Faulkner County has had its share of tragedy and triumph over the past year. From ordinary people doing extraordinary things to trusted officials being accused of less than honorable actions, those living in Conway and the surrounding areas have much to consider in terms of the big news stories for 2012. This is just a sampling of the stories that swirled through our community last year.
1 UCA audit finds fraudulent behavior following arrests of authority figures
Officials at the University of Central Arkansas may have played favorites — including renewing a scholarship worth thousands for a student who might not be qualified — and turned a blind eye to questioning then Chief of Staff Jack Gillean about his missing key.
That key was used to break into buildings and steal exams to cheat on tests, according to a draft internal audit report. In the report, Internal Audit Director Pamela Massey wrote that the audit is meant to see “if there were additional security breaches” by Gillean. In her conclusion, she wrote the audit found that there has been “fraudulent behavior of upper administration in the last four years at UCA.”
According to Prosecuting Attorney Cody Hiland, Gillean gave his university keys to a student who stole test exams. Hiland said Gillean also filed an untrue insurance claim and lied on a credit application before he resigned suddenly from his post June 15.
If found guilty, Gillean could face 36 years maximum for all felony counts. Gillean has pleaded innocent.
Also pleading innocent is former UCA President Allen Meadors. Meadors, 65, is facing a charge of solicitation of tampering with a public document following allegations that he asked the university’s vice president of finance and administration to destroy an FOI request related to the investigation of the possible mishandling of a “grant” proposed by Aramark food vendor that was placed before trustees last year.
2 Standoff with bear in tree makes national news
A five-hour standoff between emergency officials and a black bear perched in a tree ended with the animal being brought safely, though unconventionally, to the ground.
The bear was released soon afterward into the Ozark National Forest, an Arkansas Game and Fish Commission spokesman confirmed.
Events of the night before took the bear up a tree in the 2000 block of Foster Drive, a residential street in northwest Conway.
As the bear drew an audience of curious onlookers, it became clear to officials that the animal was not going to leave its perch some 40 feet above the ground.
The Conway Fire Department, Arkansas Game and Fish, Conway police and animal welfare officers devised an unorthodox plan to bring the bear down from the pine alive, while posing minimal threat to a host of spectators.
3 Incumbents rule on Election Night
Conway Mayor Tab Townsell was elected to his fourth term Tuesday night, defeating both challengers Mark Elsinger and Randy Herrold with a majority of the vote. Townsell faced his greatest challenge from the two challengers, who touted fiscal responsibility as the main reason a change was needed at the mayoral position. Townsell received 10,217 votes and 52 percent of the vote with Elsinger coming in second with 7,736 votes. Herrold came in third with 1,386 votes. The majority win leaves no doubt that a runoff is not needed. Townsell has served as Mayor since 1998.
Also, Faulkner County Judge Preston Scroggin, County Clerk Melinda Reynolds and Circuit Clerk Rhonda Wharton were each re-elected to their terms.
Election officials say nearly 60 percent of registered voters in Faulkner County cast ballots in the election.
“I am honored and humbled that the people chose to let me have two more years,” Scroggin said. “I will not take that honor lightly.”
Scroggin said he’ll be “rolling up his sleeves” again on and getting back to work as usual.
“We are just going to continue to keep on doing what we’ve been doing to keep Faulkner County one of the best in the country,” Scroggin said.
Andy Shock was easily elected as the next Faulkner County Sheriff.
4 Family tragedy when grandmother commits murder and suicide with blaze
After leaving a suicide note and neatly gathering important documents for safekeeping, a 63-year-old grandmother stabbed her 7-year-old granddaughter and then set fire to her residence, killing them both.
Authorities with the Faulkner County Sheriff’s Department confirmed that Janice and Abby Robbins were both alive at the time of the blaze, early Saturday morning.
Emergency personnel discovered Robbins’ body as well as the body of her granddaughter, Abby, when the fire was out.
According to Patrick F. Moore, Faulkner County coroner, evidence found after autopsies were performed on both bodies indicate that they were both alive at the time of the fire.
“Mrs. Robbins had fought to adopt Abby and friends of the family said that they could not believe that she would ever do anything to hurt Abby, much less this,” Moore said. “This was a complete shock to many people in the community, especially at St. Joseph Catholic Church, where she was a loyal member.”
5 Return of the ‘toe sucker’
An appearance in District Court resulted in a short jail stint for Faulkner County’s “toe-sucker,” when his one-year suspended sentence was reinstated by Judge Amy Brazil.
Michael Wyatt, 50, of Vilonia entered a plea of no contest in March to a pair of misdemeanor harassment charges. He was given a one-year suspended sentence by Brazil on the condition that no similar incidents occurred or additional charges were filed.
Brazil ordered Wyatt to jail on Wednesday after additional harassment charges were filed in Cabot District Court on May 18, when a woman came forward and claimed that he had approached her in Cabot in a similar fashion.
The incidents occurred in 2011 at TJ Maxx and Petsmart in Conway. Brazil ordered Wyatt not to return to either business.
