A look back at 2019's top stories

Johnson City Press • Dec 29, 2019 at 8:00 AM

As 2019 draws to a close, we thought it right to reflect on the past year’s top news stories. Some told of tragedy, some told of progress made and some told uplifting tales, but they’re all part of the region’s history now.

BrightRidge brings broadband

It was a transformational year for BrightRidge. The public utility launched the first phase of its eight-year, $64 million broadband division. With speeds of up to 10 gigabits, BrightRidge is expected to reach 32,000 potential customers during the first three years of its business plan.

Officials from BrightRidge, the Tennessee Valley Authority and Silicon Ranch Corp. also flipped the switch on a new 5-megawatt solar farm in June. The 41,760 solar panels at the 40-acre Washington County facility became operational earlier in the year.

Happy 150th, Johnson City!

Johnson City officials wrapped up a yearlong sesquicentennial celebration with a community party at Legacy Plaza in King Commons on Dec. 1. The public event, which was held on the actual date of the 150th anniversary of the city receiving its current municipal charter from the state, included burial of a time capsule and the official lighting of a commissioned sculpture of three passion flowers in the center of History Circle.

County builds new schools

Washington County officials opened their newest and largest school in July with the dedication of the Boones Creek pre-K-8. The $28 million Boones Creek school is divided into two wings — one housing pre-K to fourth grades and the other grades 5-8.

Jonesborough leaders, Washington County officials and county Board of Education members met in November to officially sign the contracts for a lease-purchase deal calling for the town to build a new Jonesborough K-8 school. The town is slated to buy a 48-acre tract of pasture land — located off North Cherokee Street behind the George P. Jaynes Justice Center — to build a 900-student Jonesborough school and sports complex for under $32.75 million.

New business chooses county

Ebm-pabst announced in May it would build a new plant in the Washington County Industrial Park as part of a payment-in-lieu-of-taxes agreement. The Germany-based automotive fan and motor manufacturer said the deal would bring 200 jobs and a $37 million investment to the region.

West Walnut Corridor plan emerges

Johnson City leaders this year continued their efforts to make their vision of a revitalized West Walnut Street a reality.

Officials held a public hearing in December to update residents and business owners about plans for the project, which they hope will set the stage for increased development along the roadway. As is, the plans would make the corridor more pedestrian-friendly and aim to cut down on congestion around Walnut Street’s intersection with University Parkway.

Residents have, however, expressed concern about the impact the project would have on traffic in the nearby Tree Streets neighborhood. Officials have said they hope to send the project out for bids sometime next year.

Langston Centre opens

The Langston Centre, a facility designed to serve as a hub of multicultural programming in the city, officially opened its doors in November.

The roughly $2 million facility sits on the former site of Langston High School, which served as Johnson City’s public black high school from 1893 until its closure with desegregation in 1965. Center leaders are now launching new educational programs for kids, including a leadership academy honoring the late civil rights leader Ralph Davis.

Johnson City computers attacked

In the wee morning hours of Oct. 21, Johnson City was hit with a ransomware attack. Although staff did have to cut off internet access and turn off all of the city’s computers, city officials said Johnson City’s IT staff managed to put a lid on the incursion shortly after it happened.

The attack happened just three weeks after the city rolled out a new hyper-converged storage area network, a tool that allowed the city to restore files in less than a day.

The city has, however, been forced to spend about $265,100 to replace about 400 computers, which the city said was offset in part by money budgeted each year for new computers.

Boones Creek grows

In May, the General Assembly and Gov. Bill Lee approved legislation that authorized Johnson City to draw a roughly 950-acre incentive district in Boones Creek.

Officials hope these incentives, which will be funded with state sales tax revenue, will supercharge development around Exit 17, spurring the creation of a project similar to The Pinnacle in Bristol. The Johnson City Commission is now considering the boundaries of that district. If approved, it will then move on to the state for final certification.

Civil Rights leader dies

Ralph Davis was a civil rights icon in Johnson City's history who died after suffering a stroke at the age of 67 in July. After his passing, city Mayor Jenny Brock called Davis a "stalwart," and said "we're going to miss his leadership dearly."

Search for Unicoi man ends in tragedy

The search for Luc Vance captivated people both locally and nationally, and ended with the discovery of his body near his home earlier this month. The search lasted roughly six weeks before Vance was found by two private investigators who were working for the family pro-bono.

Thousands show up for parade

With the Budweiser Clydesdales as the centerpiece, thousands lined the streets of downtown Johnson City for the city's annual Christmas Parade, with organizers calling it "the largest crowd we've ever had."

Haven of Mercy store burns

In March, one of the largest sources of operational revenue for the Haven of Mercy Rescue Mission’s shelter, kitchen and social service programs went up in flames.

