The year 2020 may go down as one of the most remarkable years in history; no doubt it’s certainly been one for the books. As we take a look back on the most memorable and prominent stories of the past year, we find it somewhat difficult to sift through and find any stories not associated with the COVID-19 pandemic. While the novel coronavirus continues to make headline after headline, 2020 was also a year to remember for many other happenings.
From the general election held during a census year to big announcements concerning industry for Lawrence County, 2020 gave us plenty to smile—and mostly wince—about. As the new year approaches, The Moulton Advertiser would once again like to take a look back on the previous year by reflecting on staff-selected top 10 news stories of 2020.
1. The global pandemic finds its way to Lawrence County
COVID-19 began making headlines all over the state in March, though it took several weeks to find evidence of the virus in Lawrence County. The county reported its first confirmed case in late March, and it wasn’t until late July the county reported its first confirmed COVID-19-related death.
On March 10, Lawrence Medical Center announced it was limiting visitation to the hospital as a precaution against COVID-19 although no cases had yet been confirmed in Alabama at the time. By March 19, 36 cases had been found in the state, with 20 of those positive tests being reported in Jefferson County, according to findings from the Alabama Department of Public Health.
On March 13, Gov. Kay Ivey issued a state of emergency, announcing that all public schools would close until at least April 6—a date that would be pushed back to August due to the spread of the virus. Ivey would later issue her first Stay at Home order—later amended to Safer at Home orders—forcing Alabamians to remain at home under lockdown with a few exceptions such as traveling for work, leaving home to obtain groceries and emergency supplies or for medical emergencies.
“This is a very fluid situation that changes hourly. This is a scenario that has never been encountered by school administrators in the state,” Lawrence Schools Superintendent Jon Bret Smith said following the school closures. “This has never been done before. We’re doing the best we can, and we remain committed to doing what’s best for our children.”
Lawrence Medical reported finding its first positive COVID-19 case on Sunday, March 29. The positive result was among three others confirmed for Lawrence County that week, according to ADPH. At that time, statewide confirmed cases had risen to 981, and ADPH reported that 13 Alabama residents had died as a result of the virus.
Lawrence County reported its first confirmed COVID-19 death the week of Aug. 3, and by Monday, Aug. 10, had reported a second COVID-19 death, according to ADPH.
“Lawrence County has been very fortunate not to have any deaths up til now,” ADPH Area Administrator Judy Smith said that Tuesday. “It’s very tragic for those families, but again what that says is that nobody is exempt from the concerns about this virus. It’s community-spread and it affects everybody.”
That same week, Morgan County had reported a death toll of 19, Lauderdale County reported 20 deaths, Colbert County reported 17, and 22 Franklin County residents were reported dead from COVID-19. That week, Alabama’s death toll climbed to 1,781.
Though the state had issued several Safer at Home health amendments to Ivey’s first COVID-19 health order, which saw less restrictive mandates on public gatherings and allowed certain businesses to reopen from May to June, Ivey also issued her statewide mask mandate on Wednesday, July 15. The mandate requires face coverings to be worn in public by anyone over the age of six and remains in effect as of Dec. 31 as case numbers continue to climb.
“I always prefer personal responsibility over a government mandate, and yet I also know with all my heart that the numbers and data over the past few weeks are definitely trending in the wrong direction,” Ivey said in her July address. “We are calling on everyone—everyone in the state—to practice personal responsibility and wear a mask.”
Most Lawrence County public schools resumed on Aug. 12, with amended learning options including traditional in-person, virtual, or blended programs for its students. Students who chose traditional or blended options were required to social distance in the classrooms and the halls, vending machines and water fountains were taken away, and other restrictive guidelines were followed, according to school reports.
Moulton Elementary and Moulton Middle schools delayed opening until Aug. 26 at the beginning of the new school year after an individual connected to the two schools had tested positive for COVID-19.
Schools in the district experienced transitions to virtual learning throughout the year as communities across the county and all over the state experienced surges of positive cases during the school year. The pandemic also forced early school closures prior to Christmas break, which saw Lawrence County students once again transition to virtual learning the week of Dec. 14.
Students are scheduled to resume classes but will be taught virtually from Jan. 5-8 due to the pandemic. In-person classes should resume the following week, according to school officials. A Lawrence County Board of Education meeting is set for Jan. 7.
As COVID-19 vaccines are being rolled out to hospitals nationwide, Lawrence Medical Center reported at least 30 staff members had been vaccinated for the virus as of Dec. 28. The Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines were approved by the Food and Drug Administration in early December.
