TOP STORY >> Looking back at first three months
After culling through 104 issues and more than 2,100 pages of newsprint to determine The Leader’s top 12 stories for 2009, there was still so much news left that it was decided to take a month-by-month look back. These snippets are from some of the major news stories that appeared in The Leader between January and March.
• The man charged in Jacksonville’s first murder of 2008 was sentenced in early January to 40 years in prison. He pleaded guilty to first-degree murder. Derrick Alan Cox, 26, stabbed and beat William Ramsey, 22, of 520-D Stonewall Drive, to death in March 2008. They were neighbors.
• The Sherwood Fire Board narrowed down its search for a full-time fire chief to three candidates, but the longtime current chief, Frank Hill, was not among the candidates. The fire department is not a municipal department but a fire protection district department under the control of the county judge, who appoints a five-member board to oversee its operations. Most of the firefighters are part time and volunteers.
• By late January, Sherwood’s wastewater treatment plants rectified most of the problems that so upset the Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality last year that the agency slapped the city with a hefty fine and consent order.
The one outstanding violation was the condition of the levees around the lagoons. The lagoons are old and do not meet today’s tougher standards for wastewater treatment. Repairs will be expensive.
• Harold S. Longs, 54, of 516 Beverly St., in Jacksonville, was accused in a Bernie Madoff-style scheme, taking investors for more than $755,000.
Longs was indicted by a federal grand jury on one count of securities fraud and 18 counts of wire fraud.
The charges stem from Longs’ two-year operation of a securities investment scheme carried out through his company, Your Money Worth.
• Eleven Jacksonville High School students, plus their instructor and two chaperones, received VIP tickets to attend President Barack Obama’s inauguration. Pulaski County Clerk Pat O’Brien of Jacksonville, who was the first elected official in central Arkansas to openly support Obama, also attended the inauguration.
• Jacksonville Mayor Tommy Swaim, who held that position for 22 years, announced that he would resign. Swaim announced that even though he was just midway through his sixth four-year term, he would be stepping down July 1.
• New sidewalks at Northwood Middle School finally gave students with physical disabilities playground and outside access. Parent Reginald Ford spearheaded the drive for the sidewalks.
• Howard H. Neal Jr.’s capital murder conviction was upheld by the Arkansas Supreme Court.
The 26-year-old Jacksonville man was convicted in December 2007 of the Oct. 23, 2005, death of a 5-year-old girl in Jacksonville. Neal stabbed the girl, Jasmine Peeples, more than 100 times before suffocating her and keeping the police away in a 50-minute standoff.
After receiving a life-without-parole sentence in circuit court, Neal appealed to the state Supreme Court.
• The Pulaski County Special School District board voted to keep James Sharpe as the district’s superintendent, but did not extend his contract. Sharpe’s contract had been a point of contention with the board, which had discussed and voted on whether or not to fire him several times in late 2008.
• The Beebe School Board extended Superintendent Dr. Belinda Shook’s contract for an additional year to June 2012, but she refused to accept a pay raise. Shook asked that her salary of $117,292 stay the same. “I feel like I’m being paid a fair salary,” she said.
• An Air Force staff sergeant stationed at Little Rock Air Force Base was convicted of involuntary manslaughter for his part in a 2005 brutal gang initiation of an Army sergeant, who died from his injuries. At the time, both men were stationed in Germany.
Staff Sgt. Jerome Jones, 25, will serve two years in prison, have his rank reduced to airman basic, and receive a dishonorable discharge for his part in the death of Army Sgt. Juwan Johnson and convictions on a host of other charges.
• Brig. Gen. Rowayne Schatz, the 19th Airlift Wing commander, under whose command Little Rock Air Force Base was successfully reorganized and who was a strong voice for getting a failed effort for base housing privatization restarted, was reassigned to the joint staff at the Pentagon, where he serves as deputy director for global operations.
Col. Gregory S. Otey, the former Air Force Expeditionary Center vice commander at Fort Dix, N.J., took over command of the 19th Airlift Wing from departing Brig. Gen. Rowayne Schatz.
• An ice storm in early January put the brakes on travel as more than 200 interstate and highway accidents were reported in a 16-hour period. Even those responding to the accidents ended up in accidents. The Jacksonville Fire Department had a fire truck and an ambulance slide into the median and a state trooper’s vehicle slid into a fire truck.
