Top news stories of 2021

A school board decision to close R.A. Hubbard must be sent to a federal judge before any action is taken. If the motion is approved, the North Courtland high school faces permanent closure as early as May. The board voted 4-1 to close the school in its December meeting. 

With 2021 coming to a close, The Moulton Advertiser observes its annual tradition of reflecting on the most prominent and impactful stories of the last year. 

As many adjust to the challenges presented by an ongoing global pandemic, COVID-19 continued to make headlines throughout the year, but so did many other major stories. From news of renovations beginning to take place at Lawrence County’s historic courthouse—and other public projects happening across the county—to the loss of two former county commissioners, the following includes a staff-selected list of top news stories from 2021.

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1. Board decision to close R.A. Hubbard must be sent to federal court for approval

A majority vote from the Lawrence County School Board to close R.A. Hubbard High School in North Courtland will now see the superintendent’s proposal sent to a federal judge before a final decision is made.

Superintendent Jon Bret Smith first announced his proposal in November. 

He said closing the predominantly Black school would improve the system’s racial balance and enable it to provide a greater selection of courses for all students. With about 24.5 students per grade, R.A. Hubbard offers few electives.

Smith also said closing R.A. Hubbard would lower the Lawrence County Schools’ operational costs.

“It was a hard night. It was a hard decision,” said Smith, after the board approved his proposal on Dec. 6. “I respect anybody wanting the best for R.A. Hubbard students. I believe that my recommendation and the board’s vote were the right choice for the students.”

Because the Lawrence school system is under a desegregation order, the closing proposal must be presented and approved by a federal judge. 

School board attorney Christopher Pape said he hopes to have the motion filed by Dec. 17. If the board’s action is approved in a federal court, the North Courtland school could permanently close its doors in May.

Pape said the proposal was drawn after years-long discussions about an R.A. Hubbard school closure. 

District 1 board member Christine Garner, who represents the northern area of the county that includes R.A. Hubbard, said the school deserves the same support the other public schools in the county receive.

Garner cast the single opposing vote to Smith’s proposal in the December meeting.

She said Hazlewood High in Town Creek, which also is in District 1, was closed in 2009 and consolidated with R.A. Hubbard. The elementary students in North Courtland and Courtland are bused to Hazlewood Elementary.

“Why is it about closing all the high schools in District 1? All the students need is support from the superintendent and board,” she said. “I’m not convinced it is about the increased number of electives offered at the other schools. The kids need to learn how to study. They don’t need to go to East Lawrence High or Hatton High to be a doctor or lawyer.”

Declining attendance and rising costs

Smith and supporting board members have cited declining enrollment at R.A. Hubbard since 2009 and rising costs per pupil were leading factors in the decision to close the grades 7-12 school. 

According to Lawrence County school data, the per-pupil cost for R.A. Hubbard’s 147 students is $18,030 this year, seventh highest in the state. That amount includes local, state and federal funding.  

The local funding per student is more than twice as high at R.A. Hubbard than at any of the other three high schools in the county. Pape said the system is paying $3,525 for each Hubbard student. The cost at Hatton High is $1,461; East Lawrence High is $1,377; and Lawrence County High is $1,197.

Following the 2009 consolidation of Hazelwood High and R.A. Hubbard, school records show enrollment dropped from 323 in 2009-2010 to a low of 127 in 2016-2017.

Turnbore asked why Hatton High couldn’t close and those students be bused to North Courtland.

Smith said 425 students attend Hatton High and “we’ll be disrupting fewer kids.” Enrollment at East Lawrence Middle is 400, and East Lawrence High is 377.

More than a dozen people, including J.E. Turnbore, president of the Lawrence County Chapter of the NAACP, spoke before the board vote to support keeping R.A. Hubbard open. 

A 2014 R.A. Hubbard graduate, Dymond Young, was also among delegated speakers at the heated meeting. 

Young, who received a Bachelor of Science degree in Chemistry from the University of North Alabama, said she also pursued a graduate degree from the University of Alabama at Birmingham with a 4.0 grade point average.

“That strong foundation came from R.A. Hubbard…I want the students behind me to have that same privilege,” a tearful Young said. “We do not need to play with the welfare and education of these kids. I am asking you, please do not close R.A. Hubbard.”

The board had asked for community feedback beginning Nov. 1 after the proposal to close the school was presented to the board. Pape said 17 responses were received, and two of them were blank.