ADPH reports short supplies of the vaccine will be distributed to frontline medical staff, first responders and nursing home workers and residents first. It could be early spring before the vaccine is made available to the general public.
As of Wednesday, Alabama reported a total of 283,939 confirmed COVID-19 cases found in the state. Of those cases, 1,978 have been confirmed in Lawrence County. According to data from ADPH, 57 confirmed cases have been reported in Lawrence County since Christmas.
As of Wednesday, Lawrence County reports 42 COVID-19-related deaths. Statewide, 4,138 people have died from COVID-19, according to ADPH.
2. Alabama falls behind in 2020 Census
The year of the COVID-19 pandemic was also a census year. Though responses were accepted this year, the United Census Bureau submitted its questionnaire to Congress for approval on March 29, 2018.
In January, the Census Bureau began its real push to ensure a majority of the nation’s population would respond by the deadline—which was pushed backwards and forwards several times throughout the year due to challenges posed by COVID-19.
Before the spread of the virus, Lawrence County prepared for an All Count Day, set for March 28. As state and countywide closures were announced amid the start of the pandemic, Lawrence community leaders urged residents to respond to the 2020 Census virtually.
Lawrence County residents began receiving invitations to respond to the census earlier the same month, according to County Administrator Heather Dyar. She said the All Count Day was scheduled to help county officials determine which communities throughout the county lacked stronger response numbers.
By April 14, Lawrence County lead the response effort in Alabama with an average response rate of 53.4%, according to data released that month by the Census Bureau. Though Lawrence County and other north Alabama counties showed early promise in counting all of the state’s residents by the end date, by September response numbers grew stagnate all over the state. As of Oct. 27, the deadline for census response, Alabama showed 67% of its households had self-responded.
The United States Census is conducted every 10 years nationwide, and residents are required by law to participate.
According to the Census Bureau, the distribution of $13 billion in federal funds, grants, and support to the state’s counties and communities are based on the census data, and these funds are spent on schools, healthcare, hospitals, roads and other vital programs across Alabama. The census’ population count also determines the number of U.S. House Representatives allotted to each state.
“Losing one more representative means losing one more voice speaking on behalf of Alabama in Congress,” IDB President and CEO Tabitha Pace said in April. “We have a lot riding on the census, and this information will affect us for the next 10 years.”
Despite the pandemic, the Census Bureau released over 1,000 advertisements this year in 44 languages including English to communicate the importance of responding to the 2020 Census.
“The campaign was designed to reach nearly all U.S. residents an average of 40 times throughout the campaign, through television, radio, newspaper, and online ads,” the Census Bureau said.
This year was also a remarkable year in that U.S. residents had the option of responding to the questionnaire online for the first time in our nation’s history. The Census Bureau said by April, at least half of all the households in the U.S. had responded to the census, with a majority of those responses accepted virtually. Other options for responding to the census included responding by mail or by phone.
“Over the next few months, Census Bureau statisticians and data quality experts are making sure the hundreds of millions of people counted in the 2020 Census are counted once, and only once, and in the right place,” the Census Bureau said following the October response deadline.
Final apportionment population counts should be delivered to the public by Dec. 31, according to information released by the Census Bureau. Final counts will be totaled and announced in early 2021.
3. Lawrence citizens re-elect superintendent, mayors
Lawrence County citizens went to the polls four times in 2020, voting in municipal, state and national elections.
In March primaries, Superintendent Jon Bret Smith was named the republican party’s candidate for 2020. Smith defeated Lawrence County High School teacher Andy Bradford with 61 percent of the vote. Democratic nominee Thomas Jones, who serves as LCHS principal, ran in the primaries unopposed. Smith later defeated Jones in the Nov. 3 election with 73.23% of the vote.
A primary runoff election was held on March 31 to determine the Republican nomination for U.S. Senate between candidates Tommy Tuberville and Jeff Sessions. In Lawrence County, the two ran a narrow race in the primary election, with Tuberville receiving 2,243 votes, or 38 percent of the vote, and Sessions claiming 1,830 votes totaling 31 percent. Tuberville defeated Sessions in the March runoff and later beat incumbent Senator Doug Jones in the November general election.
On Aug. 25, municipal elections were held in Moulton, Town Creek, North Courtland and Hillsboro. No election was held in Courtland after Mayor Linda Peebles and five council members ran unopposed.
