Celebrations, changes, problems and crime were all significant issues that made headlines in Whitley County during 2018.
Local residents started out the year and continued throughout it celebrating the 200th anniversary of the founding of both Whitley County and Williamsburg. They ended the year celebrating the success of Williamsburg native Nick Wilson, who won $1 million on the television show, “Survivor: David vs. Goliath.” In between, there was also a celebration of the opening of the new Corbin Middle School.
The University of the Cumberlands implemented some of the biggest changes of the year announcing a major tuition cut for on-campus students starting in Fall 2019, and ending its 32-year affiliation with the Kentucky Baptist Convention.
Voters took to the poles electing the first female mayor in Corbin history, and a new commonwealth’s attorney for the first time in 31 years.
The public health director at the Whitley County Health Department got fired, the Corbin city manager got suspended for a month, a Corbin man allegedly killed three people, including a pregnant woman, and a man, whose address is listed as the Whitley County Detention Center, has been charged in connection with the killing of a Williamsburg woman, who went missing in February and whose remains have yet to be found.
In other words, a lot happened in 2018. Here are the top 12 stories as voted on by the editorial staff of the News Journal.
1) Nick Wilson wins “Survivor”
Nick Wilson, the “Hillbilly Lawyer” from Williamsburg, outwitted, outlasted and outplayed 19 other contestants on the 37th season of the popular CBS television show, “Survivor.”
“Surreal,” is how Wilson described his victory in the 39-day competition, which came with a $1 million prize.
The theme of this season was, “David versus Goliath.” Members of the David Tribe had clawed their way up from the meager beginnings in life, while the Goliath Tribe members came from places of privilege.
Wilson came back from the brink as he was poised to be the first contestant eliminated, but was saved when an injury forced Pat Cusack to be medically evacuated.
Wilson was on the brink yet again after making the final five, finding himself the only member of the “David” Tribe remaining.
“I felt like I was up against the whole Philistine Army,” Wilson said.
However, he continued his winning ways in the immunity challenges to stave off elimination and reach the final vote, defeating Mike White and Angelina Keeley.
Wilson, who previously served as a public defender, will be moving to the other side of the courtroom, joining Whitley/McCreary County Commonwealth’s Attorney Ronnie Bowling as an assistant commonwealth’s attorney.
“I’m very blessed to have gotten that opportunity,” said Wilson, who had applied to appear on previous seasons.
2) University of the Cumberlands
The University of the Cumberlands made news throughout much of 2018 including a major announcement in early September that beginning in the Fall 2019, the school would be cutting tuition costs by 57 percent for on-campus, undergraduate students with the costs reduced from $23,000 to $9,875.
“We are making this change because we are committed to putting our students and families first by addressing the most significant hurdle to a college education, affordability,” said University of the Cumberlands President Dr. Larry Cockrum. “We want all students to know that with Cumberlands there is a clear and affordable path to a college degree.”
In November, the school formally cut ties with the Kentucky Baptist Convention (KBC) following a 32-year affiliation with the organization in large part so the school could appoint its own trustees.
The move will cost the University $1 million in annual funding from the KBC Cooperative Program.
In December, local business owners Terry and Marion Forcht donated $1 million to help establish the Terry & Marion Forcht School of Nursing, which will house a variety of medical programs for the University, including the RN to BSN, Master’s Degree in Nursing-Family Nurse Practitioner, certified Nurse Aid course, as well as future nursing-related programs.
Students at the school also had a failed world record attempt in August to place 3,000 cooked hot dogs end to end.
The students succeeded in placing the hot dogs, but a short time later a group in Mexico eclipsed the attempt by UC students.
3) Hepatitis A
Kentucky has the worst rate of Hepatitis A in the nation, and Whitley County has the third worst rate of Hepatitis A infections in the state.
Between Aug. 1, 2017, and Dec. 15, 2018, there were 166 reported cases of possible Hepatitis A in Whitley County with three confirmed cases.
About 78 percent of Whitley County’s Hepatitis A cases involve people with a history of illicit drug use and homelessness, noted Interim Whitley County Public Health Director Tamara Phelps.
While there is no dispute that Whitley County has a significant Hepatitis A problem, the issue of whether the public should be informed about restaurant workers diagnosed with Hepatitis A has been a matter of contention between the News Journal and the Whitley County Health Department, which prompted an unusual string of events late in the year.
On Dec. 7, the News Journal filed an open records request seeking the names of restaurants with employees diagnosed with Hepatitis A, the location of the restaurants, and when employees at those restaurants were diagnosed.
On Dec. 10, Phelps denied that request.
“As I stated before we do not have an open violation on any restaurant at this time in regards to a Hepatitis A (case) nor have we had any open violations in the past. The Whitley County Health Department environmentalist, our disease surveillance nurse and myself discuss Hepatitis A cases that report food service employment and we have not had a case that meets the criteria to deem it necessary to report a particular restaurant. As far as any information regarding individuals working in particular restaurants, those records cannot be released due to HIPAA,” Phelps wrote in response to the request.