• The finishing touches on the Cabot sewer treatment plant that opened Dec. 15, 2007, to meet the needs of the growing city were finally completed. The $12 million plant, which was part of a $16.5 million bond issue for wastewater, took a year to build.
• Jacksonville residents got the word that native Kris Allen, who auditioned in Louisville, Ky., for the eighth season of American Idol, would be on the show.
• Leaky roofs at Cato Elementary School and Northwood Middle School were slated for repairs. Pulaski County Special School District officials said work would begin in the spring. Temporary patches have stopped the leaks.
• Buying North Belt right-of-way land in Sherwood near Brockington Road is “priority one,” the state Highway Department said in January. The state has about $4 million to buy right-of-way for the proposed North Belt from Hwy. 67/167 through Sherwood over to Hwy. 107. The money won’t buy all the land the state needs for the bypass that has been on the books since the late 1940s, but it will help move the project forward.
• The Jacksonville city council set May 12 as the day the city will elect a new mayor and June 2 for any runoff.
• A tragic early morning house fire claimed the life of a toddler in Lonoke County.
The Lonoke Sheriff’s Office received a report of an early morning house fire at 6424 Mount Tabor Road near the intersection of South Oak Grove Road.
An adult male, two adult females and a 5-month-old child were able to get out of the mobile home, but a 3-year old boy died in the blaze.
• Sherwood Mayor Virginia Hillman signed a contract with the Sherwood Fire Department providing it with about $800,000 for the year. She will also sign a $125,000-plus contract with the Gravel Ridge Fire Department. The Sherwood money makes sure that the city has fire protection 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
• The owners of Tecboys, a Cabot-based Internet company that lost its city business license in 2006, were sentenced in circuit court on six felony theft charges for not delivering scooters to customers. But they will not spend any time in prison.
Eddie Williams, 56, and Connie Williams, 53, were sentenced to 10 years in prison, suspended, and five years supervised probation. They also were ordered to pay restitution of $8,159.06 at the rate of $300 a month beginning Feb. 2. There was nothing in Special Judge John Cole’s ruling that would prevent the couple from continuing to sell on the Internet.
• Bill Vasquez, who represents most of Jacksonville on the Pulaski County Special School District Board, led the way Tuesday on a 4-3 vote to recombine the boys and girls middle schools in Jacksonville next year, saying neither school had made adequate yearly progress.
Vasquez’s argument was false and misleading, Mike Nellums, principal of the boy’s school, said.
• A national publication and a Little Rock marketing firm whose search for the fastest-growing communities in the nation has led to the realization that in Arkansas, Cabot is the “boom town.”
The Gadberry Group named Cabot the third fastest-growing city in the state behind Lowell in the Rogers-Springdale area and Maumelle. The boomtown designation is the result of a survey BusinessWeek.com conducted in association with the Gadberry Group, which considered such factors as continual population growth over the past 10 years and the whopping 83 percent increase in household income, which is now estimated at $98,555.
Cabot Mayor Eddie Joe Williams said he was pleased with the recognition and confident that the city would continue to flourish.
• The Jacksonville City Council unveiled a 65-inch television screen and seven computer monitors as part of an update to the council’s chambers. “City hall is 19 years old and this brings us more into the 21st century,” said City Administrator Jay Whisker.
• An attorney for the developers of the 586-acre Oakdale North Addition told the Sherwood Planning Commission that not approving his client’s project would put the city in “financial peril.”
The commission had delayed approving the project for at least three months because the city had not approved the latest revisions to the master street plan.
The attorney, Hal Kemp, contended that the city requiring the developer to block off a corridor in his development for the North Belt loop, which may or may not get built, is actually a ploy to squash any rise in the fair market value of the property.
• Entergy announced a plan to build a substation and two high voltage transmission lines near the railroad track in Cabot, which could mean more to the city than just the assurance of enough electricity to accommodate growth.
The project will connect the two existing high-voltage lines at the new substation.
The huge components of the project are too big and heavy to be delivered by truck. They will come by rail and that will require the construction of a railroad spur that could be used to attract industry to the area.
• A partially buried box of cremated human remains was found Tuesday near a church cemetery in Furlow. Lt. Jim Kulesa, with the Lonoke Sheriff’s Department, said an individual told deputies that he found a box in a hole in the woods. The individual looked in the box and it appeared to be filled with cremated remains.
