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End of year brings Ludowici investigation, big meth bust

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POSTED: December 30, 2011 7:30 a.m.

In the final of our four-part retrospective, the Courier recalls the top headlines from October through the end of 2011. 

October through December

• Oct. 2: During a routine traffic stop on Interstate 95, Liberty County Sheriff’s Office deputies uncovered 17.9 pounds of crystal meth worth an estimated $5 million. The driver, Francisco Nery, and female passenger Maria Diego were arrested and charged with trafficking a controlled substance.
• Oct. 2: The Georgia Bureau of Investigation began investigating the city of Ludowici for “serious allegations” brought forth by resident Janis Goode. Goode alleged that Mayor Myrtice Warren was paid illegally, the city’s revenues and expenditures do not balance and have a discrepancy of about $11,000, and that the city allowed some residents to have free water service.
• Oct. 14: During a candidate forum sponsored by the Liberty County
Chamber of Commerce and the Liberty County Branch of the NAACP, District 5 candidate John Spradley made a show-stopping assertion: The city’s new district boundaries were not the ones recognized by the state or the U.S. Department of Justice, which would make the election results easily contestable.
In a called meeting held two days later, other council and mayoral candidates voiced their frustration at what they called lack of information and inconsistent messages from the city. City attorney Linnie Darden said he was working with the Department of Justice to secure the necessary letter of preclearance that would validate the boundary lines, but Spradley insisted a representative from the Secretary of State’s office said there would not be enough lag time between preclearance and early voting for the state to change voters’ districts from the old to the new. The city received preclearance on Monday, Oct. 17, the same day that early voting began. Due to the short notice, voters whose districts had changed were notified at the polls, rather than receiving new voter registration cards.
•    Oct. 23: On the same day President Barack Obama announced that stalled negotiations about the United States’ continued role in Iraq led to the end of the war, Fort Stewart announced that a scheduled Iraq deployment for its Headquarters and Headquarters Battalion would no longer happen. “They’ve done some incredibly heavy lifting on behalf of our country,” Maj. Gen. Robert “Abe” Abrams said as he thanked current soldiers for their service during a ceremony to honor retirees.
•    Oct. 28: Longtime Ludowici City Councilman A.A. “Zip” Billings died Oct. 25 at age 91 from congestive heart failure. Billings, who lived in Ludowici most his life, had served on the council since 2000 and also had done previous terms before then.
•    Nov. 9: Despite contested races for most seats, Hinesville Mayor Jim Thomas and all city council incumbents held their seats during the 2011 municipal election on Nov. 8. Councilmen Kenneth Shaw, Keith Jenkins and Charles Frasier held their seats against opposition, while council members Jason Floyd and David Anderson were unopposed. At his victory celebration party, Thomas said he was grateful to have the trust of the citizens and that the council could move forward with its vision for the city.
•    Nov. 9: Conflict-of-interest obstacles complicated the Gum Branch municipal election, where city clerk Evelyn Strickland planned to oversee the election in which her husband, incumbent mayor Richard Strickland, was seeking reelection. The day before the election, Richard Strickland appointed resident Kenny Wells to act as election superintendent after city attorney Richard “Richie” Braun told Strickland that having his wife oversee the election would be a violation of Georgia code. Code also dictates that such an appointment be made at an open city council meeting, which did not happen. “If someone challenges the election, they would have legitimate grounds to do so,” Braun said. Despite the confusion, opponent Kathy Todd won the mayoral race.
•    Nov. 18: A Fort Stewart soldier and two Camden County men were arrested in connection with the slaying of Spc. James A. Willis, 25, member of the 2nd Heavy Brigade Combat Team, 3rd ID. Willis’ body was found Nov. 15 in Camden County, and Georgia Bureau of Investigation Special Agent Mike McDonald said he apparently died of a gunshot wound. Suspects Jeffrey Cole Eicher, 23, of Fort Stewart, Aaron James Paxton, 36, of St. Mary’s, and Timothy Dale Pennington, 39, of Kingsland, were all arrested and charged with murder.
•    Nov. 20: The United Way of Liberty County surpassed its campaign goal of $181,000, with a total of $185,026 raised before the last day of the drive. Liberty Branch director Jennifer Darsey said the accomplishment “means [the group] has more money to give away” and shows how generous the Liberty County community can be.
•    Nov. 25: The community came together with an outpouring of support for Liberty County High School alumnus Joe Watkins, 18, and his family after he was involved in a car wreck and airlifted to Shands Jacksonville Medical Center. About 130 friends and supporters attended a prayer vigil in his honor, while his father, Courier web editor Pat Watkins, updated the community on Joe’s condition by blog. Though Watkins succumbed to his injuries after a week-long fight on Nov. 26, hundreds turned out for a celebration of  his life at the LCHS baseball field, where Watkins was a standout player. Almost a month later, many of Watkins’ friends organized The Joe Watkins Memorial Flag Football Tournament in his honor. Sixteen teams participated to raise funds that will allow the family to establish a scholarship fund in Joe Watkins’ name.
•    Dec. 7: During an indictment hearing, the state announced it would seek the death penalty against a former Liberty County corrections officer arrested in connection with the Sept. 2010 slaying of Gum Branch resident Lori Arrowood. Kenneth Lumpkin, who plead not guilty during a March hearing, was indicted on counts of malice murder, felony murder, aggravated assault, kidnapping with bodily injury and contributing to the death of another in Long County, where Arrowood’s body was found, after new evidence in the case forced District Attorney Tom Durden and his team to re-evaluate where the case was filed.
•    Dec. 7: Two men fishing in Long County’s Morgan Lake reportedly found the bodies of a male and a female on Dec. 6. The two were later identified as Michael Roark, 20, and Tiffany York, 17. Roark had been discharged from the Army days earlier, and York was a Liberty County High School student.
    Days later, authorities arrested four Fort Stewart soldiers in connection with the slayings. Pvt. Christopher Salmon and Sgt. Anthony Peden both face malice murder charges, and Pvt. Isaac Aguigui and Pfc. Michael Burnett both have been charged with being a party to murder. The four men were denied bond. On Dec. 16, Atlanta Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives public information officer Richard Coes said his department was investigating a possible connection between all five men and firearms trafficking, and that a cache of weapons was found inside a house on Cordele Street in the Griffin Park subdivision. Liberty County property records indicate that Peden owns a home on the street. 
•    Dec. 16: The Courier debuted a cleaner, more visually appealing design, the first overhaul since 1995, according to publisher Mark Griffin.
•    Dec. 18: Despite a campaign by some members of the Harvey Overton Bradwell Booster club and members of the public to see Bradwell Institute football coach Jim Walsh resign after a 1-9 season, school principal Scott Carrier and LCSS superintendent Judy Scherer both said Walsh is here to stay. “We look at a broader picture probably than they’re going to look at in college or when they get into a professional level. We’re still looking at the whole child, and I’m looking for coaches who have a clear understanding of that,” Carrier said.

 

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