Tuesday, January 08, 2013

TOP STORY >> Twelve stories in 2012 that defined the year

Leader staff writer

After culling through more than 1,000 news pages that The Leader printed in 2012, here are the top 12 stories, in no particular order. Some, like the air base, the Pulaski County Special School District and the weather, always seem to make the final cut.

The base for its good news, solid community relations and economic impact; PCSSD for its continued fumbling of education, and the weather for its destructive acts.

Other stories, like the mother and the four children killed in a fire or the three first responders struck by a car and one being killed, hopefully, are one-time entries.


During spring break in March, a fire killed a single mother and her four children living in a Department of Housing and Urban Development-controlled duplex in Jacksonville. Aside from the tragedy of the five deaths, the incident raised questions about HUD management of Max Howell Place and fire department procedures.

Firefighters had been battling a house fire across the highway from the duplex when an early-morning call came in from a neighbor smelling smoke. Firefighters responded to the duplex and, using thermal imagers, detected no smoke, hot spots or activity that would allow them to enter. But they could smell smoke from the other fire. They left without entering the duplex.

Hours later, the firefighters were called back and the bodies were discovered. The mother and one small child were in the bathroom and the other three children were in their beds. None were burned, but all died from smoke inhalation.

Apparently a small fire erupted on the stove and was either put out or went out on its own, but smoke filtered through the home and killed the residents. The fire alarm was nine years older than its expiration date and the wires appeared to be cut.

The father, a truck driver, was out of town when the fire occurred and is considering a lawsuit. Three of the children went to Warren Dupree Elementary and the school had a tough time dealing with the deaths. The school held a special memorial for the students a week after everyone returned from spring break.

The victims were Dequan Single-ton, 10; Sydni Singleton, 9; Haylee Beavers, 6; Emily Beavers, 4, and Marilyn Beavers, 30.


About a week before the fatal fire, a firefighter was killed when a driver ignored police and fire department warnings and drove into three first responders.

Another firefighter and a police officer were also injured. The three men were helping the driver’s mother out of her car, which she drove into a ditch off Hwy. 161 in Jacksonville.

The driver, Bryce Allen, 47, had a history of mental problems and had tried to run down a police officer a few years earlier in Ohio. His mother called him, along with the police department, when she wrecked her car and struck a gas main.

Fire Capt. Donald Lee Jones, 56, a 31-year veteran of the department, was killed—the first Jacksonville firefighter to die while on duty. Firefighter Jason Bowmaster and police officer Daniel Dimatteo were seriously injured.

Dimatteo has returned to full duty.Bowmaster is still recovering, but can walk and drive. He still needs at least one more surgery.

Fire Station Four on Hwy. 161 will be dedicated in honor of Capt. Jones.

Allen was been declared incompetent to stand trial at this point. His status will be re-evaluated in June.


Almost everyone, from Jacksonville residents to the Pulaski County Special School District to the state Education Department, now agrees that Jacksonville should have its own school district.

In May, the school district went on record in court that splitting up the district would help the district achieve unitary status and emerge more quickly from fiscal distress. So what are the delays? The courts and a feasibility study.

The feasibility study is being conducted to ensure that Jacksonville can financially support its own school district, that the district will be within the required black/white percentages and that it won’t skewer the county racial percentages.

Mayor Gary Fletcher said the feasibility study should be completed soon and then will be presented to the courts. From there it will go to the state.

The proposed Jacksonville school district would include North Pulaski and Jacksonville high schools, Jacksonville Middle School, Arnold Drive, Bayou Meto, Tolleson, Murrell Taylor, Pinewood and Warren Dupree elementary schools and Homer Adkins Pre-K center.


The Pulaski County Special School District, which was taken over by the state, spent most of the year cutting the budget and trying to toss the employee unions out.

The unions spent most of their time staying involved, active and being the voice of the teachers and employees. They even tried to get the governor to side with them.

Lawsuits have been filed over the state and districts efforts to ignore the unions.

But through the year, neither side has made much mention of students as the district continued to lag behind state averages on the annual Benchmark and end-of-course exams. Graduation rates, although improving, were still well behind the state average.


With a population around 6,000 and because it pumps about $780 million into the local economy, Little Rock Air Force Base is always in the news.

In 2012, the 19th Airlift Wing got a new commander, Col. Brian Robinson. Col. Edward Brewer took over the reins of the 314th Airlift Wing.

First Lady Michelle Obama visited, focusing on the quality and healthiness of food served to the airmen.

When Superstorm Sandy hit, many military aircraft were flown into LRAFB for safety and crews here were put on standby to assist in the wake of the storm.

Additional planes and airmen were assigned to the base during the year and modernization work started on older C-130s.