On Dec. 14, Phelps posted on the health department’s Facebook page the names of three restaurants, which had employees diagnosed with Hepatitis A, the location of those restaurants, and the month that an employee working there was diagnosed.
On Dec. 17, Phelps told the Corbin City Commission that the names were released due to “negative publicity” and that the health department would not be releasing the names of restaurants again in the future unless there was a “high-risk” case of Hepatitis A involving a restaurant worker in Whitley County. All the restaurants identified previously had “low risk” cases.
The News Journal is in the process of drafting an appeal to the Kentucky Attorney General’s Office regarding the denial of its request.
4) Paul Brock murder case
Paul Brock of Corbin is charged with three counts of capital murder and one count of fetal homicide in the Feb. 17 shooting incident on Ellison Street.
Police said Tiffany Byers was shot three times and Mary Jackson was shot once. Byers was pregnant at the time. In a separate incident, Brock allegedly shot and killed Byers’ husband, identified as 45-year-old Aaron Byers, and dumped the body on some property he owned off of Smith Cemetery Road.
Corbin Police Detective Lt. Coy Wilson, the lead investigator in the case, said it appears Aaron Byers was killed first.
The body of Aaron Byers was found in a shallow grave covered with a small amount of leaves and dirt.
Brock was identified as a suspect in the case based on information provided by Tiffany Byers’ brother, Justin Collins, who was in another bedroom at the scene when the women were killed. Collins was able to escape through a window and reach a neighbor’s home.
However, the neighbor was not home, and Collins hid until he saw a silver truck leave the scene.
No trial date has yet been set. Prosecutors are seeking the death penalty in the case.
5) Williamsburg water woes
While 2018 has been one of the wettest years on record, the city of Williamsburg dealt with a significant water outage in early July that left the entire town without water for over one day, and portions of it without water or a steady supply of water for several days.
In layman’s terms, both raw water intake pumps essentially burned up at the same time, according to Williamsburg Mayor Roddy Harrison.
On the evening of July 6, the water pumps started having problems, and by noon the next day, the pumps quit working altogether.
A series or problems ensued, which caused a 24-hour delay in getting a bypass pump installed and running. Then it took nearly nine more hours for water to be pumped into the water treatment plant, treated, and then out to customers late on July 8, which caused several businesses to close that day.
It would be months before the new permanent raw water intake pump was installed and operational as a new pump essentially had to be built to meet the plant’s exact specifications. It proved to be a costly problem for the city.
Between July 8 and Oct. 4, the water treatment planted operated on a diesel-powered bypass pump that cost the city nearly $1,000 daily to operate.
6) 200th anniversary celebration
In 2018, Whitley County and Williamsburg celebrated the 200th anniversary of the county’s founding, and the establishment of Williamsburg as the county seat.
The celebration took on many forms with the community going all out.
There was the dedication of a historical marker outside the Whitley County Judicial Center in memory of Samuel Cox, who was the founder of Williamsburg and who donated six acres of land where the original courthouse and county offices were to be built.
Williamsburg dedicated the “Wall of Mayors” at city hall, which features pictures of nearly every mayor in town history and the years that they served in office.
Local churches took part in an ice cream social on the courthouse lawn. There was a time capsule placed in the Whitley County Judicial Center, and the bicentennial parade was held in late April.
In addition, the News Journal ran a series of stories about the history of Whitley County throughout the year.
7) 2018 elections
Local elections shook up the political landscape across Whitley County, which has a new sheriff and commonwealth’s attorney, and Corbin, which elected its first female mayor.
Todd Shelley defeated two-term incumbent Sheriff Colan Harrell in the May 22 primary race by more than 3,200 votes with more than 7,300 votes cast.
Shelley said his goals as sheriff include: Getting local, state and federal law enforcement to work together and share information to serve and protect the people of Whitley County.
Harrell offered his congratulations to Shelley, adding that after 48 years in law enforcement, including stints with the Kentucky State Police and as sheriff, this would mark the end of his career.
“I’m going to call it retirement,” Harrell said.
“It has been a good ride,” he said.
With Commonwealth’s Attorney Allen Trimble stepping down, the race to succeed him came down to a campaign between his son, Graham, and Ronnie Bowling in the May 22 primary.
Bowling came out on top by almost 2,000 votes out of more than 10,600 votes cast.
“Euphoric!” Bowling said when asked how he felt after the race was called.
Incumbent Corbin Mayor Willard McBurney announced in early 2018 that he would not seek re-election. However, Suzie Razmus still faced a challenge when Shannon Hall filed to run against her in the November general election.
Razmus defeated Hall by more than 2-to-1.
“I feel so honored to be able to represent the citizens of Corbin,” Razmus said.
Razmus will be joined by one of the youngest group of city commissioners. While incumbents David Hart, Trent Knuckles and Andrew Pennington were re-elected, the longest serving commissioner, Ed Tye, a 23-year veteran, lost the final spot to Brandon Shepherd by just one vote.
