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Top stories of 2012

Staff reports • Dec 29, 2012 at 8:55 PM

Terrible flooding, a school bus crash that injured dozens of students and construction projects that will change the look of downtown Johnson City were some of the area’s major news stories of 2012.

In no specific order, the following is a selection of the top stories of the region this past year:

School bus crash

When school ended on Sept. 20, it was like any normal day — students left class, got on their respective buses and started the journey home. But for David Crockett High School students on Bus 88, the normalcy ended a little after 3 p.m. on Mount Wesley Road. That’s where the bus driver, Brenda Gray, 54, of Jonesborough, lost control and the bus rolled off the side of the road. All 42 students onboard ended up with some type of injury, although some were more serious than others. Students worked together to get themselves and their friends out of the buses top hatch or back door. Several were transported to area hospitals by helicopter and others were transported by ambulance.

Investigators determined Gray was speeding when the wreck happened and charged her with eight counts of reckless aggravated assault, 31 counts of felony reckless endangerment, speeding, reckless driving and failure to exercise due care. Those charges are pending in Washington County Criminal Court and several civil suits are also pending as a result of the injuries students suffered.

Aug. 5 flooding

Residents along Dry Creek Road had no idea the rainstorm on Aug. 5 would send a huge deluge of water their way, but it did and the flood destroyed numerous homes there and in other parts of Washington County and damaged much of downtown Johnson City.

Construction is ongoing for several other residents as homes are being rebuilt using disaster funds donated locally and from an Ohio bank. Buffalo Mountain Camp also suffered serious damage, but representatives said they will still hold summer camp in 2013.

Johnson City Development

- Tupelo Honey. The popular Asheville, N.C.-based restaurant Tupelo Honey Cafe announced in July it would open its fourth location at the historic CC&O Railroad Depot in downtown Johnson City by fall 2013. The move to open in Johnson City followed months of speculation after the Tri-Cities area won a social media campaign in which fans could vote for the next location. In the end, the decision to make Johnson City Tupelo Honey’s new home was spurred by the location of the depot, which sits along the corridor between East Tennessee State University and the downtown area, and the revitalization efforts being done by the Washington County Economic Council, the Johnson City Development Authority and the city.

- Memorial Park Community Center. On Dec. 8, Memorial Park Community Center, Johnson City’s new $15 million, 67,000-square-foot recreation behemoth finally opened. In its early stages, the idea of a huge multi-generational facility was met with doubt and debate dating back to a period well ahead of the city’s final decision to demolish the historical but creaky Memorial Stadium. There were workshops, financial squabbles, disagreements on design and purpose, and, of course, protests on the steps of City Hall by senior citizens who thought they had been cheated out of a standalone structure. But when ground was broken in October 2010, community members began eyeing the burgeoning behemoth and anticipation replaced angst. The majority of seniors who had in the past called out city commissioners, and the leaders of Save Our Center in particular, changed their tunes.

- Paxton Place. A 26-unit luxury apartment complex set to transform the landscape of downtown Johnson City took its first step toward reality as demolition of two long-vacant buildings at the corner of South Roan Street and State of Franklin began in October. The intersection will be the home of Paxton Place, a $2 million residential/commercial project led by Main at Roan Partners LLC. The 27,000-square-foot, three-story building will feature two- and three-bedroom apartments ranging from 635 to 1,056 square feet. Rent will range between $800 to $1,000 per month, including all utilities.

Construction is slated to take about a year to complete.

- Flood mitigation. In late October, the last of four buildings purchased by the city from Free Service Tire Co. owner Lewis Wexler began to fall underfoot Friday when Public Works Department employees started demolition of the former industrial tire recapping warehouse. The move made way for Founder’s Park, the first of the city’s eight planned phases of flood mitigation in an estimated $30 million worth of creek realignments, detention and retention ponds, culvert repairs and holding ponds aimed keeping stormwater from wreaking havoc downtown. The City Commission approved a $2.8 million bid by Johnson City’s Thomas Construction Co. to build the 5-acre Founder’s Park, which long ago was deemed necessary to help alleviate flooding problems at various sections of Brush Creek. Meanwhile, demolition of six downtown buildings bounded by West Market and West Main streets and North Boone and Montgomery streets, has wrapped up. The city purchased these properties as part of their long-term flood mitigation plan on which King Creek eventually will be rerouted.

