemingly larger sum of money.
Jim Watson, who was convicted in 2002 of murdering his wife Beverley in 1997, died in prison Feb. 10.
Beverley, then a 33-year-old mother of two who had been married to Watson for 14 years, went missing on Jan. 18, 1997. He reported her disappearance to law enforcement two days later. The couple were Fayette County residents. Two years later, bones from Beverley’s body were found by a construction industry worker in a wooded area of South Fulton County. Watson was indicted in Fulton County Superior Court on Jan. 15, 2002, and he was convicted of Malice Murder on June 18 of that same year and sentenced to life in prison.
The county was rocked Feb. 20 when a family dispute turned deadly as Michael Lamar “Mickey” Graves, 68, was charged in the shooting death of his 42-year-old nephew Brett Graves.
Graves was arrested Feb. 26 in connection with the Feb. 20 shooting death of his nephew at the junkyard on Eastin Road in northern Fayette County that has belonged to the Graves Family for decades. Graves was charged with Felony Murder, Malice Murder, and two counts of Aggravated Assault.
Fayette County Sheriff’s deputies reportedly responded at 6:27 that Saturday evening to a “person shot” call. The two men were said to be the only people at the scene at the time of the incident.
According to the Malice Murder arrest warrant, Brett Graves was already shot in the chest one time when his uncle shot him “two additional times while the victim was on the ground and no longer a threat to the subject.”
Through his attorney, Mickey Graves maintains he is not guilty of murder, insisting that he acted in self defense when shooting his nephew. He said his nephew threatened him with a screwdriver at the salvage yard office.
Graves was granted a $275,200 bond and placed on house arrest.
In mid-March, Peachtree City agreed to move forward towards an agreement to extend sewer service to Tyrone. The current system for Peachtree City offers a total permitted capacity of six million gallons per day, with an use of 3.1 million gallons per day. Tyrone had requested 350,000 gallons per day in sewage treatment capacity. They had purchased 250,000 gallons per day, of which they use about 47 percent daily, from Fairburn for their 422 sewer customers. Tyrone was in need of a new sewer setup because Fairburn had asked for their capacity back.
Piedmont Fayette Hospital celebrated a high point in their expansion project with a “topping out” ceremony. Topping out is held when the last beam is put atop the structure under construction. During the ceremony, a mysterious, bearded construction worker up on the beam was revealed to be Michael Burnett, CEO of Piedmont Fayette Hospital.
Late March brought some very welcome news when it was announced that dredging on Lake Peachtree was finally complete. The lake was refilled and work will soon begin on a spillway replacement as part of ongoing work in Peachtree City.
Mid-April brought a wild wreck when a suspected drunk driver crashed her car on campus at Starr’s Mill High School, destroying a large sign near the soccer and lacrosse practice fields. Kristen Bowsher was charged with DUI (Multiple Substances), Reckless Driving, and Willful Obstruction with Violence, the latter of which is a felony charge. Bowsher, who reportedly spoke with slurred speech and had difficulty maintaining her balance, initially agreed to a field sobriety evaluation but later declined before the evaluation could be initiated. She refused to enter the officer’s patrol car and became combative, kicking the officer twice in the chest. The driver later admitted to taking shots of vodka and various prescription medications, such as anti-anxiety medication and Propranolol.
Peachtree City welcomed a new famous face to town when an alligator, estimated to be six feet long, was seen just off Highway 74 near Flat Creek. It was the first time in at least five years that an alligator had been spotted in the area. Flat Creek Floyd, as he was affectionately named, became a local favorite, and the public had to be reminded to not feed him.
A fight in the lobby of Fayette Pavilion’s Tinseltown cinema would lead to a stricter curfew. Tinseltown announced it would enforce a Friday and Saturday 6 p.m. curfew for unaccompanied minors, which includes anyone 17 years of age or younger.
Georgia Film Academy’s full-featured soundstage on the Pinewood Production Center property in Fayetteville officially opened in late April. Located directly across Sandy Creek Road from the Pinewood Atlanta Studio campus, the 15,860 square-foot studio was built to the exact same standards as two of Pinewood’s main campus studios, which GFA leaders say will give their students a significant advantage when looking for jobs in the film industry. The two-course academy begins with a six-hour credit, classroom-based course and is followed up by a studio-based, 12-credit-hour course. Upon completion of the two courses, a basic certificate is offered, or the credit hours can be applied to an associates or bachelor’s degree within the University System of Georgia or the Technical College System of Georgia.
A Korean War-era L-16 plane owned and operated by Peachtree City-based Commemorative Air Force suffered a “hard landing” in a field near Tyrone as the CAF was celebrating its annual World War II Heritage Days at Falcon Field in May. According to emergency personnel, a pilot and a passenger were in the aircraft when it landed in a natural gas easement just off Ellison Road near the Sun Road intersection. Both occupants reportedly exited the plane uninjured.