Peebles became the town’s first female mayor when Courtland’s incumbent Mayor Clarence Logston announced he would not seek re-election earlier in the year. Peebles was sworn into office in November along with two new council members, Place 2 Councilman Tim Watts and Place 4 Councilman Lee Hitt, also ran unopposed after former council members Jeff Coffey and Shennell Hughes did not seek re-election.
Moulton re-elected Mayor Roger Weatherwax for a second term in the August election. Weatherwax received 357 votes, while political newcomer Chris Terry had 258 votes cast in his favor. The City also re-elected all five Council members Joyce Jeffreys, Jason White, De
nise Lovett, Cassandra Lee and Brent White.
In Town Creek, citizens re-elected Mayor Mike Parker. Parker defeated Lee Bradford with 237 votes against 15. Three incumbent council members were all reelected in Town Creek on Tuesday, with one political newcomer unseating incumbent Robert Bradford for District 4. Arnold Ridgeway won the race against Bradford 50-7.
Town Creek’s District 1, Aaron Goode defeated Debra Brown 37-12, Charles Agee held onto his District 2 seat against Dan Green 40-27, and District 3 incumbent Doug Russell won against Jonathan Sherrill 34-11.
In North Courtland, Mayor Riley Evans Sr. landed a second term against former councilman Everett Mayes.
Evans received 195 votes out of a total 256 cast. Mayes garnered 61 votes. North Courtland had a runoff election scheduled for Oct. 6, but the polling date was canceled when Martin announced she was dropping out of the race in October due to health issues.
In Hillsboro, though the town voted 122-99 to elect Scottie Bolden, former Mayor Charles Owens was appointed to the position in mid-November after complaints were issued concerning Bolden’s place of residence.
Three days after the election, Owens filed a complaint in Lawrence County Circuit Court claiming Bolden resided outside the town limits, according to reports.
On Monday, Nov. 16, council members voted to annex Bolden’s property into the town and then voted 3-2 to reinstall Owens for four more years. He has served as the town’s mayor since 2008.
Council member Delandrion Woods said mayor pro tem Rosa Goins broke a 2-2 tie with a vote for Owens at Monday’s council meeting. In a roll call vote, other council members voting for Owens were Larry Garner and Marilynn Morris. Woods said he and former Mayor Dorothy Smith voted for Bolden.
Goins said she felt Bolden’s name should not have been placed on the ballot because he didn’t live in the town limits.“I want to follow the rules and regulations that are in place,” she said to explain her support for Owens at the council meeting. “If we don’t follow the rules, we should get rid of them.”
Bolden said Tuesday he was “disappointed for the people of the town.”
“In the end, their votes didn’t count,” said Bolden, 51. “As a former council member, I know the council is supposed to represent the people. I hate the council didn’t consider the residents in this matter.” Bolden served on the Hillsboro Council from 2008 to 2016.
Lawrence County saw record-breaking voter turnout on Tuesday, Nov. 3, when a majority of the county’s residents joined the state of Alabama in attempting to re-elect President Donald Trump in the general election. Trump received 82 percent of the vote and nine electoral votes in Alabama, as of press-time election night, according to the Associated Press.
Statewide, Trump garnered 1,313,277 votes against 672,155 for Biden. Alabama reported 22,235 votes for Libertarian Jo Jorgensen. In Lawrence County, Trump received 12,266 votes against 3,544 the ballots cast for Biden and 126 for Jorgensen.
Lawrence County also joined most of the state in electing Republican Tommy Tuberville to the U.S. Senate. Tuberville defeated incumbent Doug Jones, a Democrat, with 63.4 percent of the vote statewide. In Lawrence County, Tuberville received 11,655 votes against 4,192 for Jones.
Dutton called the election “historical” for Lawrence County after reviewing the number of registered voters who made it to polling places on Tuesday night.
With 16,027 out of 25,396 total registered voters in Lawrence County turning out for the election, Dutton said this year’s race saw 63.11 percent participation in Lawrence County compared to 53 percent turnout in the 2016 presidential election.
President-elect Joe Biden was officially named the contender of the Nov. 3 election on Monday, Dec. 14, when 306 electors formally cast their votes in his favor. Trump received 232 electoral votes. The electoral votes will be counted at a special joint session of Congress on Jan. 6 before Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris are inaugurated on Jan. 20.
4. New industries locate in Lawrence County’s Mallard Fox West
Two new industries announced plans to locate plants in the Mallard Fox West Industrial Park in Trinity in early 2020.