Throughout the year, base members were deployed and returned from Afghanistan, the Middle East and other areas where they supported the war on terrorists.


More than 200,000 visitors packed into Little Rock Air Force Base over a two-day period in September to watch the Blue Angels and other military units perform.

Base spokesman Arlo Taylor said, “I don’t think you could have custom ordered better weather. We are humbled by the massive outpouring of support for our air show by more than 200,000 of our neighbors. It was a tremendous honor to show off our base to them.”


A week before Christmas, the forecasters were being optimistic, declaring there was a slight chance of snow for part of the state on Christmas—little did they know.

As Christmas rolled close snow went from a minute chance to guaranteed, but the questions of how much varied from an inch to 10 inches and no one seemed to have gotten the ice factor correct.

In the end, the rain hit early Christmas. It turned into sleet and ice followed by 10 inches of snow. It cracked tree limbs, electric poles and essentially shutting the state down for two days. The storm put almost 200,000 in the dark.

The outages ranged from a few hours to a few days to a week or more. Many homes and vehicles suffered damages and hotels in the area with power went from half full to having waiting lists.

Now that the snow has melted and most people have their electricity back on all eyes are turning to the costs and long-term repairs.

But long before the snow was dry hot weather. The summer turned out to be the hottest on record. About 85 percent of the state was in the severe drought category and Jacksonville, along with other cities, canceled Fourth of July fireworks because of the dry conditions.


Will it or will it not be built? After a year of yes, no, maybe, it’s a doubtful maybe.

The planned $500 million highway loop that is suppose to connect Hwy. 67/167 with Hwy. 107, then through Camp Robinson to I-40, near the I-430 exchange was dealt a blow when a Sherwood developer sued and won a lawsuit that allowed him to start building in the proposed right of way.

Even though the state has spent millions acquiring rights of way for the North Belt, it didn’t have enough to grab all the land it needed in Sherwood.

In the meantime, Metroplan officials put the blame on the state highway department and the highway department faulted Metroplan for lack of action on the project.

Area cities talked about dedicated taxes, regional help and tolls, but nothing transpired in 2012 to move the project out of the grave and back on the road to completion.


It was announced three times that funding was set for a 14-station sports shooting range, which would bring in millions of dollars to Jacksonville.

The governor even came out to a groundbreaking on 160 acres set for the facility, but it has yet to be purchased.

By the end of the year, funding, mostly from the Arkansas Game and Fish Foundation, seemed to be in place, with the county, city and private donors chipping in the rest.

But bids came in too high twice and were going out one more time. Original plans called for the facility to be completed in April in time to host the youth sports shooting tournaments, which would have generated part of an economic impact of close to $5 million.

Now the hope is that construction will start by April.


Three area golf courses closed during 2012, but two managed to reopen.

Two golf courses at Greystone in Cabot went under and the title owner, Metropolitan Bank, offered the course for sale at an auction. But the bank turned down the high bids for not being high enough.

In March, the bank sold the front golf course (Mountain Springs) for $650,000 to a Melbourne businessman who had the course opened by early summer. The back course (Cypress Creek), which was purchased by a Cabot businessman for $415,000, was reopened in late summer.

But there were no buyers or takers for the Lonoke Golf Course, which closed in April after the owners retired.


After more than a year of dangling the carrot, the Arkansas State Fair board voted to turn down Jacksonville’s offer of 440 acres of prime land off I-440 and Hwy. 161, along with more than $1 million worth of infrastructure, to stay in Little Rock on their 80-acre site.

Little Rock offered to buy and give the fair some additional acreage and offered it cash to stay.

Although Jacksonville Mayor Gary Fletcher was initially upset by the decision, he feels the only one who will be hurt in the long run will be the state fair. The mayor is continuing to pursue efforts to lock up the land for a regional fair, a large entertainment complex or some other business.

“There’s a lot of interest in that property and Jacksonville will benefit,” the mayor said.


What would an even year be without elections? This year, longtime District Judge Robert Batton of Jacksonville held on to his robe by four votes as attorney and newcomer Marshall Nash challenged him.

Jacksonville added three new faces to the city council as long-term aldermen Marshall Smith, Bob Stroud and Linda Rinker opted to retire or not run again.

In Cabot, Alderman Patrick Hutton dropped out of the race because of a possible conflict with his federal job, but still won his seat. After the results were official, Howell submitted his resignation to the council. A quirk in the law would let the council reappoint him if it wanted to, but the council ended up selecting Dallan Buchanan, who ran unsuccessfully against Hutton in the November election.

In Lonoke County, either a Republican or a Democrat who converted to a Republican won just about every seat.