Travel concerns for students

Of the 17 responses and comments made from representatives who voiced opposition to the plan during the December meeting, several R.A. Hubbard school advocates raised concerns about transporting students safely from the northern portion of the county to new schools. 

“Students will be standing at bus stops early in the morning and returning at dark late in the afternoon. Are you going to provide security at those stops for these students?” Dr. May Watkins Bolden asked board members before votes were cast. 

Bolden argued that spending on security at bus stops and other transitional services outlined in Smith’s proposal would not be as cost effective as letting the school remain open. 

“A close-knit community will be dismantled; students will be displaced,” she said. “Please don’t tell me about numbers, about sports, or about money when we as leaders should provide all children with an educational experience.”

Turnbore agreed. “Busing our students 25 to 30 minutes one way is not solving any desegregation issues,” he said. “It’s not good for the kids.”

Statistics presented during a board meeting Nov. 1 showed Hubbard’s student body is 70.55% Black and 29.45% non-Black. East Lawrence Middle School is 8% Black, East Lawrence High is 9.81% Black and Hatton High is 1.41% Black. After the proposed moves, those percentages will be 11.75%, 18.34% and 9.31% respectively.

District 2 Board member Gary Bradford, who represents the Hatton area, said he fielded “several calls” from people from North Courtland encouraging him to vote to keep the school open.

“Emotions on this issue are high,” said Bradford, a board member since 2006. “I understand that. I remember consolidation last time (2009). I’m still praying about things. It’s a very serious decision.”

Bradford added the Hatton community is “receptive” to adding the R.A. Hubbard students to its high school.

R.A. Hubbard was labeled “failing” in 2018-2019 because the academic performance of students as measured by standardized tests was in the bottom 6% of schools statewide in three of the most recent five years.

In testing last spring, 33.3% of Hubbard students were deemed proficient in English on the Alabama Comprehensive Assessment Program and only 6.85% were proficient in math.

“We’ll give them adequate time to become familiar with the campus,” Smith said. “The students will be assigned a mentor. It’s important they have familiar faces at the new schools. I have provided plenty of rationale for these considerations.”

Pape and Smith said community feedback will help ensure the school system is able to adequately accommodate the impacted students. Pape said plans to help the students acclimate to their new schools are not final and will still be able to be revised during multiple court hearings concerning the closure.

2.  After years of discussion, renovations of Lawrence historic courthouse begin

Restoration of Lawrence County’s historic courthouse began this year after County Commissioners voted in May to begin the demolition phase, which included mold and asbestos removal as well as a gutting of much of the building’s interior. 

“I can’t tell you how many people have asked me about renovating the old courthouse since I came into office,” District 3 Commissioner Kyle Pankey, who is two years into his first term, said in May. “This is something we’ve discussed at length numerous times, but financially, our hands were tied. Now that we’re more financially stable, we’re anxious to take this first step towards getting the courthouse renovated.”

Lawrence commissioners eager to see reconstruction officially begin entered the designing phase of renovation after hiring CMH Architects for the project in a special meeting on Sept. 30. 

“We’ve got some momentum going on this courthouse, and we all want to keep it going,” District 4 Commissioner Bobby Burch said. 

He said commissioners intend for the former courthouse, located in downtown Moulton, to be restored to accurately represent the 1930s era in which the building was originally constructed. 

Plans are to move Lawrence Commission offices, the county’s Industrial Development Board, Archives, the Aging and Transportation departments, and the Coroner’s Office into the building when reconstruction is complete.

IDB President Tabitha Pace said the board has agreed to move into the historic courthouse at no cost as long as the commission could provide space in the structure that is comparable to IDB office space at the annex. 

“This is a big deal for us. We’ve been wanting to do this for so long, and I think we all have ideas of what we’d like to see done. I would love to have a facility that would be conducive to public events,” said Burch. “The architect is going to go to each office to get their ‘wish list.’ We’ve got to make sure the IDB is happy. They own a third of the building we’re in now.”

Commissioners said the current annex building on Alabama 157, which houses the commission offices and the IDB, will be sold to help pay for the renovation project.

Pankey said commissioners also plan to relocate the county’s Archives, which is currently housed in the historic Bank of Moulton on Main Street, and the historic courthouse will also include space for a coroner’s office. 

Once the offices and Archives are moved, Pankey said the commission will sell the former buildings. 

“We want to get all these offices into one building, which will also be more convenient for citizens. When all Lawrence County offices are in the same building or within a block of the new courthouse, they will only have one place to come to conduct their business,” Pankey said. “We will sell the Annex and the old bank. The county will save on utilities and upkeep in having fewer buildings to maintain.”

