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Revisiting the top news stories of 2017

The new year is nearly here which means there will be plenty of looking toward the future and reflecting on the past. As is the annual tradition, The Moulton Advertiser is taking a look back at the top 10 most riveting and impactful news stories of 2017. The following are listed in chronological order rather than in order of importance.

1. Fike pleads not guilty to child’s murder – Jan. 12

A Moulton woman pleaded not guilty to murder and abuse charges in the death of her 2-year-old son in August 2014.

Chelsea Nichole Fike, 26, was indicted on alternate counts of reckless murder and felony murder, and two counts of aggravated child abuse of her son, Ian Calhoun. She faces an additional charge of aggravated child abuse of her 5-year-old daughter, authorities said.

Fike appeared with her attorney in the courtroom of Circuit Court Judge Mark Craig Thursday, Jan. 5, where she made her not guilty plea.

Fike’s former boyfriend, Evan Berryman, 29, of Town Creek, was charged with capital murder in March in connection with Ian’s death.

Berryman’s case was continued by Craig on Thursday.

Fike’s attorney, Brian White of Decatur, said his client is innocent of all charges.

Lawrence County District Attorney Errek Jett said even though Fike is not accused of physically abusing her children, she either knew or should have known Berryman was and leaving the children with him makes her accountable for the death.

Jett said one of Fike’s roles as a mother was making sure her children were in a safe environment, which she failed to do.

White said Fike and Berryman lived together at the time of the death, and didn’t specifically take the children to Berryman for him to supervise.

According to the autopsy report, the cause of Ian’s death was blunt force trauma to the head, torso and lower and upper extremities.

The report said the death was a homicide with the victim receiving cuts to his face, scalp, left ear, chest, back and genitals.

Ian died Aug. 4, 2014, at Children’s Hospital in Birmingham. The State Bureau of Investigation investigated the death.

After the grand jury indictment in mid-December, Fike turned herself in at the Lawrence County Jail and was released after posting $190,000 bail.

Berryman, who has been in Lawrence County Jail without bail since his March 24 arrest, faces life without parole or the death penalty, the only punishments for capital murder, if convicted.

At the time of this article’s publication, White said he did not expect Fike’s trial to begin until after Berryman’s trial is concluded, which could be up to a year.

2. Bobbie Taylor trial continued – Jan. 26 and Aug. 10

The Bobbie Taylor case is one that drew the attention of the national media as well as groups like PETA and ASPCA. It also divided many citizens of Lawrence County.

A year and a half after approximately 300 animals were removed from former Lawrence County Animal Control Director Bobbie Taylor’s property, she was scheduled to have her day in court.

The trial date for Taylor’s animal abuse charges was set for 9 a.m. Monday, Feb. 13 in Circuit Judge Mark Craig’s courtroom.

Taylor was initially charged with 17 misdemeanor counts of animal abuse and neglect, but two of those charges were thrown out by District Judge Angela Terry in a district court trial May 25, 2016.

She ran a shelter at her home on County Road 170. Beginning in September 2013, Taylor began receiving $15 per animal from the county to take in stray dogs and cats.

Taylor was given an $80,000 animal control contract by the commission in early 2015, but that contract was terminated in June after an animal abuse complaint was filed with the Moulton Police Department.

After investigating the property, police called in the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, and eventually, approximately 300 animals were removed from the property, including a few dead animals or animals that would have to be euthanized.

More than 200 of those animals were adopted at an ASPCA adoption event in Hillsboro, while the rest were taken to animal rescue shelters around the country, the ASPCA said.

Taylor’s attorney, Tony Hughes, of Florence, had claimed the search warrant, which was executed over a six-day period was not valid and wanted it to be thrown out by Judge Craig.

Hughes claimed since the search warrant was not granted until more than three days after the initial search of the property, it was stale and therefore not constitutional.

Assistant District Attorney Callie Waldrep argued that the 72 hour rule is only a rule of thumb, and not binding, and said the size of the property and sheer number of animals the police department had to deal with made it almost impossible to prepare a search warrant within 72 hours of the initial search.