In March, CCI Manufacturing USA Corp., an automotive fluid producer, became the first direct supplier to Mazda Toyota to locate in Lawrence County. In January, the Lawrence County Industrial Development Board announced that the Japanese-based company would bring 28 jobs, which will offer wages averaging an estimated $50,000 annually, according to IDB documents.
CCI will locate its facility on the south side of Jack Daniel Cooperage in the Mallard Fox West Industrial Park in the Trinity-annexed area of Lawrence County.
Dan Aloia, CCI’s vice president, said the company will produce and deliver fluids such as engine coolant and brake fluid to the megaplant in the Greenbrier region of Limestone County. He said the company plans to invest $21.5 million in its Lawrence location including a plant consisting of 60,000 to 80,000 square feet.
Aloia said CCI’s factory in Lemont, Illinois, southwest of Chicago, will supply fluids to Mazda Toyota until the Lawrence County facility in the Mallard Fox West Industrial Park is fully operational in 2023.
“The Lawrence County plant will be a direct supplier to Mazda Toyota and other automotive plants across the South, including Toyota in Alabama,” he said.
In January, Lawrence IDB also announced the second company locating in the area, Progressive Pipe Fabricators, a division of Shambaugh & Son, L.P., which is a subsidiary of EMCOR Group, Inc., out of Fort Wayne, Indiana. The industry offers custom fire protection services, including fire sprinkler systems, and will service the southern United States, the company reported. At the time of the announcement, the company estimated it would be fully operational by July 1.
Progressive Pipe celebrated its grand opening in Trinity on Tuesday, Nov. 10, at a new 82,000-square-foot facility at Mallard Fox Industrial Park.
“We couldn’t be more excited about this new facility,” said Rob Vincent, Shambaugh’s chief operating officer, fire protection. “By expanding our fabrication capabilities throughout the United States, our new shop will now serve a much larger geographic area. What’s even more exciting is that while we’re expanding our reach, we’re simultaneously bolstering our sustainability efforts by reducing fuel consumption and improving speed to market.”
With the opening of the new facility, which saw construction begin in January, Progressive Pipe Fabricators also created 60 new jobs in Lawrence County.
5. Construction begins for Joe Wheeler EMC broadband network
Joe Wheeler Electric Membership Corp. launched its new broadband brand, known as FlashFiber, on Dec. 18, after nearly a year of engineering and planning for the new network, which will provide the fastest internet service available to JWEMC members in Lawrence and Morgan counties.
Last November, a 94% majority of JWEMC members voted to approve the high-speed internet project. Once Joe Wheeler EMC had member approval, engineering and construction plans went underway, with a few delays experienced early in the year thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic.
JWEMC General Manager George Kitchens said challenges throughout 2020 included the availability of fiber cables and shipping delays. However, JWEMC members are able to sign up for the service now as construction for the network continues.
He said 288 strands of fiber optic cable and 15.8 million feet of fiber will make the network available to more than 43,000 members in the utility’s service area. The $95 million project will take five years to complete, Kitchens said.
“If we can go faster, we will,” Kitchens said. “We’re moving as quickly and efficiently as we can. Nearly 80,000 power poles were installed when we first began serving the community, and that project didn’t happen overnight.”
JWEMC has already begun hanging the fiber optic cable in its service area, which is being mapped into 12 zones, according to Kitchens. He said the network will be built out beginning in Zone 1 in Trinity, where JWEMC is headquartered.
An area surrounding Mallard-Fox Industrial Park will be the second zone to be connected, according to a zone map found at join.jwflash.com. The site allows JWEMC members to subscribe to the service at any time; connections to the service will occur as it becomes available in the customer’s area.
JWEMC Director of Communications Michael Cornelison said FlashFiber
will be one of the fastest networks available in the state of Alabama once the project is complete.
“Google Fiber in Huntsville is the only network of this magnitude in the state right now, and we may beat them to it,” he said on Friday. “We’re pushing to make our community a gig-speed community by offering this world-class internet service, which will also help our areas attract more business.”
Rep. Proncey Robertson, R-Mount Hope, said he also hopes to see Lawrence County see an economic boost and increased industrial development in the area thanks to the new service.
“We’ve always been behind the curve,” he said. “We want to be an example to the rest of the state to ensure rural areas have access to broadband. We are thankful JWEMC stepped up to do something we can be proud of in our communities. This project is as important as installing power lines. High-speed internet is a necessity.”
6. Lawrence loses 2 county leaders
Lawrence County lost two prominent community leaders this year when Emergency Management Agency Director Johnny Cantrell passed away suddenly in the spring and County Airpark Director Anthony A.C. Cottingham was killed in a plane crash in the fall.