Construction Manager Kelly Howard, with Martin & Cobey Construction Inc., estimated the project to take at least three years to complete once designs are finished. 

Howard oversaw construction of the Lawrence County Judicial and Administrative Center, which opened in 2013 on Market Street, and told commissioners the building took all of three years to construct.

“New construction is very different from what we’ll be handling here,” he said of the 1936 courthouse that is on the National Register of Historic Places. “We’re looking at two-and-a-half to three years before it’s finished if we were ready to begin now.”

County Commission records show an initial renovation plan laid out by commissioners in January 2013 were estimated at $1 million. The plan included the renovation of the first two floors, restoration of a portion of the basement, and a blueprint for the second-floor courtroom to be converted for the county’s commission chambers.

At that time, Martin & Cobey consultants were asked to scale down the project by “getting it move-in ready,” which meant renovating only the first and second floors, according to a 2019 news report. The county had budgeted $600,000 to renovate both the interior and exterior with money that was left over from a 2009 bond series, which paid for construction of the new courthouse, records show.

The commission spent $367,942 on the exterior, according to Martin & Cobey’s Kelly Howard in early 2015. A “move-in” proposal estimated to cost $608,420 was presented to the commission in December of 2014, but the proposal was later put on hold due to budgetary constraints with Lawrence County’s general fund, the 2019 report said.

Howard now estimates construction for the entire project to cost close to $6 million or $7 million, taking into account “volatile material costs” due to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

During a December work session, he told commissioners he believes that some American Rescue Plan Act money could be used for heating and cooling, plumbing and possible design of offices in the old courthouse. 

Lawrence County is expected to receive $6.385 million in ARPA COVID-19 relief. A portion of those ARPA funds is being used to fund premium pay for county employees. 

“HVAC is where most of the money is spent,” Howard said. “It’s important to keep the air fresh so you don’t get stagnant air that could allow COVID in the room.”

Pankey said the commission expects about 30% of the cost on the overall renovation to go towards heating and cooling. 

“We still don’t have any final numbers,” he said earlier this month. “The courthouse is environmentally clean, which means we’ve removed asbestos and mold. We still have some water issues and have to reroute some plumbing. It could be six months before we get the architectural plan.”

Pankey said the county has found firm financial footing since the commission was able to refinance a bond issue on the new courthouse with lower interest rates. 

Commissioners have also cited an increase in online sales tax revenue, an increase in solid waste revenue, and careful budgeting have allowed the county revisit renovation discussions for the historic building. 

“I am very happy that this building is being saved and being put to good public use,” Tim Littrell, a former district attorney for Lawrence County, said. “There is a lot of history in this building.”

Littrell retired from public office in 1996. He said he had moved into the historic courthouse in 1976 soon after general remodeling had taken place in the mid 70s and after former Circuit Judge Billy C. Burney had overseen remodeling of the second-floor courtroom even earlier. 

Circuit Clerk Sandra Ligon, who also recalled working in the historic courthouse beginning in 1979, echoed those sentiments.

“I think it’s a wonderful thing and I’m so glad it’s coming to fruition,” she said of the renovations. “Every person I’ve talked to from the county—there have been so many fears (the building) would be destroyed. I’m thankful the vision is to keep it and restore. I hope it can be restored somewhat to its original design.”

Historical records show the county’s first courthouse—once located at what is now known as downtown Moulton—was a fenced-in log building that was erected in 1820. The courthouse burned sometime between February and April of 1859, and a new courthouse was built on the square and opened in 1860, according to records. The second courthouse was used as a hospital during the Civil War but was taken out of service in 1936 when the existing limestone structure was opened. 

3. New variants, vaccine status, and ‘new normal’: COVID-19 continues making 2021 headlines

The COVID-19 pandemic began dominating headlines in the spring of 2020 after the first coronavirus case was confirmed for Alabama on March 13, 2020—Lawrence County would begin reporting its earliest cases in late July, according to data retrieved from the Alabama Department of Public Health. 

A year later, COVID-related news stories—resurgent cases, the state’s vaccine rollout schedule, and the reemergence of public gatherings and community events amid a global pandemic—remained as pervasive as in 2020. 

School closures, a statewide emergency shutdown, businesses slowly reopening, mask mandates and extended health orders were the stories of 2020. In 2021, health orders were laxed and a statewide mask mandate finally ended. 

