Victor Hill began 2012 by getting indicted in January on a long list of felonies stemming from his 2005-2008 stint as Clayton County’s sheriff. In November, voters re-elected Hill to the law enforcement office he lost four years earlier.
JONESBORO Clayton County had no shortage of memorable stories in 2012.
Clayton County Public Schools lost its superintendent and then faced scrutiny from its accrediting agency. A jury found Johnathan Bun guilty of the murder of Clayton County Sheriff’s Deputy Rick Daly after a week-long trial in May. The Morrow-based Georgia Archives faced an uncertain future because of budget cuts.
Voters threw the Clayton County Board of Commissioners’ leadership out of office in the state primary elections.
A federal district judge had to redraw the boundaries of the school board’s districts in June after local legislators and the school district argued over why legislation to redraw the lines was never passed by the Georgia General Assembly.
The staff of Clayton News Daily looked back through the memorable stories of 2012 to pick the Top 10 stories of the year. There was a long list of stories to choose from and a little bit of back-and-forth over which stories should be included, but there was no problem when it came time to pick the top story of the year — Victor Hill.
The former sheriff was reelected in a landslide after being in the news throughout the year, beginning with his indictment on a long list of felony charges. The year ended with speculation as to whether state officials would allow him to take office Jan. 1 because of the indictment.
And, without further adieu, here is Clayton News Daily’s list of the Top 10 stories of 2012.
1. Victor Hill re-elected
Four years after losing the office, Victor Hill was re-elected sheriff of Clayton County. He burst back into public view in January when he was indicted on 37 felony counts related to alleged misconduct while in office. His only reaction to the indictment was a comment made as he left Superior Court, “I’m still running for sheriff.”
He did — and how. Hill and incumbent Kem Kimbrough took the top spots after the primary, sending the vote into a runoff. Hill won. Chief Deputy Garland Watkins ran as a write-in candidate during the November election. Hill won again, becoming the first Clayton sheriff-elect under felony indictment.
Since leaving office in 2008, Hill, 47, lost his home to foreclosure, went into bankruptcy, filed for intent to qualify as a 2012 sheriff’s candidate and quietly began taking campaign contributions.
After being indicted, he retained four high-profile attorneys to fight the charges. They managed to get five counts dismissed but special prosecutor Layla Zon appealed that ruling. Hill’s attorneys appealed, too, delaying the trial for up to a year and setting the stage for Hill taking office under the umbrella of pending prosecution.
There is a lot of uncertainty. Gov. Deal could suspend Hill until his case is resolved. Hill hopes to beat the charges but what if he loses and is sentenced to prison? An interim sheriff will likely be appointed and a special election held to replace Hill.
There are also solid facts. Hill lost his law enforcement certification when he was indicted and therefore, lost all the privileges of being a sworn officer. Hill is in the position of supervising deputies with more state-issued authority than he has.
State law allows an uncertified sheriff to take and hold office for up to six months. By July 1, Hill must be a certified law enforcement officer or he becomes ineligible to hold office. As long as he remains under indictment, he cannot be certified.
2. Bun sentenced to life without parole in deputy death
Clayton County jurors convicted a Riverdale man of murder in the death of a sheriff’s deputy July 20, 2011. Johnathan Bun was just 17 when he shot and killed Deputy Rick Daly, 55. Daly became the first countywide officer in Clayton to die by gunfire in the line of duty. Before pronouncing sentence on Bun, Clayton Chief Judge Deborah Benefield denounced him as a remorseless and evil cop killer who resisted for years every effort from authorities to turn away from a life of crime.
Trial testimony showed Bun was already a danger and menace to society when he shot and killed Daly during a traffic stop. Following the recommendation for the maximum from Daly’s family and the District Attorney’s Office, Benefield sentenced Bun to life in prison without the possibility of parole plus 70 years.
Bun was convicted of murder in May. Sentencing was delayed because the U.S. Supreme Court was weighing ruling on whether youthful offenders should be punished by life without the possibility of parole. The final decision leaves it to the discretion of trial judges.
