The top stories for Hinesville, Fort Stewart and the surrounding areas in 2012 offered reasons to celebrate, question and recall aspects of the community in which we live.
In the first of a multi-part series, we examine the biggest stories.
President, first lady visit Stewart — President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama appeared April 27 on Fort Stewart, where the president signed an executive order cracking down on the predatory practices of for-profit education institutions. But the speaker was larger than his message for many of the 10,000 soldiers, families and veterans who attended. Several in the audience wore clothing with Obama’s likeness and waved banners of support, while others declined to comment rather than speak against the president. The commander-in-chief also spoke in private with local dignitaries, such as Hinesville Mayor Jim Thomas and Liberty County Commission Chairman John McIver.
Murder investigation reveals soldier-based militia — Court proceedings of four soldiers arrested in the December 2011 slayings of Midway teen Tiffany York and former soldier Michael Roark became a national spectacle in August, when prosecutors alleged the suspects were part of a militia plotting against the U.S. government.
When Pvt. Michael Burnett pleaded guilty Aug. 27 to two counts of voluntary manslaughter, his testimony included the militia allegations. Burnett said that he and Pvt. Isaac Aguigui — identified by prosecutors as the militia’s founder and leader — Sgt. Anthony Peden and Pvt. Christopher Salmon were part of a group called FEAR, Forever Enduring Always Ready. Salmon’s wife, Heather Salmon, also was charged in connection.
Burnett testified that Aguigui ordered the killings of Roark and York on suspicion that Roark had betrayed the group.
“A loose end is the way Isaac put it,” Burnett said.
Prosecutor Isabel Pauley said the group plotted to take over Fort Stewart, bomb the Forsyth Park fountain in Savannah and bomb a Washington state dam and poison that state’s apple crop. The ultimate goal was to overthrow the government and assassinate the president, prosecutors said.
A grand jury in September indicted five more suspects for involvement with the group: former Pfc. Christopher Jenderseck, Adam Brady Dearman, Timothy Martin Joiner, Randall Blake Dearman and Anthony Garner.
In October, Jenderseck pleaded guilty to tampering with evidence to help cover up the killings. An 11th person, Jeffrey Wayne Roberts Jr. of Savannah, was charged in connection with the group, with prosecutors alleging he handled drugs for the group between Oct. 1 and Nov. 30 last year.
Long County sheriff passes away at 76 — Long County Sheriff Cecil Nobles died Jan. 9 at Wayne County Hospital in Jesup. Nobles, 76, who had been undergoing cancer treatment when he died, was Georgia’s longest-serving sheriff. In that post, he was recognized countless times, including in 2001, when Highway 301 in Long County was named Cecil Nobles Highway.
Long County Probate Judge Marie Middleton appointed the late sheriff’s son, Craig Nobles, to serve as interim sheriff. In November, Craig Nobles was elected to his own term, which will begin in January.
Liberty College & Career Academy opens — After years of wrangling and fund-seeking, the Liberty College & Career Academy opened in August. The $9.6 million, 50,000-square-foot facility has a capacity to serve 700 students per year over two blocks each day. The academy, a public charter school open to Liberty students in 10-12th grades, offers up to 15 career pathways and also requires workplace ethics seminars.
New races after Long district lines thrown out — Long County had a year of political controversy and contests, and much of it still is ongoing. In October, the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Georgia told the Long County Board of Education and the county commission that another election will be required because district lines drawn after the 2010 Census were in violation of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. While the move does not affect countywide races such as the sheriff’s contest in which Craig Nobles was elected, another election will be required for district races on both boards. At least five seats contested in July will be affected — including four races in which incumbents initially were defeated. In early November, a judge signed a ruling establishing new district lines that altered all five districts and affected several candidates. The earliest a new election could take place is March 19.
Residents sue Ludowici council over vacancies — A judicial finding has yet to be rendered in a writ of mandamus filed by Ludowici residents seeking to force elections in the 3rd and 4th city council districts. Residents Janis Goode and Price Chapman Jr. in August filed legal action, claiming that the seats had been vacant too long. Seat 3 has been vacant since May, while seat 4 has been vacant since September. Goode asserted that Mayor James Fuller was using the vacancies to increase his sway. Fuller, however, said he was acting on recommendation from the board of elections to wait until the district lines were finalized before calling an election.
Parents petition Liberty BoE after visitor policy — Many Liberty County parents were outraged to find on the first day of school for the 2012-2013 year that they were no longer allowed to walk their children to class due to a visitor policy that requires advance appointments for classroom visits. More than 500 people signed a Change.org petition written by Joseph Martin Elementary parent Kristina Barnard. In a statement three days the after board’s August meeting, the board affirmed its stance.
T-SPLOST voted down in region, passes in Liberty — Many say that T-SPLOST, a 1-percent regional sales tax to fund transportation projects, was the most contentious item on the July 31 primary ballot. And it failed in nine out of 12 regions statewide, including the Coastal Region encompassing Liberty and Long counties. The measure did carry in Liberty County, garnering 50.95 percent of yes votes — but the tax required a regional majority to pass.
The result? Transportation experts were left to wonder.
“Throughout the process, GDoT has always said, ‘There is no plan B,’” Liberty Consolidated Planning Commission Planning Director Rachel Hatcher said. “Well, plan A failed, so is there no plan? We don’t know.”
In a recent Courier column, state Sen. Buddy Carter suggested the issue will be prevalent in the 2013 General Assembly session that begins in January.