On Dec. 14, 2020, Alabama had received its first shipment of the new Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, and by Dec. 21, the Moderna vaccine option became available at select sites in the state. Each of the vaccine options were granted emergency approval by the Food and Drug Administration in early December. 

That month, ADPH reported short supplies of the vaccine would be distributed to frontline medical staff, first responders, nursing home workers and long-term care residents first. By the first week of 2021, ADPH launched a new Vaccine Distribution Dashboard to efficiently release vaccine information and distribution schedules to the public.

Also that week, ADPH reported that confirmed cases of the virus had risen to 379,593 for the state, up from 351,804 cases reported in Alabama the week of Dec. 31. The total number of cases confirmed in Lawrence County that week were 2,149, up from 1,978 the last week of December 2020. 

By Jan. 7, there were 43 confirmed COVID-related deaths among Lawrence County residents and a total of 4,266 deaths reported statewide. This December, ADPH data showed those numbers have grown drastically. As of Tuesday, 135 Lawrence County residents have died from the coronavirus. Of that number, ADPH lists 71 of those deaths as occurring in 2021. There were 16,436 deaths reported in Alabama as of this week, nearly quadrupling the number of deaths reported as of early January. 

Vaccine rollout begins in Alabama

Added to the list of those eligible for COVID-19 vaccines, ADPH announced that beginning Jan. 18, residents 75 and older could begin scheduling their first dose of the Pfizer or Moderna options. By April, ADPH had opened up eligibility to most residents over 16 years old regardless of occupation. 

In February, a third vaccine option, the single-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine, was granted emergency authorization by the FDA. 

Lawrence Medical Center in Moulton received its first shipment of vaccines in late March. LMC CEO Dean Griffin said the hospital administered its first doses of the Moderna vaccine to scheduled patients the week of April 1.

The hospital became the fifth vaccine provider in Lawrence County that week, according to ADPH. The ADPH vaccine dashboard listed Lawrence County Health Department, Family Health Care in Town Creek, Moulton CVS Pharmacy and Moulton Walmart as other vaccine sites for the county. As of Tuesday, the ADPH dashboard continues listing each of those sites as vaccine sites for Lawrence County. 

As of Tuesday, 12,681 Lawrence County residents were considered fully vaccinated. That number translates to about 38% of the county. Comparatively, the vaccination rate for Morgan County was at 42% as of Tuesday, and about 45% of Limestone County residents have been fully vaccinated as of this week, according to ADPH data.

Statewide, more than 2.2 million Alabamians are considered fully vaccinated as of this week, the data showed.

Mask mandate ends

By April 8, Gov. Kay Ivey announced a statewide mask mandate would expire that Friday after the state had extended vaccine eligibility to all Alabama residents ages 16 and over that week. 

“Folks, we’re still under a public health order,” Ivey said that week, “but it is greatly slimmed down due to everyone doing their part to practice social distancing, wearing a mask, and voluntarily getting a vaccine.”

While the state was no longer requiring masks to be worn in public settings, the governor continued urging Alabamians to wear face coverings in close contact with others and encouraged residents to take the COVID shots. 

In Lawrence County, Commissioners followed the state directive but continued recommending masks inside county offices. 

Just before the mask order had expired for the state, event organizers announced the return of one of Lawrence County’s largest annual festivals.

The Strawberry & Antique Festival saw a full recovery in its return year following the 2020 cancellation due to the COVID-19 pandemic, according to event director Stanley Johnson.

“The 6th annual festival was the largest one we’ve ever had,” Johnson said in May. “The weather helped tremendously, and the need to bounce back from COVID, I’m sure was a large factor in driving the crowds.”

The two-day event was held in Moulton on Friday, April 30, and Saturday, May 1. 

The Strawberry Festival, which was organized to promote local businesses and downtown Moulton, draws thousands of visitors each year from across North Alabama. 

The event likely paved the way for other community events throughout Lawrence County. In the summer, one of Lawrence County’s longest running events returned to downtown Courtland.

The historic town’s 44th Annual Picnic in the Park was held in downtown Courtland on Saturday, June 5.

Mayor Linda Peebles believes the town’s 2021 Picnic saw as much participation in its comeback year as it had 45 years ago when the annual event first kicked off in Courtland. 

“If you weren’t in Courtland on Saturday, you missed a great day with beautiful weather, plenty of fun and some wonderful food,” Peebles said following the event. “We saw crowds all day long. There were probably several hundred people on the square at any given time throughout the day.”