Clayton Chief Assistant District Attorney Erman Tanjuatco said Bun is the “uncommon” exception deserving of the most severe punishment.
“He doesn’t deserve to breathe the same air as we do,” said Tanjuatco. “This is what the U.S. Supreme Court was talking about. This is an uncommon case. Make sure he never walks free and breathes the same air as we do. He will die in prison and that’s a good sentence.”
Tanjuatco scoffed at defense attorney Lloyd Matthews’ expert witness who asserted that Bun was capable of being rehabilitated. Matthews fought for life with the possibility of parole but Tanjuatco disagreed.
“It wasn’t the system that failed the defendant,” said Tanjuatco. “The defendant failed the system. He didn’t want rehabilitation. He didn’t want supervision.”
Bun didn’t qualify for the death penalty because he was under 18 at the time of the killing.
"He’s never shown any remorse, never, not even up to this moment,” said Benefield of Bun. “Even today, he looked toward a news photographer and smiled.”
3. Violence involving police officers
Clayton County law enforcement lost two officers to gun violence in the line of duty in 17 months.
Clayton County police Officer Sean Louis Callahan was shot while answering a disturbance call at Motel 6 in Stockbridge Dec. 17. He died the next day.
Callahan, 24, became the department’s first officer to die by gunfire in the line of duty. Callahan died 17 months after Deputy Rick Daly was shot and killed during a traffic stop July 20, 2011.
Upon arriving at the motel, Callahan and other officers encountered Tremaine Lynn Lebis and his wife, Lisa Ann Lebis, both 41, of Turner Road in McDonough.
Police said both suspects fought with officers trying to arrest them. Lisa Lebis reportedly kicked a sheriff’s deputy in the chest. Her husband broke free and ran around a building before firing at Callahan.
Officers returned fire, killing Tremaine Lebis, a convicted felon on parole until 2016 for aggravated assault and weapons charges. He was released from state prison in May after serving 15 years.
Callahan had worked with the Clayton County Police Department for four months and was assigned to the North Precinct in Riverdale.
Over an 11-day period in June, Clayton County police officers were involved in three shootings that resulted in the deaths of two suspects. One was a 13-year-old allegedly caught in the act of burglary.
In December, a sheriff’s deputy shot and killed a driver who fled into the woods and fired at them. A deputy was injured but survived.
A man charged with running over a police officer led authorities on a week-long manhunt in December. A slew of Clayton County police officers, sheriff’s deputies, U. S. Marshals and GBI agents responded to the old Kmart store parking lot, located at 5250 Frontage Road in Forest Park, where Clayton County Police Officer Michael Hooks had been knocked into the air.
Police said Thomas Areeco Paige, a burglary suspect, was trying to flee the scene Dec. 12. Paige, 36, of Hampton, is accused of running over Hooks with his pickup truck.
At the time of the incident, Hooks and his Strategic Methods Against Street Harms team were conducting “Operation Safe Holiday.” Hooks was injured when he, along with several other SMASH officers, responded to a burglary in progress. Hooks injuries include two broken ribs and other internal injuries.
Police said Paige and his passenger, Jabari Akil Jackson, were suspected of stealing metal from behind the Kmart building. Jackson was apprehended at the scene the same day. Police said Paige fled on foot when he wrecked his truck at the scene. He was apprehended Dec. 19 by the Metro Atlanta Fugitive Squad inside a Duluth apartment in Gwinnett County. As he was being carried into police headquarters, Paige said, “I didn’t do it.”
Paige is charged with aggravated assault, aggravated battery, obstruction of an officer, leaving the scene of an accident, reckless driving and loitering or prowling.
4. Voters create seismic shift in county government
In a year where much was at stake, Clayton County voters decided they wanted change on the Board of Commissioners and voted against the top governing body’s top two members. That change will create a fundamental shift in the look of county government in 2013.
