As the year draws to a close, The Telegraph reflects on the biggest stories of 2014.
From a double-murder mystery in Putnam County and the fatal shooting of a Monroe County deputy to a heated U.S. Senate race that involved members of two prominent midstate political families, the year brought stories of tragedy and triumph.
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Oh, and there was a college basketball game in March that electrified fans at Mercer University and in the larger community.
But it was the revelation of a spy video in the case of a slain Mercer law school graduate and the subsequent confession of her killer that captured the most votes of editors and reporters to become The Telegraph’s top story of 2014.
Here are the top 10 stories of the year.
1. MCDANIEL CONFESSES TO GIDDINGS SLAYING
After three years of police investigation and court hearings, Stephen Mark McDaniel pleaded guilty April 21 to killing and dismembering Lauren Giddings, his fellow Mercer University law school classmate who lived next door to him.
McDaniel, 29, was sentenced to life in prison with the possibility of parole.
Giddings, 27, was slain in the predawn hours of June 26, 2011, at Barristers Hall apartments, across Georgia Avenue from the law school where she and McDaniel graduated that May.
Giddings’ dismembered torso was discovered in a trash can outside the apartments June 30, 2011, after her friends reported her missing.
The FBI’s discovery of surveillance footage previously deleted from McDaniel’s camera prompted his guilty plea and one-page confession this past spring.
The chilling video shows the camera scaling the outside wall of the apartment building, duct-taped to the end of a 6-foot wooden stick. Several short videos were recorded, looking through half-drawn blinds of Giddings’ second-story living room, focusing mainly on how her front door was secured.
McDaniel, wearing a mask and gloves, later used a master key to creep into the apartment while Giddings slept in a rear bedroom, according to his confession.
He said he tussled with Giddings, strangled her and then placed her body in the bathtub in her apartment. McDaniel later returned with a hacksaw, dismembered her body and disposed of her limbs and head in the Mercer law school dumpster.
Despite multiple searches, the only remains recovered were those found by police in the apartment trash can.
— Joe Kovac Jr.
2. MONROE DEPUTY KILLED, ANOTHER WOUNDED
The Monroe County community rallied around two sheriff’s deputies this fall after one was killed and the other seriously injured in the line of duty.
Deputies Michael Norris and Jeff Wilson responded Sept. 13 to a Bolingbroke residence where Christopher Keith Calmer, a 46-year-old man, was reportedly threatening suicide.
But something happened when the deputies arrived, and the men exchanged gunfire. Norris was fatally shot in the head, and Wilson was injured by gunfire.
Norris’ death marked the first Monroe County deputy killed in the line of duty in the sheriff’s office’s nearly 200-year history.
In the wake of the shooting, residents and business owners displayed blue ribbons at home and work. School let out early one day to honor Norris, a 2008 Mary Persons High School graduate.
On Sept. 19, hundreds of locals lined the streets in Forsyth for Norris’ funeral procession, which included a horse-drawn caisson. More than 2,000 people attended the funeral. Wilson received a standing ovation.
Calmer, who was shot in the leg, has been charged with murder, attempted murder, aggravated assault and firearms charges.
— Jennifer Burk
3. MACON-BIBB COUNTY MERGER TAKES EFFECT
After decades of discussion and failed attempts, and 18 months after a 2012 referendum that gave consolidation the green light, Macon and Bibb County governments finally merged Jan. 1, 2014.
Mayor Robert Reichert and nine commissioners were sworn in the previous day to prevent even a momentary lapse in government. But that didn’t end the process of consolidation. Some former city and county departments operated side by side for a few months, with new department heads chosen at the start of April. A majority of department-head jobs went to former city staff.
Half of the city’s former property tax was dropped this year, with the other half promised for removal in next year’s budget. But that initial reduction, coupled with flat receipts from sales and property taxes, caused the new commission to wrestle with a tight budget in June.
As part of the consolidation charter, the budget is mandated to fall further over the next four years, but commissioners already are looking for a way around that.
— Jim Gaines
4. MERCER MADNESS FOLLOWS WIN AGAINST DUKE
The Mercer University men’s basketball team finished tied for the regular season A-Sun basketball championship, but the Bears had to beat perennial rival Florida Gulf Coast on the road in the A-Sun Tournament championship game to earn their first NCAA tournament trip since 1985.
With a team boosted by seven seniors, Mercer drew basketball royalty — the four-time national champion Duke Blue Devils — in the opening round in Raleigh, North Carolina, a mere 25 miles from Duke’s campus.
The Bears didn’t back down an inch, shocking Duke with a 78-71 win in front of a sizable student crowd that rode tour buses to North Carolina. An overflow crowd at Mercer Village in Macon cheered on.
The win, head coach Bob Hoffman’s emotional on-camera interview after the game and a now-famous post-game Nae Nae dance by senior Kevin Canevari catapulted the Bears into the national spotlight and brought worldwide attention to Macon.
The Bears’ magical run ended two days later in an 83-63 loss to Tennessee.
Hoffman received interest from other colleges, but he later signed a contract extension with Mercer. Canevari spent a day at ESPN and became a social media celebrity. And Mercer became a household name among college basketball fans.
— Jonathan Heeter
5. DALLEMAND/TOURAND DECERTIFIED
Romain Dallemand’s last day on the job as superintendent of the Bibb County public school system was Feb. 26, 2013, but his name continued to make news in 2014.
