Tuesday, January 05, 2016

TOP STORY >> Stories making Top 10 in 2015

Leader staff writer

A lot of news was packed in the pages of The Leader in 2015. Each of the 104 issues averaged about a dozen articles, a slew of briefs, national, state and local editorials and letters from across the regions, plus sports.

Information, good and bad, about the new Jacksonville-North Pulaski School District was in just about every issue. Readers were also kept abreast of the happenings on the air base and concerns with North Metro and weather, which included late snow and ice and winter floods.

These are the Top 10 topics culled from The Leader for 2015:


It’s taken more than 30 years, but Jacksonville will have its own school district starting in July. Most of the groundwork for that breakaway came in 2015.

The newly created district got its first interim superintendent in retired PCSSD Superintendent Bobby Lester, its first superintendent in former State Commissioner of Education Tony Wood, 64, its first appointed school board, its first elected school board and its first full-time employee in Phyllis Stewart.

The district’s appointed board set up zones for the election of the school board, opting for five zones and two at-large positions. This didn’t set well with the NAACP and others who wanted seven zones.

Superintendent Wood, along with the appointed and elected boards, approved a pay scale that focused on new and probationary teachers and gives a pay cut to any PCSSD teacher with 12 or more years of experience.

The district will be having all potential teachers apply for positions, just like they would if they wanted to stay with PCSSD or move to another district.

In a move to strengthen the new district, JNPSD, along with PCSSD, decided to board up Jacksonville Middle School and have the city’s middle school students attend Northwood Middle School for one year and then move over to North Pulaski High School, which will be renovated to be a long-term home to the middle-schoolers.

The district also voted to build a new high school on the grounds of the old Jacksonville Middle School with the thoughts that it would be a “shining jewel” that could be seen from Hwy. 167. It was one of three sites the district considered.


In early February, Beebe School Superintendent Belinda Shook took exception to the state designating Badger Academy as a school in academic distress. Shook said the facility is for students who have had a difficult time in the regular classroom and the focus is more on giving the student coping strategies and life skills rather than academics. She also argued that the population was very fluid, saying it was not designed for students to stay, but to move back into a regular classroom setting.

As Jacksonville was proceeding with its infant district, Sherwood and Maumelle received good news early in the year when a bill passed making it easier for those two cities to break away from PCSSD.

Even though PCSSD resolved 37 of the 38 issues that cause a state takeover of the district because of fiscal distress, the state board voted to continue control of the district for a fifth straight year.


Normally, most of the base news is positive and involves the economy, missions or C-130Js, but in June it was about an attack on the air base that left one man dead. North Pulaski County resident Larry McElroy, 43, crashed his vehicle into a sign near the main entrance and exited the vehicle with a weapon.

Two members of the 19th Security Forces Squadron fired at and hit McElroy. “My defenders did their job,” said. Col. Charles E. Brown Jr., commander of the Little Rock Air Force Base. The two guards, Staff Sgt. Zachary Freese and AIC Codee Smith were awarded Commendation Medals in September for their quick actions.

Little Rock Air Force Base did celebrate its 60th birthday during the year and, according to a report released mid-year, the air base’s economic impact on the surrounding area was more than $800 million and it indirectly created 3,279 jobs.

In February, more than $133 million worth of construction projects were started on the base, including a $108 million upgrade of the runway, a $21 million fuel cell and a $4.1 million flight simulator. Also, the old base exchange got a $3.7 million renovation and opened as a community support center for base members and their families.

In May, Col. Charles E. Brown took over the reins of the 19th Airlift Wing from retiring Col. Patrick Rhatigan. Brown was the 62nd Airlift Squadron commander at the base from 2009 to 2011.

With the arrival of its 24th C-130J in July, the base was just shy of its allotted 28 new cargo aircraft.


North Metro Medical Center spent three-fourths of the year in the news and mostly because of concerns and irregularities.

The hospital, owned by Rock Bordelon and Don Cameron, chief officials of Allegiance Health Management and a third party out of Dallas, was sued numerous times by various state entities for failure to pay withholding, unemployment, and worker’s compensation taxes and fees, most of which were taken out of employees’ paychecks.

The hospital workers also went about a month without insurance as the hospital failed to make insurance payments, and many workers are still waiting for insurance claims to be settled. Many emergency room doctors claimed slow or late pay. The hospital fired CEO Cindy Stafford in early summer, and appointed state Rep. Joe Farrer (R-Austin) as interim CEO, only to have him resign three months later.

Farrer claims it was over the owners keeping a doctor with alcohol issues, but Bordelon say Farrer was on his way out anyway for other issues, hinting that he had political dirt on the representative.

Dr. Phillips also denied persistent charges that he had been drinking while at the hospital. Arrested in 2012 for a DWI, Phillips said he was in a voluntary program that monitors and tests him regularly.


Four libraries made the news in 2015: The new $2.6 million Cabot library opened its doors; the Ward library closed Dec. 31; a new library in El Paso and bonds and a site were approved for Sherwood’s new facility.

In Sherwood, the council approved issuing $6 million in bonds, after voters passed a tax hike in 2o14 to build a new 14,000-square-foot library for the city. The bonds sold out in hours at a very favorable rate (about 3 percent) for the city. A site selection committee, after asking for land suggestions, picked a 21-acre site off of Maryland Avenue, but adjoining residents spoke against the idea and the council wanted to see more than just the top choice of the committee. After taking another look at all possible sites, the council decided on 18 acres off Hwy. 107, near the middle school. The negotiated price was about $900,000, close to double the proposed cost of the Maryland site, leaving about $3.9 million to build and furnish the new library. The facility is projected to open in the summer of 2017.

