Sunday, December 31, 2006

TOP STORY >>Tragedy, corruption and new beginnings

IN SHORT: In a multi-part series, The Leader will look back at the people and events of 2006.

Leader staff writer

A lot of living was packed into the 365 days of 2006—just look at the numbers.

n More than 220,000 people from throughout Arkansas and elsewhere watched the Blue Angels and other military aircraft strut their stuff at Little Rock Air Force Base’s open house in Novem-ber. Of the more than 70 shows a year that the Blue Angels perform, they put LRAFB in their top five.

n There were nearly 100 charges filed against the former Lonoke police chief, his wife and others in a sex, drug, theft and abuse of power racket.

n Cabot Junior High North burned just before school was to start back in August, displacing more than 1,200 students and delaying classes for most junior high students by about two weeks. The fire came just days before Cabot opened its new $13.9 million, 110-classroom high school.

n Payday lenders with fees that put interest on their loans into the 300-plus percent range were at odds with lawmakers and other lending institutions for most the year.

Legal action was taken to close them down and bills prepared to cap fees and interest at 17 percent, but by year’s end payday lenders were still operating and still charging usury interest on their short-term loans.

Up, up and away
More than 220,000 aircraft enthusiasts—a record—visited Little Rock Air Force Base over the first weekend in November for the 2006 Airpower Arkansas air show. The Blue Angels were the featured event.

“We had 165,000 the first day alone,” Second Lt. Kelly George, deputy chief of the 314th Airlift Wing’s Strategic Information Flight, said. “Attendance last year was 150,000 for both days; we broke a record. The air show went great; all the feedback we’ve received was that everyone had a great time.”

Young and old alike meandered through the 46 aircraft parked on the flight line, many taking the time to wait in long lines to see the cockpit of numerous planes.

Photo opportunities were plentiful this year both with the aerial demonstrations and the static displays.

Of course there were the C-130’s, the base’s signature workhorse plane, but there were also small planes, like the BT-13 World War II aircraft, and really-really big planes, like the gigantic C-5 Galaxy; the Air Force even had little battery-operated one-seater planes being driven around to help promote the Air Force.

The Army, Navy, Marines and Coast Guard were also all on hand at this year’s show helping to promote their unique services.
Children, and adults too, were awed by the speed of the jets and the precision of the U.S. Navy Blue Angels. “Wow” and “That’s loud” were heard numerous times from the mouths of children during the aerial performances.

“I like the jets the best,” Tammy Stark of Ward, who attends the air show every year, said. “Their speed is just amazing.”
AirPower Arkansas 2006 will be the last air show for at least three years according to Brig. Gen. Kip Self, commander of Little Rock Air Base. The next show is tentatively set for 2009.

Lonoke lunacy
Lonoke residents were reeling in February as Mayor Thomas Privett, Police Chief Jay Campbell, his wife, two local bondsman and, later, a police dispatcher, were arrested on multiple charges ranging from making meth to making whoopee with prisoners. Charges continued to mount through the year, and the cases are set to go to court in February 2007—a little more than a year after the first set of charges.

Campbell, known as a tough-on-drugs cop, was charged with conspiracy to manufacture methamphetamine, stealing drugs, intimidating witnesses and running a criminal enterprise.

Campbell’s wife was charged with having sex with prisoners and theft of drugs. The mayor was charged with having inmates work at his home.

Two bondsmen, Bobby Cox and Larry Norwood were also arrested on drug -related charges.

Former dispatcher Amy Staley was arrested on charges that she had sex with prisoners much like Campbell’s wife, Kelly, did.
The arrests were the result of an investigation that started in late 2005 into whether or not some Lonoke city officials improperly used Act 309 inmate labor for personal use such as to fix a boat and hang Christmas lights.

By the end of summer, Lonoke County Prosecutor Lona Mc-Castlain had put together a 60-page indictment that stated Campbell had masterminded a continuing criminal organization or enterprise that stole drugs and money, influenced inmates with drugs and sexual favors, conspired to manufacture methamphetamine, burgled homes and beat and intimidated witnesses.

