Along with disheartening accounts of death and disaster, 2011 also offered a promise of hope for the continual development of the region as well as the celebration of milestones and new beginnings. The significant and bizarre occurrences within the last 12 months are ones worth reflecting upon.
In no specific order, the following is a selection of the top stories of the region in 2011.
Four confirmed tornadoes tore through parts of Washington, Greene and Johnson counties in late April, killing 10 people and leaving a path of destruction in its wake in what meteorologists said was one of the most severe series of storms to hit the state in nearly 40 years.
Meteorologists with the National Weather Service said three tornadoes, which ranged from category EF-2 to EF-3, touched down in Greene County before coming across the ridge into Washington County. The fourth, a category EF-2, hit Johnson County and killed two women there.
The first of the tornadoes hit at 9:26 p.m. April 27 and damaged property in the Ducktown, Blackley Creek and Glendale road areas in northwest Washington County. The Ducktown tornado, an EF-2, had a destruction path 150 yards wide and 10 miles long.
The second tornado hit Greene County two and half hours later at 11:56 p.m. in the Camp Creek community. The Camp Creek tornado, another EF-2, reached a width of one mile and was fueled by winds estimated at 130 mph.
At 12:12 a.m. on April 28, the 1,000-yard-wide Horse Creek tornado touched down and traveled 14 miles. It was strongest of the four tornadoes with estimated winds of 150 mph, which classified it as an EF-3.
The category EF-2 tornado in Johnson County cut a swath through a ridge and valley east of Butler.
Two women, Linda Zanotti, 53, and Dorothy Isaacs, 55, were killed, and several people were injured in the storm, which struck around midnight. About 145 homes were damaged, with 36 damaged so badly they were no longer livable.
Some families were still struggling to rebuild at the end of the year. The evidence of the tornado’s power can still be seen in such areas as Campbell Road, where the tops of pine trees were sheared off about 20 feet from the ground.
In total, 10 East Tennessee counties, including Washington, Johnson and Greene, were declared disaster areas.
Sheriff Harris indicted
2011 saw charges placed against Unicoi County’s highest ranking law enforcement official.
On Oct. 14, a Unicoi County grand jury returned 10 true bills charging Unicoi County Sheriff Kent Harris with 10 felonies, including six counts of official misconduct and one count each of tampering with evidence, criminal simulation, theft over $1,000 and attempted aggravated assault.
District Attorney General Tony Clark said previously that the charges stem from a pair of TBI investigations — one initiated in 2009 and the other in 2010 — that overlapped and were eventually combined.
Judge Lynn Brown issued a criminal summons in lieu of arrest following the indictments. On Oct. 20, Harris reported to the Unicoi County Jail for booking and processing. Motions by Harris’ attorneys quickly followed, seeking the dismissal of the charges against their client.
In a late October meeting of the Unicoi County Commission, commissioners opted not to initiate ouster proceedings against Harris, instead choosing to wait on the state Attorney General’s office to decide if it will take action.
In late November, Tennessee Supreme Court Justice Cornelia A. Clark appointed Senior Judge Jon Kerry Blackwood to oversee Harris’ case. Harris is scheduled to appear before Blackwood for an arraignment hearing on Feb. 7 in Unicoi County Criminal Court.
Memorial Park Community Center controversy
In the course of one year, Johnson City’s historical but crumbling Memorial Stadium was leveled and the new $15 million, 67,000-square-foot Memorial Park Community Center is set to open its doors in April and become the anchor of the city’s planned 25-acre Memorial Park Community Campus.
The new stadium has risen from the ground despite a fight to keep the old stadium, a scuffle over who would design the state-of-the-art multi-generational facility, and hundreds of meetings and discussions and shouts of mutiny from some seniors who felt commissioners abandoned their wish for a stand-alone center. But as it became inevitable that the new community center was going to be built as planned, the number of detractors lessened. Within a few weeks of a new Parks and Recreation Department director being hired, a detailed programming plan emerged that has seemed to address and please area seniors.
Tony Street, an architect with Beeson Street & Lusk, continues to work with the city to develop the entire campus, which likely will include an amphitheater, greenspace and an enhanced entryway off East Main Street.
Northeast State Community College downtown
After a year of looking and negotiating, Northeast State Community College recently signed a five-year lease to convert the Downtown Centre into a teaching site for Washington County students seeking post-high school education.
NSCC, located in Blountville, offers associate’s degrees. School President Janice Gilliam said the plan is for NSCC to move into the building in the summer and begin holding general education courses in fall 2012. The courses at this teaching site would be for students who want to continue on to a four-year institution or pursue a program of study like computer science or nursing on the main NSCC campus.