8) Martha Steele fired
The Whitley County Health Department is still searching for a new director following the Nov. 8 termination of Martha Steele during a special called board of health meeting.
“It was lengthy. We discussed quite a bit of things then we came out of executive session and voted in such a manner that our collective statement as a board is the Whitley County Health Department Board has decided to go in a different direction and that Martha Steele is no longer the director of the Whitley County Health Department,” said Williamsburg Mayor Roddy Harrison, who is a member of the board of health, the day after Steele’s firing.
“Upon return from executive session, the following actions were taken: Martha Steele is no longer the Director of the Whitley County Health Department. The Board is moving in a different direction,” the minutes of the board of health meeting stated.
No reason was given for the firing.
Steele was hired as public health director in November 2014.
Steele’s tenure as director wasn’t been without some issues.
In March 2017, the board of health conducted two special called meetings regarding personnel matters over a three-week period.
At the end of the March 2, 2017, three and one-half hour board meeting, which included three hours of meeting in executive session to discuss “personnel” issues, the board ended the meeting taking “no action” regarding Steele’s resignation.
9) New CMS opens
Three years after planning for the project began, the new Corbin Middle School, built on the former St. Camillus Academy property, was unveiled to the public in July.
School officials cut the ribbon on the $29 million facility that houses grades 6-8 on July 9.
The school system purchased the 26 acres of property from the Congregation of the Sisters of Divine Providence in September 2013.
In November 2014, the Corbin Board of Education began the design process for the new school.
“It is a gift from God,” said Corbin School Board Chair Kim Croley of the way the middle school project came together.
Teachers and students, alike were impressed with the new building.
“It is absolutely gorgeous,” said sixth-grader Haley Carr after touring the building.
“It is just beyond words,” said sixth grade Language Arts teacher Chasity Faulkner, adding that she especially loves the big windows that bring in so much light.
10) Laura Anderson search
Many questions still remain about the February disappearance and suspected killing of 37-year-old Williamsburg resident Laura Anderson, including where her remains are located and how many people were involved in her killing.
Anderson was last seen on Feb. 11 when she exited her mother’s vehicle near Pilot Travel Center off Exit 11 after getting into a fight with her boyfriend.
In March, police and emergency responders conducted a ground search in the Exit 11 area in addition to a search of the Cumberland River without turning up any signs of Anderson.
On Aug. 27, authorities caught a break in the case when Joseph Bauer contacted Williamsburg police confessing to his involvement in Anderson’s death, according to Williamsburg Police Chief Wayne Bird.
At the time, he wasn’t on police radar involving the disappearance, Bird said.
So far, police have been able to corroborate about 90 percent of Bauer’s information, except where the suspects disposed of Anderson’s body, Bird said.
On Nov. 9, the Whitley County Grand Jury indicted Bauer, 33, and charged him with criminal complicity to commit murder in Anderson’s killing, criminal complicity to commit tampering with physical evidence, possession of a handgun by a convicted felon and first-degree robbery.
According to his indictment, Bauer worked in conjunction with others to kill Anderson and hide her body.
So far no one else has been charged in connection with Anderson’s killing, but Bird said authorities have at least two additional suspects in Anderson’s disappearance.
11) School safety
Following the shootings at Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida on Feb. 14 that resulted in 17 deaths, local parents and members of the community began questioning security measures at area schools.
Attorney Shane Romines began a fundraising effort with the goal of purchasing metal detectors for schools including Corbin, Knox County, Williamsburg and Whitley County.
Knox County Schools used $38,000 of the donations to purchase 16 stationary metal detectors
Corbin, Williamsburg and Whitley County declined stationary detectors, but
Corbin increased the number of school resource officers along adding wand detectors.
In addition, Kentucky State Police did live shooter training in Corbin to help faculty and staff be better prepared in the event such a situation were to arise.
“They are taking other actions. They don’t want those things publicly announced,” Romines said of Corbin schools in a video posted to his Facebook page.
Williamsburg added window tinting on all exterior first-floor windows. In addition magnetic door locks were added along with a call box through which visitors must speak with a staff member before being granted access to the building.
Whitley County also began covering exterior glass with security tinting. Not only does it darken the windows from the outside, but makes the windows shatter-resistant.
12) Marlon Sams suspended
Corbin City Manager Marlon Sams was suspended without pay for 30 days beginning Aug. 13.
The Corbin City Commission voted unanimously to suspend Sams for what officials described as, “inaccuracies in the budget process relating to payroll.”
While declining to go into details, officials emphasized that Sams never financially benefited.
Sams took responsibility for his actions.
“I did make a mistake. I admit to the mistake. I volunteered to take the suspension,” Sams said.
Sams, who had spent 14 years as the Corbin Parks and Recreation Director, was named interim city manager in May 2012 after former City Manager Mike Phillips resigned.
Sams was named full-time city manager in August 2012.
Corbin City Commissioner Trent Knuckles cited Sams’ long history of service to the city in explaining why the suspension was an appropriate punishment.