4. Commissioner Hargrove dies in motorcycle crash

 Lawrence County District 5 Commissioner Joey Hargrove, who was 53 at the time of his death, was killed following a motorcycle accident in the Caddo Community on March 22. 

His death, which was announced by the Lawrence County Commission that Monday afternoon, is being called a tragedy that will likely be felt in the community for years to come. 

“I could always depend on Joey to do what’s right for the citizens,” Lawrence County Coroner Scott Norwood said of the District 5 commissioner. “He was a good man and a good friend.”

Norwood said he received the call from Cullman Regional Medical Center that Monday afternoon. He said Hargrove was being transported by helicopter to Huntsville Hospital when he went into cardiac arrest and the flight was diverted to the Cullman hospital.

An ER physician pronounced Hargrove dead at 2:01 p.m., according to Norwood. He said Hargrove had also suffered internal injuries from the crash.

The two-vehicle crash occurred near the Lawrence County 434 intersection when the 2005 Harley-Davidson motorcycle Hargrove was driving collided with a 2017 Ford Focus, according to reports from the State Troopers office. 

The accident was reported shortly after noon on March 22. 

District 3 Commissioner Kyle Pankey worked the accident scene as a member of the Lawrence County EMS. 

“He had a broken left leg and some internal injuries,” Pankey said. “He was conscious and talking with me and in a lot of pain when we loaded him on the helicopter.”

Hargrove was about 30 yards away from his motorcycle and the other vehicle, according to Pankey. He said the vehicles were near the parking lot of Dollar General on Alabama 24.

“It’s tragic,” Pankey said. “His heart was always in the best interest of the people of Lawrence County.

News of Hargrove’s death came just weeks after news of the death of former Commissioner Bradley Cross, who served as the District 3 commissioner for four terms.

Cross, 82, died at his home on Thursday, March 4. 

County Administrator Heather Dyar-Rose said Cross’ personality was unequaled in the county.

“Bradley never met a stranger and treated everyone fairly,” she said. “He was a longtime servant to the residents of Lawrence County.”

Cross’s seat was filled by Pankey in 2018 when he decided not to seek re-election. Cross had served two terms on the commission with District 5’s Hargrove.

Hargrove was in his third term as county commissioner at the time of the fatal accident. His wife, Sonia, was appointed by Gov. Kay Ivey in August to fill his unexpired term.

Sonia Hargrove listed her husband’s unfinished work, East Lawrence Veterans Park and senior citizens centers throughout the county among her priorities once she took office. 

“I applied to fill Joey’s term because I wanted somebody who had as much passion as he did for District 5,” she said. “I worked behind the scenes with Joey… serving the residents for the past 11 years that Joey served.”

Hargrove feels strongly that Veterans Park should remain dumpster-free after her husband had fought to see the dumpster removed last year due to mounting litter issues recurring at the site.

“I have no plans to return the community dumpster to the park. There was so much abuse of it,” she said. “I want to work closely with the park board to help ensure the park runs smoothly so our children have a quality and safe place to play.”

County Commission Chairman Norman Pool said Hargrove will be a good fit on the commission. 

“We’re looking forward to working with her,” Pool said. “I believe she was the rightful choice by the governor.” Five others sought the appointment, according to Lawrence County Republican Executive Committee Director Daniel Stover.

A kindergarten teacher at Banks Caddell Elementary School in Decatur, Hargrove said she has no plans for the seat when her term expires in January 2023. 

Joey Hargrove was survived by his wife and their two children Gabbie and Gavin. 

Sadly Gavin Hargrove, 20, was found dead on Christmas Eve after the Lawrence County Sheriff’s Office received a call about a possible dead body at the residence of Timothy Dakota McCary, 21, 6859 Lawrence County Road 217.

McCary was arrested on Saturday and charged with capital murder. 

Lawrence Coroner Scott Norwood said Gavin Hargrove was found with a single gunshot wound to his left cheekbone. He said Hargrove was pronounced dead at 7:55 p.m., though the shooting likely occurred on Thursday. For more on this developing story, see page A1. 

5. Lawrence teacher accused of sex crimes is found dead at her home in May

An R.A. Hubbard High School teacher, who had been accused of having sex with two students and arrested on May 27, was found dead of a self-inflicted gunshot wound at her home just two days later. 