Cantrell, 55 of Hatton, died on May 1 from a blood clot. He had served as Lawrence County’s EMA Director for the past six years, following 12 years of EMA experience in Morgan County.
Lawrence County Coroner Scott Norwood said Cantrell died of a pulmonary embolism or a blood clot that had likely settled in the lung area following a kidney stone outpatient procedure Cantrell underwent on April 30.
“He came by the office and I saw him after he had the kidney stone surgery. He said he’d see me Friday,” said EMA Assistant Director Tammy Vinson. “I’ve never seen him in a bad mood. He talked about his family all the time. He was so proud of his son and daughter, and he always talked about Anita, his wife.”
Cantrell stepped in as EMA director for Lawrence County in December of 2013 after 12 years of experience with the Morgan County Emergency Management Agency.
“He came back to Lawrence County because this is home,” Commissioner Chair Bobby Burch said Friday of Cantrell. “He was a great public servant, a great worker, and an even greater friend.”
Before his death, Cantrell contributed largely to improvements made within the EMA and 911 offices in Moulton. Before he started, 911 meetings occurred around collapsible picnic tables, Norwood said. Remodeling plans Cantrell made for the department included the installation of several updated computer monitors, projectors, and upgrades to weather surveillance cameras that would help the county’s EMA weather response time.
In a regular County Commission meeting in October, commissioners honored Cantrell as well as Cottingham by presenting their families with signed resolutions in the remembrance of the deceased.
Cottingham, 49 of Trinity, passed away on Sept. 2 in a crop-dusting accident. Franklin County authorities said the cause of the fatal plane crash was undetermined. Cottingham’s plane went down in a cornfield near County Line Road just west of Lawrence County; he was pronounced dead at the scene.
Cottingham had served as the Airpark director for Lawrence for the past four years before his untimely death.
District 5 Commissioner Joey Hargrove said Cottingham was “instrumental in many improvements at the airport,” including his work in having the runway’s turmac repaved.
“He was a beloved, lifelong resident of Lawrence County,” Hargrove said. “He fulfilled his responsibilities as Airpark director admirably, and together with his family, maintained the airport premises in a truly professional manner.”
Hargrove made the motion to rename the Airpark’s maintenance hangar in remembrance of Cottingham. He said a steel sign will be erected on the structure at the airport.
In July, commissioners hired Sheriff’s Office investigator Chris Waldrep as the county’s new EMA director. In September, the commission also named Cottingham’s wife, Loretta, as the new Lawrence County Airpark manager.
7. Two die in October shootings in Lawrence County
Two unrelated, but fatal shootings were reported in Lawrence County within a week of one another in mid-October. KC Lynn Hatfield, 29 of Moulton, died Friday, Oct. 9, at Huntsville Hospital following a shooting near Moulton, and Jordan Wiley Miller, 23 of Trinity, was fatally shot on Wednesday, Oct. 14.
First responders were called to Hatfield’s residence on County Road 188 near Moulton around 12:25 a.m. on Oct. 9. Jeffrey Dylan Spillers, 23, who also lived at the residence, was charged with manslaughter three days after the incident, according to a report from the Lawrence County Sheriff’s Office.
At the time of the incident, investigators knew Spillers as the shooter, though no charges were filed on that day, according to the report.
Hatfield was flown to Huntsville Hospital where she died from a gunshot wound to her head. Spillers was also charged with chemical endangerment of a child, reckless endangerment, possession of drug paraphernalia and second-degree possession of marijuana. Investigators said Hatfield’s child was at home at the time of the incident.
Chief Deputy Tim Sandlin said the Alabama State Bureau of Investigation also assisted with continuing investigations.
Spillers was released from the Lawrence County Jail on a $63,000 bond.
On Wednesday, Oct. 14, investigators were called to a residence on County Road 549 around 2:30 p.m. where they found Jordan Miller with a gunshot wound to the neck and face, according to reports. Miller was pronounced dead at the scene.
A report from the Sheriff’s Office said the incident was initially reported to authorities as a burglary in which the intruder was shot, but two key witnesses later admitted to planning Miller’s death because the victim had stolen marijuana concentrate.
On Dec. 3, Sgt. Lee Smith testified that the two witnesses—Karsin Page, 19, and Serenity Marie Arteaga, 22, both of the County Road 549 residence—initially gave authorities false statements in hopes of not being charged with murder. He said Page and Arteaga told him that the victim, Miller, had broken into their house through the back door and Page had shot him at close range with a 12-guage shotgun.