In late November, Washington County Circuit Court Judge Thomas Seeley ruled that Johnson City has a legal right to condemn and possess the downtown U-Haul property and to incorporate it into one of eight planned phases in the city’s long-range flood mitigation plan. The company’s basic objective since its Nashville attorney’s jumped in last year to fight the condemnation, has been to show that the city was attempting to use eminent domain to generate tax revenue property instead of taking the property to help with downtown flood mitigation. The city was tasked with showing that the condemnation and following flood remediation project is intended for “public use.” This is one of several Tennessee legal standards derived from the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution. U-Haul still may appeal the decision and/or ask for a 12-person jury to decide the property’s worth.

- Science Hill High School construction. After about two years in the works, Science Hill High School’s massive construction project came to an end in August as the school year got underway. The $23 million construction project included new administrative offices, a 9th Grade Academy, a dining hall and a multipurpose gym. Before the project, Science Hill was more segmented, but the new campus essentially puts every student under one roof.

- ETSU parking garage. Work began on a 1,200-space parking garage on the west end of the ETSU campus this past summer. Part of the project will involve relocating the school’s tennis court from near Warf-Pickel Hall to out near Summers-Taylor Stadium, the school’s soccer field. The total cost of both projects is $26 million.

Hung juries in trials of Kent Harris

Former Unicoi County sheriff Kent Harris twice faced trial on a theft-related charge in 2012, and the juries in both trials failed to reach unanimous verdicts. It was alleged that Harris committed the offense of theft over $1,000 by pocketing $4,500 in county funds for two vehicles that were donated to the Unicoi County Sheriff’s Department.

The theft charge is one of 10 felonies Harris was indicted on in October 2011, which also included six counts of official misconduct and one count each of criminal simulation, attempted aggravated assault and tampering with evidence. A directed verdict was ordered on the criminal simulation charge in Harris’ first trial, and it was not further considered by the juries. In early February, Harris pleaded not guilty to the 10 felonies in Unicoi County Criminal Court. The following week, a grand jury indicted him on an additional count of official misconduct.

On March 1, Harris, citing injuries suffered in an August 2010 fall from the roof of the Unicoi County Jail, submitted his resignation to the county. On March 26, the Unicoi County Commission appointed longtime sheriff’s department employee Mike Hensley to serve as interim sheriff until the August general election. In August, Hensley was elected as sheriff to fill the rest of Harris’ term, which expires 2014.

District Attorney General Tony Clark said his office has until Jan. 15 to decide if it will try Harris for a third time on the theft charge.

Basketball players charged

Star ETSU basketball players Sheldon Cooley and Marcus Dubose were charged in a drug investigation in November. Dubose is charged with possession of schedule VI drugs for resale and possession of drug paraphernalia and Cooley is charged with possession of drug paraphernalia. The charges stem from a package delivered to the ETSU post office for Dubose that contained a quarter pound of marijuana buds. A subsequent search of Dubose and Cooley’s apartment turned up a set of scales, which law enforcement said is commonly used to weigh drugs for packaging to sell. The men were dismissed from the basketball team and have since withdrawn from school. They are scheduled to appear in court again Feb. 14.

Hospital developments

- UCMH acquisition. The board of control for the financially struggling Unicoi County Memorial Hospital approved a measure this year to allow Mountain States Health Alliance to acquire the nearly 60-year-old community hospital. However, this action was not without controversy. In late July, the board of control sent requests for proposals to MSHA and Wellmont Health System. The board’s executive committee subsequently opted to move forward with MSHA’s proposal, and a public meeting was held on Oct. 4 to formally accept the proposal. However, at the meeting the board voted to delay acceptance of the MSHA proposal and allow other health care organizations interested in acquiring UCMH to submit acquisition proposals. Both MSHA and Wellmont submitted revised proposals on Oct. 10. In late November, the UCMH Board of Control again approved MSHA’s acquisition proposal at a public meeting held at Erwin Town Hall. Some in the community voiced dissatisfaction with this, feeling that Wellmont had submitted a better proposal. The state attorney general must review the board’s decision.

