Leader Blues

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

TOP STORY >> 2009: A DOZEN TOP STORIES

Miscreants, misdeeds, misgivings, mistakes, monsoons, mayors and merriment were all part of 2009.

From a new mayor for Jacksonville for the first time in more than 20 years to a Cabot school rising from ashes to a jihad attack on a military recruiter, it’s been a busy year in the local area.

So much so that after rereading more than 2,100 pages in 104 issues of The Leader the staff couldn’t narrow down the top stories to just 10, but did manage to stop at an even dozen.

Here are the top stories of 2009:

NEW MAYOR

Jacksonville Mayor Tom-my Swaim, who had held office for 22 years, surprised most of Jacksonville when he announced his resignation in mid-January.

After he gave the state of the city address at an early January council meeting, Swaim announced that he would be stepping down July 1, even though he was just midway through his sixth four-year term.

Swaim said his family played a major role in his decision. He told the council he missed a lot of his children’s activities while mayor and didn’t want to do the same with his grandchildren.

His resignation opened the flood gates to candidates as about a dozen talked about running and six filed to run: Alderman Gary Fletcher, Alderman Kenny Elliott, developer Tommy Dupree, realtor Beckie Brooks, businessman Joey Urquhart and motorcycle minister Randy “Doc” Rhodd.

The special election was held May 12. After a number of forums and the candidates knocking on thousands of city doors, the voters put Fletcher and Elliott into a run-off.

Fletcher led the six-candidate field, garnering 952 votes, or 39 percent, followed by Elliott with 789 votes, or 32 percent.

In the run-off, held three weeks later, Fletcher bested Elliott in a race that depicted Fletcher as the outsider and Elliott as a continuation of Swaim.

Fletcher called his election a grassroots effort. Fletcher said, “I just want to be the people’s servant.”

KRIS ALLEN

Jacksonville-born and raised Kris Allen became a nationwide sensation as he competed in and then won “America Idol.”

He received the key to the city, got his own day and a place on the city sign.

Allen was born at Rebsamen Hospital, now North Metro, to Neil and Kim Allen on June 21, 1985, and lived in Jacksonville for 17 years. He spent a few years in Cabot before heading to Conway for college.

Back in January, word got out that Allen had made it to the Hollywood portion of “American Idol” tryouts.

The Jacksonville Chamber of Commerce presented Allen with a key to the city on May 7, when he returned to the state for his hometown celebration during the finals of the show’s competition.

During an appearance at Riverfest Amphitheater the next day, Allen seemed overwhelmed by the a number of fans who turned out. “I feel like I have the best fans in the world,” he told the crowd. “I’ve been to this place a lot and never seen this many people here. You guys are why I’m here.”

Just shy of two weeks later, Allen appeared even more at awe when, at the end of a star-studded two-hour show, Ryan Seacrest said, “The American Idol 2009 is…Kris Allen!”

Shortly after Allen’s win, the city council unanimously declared a “Kris Allen Day.”

LOTTERY


Lottery fever had players scratching mad when state scholarship lottery tickets went on sale late after midnight Sept. 28.

That fever has remained strong. The lottery has brought in more than $119 million, or about $19 million for scholarships.

It has even spurned a drive-through lottery business in Ward.

The scholarships will start next year even though the exact amount of the scholarships haven’t been worked out yet, Halter said earlier in the year. If the lottery brings in the expected $100 million this year, then scholarships for students attending four-year institutions will be around $5,000 a year and for those attending two-year schools, the scholarships will be worth about $2,500 per year.

Halter says that comes very close to covering the full instate tuition costs. “That’s a big deal, a very big deal,” he said.

STATE FAIR

Jacksonville is the apparent leader out of 19 submissions to land the new site for the state fair when, and if, it moves from its current Little Rock location off Roosevelt Road.

Jacksonville officials hope history will repeat itself. They are willing to give the Arkansas Livestock Show Association about 400 acres of land worth more than $1 million if the group moves the state fair to southeast Jacksonville.

Just as Jacksonville leaders did more than 55 years ago, when they raised $1 million to donate land to build Little Rock Air Force Base, city officials says they’ll buy the land off Wooten Road and donate it to state fair board.

