Top 10 news stories of 2007

Published 9:33 pm Monday, December 31, 2007

The year 2007 was a year of change for Pearl River County, including an almost complete turnover in the county Board of Supervisors and the Sheriff’s department, as well as new construction projects in both the north and south ends of the county. Controversy also reigned in the county, with problems at the county jail, allegations of voter tampering during a special election for the Pearl River Central School District bond issue, the debate over the new Chimney Square building, and criminal activity at Picayune Memorial High School. Here is a look at what the Item feels were the top 10 stories of the year.

1 — Election and Luke talks to deputies.

This year showed that county residents were ready for change as their votes replaced three supervisors and the county sheriff. Three incumbents running for their supervisor positions were voted out in the primary election. The only supervisor to be reelected was District I Supervisor Anthony Hales. District II Supervisor Danny Wise did not run for reelection.

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In the race for the position of county sheriff, a controversy sparked from a secretly recorded conversation between one candidate and the department’s deputies. A couple months before the general election Republican candidate Jim Luke talked to a number of Pearl River County Deputies to discuss their concerns and also his concerns about deputies outwardly supporting his opponent, David Allison. Some comments made by Luke at the meeting were taken by some deputies to be a threat to their job security. In the following Republican runoff, Luke was defeated by Allison. Allison, a local entrepreneur, was elected sheriff, beating former-Sheriff Dan McNeill.

2 — Chimney Square and Thigpen/Holliday disagreement

The debate over the construction of the replacement county office building at Chimney Square in Picayune was a hot topic during and after the elections, with the incumbent supervisors attempting to take bids on the project before leaving office at the end of the year and the supervisors-elect asking them to delay bid openings.

In late November, the newly elected supervisors addressed the incumbents and District III Supervisor-elect Hudson Holliday said he spoke for the group when he said if the current board did not delay plans, then their consensus would be to put a stop to the building.

Later, the supervisors-elect individually said they are in favor of a building in Picayune, but felt that the incumbents were rushing the project. The incumbent board had originally set a bid opening date of Dec. 27, but at the time of advertising for bids did not have a complete set of plans on file at the courthouse.

The debate came to a head in early December, resulting in a heated argument between Holliday and District IV Supervisor Robert Thigpen, when Thigpen called Holliday a liar, and Holliday told Thigpen they could “take this outside.”

In mid-December, it was determined that without a complete set of plans on file at the time of advertising for bids, that the bids would be invalid. Bid opening was reset for February, and the bids were re-advertised.

3 — Problems at the Pearl River County Jail

The year 2007 was a troublesome one for the Pearl River County Jail, with allegations of abuse, overcrowding issues, medical problems and an escaped inmates making headlines.

In May, allegations of abuse by deputies resulted in one employee’s resignation, and investigations by the Federal Bureau of Investigations. Also in May, the jail had to be decontaminated because of an inmate that came into the facility while infected with scabies.

In July, reports surfaced that the jail exceeded its population capacity for the month of June. An overcrowding notice was sent to the county as a result of a lawsuit filed against the state. The overcrowding resulted in a new metal building being constructed next to the existing jail site.

In August, two inmates, Joshua Cole Frierson and Joseph Anthony Lorio, escaped from the jail by knocking one of the cinder blocks out of the wall in their cell and crawling through the eight-inch by twelve-inch hole. Frierson was apprehended the next morning; however, Lorio was never caught.

In October, reports surfaced of the spread of tuberculosis at the jail from an inmate who was at the facility in June. The final number of inmates and corrections personnel who tested positive for the disease stood at 33, including five employees and 28 inmates. Southern Health Partners, the healthcare company contracted to provide services to the jail, also pulled out of its recently renewed contract in October, but it was never determined if the contract termination was related to the tuberculosis outbreak.

4 — County sees two new major construction projects

Groundbreaking ceremonies were held in Poplarville behind the Pearl River County Hospital for a new water well and storage tank. Poplarville had been under a water moratorium since Hurricane Katrina, which did not allow for any new taps to be placed on the city’s already crowded water system. The moratorium had stopped virtually all new residential and commercial construction in the city. The new water well and storage tank allowed the moratorium to be lifted, and is scheduled for completion by mid-March of next year, according to Brooks Wallace of Dungan Engineering.

Another major construction project was announced in Picayune in mid-December. Highland Community Hospital announced that construction on a new $75 million hospital will begin in early 2008, with a first phase completion of late 2008 or early 2009. The new facility will be built in three phases, and will be located just off U.S. 11 North in PIcayune.

5 — Pearl River County School District’s Bond Issue

A $10.5 million bond issue for the Pearl River County School District failed by less than one percent of the vote, with a final vote count of 59.09 percent in favor of the bond issue, 40.91 percent against. The issue needed a 60 percent majority to pass. PRC School Superintendent Dennis Penton said only 10 votes were needed for the issue to pass, and requested a recount through the Pearl River County Circuit Clerk’s office.

