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These are the top 10 news stories in Middle Georgia in 2017

Accused killer of Tara Grinstead arrives in court

Ryan Duke, the accused killer of Tara Grinstead, arrives at the Irwin County Courthouse on Feb. 23, 2017. The GBI announced his arrest in an earlier news conference.
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Ryan Duke, the accused killer of Tara Grinstead, arrives at the Irwin County Courthouse on Feb. 23, 2017. The GBI announced his arrest in an earlier news conference.

It was a big year for news in Middle Georgia. From arrests made in a decade-old cold case to the death of Gregg Allman and a hurricane, there was no shortage of information to fill your news feed. Here, The Telegraph staff takes a look back at the stories that shaped us in 2017.

1. Arrest in Tara Grinstead case comes more than a decade after she vanished

Two men are facing trial more than a decade after the disappearance of Irwin County High School teacher and former beauty queen Tara Grinstead from her Ocilla home.

On Feb. 23, the GBI announced the arrest of Ryan Duke, who is accused of killing Grinstead during a burglary of her home. His high school friend, Bo Dukes is accused of helping burn the body and bury it in a pecan orchard.

Duke
Ryan Duke

Bo Dukes
Bo Dukes

A few days after Duke’s arrest, Irwin Superior Court Judge Melanie B. Cross issued a gag order that was later modified after challenges from media outlets, including the Telegraph. The Georgia Supreme Court heard oral arguments on the challenged modified gag order in October. A ruling is pending.

On Saturday, Oct. 22, 2005, the last day Grinstead was known to have been seen alive, she had helped out at a beauty pageant and later went to a cookout.

When she didn’t show up for work the following Monday, she was reported missing. Her purse and keys were gone. Her dog and cat were in the house, and her unlocked car was parked outside.

The GBI got a tip that led to Duke’s arrest. Dukes was arrested later.

— Becky Purser

2. Bibb County's chief industry recruiter indicted in corruption probe

Multi-pronged criminal and civil cases built in the wake of former Bibb County schools Superintendent Romain Dallemand’s scandal-ridden tenure and departure implicated the county’s top recruiter of industry.

Cliffard Whitby resigned his post as chairman of the Macon-Bibb County Industrial Authority in mid-August after he was federally indicted and arrested in a public corruption probe.

Cliffard Whitby.jpg
Cliffard Whitby Woody Marshall wmarshall@macon.com

Whitby, 54, was charged with conspiracy to pay a bribe to an agent of an organization receiving federal funds, conspiracy to launder the proceeds of unlawful activity, and five counts of paying a bribe to an agent of an organization receiving federal funds, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office.

The alleged dealings are linked to a massive civil suit against numerous people and companies as the school system tried to recoup nearly $9 million in what it contends were fraudulent technology dealings.

The criminal accusation against Whitby, in essence, says he paid off a public official in exchange for the financial gain of his business ventures, which include a construction firm.

Whitby, of Forsyth, has pleaded not guilty to the charges and is free on bond.

“He has done so many things to benefit this community,” Whitby’s attorney Nicholas A. Lotito told The Telegraph in August. “I’m just very disappointed that these charges were even brought. ... In the end, I expect him to be vindicated. ... There’s no bribery.”

— Joe Kovac Jr.

3. Manhunt for escaped prisoners accused of killing guards spans the Southeast

Georgia Department of Corrections Sgts. Chris Monica and Curtis Billue were shot to death with their own service weapons June 13 while taking 33 inmates from Baldwin State Prison to the prison in Jackson.

The accused killers, Ricky Dubose and Donnie Rowe, were former cell mates. The pair escaped the bus and eluded authorities for almost three days before a nationwide manhunt ended in Shelbyville, Tennessee, where they had taken hostage an elderly couple.

An investigation by the state concluded human error and several security breaches contributed to the tragedy.

Sheriff Michael Fitzhugh describes the moments leading up to the capture of two Georgia inmates who killed two prison guards. The men were caught on Thursday evening in the rural community of Christiana, Tennessee, ending a three-day manhunt. They

— Laura Corley

4. Gregg Allman dies and thousands of fans flock to Macon

Gregg Allman, a Southern rock icon and former Macon resident, died May 27 and was buried at Rose Hill Cemetery in a lot next to his brother, Duane.

The two were founding members of the Allman Brothers Band, which rose to fame while the group lived in a home on Vineville Avenue, preserved as a museum today.

Drummer Butch Trucks, who was also a founding member of the band, died in January.

Macon and the museum became a mecca for Allman Brothers fans after Gregg Allman's death. About 200 people from around the country came to Macon for his private funeral. Those attending included his ex-wife Cher and former President Jimmy Carter. Hundreds of fans lined the streets for the procession to the cemetery and sat along the hillsides to watch the burial.

Duane Allman died in Macon in 1971 in a motorcycle accident. Berry Oakley, bassist for the band, also died in a motorcycle accident a year later and is buried next to Duane Allman.

Nearly 1,500 people fill Rose Hill Cemetery on Saturday to pay final respects to Macon's beloved Gregg Allman.

— Wayne Crenshaw

5. Toxic drugs circulate in Middle Georgia

A toxic street drug caused a scare across Middle Georgia and other parts of the state in early June. The drug was believed to have contributed to more than 30 overdoses here and as many as five deaths.

