News of 2013: Top 10 stories in Middle Georgia

Telegraph staffDecember 30, 2013 

As we turn the final pages before closing the book on 2013, The Telegraph reflects on the top 10 stories that helped shape Middle Georgia this year.

There were stories that shocked us, like a deadly animal shelter break-in, and stories, like the return of Mercer football, that gave us a new reason to cheer for the home team. Some stories that began in 2012, like the police shooting of Sammie Davis Jr. in a Kroger parking lot, came to a conclusion this year. And others, like the new Macon-Bibb consolidated government, are still ongoing.

The stories were voted on by The Telegraph’s editors and reporters. Here are the 10 that received the most votes.

1. Macon-Bibb voters elect leaders for historic consolidated government

The year’s biggest event is a work in progress -- not one occurrence but a series of events that began before 2013 and will continue long after. In July 2012, voters approved consolidating Macon and Bibb County governments. The new government is set to go into effect with the new year.

Preparing for consolidation occupied all of 2013. A task force worked all year with consultants to merge existing laws and work out the finances of a consolidated government.

The consolidation charter cuts the number of elected officials from 21 to 10. After a seven-way countywide mayoral race narrowed the field to Mayor Robert Reichert and former Mayor C. Jack Ellis, Reichert bested Ellis in the runoff to become the first Macon-Bibb mayor.

The nine-member commission ended the year with an empty seat because the District 2 race between Macon Councilmen Henry Ficklin and Larry Schlesinger is still undecided.

Schlesinger won an Oct. 15 runoff with Ficklin by just 26 votes, but Ficklin filed a lawsuit, saying the state and local Board of Elections bungled the election by incorrectly splitting an apartment complex between districts. Some voting errors were noted in other districts, but only in District 2 were the numbers of suspect votes high enough to cast doubt on the result.

A judge agreed with Ficklin, and a new election is set for Jan. 14.

-- Jim Gaines

2. Dallemand leavesBibb schools after series of conflicts

Bibb County school Superintendent Romain Dallemand started the year with a new employment contract, but it quickly became moot. The Telegraph revealed Dallemand’s administration tripled its commitment to the Macon Promise Neighborhood program from a maximum of $10 million to $29.7 million without school board approval. Meanwhile, a resident filed a lawsuit to revoke Dallemand’s new and old employment contracts and to cancel the Promise Center lease, but that lawsuit failed. But while that lawsuit and one filed by his demoted chief financial officer churned in court, school board members began reconsidering their contract with Dallemand.

In February, the board approved a buyout of $350,000 plus benefits for Dallemand. The board much later settled with the chief financial officer, Ron Collier, for $100,000.

Things didn’t stabilize for months, and the school board faced a big budget deficit. The board tapped a Dallemand lieutenant, Susanne Griffin-Ziebart, to lead the schools on a temporary basis before turning to a Bibb County veteran, Steve Smith, to be the interim superintendent.

-- Mike Stucka

3. Three people plead guilty in Spencer slaying

“One mistake, one evil plan, one manipulation,” the teenage killer’s mother said in November.

The killer, Michael Brett Kelly, 19, had just been sentenced to life in prison without parole for his role in a $1.3-million embezzlement-murder scheme that made headlines for months.

The plan -- which prosecutors said was hatched and carried out by Kelly, his 39-year-old lover, Tracy Michelle Jones, and two others -- cost a Macon legal secretary her life in October 2012.

Jones worked with the victim, 58-year-old Gail C. Spencer, at Pinkston & Associates on Vineville Avenue.

According to prosecutors, Kelly and Keith Dozier, 23, of Warner Robins, slipped inside Spencer’s Stinsonville Road home. Authorities have said the plan was to hold Spencer hostage while Jones went into the office and wired money from the firm’s accounts into accounts she and the others, including Kelly’s half-sister, Courtney Nicole Kelly, 24, had opened.

But at some point Brett Kelly forced Spencer to perform a sex act on him, and he suffocated her with a plastic bag, investigators said.

After prosecutors opted not to seek the death penalty, Jones, Brett Kelly and Courtney Kelly pleaded guilty to murder.

Jones and Brett Kelly will spend the rest of their lives in prison. Courtney Kelly will be eligible for parole in 30 years. Dozier is set to go to trial next year.

-- Joe Kovac Jr.

4. Macon police officer cleared in shooting death

The U.S. Attorney’s Office announced in mid-December that Macon police officer Clayton Sutton wouldn’t be prosecuted for civil rights violations in the December 2012 shooting death of Sammie Davis Jr. in the parking lot of the Pio Nono Avenue Kroger.

The ruling effectively closed the case, since the GBI, the police and Bibb County District Attorney David Cooke earlier ruled the shooting was justified.

Sutton shot Davis to death in a confrontation in the parking lot after a call was made to police complaining about Davis’ erratic behavior in front of the Kroger he frequented. Sutton used deadly force after he was physically confronted by the much larger Davis.

The shooting spurred several community marches in support of Davis. Sutton was cleared by a review board comprised of local residents and law enforcement officers in April, though he was given a written reprimand for not informing 911 dispatchers that he arrived at the grocery store that day.

