Final part of a two-part series.
According to readers, this year was topped by local stories that reflected a contentious election season, economic problems and crime. An analysis of the most-read articles from the LaGrange Daily News online by Google Analytics gave the following stories as the five most popular over the last year.
5. Mailed flyers link mayor, other leaders to citizens’ group
In July, an organized group behind flyers carrying accusatory statements and questions about local school board and commission candidates was revealed to be a group of top elected officials.
The first flyer, titled “What is Dariel Daniel hiding?” addressed two state tax liens totaling more than $14,000 Daniel, who was a candidate for Troup County School Board, owed.
The second accused Mike Freeland, who was a Republican candidate for county commissioner, of wanting to shut down Little League baseball in Troup County.
LaGrange Mayor Jeff Lukken was listed as the attorney and agent, Citizens for the Future of Troup County, which is registered with the Georgia Secretary of State.
“I am a member of ‘Citizens for the Future of Troup County,’ and I was asked to be the registered agent,” Lukken said. “The group represents a number of good people from all over Troup County that are very concerned about the misinformation and vicious attacks on our local institutions and community leaders. These Troup County residents want to provide the facts and set the record straight.”
The group’s president was Nancy Green, a community volunteer, who filed a complaint against Bill Gilmore, chairman of the Troup County Republicans, when Gilmore tried to get her to write a letter saying she would not vote for President Barack Obama in November. Other listed officers of the group are vice chairman Ricky Wolfe, who is chairman of the Troup County Commission, and Drew Ferguson IV, secretary, who is mayor of West Point.
No one with the citizen’s group would speak after their identities came to light, but a press release was issued.
“Citizens for the Future of Troup County is a group of concerned citizens that assembled together for the betterment of our government,” the press release said. “Too many untruths have been told in the past few years to Troup County, and we are here to display the facts as they are being told to our citizens.
Freeland responded to the accusations on his campaign website: “I have never held a position of converting the Parks and Recreation Department into an all-volunteer entity,” he said. “I have never held a position that would ‘shut down little league baseball in Troup County.’ Persons making such claims are completely misrepresenting my position. There are continued calls from government officials to spend more taxpayer money on recreational facilities, I am merely providing an alternative and innovative approach to achieving enhancements to recreation without causing further tax burdens upon county residents.”
Daniel responded on his Facebook page: “I will not explain my taxes and refuse to engage in rumors and mudslinging,” he said. “J.K. Boatwright handles my taxes and that’s all I need to say. I will add that Georgia wants to tax me on money I made in Texas where there is no income tax and we are fighting that battle now. We have filed an extension. Slinging mud and trying to tear my character down will not work…especially when we’re talking about the IRS.
Daniel and Freeland both lost their respective elections.
4. Motel owner stabbed to death
It was late on a Friday night when police responded to a possible robbery in progress at the Budget Inn at 100 Hill St. March 16. When they arrived, they found owner Taraben Patel, 64, dead from multiple stab wounds.
LaGrange police charged Taleshia Wynder, who was 22, in the killing. They found the suspect, who was living at the Budget Inn, when she ran from a rear office in the motel covered in blood.
Wynder is believed to have gone to the office in an attempt to rob Patel, stabbing her several times before attempting to flee, police said. They found cash in the owner’s living area, as well as multiple items covered in blood.
Police also recovered bloody clothing from the suspect and a bloody towel found in the laundry room.
Taraben Patel and her husband, Dhansuk Patel, own and manage the Budget Inn. They came from India to the United States about 20 years ago.
Wynder is currently awaiting trial on murder charges.
3. Troup High School football players protest coach’s dismissal
About two dozen Troup High School football players walked out of class shortly after 8 a.m. Feb. 21 to protest the firing of head coach Charles Flowers. Flowers, who had been football coach for two years at Troup High School, was officially released from his contract Feb. 29.
“It’s unfortunate. You can understand the affinity a student has for his coach. They’ve stated what he means (to them), but they don’t have all the details,” said school system communications director Tina Duckett after the protest.
Flowers, a graduate of Troup High, took over the coaching position at the school in 2010.
Players were allowed to protest without penalty until 11 a.m. They gathered beneath the flag pole in front of the main entrance.
“We walked out of class to get Coach Flowers back,” said junior Maurice Swain, one of the team’s top defensive players, during the protest. “This isn’t about football, this man is like a father to some of us.”
Flowers later said that he was informed during a meeting with superintendent Cole Pugh that his contract wouldn’t be renewed for the 2012-2013 school year, and that February was his final month working at the school.
Flowers said the reason given for the dismissal concerned allegations brought by someone that he recruited two players from Lanett, Ala. and then helped pay the bills for the family they were living with. The two players currently attend Lanett High School.
Flowers, speaking to media members at a press conference after being informed of his dismissal, said the allegations aren’t true.
“(Pugh) indicated to me that he had a written statement that I had paid the deposit and the rent for some athletes,” Flowers said. “I told Dr. Pugh at this time that that was incorrect information. … I have not recruited anyone, I have not paid any bills for anyone at any time.”