Wyatt also was ordered to continue sessions with a psychiatrist and he is barred from contacting either victim for one year.
6Scandal, charges brought within county offices
A rotating cast of county attorneys occured after one left office citing politics and was involved in a dispute over his paid time off. A candidate for sheriff was falsely accused of fathering an illegitimate child, and the county administrator was arrested and charged with misuse of county
In packets mailed to about 20 residents weeks before the preferential primary election were copies of fraudulent birth certificates and legal notice claiming Republican candidate for sheriff Andy Shock owed child support.
The packets, believed to have been mailed from Hooks, Texas, contained a fake birth certificate listing Shock as the father and a Tomesia Zaire Washington as the mother.
There was no record of a person by that name in Texas or Arkansas, and the documents were proved by the Log Cabin Democrat to be forged. No one has been charged in connection to the case.
Former county attorney Stephan Hawks resigned his post after taking several weeks off with the family medical leave act. But after prodding by several members of the quorum court, Hawks, who had moved to California, waived his vacation and sick pay.
“One major issue about which I was and continue to be concerned is the downward spiral of Faulkner County’s political offices, the associated inter-office relationships and their affect (sic) on me,” Hawks said in his resignation letter. “[I was] subjected to harassment, ridicule and false accusations perpetrated by those supposedly held to a higher standard.”
County Administrator Jeff Johnston was accused of using county funds to apply asphalt to the driveway at his home in 2008, according to Faulkner County Prosecuting Attorney Cody Hiland. The amount of county funds used to pave the driveway totaled $3,859.54.
Hiland said the investigation began by the Faulkner County Sheriff’s Office in November 2008 and was turned over to the Federal Bureau of Investigation in 2009. After nearly three years, no action was taken by federal agencies, and the case was returned to the state level.
7 Conway a big part of Chick-Fil-A Day
Chick-Fil-A Day, a nationwide event sparked by comments by former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee, was big in Conway.
Calling for a return to “traditional” families, many people stood in long lines to purchase food from the restaurant after its owner told a reporter that he believed that marriage should be solely between a man and a woman.
The event also sparked a “kiss in” a few days later that was a counter-protest to what some people believed to be discriminatory actions. That event was smaller but involved the chicken eatery as its location.
8 Winter storm causes power outages, many accidents
A snowstorm, the largest seen by Arkansas, covered Conway and Faulkner County late Christmas Day and caused problems throughout the area, including power outages, many accidents and one wreck that claimed the lives of two children.
At its peak, Entergy reported nearly 200,000 outages statewide and 6,300 customers without power in Faulkner County.
Two passengers in a car traveling in Faulkner County died when the vehicle crossed the center line and struck an SUV head-on. The weather was described as having sleet and rain.
Snow isn’t unusual in Arkansas, but the last time a measurable amount fell on Christmas Day was in 1926, with 9 inches accumulating on the 25th and 1.3 inches the following day.
9 Local business owner murdered in home
Reports from the medical examiner indicate local business owner Larry W. Billings, 60, died of a single gunshot wound to the head. Officials declined to comment on the caliber or type of firearm but said it appeared Billings was dead for several hours before he was discovered.
Billings was the longtime owner of Conway Roller Rink. He was found in his bed by a teenage son, who alerted neighbors before calling police.
Billings’ 2007 Nissan Titan was found abandoned in the lot on Nov. 13 by the Arkansas State Police, the same day that a press conference announcing a $15,000 reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of the person or persons responsible for Billings’ death was held. The vehicle has been sent to the Arkansas State Crime Lab for processing.
Investigators say they have developed leads in the case, though no arrests have been made by the end of the year.
School custodian saves choking student’s life
Tim Boyd, Sr., custodian at Bob Courtway Middle School, went above and beyond the call of duty when he noticed a student choking on a piece of food and performed the Heimlich maneuver on him, resulting in the student’s life being saved.
Boyd had received emergency medical technician training, and spent 12 years at the McGee, Ark., fire department. His observation of the student, who could not get anyone to understand his choking, led to him helping to dislodge the hot dog.
“I’ve been thanking him every day,” said principal Karen Lasker. “He saved that boy’s life. We wouldn’t have found him until another kid walked in, which would have been tragic.”
Honorable Mention: Willa the blind dog rescued from the woods
A shepherd guard dog spent eight years in the woods after the area she had guarded was vacated. The dog was eventually rescued after spending nearly a decade on her own.
Attempts had been made in the past to catch the blind dog, but this time, a catch pole accompanied by some thick briar was enough to do the trick. Willa was found to have numerous medical problems, which officials began treating immediately.
Applications to adopt Willa poured in from around the country. Judi Standridge, Willa’s foster mom and Humane Society of Faulkner County volunteer and adoption coordinator, sifted through applicants from around the United States and Canada.
The Humane Society has set up “Willa’s Fund,” a $10,000 account to assist Faulkner County residents in treating their dogs for heartworms.