Before the recount could be held, the school district filed a complaint with the Election Commission and the Circuit Clerk’s office, over allegations of poll workers attempting to influence voters. According to the complaint, allegations were made against poll workers in Millcreek Beat 2 and Carriere Beat 5 of encouraging voters to vote against the bond issue as well as providing reasons to that effect.

After a hand count of the votes that showed the same result, the Election Commission said they would not investigat the claims. Election Commission Chairman Bobby Robbins said the commission had no subpoena power to launch an investigation, and that the commission had certified the results.

6 — Bomb threats, counterfeit ring

Late in the year the Picayune Municipal Separate School District was plagued with a string of bomb threats — five in total, with four occurring in the same week. Toward the end of the year the Picayune Police Department also broke up the circulation of counterfeit bills within the school.

Beginning on Sept. 25, four bomb threats occurred within the school district during the same week. Three of the threats that week occurred at the high school while the fourth occurred at the junior high. The last bomb threat this year occurred on Nov. 9, also at the junior high. Picayune Police report that several suspects were arrested in response to the incidents and charges were pressed.

On Oct. 30, police officers were notified that cafeteria workers had come across a counterfeit $20 bill, allegedly acquired from a student who purchased breakfast that day. Upon further investigation, the officers discovered a high school student had been processing the convincing-looking fake bills at his home using nothing more than a home computer and a scanner. Three high school students were charged in conjunction with the crime, one for manufacturing the bills and the other two for distribution.

7 — Sewer plant

A sewer treatment plant in Westchester subdivision apparently is not properly treating the waste water coming into it. That water is eventually released into Hobolochitto Creek.

The system was formerly owned by Nick Smith, under the company Dixie Utilities, who apparently left that system and all of Dixie Utilities in a severe state of disrepair. After Hurricane Katrina the system was passed through two sets of hands under receiverships mandated by the state, the last of which was the City of Picayune.

With no electricity running the aerators and only chlorine tablets being used to treat the water, a foul odor emanates from the water released from the system. City personnel said the waste water is not tested since the Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality has not granted them the proper permit to conduct monthly tests. Additionally, city personnel said money promised them to renovate the system as part of the receivership has yet to be granted.

8 — Picayune Colored Gymnasium named to endangered list

A piece of local African-American history, the Picayune Colored Gymnasium was named one of the 10 Most Endangered Historic Places in Mississippi for 2007 by the Mississippi Heritage Trust.

Carole Fortenberry, the building’s current owner, said she would like to obtain funding to restore the building to its original design and purpose as a community center for the city’s youth.

James “Lap” Baker, a Picayune native and self-employed grant writer, was instrumental in getting the building on the list after it was deemed a public nuisance by the city earlier in the year. The building, which was already in poor shape, was severely damaged by Hurricane Katrina.

Baker and Fortenberry have applied for grant money from the Mississippi Department of Archives and History in hopes of being able to restore the building.

After the building was named to the endangered list, it was featured on Walt Grayson’s weekly television show, “Look Around Mississippi.”

9 — Picayune Flooding, woman saved by law enforcement

Nearly two years after Hurricane Katrina passed through the City of Picayune, a rain storm on Oct. 21, dropped about 10 inches of rain in a matter of hours, flooding areas in the city. About a week earlier a Woodglen Cove resident addressed the city council about his area consistently flooding, but the council informed him that actions had been taken to attempt to remedy the problem. When the rain came, various areas flooded, including Woodglen Cove, Brookdale Avenue and Picayune’s Fire Station 1.

In the midst of all the rain that day, Mindy Lauer was driving her son Beau Baker home to Louisiana from Hattiesburg when their car hydroplaned, forcing it into the median. As the car entered the median, which was full of water from the rain, the car flipped, submerging Lauer and Baker. A Picayune Police officer following behind Lauer witnessed the accident and called for assistance before attempting a rescue. Lauer and Baker were rescued from the water by two officers and two Pearl River County Sheriff deputies who arrived on scene.

10 — Laurent/Frankenstein murders

Only two murders were reported by local law enforcement in the past year, both in Hancock County.

The first murder was that of Brandi Hawkins Laurent, who was initially reported missing by her husband, Leo Laurent on Aug. 3, after the couple reportedly engaged in a marital spat. After the Hancock County Sheriff’s Department searched for Laurent for several months, an Equine search team from Texas found her body in a shallow grave on Nov. 10. The Equine searchers looked for less than an hour before finding her body about a mile from where the couple’s home used to be. A Mississippi Gulf Coast newspaper unofficially reported the cause of death to be strangulation, however investigators have yet to release an official cause of death. To date no charges have been filed and no arrests made but investigators report the case is being worked as a murder.

A second murder case began on Oct. 30, when James David Speirs, who goes by the alias “Frankenstein”, allegedly shot his wife with a shotgun. He was subsequently arrested and the case will go before a grand jury soon. In a recent bond hearing, a Hancock County Judge reduced Speirs’ bond from $1 million to $500,000.