After allegations that Dallemand repeatedly violated school board policy by ordering more than $26 million in technology equipment and services without the required, prior approval of the school board, the school system conducted its own investigation of those purchases and forwarded its findings to the state’s Professional Standards Commission. The commission is Georgia’s educator regulatory agency.
In October, that agency voted to revoke the licenses of Dallemand and Tom Tourand, the district’s former technology director. (Dallemand did not formally appeal the loss of his certificate. Tourand, who has since retired, did.)
But the administrative moves may not be the last word in the case. Federal law enforcement agents have investigated the technology dealings, and state authorities are now looking at those cases.
Dallemand was sworn in as school superintendent in early 2011. Two years later, after heavy criticism of some of his initiatives and legal action against him, the school board bought out his contract for $350,000.
— Oby Brown
6. U.S. SENATE CANDIDATES WITH MIDSTATE TIES CLASH
The year was already half over before it became clear that a fight for a U.S. Senate would come down to two people with midstate ties.
Both Democratic nominee Michelle Nunn and Republican nominee David Perdue spent much of the months following their primary victories touting their ties to Middle Georgia’s soil — literally, as the case turned out, with campaign ads featuring family farms and saying their values were rooted in the midstate.
Nunn easily shrugged off several opponents to win three quarters of the vote in the Democratic primary, while Perdue had to fight a wide Republican field in a primary election before eking out a narrow win in a primary runoff election.
Polls in the weeks before the November election suggested Georgia could be a rare opportunity for Democrats to flip a red seat to a blue one, with help from shifting Georgia demographics. Perdue managed to avoid a runoff in the election by winning with 52.89 percent of the vote, despite facing both Nunn and a Libertarian candidate in the November election.
— Mike Stucka
7. PUTNAM COUNTY COUPLE FOUND SLAIN
The strange and still-unsolved slaying of an elderly Lake Oconee couple has puzzled investigators since the pair’s bodies were found nearly eight months ago.
Russell Dermond, 88, and his 87-year-old wife, Shirley, had been married 62 years. They retired to Putnam County to a 3,200-square-foot, $1 million home in a golf-course community about a dozen miles northeast of Eatonton.
The last anyone heard from them was on the first weekend in May. The following Tuesday, May 6, another neighbor, who was worried about not seeing the couple, went to their house in the Great Waters subdivision.
Russell Dermond was dead on the floor of the garage, his head severed and to this day still missing. His wife’s body wasn’t found until May 16, when fishermen spotted it in the lake about five miles by water from the couple’s home.
There were no apparent signs of a struggle or a break-in at the house, and there is no known motive.
— Joe Kovac Jr.
8. KUMHO TIRE DEAL FINALIZED
South Korea-based Kumho Tire reaffirmed in July it would begin construction of its long-awaited manufacturing plant in Macon.
Plans call for a 907,400-square-foot facility on 150 acres in the Sofkee Industrial Park that will employ about 450 people. It is slated to begin production in early 2016.
First announced in 2008, this will be the company’s first North American plant. Construction was delayed by the subsequent global financial crisis.
Production could begin at 3 million tires per year, with the potential for 10 million a year, Kumho Tire North America President Harry Choi has said.
The original announcement called for a $225 million factory, but in July, Kumho officials said the company would invest $413 million to $600 million in the facility.
Jobs are expected to pay an average of $45,000 annually and up, according to Macon officials.
A state grant helped prepare the site for development, and local property taxes will be phased in over 20 years for an estimated incentive of $17 million.
— Linda S. Morris
9. ROBINS AIRMEN DROWN IN JAPAN
Robins Air Force Base lost three airmen this year when waves from a typhoon swept them into the sea in Japan.
Senior Master Sgt. James Swartz, 51, Staff Sgt. Joshua Schoenhoff, 27, and Master Sgt. Daniel Paschal, 34, were on temporary duty at Kadena Air Base in Okinawa, Japan, when they were killed in the Oct. 5 typhoon. A fourth airman, whom authorities never publicly identified, also was swept to sea but survived.
The airmen, part of the Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System at Robins, were off-duty and sightseeing when the waves came in.
Two airmen reportedly had been walking ahead of the group when they were struck by a wave that swept them away. One of the airmen made it out of the water, but the other disappeared. Schoenhoff and another airman, likely Swartz, tried to come to his aid, according to Shirley Hills Baptist Church Pastor Andy Cook, who said he had spoken with a commander at Kadena Air Base.
The Air Force has released little information about the incident.
— Jennifer Burk
10. MARIJUANA BILL FAILS
Georgia failed to join the growing list of states that allow access to medical marijuana.
State Rep. Allen Peake, R-Macon, surprised the Legislature this year with a bill named for Monroe County 5-year-old Haleigh Cox, whose mother has taken her to Colorado for a liquid medicine made from cannabis that relieves the little girl’s severe seizures.
Peake’s bill would have shielded families like the Coxes from Georgia prosecution for possession of such medicine legally acquired in another state, allowing them to return home with their non-hallucinogenic liquid.
The idea won broad House and Senate support but died as collateral damage in the last-day brinkmanship of annual lawmaking in March.
Peake is returning with a new medical cannabis bill for the session that starts in January.
He cannot change the federal law that threatens anyone who grows or possesses anything to do with cannabis, but he will ask fellow legislators to loosen state law. The bill would allow in-state growing of certain cannabis varieties, only for turning it into medicine that does not cause a high.
— Maggie Lee