With 2011 now in the history books, The Telegraph looks back at the top news stories of the year. They are the stories that captivated us and helped define the year that was.
It was a year that saw violent storms across parts of Middle Georgia, the Georgia Music Hall of Fame’s swan song, the announcement of hundreds of job losses at Robins Air Force Base and the tragic death of a longtime state senator from Macon.
Bibb County voters agreed to a $190 million sales tax. A historic property set for renovation burned in a massive fire. And the gruesome death of a young law-school graduate and the subsequent arrest of her next-door neighbor set Macon on edge early last summer.
Voted on by The Telegraph’s reporters and editors, this year’s list includes 11 stories because of a tie for the 10th spot.
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1. Mercer law graduate Lauren Giddings slain
On the last morning in June, a Macon policeman searching for clues in the apparent disappearance of a Mercer University law school graduate made a gruesome find: a portion of the missing graduate’s remains.
Her torso, stuffed in plastic trash bags, had been dumped in a garbage can outside her downtown Macon apartment, across the street from the law school campus atop Coleman Hill in one of the most storied and picturesque parts of the city.
Six months later, the mystery surrounding 27-year-old Lauren Giddings’ slaying still looms. Investigators, if they even know, haven’t said how she died, and the baffling, distressing circumstances of the case have captivated locals like no killing in recent memory. Strangers have been so moved by her death that they’ve sent sympathy cards and gifts to Giddings’ family in her native Maryland.
“I know this has rocked your community as a whole,” her sister, Kaitlyn Wheeler, said recently. “Even people that didn’t know her, no one wants that kind of thing going on in their backyard.”
Mounting circumstantial claims against Giddings’ suspected killer -- her next-door neighbor and law school classmate, Stephen McDaniel, who grew up just east of Atlanta -- have led prosecutors to seek the death penalty.
McDaniel, 26, was interrogated and jailed on unrelated charges hours after Giddings’ remains were found. A month later, in early August, he was charged with her murder. Police say that, among other evidence, they have linked McDaniel to a hacksaw with traces of Giddings’ blood on it.
McDaniel’s lawyer and mother have professed his innocence.
-- Joe Kovac Jr.
2. Georgia Music Hall of Fame closes
The Georgia Music Hall of Fame closed its doors after 17 years in Macon after its board failed to award the rights to the museum to any of the four cities bidding for the facility. A coalition of Macon entities that attempted to keep the museum downtown failed to convince the board that its plan to keep the building open had long-term financial viability.
Closing the music hall ended a long story, with controversy ranging from where the museum should have been located to whether the hall of fame should have benefited from the annual induction ceremony put on by Friends of Georgia Music.
The items in the museum’s possession were either returned to those who donated them, or sent to be stored at the libraries of the University of Georgia, Georgia State University and the University of West Georgia.
-- Phillip Ramati
3. Robins Air Force Base restructures
On Nov. 2, the Air Force Materiel Command made an announcement that would significantly impact Robins Air Force Base, as well as the other two maintenance depots in Oklahoma and Utah.
Due to a reorganization and cost-cutting measures, 600 jobs are being eliminated at Robins. Many of those include the command staff of the Warner Robins Air Logistics Center. The center is being eliminated, and maintenance operations will report to a new centralized command at Tinker Air Force Base in Oklahoma City to be headed by a three-star general. The 402nd Maintenance Wing will become the Warner Robins Air Logistics Complex headed by a one-star general.
The same changes will take place at Tinker and at Hill Air Force Base in Utah, with the only difference being that Tinker will host the central command.
Earlier in the year, the Air Force had announced a civilian hiring freeze, which was lifted in December.
As of the end of the year, 230 employees at Robins had accepted buyout offers. This month another round of offers will go out as the base moves toward eliminating 600 positions.
-- Wayne Crenshaw
4. Bibb schools get new superintendent
Bibb County school Superintendent Romain Dallemand arrived in February after serving as the leader of Rochester public schools in Minnesota. He wasted no time reaching out to school leaders, staff and the community.