Leslie Buttram Gillespie, 44, of 4890 Lawrence County 170 in Hillsboro, was discovered in her backyard with a 9mm pistol near her body on Saturday morning, May 29, according to Lawrence County Coroner Scott Norwood. 

He received a call from Lawrence County 911 at 11:31 a.m., and he pronounced her dead at the scene at 11:58 a.m. Norwood said Gillespie’s body was sent to the state forensics office in Huntsville for an autopsy because of the criminal investigation that began before the death.

The Thursday before, Gillespie had been charged with second-degree rape, second-degree sodomy and two counts of engaging in a sex act with a student under the age of 19, according to Lawrence County Sheriff Max Sanders.

The two teens allegedly met Gillespie in her classroom after school hours in September 2020 and had sex with her there, according to a criminal complaint filed in the Lawrence County District Court on May 28 by Sgt. Wheeler Lovelady.  

Tim Sandlin, who served as chief deputy of the Sheriff’s Office at the time of the charges, said Gillespie was arrested and brought into the jail by an investigator. She bonded out that Thursday afternoon, Sandlin said.

Lawrence County District Attorney Errek Jett said the bond was set at $60,000, $15,000 on each count. He said the rape and sodomy charges were Class B felonies punishable by up to 20 years in prison. The two underage sex charges were punishable by up to 10 years in prison.

The school system had placed Gillespie on administrative leave with pay while the investigation was underway.

Schools Superintendent Jon Bret Smith said school system leaders were “conducting an investigation into this matter and will support law enforcement as they do the same.”

“While the district cannot provide any specific details at this time,” he said following Gillespie’s arrest, “we want to emphasize that there is nothing more important to Lawrence County Schools than the safety and well-being of our students.”  

He said placing an employee on administrative leave is standard procedure “when allegations and investigations like this occur.”

According to the Lawrence County Schools website, Gillespie is an English teacher at R.A. Hubbard High School in North Courtland. In December 2019, her first year at the school, she was named the school’s teacher of the year for 2019-2020. She is listed as the eighth-grade cheerleader sponsor for the Chiefs.

In August 2019, school board minutes show she transferred to R.A. Hubbard from Hazlewood Elementary School in Town Creek.

6. Lockheed Martin unveils Hypersonics facility in Courtland

A new hypersonic weapons production facility opened in Courtland earlier this year after state and local leaders attended a ribbon cutting ceremony for Lockheed Martin’s new 65,000-square-foot Hypersonic Missile Assembly Building 4 at the Lawrence County site on Monday, Oct. 4. 

Lawrence Industrial Development Board President Tabitha Pace, whose organization approved a 10-year tax abatement for the construction of MAB4 in 2019, called the opening of the new facility “remarkable.” She said Lawrence IDB is excited and thankful the company chose Courtland for its expansion.

“Lockheed Martin remains one of Lawrence County’s top industrial partners. The continued investment and additional jobs are a testament to the workforce and skills available in the North Alabama region,” she said. “They are a tremendous asset to our area, and I look forward to working with Lockheed Martin and their Courtland team to ensure their programs’ success.”

Construction for Lockheed Martin’s new advanced manufacturing building began two years ago, making North Alabama a central location for hypersonic strike production and creating 70 new jobs for the local area.

“Even though this facility does indeed strengthen our national security, it’s also modeled to strengthen our economy,” Lockheed Martin President & CEO Jim Taiclet said at the October grand opening. “Innovations and expertise developed here is going to contribute greatly to this state’s and this region’s ability to compete in the high-tech global economy. It’s also going to contribute to the livelihood of the people in northern Alabama with the approximate 70 additional jobs we plan to create as our production grows.”

He said the company’s Advanced Manufacturing Technician Apprenticeship Program, also known as AMTAP, has had 40 graduates onboarded as full-time employees at the Courtland facility since the program began. 

Lawrence County Superintendent Jon Bret Smith and Lawrence Career Technical Center Director Robby Vinzant said AMTAP through Lockheed Martin will open doors for Lawrence County graduates seeking science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) careers.

“We’re excited about the programs for students that have started in the past year,” Vinzant said. “Our students and the high schools participating these programs have curriculum, Ready to Work, OSHA 10—so they’re doing all these different things suggested by Lockheed Martin… It’s just a great experience for the kids. They get to connect with business and industry of the outside world.” 

Vinzant and Smith said their goal is to see more Lawrence County graduates accepted into AMTAP after high school graduation. Candidates who are successful in the program are offered full-time work with Lockheed Martin upon completion of the apprenticeship.