After taking about a week to consider, Craig issued a ruling in early January allowing the search warrant and all evidence gathered from it.

The former animal control director of Lawrence County wanted to open up a new animal shelter in the county, even as she was facing an animal abuse trial from the previous shelter she operated that was raided by police.

Taylor did not contest the charges in District Court in order to appeal a conviction and receive a jury trial in Circuit Court.

Then, another setback occured. A large witness list combined with a crowded court docket pushed Bobbie Taylor’s animal abuse trial back yet again.

The trial was scheduled to begin on May 8, but Waldrep said she and Hughes agreed to set the date for Sept. 18 to make sure the trial would take place at its scheduled time. The trial was originally supposed to take place in February, but it was pushed back to May because of a crowded docket. At the time, Hughes said he would file a motion requesting there be no more delays.

Taylor has maintained her innocence of the charges, saying that many animals came to her shelter in horrible condition and she was trying to nurse them back to health before sending them off to rescue organizations.

Taylor was back in the news again when she claimed she was in the process of purchasing a building to use as a county animal shelter, she would then have put in a trust and give to the county.

A group affiliated with Taylor requested the commission enter into a contract with them for $20 an animal that was taken to the shelter, but the commission instead gave the contract to Kim Carpenter, who is associated with Changing 42 Rescue.

Waldrep said the district attorney’s office was watching the events closely as it was possible Taylor could have been in violation of her bond agreement if she had been given the contract and was in control of an animal shelter.

According to the bond agreement, Taylor could only take care of 10 animals she claimed were her pets, Waldrep said. Should more than those animals be in her care, she would be in violation of her bond.

Waldrep said the Sept. 18 trial was firm and she expects the trial to take up most of a week.

But that never happened, because when the trial date arrived and jury selection was underway, Craig declared a mistrial after being alerted to potential jury tampering.

A member of the jury is thought to have overheard a discussion of the case, according to Craig, which is considered to be tainting of the jury pool.

Hughes said that Taylor is disappointed that “her life has been on hold” since the case began.

Craig rescheduled the trial for Nov. 13 at the earliest and said that he would have signs put up on the second floor of the courthouse to remind people to not discuss an ongoing case.

The trial is expected to happen sometime early this year, barring any further delays.

3. Over 300 file suit against 3M in water pollutants – Feb. 23

3M and two other Decatur companies became the target of another lawsuit regarding pollutants the companies once used in their manufacturing process that plaintiffs claim showed up in unsafe levels in their drinking water.

The lawsuit was filed Jan. 30 in Lawrence County Circuit Court by Hillsboro Mayor Charles Owens and more than 300 who live on or own property served by the West Morgan-East Lawrence Water Authority.

The lawsuit filed by Gathings Law of Birmingham claims that 3M, its subsidiary Dyneon LLC, and Daikin America were negligent in allowing perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS) to be released into the Tennessee River.

The Environmental Protection Agency in May issued a health advisory that lifetime exposure to the two chemicals in drinking water should not exceed concentrations of 70 parts per trillion to avoid possible health risks. At the time, tests indicated West Morgan-East Lawrence drinking water exceeded those levels.

The authority’s water intake system is 13 miles downstream from the 3M plant.

The EPA advisory spurred Authority General Manager Don Sims to warn customers that the system’s water was not safe to cook with or to drink.

The EPA health advisory last year said long-term exposure to PFOA and PFOS may cause cancer and other health problems. It said that infants and young children face the greatest health risk.

West Morgan-East Lawrence has installed a temporary filtering system that has reduced the two toxins to safe levels, and it plans to build a permanent filtering system.

PFOA and PFOS have been used in products such as nonstick coatings, fabric protectors, stain repellents and fire-fighting foams.

West Morgan-East Lawrence filed a federal lawsuit last year against the same three companies over the same issues. Daikin has agreed to pay the authority $5 million to settle its portion of the lawsuit.