- MSHA layoffs. In May, Mountain States Health Alliance announced the elimination of 168 positions across its expansive system, including 133 positions in Washington County. The layoffs were expected to save the health care company $11 million in salaries and benefits as part of its $70 million systemwide cost-saving effort. Officials cited a number of reasons for the layoffs, including a substantial increase in charity care and bad debt, a reduction in patient volume, a shift from surgical patients to medical patients with less profitability, a shift from inpatient surgery to outpatient surgery with less reimbursement, a shift from commercial insurance to government payors and number of expense categories that have increased at the same time the system’s revenues have been challenged.


- Facebook murders. It was a gruesome crime scene in which the mother of an 8-month-old baby was found shot to death in the nursery, with the uninjured baby still in her arms and the baby’s father found murdered in a nearby bedroom. The crime turned bizarre when Johnson County investigators reported their theory the parents were murdered in retaliation for defriending a woman from the couple’s Facebook social networking site. Billy Payne Jr., 36, and Billie Jean Hayworth, were found shot to death in their home on Jan. 31. The crime generated an intensive investigation by the Johnson County Sheriff’s Department and the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation. On Feb. 7, Marvin “Buddy” Potter Jr., 60, and Jamie Lynn Curd, 38, were each arrested on two counts of first-degree murder. Potter was the father of Janelle Potter and Curd was described as a former boyfriend. Curd is also a second cousin of Payne. Miss Potter has not been charged in the case, but investigators said she was known to react strongly to being defriended. The case is set for trial in April.ß

- Vonda Donaldson. Donaldson’s family knew something wasn’t right when she didn’t show up to pick up here kids from their dad that Sunday. It was Sept. 30, and no one had heard from her all day and reported her missing to police. The search for the 28-year-old mother of two girls didn’t end well. Donaldson’s body was found wrapped in a tarp and thrown into Watauga Lake. A man she once dated, Steven Bennett, 31, was arrested and charged with her murder. He told police he and Donaldson were having sex when he accidentally killed her by choking her with his belt. Recently paroled from prison, Bennett said he panicked and could only think about getting rid of Donaldson’s body so he threw her off the Butler bridge in Carter County. The case is still pending in Washington County Criminal Court while Bennett is being held in jail.

- Lonnie Townsend. What started as a missing person investigation resulted in first-degree murder charges for a Johnson City man and woman. Whitney Kristina Harris and Timothy Jason Pate, both of 214 Rockhouse Road, Lot 37, Johnson City, were charged after the body of 78-year-old Townsend was found on Little Bald Creek Road, located off Spivey Mountain Road, in Unicoi County in May. Townsend had been missing since April 17. Officials previously said that through the course of the investigation, it was learned that Townsend was a friend of Pate and Harris and that the couple knew he carried large amounts of cash with him. According to officials, Harris previously told investigators the couple expected Townsend to visit them at their Carter County home on April 17 and, when he did so, Pate killed him by hitting him the head with a hammer several times. Townsend’s body was wrapped in carpet and taken to Unicoi County by Pate, officials said Harris previously told them. The motive was said to be robbery. In November, both Pate and Harris were indicted on charges of first-degree murder, felony murder and tampering with evidence. They are scheduled to appear in Carter County Criminal Court on Jan. 25.