Headed to set on their motorcycles, Walking Dead stars Steven Yuen and Norman Reedus stopped to help motorists in a car crash in Peachtree City at Hwy 54 and Line Creek Drive.
The Board of Education voted to install a new turf field at Sandy Creek High School. The field was ready just in time for football season, and, because the process was a success, the county’s four other high schools will now get their own turf field.
Late-May brought the heated Primary Election. Sheriff Barry Babb won big over challenger Chris Stevers 88 percent to 12, and first-term incumbent County Commission Chairman Charles Oddo won a five-man District 5 race outright with about 51 percent of the votes cast in that county-wide race. One of the tightest races of the night was the District 2 County Commission contest between incumbent Randy Ognio and former commissioner Lee Hearn, Ognio beating Hearn 50.4 to 49.6 percent.
Incumbent District 1 Commissioner David Barlow lost his seat to former commissioner Eric Maxwell, who took 55 percent. Babb, Oddo, and Ognio did not face challengers in the fall. Maxwell faced Pam Reid and won in November.
In the District 3 Board of Education race, incumbent Board of Education Chairwoman Marian Key lost her seat to Scott Hollowell 51 to 49. Brian Anderson won convincingly over Susan Stopford 59 to 41 in the District 5 Board of Education race. Anderson beat Ching Ching Yap in November.
Long-time Assistant Coroner Bee Huddleston had no trouble winning the coroner’s race over Robbie Waits 80 to 20.
Griffin Judicial Circuit District Attorney Scott Ballard, who decided this year to run for Superior Court Judge instead of seeking reelection as D.A., defeated incumbent Superior Court Judge Tommy Hankinson, garnering about 55 percent of the ballots cast in Fayette, Spalding, Upson, and Pike counties.
Superior Court Judge Mack Crawford won reelection to his bench by an overall score of about 65 percent to Catherine Sanderson’s 35.
Christy Dunkelberger won for Magistrate Court Post 1.
In early June, convicted murderers Gregory Haney, Jr. and Ladarius Jawon Jackson were sentenced to life in prison without parole for the June 7, 2015, armed robbery and shooting death of Fayetteville Applebee’s manager Gregory Smith.
Smith had been completing an inventory project inside the restaurant that early Sunday morning after working the Saturday evening shift when he locked up and walked to his car at 2:52 a.m. Inside his car, Smith was approached by Haney, who prosecutors say was armed with a 9mm handgun loaded with a dozen rounds of ammunition.
Smith apparently turned his body to the right when Haney neared the car with the gun, and that’s when Haney fired one of those rounds into the left side of Smith’s back. That single round traveled through Haney’s left lung, aorta, and right lung before exiting through his right side and reentering his body into his right arm where it finally stopped.
Evidence presented by Assistant District Attorney David McDade in the seven-day trial showed that Smith did not die instantly, but rather he would have died several minutes later as blood filled his lungs, essentially drowning him. In the meantime, Haney was searching Smith’s pockets and car for cash and valuables, ultimately robbing him of only an iPhone 6 and the remote key fob to the BMW sedan, which was already running with lights on.
The BMW was still running about four hours later when Smith’s worried fiancee Katasha Wilson and their 1-year-old daughter arrived at the Applebee’s parking lot looking for him when they woke up and realized he never returned home after work. Wilson testified that she was initially relieved to see Smith’s car in the parking lot with its lights on because she then assumed the inventory project just took longer than expected and that he was about to come home.
Stepping out of her car, Wilson took her daughter into her arms and walked over to Smith’s car to say hello to him before she expected both of them to drive back to their home in Riverdale. Wilson opened Smith’s car door, then she called 911, frantically.
Retired four-star U.S. Army General William J. Livsey, a Fayetteville resident who was one of the nation’s most decorated military veterans, died June 18 at the age of 85. The portion of Hwy. 314 that is inside Fayette County is named in Livsey’s honor. The highway terminates at the Hwy. 85 and North Jeff Davis Drive intersection. Livsey’s home is located in a neighborhood off North Jeff Davis Drive.
Fayette County hosted their first-ever hot air balloon festival in mid-June, and it brought out a far larger crowd than anyone could have anticipated.
“Together we achieved much. We went past our goal. We actually went way past,” said Anita Godbee, director of the Parks & Recreation Department. “When we were first thinking about the hot air balloon festival, we really thought that we’d only have about 2,500 people. We documented that we had over 10,000 people attend.”
It has already been announced that Balloons Over Fayette will return June 17, 2017.
Fayette County Elections & Voter Registration Department Head Tom Sawyer was terminated for performance-related issues. Later in the year, County Clerk Floyd Jones would be named as his replacement.