• The Cabot City Council passed a resolution asking the Arkansas Highway Department to install a traffic signal at Hwy. 367 and Locust Street, where traffic is expected to increase after a new railroad overpass opens in the spring. The traffic signal would be mostly federally funded and would not likely be started until 2010, Mayor Eddie Joe Williams said.
• Sherwood police and other authorities spent a day digging up what looked like a grave in the woods near Gravel Ridge only to find rocks. It was reported that the possible grave might have contained the body of Darla Harper, a 25-year-old Gravel Ridge woman who went missing in March 1986.
• Projects in Sherwood, Cabot and Jacksonville were put on the short list in February for how $14.2 million in federal stimulus money for local projects will be spent. Metroplan, the regional planning agency, had produced a tentative list of “shovel-ready” projects in central Arkansas before the federal stimulus bill was finalized.
• Even though the park study that Sherwood has paid for is about three months away from completion, the parks and recreation committee decided that the 106-acre North Hills Country Club and defunct golf course needed to be revamped into a working golf course.
The committee, according to Alderman Ken Rankin, decided that the property would be an 18-hole golf course with work to begin immediately.
“Why are we having a park study done if we are not going to wait for it or look at it?” questioned Mayor Virginia Hillman.
• Waste Management of Arkansas presented two checks to Jacksonville. The chamber received $5,000 for its projects and the city received $25,000 to be used for college scholarships.
• The Lonoke School Board unanimously agreed to submit an application to the Arkansas Department of Education to issue as much as $2.8 million in second-lien bonds for demolition and construction of parts of the high school. The district requested partnership funding with the state to demolish four buildings, the science building, the main wing east, the main wing west and the band building, about 40,000 square feet.
• Officials with the $62 million Lonoke-White Water Project to bring water from Greers Ferry Lake to the central part of the state which has been in the planning stages for about 15 years got word that the project could be funded from the almost $800 billion economic stimulus package approved earlier this month and under construction by June because it is “shovel-ready.”
• It was announced in late February that Pulaski County could house an additional 100 prisoners in the detention center starting in March, thanks to a unanimous $1.3 million appropriation the quorum court made, bringing the total capacity to 980 inmates.
When the county begins collecting another $15 per case in court fees by July, it can hold another 75 prisoners, bringing the total to 1,055.
• Jacksonville’s Daud Amir Jones was sentenced to 20 years in prison, plus a five-year enhancement for using a handgun, for the shooting death of his girlfriend, Meloney Graham, at their Pike Avenue residence,
• Local businesswoman and the chief motivator behind the success of Pathfinders, Joan Zumwalt, was roasted and toasted at the senior center’s annual fund-raising dinner in late February.
• Stimulus funds for “shovel-ready” central Arkansas road projects, previously estimated at $12.7 million, grew to $14.2 million, increasing the likelihood-but not guaranteeing-that Graham Road in Jacksonville would be widened to four lanes in the near future. The widening of Brockington Road in Sherwood has risen to the top tier and seemed certain to receive the $4.6 million federal share, with another $1.2 million due from the city.
Overall, the $787 billion stimulus act contains $351 million for Arkansas roadways.
• Austin’s new police chief said he was grateful for his six years at the Jacksonville Police Department, which he calls “one of the topnotch police departments in the state.” But he’s happy to be back in Austin where he grew up and where he started work as a part time police officer eight years ago.
John Staley, 29, moved into his new position March 16, taking over from interim Police Chief Woody McEuen, who replaced former Chief J.J. Martin when he left in January to head the public safety department at ASU-Beebe.
• Seven candidates filed before the deadline to run in the May 12 special election for Jacksonville mayor to replace retiring Tommy Swaim. The candidates included Randy (Doc) Rhodd, who heads the Family Motorcycle Ministry, realtor Beckie Brooks, Aldermen Kenny Elliott and Gary Fletcher, developer Tommy Dupree, former Jacksonville police officer Bill Shelley and Farm Bureau area manager Jody Urquhart. Shelley dropped out shortly after filing.
• Jacksonville can look forward to an additional $73,103 in federal community development block grant money in 2009. A regular appropriation of about $269,000 is also expected. The new money is part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act – also known as the stimulus package – signed into law by President Obama on Feb. 17.