On arrival, Dallemand began visiting the system’s schools and held several public forums to hear concerns from the community. Just one month into his time in Bibb, Dallemand also announced a plan to cut 16 central office positions and add six new ones. According to the superintendent, the plan would cut $1 million that would be shifted toward student achievement.
In the fall, Dallemand led more than 4,000 school employees and community members in a series of systemwide sessions aimed at developing a plan to boost student achievement. The plan, which has been dubbed the “Macon Miracle,” is expected to be announced early in 2012.
Recently, Dallemand has also discussed ideas with community leaders that would bring about big changes to the system, including the possibility of year-round school and teaching students Mandarin Chinese. In December, though, Dallemand announced year-round school in Bibb County is on hold for the 2012-13 school year.
-- Andrea Castillo
5. Bibb County voters approve $190 million SPLOST
In 2010, three-fifths of Bibb County voters soundly defeated a special purpose local option sales tax referendum.
Just a year later, it was a completely different story. Macon and Bibb County leaders unanimously supported a SPLOST project list and ultimately gained the support of three quarters of the vote in the November referendum. The SPLOST will run for six years and $190 million, and it will pay off most of the city and county debt, bring major infrastructure fixes and help protect Robins Air Force Base’s future.
Some voters worried defeat of the SPLOST would mean an increase in property taxes. Public debate centered on some of the smallest projects, particularly an unusual funding mechanism to help finish a Tubman African American Museum building for $2.5 million, and $3 million to replace the city-county animal shelter in Macon.
Passage of the SPLOST also cemented an agreement between the city and county, shifting five departments including recreation to the county’s control in July 2012.
-- Mike Stucka
6. Former state Sen. Robert Brown commits suicide
In his years as a Georgia state senator, Robert Brown was widely considered to be a wily vote counter. Brown left the Senate to run for Macon mayor, but he managed just 9 percent of the vote in the July primary. Another of Brown’s political allies, former state Rep. David Lucas, was defeated in his bid for Brown’s former Senate seat.
Then, Brown was found dead in his home Dec. 8. His friends said later that Brown had been diagnosed with terminal cancer, had financial troubles and missed the activity of public life.
Brown was remembered in a standing-room-only, 500-person funeral at Macon’s Greater Zion Hill Baptist Church. The Rev. Joseph Lowery, a well-known civil rights leader, said people should remember Brown’s fight to address inequalities.
“Thank you, Robert, for what you gave us with intensity, integrity and intelligence,” Lowery said.
-- Mike Stucka
7. Robert Reichert re-elected Macon mayor
Macon Mayor Robert Reichert had a long, rough ride into the second four-year term of an office he won fairly easily the first time around.
In 2007 Reichert won the Democratic primary outright with 63 percent of the vote. This time he faced three opponents, including state Sen. Robert Brown and two-term former Mayor C. Jack Ellis. Political novice and local firefighter Paul Bronson rounded out the ballot.
Bronson and Brown were eliminated in the July 19 primary, but Reichert’s margin of victory was a few hundred votes short of the 50 percent mark. That was slim enough to set up a runoff with Ellis, who took 38 percent of the primary vote.
Ellis and Reichert scrambled to hold what votes they had and drum up new support before the Aug. 16 runoff. Ellis greatly increased his percentage over the next month. Reichert worked hard too, and held a fundraising advantage over Ellis of nearly three to one.
Just over 20,000 people voted in the runoff, 3,000 more than in the primary. In the end, Reichert won by just 537 votes.
After that, the general election was easy: Reichert still got more than 10,000 votes in the Nov. 8 balloting, almost as many as in the runoff, overwhelming his independent challenger David Cousino, who pulled just 214 write-in votes.
-- Jim Gaines
8. String of tornadoes devastate parts of midstate
Spring was just days old when the first tornado of the season blew through Laurens County, knocking tree trunks into houses and smacking the small community of Brewton. But it was far from the last.