Seventeen-year-old Sierra Lund of Peachtree City was congratulated by the local aviation community after completing a successful emergency landing when her Cessna aircraft’s engine failed during a solo flight in late June. Lund landed on the tee box for hole #11 at Planterra Golf Club, which is just north of the Atlanta Regional Airport Falcon Field on the west side of Peachtree City. No human injuries were reported, though the plane was damaged as it hit the ground.
Joshua Wright was found not guilty in early July as the third defendant in a series of Craigslist robberies.
Wright is one of three friends who took part in back-to-back robberies during two days in March 2014 in which they met with people responding to Craigslist ads offering iPhone 6 devices for bargain prices. During those meetings, Malik Miles and Armoni Strozier used starter pistols to intimidate their victims into giving over large sums of money, including $300 the first day and $170 the next.
Wright admitted to sitting nearby for the first robbery, which took place over his own backyard fence in the Heritage Lake subdivision clubhouse parking lot. He also admitted to taking a third of the proceeds after he and his friends scampered back to his house following that first day’s robbery. However, he claims to have never known guns would be involved, and he says the second day he only dropped his friends off at the nearby Brandon Mill subdivision clubhouse but didn’t hang around to see them rob the two victims they encountered at that second location.
Miles and Strozier, who both pled guilty last year, are serving sentences behind bars.
In mid-July, the County took steps towards asking voters to approve a six-year SPLOST. Though it was initially in the plans, funding for a Fayette County Performing Arts Center was ultimately removed from the project list.
“I was excited about it, I still am excited about it. I think it would be a wonderful addition to the county,” said Chairman Charles Oddo. “We thought we might be able to get it on this SPLOST, but the timing was not right. There’s still work to do.”
Due to the timing crunch, the date of the SPLOST vote would later be bumped back to March 2017.
Pinewood Forrest developers unveiled plans for what they call Atlanta’s first “live, create, play” community on the 234-acre property across the street from Pinewood Atlanta Studios. Among the offerings are 1,300 residential units including single-family homes, micro-cottages, multifamily flats, townhomes, and tree homes, 300 hotel rooms, 275,000 square feet of commercial office, street level retail, and restaurants, and trails and green space.
“We envision this to be your ultimate sandbox as a creative artist,” Dan Cathy said. “This is the place you’ll love to be. This is the place you’ve dreamed of.
“And you don’t have to get into your car to go to work,” Cathy continued. “All you’ll have to do is go right across the street.”
In late July, Assistant District Attorney Ben Coker, with 57 percent of the vote, was elected district attorney for the Griffin Judicial Circuit after defeating Fayette County lawyer and former assistant district attorney Rudjard Hayes in a runoff.
In August, the Fayette County Board of Commissioners unanimously approved an ordinance amendment that will allow for chickens to be kept in residential areas. The new rule allows up to six chickens on a property for the first acre, with three more chickens allowable for each additional acre of property size, up to a maximum of 12 chickens on a three-acre lot.
“We’re trying to maintain the rural nature of Fayette County, and this is one way to do that,” said Chairman Charles Oddo.
The Ridge, Fayetteville’s family-minded nature preserve managed by Southern Conservation Trust, officially opened in mid-August. It features hiking and biking trails, picnic areas, a canoe trail, fishing areas, and more.
The City Council of Peachtree City approved the rezoning needed for the much-discussed lofts and retail development at Lexington Circle. The Lofts at Lexington will be a four-story, multi-family residential and commercial development with basement-level parking across Lexington Circle from World Gym to the east and across from the Governor’s Row single-family subdivision to the west. A modified request to council was for a maximum of 80 units on roughly 3.5 acres.
“I think this is a much-needed project that is going to have interest from people who don’t want to leave Peachtree City,” said council member Kim Learnard. “I believe these would sell for top dollar in a snap. It’s a unique, smart development that fits in with a walkable community.”
Fayetteville Police Chief Scott Pitts resigned after nearly three years with the department. Major Jeff McMullin, who was Pitts’ second in command, became interim chief, with the city aiming to hire a new full-time chief early in 2017.
September brought a heartbreaking case to trial. The Georgia Bureau of Investigations’ deputy chief medical examiner said she was certain 10-week-old Justin Carl Marshall, II died from blunt-force trauma on Nov. 5, 2014, and the Fayette County Sheriff’s Department narrowed the suspects down to the victim’s father, Justin Carl Marshall, but a jury declared the Fayette County man “not guilty” on all but a misdemeanor marijuana possession charge. Justin Marshall was released from the Fayette County Jail after being detained there since the day his son died at their home just outside Fayetteville.