- Joshua Holston. The 4-year-old was killed on Oct. 11 when he was run over by a dump truck while crossing the intersection of North Lynn Street and Broad Street in Elizabethton. A month later, the child’s mother, Tiffani Marie Holston was indicted by a Carter County grand jury on first degree murder and aggravated child abuse charges. The charges were made after the Elizabethton Police Department conducted an extensive investigation of the accident, including reviewing the security camera videos made of the accident from businesses surrounding the intersection. The death of the child and the subsequent arrest of his mother led to intense public interest in the case and led Public Defender Melanie Sellers to file a motion requesting court officials to restrict their comments to the media. Although her motion has not been considered, Assistant District Attorney Dennis Brooks said his office agreed with Sellers’ motion.

- Elijah “E.J.” McKinney. A 14-year-old Happy Valley High School student was arrested on murder and assault charges following a stabbing at a Cash Hollow Road residence at 3 a.m. on Dec. 16. Nicholas Willen was charged with second-degree murder and aggravated assault in the death of McKinney, 16, and serious injuries to another Happy Valley student. Witnesses told investigators that Willen and another boy had been invited to the Cash Hollow residence early Sunday morning because they could provide alcohol. A fight broke out at the residence when one of the newcomers allegedly flirted with a girl. The fight continued outside, where the two Happy Valley students were stabbed. Investigators said Willen confessed to stabbing both of the boys. It has not been determined whether Willen will be tried as a juvenile or as an adult.

ETSU football?

ETSU President Brian Noland announced in early December that the school, at the recommendation of an athletics task force, would examine the possibility of starting a football team. A feasibility study must be completed and the proposal analyzed further, but this is the first time football returning to ETSU has been discussed since 2007. Football was eliminated at ETSU after the 2003 season. It had been reported the program was losing $1 million per year.

Synthetic Drugs

The first half of 2012 introduced, profiled and ultimately ended the long documented use and abuse of synthetic drugs in the Tri-Cities region. Synthetic drugs, mostly commonly referred to as “bath salts,” hit the area around November 2011, which resulted in many people, including high school students, being hospitalized from severe reactions to the drugs. The various forms of these drugs, were potent stimulants similar to cocaine, making the users agitated, have extreme paranoia and hallucinations, experience chest pain and also have suicidal thoughts. Because the side effects of using these drugs often left patients violent in nature, medical providers had to establish a somewhat new protocol to handle the situation. In March, local law enforcement agencies and the Drug Enforcement Administration raided several of the smoke shops selling synthetic drugs in the area. Local representatives presented bills to ban these drugs at the state level and measures were approved by the legislature.

Weatherman shot with crossbow

On June 4, WJHL Meterologist Rob Williams, also known as Robert William Batot, was reportedly shot with a crossbow by his ex-roommate and ex-lover, Gerald D. Taylor at the home they formerly shared. Williams had filed an order of protection to keep Taylor away from the residence and from going to his workplace.

The attack on Williams occurred sometime before 4 a.m., when Taylor broke into the house through a window and shot at first with the crossbow, hitting him in the chest. He also fired a 9 mm pistol at Williams as Williams fled from the house. Taylor was eventually indicted by a grand jury on charges of aggravated burglary, aggravated assault and unlawful possession of weapon.

Warehouse fire

A large warehouse located at 1010 W. Main Street was destroyed by fire on May 13, and taxed the Johnson City Fire Department’s resources as they fought to contain it. The building once housed one of the city’s tobacco warehouses and was bustling with activity at that time. In recent years, the building was not being used and had fallen into disrepair. The blaze was so massive extra firefighters were called in and it took several hours to extinguish it. The fire also became quite the spectacle as the public gathered to see it. Fire investigators determined the fire was set, but could not say by whom.

Baby abandoned

A baby born in a car as her mother was trying to get to the hospital ended up being left behind when the woman checked out. Desmond Johnson said he drover 85 mph from Elizabethton to get Sandy Driver to the hospital in time, but the baby just wouldn’t wait. Driver had her baby girl while sitting in the passenger’s seat as Johnson frantically drove down the interstate. But the story took another turn when Driver left her newborn at the hospital and her husband, Derek Driver, arrived to take custody of his daughter. There were no charges filed because Driver left her baby in a safe place, as required by Tennessee state law when someone intentionally hands over a newborn.

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