After his appeals to the school system went unanswered, Flowers began filing open record requests in preparation for a lawsuit. He sought the personnel files of 20 current and former employees, among other records. The request came through a letter from Flowers’ attorney, Ruth W. Woodling of Woodling Law LLC in Atlanta, who said the information was being sought for a then-planned lawsuit.
Flowers filed suit Oct. 19, alleging he was fired because of his race. The suit also alleges malice and reckless indifference against his federally protected rights.
“We are aware that there was a complaint filed in federal court on Friday, October 19, 2012. School officials will review the complaint once it has been served and file appropriate responses in court to all allegations,” Troup County schools public relations director Tina Duckett wrote in an email after the lawsuit was filed. “It is the practice of the Troup County School System not to comment on pending litigation.”
2: Mallory found guilty on all counts
It was the culmination of more than a year of legal wrangling on Dec. 18 when a 12-member jury came back with a verdict for Peter Mallory: guilty on all charges.
The weeks-long trial of former TV-33 owner Mallory ended with him guilty of 64 charges of sexual exploitation of children, tampering with evidence and invasion of privacy. Mallory, 64, who showed no emotion in court, was taken to Troup County Jail to await his sentencing hearing, scheduled for Feb. 12.
“I think the jury did the right thing,” said prosecutor Kevin McMurry after the verdict. “I’m pleased they saw the evidence for what it was.”
The verdict, coming after deliberations Monday morning and Tuesday morning, capped a trial that began Nov. 27 with jury selection. Potential jurors were questioned individually in private, which prolonged the process.
McMurry said Mallory’s prominence in the community didn’t necessarily affect how he prosecuted the case, other than to make sure the jury understood the evidence.
“When his character witnesses spoke, they hadn’t had the opportunity to see the evidence,” McMurry said.
Mallory’s attorney, Ed Garland, had no comment after the proceedings were over, other than to say he disagreed with the verdict. Mallory’s family was present for the verdict and one family member held her head in her hands as the pages of verdicts were read. Another family member was seen in tears outside the courthouse.
At his sentencing, Mallory faces up to 20 years in prison on each of the 60 counts of sexual exploitation of children. Invasion of privacy carries a five year maximum sentence and tampering with evidence could mean 12 years in prison.
Mallory was originally arrested and charged with multiple counts of child pornography and tampering with evidence after a search of the television station at 211 Fort Drive on April 27, 2011. Officers found computer hard drives with child pornography and videos of people in his office that Mallory had recorded from a hidden camera.
Mallory’s defense said the camera was to catch people stealing from him and the pornography was unintentionally downloaded as part of peer-to-peer file sharing programs, which Mallory was using to download movies to show on his station. During an interview, investigators said Mallory unplugged and tried to hide an external hard drive that was later determined to contain child pornography.
1: Sheriff threatens to have former investigator fired
It was the story that seemed to define the political season in 2012. Long-running Troup County Sheriff Donny Turner was under the microscope after a recocrding surfaced of him threatening to have a former employee fired from his job for campaigning for his political opponent.
Former Troup County Sheriff’s Department investigator Jon Whitney and current head of security at West Georgia Health said he was campaigning for then-Republican sheriff candidate James Woodruff on July 5 in a neighborhood. They were talking to a resident in a yard when a black truck pulled up in the driveway next door.
When Whitney said hello to the man in the truck, the driver responded by saying “Don’t bring that stuff over here.”
“I immediately recognized the voice as being the sheriff,” Whitney said.
Turner said “I sure do appreciate you two,” before driving off, Whitney said. Moments later, a deputy pulled up on the street and said he’d received a complaint of Whitney’s truck blocking the road. Whitney moved his truck and the deputy left without incident.
Later that night, Whitney was contacted by one of his employees, who told him the sheriff had called his place of business three times and that if Whitney didn’t call the sheriff back within five minutes, the sheriff was going to call the company CEO. Whitney called the sheriff back, but used a recorder to capture the conversation.
In the recording, Turner told Whitney he had recommended him for the job and was going to contact hospital CEO Jerry Fulks and recommend he be fired.
“I’m just going to tell them I resent the fact that the security of the police department at the hospital is going out knocking on doors to get me out of my office and that there’s a bad conflict there,” Turner told Whitney on the recording. “… I spoke good for you one time, and I just want to let you know upfront, tomorrow I’ll be talking to Jerry Fulks tomorrow and I’m going to do all I can to get rid of your ass the next time, OK?”
In a response to the Daily News, Turner said he never contacted Fulks and that he made the comments “in the heat of battle.”
He wrote: “It deeply hurt and saddens me that someone whom I had considered to be my friend. A person whom I have given endless support to, would be trying to remove me from my job! In the ‘heat of the battle,’ I did call Mr. Whitney to express my disappointment.
“I further reminded him that I was instrumental in helping him with his career. Knowing that I had supported him 100 percent in his duties at West Georgia Health Systems, I was completely hurt and realized that I had obviously recommended the wrong man for the job.”
After a runoff, Turner ultimately lost the primary election to Woodruff, who would go on to win the sheriff’s race and begins his term Tuesday.