Eric Scherff, the vice president of hypersonic strike programs with Lockheed Martin Space, said students who pursue advanced education in STEM fields are encouraged to become a part of the developing hypersonic missile program.

He said the 70 new jobs created by the new program will bring employment at Lockheed’s Courtland location to 240. The new jobs will also add to more than 2,600 Lockheed employees of North Alabama. 

“The Courtland area specifically has a tremendous and talented labor force, a lot of people anxious and eager to get into the business of high-tech capabilities,” said Scherff. 

Courtland Mayor Linda Peebles said the expansion is critical for continued growth and economic development in Courtland and the rest of Lawrence County.

“It means so much for the Town of Courtland. This expansion is adding and supplying jobs to the younger generation—keeping students in the county instead of seeing them leave to find good-paying jobs. The revenue this facility will bring will help ensure more people living and working here, and hopefully we’ll see more people moving into the area. We’re proud to be building a good relationship with Lockheed.”

The economic benefits of MAB4 weren’t the only news exciting local and state leaders. Scherff said the weapons being assembled at the new facility will help the U.S. “catch up” to hypersonics weaponry being produced by adversaries Russia and China. 

“We are ultimately way behind Russia and China, and we’ve got a lot of catching up to do,” he said. “With the workforce and this mission, we can absolutely catch up.”

Hypersonic missiles fly at Mach 5, five times the speed of sound, or faster, according to Lockheed officials. The missiles built in Courtland have the capability of being launched from ships, submarines and the ground, Scherff added. 

Joining the Lockheed ceremony on Oct. 4, U.S. Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Tuscaloosa), U.S. Rep. Robert Aderholt (R-Haleyville), and U.S. Rep. Mo Brooks (R-Huntsville) each echoed the call for a hypersonics strike mission.

“The No. 1 priority of Congress and our president is to defend national security here and across the world,” Shelby said. “We can’t afford to come in second or third on this. It’s a must for us. Hypersonic weapons will put us in a driver seat. We can’t come in second. Defending the American people is a high, high priority.”

He said digital and hi-tech advances like those happening at Lockheed Martin pave the way in the race for defense.

Sarah Hiza, the vice president and general manager of Strategic and Missile Defense Systems at Lockheed Martin Space, said the ongoing efforts at Lockheed Martin will help close the gap in hypersonics research and development.

“Lockheed Martin has manufactured defense systems in Courtland since 1994, providing increasingly sophisticated capabilities to protect our nation, allies, and security partners” she said. “Our long-time partnerships with Alabama, the Department of Defense, and academic researchers have paved the way to develop the most advanced hypersonic strike capabilities using the best-of-the-best digital technologies from across our enterprise.”

7. Moulton and Courtland appoint new police chiefs

Moulton and Courtland Police chiefs announced plans to retire early this year, leading to the appointment of new chiefs for the two Lawrence municipalities. 

Moulton Police Chief Craig Knight was sworn in during a regular Moulton City Council meeting on Monday, Feb. 2. 

Knight, a 23-year veteran with the Moulton Police Department, was appointed to the position when former Chief Lyndon McWhorter announced his retirement for Jan. 31. 

McWhorter had served as a law enforcement officer in Lawrence County for 30 years, 15 of which was spent with the Moulton Police Department.

“It’s a dream come true for me to be appointed this position,” Knight said in a January meeting after the council made their selection. “I want my officers and the public, too, to know I will have an open-door policy.”

District 4 Councilwoman Cassandra Lee said she will hold Knight to a high bar. “I will want him and his officers to be fair to everyone, regardless of their color or where they live in the city.”

Knight was among three candidates interviewed for the position by the council. The three candidates, Knight, Russell Graham and Casey Baker each said they were interested in hiring a minority police officer and improving community relations if they were selected as the next chief.

Knight said boosting department morale and improving relations with surrounding law enforcement agencies were also among his priorities as acting chief of police. 

The former Courtland Police Chief, Steven Terry, also retired officially on Jan. 31. 

Dennis Sharp, who has over 20 years in law enforcement experience including his service as the head of the Lawrence County Sheriff’s Office Drug Task Force until Dec. 2018, was selected to replace Terry.

Before a Town Council voted on the appointment, Town Clerk Vickie Jackson said the council had agreed to hire a new chief from within Courtland’s Police Department. Sharp has also served on the police force with Town Creek and North Courtland departments. 

Sharp was officially hired on Feb. 8 by the Courtland Council. 