They hope to form a partnership with private individuals to raise the money for the fair, but mostly from city coffers.

The fair’s executive committee is still months away from making a decision. But comments at a Dec. 18 fair board meeting about the Jacksonville proposal indicated that it is a strong contender.

Committee chairman Ned Purtle and Mike Berg, a consultant for the state fair, had high praise for Jacksonville leaders, in particular for the city’s $5 million gift to the Air Force to construct the $14.8 million Joint Education Center, as well as offering to donate the 430-acre fairground site and hire a grant writer to help raise money to fund construction.

“That is the kind of partner you want,” Berg said.
Engineer Basil Shoptaw, who has evaluated all the proposed sites, said afterward that the Jacksonville site has a lot going for it – immediate interstate access, high visibility, plenty of room, no part of it in a floodplain, and the offer to provide the utilities and land for free.

“Zero cost is hard to beat,” Shoptaw said. “And, there is lots of public support – aggressive public support.”

NEW SCHOOLS

Jacksonville opened its first charter school in August and Cabot opened a new junior high on the grounds of one that burned several years ago.

The charter school, Jacksonville Lighthouse Academy, opened in a local church in August because weather delayed the finishing of its 28,000-square-foot facility off North First Street. The kindergarten through sixth-grade school has 344 students. It plans to add a grade level each year. The charter school offers a longer day and art-infused lessons.

The charter school is a public school but is not bound as strictly as regular public schools by the state or local district.

The school moved into its permanent home in late October.

The new state-of-the-art $13.5 million two-story Cabot Junior High North, which opened in August, replaced the original junior high that burned down in 2006.

Many teachers said they were pleased with the new technology and ample space of the building.

The new Cabot Junior High North is 127,282 square feet and has 47 classrooms, five computer labs and nine science labs.

CABOT MOBSTER

The arrest of a Cabot man on federal charges in November has toppled a North Little Rock alderman and resulted in the arrest of a number of Mafia members.

George Wiley Thompson, 64, was originally arrested on charges stemming from gambling and public corruption was indicted Dec. 17 for his alleged involvement in organized crime.

In addition to drug trafficking, Thompson allegedly supplied guns to the Mafia Colombo Family, according to the federal indictment.

U.S. Attorney Jane Duke said this is Arkansas’ first case with ties to one of the big crime families.

The latest indictment alleges that Thompson was a member of the Deleo Crew, named for alleged Colombo Family street boss Ralph Francis Deleo, 64, of Somerville, Mass.

Deleo was added earlier this month to the federal indictment in Arkansas against Thompson for possessing with intent to distribute more than 500 grams (more than one pound) of cocaine, conspiring to possess with intent to distribute cocaine and using a telephone to facilitate a felony drug transaction.

Thompson fled to Thailand after federal law enforcement officers searched his Cabot home May 12, and found 147 firearms, five silencers and more than 80,000 rounds of ammunition.

Thompson was ultimately apprehended in Bangkok, Thailand, and was brought back to the U.S. to face a cornucopia of charges.

The indictment alleges that Deleo made it possible for Thompson to remain out of the country by arranging the shipment of his prescription medicines.

Two North Little Rock aldermen, Cary Gaines, 63, and Samuel Gaylon Baggett, 58, have also pleaded not guilty to charges of crimes involving Thompson. Their trial is set for Jan. 26.

Gaines allegedly attempted to fix bids on city projects to pay gambling debts owed to Thompson. Baggett, a gun dealer, is charged with illegally selling weapons to Thompson, who is a convicted felon.

Gaines has resigned from the North Little Rock council.

INJURED SOLDIER

Two Army privates were shot, one fatally, as they stood outside recruiting offices in Little Rock in early June. The gunman, Abdulhakim Mujahid Muhammad, 24, aka Carlos Leon Bledsoe, targeted the military men in the name of his religion.

Private Quinton Ezeagwula of Jacksonville has recovered from his wounds, but his buddy, Pvt. William Long, didn’t.

Ezeagwula, a former Red Devil football player, survived despite being shot three times. He told The Leader he played dead during the ordeal until the shooter drove off. Long was killed by a single bullet.

