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Looking back at 2018 — The Daily Leader’s top 10 stories of the year

It was a busy year in news for Brookhaven and Lincoln County.

The Home Seekers Paradise was the center of state and national attention on a couple of occasions in 2018. Folks outside of the area studied our hometown from afar, mourning with us in the loss of two good men in uniform and rooting for or against us as we sent Mississippi’s first female senator to Washington, D.C. Plenty was written from coast to coast about how we treat one another, our history of racism and whether or not we’ve learned anything in 150 years.

The local news cycle in 2018 was heavy, often hard — hard on the people at the center of those stories, hard on the people left behind. Brookhaven and Lincoln County citizens learned much about their community, their government and themselves.

In no particular order, here are The Daily Leader’s Top 10 news stories of 2018.

Hyde-Smith elected to Senate

Cindy Hyde-Smith became the state’s first woman elected to the U.S. Senate after a long campaign drew impressive voter turnout statewide.

For Hyde-Smith, 2018 was a historic year. In March, she was appointed by Gov. Phil Bryant as Mississippi’s first female senator. She took over for Thad Cochran, who retired April 1.  Because she was appointed to finish Cochran’s term, Hyde-Smith was required to run for election in order to keep the position. 

“I pledge to you to serve all our citizens with dignity, honor and respect,” Hyde-Smith said. “I look forward to serving in the U.S. Senate with Sen. Roger Wicker and Mississippi’s congressional delegation. You can get many things done in Washington, D.C. for Mississippi, and I look forward to working side by side with them to truly make our state a better place.”

After accepting the appointment, Hyde-Smith immediately began her campaign to win the seat outright. The race took a strange turn on Nov. 2, when she appeared at a campaign event in Tupelo and praised a cattle rancher by saying, “If he invited me to a public hanging, I’d be on the front row.”

Footage of the statement found its way to social media and brought criticism from both inside and outside of the state from those who alleged the comment was insensitive, given the state’s racist history of lynching. Video from another campaign event came out shortly thereafter in which Hyde-Smith made remarks about limiting voting rights for liberals.

Hyde-Smith gave herself a black eye on the eve of the Nov. 27 run-off against Democratic challenger Mike Espy, but Espy couldn’t take advantage. She won the election comfortably, pulling down 474,190 votes compared to Espy’s 405,209.

“This victory tonight, it’s about our conservative values, it’s about the things that mean the most to all of us Mississippians — our faith, our family — but it’s those things that I will take to Washington D.C.,” Hyde-Smith, 59, said to her supporters at her post-election party in Jackson. “I want to represent all Mississippians with these values. I will fight for it, I assure you, every single day. I am your warrior.”

Police officers killed

Brookhaven policemen Zach Moak and James Kevin White were killed in the line of duty before dawn on Sept. 29. Brookhaven mourned.

Tragedy seems to strike when no one expects it, and there was no exception to the deaths of Cpl. Moak and patrolman White, who were shot down in front of a residence on Sept. 29 while responding to a call of “shots fired” in a neighborhood a couple blocks north of Rosehill Cemetery.

“We answer those calls many times, and nothing ever happens. One hundred times — just that one time is all it takes,” Police Chief Kenneth Collins said after a press briefing at the courthouse. “These are two awesome people who lost their lives in the line of duty, and they’re both heroes. They’re in the presence of Jesus right now.”

The city of Brookhaven mourned the deaths of Moak and White for a week after the shootings, beginning with a moving candlelight vigil at police headquarters that Sunday night. Businesses closed and supporters lined the roadsides for the officers’ two grand funeral processions, and the services were attended by dignitaries and police officers from around Mississippi, the region and nation — a detachment from the New York Police Department was in town to pay respects.

“They never know what the day will hold, but they embrace their responsibility with great passion and commitment to duty,” said Brookhaven Mayor Joe Cox, speaking at the funeral service for Moak. “Know this, our community is strong. We come together in times of tragedy. We will get through this together as only a family can and in so doing we will honor the memory of our fallen (heroes).”

Halftime band show

The Forest Hill High School marching band made a questionable call with its halftime show, and many reactions from Brookhaven and Lincoln County were equally questionable.

On Oct. 5, Brookhaven High School played Forest Hill at home in football. The people of Brookhaven became outraged after the Forest Hill marching band performed their halftime show, which was meant to be an interpretation of the movie “John Q.” The performance included fake guns being wielded by students dressed in scrubs who pointed their weapons at other students on the ground who were dressed as law enforcement officers.

The performance of Forest Hill’s halftime show came only days after the funerals of Cpl. Zach Moak and officer James Kevin White. Photos of the show — and white-hot outrage — began circulating on social media as soon as the game was over.