Washington County owned the Downtown Centre, which previously housed county offices. County Mayor Dan Eldridge sold the building to the Johnson City Development Authority for $1 million. The JCDA will lease it to NSCC for a nominal yearly fee and also invest $1 million to renovate the structure.
Codey Miller ruling
A key ruling in a high-profile murder case could hamper the state’s prosecution of the case.
It involves the police interrogation of Codey Miller, who was 17 years old when he was arrested and charged with killing his mother, Sherry Cooper, then having sex with her corpse. The all-night interview session in May 2009 elicited a confession from Miller, but it came after the investigator warned him he could get the death penalty with the story he first told.
Criminal Court Judge Robert Cupp, after multiple hearings on the issue for prosecutors and defense attorneys to present a mound of evidence, threw out the confession. In a subsequent ruling, Cupp set a $100,000 bond for Miller and he is now free on bond.
Dr. Brian Noland was named the ninth president of East Tennessee State University in November. He is scheduled to succeed outgoing President Paul E. Stanton Jr. on Jan. 15.
Stanton, who has been president since 1997, announced his intention to retire earlier this year. The Tennessee Board of Regents began a nationwide search for Stanton’s successor this past summer. Noland was ultimately chosen from a pool of 49 applicants.
Noland, who is currently chancellor of the West Virginia Higher Education Policy Commission, has a wife, Donna, and a six-year-old son named Jackson.
East Tennessee State University celebrated 100 years Oct. 2.
The school began as a normal school for training teachers on that day in 1911. That small school, named East Tennessee State Normal School, originally enrolled 29 students. Today, there are more than 15,000 students attending bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral level courses in 11 colleges and schools. More than 80,000 people have graduated from ETSU in the past 100 years, many of whom live or lived in and around Northeast Tennessee, though alumni are scattered throughout the country.
The land on which ETSU was located was donated by George L. Carter, a local entrepreneur who also developed coal mines and railroads and other ventures.
As officials with the International Storytelling Center look forward to the 40th anniversary of the National Storytelling Festival in Jonesborough, a shadow of uncertainty still hangs over the institution as they continue to work through Chapter 11 bankruptcy.
ISC filed for bankruptcy in December 2010, citing its default on Rural Development’s $2.6 million secured claim on the storytelling center property. A U.S. Bankruptcy court judge in October set the fair market value of the center’s building in downtown Jonesborough at $1,329,000.
After many months of deliberation, the ISC chose to submit a bankruptcy reorganization plan that set out to protect the future of both the organization and the festival, but the plan does not include the ISC’s landmark building in downtown Jonesborough. ISC President Jimmy Neil Smith said the organization is continuing to weigh its options, which includes the possibility of reacquiring the building at a later time. But all of that is dependent on what happens during the final stages of bankruptcy.
Bluff City speed cameras
Bluff City pulled the plug on one of its two well-known speed cameras on U.S. Highway 11E in September one day after the Johnson City Press asked why the city had been breaking state law for more than two months by not moving two posted 45 mph signs on the southbound lanes at least one mile away from the devices.
The action came months after state legislation that went into effect on July 1 disallowing traffic enforcement cameras to be placed on public roads and highways unless the reduced speed of 10 mph or more is posted within this parameter. In this case, the speed on the southbound lanes on 11E leading to the cameras was reduced from 55 mph to 45 mph, but the 45 mph sign was posted only three-tenths of a mile from the cameras.
As a result of the exposure, Bluff City began refunding citations generated from the speed camera focused on the southbound lanes. Motorists receiving citations in the southbound lanes since July 1 that had paid their fines received a refund. Those who had not paid fines but have received citations will have the infractions erased from their records.
The arrest of Joe Crumley, the former one-term district attorney general for the First Judicial District (Washington, Carter, Unicoi and Johnson counties), garnered its fair share of public interest in September.
Crumley was stopped by Jonesborough officers on Sept. 21 after reportedly leading them on a slow-speed pursuit though town and out past Five Points. Crumley, 58, 215 Scott Lane, Jonesborough, was indicted on charges of reckless endangerment, reckless driving and evading arrest.
His case is pending in Washington County Criminal Court. A judge and prosecutor from other districts were appointed to handle the case.
Russell charged in grandparents’ stabbings
An elderly couple living in South Johnson City had a violent encounter with their grandson when he stabbed them, one fatally, according to police.
Cody Russell, 20, is charged with first-degree murder in the death of his grandmother, 62-year-old Frieda Russell, and attempted first-degree murder for allegedly stabbing his grandfather, 65-year-old Clifford Russell.
