Top 10 stories of 2013 in Houston, Peach counties

Staff reportsJanuary 1, 2014 

Houston and Peach counties experienced their share of big news stories over the past 12 months. From furloughs and cost-cutting initiatives at Robins Air Force Base to a new hospital opening in Peach County to The Westfield School winning its first football championship, The Sun News counts down the top 10 stories of 2013.

Stories were voted on by The Telegraph and Sun News’ Houston County newsroom staff.

1. Sequestration, furloughs take toll at Robins Air Force Base

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 were actually 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.

As if that weren’t enough, 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

2. 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 Monday.

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

3. Warner Robins man free after 29 years behind bars

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 for both the prosecution and defense.

-- Becky Purser

4. Long-awaited Warner Robins LEC opens

In April, Warner Robins officials cut the ribbon on the city’s new Law Enforcement Center. The $10 million project was about a decade in the making, with funding included in the 2006 and 2012 special purpose local option sales taxes. After several location changes, officials ultimately settled on a spot at the corner of Watson and Armed Forces boulevards.

Among the highlights of the new 40,523-square-foot building is a forensics lab. After it receives accreditation, Warner Robins will be one of the first -- if not the first -- city police department in the state to operate its own forensics lab, according to police Capt. John Lanneau.

But it’s not just what’s on the inside of the building that matters. Officials see the stately brick building as part of the revitalization of a blighted part of town. There have been talks about creating façade standards that would mirror the aesthetics of the police headquarters to help improve the east entrance to the city.

-- Jennifer Burk

5. Double homicide in Houston County

Two men were shot execution-style and their bodies dumped in a secluded wooded area in the summer of 2013.

The Aug. 18 slaying of Shaland D. McConnell, 30, and Ruben Guillermo Miranda, 32, of the San Francisco Bay area, was allegedly over drug money.

Coleman Lawrence Crouch, 21, of Warner Robins, Thomas Andrew Kelley, 20, of Byron, and Justice Bernard Evans, 20, of Macon, are in the Houston County jail awaiting trial on charges of malice murder, felony murder, aggravated battery, concealing the death of another and tampering with evidence.

Crouch and Evans pleaded not guilty at their Dec. 13 arraignments. Kelley’s arraignment was continued.

Authorities say McConnell and Miranda were shot in the head at the Chadwick Road home that Crouch rented, their bodies placed in a yellow pickup truck and dumped in Vinson Valley off U.S. 41.

Two others, Amy Patricia Walker of Macon and Kristen Beuthin of Loganville, are charged with concealing the death of another and tampering with evidence. Walker and Beuthin are free on a $10,000 bond each. As of Dec. 23, the charges against them had not been brought before a grand jury for possible indictment.

-- Becky Purser

6. New hospital opens in Peach County

Health care in Peach County took a big step forward in 2013 with the July opening of The Medical Center of Peach County, a project that was more than 10 years in the making. The $27 million facility, located on the Ga. 247 connector near John E. Sullivan Road, is 15,000 square feet larger than the old Peach Regional Medical Center and provides more services to patients.

The hospital has new, state-of-the-art medical equipment such as a 64-slice CT machine. Other features include 25 private patient rooms, four of which have intensive care unit capabilities; a helipad for emergencies to and from the hospital; and an operating room with brand new equipment. There are also plans to expand outside the medical center.

The new medical center and its features came about through a partnership between the Peach County hospital and Central Georgia Health System, which provided the capital to make the new hospital a reality.

-- Staff report

7. Veterans training center to open in Warner Robins

Even though it is scheduled to open in 2015, last year marked the announcement of a big project geared toward helping veterans and active military members.

The Georgia Military and Veterans Education and Training Support Center will offer college courses, workforce training and job advice to veterans and active military. The state has set aside $10 million for the project, which is a collaboration among the Technical College System of Georgia, the University System of Georgia and the city of Warner Robins, which donated the land. The property previously was slated for a sports complex.

The facility, also called the Gateway Center, will sit near Robins Air Force Base and Huntington Middle School in Warner Robins. Tuition will be the same as technical college and university system fees, officials said.

Education and political officials envision a one-stop shop for military families. The idea is to help veterans and military members, who often face difficulties when transferring to the civilian workforce.

-- Jenna Mink

8. Fort Valley State University gets new president

In July, Fort Valley State University entered a new era as Ivelaw Griffith took the helm as president. Griffith, former provost of York College of The City University of New York, replaced former President Larry Rivers, who stepped down in June.

While Fort Valley State has progressed over the past few years, it also has faced its share of obstacles, and Griffith took the position in the midst of challenges. Among those hurdles are declining enrollment and graduation rates. Griffith is implementing a plan to tackle those problems, he says.

Part of his plan involves tweaking the university’s recruitment strategies and reaching out to more international students.

Not only will those students bring in more tuition dollars, they will also introduce current students to other cultures.

Additionally, Griffith plans to build an honors program and boost the university’s research programs, offering research opportunities to students beginning their freshman year.

-- Jenna Mink

9. Westfield School wins first football title

Westfield entered the 2013-14 school year as the only major GISA athletics program without a football championship. The Hornets came close plenty of times before. They played in the football championship game seven times before the 2013 season, four times under the watch of head coach Ronnie Jones, who came to Perry in 1993.

The long championship drought came to an end on Nov. 30 when the Hornets came from 17 points behind to beat Stratford Academy 34-31 at Mercer University.

The championship capped a magical season that included the first region championship since 2003 and a rare win over rival Deerfield-Windsor.

The Hornets went 12-1, equaling the school record for single-season wins that Jones’ teams accomplished in 1995 and 2002. After losing to Tattnall Square to open the season, the Hornets won the next 12 on the way to the championship, including a one-point win over Stratford in the regular season, an overtime win over Deerfield and a three-point win over Southland in the playoffs.

The championship run included wins over Mount de Sales and Stratford, two of the three GISA heavyweights leaving for the GHSA in 2014.

-- Jonathan Heeter

10. Robins union incumbents ousted

Union members at Robins Air Force Base ousted all of the incumbent officers in favor of a slate of opposition candidates promising more engagement with workers to identify problems and a change of approach in how it deals with management. However, the results of the election were questioned after a protest was filed and an investigation determined that completed ballots were found in the trash. That led to regional union leaders calling for a new election, but that decision is under appeal.

Earlier in the year, retired Maj. Gen. Robert McMahon said the high number of grievances filed at Robins would be a factor if base closures were considered.

He blamed both the union and management for the problem and recently said grievances were down 40 percent since new union leaders took office.

-- Wayne Crenshaw

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