• All 596 C-130s in the Air Force-including all 68 C-130J models-are being inspected here and abroad for cracks in the wing joint barrel nuts.
Roughly 20 percent of those aircraft are based at Little Rock Air Force Base. None of the planes here have been grounded while they’re inspected and repaired.
“Our number one thing is to make sure that it is safe in the air for our mission,” Col. Greg Otey, 19th Airlift Wing commander at LRAFB, said. “Some of it could be aging, but we’re checking all C-130s.”
There are 13 nuts per wing, and it will take about four hours per plane, roughly a couple days, to make the repairs.
• Ronald Dean Charles, 31, of Jacksonville lacked the mental capacity to help in his own defense and was sent to the State Hospital until further notice for treatment and further evaluation.
Capital murder charges had been filed in Faulkner County against Charles and Troy Allen Crook, 29, also of Jacksonville, in deaths of two cousins near Vilonia last April.
The church had shared a common parking lot with the library for more than 40 years.
The city’s new $4.8 million library, about two blocks west on Main Street and on the other side of the street, opened Feb. 14, replacing the city’s oldest library.
The new 13,500-square-foot facility is one of 12 libraries in the Central Arkansas Library System.
• Pulaski County Special School District board member Bill Vasquez, who represents Jacksonville, broke ranks with the usual four-person voting bloc, as the board approved a resolution that could let Jacksonville-area school patrons off the hook for their share of the $80 million second-lien construction bond for a school in Maumelle. Jacksonville only gets a pass if it can be done legally and only if it gets its own school district.
The 35,000-square-foot armory, officially called a readiness center, will be built off Arkansas Hwy. 367. It will have a classroom large enough to hold 100 soldiers and kitchen large enough to serve 350. It also will have a 5,800-square-foot drill hall and maintenance and storage areas for vehicles and equipment.
• Sherwood’s planning commission said no to a major residential development after the project had been tabled for months as the commission waited for the council to adopt the new master street plan showing the latest location of the planned North Belt Loop.
Developer Steve Deere and others working on the project which would have added more than 1,000 homes to the city insisted that they did not have to show the North Belt on their plans. The commission insisted that city ordinances said that all planned roads, highways and interstates needed to be shown on the plans.
• Two Pulaski-Lonoke corridors will get new asphalt paid for with federal economic stimulus funds totaling $2.75 million. They are among 103 road and bridge improvements approved statewide in March by the Arkansas Highway Commission, bringing $351.5 million into the state economy as authorized by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2001 (ARRA). President Obama signed into the act into law Feb. 17.
For repairs to the nine-mile stretch of Hwy. 165 between I-440 and Hwy. 386, $2 million in stimulus funds is allocated. For repairs to 2.8 miles of Hwy. 70 running from the Pulaski County line east into Lonoke County, $750,000 is allocated.
• The Cabot School Board unanimously approved construction of a 32-classroom facility for the Mountain Springs Elementary School. The school will be the district’s ninth elementary school. The 78,641-square-foot building will cost about $7.3 million.
• Cabot Mayor Eddie Joe Williams went to Washington in March looking for $19.5 million to build the proposed north interchange and came back with a promise of help getting $3 million to $5 million for engineering and right-of-way acquisition.
It’s not what he hoped for, but the mayor says it’s a good start.
Williams said the interchange promise came from Cong. Marion Berry (D-Gillett) who said he would include a special appropriation to start the project in the next five-year highway-spending plan, which will be developed in the fall.
• After an internal investigation into an oversized buyout check issued to its former superintendent, James Sharpe, who was fired in early March, the Pulaski County Special School District accepted the resignation of Larry O’Briant, its chief financial officer.
Interim Superintendent Robert McGill said O’Briant was helpful and forthcoming during the investigation, and McGill said he appreciated O’Briant’s years of service to the district.
Sharpe received a check for about $79,000 more than the flat sum of $185,000 the board approved in his buyout March 11.
• In March, physicians at the Jacksonville Medical Clinic looked to leave the facility next door to North Metro Medical Center, where they have practiced for more than 10 years because of the rent being doubled. The move was just one option being considered by the doctors, but their rent was lowered and they stayed.
They were eyeing clinic space in Sherwood.