Ezeagwula, 18, and Long, 23, were standing outside the Army-Navy recruiting station on Rodney Parham Road on June 1, when Muhammad drove up in a black pickup truck carrying a cheap Chinese semiautomatic rifle and started firing.

After he came home from the hospital three days after the shooting, he showed the bullet holes in his body and said he had shrapnel in his lung, his neck and down his back.

Ezeagwula, a heavy-machine operator, is thankful that the military has given him a career and he wants to continue to serve.

He hopes to become a drill sergeant one day, he said.

His mother said her family thanks God every day that Ezeagwula is alive.

Muhammad called the Associated Press to defend the attack at the recruiting station, saying he’s not a murderer because U.S. military action in the Middle East made the killing justified.

In a collect call from jail, Muhammad told the AP that he didn’t specifically plan the shootings, but they had been on his mind for a while.

SHERWOOD GOLF COURSE

The 106-acre defunct North Hills Country Club that Sherwood condemned and took over has been officially renamed The Greens at North Hills,. The city is looking to spend a lot of green on the old golf course—more than $6 million—before it will open to public play in the spring.

After a park study and numerous public hearings during the year, the council voted to reopen the course.

Costs include $5.5 million for the land itself, $300,000 for landscaping and maintenance needs and $105,688 for salaries for a golf course superintendent and a number of general labor positions.

Additional maintenance and salary money are being budgeted for 2010.

About midyear, Mandel Brockington was hired as the superintendent. Part of his perks as superintendent includes a rent-free home on the course.

The parks and recreation committee also set daily fees and memberships and was expecting to sell about 500 memberships (around $1,000) before the course opens in the spring.

CAMPBELL RETRIAL

Jay Campbell, the beleaguered former Lonoke police chief who has been serving a 40-year sentence on a variety of charges, is now, at least temporarily, a free man.

The state Supreme Court reversed his convictions for running a continuing criminal enterprise and remanded the case back to Lonoke County Circuit Court.

Bond was set Monday at $50,000, which Campbell posted, and he was freed until he’s retried in March on burglary, theft and fraud charges.

Campbell can’t be tried on the ongoing criminal-conspiracy enterprise, which was dismissed.

Both Campbell and his wife, Kelly Campbell, had come into court for sentencing expecting to be free on bond pending appeal that April day in 2007, but Special Judge John Cole revoked their bond and sent them directly to jail, then to prison where they have been ever since.

The state Court of Appeals is slated to hear an appeal next month of the convictions of Kelly Campbell, who was one of five co-defendants.

The former chief was sentenced to 40 years as the kingpin of a continuing criminal enterprise, 30 years for conspiracy to manufacture methamphetamine, 20 years for each of six counts of residential burglary, 10 years for each of seven counts of obtaining a controlled substance by fraud and various other drug or theft-related charges.

That jury recommended the maximum sentence for all but one of his 23 convictions and all but two of Kelly Campbell’s 26 convictions.

In all, his sentences would have added up to 315 years and hers to 304 years, but while the jury recommended the maximum sentence on every county they also recommended that those sentences run concurrently at the same time.

NEW LIBRARY

In mid-February, the new 13,500-square-foot Ester D. Nixon Library, one of 12 libraries in the Central Arkansas Library System, opened on Jacksonville’s Main Street. It replaced what had been the system’s oldest library.

“It is a great day for the city of Jacksonville. It is a wonderful improvement for our community,” then-Mayor Tommy Swaim said. “The library was not located here by accident. It was located here because this is the center of the downtown of Jacksonville, as we once knew it. This makes a statement for all to see we are not moving backward in Jacksonville. We are moving forward.”

The $4.8 million land and building project was paid for with a combination of revenue from a temporary 1-mill increase in property tax, city sales tax revenue, private donations, a contribution from CALS, and a bond issue.

“It is fabulous, it is beautiful. I’m just glad we could get it on Main Street,” said Alderman Marshall Smith.

Esther Dewitt Nixon was the librarian of the first Jacksonville library, which opened in 1959 at the old city hall. She continued as the city librarian at the library constructed in 1969 at 308 W. Main St. as part of CALS. She died in 2004.