An early morning fire at the Haven of Mercy Thrift Store at 218 N. Broadway St. gutted the 10,000-square-foot building and destroyed a large portion of the second-hand wares that kept the ministry’s outreach programs to the homeless and poor afloat.

And although the ministry has been able to maintain some revenue selling its donated goods from the parking lot of its former store, the financial impact has been felt, particularly in subsequent reduction of the number of public meals provided by the Haven.

Bouncing back with plans to not only to rebuild the thrift store but to expand its footprint on the North Broadway, the Haven recently won the Johnson City Commission’s blessing for a couple of rezoning ordinances that will allow the reconstruction of the store and the addition of 20 residential units to be used for a women’s and children’s shelter.

Meanwhile, the Haven continues to search for a rental location for the thrift store to occupy through the construction of its new building.

Ambulance service goes local

Unicoi County began 2019 a few months ahead of the expiration of its three-year service contract with Medic One Medical Response and more than two years into a countywide discussion of how to improve long ambulance response times and other ills surrounding the service.

A push to create a locally controlled service had failed at the municipal level in Erwin, and while a local service was still being discussed by county commissioners, advertisement had also gone out for bids from private service providers.

When the bids were opened, Medic One was the only provider to come to the table and appeared to be on its way to landing another three-year contract when flaws in the bidding process came to light. The commission’s subsequent refusal to redress those flaws resulted first in the commission vice-chairman stepping down and then in a lawsuit by a county taxpayer.

And although the lawsuit was later thrown out, Medic One ultimately backed out of the contract offer, saying it would stay in town only long enough for another provider to be brought on board.

In May, Washington County Emergency Medical Service came to the rescue with a one-year, $100,000, temporary service agreement offered on the condition Unicoi County attempt to start its own service.

By the end of November, with the temporary service operating in the black, the commission voted to establish the locally controlled service, and at its last meeting of 2019, to incorporate the service as a nonprofit organization and seek interlocal agreements to share control of the service with Erwin and Unicoi.

Johnson City plans school reorganization

In 2018, Johnson City Schools first announced plans for an ambitious reconfiguration plan, which originally aimed to create two new middle schools out of Liberty Bell Middle School and Indian Trail Middle School for grades 5-8. After examining the feasibility of those plans, officials then decided over the summer to create two new middle schools for grades 6-8, putting fifth-graders back in elementary schools.

As of December, city officials reported that major construction projects needed for the reconfiguration — including a new gym and cafeteria at Liberty Bell projected to be completed by June 2020 — have been moving forward according to plan.

But the reconfiguration plan has caused some headaches for the Johnson City Board of Education.

In order to put fifth-graders back in the district’s elementary schools, the district will also need to add space to Lake Ridge, Woodland and South Side Elementary Schools. The district also hopes to build a new campus for Towne Acres Elementary School. All of this will require about $30 million.

NASCAR icon, family survive plane crash

Dale Earnhardt Jr., his wife Amy, their 1-year-old daughter Isla Rose, their dog Gus and the two pilots of a Cessna Citation Latitude jet walked away from a plane crash outside the perimeter of the Elizabethton Municipal Airport on Aug. 15. Earnhardt was treated at a local hospital, but there were no serious injuries.

The plane became a fiery inferno moments after the passengers and crew made their escape. It came to rest partially in the Stoney Creek Highway. Flames fed by leaking fuel reignited every time firefighters put them out. Traffic was detoured around that section of road for several days until the Tennessee Department of Transportation repaved a small section.

The National Transportation Safety Board said the crash was caused when the plane landed too hard on its right main landing gear, collapsing the gear. Earnhardt had flown to Elizabethton from Statesville, North Carolina, to broadcast a NASCAR race at Bristol for NBC.

Manhunt for man charged with killing mother ends in Atlanta

John Christopher Ralph, 51, was less than an hour from flying to Amsterdam when he was arrested at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport on April 7 by U.S. Marshals on a charge he had murdered his mother, Edith Betty Ralph, 75, inside the home she shared with him on Reynolds Road.

The Carter County Sheriff’s Department had found her body on April 6 and determined she had been shot several times.

Investigators discovered John Ralph had purchased an airplane ticket to Amsterdam from Atlanta. He was charged with first-degree murder, and federal agents in Georgia were alerted. He was brought back to Carter County and was arraigned in Sessions Court on April 15, the same day as the funeral and burial of his mother.

Eddie Graybeal

Washington County Sheriff’s Lt. Eddie Graybeal remains on suspension while felony charges of official misconduct and oppression and misdemeanor assault are pending against him in Criminal Court.

He was charged after a video was leaked in September showing Graybeal striking a handcuffed man in the face in the sally port area of the Washington County Detention Center. The slap occurred Nov. 10, 2018.