It happened Dec. 8 around 5 p.m. in the family’s Stoney Brook Apartments home, just off Swadley Road. After the stabbings, Russell fled on foot, but was arrested a short time later when he returned to the scene.
Russell is jailed under a $250,000 bond and has a preliminary hearing Feb. 17.
Washington County Commission
With 14 new commissioners and a new mayor taking office in late 2010, this year proved to be somewhat of an adjustment period for the Washington County Commission: New Mayor Dan Eldridge’s predecessor, former Mayor George Jaynes, had been in office for 24 years; and the majority of the county commissioners are in their first term on the legislative body.
Some of the growing pains included the mayor and commissioners butting heads on the county’s operational decisions, financial state, and budget. At a Sept. 8 called meeting, commissioners voted through more than $800,000 in cuts, which included the funding for then-Communications Director Jeff Keeling’s job. At that meeting, Eldridge also stepped down as chairman of the commission, leaving the commissioners to run their own meetings. Since then, some of the cuts made Sept. 8 have been restored, but the communications job (now called a community relations role) in the mayor’s office remains unfunded by commissioners.
In 2011, the commission also dealt with the issue of whether to continue offering county health insurance plans to commissioners at the taxpayers’ expense, and voted 18 to 6 to do so. Commissioners also discussed reducing the number of commissioners in this year’s redistricting, but that issue never made it out of committee.
Fatal dog torture
A Jonesborough man who allegedly killed his family’s dog Honey, a four-pound Yorkshire Terrier, after four hours of torture, brought out a fire storm of animal activists.
Dustin Ricky Harrell, 21, 1178 Old Stage Road, Jonesborough, is charged with aggravated cruelty to animals after the incident Nov. 3.
According to investigators, Harrell told them that he threw the small dog down a set of stairs, then comforted her before dunking her head under water three separate times for about 20 seconds each time. After drying the dog off with a towel, Harrell told investigators that he put the dog in a clothes dryer for four minutes. After that, Harrell said he threw the dog down the stairs again, which broke her leg. He said he taped the dog’s mouth with duct tape because she was crying and used a Icy Hot sleeve on her leg. After the dog stopped crying, Harrell said he took the tape off her mouth and she died in his arms.
Harrell’s case is set to be presented to a grand jury in January.
The Tri-Cities fared better than the majority of the country when it came to the economy in 2011, according to several reports from local economist Steb Hipple, with the East Tennessee State University Bureau of Business and Economic Research. Nationally, retail sales were a bright spot in the overall economy. Local retail sales volume and dollar sales rose in all three recorded quarters of 2011 over 2010’s totals, according to reports from Hipple. Bucking national trends, the region continued to add jobs throughout 2011, restoring most of the jobs lost in the 2008-2009 recession, Hipple’s labor market reports showed.
The Johnson City area also saw a swath of new restaurants open their doors in 2011, with several more slated to open in 2012.
Reports from the Northeast Tennessee Association of Realtors showed the area’s housing market was recovering slowly.
While the local and regional economic picture remains brighter than the national picture, Hipple cautioned in all his reports that the Tri-Cities does not exist in an economic vacuum. Ultimately, he said, the sluggish national economy will effect the local economy.
The manufacture of methamphetamine continued to be a major law enforcement problem in Elizabethton and in Carter and Johnson counties.
The worst explosion occurred in Johnson County on Blant Road, when a fire destroyed a mobile home and left a man identified as Brian Snyder with third-degree burns on 90 percent of his body.
In Carter County, Sheriff Chris Mathes said the county had so many people suspected of buying psuedoephedrine, an ingredient used to manufacture methamphetamine, that if all were arrested at the same time it would severely clog the court system. The department has limited the number of cases of promotion of methamphetamine manufacturing it presented to the grand jury each month.
Sheriff Reece said 90 percent of the prisoners in the Johnson County Jail could trace their problems back to drugs.
In July, Johnson City firefighters battled a large fire which destroyed most of a three-unit condominium but did not harm anyone.
Seven fire engines and two ladder trucks responded to 1104 E. 9th St. at about 9:50 a.m. to find 20- to 30-foot-high flames shooting from the structures’ roof. Firefighters finally doused the flames at about 11 a.m., and many received treatment for dehydration and exhaustion made worse by the high heat and humidity.
JCFD Lt. David Harrison said extra engines and off-duty firefighters were called into action when the first round of firefighters arrived and realized they needed help to deal with the fire’s size and strength. The heat inside the building became so intense and the smoke so toxic, that firefighters were told to evacuate the building during the early stages of the 70-minute fire.
Several cats and dogs that were inside the two-story building were killed by the heat and smoke.