In a runoff-election, Chairman Eldrin Bell lost in every single voting precinct in the county to former Clayton County Police Chief Jeff Turner. The commission removed Turner from his job in the police department in a controversial 2009 decision. Meanwhile, Vice-Chairman Wole Ralph — who represents District 3 on the commission — lost many of the precincts in his district to attorney Shana Rooks.
In the runoff, Turner defeated Bell with 67.34 percent of the votes cast while Rooks downed Ralph with 64.64 percent of the votes.
The election results are expected to have major implications on the look and mannerisms of the board, especially with Rooks replacing Ralph, who was part of a three-member voting bloc with Commissioners Sonna Singleton and Gail Hambrick.
The change in leadership has also set the stage for a reconfigured Board of Commissioners to begin the new year by firing County Manager Wade Starr and abolishing his position. Two new positions, a chief operating officer and a chief financial officer, will be created as well.
5. Heatley leaves Clayton County for a job he doesn’t get
Former Superintendent Edmond Heatley left his job with Clayton County Public Schools in September for the superintendent’s job in the Berkeley (Calif.) Unified School District — only to ultimately find himself unemployed.
Although it had been rumored often throughout Heatley’s three-year tenure in Clayton County that he was seeking a job elsewhere, his resignation in late August caught school board Chairwoman Pamela Adamson off guard. Heatley initially would only say he had accepted a job offer elsewhere, but he would not say where.
News quickly spread that officials from Berkeley were in Georgia to interview Clayton County Public Schools officials about Heatley’s job performance.
Ultimately, controversy over Heatley’s perceived support of a gay marriage ban when he was at a previous school district in southern California ultimately forced him to withdraw from the Berkeley job search before he could be offered an employment contract.
Retired Clayton County educator Luvenia Jackson was sworn in as the county’s interim Superintendent in October.
6. School board under SACS microscope — again
In September, the Clayton County Board of Education found itself under scrutiny from the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools and its parent organization, AdvancEd, because of governance issues. It was the third in less than 10 years SACS officials were looking at the school board for similar problems.
The revelation that SACS had concerns about the behavior of school board members came just over four years after the organization revoked the district’s accreditation for a myriad of problems which were largely tied to quarrelsome board members. The district spent three years, first, trying to get the accreditation back and later to get through a two-year probationary period which followed the restoration of the accreditation.
In a letter to the school district, AdvancEd President Mark Elgart told district leaders SACS had “increasing concern with the governance issues that appear to be challenging the Clayton County Board of Education.” He added, “The current board of education continues to operate with much conflict between and among board members as well as individual board members launching attacks on the school system and its personnel.”
Elgart has since said the letter was a “proactive” step to make the board members aware of the accrediting agency’s concerns about their behavior, in an attempt to encourage a turnaround before an accreditation review team visits the district this spring. He also visited the county in November to assure parents the district was not in eminent danger of losing its accreditation again.
7. Public access threatened at Georgia Archives
Clayton County officials, as well as historians, genealogists and legislators across Georgia, became infuriated with Secretary of State Brian Kemp in September, when he announced plans to eliminate walk-in public access to the Morrow-based Georgia Archives in a budget-cutting move.
Kemp had argued closing access to the archives was a necessary evil that he had to perform to meet a 3-percent budget-cut mandate from Gov. Nathan Deal. The uproar erupted quickly and historians and genealogists organized protests at the State Capitol to demand the archives be kept open. Supporters also delivered thousands of signatures in support of the archives to Deal during Georgia Archives Day presentation.
Officials in Clayton County, as well as archives supporters, argued restaurants and other businesses in the county would be adversely affected by the closing of the archives to walk-in public traffic. Appointments would have to be made to the see the state’s archived records, and that was expected the limit the number of people visiting the facility.
The archives got a reprieve in October, when state officials announced it would be transferred from the Secretary of State’s office to the University System of Georgia and remain open to walk-in traffic. Clayton State University President Tim Hynes will be a part of the transition committee. The university and archives staff had previously worked together create a master’s degree in archival studies.