During a second, recorded interview, Arteaga told Smith the two planned the incident because Miller had stolen marijuana wax from another resident, Scandal Griffis, a few days earlier, according to Smith’s testimony. He said Page also changed his story in a second interview to say that Miller didn’t draw a gun on him during the incident.
After hearing testimony for two hours at the preliminary hearing, District Judge Angela Terry said she found probable cause to turn the capital murder case against Page and murder case against Arteaga over to a grand jury. Felony drug cases against both also were sent to the grand jury.
The judge also denied a bond reduction request by Arteaga’s court-appointed attorney Michael Terry. Arteaga is being held on $42,500 bail. Her attorney asked for it to be reduced to $25,000. District Attorney Errek Jett said the bond shouldn’t be reduced because the grand jury might come back with a capital murder charge against Arteaga. Page also remains in Lawrence County Jail with no bond on the capital murder charge.
Answering questions from Page’s attorney, Brian White, and Jett, Smith said when he arrived at the scene of the reported home invasion he encountered Page who said he had had a seizure “and was adamant about leaving.”
“Serenity said someone broke into the house and Karsin shot him,” Smith testified. When Smith entered the house, he said he saw Miller’s body on the floor near a bedroom with wounds consistent with those of a gunshot. He said a nickel-plated revolver was under Miller’s left elbow.
Smith said Page didn’t consent to a search so he obtained and executed a search warrant and lat
er read Page his Miranda rights and asked him questions.
He said Page told him that Arteaga and he were in the bedroom when he heard somebody banging on the back door. “(Page) said he heard the door open and he got his shotgun. (Page) said the victim drew a gun so he shot him,” Smith said.
“Then she put her head down and said, ‘We planned it all.’ She said Jordan robbed (Griffis) of some dab a few days earlier and Karsin wanted to get him back,” Smith7testified.
In a third interview with Arteaga, Smith said she showed him how Page had crouched down by the wall and prepared to shoot Miller. “She said Miller had money in his hand and Karsin took the money and put it in a jug in the bedroom,” Smith said. He said Page said Arteaga moved the revolver to below Miller’s left elbow and took the keys to his car. “I felt (Arteaga) was involved,” Smith testified.
Smith said investigation showed Griffis, 25, and a fourth person, Haley Whitaker, 22, were in another bedroom at the time of the shooting. They have been charged with first-degree possession of marijuana, a felony.
Smith said Griffis and Whitaker each initially claimed there had been a home invasion, but later recanted. Smith said investigation showed that “Serenity unlocked the back door when Jordan Miller came over …. everybody used the back door.”
Smith said phones of the four in the house as well as the victim were confiscated for tests, which revealed all parties had been in recent communication. Smith said one 12-gauge spent casing was found in the house and Miller’s revolver had five live rounds in the chamber.
White said evidence was ambiguous as to who took the money off Miller’s body and where the jug was. He said the state failed to show probable cause for capital murder against Page.
After the hearing, Michael Terry said, “We’re still confident when all the evidence is reviewed, (Arteaga) will be acquitted.”
8. 3-year-old perishes in Trinity fire
A mobile home fire that claimed the life of 3-year-old Samuel C. Blasingame on Monday, May 4, also left the boy’s great aunt hospitalized, according to a report from Lawrence County Coroner Scott Norwood.
The fire begun around 8:20 a.m. in a mobile home on County Road 170 in Trinity, where Blasingame was staying with his great aunt. Blasingame died of cardiac arrest at 9:30 that morning after arriving at the Lawrence Medical Center Emergency Room, according to Norwood’s report.
Norwood said Blasingame’s great aunt was transported by ambulance to Lawrence Medical Center and later airlifted to UAB Hospital in Birmingham. He did not disclose her identity and could not comment on her condition at the time.
“The cause of the fire is undetermined as of now,” Jennifer Bowen, a spokesperson for the state fire marshal’s office in Montgomery, said the evening following the incident.
Neighbors Lillie Gillespie and Benna Gillespie said the house burned quickly.
“The whole trailer was engulfed when I got outside,” Lillie Gillespie said. “It was so hot. Something inside then exploded and the windows and entire trailer flexed. If I could have helped, I would have. It was just so hot we couldn’t get near it.”
Benna Gillespie, who lives a few houses to the east, said she could see the fire from her house. “I saw it was red with fire. We gave the family water and clothes. It was so sad.”
