12 in 2012: The Sun News’ top stories of the year

January 2, 2013 

1. CHANGES AT ROBINS

Robins Air Force Base, Middle Georgia’s largest employer by far, saw a year of significant change.

The year began with a reorganization and Air Force-wide cuts leading to the cutting of hundreds of jobs, all through voluntary separation or early retirement buyouts.

The reorganization led to the elimination of the Warner Robins Air Logistics Center as well as its command staff. A new organization in charge of maintenance at the base was created, called the Warner Robins Air Logistics Complex, headed by a one-star general instead of the two-star that headed the Air Logistics Center. Command of the three depots in Air Force Materiel Command was consolidated to a central command at Tinker Air Force Base, Okla.

Following the retirement of Maj. Gen. Robert McMahon in June as the last commander of the Air Logistics Center, the Air Logistics Complex was created and Brig. Gen. Cedric George named the first commander.

Through all the changes, the base ended the year with a 98-percent on-time delivery rate for aircraft, a vast improvement from two years earlier when it stood at 47 percent.

-- Wayne Crenshaw

2. LITTLE BOY LOST

The biggest game of hide-and-seek hit Warner Robins this summer as hundreds searched for fifth-grader Kit Colburn. The 10-year-old walked away from Russell Elementary School instead of going to the principal’s office May 8. During the next two days, scores of Houston residents and law enforcement officers sprung into action.

Garbage was stopped. A staging area was set up. Search parties were formed. A helicopter whipped through the sky. Kit’s face was plastered on flyers and billboards. The father, Ken Colburn, had a “boys will be boys” reaction, telling reporters Kit was probably just scared he’d be in trouble. And he wasn’t worried much about Kit’s safety; he had Boy Scout skills, after all.

On the third morning, exterminators near the school located the boy in bushes near a home near the school. Turns out, father knew son. Kit was healthy and well-nourished. And he nixed his plan to hitch a ride home on the school bus when he saw police cruisers at the school.

Kit was suspended from school for the remaining two weeks before summer break and wrote an apology letter to the volunteers who participated in the more than $32,000 search.

-- Christina M. Wright

3. FORMER COUNCILMAN SENT TO PRISON

A former Warner Robins city councilman is serving a 14-month sentence in a North Carolina federal prison after being found guilty of using his position to get a kickback from the sale of a truck to the police department.

John Williams was convicted in April of extortion, making false statements to the FBI and tampering with a witness. His release date is June 26, 2013.

Williams, who served one term as councilman, was convicted of taking a $1,720 kickback from the sale of a $21,000 truck to the police department. The sale was not completed, and Williams returned the money to the car salesman after the FBI questioned him. Williams’ attorney argued in court that what Williams did was unethical but not criminal.

Other charges stemming from Williams reporting his city cell phone stolen were dismissed after his federal conviction.

-- Christina M. Wright

4. FVSU PRESIDENT RESIGNS

After seven years at the helm of Fort Valley State University, President Larry Rivers announced in November that he plans to step down June 30, 2013.

“These almost seven years have offered exhilaration and challenge, but I feel that our university has been able to move forward and that the goals I set upon my arrival have been met,” Rivers said in a news release.

Rivers is credited with much of FVSU’s success. When he took the position, he inherited budget issues, declining enrollment, aging buildings and the loss of accreditation for FVSU’s teacher training program. During Rivers’ tenure, the teacher training program was reaccredited, facilities were built and renovated, and enrollment grew from 1,970 students seven years ago to 3,568 this past fall.

But his tenure as president has not been without controversy. In April, the faculty senate voted no confidence in Rivers, though that vote was later rescinded. At the time, one faculty senate member claimed the no-confidence vote stemmed from recent furloughs across campus. A faculty senate letter also mentioned dissatisfaction with FVSU’s accreditation. In December, a warning status from the agency that accredits colleges was lifted.

A little more than a week after the no-confidence vote, faculty members voted 77 to 15 -- with one abstention -- to rescind the vote and declare their confidence in Rivers.

-- Jenna Mink

5. COLLEGES CONSOLIDATE

Four Middle Georgia colleges, which include campuses in Warner Robins, are set to merge in January after a year of getting approval and hammering out the details.

Middle Georgia and Macon State colleges will become Middle Georgia State College after the expected Board of Regents approval Jan. 8. Additionally, Central Georgia and Middle Georgia technical colleges will merge next year to save money and combine services.

The Middle Georgia State College consolidation will result in one college with five regional campuses. It will lead to more programs, attract more students and cut administrative costs, officials say.

The local consolidation is one of four such mergers proposed by the University System of Georgia, which has experienced budget cuts of $1 billion over the past four years. Middle Georgia State College received in December approval from the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges -- the last step before Board of Regents approval in January.

The decision to consolidate the two technical colleges was made in September during the Technical College System of Georgia’s board meeting. The merger is expected to be completed by July 1, 2013, and some executive positions might be cut. However, no campuses will close, and all programs will continue, officials said.

-- Jenna Mink

6. TEEN ACCUSED OF KILLING SISTER

A Kathleen family was torn apart in July when a 17-year-old girl was accused of killing her 12-year-old sister before setting the house on fire.

Carmen Collins is charged with murder and arson in the shooting of her sister, India Ja’Nai Collins. Police say the teenager took the family dog and fled to Columbus, where her father’s .40-caliber handgun was found in a trash can outside a barbecue restaurant. Police say Collins used that gun to kill her sister.