Local officials, led by Brookhaven Mayor Joe Cox, condemned the band’s performance and called for an investigation from the highest levels of state government. Unfortunately, elected leaders’ calls for accountability were mixed with outright racism on social media platforms from Brookhaven and Lincoln County citizens.

Cox and Brookhaven aldermen shifted tactics by passing a resolution urging the Mississippi High School Activities Association to nix a one-year performance ban it placed on the Forest Hill band — several white and black faith leaders joined the board as the measure passed.

“The ruling of the MHSAA in suspending the students of the Forest Hill marching band from participation in school activities does, in my opinion, place undue punishment on students who do not share any culpability, as they were acting at the direction of their band director,” Cox said, reading from a prepared statement. “An extreme punishment levied on the band members for an adult decision is patently unfair to those students, as well as to their current and future interests.”

MHSAA could not be swayed. The ban stuck, and Forest Hill band director Demetri Jones was fired. 

Massacre anniversary

The one-year anniversary of the 2017 Memorial Day Massacre came and went as a fallen deputy was immortalized and the suspect’s trial began to pick up speed.

On March 8, Willie Cory Godbolt was indicted on several counts of capital murder and other charges in connection to the shooting deaths of eight people in May 2017, including Lincoln County sheriff’s deputy William Durr. After sitting in jail for around nine months, Godbolt’s proceedings finally got underway — he pleaded not-guilty to all charges against him — and by the end of 2018, all the evidence was in and Lincoln County Circuit Judge David Strong promised to push the trial to a start in early 2019.

“We are going to start moving this thing toward trial rapidly after the first of the year,” Strong said. “It’s going to be sooner, rather than later.”

In the midst of the proceedings, the one-year anniversary of the killings passed. In May, Durr was honored at the 30th annual United by Light event in Washington, D.C. His name, along with other fallen police officers, was read aloud to a massive crowd that included a strong local delegation at the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial. The names read were later added to a memorial just a few blocks away.

“It was an awesome experience — very humbling that they take the time to remember William like they did,” said Lincoln County Sheriff Steve Rushing, who was part of the local group in Washington.

Crossing bridges

The Lincoln County Board of Supervisors took out a $5 million loan to pave roads in Lincoln County. A short time later, what may be the biggest infrastructure crisis in state history dropped in their laps, and by the end of 2018 supervisors had spent nearly every penny of their paving money replacing and rehabilitating failing bridges.

The Federal Highway Administration’s demand for third-party inspections of county-owned bridges statewide hit Lincoln County hard — at the beginning of the crisis, it had the third-highest number of timber bridges, the main target of the inspections. Supervisors have replaced, repaired or planned projects for around 50 bridges since July 2017.

“We’re in much better shape replacing these bridges,” said District 4 Supervisor Eddie Brown. “Next time we inspect, a lot of those old timber bridges will be new concrete.”

The crisis made its way to the Legislature and governor’s office — Gov. Phil Bryant issued an emergency order to close hundreds of bridges statewide (none were in Lincoln County), and lawmakers considered several bills to provide long-term infrastructure funding before settling on a sales tax-based formula.

Today, more than 500 bridges statewide remain closed.

School board elections

Lincoln County citizens took an intense interest in the county school board in 2018, voting in three new members in November.

Six Lincoln County citizens ran for a seat on the Lincoln County School District Board of Trustees this year, and six others sought appointment to a vacancy created when a long-serving member resigned. The new appointee, along with the election of three new members in the November elections, has resulted in a county school board that will retain only one member who was in place at the start of 2017.

Brian Magee is the new Bogue Chitto-area representative for Educational District 3 after receiving the position by appointment upon the resignation of former trustee Ricky Welch. Justin Laird is the new District 1 trustee, Billy Vaughn will take over in District 2 and Tim Cunningham will sit in the District 5 seat.

The 2018 election was not favorable for incumbents. The school board had drawn scrutiny from the community over the year for an ongoing elections mistake that resulted in some members serving past their six-year terms — the board’s solution of putting off elections and appointing members in the interim was not popular and ultimately rejected. The board ran into more trouble with bad scores on state accountability rankings and inability to prioritize construction projects around the district.

“I want my kids to have a strong school in Lincoln County, so it’s time for me to serve,” Cunningham said during his candidacy. “I felt like it was time for people of my generation to step up and be willing to serve our community. This past year, I know there’s been some disunity in District 5, and it’s one of those things where you’re either part of the solution or part of the problem.”

Man gets treatment

A local man in need of mental health treatment spent nearly two years in the Lincoln County Jail waiting for a bed at the state hospital. He finally got it when his story was told.

A Lincoln County man who was incarcerated since Christmas Day 2016 was finally released from the Lincoln County Jail Oct. 23 and transferred to the Mississippi State Hospital on a civil commitment.