Carl Cole, a Decatur attorney representing the water authority in its federal lawsuit, said the lawsuit filed by Gathings Law is a “copycat lawsuit” of the water authority’s lawsuit.

Tennessee Riverkeepers, an environmental group, has a federal lawsuit pending against 3M, BFI Waste Systems of Alabama, and the city of Decatur about the discharge of PFOA and PFOS. The group’s lawsuit also includes claims that landfills operated by the city and BFI took waste containing the two chemicals that resulted in the chemicals leaching into the groundwater.

The lawsuit filed by Owens and the others charges the companies with negligence, creating nuisance, trespass by causing the chemicals to be in the plaintiffs’ water without their permission, wantonness and recklessness, and battery because touching the water was harmful and offensive to the plaintiffs.

The lawsuit asks that the plaintiffs receive unspecified compensatory damages for all claims, and unspecified additional punitive damages on the wantonness and battery claims.

4. County files suit against Town Creek – March 9 and Oct. 5

The dispute between the Lawrence County Commission and municipality of Town Creek over jail fees finally came to a head when County Attorney Dave Martin filed a lawsuit against Town Creek, demanding payment of the fee as well as back pay.

The lawsuit was filed in Lawrence County Circuit Court with Lawrence County named as the plaintiff and Town of Town Creek named as the defendant.

The commission and Town Creek have been arguing for months about the fees, which are collected from each traffic ticket issued in the municipality and go to help pay the bond on the Lawrence County Jail.

Town Creek is not sending in the $35 fee on traffic tickets that are dismissed when the offender agrees to attend driving school.

Town Creek Mayor Mike Parker has said his town shouldn’t pay because the ticket is dismissed while the commission claims the driving school is a cost associated with the ticket, and the fee should be paid.

The commission previously had the same dispute with both North Courtland and Hillsboro, but both of those towns agreed to start paying the $35 fee after the commission agreed to a compromise whereas if the towns would begin paying the fee, the commission would not ask for back pay.

The state legislature passed a local act in May of 1995 authorizing the county commission to impose an additional fee of $35 to be assessed and taxed as costs on each civil and criminal case in the municipalities, including traffic cases, filed in district or municipal court.

The additional fees were to be paid into the county’s general fund to be used by the commission for the planning, designing, construction, financing, furnishing, equipping and operation of a new county jail.

Martin said the county had borrowed money to construct the jail and these court costs had been going to retiring the debt.

A sentence in the 1995 act states that “These fees shall not be waived by any court unless all other fees, assessments, costs, fines and charges associated with the case are waived.”

However, that sentence is being interpreted differently by city and county attorneys.

Martin said the county’s position is since people who have received tickets pay to attend driving school, it is a fee associated with the case and the $35 fee legally can not be waived.

However, in a letter to Martin, Town Creek Attorney Joe Propst reiterated the town’s position that it does not owe the money and will not pay.

Both parties intend on moving forward with the lawsuit. The hearing eventually took place Oct. 5.

Lawrence County Circuit Judge Mark Craig left the case open to give the attorneys two weeks to work on their written arguments and so he could further review facts before making a verdict.

The case could set a precedent if the ruling is in Town Creek’s favor, however, there has been no ruling so far.

5. School board shuffles principals – June 8 and 22

At a Monday night Lawrence County Board of Education meeting in June, the board approved transferring four principals to different schools on the recommendation of Superintendent Dr. Jon Bret Smith.

However, not all of the principal transfers were met with approval, as members of the Lawrence County NAACP expressed disappointment that a candidate they recommended was not named principal at Hazlewood Elementary.

The principals transferred were Gary Smith, from Hazlewood Elementary to Hatton Elementary; Jean Howard, from East Lawrence Elementary to Mount Hope; Tiletha Shelton, from Hatton Elementary to Moulton Middle; and Stacie Givens, from Moulton Middle to Hazlewood Elementary.

Prior to the vote, J.E. Turnbore, with the Lawrence County NAACP, made a speech saying the organization had sought out and vetted two people for the principal position at Hazlewood Elementary and the principal position at R.A. Hubbard High School.