During Collins’ November arraignment, at which she pleaded not guilty, District Attorney George Hartwig said the prosecution will be ready for trial by early 2013, but Houston County Public Defender Nick White said he does not expect the case to go to trial that soon.

White said Collins denies killing her sister and did not leave willingly.

“It’s fair to say we think others are involved, and that will exonerate my client,” White said during the November arraignment.

-- Jenna Mink

7. T-SPLOST FAILS

The July failure of a proposed 1-percent sales tax for transportation needs in an 11-county Middle Georgia region was partly due to a resounding “no” from Houston County voters. It actually won in Bibb, Twiggs and Wilkinson counties, but the margin was slim. In Bibb, the largest of the 11 counties, the difference was just 1,375 votes of 33,661 cast.

But in Houston, the region’s second-largest county, opponents outnumbered supporters 11,475 to 4,335. Peach voters narrowly defeated the measure.

Many Houston leaders were vocal opponents of the T-SPLOST, arguing the county already had spent millions in local sales tax dollars on roads. Ned Sanders, a former commission chairman, led a campaign against the T-SPLOST.

“The voters here do not have an appetite for an additional tax,” Houston County Commission Chairman Tommy Stalnaker said at the time.

The tax was expected to raise about $748 million in Middle Georgia over a decade. In regions where the measure failed, the amount of matching money local governments have to put up to get state transportation funds will triple, from 10 percent to 30 percent.

-- Jennifer Burk

8. DANGEROUS CROSSING GETS GATE

After a string of accidents at the Ignico Drive railroad crossing in recent years, the death of a mother and her infant child in May spurred community action. The two were passengers in a vehicle struck by a train.

Local leaders and residents campaigned successfully to get the Georgia Department of Transportation and Norfolk Southern to expedite plans to put a gate crossing at the intersection. Although the process normally takes months, it was put on a fast track, and the new gate was in operation by early August.

Four people had died at the crossing and others injured. Residents put up crosses, held rallies and a makeshift memorial was created after the May accident.

In November, a Houston County grand jury indicted the driver, Willie Frank Lyons, 46, on charges of vehicular homicide in connection with the deaths Donnell Reid, 31, and her 1-month old daughter, Kinsley. Lyons was the child’s father. He was also indicted on a charge of driving under the influence of marijuana.

-- Wayne Crenshaw

9. HOUSTON SPLOST PASSES

Houston County voters approved a third consecutive special purpose local option sales tax in March. Collections for the continuation began in October and are expected to generate $155 million over the next six years.

Having completed a lot of needed road projects with the 2001 and 2006 SPLOSTs, the three cities and county diversified the projects list more this time around. The cities have more funds to be used within their boundaries and for capital projects, such as new buildings and police vehicles.

About $60.3 million is earmarked for projects that would benefit the whole county, about $35.4 million is for projects in the unincorporated areas, about $5.1 million in Centerville, $9.8 million in Perry, and about $44.4 million in Warner Robins.

-- Christina M. Wright

10. CHILD STARVATION DEATH CONVICTIONS

A Warner Robins mother accused of starving her 2-year-old son to death pleaded guilty in May to felony murder and cruelty to children. Sade Shamon King is now serving a sentence of life in prison with the possibility of parole.

The condition of D’Shawn Davis, who died of malnutrition Sept. 11, 2010, was shocking. The prosecutor said the child was kept in a crib with no light, was emaciated and weighed what one would expect of a 2 1/2-month-old baby. Investigators found plenty of food in the pantry.

The father, William Thomas Davis III, was sentenced to 10 years in prison after being convicted of involuntary manslaughter and reckless conduct in May. During the trial, King testified Davis didn’t see his son in the weeks before his death and did not know about his condition. Davis said he was working long hours in the weeks leading up to the death.

-- Jennifer Burk

11. PEACH HOSPITAL CONSTRUCTION STARTS

After working toward it for almost a decade, Peach County officials announced in January 2012 that construction would begin on a new $28 million hospital.

Work started in May, and the hospital is set for completion this summer.

Talks for a new hospital began in 2003, but the process was slowed by controversy over the location and the economic downturn. It finally came together through a partnership with The Medical Center of Central Georgia and its umbrella organization, Central Georgia Health System.

The Medical Center will operate the 25-bed hospital through a lease agreement, which will allow the Medical Center to treat Peach County patients closer to home.

The hospital is located on the Ga. 247 Connector just west of Interstate 75. At 68,000 square feet, it will be roughly 15,000 square feet larger than the current facility in Fort Valley.

-- Wayne Crenshaw

12. MURDER-FOR-HIRE CONVICTIONS

After a week-long trial in August, James “Eddy” Clements was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole for conspiring with two men to kill his wife.

The trial was marked by testimony from the getaway driver and shooter, a father-son duo who pleaded guilty to their roles in the killing and testified against Clements.

Richard Sybert admitted to shooting Joni Clements, 47, Feb. 8, 2011 at her Warner Robins home. During trial, he detailed conversations he had with Eddy Clements planning the murder. Robert Sybert, Richard’s father and getaway driver, said Clements asked him numerous times to shoot his wife in exchange for money. However, he said he did not know it was his son’s intention to kill Joni Clements.

Richard Sybert was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole for the murder. Robert Sybert was sentenced to 30 years in prison on a reduced charge of attempted murder, conspiracy to commit murder and possession of a sawed-off rifle during the commission of a crime.

Clements maintains his innocence.

-- Jennifer Burk

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