“As a full-time officer, (Sharp) has done a great job,” Mayor Linda Peebles said. “We are very fortunate to be able to hire someone with experience and his knowledge.”

The City of Moulton saw an additional administrative change among its city first responders earlier this year. Moulton’s former Fire Chief Ryan Jolly announced his resignation in July, and the city’s new Fire Chief Brian Phillips was sworn in by early August.

Jolly, who was appointed by the city in the fall of 2007, announced he was leaving the Moulton department for another position in fire service outside of Lawrence County. His resignation became official on July 8. 

“I feel like I’ve accomplished everything I came to do here,” Jolly said. “I’m grateful to the city for giving me the opportunity. I was extremely young then, and I know there were plenty of questions from (former Mayor Ray) ‘Red’ Alexander and the council at that time. Red challenged me to leave the department better than I found it, and I believe I’ve been successful in that.”

At the time of Jolly’s resignation, Phillips was appointed interim chief until the council came to a final decision a few weeks later.

Phillips came recommended by District 1 Council member Joyce Jeffreys, who said former Chief Jolly also advocated for Phillips. The council had accepted one other application for the role from within the fire department. 

“We’re fortunate to have such good employees to choose from, but in this case, I believe Mr. Phillip’s experience in the department and his experience as interim chief speak for itself. I think he’s the right man for the job,” Jeffreys said before Phillips was officially sworn in on Aug. 2. 

District 4 Council member Cassandra Lee agreed and said Phillip’s demonstrated his skill and dedication to the Moulton department during his time as acting chief. 

Phillips said recruiting more volunteers and growing the department’s public relations are among his top goals for the department moving forward.

“I want to see the department continue to grow,” he said. “We’ll be talking with students to let them know about (a new) explorer program. We hope to recruit more volunteers this way and get more student interest by maintaining a presence in the schools.”

The new fire chief, who was introduced to fire service through a cadet and explorer program in Decatur while he was still in high school, said Moulton Fire’s participation in a similar cadet program with the Lawrence County Sheriff’s Department will be a first step in recruiting young volunteers and firefighters. 

Phillips came on board with the Moulton Fire Department 18 years ago. He has served as assistant chief for the past three years and served as captain in the years before. 

“I want to thank the mayor and council for putting their trust in me,” Phillips said. “Being able to serve the citizens of Moulton means a lot to me. It’s an honor.”

8. Lawrence murder defendant dies from injuries sustained in August ATV crash

An Addison man who was awaiting trial on charges of murdering his girlfriend in the fall of 2020 in Lawrence County was killed following an off-road vehicle accident in August of this year.

Jeffrey Dylan Spillers, 24, of National Forest Road, was severely injured in an ATV accident in Winston County on Aug. 14. He was transported to UAB Hospital in Birmingham, where he later died, according to Lawrence and Winston county authorities. 

State Trooper Gregory Corble said the one-vehicle accident was on private property. 

Spillers was awaiting a jury trial, set for Feb. 14, 2022, in the Lawrence County Circuit Court. He was charged with fatally shooting his girlfriend, KC Lynn Hatfield, 29, of 1477 County Road 188, on Oct. 8.

Investigators were called to Hatfield’s residence around 12:25 a.m. that Friday, according to a report from the Lawrence County Sheriff’s Office.

Hatfield died at Huntsville Hospital, where she had been airlifted for a gunshot wound to her head, authorities said.

Spillers was initially charged with manslaughter, but on Jan. 29, a Lawrence County grand jury issued an eight-count indictment, which included one count of murder, two counts of manslaughter and single counts of first-degree domestic violence, reckless endangerment of a child and chemical endangerment of a child.

According to the complaint, Spillers admitted “to being under the influence and recklessly pointing a firearm at a person ... and discharging a firearm at a person.” He also admitted to owning marijuana and paraphernalia found on a coffee table in the living room, according to the complaint.

The reckless endangerment and chemical endangerment charges were brought because a 5-year-old was present inside the residence and had access to the marijuana the night Hatfield was shot, according to the indictment.

Lawrence County District Attorney Errek Jett, who met with Hatfield’s family following Spiller’s death, said the family was disappointed Spillers wouldn’t be tried for the crimes.

“As a group they seemed somewhat saddened that they didn’t get to see justice in the courtroom,” he said.

Jett said his office planned to file a motion to close the case after it received an official death certificate or obituary on Spillers.

Spillers was out of Lawrence County Jail on $123,000 bail when the ATV accident occurred.

 

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