There had been an internal investigation after Graybeal, who is the son of Sheriff Ed Graybeal, self-reported the incident, according to authorities. After the internal review, he was given a written reprimand and was instructed to review the department’s use of force policy.

The official oppression and misconduct charges are both Class E felonies, the least-serious felony in Tennessee, and can result in a prison sentence between one and six years and a $3,000 fine. The assault charge is a Class A misdemeanor, punishable by up to one year in jail.

Michael Young acquittal

Michael Young pumped his fist in the air in victory and a widow sat nearby crying silently as a jury foreman read “not guilty” verdicts Sept. 26 after a four-day trial.

Young, 49, was acquitted of first-degree murder and all lesser included charges — second-degree murder, voluntary manslaughter, reckless homicide and criminally negligent homicide — in the shooting death of his 45-year-old neighbor, Jose Mijares, in what investigators called a road rage incident near their homes on Lambeth Drive Feb. 13, 2016.

Mijares’ son, Jesus Mijares, testified at the trial that he and his father were going to get gas and coffee that Saturday morning when their neighbor’s green pickup came up on them fast on Lambeth Drive, then passed on the right side and stopped at the intersection of Lambeth and North Roan Street.

The younger Mijares testified that his father got out to see what the problem was and why Young was driving in that manner. Mijares didn’t hear the shot, but saw his father stagger back to the vehicle and collapse in the road. He went to his father’s aid and saw that his father had been shot.

During his testimony, Jesus Mijares pointed to Young as the person who shot his father. But the fact Young shot Mijares was never an issue. The defense acknowledged Young shot and killed Mijares, but said all along it was self-defense. The jury, by its verdict, apparently believed the self defense as a valid reason for the shooting.

Kelly Pitts conviction

Kelly Lee Pitts, 39, was convicted in January of seven counts of attempted first-degree murder and seven counts of possession of a firearm during the commission of a dangerous felony and later sentenced to 51 years in prison.

The incident happened on Dry Hollow Road in Carter County on Dec. 16, 2015, and two people were shot — Carter County Sheriff’s Deputy Jenna Markland in the face and Brandy Hyder in the hand.

The case was moved to Jonesborough after defense attorneys requested a change of venue because the majority of the reported victims were sheriff's deputies.

Pitts testified during his trial and told the jury he wasn’t sure he was shooting at law enforcement in 2015 after having arguments with Brandy Hyder — his girlfriend at the time — and her brother, Jack Hyder. Deputies testified that almost immediately upon their arrival, gunfire started coming at them from a mobile home where the original call about an intoxicated man with a gun came from.

Markland survived the shooting and was able to return to her duty as a deputy.

Deborah Myers

A Johnson City woman accused of driving off from a wreck she allegedly caused, fleeing a disturbance call in town, then hitting another vehicle that killed a woman, was arraigned on vehicular homicide and related charges Monday in Washington County Sessions Court.

Deborah K. Myers, 59, 818 Pardee St., has three sets of charges against her from three agencies. It all happened on Nov. 29, beginning around 11 a.m. Washington County Deputy Roger Antone responded to a hit-and-run on Highway 11E. Court records allege a white Lincoln MKZ with a handicapped license plate made an illegal lane change and sideswiped another car, then drove away.

Around 9:15 p.m., another in another hit-and-run happened on Highway 11E in which the other driver said her vehicle was rammed from behind several times before she lost control and went over an embankment and flipped, according to a court document filed by Tennessee Highway Patrol Trooper J.D. Gregory.

Myrna Cannon, 61, died in the crash at the intersection with Telford Road. Christopher Ricker, 49, Greeneville, was injured.

The THP said Lisa Brown, 48, Greeneville, was southbound on 11E in a Chevrolet Equinox with Cannon and Ricker as passengers when a Lincoln MKZ rear-ended Brown’s vehicle. The Equinox spun around, left the road over an embankment, flipped and landed against a tree.

Randi Laferney and Andy Hunigan

Randi LaFerney, 55, 405 Sugar Hollow Road, Piney Flats, and Andrew “Andy” Hunigan, 28, 1 Gatewood Drive, Johnson City, each were charged with one count of aggravated animal cruelty after an 8-month-old bull terrier named Dallas died in Hunigan’s care in May, police said.

Both were indicted on the charges, and LaFerney received an additional charge of tampering with evidence, stemming from an allegation she attempted to have the dog cremated without the owner's consent.

The dog was supposed to be with Hunigan for two weeks of boarding and training through LaFerney’s business — Off Leash K9 Training East Tennessee — but the time kept getting extended because Hunigan told the owners the pup needed more housebreaking training. The dog was described as “stubborn,” in the housebreaking process, even by his owner.

Six weeks later, Dallas was dead from starvation and dehydration, according to a necropsy report completed by the University of Tennessee veterinary school. 

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