LRAFB

In July, the 19th Airlift Wing and the 314th Airlift Wing at Little Rock Air Force Base brought home a total of nine trophies from the air mobility rodeo competition at McChord Air Force Base, Wash.

Team Little Rock won two overall awards at the air rodeo and much more: The 19th Airlift Wing won for best overall C-130 team and best overall aerial port team. The wing’s aerial port team won for the best C-130 engine-running off-load team and the best C-130 in-transit visibility team.

Team Little Rock’s maintenance teams picked up three awards. The 19th Airlift Wing, J-model won best C-130 maintenance team. The wing also brought home the best C-130 pre-flight team. The best C-130 post-flight team was the 314th Airlift Wing, H-model.

Team Little Rock won two more awards as the 19th Airlift Wing won best C-130 short field landing crew and the 314th Airlift Wing picked up the best back-landing combat off-load crew.

There is a chance that the base may get to host the 2011 rodeo, which would be an economic boon to the area.

In late January, Col. Gregory S. Otey took command of the 19th Airlift Wing from Brig. Gen. Rowayne A. Schatz Jr.

“It is an honor, and I am very humbled to stand before you today as the commander of the 19th Airlift Wing. This is truly like coming home for the Otey family,” said the colonel, who was a weapons officer at the C-130 Weapons School at the air base from 1995 through 1997.

The base did run into some difficulty during the year when C-130 aircraft were taken out of action to replace a defective wing-nut part.

Congress approved funding for a $10.4 million security forces facility and a $5.8 million C-130J simulator.

The base received about $12.7 million in stimulus funding for facilities sustainment, restoration and modernization projects.

About $8.8 million of that was earmarked for repairing and maintaining the airfield apron.

Other items include $856,000 to repair hangar 224, $1,578,000 to repair or install two antiterrorism vehicle barriers, $604,000 to repair Sixth Street/Arnold Drive, $431,000 to repair a fire-detection system in Razorback Building 1020 and install or repair a sprinkler system for that building and $409,000 to repair a fire detection system and install or repair the sprinkler in Building 1024.

WEATHER

Precipitation records were broken during a number of months in 2009, making the year became one of the top three wettest on record.

Besides the rain, the area had its share of ice and high winds.

On Jan. 5, a winter ice storm put about 500 residents in the city of Lonoke and south Lonoke County and another 450 customers in Jacksonville, Sherwood and Cabot in the dark.

Three weeks later, another icy storm caused more than 200 highway accidents, 83 of them in the local area, during a 16-hour period. Even those responding to accidents to help ended up in accidents.

The Jacksonville Fire Department had a fire truck and an ambulance slid into the rail while responding to help motorists stranded on I-440 and Hwy. 67/167.

After January, the weather turned wet, wetter and wettest as the year ended up with rain totals 25 inches above the norm.

Heavy rain in late April caused severe flooding problems in parts of White and Lonoke counties. Several homes in Cabot were flooded, damaging garages and carpeting.

“About half the county is flooded,” Lonoke County Judge Charlie Troutman said.

About 13 inches of rain hit central Arkansas in May, making it has the third wettest May in Little Rock since record keeping started in the state back in 1879.

June turned out to be the only dry month of the year, but many of the days had triple-digit heat indices.

Thunderstorms, with high winds, hit the area early Aug. 5. Warning sirens and emergency telephone calls woke up thousands of area residents who were often too dazed to seek a secure place for protection.

Fortunately, no one was seriously hurt.

A path of destruction could be seen on Hwy. 31 in Lonoke County between Hwy. 38 and Hwy. 321 Spur.

On Oct. 30, four area fire departments using boats and other rescue equipment evacuated about a dozen people from a trailer Park off Tom Box Road in north Pulaski County as more than five inches of rain hit the area in less than 24 hours.

The Ward Fire Department ran rescue missions all night as the rain fell, pulling one family from a car that had stalled in four feet of water on Hwy. 319 and Lewisburg Road and saving dogs in the city’s animal control kennels off Hwy. 367.

Ward Police Chief Charlie Martin said firefighters waded in water up to their armpits to get the dogs to safety.

Wet rainy weather continued and 73 inches of rain had fallen for the year.