Country music radio station 92.5 “The Bear” FM announced they would be moving to Fayetteville’s Old Courthouse Square next to Town Square Jewelers.
“The relocation of their broadcast studio to Downtown Fayetteville will create a new point of interest on the Square,” Economic Development Director Brian Wismer said. “The DJs will be visible through the large windows of that commercial space during their live broadcasts.”
A Fayette County Sheriff’s deputy assigned to jail duty was arrested on felony and misdemeanor charges for allegedly supplying an inmate with a cell phone. Theresa Delgado, a Fairburn resident, had been employed by the Fayette County Sheriff’s Office for five years and four months. She turned herself in on charges of felony Violation of Oath by Public Officer, felony Providing Cell Phone to Inmate, and misdemeanor Fourth-Degree Forgery.
“It always cuts you deep when one tarnishes their badge however, we will police ourselves with the same measure as we do others,” Sheriff Barry Babb said. “We will not tolerate any less.”
In October, Marcia A. Demarcus was arrested for First-Degree Vehicular Homicide and nine other charges as a result of allegedly hitting two pedestrians with her truck in Fayetteville. One of those pedestrians died from her injuries. Demarcus was driving a Mazda pick-up truck westbound along Hood Avenue in Fayetteville at 9:37 a.m. when she swerved several feet off the roadway and struck mailboxes before hitting two pedestrians. Her vehicle apparently “glanced” an elderly woman and hit a teenager “head on.” Demarcus fled the scene, though she was pulled over shortly afterward by Fayette County deputies. Demarcus was found to be in possession of unlabeled prescription drugs and was reportedly displaying signs of being under the influence of some sort of drug.
Residents of the Whitewater Creek subdivision and surrounding neighborhoods spoke out at at a Fayette County Board of Commissioners meeting asking for the county’s support in stopping their homeowner’s association from killing deer. They expressed their displeasure with plans laid out by the Whitewater Creek Homeowner’s Association to deal with the deer population. They felt not enough has been done to determine if the deer are truly a problem. In their opinion, it would be a permanent solution to something that not all residents think is actually a problem.
“Dead is dead and cannot be changed,” said Robert Goldberg. “We feel like this is a Fayette County issue, not just our community.”
Two Fayetteville Waffle House locations were robbed in two days. It is believed the robberies were likely connected to similar incidents in Coweta County.
Republicans swept Fayette County in the General Election contests, generally by a two-to-one margin.
Tax Commissioner-elect Kristie King scored the biggest win among the four Fayette County contested races with 67.4 percent of the vote over Democrat challenger Rasheed Dawodu. Former County Commissioner Eric Maxwell defeated Democrat Pam Reid with 66 percent of the vote to earn a return trip to the board in the District 1 seat.
Incumbent School Board Member Barry Marchman held off Democrat Melissa Lohr with 62.7 percent of the vote to keep his District 1 seat. Brian Anderson won the District 5 school board seat with 63.5 percent of the vote over Democrat Ching Ching Yap.
The discussion on what could or should be down with historic Starr’s Mill heated up with a town hall meeting later in November.
Dean Breest, a member of the Fayette Photographic Society and one of the leading volunteers responsible for the renovation of Hopeful Primitive Baptist Church, says he and other artists would like to see the historic Starr’s Mill building opened up more frequently and used to exhibit photographic and other artistic works by local artists. He would also like to see a Fayette County welcome center and other amenities located on the 17-acre property, which he says could also be home to a future water department headquarters building.
Fayette County Manager Steve Rapson said at the meeting that the county is simply in the input-gathering mode right now, promising that there are no plans at present to make any material changes to the building or to add anything to the property.
A continued lack of substantial rainfall led to increased watering restrictions. The Environmental Protection Division of the Georgia Department of Natural Resources issued a Level 2 drought response for 52 counties in Georgia, including Fayette. A burn ban came along with the restrictions, and The Ridge was briefly shut down as well.
Earlier this month, Peachtree City-based Rinnai America Corporation, which is perhaps most famous for its industry-leading tankless water heating systems, announced it would become the title sponsor of the annual NASCAR XFINITY Series race at Atlanta Motor Speedway in nearby Hampton beginning March 4.
The Board of Education voted to remove roughly 100 unverified students. The vote came after a semester-long effort to obtain required documentation from the students’ parents.
“We have done what we need to do, and I think we have the responsibility to say to those 100 students and the parents that we would love to educate you. Show up with the documents, and we’ll do what we need to do,” Board Member Diane Basham said.
The Fayetteville Police Department arrested Dajour E. Weston on aggravated assault charges stemming from an October shooting at the Goodwill store. Weston, from Ossining, New York, fled back to his home state shortly before Fayetteville detectives identified him. An arrest warrant was issued for Weston, and he was located by authorities in New York and brought into custody.