The new 24,000-square- foot Cabot facility, a major renovation of the old Knight’s store on West Main Street, opened in August and was an instant success.

With the help of volunteers, the community of El Paso spent most of the year transforming the old El Paso bank building into a modern-day library. Once finished, the facility will become part of the White County Regional Library System.


Jonathan McIntosh, a 35-year-old parolee, was shot and killed by Cabot police in late May when he maneuvered out of his handcuffs and fired a pistol at officers. He was being detained after police responded to a Cabot home and found McIntosh with a small bag of meth. His hands were cuffed behind his back, and he was placed in a patrol car as police continued their investigation.

Former Lonoke County Assessor Jack McNally, 58, was arrested in mid-May and charged with multiple felony counts after irregularities were reported in a legislative audit. McNally was charged with fraudulent use of a credit card, theft of property, possession of a firearm by a felon, violation of voter eligibility and violation of political practice pledge on falsification.

The largest state drug bust happened in early April on I-40 as Lonoke County checked out a large truck that was pulled over on the side of the interstate. State Police found and seized 276 pound of meth worth $10 million. The driver, from California, was charged on multiple drug counts.


In March, an ex-auxiliary sheriff’s deputy from Lonoke County pleaded guilty to the first-degree murder of his wife in December 2013. Charles Bryant was sentenced to life in prison.

Lindsey Colbert, 29, of Ward pleaded guilty in February to the starvation death of her 3-month-old son and was sentenced to eight years in prison.

In June, Jason Woodring, 38, of Jacksonville, pleaded guilty to destroying power lines around Cabot and Jacksonville and Scott in 2013. He was sentenced to 15 years in prison. Woodring’s attacks on the local grid caused about $5 million in damage and left as many as 9,000 area residents temporarily without power.

North Pulaski County resident Mark Dodson pleaded guilty to shooting a Jacksonville police officer during a drug bust and was given a 15-year sentence. The officer was treated for his wounds and released from the hospital just a few hours after the incident. Other officers returned fire, shooting and injuring Dodson.

Arthur Lockhart, 35, of Searcy was sentenced in early September to 40 years in prison for his part in the racially motivated stabbing death of a Cabot man outside The Hangar bar in 2014. His wife, Tere Lockhart, was sentenced to five years of probation for her part in the crime.

Crystal Lowery, 42, got 30 years for her part in the killing of realtor Beverly Carter. Lowery’s estranged husband, Arron Lewis, 34, was also charged in the murder. She is expected to testify against Lewis when his case comes to trial Tuesday.


Bernard Olds, 94, a founder of Sherwood, died in early February. Working as a rural postman, Olds circulated petition to incorporate Sherwood. He served as one of the city’s first aldermen, a firefighter and fought in World War II.

In a 2013 interview, Olds said, “I’ve really enjoyed life; really enjoyed helping people. I’ve had a good successful, wonderful life.”

Jacksonville patriarch T.P. White, 94, died in late August. White decided to make Jacksonville his home in 1946. He spent the rest of his life helping build the city. He was past president of the first booster club, Round-Up Club, Lions Club, Sertoma Club and the Employees Federal Credit Union. He served on the city council, worked to get water and sewer back to city ownership, chaired the commission to build the new jail and assisted the fire department in maintaining upgrades. In 1952, he helped start the Jacksonville Planning Commission. He served on it for 34 years, under five different mayors, and was chairman for 21 years.

Dr. Thomas Henry Wort-ham, 88, died in January. He worked as a physician well into his 80s, retiring in 2013 after a 60-year medical career, mostly in Jacksonville. “He loved what he did,” his daughter said.


Winter weather came in hot and heavy — actually cold and heavy throughout February.

Nearly an inch of ice hitting on Martin Luther King Day and then snow, ice and sleet a week later caused multiple traffic pileups, government and school cancellations, but was sledding fun for many of the kids in the area. Another winter dumping the first week of March dropped about six inches of snow and ice on the area. The snowy weather in February and March forced area schools to add five to seven days to their year because of weather closures.

A very wet spring delayed planting of area crops and put farmers in financial distress.

Then it was a hot, dry summer with very little rainfall in July, August and September, causing 61 of the state’s 75 counties to declare burn bans. A five-day rain event in October broke that dry spell.

In December, the issue was not snow, but rain, so much of it that it became one of the wettest on record. In late November and early December, the area saw more than 6 inches of rain. It saw about that much again in late December. A Christmas thunderstorm spawned tornadoes and flash flooding across a multi-state region.

Locally, most of Dupree Park was under so much water a boat was used to check on equipment and supplies a the concession building in the park.


In January, Master Sgt. Aaron Downing, with the 19th Security Forces Squadron at LRAFB, was awarded a Purple Heart for his actions and wounds he received when his convoy hit an IED in Iraq in 2007. Downing has had three more deployments since.

A Cabot eighth grader, Barrett Starks, fighting leukemia, becomes one of the faces for a Red Cross-sponsored Sleeves Up virtual blood and platelet drive. In remission, the teen still has two years of maintenance to go through.

It took about 73 years, but William Barnett, 92, finally received his war medals from World War II. U.S. Sen. John Boozman (R-Ark.), in helping to get Barnett the medals, called the Army veteran a “true hero.”

Lonoke Police Officer Adrian Paige checking on an elderly woman found she was living without electricity because she couldn’t afford the bill. He raised $300 within hours to get the utilities turned back on. Lonoke interim police chief, Lt. Randy Mauk, authorized a stay for the woman and her son to spend a night in a local motel until the utilities were back on.

Former Army Pvt. Quinton Ezeagwula was one of two to receive Purple Hearts in a ceremony at the state Capitol in July. Ezeagwula was seriously injured in a drive-by terrorist shooting at the Little Rock recruiting center.