The Hubbard position became open at the end of June with the retirement of Dr. Jewel Satchel.

Turnbore requested the school board hire the people the NAACP had recommended. He said the NAACP had looked inside and outside the county for people and spent approximately six weeks on the search.

One of the people was a current employee in the Lawrence County school system while the other has held a principal position in another district, the NAACP said.

Smith, Howard and Shelton’s transfers were approved unanimously with Givens’ transfer passing by a 4-1 margin, with Garner voting in opposition, due to Givens not being the person the NAACP recommended.

Following the meeting, Turnbore said the NAACP had met with Smith and school board members multiple times over the last two weeks about the recommendations for the principals at Hazlewood and R.A. Hubbard.

Turnbore said he feels the people the NAACP recommended would be able to stop the exodus of students from Hazlewood Elementary and R.A. Hubbard High. Turnbore said each student who leaves the school system costs the school system about $6,400.

Smith said losing students has been a system-wide problem, and is not just specific to Hazlewood and R.A. Hubbard.

He also noted that R.A. Hubbard has been losing students the last several years with the highly-regarded Satchel as principal.

Smith said principals are transferred in order to put people in the schools where they can have the most effect.

He said Givens has the talents to meet the needs of Hazlewood Elementary, even though he said it would be tough for her to leave Moulton Middle, where she has been principal for several years.

The following week, the board transferred Rosa-Allen Cooper from school counselor at Moulton Middle to principal at R.A. Hubbard School.

In addition to the new principals, the board of education hired a new federal programs director after former federal programs director Casey Reed left to take a similar position at Florence City Schools.

The board hired Gina Baggett from the same position with the Lauderdale County school system to take Reed’s spot.

Smith said Casey Tate’s hire as principal at East Lawrence Elementary was a natural career progression.

Tate has been assistant principal at East Lawrence High for several years, and was the recipient of the Alabama Education Association Assistant Principal of the Year award for the 2016-2017 school year.

6. Coburn indicted on capital murder – June 29 and Dec. 19

The suspect in the shooting death of a father and son in Hillsboro last year was indicted on two capital murder charges by a Lawrence County grand jury.

Earl Clayburn Coburn, 58, 14 County Road 368, Trinity, faces the charges for the shooting deaths of Micah White 32, and his father Hubert White, 67, both of County Road 217, Hillsboro, on Sept. 9, 2016.

Coburn was also indicted on one count of shooting into an occupied vehicle and two counts of menacing.

Micah White was shot in the head while sitting in his truck in the parking lot of New Antioch Church of Christ while Hubert White was shot a short time later in the kitchen of his residence on County Road 217 near Hillsboro, about half a mile away from the church where Micah was shot, authorities said.

Lawrence County Sheriff Gene Mitchell said Coburn is the father of Micah White’s ex-wife, Amanda. The couple divorced in 2007, but Mitchell said there had been a long and bitter custody battle over the couple’s approximately 11-year-old daughter.

Mitchell said a custody hearing earlier in the day may have played a role in the shootings.

A report by the Sheriff’s Office states Coburn used his vehicle to block Micah White’s vehicle from leaving the church parking lot on County Road 217. Coburn then jumped out of his vehicle armed with a pistol, later identified as a 9mm Beretta handgun, and shot and killed White.

Coburn also pointed the gun at White’s passenger, which court records identified as Chris Terry, before fleeing the scene in his vehicle.

Mitchell said Coburn then drove to Hubert White’s home and shot and killed him inside his residence.

Mitchell said Terry identified Coburn as the shooter and Deputy Sgt. Tim Flannigan spotted Coburn shortly after the shootings near Veteran’s Park on County Road 214.

After stopping Coburn, a brief standoff ensued and Coburn pointed an AR-15 assault rifle at Flannigan before being talked into putting the weapon down.

Mitchell said Coburn told the deputy he had killed Micah and then realizing he was going to be in serious trouble, made the decision to go to the elder White’s home and kill him as well.