On April 5, a wave of thunderstorms spawned deadly tornadoes that killed three people across Middle Georgia -- a Dodge County man in his mobile home and a father and his 4-year-old son in their Jackson home when a tree crashed through the roof. The storm killed four others across the state.
In Bibb County, homes were blown off their foundations and others were pummeled by tree parts, blown apart by 105 mph winds.
On April 16, a twister blasted through north Macon just before daybreak, hitting homes in the area of Forest Hill Road, including Ousley Place and Normandy Road, as well as neighborhoods in the Wesleyan Woods area.
“We’ve got trees in ’em, on ’em and through ’em,” said Don Druitt, director of the Macon-Bibb County Emergency Management Agency.
But there was more.
On April 28, a middle-of-the-night tornado walloped scores of houses and killed a Lamar County husband and wife, leaving a little girl they’d adopted with no parents. The fury, part of the system that killed more than 300 people in seven states, erased parts of a neighborhood in Barnesville, hopped over the interstate and descended onto Monroe County, where at least 50 homes were wrecked by winds estimated at 140 mph.
-- Oby Brown
9. Atlantic Cotton Mill fire ends development plans
A $13.5 million plan to revitalize the old Atlantic Cotton Mill property into residential loft apartments went up in smoke March 24 when fire destroyed the 122-year-old property.
Although early indications pointed to the possibility that the fire was accidentally ignited by a spark created by workers removing metal from the property, fire investigators later said other people were at the site and the cause for the blaze may never be known.
The property, located behind the Kroger grocery store on Pio Nono Avenue, was owned by Mercer University and was in the process of being prepared for transfer to a North Carolina developer at the time of the fire.
Residents living near the mill were evacuated for several hours as firefighters worked to keep the flames from spreading to nearby apartment complexes.
Apartments adjacent to the mill were damaged by heat from the blaze, scorching roofs and melting windows, blinds and siding.
Some of the first firefighters who arrived went into one of the mill buildings in an attempt to fight the fire, but they were forced out before the roof collapsed.
The complex had been reduced to smoldering rubble by the following day.
-- Amy Leigh Womack
(tie) 10. Video prank leads to punishments for firefighters
A Macon-Bibb County Fire Department hazing prank caught on video and posted online in mid-September resulted in the punishment of eight firefighters.
The video depicts a masked man with a gun entering the fire station on Peake Road and threatening firefighters.
One firefighter was fired, and two others were demoted. Five were suspended for varying amounts of time without pay. Supervisors not involved in the hoax received lesser punishment.
A hearing was held Dec. 14 for terminated firefighter Christopher Hughes and Joshua Brewer, a fire sergeant who was demoted and suspended for 10 days. Both men appealed their discipline to an administrative law judge. A decision is anticipated this month.
Similar hearings for then-Capt. Stephanie Burke, who allegedly helped plan the prank, and firefighter Jessie White are scheduled to be held in January.
Burke initially was suspended for five days, but her discipline was amended to include a demotion to the rank of lieutenant and a two month-suspension after additional information surfaced about her alleged involvement. White was suspended for 10 days without pay.
-- Amy Leigh Womack
Late summer brings spate of youth violence
For a span of two weeks during August, Macon was gripped in a wave of youth-related violence that prompted community meetings and an attempt by police to add more officers dedicated to youth intervention.
In August, two Westside High School students were shot while waiting for the bus. Less than a week later, 16-year-old Arquentious Fountain was shot to death, and two other teens were wounded, at a shooting outside a birthday party at a club on Eisenhower Parkway.
A couple of weeks later, eight people were shot in the span of a few hours. None of the victims died, but police said the shootings were related to a celebration of the anniversary of the founding the Crips gang in Macon.
Police Chief Mike Burns presented a plan to the city that would have added six new officers who would focus on youth violence and gun trafficking in Macon, but Macon City Council’s Public Safety Committee didn’t approve the plan.
-- Phillip Ramati