-- Phillip Ramati

5. Sequestration, furloughs take toll at Robins

Uncertainty with the federal budget also brought uncertainty for 15,000 civilian federal government employees at Robins Air Force Base.

Early in the year employees were told to expect to take 22 days of furlough beginning in April as a result of automatic spending cuts. As Congress wrangled over how to best implement the cuts, and the Department of Defense found other ways to cut, the furloughs were reduced to 14 and finally six days that actually were implemented each Friday for six weeks.

Local businesses, particularly restaurants that relied on base lunch traffic, suffered as a result. Many businesses offered discounts to impacted employees.

Also, about 4,000 employees were furloughed for four days in October due to a government shutdown when Congress couldn’t agree on a spending plan to fund operations.

In March, the base granted early retirements to 403 employees as a result of other cost-cutting initiatives unrelated to the automatic spending cuts.

-- Wayne Crenshaw

6. Warner Robins voters elect new mayor, council members

Warner Robins residents elected former firefighter Randy Toms as the city’s new mayor after a hotly contested fall election that saw six candidates vying for the spot. The field narrowed to two -- Toms and former city Public Works Director Joe Musselwhite -- after the November general election. Toms ultimately beat Musselwhite by almost a 2-1 margin in the December runoff. Toms will be sworn in as mayor Jan. 6.

Absent from the mayoral ballot was incumbent Mayor Chuck Shaheen, who surprised many when he announced he would be running against incumbent Councilman Mike Daley for the Post 1, at large council seat. That race, which featured four candidates, went to a runoff between Shaheen and Daley. Shaheen ousted Daley, taking 59 percent of the vote.

Turnover on City Council in general was high, with three more new council members elected in 2013. Keith Lauritsen replaces Paul Shealy in Post 3, Tim Thomas replaces Mike Brashear in Post 4 and Clifford Holmes replaces Daron Lee in Post 5. Brashear and Lee unsuccessfully ran for mayor.

-- Jennifer Burk

7. Macon sets annual rainfall record

Even with a few days still to go in 2013, Macon surpassed an 84-year-old record for rainfall in a single calendar year.

The city broke the record Dec. 23 when it reached 70.37 inches of rainfall to beat the previous record of 67.80 inches set in 1929.

The rain helped alleviate some of the problems created by drought in Middle Georgia during the past few years.

The new record more than doubled the 2012 total of 32.41 inches, thanks in part to record rainfall in February and June.

-- Phillip Ramati

8. Timothy Johnson acquitted after 29 years in prison

In December, a Houston County jury acquitted Timothy Johnson of the armed robbery and slaying of convenience store clerk Taressa Stanley in September 1984. The Warner Robins man, now 51, already had spent 29 years behind bars.

What jurors did not know was that Johnson pleaded guilty to the killing in December 1984 in a plea agreement for prosecutors not to seek the death penalty. Jurors also did not know that in his voluminous, hand-written appeals, Johnson denied he killed Stanley, claimed he had an alibi, accused his attorney in 1984 of botching the job and said he was coerced into the guilty plea.

In 2006, the Georgia Supreme Court overturned his conviction on the grounds there was nothing in the court record indicating Johnson understood his rights not to incriminate himself and to confront witnesses against him. A Houston County grand jury reindicted him for the slaying that same year.

The new trial was complicated by the age of the case. Evidence had been destroyed or was missing, and key witnesses had died or could not be located. That limited evidence that could be introduced for jurors to consider.

-- Becky Purser

9. Mercer’s football team has memorable first year

Only a few years ago, the land was home to an assortment of ugly dorm buildings and part of the intramural complex.

Then came the evening of Aug. 31, 2013.

The land had become home to more than $20 million of field house, football stadium and dreams. And, it turned out, of a pretty good football team in its first year of play in a while.

Mercer opened its first season since 1941 with a thrilling win -- a field goal with three seconds left was quite a way to end that “debut” game -- and went on to win nine more games.

The Bears ended the season with a 10-2 record and had capacity crowds in the first season back.

Quarterback John Russ was named the conference’s top freshman, while linebacker Tosin Aguebor and tight end Robert Brown made the all-conference first and second teams, and running back JeTarii Donald, center Kirby Southard, safety Alex Avant and kicker Tyler Zielenske were honorable mention selections.

Avant’s interception return for a touchdown against Drake topped ESPN’s college football highlights that week, leading the national exposure for the play.

-- Mike Lough

10. Animal shelter break-in results in dog deaths, injuries

In November, Macon police charged Crystal Gale Fessler, 36, with criminal trespass, animal cruelty and other charges after she allegedly broke into the All About Animals rescue facility in October and released several of the dogs being housed there.

As a result of the ensuing dog fight, three of them died and more than a dozen were injured. The incident drew national attention, and the reward for information grew to $18,000 before police received a call from a tipster informing them of Fessler. Fessler was described as being “very cooperative” with investigators. She didn’t have a previous history of harming animals, investigators said.

When news of the break-in spread, the community responded by donating thousands of dollars worth of food, medicine and other supplies to the animal rescue group.

-- Phillip Ramati

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