Coburn told deputies where they could find Hubert White’s body, Mitchell said.

Micah White was the owner of White’s Auto Body and Towing and also enjoyed racing cars. He was planning on traveling to Chattanooga Tenn., to compete in a drag race the following day when he was slain, relatives said.

Hubert White worked as a hair stylist at New Image Salon in Decatur at the time of his death. Patrons of the salon said Hubert White was fond of wearing Hawaiian shirts, shorts and flip flops to work throughout the year.

In early December, Coburn began undergoing psychological evaluations which could last for several months.

Coburn could face life in prison or the death penalty if convicted.

7. Two men killed in North Courtland shooting – July 13, 20, and Aug. 3

Sheriff Gene Mitchell wanted the state to offer a reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of a suspect or suspects in the double homicide July 6 in North Courtland.

Killed just before 11 p.m. July 6 were James Lemark Madden, 41, 226B Bailey Road, Muscle Shoals, and Jimmy Lee Bolding, 34, of 936 Rosa Parks St., North Courtland.

Both were buried July 12. Madden was the brother of former North Courtland Mayor Ronald Jones and Lawrence County High Principal Thomas Jones.

Mitchell said preliminary forensic tests show Madden was shot multiple times in the head, and Bolding was shot in the front and back. Bolding was found outside the house, Mitchell said. Both were shot with a 9mm handgun, Mitchell said.

Mitchell said his investigators have interviewed numerous witnesses. He said the witnesses were not necessarily people who may have been at the scene of the crimes.

The previous week, North Courtland Police Chief Spencer Butler said his department was assisting the Sheriff’s Office. Before the July 11 City Council meeting, about 50 North Courtland residents staged a peaceful protest march from the crime scene to City Hall.

Finally, two arrests were made in the case.

“Late yesterday into the early evening hours we made a couple of arrests,” Mitchell said during a press conference Thursday. “We are still interviewing people on the case. You keep interviewing people until your case takes direction, and you narrow down who did what. That’s where we got to yesterday.”

Police arrested Kevin Deshaunn Deloney Jr., 19, of 211 Gordon Drive SW Apartment A in Decatur. He is charged with two counts of capital murder.

Also arrested was Tamorris O’Neil Bolding, 23, of 4165 River Road, Lot 8, in Muscle Shoals. He is also charged with two counts of capital murder. Mitchell said the two men lived in the area from time to time, but these were the addresses they gave.

Mitchell said he does believe the actions of Deloney and Tamorris Bolding were planned out at least to some degree, as all four men involved were related in some fashion.

Mitchell said drugs may have been involved in the case, which also involved robbery.

North Courtland mayor Riely Evans Sr. began the press conference by acknowledging the two police departments who worked to solve the case.

“I would like to thank Sheriff Gene Mitchell for him working with us on this matter, along with the North Courtland Police Department.” He said. “They put in long hours anddays to solve this.”

Evans Sr. also spoke on how such an event could affect a small town like North Courtland.

“I’m kind of sad and hurt at the same time,” he said. “No one wins in this situation. We are hurting right now. I want to say to the residents of North Courtland to continue to pray for the town. We did all we could do. A lot of man-hours have been put into this to bring these men to justice.”

8. Moulton firefighter arrested – Aug. 17

It was a shocking and sad day at the Moulton Fire Department when it was revealed that one of the firefighters had been using illegal narcotics on the job.

Agents with the Lawrence County Drug Task Force arrested Christopher Allen Henley, 27, after being charged with the illegal possession of narcotics including heroin and fentanyl.

Sheriff Gene Mitchell said the arrest was the result of an ongoing investigation into heroin being trafficked into Lawrence County. Investigators were reportedly led to Henley by an anonymous tip.

After being taken into custody by police, Henley was booked into the county jail on a $5,500 bond. He was said to admitted to using narcotics while on duty at the fire station.

Furthermore, investigators discovered that Henley was obtaining heroin from a dealer in the Shoals area and at one point, Henley allegedly arranged for a drug transaction with a dealer at the fire station, police say.

