Top stories of 2013: 3rd Brigade stays, Sheriff Darr faces controversy

chwilliams@ledger-enquirer.comDecember 29, 2013 

Soldiers from the 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 3rd Infantry Division exit a Blackhawk helicopter during training exercises Wednesday afternoon at Fort Benning.

It has been a good news, bad news kind of year in Columbus and the Chattahoochee Valley.

But there has been more good news than bad as evidenced by the top two stories in our recap of the 2013 stories of the year.

The June decision by the U.S. Department of Army to leave the 3rd Armored Brigade Combat Team in place at Fort Benning is this year’s top story as selected by the Ledger-Enquirer staff.

And it wasn’t the only good economic news to find its way near the list of top stories.

After a nearly five-year struggle, in July Columbus-based Synovus Financial Corp., repaid the nearly $1 billion it borrowed from the U.S. government at the onset of the Great Recession.

While it was a good year — relatively speaking — for Fort Benning and Synovus, it has been a difficult year for Muscogee County Sheriff John Darr. He lost a federal gender discrimination case, had three inmate deaths in the jail in less than 10 days and has been called on the carpet by the mayor and Columbus Council for budget overruns in his office.

Here is a complete rundown of the year’s top stories:

1. 3rd Armored Brigade stays

The stakes were high as the Army talked of eliminating eight combat brigades as part of a force reduction. If the 3rd Armored Brigade Combat Team had been lost, it could have cost Fort Benning 3,850 soldiers and 3,200 civilian workers.

Like a military preparing for battle, the Greater Columbus Chamber of Commerce went on the offensive.

“We never went in there and said this will have a tremendous economic impact, please don’t do that,” said Gary Jones, an economic development and military affairs executive at the Chamber of Commerce, describing the strategy taken by local city leaders in meeting Army officials.

Instead, the group showed how U.S. taxpayers and the local community had invested heavily in Fort Benning during the last Base Realignment and Closure process, including installing new railheads and moving the U.S. Armor School here from Fort Knox, Ky. And it showed how the military could remain fine-tuned for future world conflicts, while growing the troop numbers here.

“We actually laid out a program to show if they had to take a brigade from the 3rd Infantry Division, that if they took the brigade from the Fort Stewart main body, it would minimize the impact,” said Jones, noting the chamber and Columbus Mayor Teresa Tomlinson had the chance to meet face-to-face with the Army team studying the cuts.

While Fort Benning kept the brigade, Fort Stewart, Ga., home to the 3rd Infantry Division, the 3rd Brigade’s parent unit, will lose one of its three brigades.

2. Synovus repays TARP

The last week in July was a good one for Synovus.

“It’s an exclamation point on our recovery,” said Kessel Stelling, Synovus chairman and chief executive officer. “In one week, to have a strong earnings report, three ratings agency upgrades, two successful capital offerings, and now pay back TARP, that’s a pretty good week’s work.”

Make no mistake, the crowning point was the repayment of a $967.870 million bailout from the federal Troubled Asset Relief Program.

It was a long time coming. Synovus, parent company of Columbus Bank and Trust, the city’s largest financial institution, accepted the TARP funding through the Capital Purchase Program in December 2008. As other banks repaid the money they had received from the U.S. government, Synovus eventually had the dubious distinction of owing the most of any financial institution.

There was relief and jubilation.

“I think my computer might crash with messages that are coming in from around our system, from team members that are just elated at the news,” Stelling said at the time.

3. Sheriff John Darr’s rough year

The first year of Sheriff John Darr’s second term has not been smooth.

His office’s promotion practices were put on trial in U.S. District Court in September. A jury found Darr discriminated against two women — Lt. Joan Wynn and Lt. Donna Tompkins — who were denied a captain’s promotion that went to what they claim was a lesser-qualified man. The seven-woman, five-man jury, however, did not award Wynn and Tompkins any financial compensation in what one juror described as a “compromise verdict.”

That put the case back in the hands of Judge Clay Land, who ordered Tompkins promoted and the city to pay about $270,000 in attorney’s fees for the Atlanta lawyers who represented Tompkins and Wynn.In the wake of Land’s order, Darr and the city settled the suit with Tompkins and Wynn two days before Christmas, giving them $265,000 and agreeing to the court-ordered promotion of Tompkins.

Darr has contended he did not discriminate against the two women.

The federal court decision wasn’t Darr’s only issue.

Columbus Council has questioned him about spending more than $2 million over his office’s budget. In his first five years in office, Darr has spent $7 million more than budgeted by the city government.

The sheriff contends the expenses are related to jail overtime and medical treatment for inmates in the Muscogee County Jail, which his office operates.

Darr also has asked the Georgia Bureau of Investigation to look into three recent inmate deaths in the jail. On Nov. 8, authorities found 57-year-old Issac Kindred dead after a fight with a second inmate who has since been charged with murder and aggravated assault.

A 46-year-old inmate, Lori Carroll, died Oct. 24. Her cause of death is unclear. On Oct. 29, 21-year-old inmate Maurice Grier died of a brain aneurysm.

4. Whitewater course opens

This will be known as the year the Chattahoochee River’s flow into downtown Columbus was altered. A 2.5 mile whitewater course known as Chattahoochee River Park opened Memorial Day Weekend.

By the end of the summer more than 16,000 rafters went down the river, prompting Whitewater Express owner Dan Gilbert to predict 40,000 or more next summer.

John Turner, an executive at W.C. Bradley Co., was the driving force behind the nearly 13-year, $24.5 million project to blow up two dams and reverse a 150 years of industrial history.

“There is one star of this great, big story — and that is this river,” Turner said. “It was amazing when we got here 150 years ago, and it will be amazing a thousand years from now.”