8. Morrow government goes off the rails
What began in complaints from a haunted house owner and members of First Baptist Church of Morrow over permitting issues quickly grew into a battle that brought Morrow’s government to the brink of implosion in the span of one month.
In late September, Frightmore Haunted House owner Brian Rayle accused Morrow Planning and Economic Development Director Michael McLaughlin of telling him his haunted house was not welcome in the city. Shortly thereafter, former Mayor Earnest Duffy complained that McLaughlin’s office charged First Baptist Church a high fee for a permit to hold a children’s Trunk-or-Treat event.
City officials quickly granted Rayle his permit and refunded the church’s fee while admitting no evidence could be found to show they were authorized to charge the church a fee.
After Burke publicly criticized McLaughlin for the incidents and council members took up a grievance filed against the mayor. They said no decision was reached about Burke, but a letter quickly came to light which suggested they secretly decided to order an apology from him. The grievance appeared to die after questions were raised about whether the council’s decision violated Georgia’s open meetings law.
The law required evidence against Burke be presented in an open meeting and a vote to sanction him also had to be held in an open meeting. An independent attorney hired by the council later admitted no minutes were recorded when the council met in executive session to hear about the grievance — which would constitute another violation of the Sunshine law.
City attorney Laurel Henderson has since announced she is resigning in protest over the council’s actions and a new city attorney is expected to be hired in January.
9. Retaliation alleged in service delivery/LOST battle
Clayton County and its seven cities began 2012 at odds over the issues of a service delivery strategy and the dividing Local Option Sales Tax funds, but accusations of retaliation and intimidation by the county bloomed with the spring flowers. The cities have vowed to stick together and tie service delivery and LOST negotiations together in a bid to get a deal they feel is more favorable to the municipalities.
But, the county has taken several actions that city leaders have branded as retaliation and intimidation by County Manager Wade Starr in an attempt to break up the municipal alliance and get a deal in place. The previous service delivery agreement expired in October 2011.
In April, county employees stripped Lee Street Park of many of its furnishings shortly after Starr abruptly told Jonesboro Mayor Joy Day that control of the park was being turned over to the city. In the summer, Lake City officials said the county was refusing to fix potholes on streets for which the county was responsible. The county commission voted in December to begin the process of stripping Lovejoy of fire protection.
The issue has ended up in mediation and Clayton County Superior Court. A judge has ordered a two-month stay of the state law that required a service delivery strategy be in place to renew or receive state grants and permits. The stay allowed several cities whose speed-detection device permits were set to expire Dec. 31 to renew them for another three years.
10. A federal judge has to redraw BOE district boundaries
A debate between school board members and the Clayton County Legislative Delegation over a failure to get Georgia General Assembly approval of a redrawn map of board of education districts ultimately led to a federal judge having to play referee in June. It was a public battle that ultimately led to elections for five school board seats being delayed by more than three months.
The school board approved a redistricting map in January but legislation to approve the map had not been entered in either chamber by early March. As the final days of the 2012 legislative session passed, school board leaders accused local legislators of not doing their jobs, while the legislators accused district leaders of improperly filing paperwork needed to get legislation drafted to approve the map.
With no redrawn district map in place by the time election qualifying took place in late May, the school district had to ask Federal District Court Judge Charles A. Pannell, Jr. to halt qualifying for board of education seats out of fear the election resulted could be challenged later in court.
Pannell was then tasked with redrawing the map for the school board and without a public objection issued an order in late June to put the map into effect. It was too late to hold the school board elections as part of the scheduled July 31 state primary and a special election for the seats had to be set for the general election in November.
Pannell also sided with the school system and blamed the legislative delegation for the issue.
Compiled by Clayton News Daily Senior Reporter Curt Yeomans with Henry Daily Herald Senior Reporter Kathy Jefcoats and reporter Elaine Rackley