Mitchell said that this was the first time in his memory that a public servant was arrested on drug charges in Lawrence County.

No one at the fire department was aware that Henley was using drugs, according to Jolly. And although he said that he is frustrated with the situation, Jolly said he hoped for the best for Henley and his family.

Jolly said that because the department is now short-staffed, he will likely be working over 100 hours a week until someone else can be hired, which could be a while considering the next firefighter training program is some time away.

Henley was given the option to resign or undergo a disciplinary hearing that would have likely resulted in his termination, Jolly said. Henley reportedly chose the former option and resigned effective immediately after his arrest.

Jolly has yet to select replacement, however, he said at a Moulton City Council meeting that the prospects look good.

9. Courtland auctions golf course – Jan. 12, Aug 8., and Oct. 26

The topic of Valley Landing Golf Course has come up multiple times at Courtland city council meetings over the last year.

Ever since the money the town received from International Paper has stopped coming in years earlier than expected, the council has decided to sell the course via auction to try and help offset the loss in revenue.

The town owes around $1.4 million on the course. Some council members expressed concern that the price the golf course may bring might not cover what is owed on it.

By October, the course was ready to go to auction.

The auction was managed by Shane Albright Auctions, and they are offering the property in individual tracts, combinations of those tracts, and as a whole including the clubhouse, maintenance building, and the pump house.

Equipment was sold separately, which included 45 golf carts, turf equipment, restaurant equipment, and fixtures in the building. There were also quantities of chemicals and fertilizer.

Unfortunately for Courtland, the reserve price was not met and the course did not sell, leaving the city with a course and no equipment.

The city has since been in the process of trying to find a buyer. So far, there has been no success.

10. Elephant seized by LC officials – Nov. 16 and Dec. 21

The final story on this list was by far one of the most bizarre and far-reaching, putting Lawrence County, yet again, on the radar of PETA and ASPCA. But unlike the negative attention drawn from the Bobbie Taylor case, animal welfare groups looked favorably upon Lawrence County for its role in thwarting alleged abuse.

In early November, traveling circus owners Hugo and Franciszka Liebel were passing through Lawrence County and stopped at a diesel mechanic shop to repair their trailer. Inside that trailer was a 35-year-old female African elephant, three miniature horses, and one Shetland pony. The elephant, named Nosey, just happened to be the elephant that animal activist groups have been following for over a decade.

Lawrence County Animal Control Office Kimberly Carpenter was alerted to the elephant after receiving several complaints and went to investigate.

According to her court testimony, she observed the animals living in the trailer with feces at their feet, a leaking water bucket, and an inadequate food supply. She was also concerned about Nosey’s swaying back and forth as if stressed and her skin condition.

She then proceeded to seize the elephant from the Liebels with the aid of authorities.

The first hearing was to determine if the writ of seizure was to be extended to allow for more time to observe the health of the seized animals. It took place the night of the seizure.

The Liebels were represented by Decatur attorney Allen Stoner, while Assistant District Attorney Callie Waldrep led the prosecution.

After hearing extensive testimony from both parties that lasted nearly all day, District Judge Angela Terry extended the writ.

Nosey was then immediately taken to The Elephant Sanctuary in Hohenwald, Tn. The sanctuary is a private, nonprofit facility that houses rescued circus elephants both African and Asian.

The custody hearing took place Dec. 15 and lasted for close to 10 hours. Numerous experts and witnesses from all over the country were called by both sides to give their opinion of Nosey’s condition.

This time, the Liebels hired Tuscumbia attorney Billy Underwood to represent them.

After hours of intense cross-examinations, the hearing finally came to a close. Terry said she needed time to review approximately 40 pages of notes before making a decision.

To the surprise of many, Hugo and Franciszka Liebel were arrested on two misdemeanor animal cruelty charges the following morning. They posted bail, however, at $1,500 each the same morning. Also, their horses were returned to them as no substantial evidence of abuse of the horses was found.

At the time of writing this article, Terry has yet to make a final ruling.

SOURCE:

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