The river did not take long to exert its authority — and the tool that was used was Cut Bait, a nasty Class IV rapid just below the Eagle & Phenix complex.

On the third day of operation, Whitewater Express guides piled up more than 15 rafts in the rapid, sending paying customers airborne and creating a stir that led to closing the rapid for several weeks.

The entire scene was caught on a video that was posted to YouTube, then went viral. It turned into free publicity and brought rafters to Columbus to try and tame Cut Bait.

The course was named one of the world’s top man-made adventure attractions by USA Today.

“Anyone who decides to run that rapid should understand they could be thrown out of the boat, pushed deep under water and thrashed around,” said Charlie Walbridge, a whitewater safety expert from West Virginia. “It is not everybody’s idea of fun.” The rapids have brought kayakers, surfers and other adventure seekers to downtown Columbus and Phenix City.

5. Two high-profile murder cases wrap up

In May, two of the most intriguing murder cases in Columbus came to a conclusion when both defendants took separate guilty pleas. Michael Jason Registe, 30, was given two life sentences to serve simultaneously for the 2007 execution-style killings of 21-year-old Randy Newton Jr. and 20-year-old Bryan Kilgore.

Registe made the FBI’s Most Wanted list after fleeing to the Caribbean. He was captured in 2008 on the island of St. Maarten. One of the conditions of his extradition to the U.S. was he could not face the death penalty.

The other case to come to a legal conclusion was the 2010 fatal shooting of Christian radio disc jockey Heath Jackson.

Ricardo Strozier pleaded guilty to Jackson’s homicide and a string of related crimes. He was sentenced to life in prison with no possibility of parole. As part of his plea agreement, he also relinquished any right to appeal.

The Muscogee County District Attorney’s office had been seeking the death penalty against Strozier, but instead made a deal months before the case would have gone to trial.

6. Muscogee County School District hires superintendent, launches ethics probe

The Muscogee County School District had an interesting year that saw a new superintendent hired after a 16-month search and the board call for an ethics investigation into a sitting state senator and local political operative.

The board turned to an assistant superintendent from Polk County, Fla., to lead the 32,000-student district. David Lewis, who was hired in July, became available after he failed to get the top job in his home district.

Lewis replaced Susan Andrews, who left in the summer of 2011. Former Superintendent John Phillips had been running the show in the interim.

Lewis outlined a 120-plan and has been working on it most of the fall, meeting with community leaders and going into every school in the district.

“I want them to know that I’m a very dedicated professional educator,” he said. “I’m very transparent.”

While the board was hiring Lewis, it was in the middle of a long-running political squabble with Sen. Josh McKoon and Frank Myers, both local attorneys. Some board members said they had been threatened by McKoon and Myers and asked for a GBI investigation that saw every board member interviewed.

The issue was a no-bid relationship between the school district and the law firm of Hatcher Stubbs. Myers and McKoon have advocated for a bidding process.

The GBI found no criminal wrongdoing, clearing McKoon and Myers.

7. Phenix City School Board buys out superintendent

The Larry DiChiara drama began to unfold the Tuesday before Thanksgiving and will likely continue into the new year,

The Board of Education and DiChiara agreed to a buyout that could cost the school district more than $750,000 in a lump sum, according to terms of the deal confirmed by DiChiara and board attorney Sydney Smith.

The problem is the deal was not sealed before DiChiara, a former Alabama Superintendent of the Year, was relieved of his duties. DiChiara led the Phenix City district for 9 1/2 years before the divorce from the system.

On Christmas Eve, DiChiara filed a lawsuit against the board, seeking health insurance and the honoring of his contract among other things.

Stay tuned on this one as details about the ongoing issues between DiChiara and the board are made public.

8. Summer of loss for Columbus Police Department

Columbus Police Department chaplain Roy Isasi summed it up best.

“It has been one funeral after another,” he said this summer after the department buried three veteran officers with a total of 84 years of experience.

Capt. Jackey Long, a 25-year veteran, died July 8, about two months after being diagnosed with cancer.

Cpl. Keith Slay, who had 28 years combined with the police department and the Muscogee County Sheriff’s Office, died in the line of duty on July 30 when the truck he was driving while responding to a call was clipped by another vehicle, then slid out of control and crashed into a north Veterans Parkway utility pole.

Capt. Vince Pasko, a 31-year police veteran, was found dead almost two weeks ago of an apparent suicide.

“I have never seen casualties within this department come so fast, with this level of impact,” said Chief Ricky Boren.

9. Lockhart cleared in Carr shooting

In May a Muscogee County grand jury cleared a Columbus police officer of any criminal wrongdoing in the fatal 2011 shooting of a Fort Benning fire inspector and a suspected bank robber.

District Attorney Julia Slater announced the decision after about 20 grand jurors spent six hours reviewing evidence and hearing testimony regarding the Sept. 6, 2011, shooting in which Officer Vincent Lockhart Jr. fatally wounded Fort Benning worker Tony Carr, after chasing robbery suspect Alrahiem Tolbert from the MEA Credit Union at 2944 Macon Road.

Also killed in the shooting was Alrahiem Tolbert, who while fleeing Lockhart had taken Carr’s government pickup truck from the driveway of a house Carr rented at 2907 Gardenia St.

Slater said she invited Carr’s family to address the grand jury, paying their travel expenses to come here. Among those testifying was Carr’s brother Michael.

“This is a miscarriage of justice,” he said afterward. “That’s ridiculous.”

10. The Twinkies are back

If 2012 was the death of Twinkies because of bankruptcy, 2013 saw the rebirth of the company and its Victory Drive bakery.

With a $1 million cash incentive from the city and its development authority, Hostess Brands LLC agreed to reopen its local plant. It will bring 400 jobs back to the city.

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