Campbell was additionally charged with hindering apprehension of prosecution, filing a false police report and several counts each of obtaining controlled substance by fraud or theft of property.

According to papers filed by the prosecution, Campbell “used his authority to exploit (ACT) 309 Inmates for the Campbells’ sexual gratification. The Campbells facilitated sexual acts in the chief’s office, a local hotel, the Campbells’ residence and other locations.”

The prosecutor charges that the Campbells fostered relationships with members of the community and church family where he would “entertain friends” while she roamed their homes taking medications or personal property.

Cashing in on checks
At the beginning of 2006 Arkansas has 275 cash advance or payday lending stores, of which only 66 are licensed and make any pretense of being regulated by the state, according to a study released by Arkansans Against Abusive Payday Lending (AAAPL).

Many are open in Jacksonville, near the air base, as well as in Cabot, Sherwood and Lonoke.

Hank Klein, former head of the Arkansas Federal Credit Union and a member of AAAPL, said that these were lenders of last resort, charging needy and unsophisticated borrowers hundreds of percent interest, figured on an annual rate.

He said lenders sometimes find themselves trapped in an endless cycle of debt when doing business with payday lenders.
In July, some payday-lender shops owned by a Fordyce man, including ones in Cabot, Beebe and Searcy, closed after the business owner was fined $1.3 million for not having a valid license.

“The Federal Insurance Deposit Corporation (FDIC) has told banks to stop partnering (with payday lenders,)” said Klein. “It’s not bank-like to make 500 percent loans.”

Rep. Sandra Prater, D-Jack-sonville, along with several other lawmakers filed a bill in late December that would fine payday lenders and other institutions for making high-interest consumer loans.

The bill would prevent the triple-digit interest rates some payday lenders charge in the state. The bill would fine businesses $300 for charging more than 17 percent interest on loans.

Legislators will consider the bill when the session convenes in January.

Payday loans are typically small—$100 to $500, made for an average of 14 days, according to Klein. “People who borrow from them may pay interest equivalent to an annual percentage rate of more than 400 percent.”

The average borrower pays $800 to borrow $325, according to the Center for Responsible Lending. Payday lenders are disproportionately located near military bases and also target minority and low-income consumers.

Jacksonville alone has about half a dozen, three of them near the main gate to Little Rock Air Force Base.

The state’s Constitution limits interest on consumer loans to a maximum of 17 percent annually, but opponents of payday lending have said the state’s Check Cashers Act allows payday lenders to charge higher interest rates.

Through a payday loan in Arkansas, a customer writing a check for $400, for example, typically would receive $350.

The lender would keep the check for about two weeks without cashing it and, thereby, allowing the customer time to buy back the check.

The $50 charge on the $350 loan for 14 days equates to 371 percent interest, well above Arkansas’ usury limit of 17 percent.

Up in flames
In early August, parents were registering their children for classes when an electrical malfunction set Cabot Junior High School North blazing and sent everyone scampering to safety.

Dozens of teachers, parents and youngsters hurried out of the building as flames engulfed the structure, which was destroyed despite efforts by firefighters who worked seven hours to contain the blaze.

The electrical fire destroyed the eight-year-old, one-story, 115,400-square-foot school at 38 Spirit Drive. The fire broke out in a closet in the library just after 2 p.m. Students in grades seven through nine had been in the building throughout the day for registration.

Cabot School Board member Brooks Nash, who was principal at Junior High South when Junior High North was built in 1998, called the loss of the district’s newest junior high building tragic.

“Something like this would hurt any time, but especially right here at the beginning of school. We’ve got 1,200 kids displaced and records destroyed,” he said. “Nobody got hurt. That’s the good part if there is a good part,” Nash added.

Most of the displaced seventh- and eighth-grade students started school in trailers after a two-week delay.

Displaced ninth graders were incorporated into the high school. By the end of the year, the students had adjusted well, but the district was still fighting with the insurance company over the payments for rebuilding.