Lillie Gillespie said the little boy spent plenty of time at the trailer with relatives.
“He played over here all of the time with our children,” she said. “I remember they were playing in the treehouse out back and he must have slightly hurt his arm somehow. He just laughed it off... I do know his favorite word was ‘why?’”
The Gillespies said the family lived in the trailer about six months and at times there were as many as seven family members there.
“You never think anything like that can happen,” Lillie Gillespie said. “You’re not promised anything five minutes from now. Life is so precious.”
Chalybeate Fire and Rescue Capt. Jonas Hobbs said 16 firefighters from four area departments battled the blaze.
“It was fully involved when (Chalybeate Fire unit) arrived,” he said. “It’s a very tragic loss for the families and the community.”
Other agencies assisting the scene Monday were Moulton Fire and Rescue, Caddo/Midway Volunteer Fire Department, Hillsboro Volunteer Fire Department, the Lawrence County Sheriff’s Office, and the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency.
9. Pandemic worsens mounting litter problems at community dumpsters
Lawrence County tightened enforcement of dumpster rules and shifted the solid waste pickup schedule this year to avoid a countywide garbage rate increase after mounting littering problems at community dumpsters.
In a January work session, District 3 Commissioner Kyle Pankey, who also served as interim Solid Waste director at the time, presented images of overfilled dumpsters and unsightly litter as he told fellow commissioners of the problems recurring week after week at each of the county’s 11 dumpster sites.
On Friday, Jan. 10, the Commission voted 4-1 to tighten enforcement and prosecute any person caught violating rules and regulations posted at the dumpster. Dumping waste onto the ground and climbing into the dumpster to retrieve discarded items were two of the most violated rules at several of the dumpsites, according to commissioners. They said out-of-county contractors dumping construction materials were also contributing to major litter.
By the following week, Sheriff Max Sanders said two local residents were caught dumpster diving and charged for the alleged offenses at an East Lawrence dumpster.
Alabama legislatures passed a new litter law in September of 2019, which is intended to crack down on offenders across the state. According to the legislation, littering, especially litter thrown from a vehicle, will be classified as a Class B misdemeanor. This means violators could face possible jail time up to six months and fines up to $3,000 plus court fees.
In January, Sanders said his department planned to conduct frequent patrols in Lawrence areas surrounding each community dumpster, and the office had initiated investigations into illegal dumpsites throughout the county.
“We encourage everyone to be responsible and help keep our county clean. Do not trespass inside the dumpsters and do not discard trash or items onto the ground,” Sanders’ department posted to social media on Jan. 12. “We will have a zero-tolerance and will do our part to enforce the law to help maintain a safe quality of life for our communities.”
The following month, Commissioners discussed adding 24-hour surveillance cameras at each dumpster site to assist in enforcing stricter dumpster rules and regulations. Commissioners also discussed additional dumpsters and more frequent pickups to help alleviate the issues, but Pankey said the latter two solutions would be too costly for the county.
Pankey said his department spent $309,140 providing the free dumpster service to citizens in fiscal 2019, which included $32,200 in tipping fees, $170,000 for a dump truck, $18,140 for fuel for dump trucks, $53,500 on salaries and $13,700 for employee benefits. He said adding an additional dumpster could cost about $300,000 annually for extra dumping.
The dumpster program began with roll-off dumpsters being placed across the county during spring cleanup events and for select holidays. It was expanded about three years ago and saw the dumpsters become available to residents 24/7 and is designed to keep citizens from having to travel to the county landfill north of Hillsboro to discard excess trash.
Several spring meetings this year saw commissioners consider $1 to $2 rate increases for residential garbage pickup countywide, but the idea was last struck from a meeting agenda in March. At a May work session, Pankey said the Solid Waste Department would begin Friday dumpster pickups, which would cost the county about $200 extra each week for a part-time driver, extra fuel costs and maintenance on the county’s vehicle.
He said the community dumpsters at the Hatton Park, Wiggins Grocery in Speake, Mount Hope Senior Center and at the solid waste office in Moulton are the “hot spots” where overdumping is a constant problem and Friday pickup will be added. Those sites also will be emptied Monday, Tuesday and Thursday, and “sometimes multiple times the same day,” according to Pankey.
“I’m putting the driver on the most abused sites,” he said in May. “He should be able to get those dumpsters hauled to the landfill in a full day.”
