A look back on 2016

By NICOLE SMITH, Daily Mountain Eagle
Posted 12/31/16

Walker County was met with trying times during 2016, but the year also unified residents and brought hope for many years to come. New developments and the completion of I-22 signaled a resurgence for the area. A crackdown on …

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A look back on 2016

Posted

Walker County was met with trying times during 2016, but the year also unified residents and brought hope for many years to come. New developments and the completion of I-22 signaled a resurgence for the area. A crackdown on drug-related crime made for safer communities. The election season brought new leaders with innovative ideas, while also keeping those in office who have helped to improve their municipalities. The county was met with grief through the year but came together in times of sadness to be stronger. Here’s a look back at some of the top stories of 2016.

I-22 opens after 32-year construction

Construction of the 213-mile stretch of Interstate 22 was completed this year.

On June 20, a ribbon cutting was held for the section of I-22 that runs from Birmingham to Memphis.

Construction of the interstate began in 1984 and cost over $1 billion to complete.

The build has resulted in new businesses opening off the interstate’s main exit to Jasper in the past few years, bringing in additional tax revenue for the city.

Municipal elections held across county

In the City of Jasper, mayoral candidates Greg Tinker and David O’Mary were in a dead heat when voters went to the polls on Aug. 23. Jed Daniel also ran for the mayor’s office.

In a runoff on Oct. 4, O’Mary won the mayoral race by more than 200 votes.

Petey Ellis won his seventh term as Sumiton mayor.

Cordova Mayor Drew Gilbert was also reelected to serve as mayor.

Citizens of Carbon Hill were met with many new leaders on their city council, but incumbent Mark Chambers remained mayor of the city after being in a runoff against Nick Keeton.

Parrish made history by electing Heather Hall as the first female mayor of the town. She won by 55 percent of the vote.

District 4 winner Valarie Thomas died in November of a heart attack. John Softley will be sworn in to the seat in January 2017.

Dora Mayor Randy Stephens remained in his leadership role, and Cory Franks became the new mayor of Oakman, receiving 129 of 196 votes.

In Sipsey, Jerry Mack Saddler was elected as the new mayor.

On Nov. 8, Americans elected Donald Trump as the next president of the United States, but closer to home, voters elected new leaders to the Walker County Commission. Jerry Bishop was elected chairman with 65 percent of the vote; Keith Davis was reelected to represent District 1; Jeff Burrough replaced Dan Wright as representative for District 2; Ralph Williams defeated Bobby Nunnelley in the primary earlier this year and ran unopposed for the District 3 seat; and Steven Aderholt won 73 percent of the vote for District 4.

The Walker County Board of Education also received two new representatives. Todd Vick won the District 2 seat to defeat incumbent Dale Reeves, and Lee Ann Headrick won District 4 to replace Sonia Waid.

New developmentsin city, county

A number of programs have helped Walker County and the City of Jasper realize new retail opportunities and growth in communities large and small.

Walker County’s new brand, “We Can Do That,” was revealed this year to encourage a mentality for success. Alabama Communities of Excellence-Jasper held meetings open to the public to discuss initiatives that can improve life in the city, and Jasper entered into the Sister Cities program to foster a relationship with another city as a way to share ideas and have a strong support system.

The Jasper Main Street program has continued to push forward by hiring artist Missy Miles to paint murals to increase the aesthetic appeal downtown. New businesses have opened in the district and others are planned to open their doors in 2017.

ALDI was the largest business to open in the county during 2016. Construction of the grocery store in Jasper began in July, and a ribbon cutting was recently held on Dec. 21. Next to ALDI, construction of the Harbor Freight Tools store began in late July. The store is currently accepting applications and is said to open early next year.

A new Holiday Inn Express and Mattress Firm also opened in the city this year, and Planet Fitness will open their doors in Jasper in early 2017.

A new water tank was also completed in the city of Jasper. The $2.2 million project will serve businesses in Industrial Park.

In what will create 300 jobs in the area, the Yorozu metal stamping plant held its groundbreaking in January and is expected to be complete in early 2017.

Jasper High School completed

The new Walker High School held a ribbon cutting on Dec. 8.

In a controversial move, the Jasper City Board of Education voted in June to name the new high school Jasper High School, while also announcing that all city schools will consolidate in fall 2017. West Jasper Elementary will close its doors at the end of the current school year in 2017.

The new 290,000 square foot high school has 69 classrooms and a number of other academic and extracurricular spaces, and students will move into the new school in January.

Flooding, fires cause damage in county

The new year began with the county seeking to repair $637,000 in road damage from floods in late December 2015. The Federal Emergency Management Agency later announced funding to repair the damage by providing 75 percent of repair costs.

Maranatha Baptist Church’s sanctuary and baptistery were heavily damaged by a fire on Dec. 28, 2015, and the church rebuilt those areas in early 2016. Nauvoo Church of God was destroyed by fire on March 7.

A fire also resulted in the death of 19-month-old boys, Kamden and Kelsey Williams, when their home caught on fire in Jasper.

Another devastating fire occurred at the Beacon House in Jasper that provides a home for teenage girls. The Beacon House was deemed a total loss, and the fire was ruled an act of arson. The Jasper Police Department didn’t confirm any charges in the case. The girls are now being housed at a temporary location until the Beacon House can be rebuilt.

July 2016 brought a severe thunderstorm that ripped through Jasper, causing downed trees and water damage.

Months of drought ensued after, which resulted in the Alabama Forestry Commission issuing a fire danger warning in early October. On Oct. 12, Gov. Robert Bently signed a no burn order for 46 Alabama counties.