The counterfeit pills were being sold as Percocet and contained cyclopropyl fentanyl and U-47700, which is almost eight times stronger than morphine. GBI authorities said at the time that cyclopropyl fentanyl was “a brand-new fentanyl analogue that Georgia has never seen.” Cities that reported overdoses included Macon, Warner Robins, Centerville, Perry and Albany.

Doctors and law enforcement officials warned the public about the lethal substance and urged those displaying symptoms to seek immediate medical attention. Victims experienced difficulty breathing and slurred speech soon after taking the drug, and some suffered respiratory failure and unconsciousness. Many patients had to be placed on ventilators and required large doses of a medicine called naloxone, sold under the brand name Narcan, to reverse the drug’s effects.

GBI spokeswoman Nelly Miles said Cyclopropyl fentanyl is a brand new Fentanyl analogue that hasn't ever been seen in Georgia before the recent clusters of overdoses in the midstate. It has been reported in a couple other states, though.

— Andrea Honaker

6. Tornadoes, Irma rip through midstate

Just three weeks into 2017, people took cover as 41 tornadoes tore through Georgia including more than a dozen twisters hitting the midstate.

The record-setting, two-day outbreak began Jan. 21 when an EF-2 tornado ripped HVAC units off the Warner Robins Walmart and additional twisters touched down in Peach, Monroe, Baldwin, Putnam, Upson, Wilkinson, Johnson and Wilcox counties through Jan. 22.

Another three dozen tornadoes hit Georgia April 3, including one that wrecked dozens of homes in Monroe County.

On Sept. 11, punishing winds battered Georgia for several hours as massive Tropical Storm Irma covered the state.

Thousands of trees snapped, leaving 1.5 million customers without electricity.

Macon clocked a wind gust of 61 mph as the storm moved through.

Dozens of trees crashed down across Bibb County with major damage reported in Ingleside, Shirley Hills and Bloomfield neighborhoods.

Tropical Storm Irma pummeled the historic Shirley Hills neighborhood of northeast Macon, shocking a neighbor who grew up in Florida. Dozens of tall trees and pines crashed through power lines and snapped poles Sept. 11, 2017.

— Liz Fabian

7. Amazon announces it will build a fulfillment center in Macon

One of the most recognized names in retail — Amazon.com — is coming to south Bibb County.

Officially announced at the end of October, the Seattle-based e-commerce company is building a 1-million-square-foot warehouse and distribution center, which it calls a fulfillment center, on Sardis Church Road at Skipper Road, just off Interstate 75.

The Telegraph first reported in September it appeared Amazon was coming to the site based on similarities with other fulfillment centers being built around the country. The company expects the mammoth facility would employ more than 500 full-time people with up to 1,000 during peak season. Construction is under way, and it is expected to be in operation in late 2018.

“These are good paying jobs, and they come with great benefits,” Macon-Bibb County Industrial Authority Chairman Robby Fountain said at the Oct. 31 meeting.

— Linda S. Morris

Amazon.com plans to build a 1 million-square-foot fulfillment center in Macon. It is expected to employ more than 500 full-time workers and up to 1,000 during peak season.

8. Construction of Interstate 16/75 interchange expansion begins

After decades of discussion, planning and some setbacks, the most ambitious transportation project in Macon for a long time officially kicked off.

Construction on the Georgia Department of Transportation’s Interstate 16/75 interchange project started this summer. At a groundbreaking, officials said the project would be well worth the wait.

The $500 million-plus project is designed to ease congestion and improve safety. Phase One will cover about 1.5 miles of I-16 eastbound between I-75 and Coliseum Drive as well as a stretch of I-75 near the Pleasant Hill neighborhood.

Macon-Bibb Mayor Robert Reichert thanks many, calls interstate highway project long in the works extraordiary for the park that will run underneath.

— Stanley Dunlap

9. Dale Walker resigns during pension investigation

Macon-Bibb County Manager Dale Walker resigned in April in the midst of a federal investigation revolving around the county’s pension plans.

Dale Walker 2 (2)
Dale Walker, center, is seen during a 2011 budget presentation before the Macon City Council. Beau Cabell bcabell@macon.com

A deep dive into emails between Walker and a consultant with the firm he recommended to manage $400 million in pension funds appeared to reveal he manipulated the bidding process.

County Commissioners Larry Schlesinger and Gary Bechtel had questioned Walker’s motives prior to the Securities and Exchange Commission investigation, saying there were signs along the way that the process may have been rigged.

The fallout continues with the county yet to appoint a permanent county manager since Walker’s departure.

Macon-Bibb spokesman Chris Floore said Wednesday that the county cannot discuss the latest in the SEC investigation.

— Stanley Dunlap

10. Man convicted of killing Monroe sheriff's deputy

Upson County jurors took only a half hour to deliberate before finding Christopher Keith Calmer guilty of murder in the 2014 fatal shooting of Monroe County sheriff’s deputy Michael Norris.

Calmer, 49, was sentenced to life with no chance of parole after the trial that lasted more than a week.

Norris, 24, was killed Sept. 13, 2014, when he and Deputy Jeff Wilson responded to a 911 call from Calmer’s uncle, who was seeking help because Calmer was suicidal.

Calmer also was found guilty of two counts of aggravated assault on a peace officer, two counts of possession of a firearm during the commission of a felony, and single counts of aggravated battery and criminal attempt to commit murder.

Gabrielle Pittman pleaded with jurors during her closing argument in the sentencing phase of the trial for Christopher Keith Calmer, the man found guilty of fatally shooting Monroe County Sheriff's Office deputy Michael Norris in 2014. Pittman sho

— Laura Corley

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