District 2 Commissioner Norman Pool, whose district includes Hatton Park, said he was encouraged by the plan at the work session. “The objective is to dump on Fridays so we don’t have a mess every Monday,” he said. “We’ve got to figure out a way to manage this thing. I’ve been a big proponent of the community dumpsters. They’re very popular. We just have to get this problem under control. We’ll see how it goes if we can get the sites emptied Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.”
District 5 Commissioner Joey Hargrove had the dumpster at Veterans Park in Caddo removed in mid-March. “It was unhealthy, an eyesore and people were constantly abusing it,” he said. “I’m looking
for a new place to put a dumpster. It doesn’t belong at the park.”
He said he had about 40 phone calls from constituents in his district opposing an increase in their garbage rates. Lawrence County residents pay $14 a month for residential garbage pickup service. The commissioners lowered it from $15 a month about four years ago.
In the May meeting, Pankey said he hoped the additional pickup day would help the county better manage the misused dumpster program amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
“This virus changed everything. And now we’re seeing a big jump in residential garbage,” he said. “We had over 1,000 tons picked up in April. We’re hoping once this virus problem settles down, our garbage numbers will go down, too.”
10. COVID-19 challenges contribute to longer lines at courthouse
Several factors including office closures, extended deadlines and COVID-19 social distancing guidelines contributed to remarkably long lines at the Lawrence County Judicial and Administrative Center, especially during the months from May to July.
Lawrence County’s courthouse reopened to the public on May 11 after closing in late March when Gov. Ivey issued a state of emergency in Alabama due to the pandemic. When the courthouse reopened, however, modified staffing procedures and limited capacity on each floor of the three-story facility contributed to longer wait times for customers.
When the courthouse reopened, commissioners voted to limit capacity at the courthouse to 15 visitors on the building’s ground floor and up to 10 visitors each on the second and third floors in order to comply with Alabama’s Safer at Home order, which mandates that residents must maintain at least a 6-foot distance from others of separate households in public spaces.
“We have been consistent with the governor’s orders,” Commissioner Bobby Burch said at the time of the courthouse’s reopening. “Now that the 10-person limit is lifted, we feel confident we can handle up to 15 people on the ground floor while maintaining those social distancing guidelines. If everything continues to go well after reopening, and we feel we can allow more in at one time, we’ll likely revisit the plan to do so.”
In June, modified staffing restrictions were lifted at the Lawrence County Revenue Commission office to lessen extensive wait periods for tag purchases and renewals. Revenue Commissioner Brad Henderson, whose office saw daily staffing cut in half after reopening to the public, said his office was back to operating at full capacity on June 15.
“With the limited number of people allowed inside the building at one time, I’d say we got to see between 10 and 20 percent more clients yesterday than we have since reopening to the public,” Henderson said that Tuesday following the lifted restrictions.
At 8 a.m. on Tuesday, June 16, two lines had already formed in front of the courthouse with at least 12 visitors waiting in each. Lawrence County deputies, who worked the front entrance of the courthouse passing out numbers and screening visitors before they enter, said lines had likely started forming at about 5 that morning.
“Those who line up for the tag office have an average wait time of about two hours, but some have had to wait up to four,” one officer said. “Most are here for tags or for court. We give numbers to the first 10 to 15 arrivals. If they have a two-hour wait time or longer, we let them know they can leave and return without losing their number or place in line.”
The officer said 97 customers had been permitted into the courthouse for the tag office alone the Monday after staffing practices had changed. This compared to 83 tag customers who were able to enter the business day before.
In June, Commissioners voted to lift restrictions on occupancy inside the courthouse. Burch said allowing more visitors in at once might further reduce wait times for customers, but all those allowed inside the building would have to adhere to social distancing procedures until COVID-19 subsides.
“This is a learning process for all of us. It’s trial and error,” said Burch. “May is already a busy month. It’s one of the biggest months for tag renewals, and you’ve got March, April and May that have all seen extended deadlines, and that month is coming up now, it’s getting tougher and tougher.”
Henderson agreed the extended deadlines likely contributed to extensive wait times. Throughout the early months of the pandemic, Henderson urged residents to utilize other options, such a drop box outside the courthouse, to pay tag renewals.
“We only need to see you in person if you have purchased a new vehicle or a ‘new-to-you vehicle,’ or if you are transferring a tag, or if you’ve recently moved into Lawrence County and you need to do a transfer,” Henderson said in July.
Henderson said his office is also working on installing computer software that will allow vehicle registration for recent purchases and transfers to be processed virtually.
“I wish we had already had that in place. It’ll take some time, but hopefully, in a year we’ll be utilizing those online portals,” he said.