From mid-October to mid-November, forestry personnel responded to 48 fires in Walker County that burned 2,540 acres. One of the largest fires was in Empire that burned over 1,300 acres. Another fire in Hay Valley the day before Thanksgiving burned more than 300 acres.

While heavy rain came in early November, the no burn order was still in effect. It was lifted in early December.

Eleven tornadoes came through Alabama in late November, bringing much needed rain but causing damage in the nearby area of Helicon in Winston County.

Murders make headlines across county

The beginning and end of 2017 was met with murders across the county.

The murder of Nicholas Hawkins was one of the first to make headlines. Nineteen-year-old Hawkins, who was in Walker County visiting his mother, went missing on Feb. 13.

On Feb. 16, a body was found on K.D. Byrd Station Road near Quinton, later to be identified as Hawkins. Officials announced Joshua Adam Reese was being held as a person of interest.

Many arrests followed in the case. The first two people charged in the death of Hawkins were Danny Lee Jarvis, 22, of Sumiton, and Cory Daniel Conner, 28, of Dora. Tessa J. Wise, 23, of Dora, was later arrested and charged with hindering prosecution. Reese was charged with murder on Feb. 26, for firing the fatal shot that resulted in Hawkins’ death. Colton Stephen Echols, 20, was also charged with hindering prosecution, and Reese’s mother, Lawanda Marie Reese, 39, of Quinton, was charged with hindering prosecution.

A preliminary hearing was held on April 28. Dora Police Chief Jared Hall revealed during testimony that there may have been a relationship between Hawkins and Reese, in addition to a possible relationship between Reese and Hawkins’ mother.

The case is set to go to grand jury.

In June, the murder of Terry Wayne Roberts, 55, made headlines. The body of the former Walker County constable was found under a mattress in a ravine off Allen Ridge Road in Empire.

Roberts’ stepdaughter, 23-year-old Kayla Sheree Harris, and stepson, 19-year-old James Lee Harris, were charged with his murder. Jacob Tyler Orr, 22, was also charged with first-degree hindering prosecution. He was the boyfriend of Kayla Harris.

Roberts died of a gunshot wound to the head.

The community of Oakman was shaken on Sept. 20, when resident Lyle Guthrie was shot to death near his home on Providence Loop Road in Oakman.

Guthrie, 32, arrived at his home around 4 p.m. that day to find two men burglarizing his residence. They fled and drove away in their vehicle. Guthrie got in his truck and followed the burglars, who shot him during the pursuit. Before being airlifted to UAB hospital in Birmingham, Guthrie told police officers what had happened. He didn’t recover from his injuries and later passed away at the hospital.

Eston Douglas Gant III, 38, of Coaling, and Jakob Aaron Harris, 19, of Vance, were initially charged with first degree burglary in the case, and were later charged with capital murder on Oct. 13.

Guthrie left behind a wife and two daughters.

Bingo battle ensues

In mid-2016, the legality of electronic bingo was being questioned, with machines popping up in various municipalities around Walker County.

Ten electronic gaming operations were shut down on Aug. 11 around the county and in the city of Jasper. Over 200 machines were seized and more than $30,000 in county raids.

At a later date, a gaming operation was shut down at a mobile home in Nauvoo, along with gaming operations in Argo.

Drugs plague county; “pill mill” doctor sent to prison

The year began with Walker County officers arresting 20 people in early January, with the majority of charges stemming from methamphetamine manufacturing.

In April, three people in Dora were charged with making meth and alluding police, followed by more drug arrests in mid-April in Jasper. The Jasper Police Department held a drug raid in mid-May that resulted in five arrests at homes within one-mile of Maddox Middle School.

Seven arrests were the result of a drug raid in Cordova in June, and the Dora Police Department also made more drug arrests that month.

Six were arrested in late June at the Travel Rite Inn in Jasper for drug related offenses, and seven were arrested in Oakman during the month of July as part of a five-month investigation. Two arrested were said to be major drug dealers.

In late August, 120 towering marijuana plants were destroyed on Owens School Road between Jasper and Parrish.

While many other drug arrests occurred throughout the year, the largest drug roundup came on Dec. 19, when Jasper and Walker County deputies and narcotics agents held raids that resulted in 40 arrests. The U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency assisted.

Prior to the roundup on Dec. 19, nine were arrested during raids in Cordova on Dec. 15.

Jasper physician Dr. Muhammad Wasim Ali was sentenced to nearly three years in prison this year for unlawfully dispensing narcotics at his practice, Walker Rural Health Care/Jasper Neurological Care. In March 2015, the Drug Enforcement Administration raided Ali’s practice, which was described as a “pill mill.”

Great strides for Baptist Health Systems

The biggest news to impact Walker Baptist Medical Center this year was the reveal of the brand Brookwood Baptist Health. Walker Baptist is part of the merger that occurred between Brookwood Medical Center and Baptist Health Systems with Tenet Healthcare Corp. in Oct. 2015.

As part of the Brookwood Baptist Health name reveal that unites the Tenet-owned hospitals, a new logo was also presented.

Police officers honored

After the killings of five police officers in Dallas, Texas, on July 7, and three officers in Baton Rouge, La., on July 17, officers around the county were honored for their service, including here in Walker County.

On July 9, Jasper Police Chief J.C. Poe, Walker County Sheriff Jim Underwood and Walker County District Attorney Bill Adair placed a black ribbon on the fallen officers memorial in downtown Jasper to remember the officers killed in Texas and Louisiana. The Walker County Commission honored area law enforcement on July 19, by declaring July as Law Enforcement Appreciation Month.

Blue ribbons were worn by locals during that time to show unity between police officers and the community.

A candlelight vigil was held on July 23, to remember the fallen officers, and a number of other municipalities showed their appreciation for law enforcement.