Lincoln County Public Defender Lesa Baker said her client, Randy Hugh Smith, was released from the Lincoln County Jail and committed to the state hospital after hospital administrators and local court officials made a deal to drop Smith’s charges and remove him from a long waiting list for criminal mental health treatment.

Baker said she had never seen such an offer before, and she believes it came about because of the publicity surrounding Smith’s case. He was the subject of Sept. 8 story in The Daily Leader examining his plight and the relationship between criminal justice and mental health in Mississippi, and local court and law officials, as well as local legislators, made numerous calls seeking help for Smith.

“The article, the phone calls — it finally got someone’s attention,” Baker said. “I’m interested to see how this treatment will be continued, and where he goes next. Hopefully, the state will provide some means to help keep him stable with continued treatment, even if it’s just outpatient treatment or medication.”

Smith spent 22 months incarcerated and waiting for an opening in the state hospital’s 15-bed forensic unit, where individuals facing criminal charges are evaluated to determine whether they can stand trial. 

In September, Smith was No. 14 on the statewide waiting list, which had a total of 84 people.

Stalled case gets moving

A young man from Brookhaven sat in the county jail for almost one year between his arrest for auto burglary and indictment. His case finally started moving after his story was told.

In September of 2017, a jogger in Vernondale called the police when she saw a stranger opening the door of a vehicle that belonged to a friend. The police responded to the call and, not long after, they found someone who matched the description given. The individual in question allegedly dropped a gun he claimed to have stolen out of a vehicle on South First Street. He was arrested and was also charged with a car burglary on Ellen Drive. 

Daylan Browder, 19, spent 339 days in the county jail before being indicted by the grand jury. Prosecutors, believing his case too weak, refused to bring it up before that body, waiting for Brookhaven police to make more headway. By Aug. 15, Lincoln County taxpayers had shelled out around $15,000 to keep Browder stuck in the “gray area” of the criminal justice system.

One week after The Daily Leader wrote about Browder’s stay in jail, he and five other inmates waiting on long jail stays were taken before the grand jury — Browder and three others were finally indicted, the fifth inmate’s felony was reduced to a misdemeanor and the sixth was set free. Browder would ultimately plead guilty and be released because of his time served while awaiting trial.

“Give this young man freedom or give him imprisonment, but give him something,” wrote Brookhaven’s Patricia Willams McGill-Tillman in a letter to the editor after Browder’s story published. “His fate should not continue to hang in the balances.”

Trash collection stinks

Trash collection service was absolute garbage in 2018.

It was a year of change in regard to how Brookhaven and Lincoln County takes out the trash. 

A few complaints, here and there, about Waste Pro’s ability to pick up all the garbage in the city and county turned into a major problem by the summer of 2018, as the company began to miss homes — and entire roads — with alarming regularity. Supervisors and aldermen complained, called in company chiefs for dressing-downs, established a county hotline and made financial threats.

Nothing worked, in the end supervisors saddled up their trucks and trailers and ran behind Waste Pro’s trucks to collect what was missed. City crews did the same. Both supervisors and aldermen chose Arrow Disposal Service Inc. to take over their three-year contracts for garbage collection, sending Waste Pro packing.

Both governments would eventually deduct their trash collection expenses from Waste Pro’s final payments — a combined figure close to $200,000 — in what appears likely to end up as a court battle.

Supervisors voted to give all county residents a $14, one-month rebate on garbage bills, but declined to issue refunds or cancel bills for those who suffered through months of bad garbage service. The one-month rebate is expected to cost the county $127,000. The lack of resolution in garbage bills left some Lincoln Countians unhappy.

“They never picked up at all after March. I started dumping my garbage at the barn, and I took care of my garbage for seven months. I want my bill straightened out,” said District 2 resident Richard Lachney. “Why should I pay for a service I never got? I’m not paying $42 every three months for me to have to take care of my own garbage.”

Soldiers deployed

Southwest Mississippi’s soldiers deployed to the Middle East for the third time since 2001.

Back in March, more than 100 Brookhaven troops with the Mississippi National Guard went to Fort Bliss, Texas, to meet up with other soldiers from Crystal Springs, McComb and Monticello for a three-month training exercise.

After that training, around 4,000 Guardsmen from around Mississippi left the country for a nine-month deployment to Kuwait in support of Operation Spartan Shield, as the 155th Armored Brigade Combat Team took up station to deter and react to threats in the Middle East.

It was the unit’s third time to deploy to the Middle East. Southwest Mississippi’s soldiers headed out for Operation Iraqi Freedom III in 2004 and 2005, and in OIF 9.2 in 2009 and 2010.

“This is what you sign up for,” said Brookhaven’s Spc. Dylan Smith. “I’m excited for it.”