Cherokee County saw scandals, successes in 2018
Ever is a long time, but 2018 may have been the busiest news year ever in Cherokee County. The biggest story – the one that ultimately got statewide and national attention – is yet to be fully written.
The scandal at the Department of Social Services that forced a state takeover of the department for seven months affects folks from one end of the county to the other and of all ages, particularly children.
According to a class-action lawsuit, the Cherokee County DSS may have illegally removed dozens to hundreds of children from their homes, using a method that circumvents the courts.
“We think this has been going on for a minimum of 10 years or as long as 18 years,” said David Wijewickrama, co-counsel for Brian Hogan in the suit brought against Cherokee County, the Cherokee County Department of Human Services, Scott Lindsay as attorney for both the county and Department of Human Services, then-DSS Director Cindy Palmer, a DSS supervisor and a social worker.
The method in question was the “custody and visitation agreement,” which was moving children around without court orders.
The reorganization at DSS led to the removal of Lindsay as county attorney and David Hughes as child welfare director, as well as a demotion for Palmer after a lengthy suspension.
Amanda Tanner-McGee took over leadership of DSS in October as state officials finally left town after their long occupation.
There is still no way to know how many families and children this has and will affect, and the outcome of the lawsuit could impact Cherokee County in years to come.
A lot more news broke in Cherokee County in 2018.
Scandal also rocked the Cherokee County Detention Center, which saw its leader resign amidst accusations of wrongdoing and lack of oversight.
One man died and another was assaulted, the latter resulting in the firing of two guards and the launch of an SBI investigation. Former guards alleged inmates were forced to fight each other and some inmates had inappropriate relationships with guards.
Sheriff Derrick Palmer saw most of his jail leadership resign – including longtime Capt. Mark Patterson – and started his second term with new jail administrator Shon Crisp.
Palmer and District Attorney Ashley Welch asked the SBI for a broad investigation of the entire operation to look for any criminal activity that took place at the jail.
In an unprecedented spree of violence for these quiet mountains, three murders took place within 48 hours in two tragic days in September.
Johnny Mark Lowery of Marble passed away Friday from six gunshot wounds that were allegedly inflicted by one of his best friends, Shane Donovan McKinney, 28, of Tomotla.
Jerry Dalrymple of Bellview died after two men allegedly attacked him in his home earlier the same day. The suspects in that case are Isaiah Eric Beavers, 19, of Martins Creek and Colton Russell Harkins of Blairsville, Ga.
Eric Shane Williams was killed in Nantahala two days earlier on Sept. 5. No one has been charged in that case yet but Macon County is investigating it as a homicide and two suspects will be presented to the grand jury in January.
Cherokee County hosted one murder trial this year, as Maria Brickman De Los Angeles was acquitted on all charges in the death of her husband when the jury determined the shooting was in self defense.
Schools cash in
Cherokee County Schools got two pieces of huge financial news in 2018.
First, the schools got their Small Schools Funding back from the state, giving another $1.6 million to the previously-depleted local budget.
Then the school system won a $15 million grant from the state to build a new high school for Tri-County Early College, the Oaks Academy and a trade school.
The gains marked huge victories for the school system, which had faced a major budget crisis over the last several years.
Murphy football coach David Gentry made history this year by passing the 400-win mark for his illustrious career. He also helped the Bulldogs bring home a 1A state championship with a dominant win over Pamlico County in the final.
That was not all for the Dogs this year, though, as their baseball and women’s track teams also brought home state championships.
Murphy established itself as one of the most dominant athletic programs in all of 1A from here to Manteo.
Erlanger comes to town
Murphy Medical Center was publicly known to be struggling for years, but medical care in the county got a huge shot in the arm when Erlanger Health took over the facility April 1 and made it one of their own.
Erlanger also has made inroads in Andrews and Hayesville, as well as being affiliated with the Life Force air ambulance program, leading to better services for residents on this side of the gorge from Chattanooga.
After Patterson left his duties at the jail, he was hired as a school resource officer, which made him ineligible to take his seat as an elected member of the Board of Education.
The Cherokee County Republican Party was tasked with filling that seat, which they did in their December meeting. Two nominations were put forth for former chairman Paul Brown and newcomer Joey Shore, and a coin toss broke a 4-4 tie and decided that Shore would fill the seat.
In other political machinations, Commissioner Cal Stiles retained his seat on the county board despite having the other four commissioners openly support his opponents, Tim West and Gary James. The board members vowed to work together going forward despite their political differences.
After 85 days in jail, Dayana Sutton was freed by Immigration Customs Enforcement after being detained over a snafu in paperwork.
The local mother of four children was reunited with her family on June 28, two days after her youngest, Saybies, celebrated his first birthday.
Dayana was informed by Homeland Security in 2011 that she would not be deported. In 2015, she was made aware of an investigation into her paperwork.
She was detained by agents in front of her children as they drove back from shopping for school clothes in Georgia.
In an effort to get the trains running from Andrews to Murphy again, Mayors Rick Ramsey and James Reid came together in an event to break a world record for the most people whistling simultaneously at a single venue.
Ramsey has been working the phones and getting attention in Raleigh to try and get funding to refurbish the rails to invite tourism and freight service back to Cherokee County.
The mayors rode the rails with a representative from Speaker Tim Moore’s office in December in hopes to curry more favor for the project.
Marine lost to tragedy
The community was shocked April 11, when a local Marine and father of seven children was tragically killed in a traffic crash on U.S. 64 West.
Justin Jensen, 33, of Ranger, died at Erlanger Murphy Medical Center on April 11 from injuries sustained in a collision with a logging truck.
“Justin was an amazing man, husband, father, son, brother and friend,” his wife, Dorothy Jensen, said Monday. “He was a dedicated Marine who loved his country. He was in combat many times and was medically retired from war-related causes. He enjoyed reading and learning. He was a hard worker and impeccably honest, trying to better himself always.
“He loved God and tried to live his faith with the heart of Christ. He would help those who turned their backs on him, or anyone who needed it.”
Other notable news from 2018
* Thomas Graham, Murphy High School principal, was indicted on charges of indecent liberties with a student. He has professed his innocence and is still awaiting trial, but he was replaced as principal by Jason Forrister.
* A video of 7-year-old Jonathan Cowan of Murphy giving a rose to every girl at Murphy Elementary School went viral and was viewed by more than 4 million people.
* Union County doctors John Michael Gowder, George David Gowder III and James Lanier Heaton were indicted as part of Operation SCOPE on federal charges for “illegally prescribing and obtaining thousands of doses of prescription pain medications outside the usual course of professional medical practice and for no legitimate medical purpose.” Their trial is set for Feb. 11, 2019, in Gainesville, Ga.
* Andrews’ erstwhile police chief Tony Pritchett was accused of letting his dog maul a Georgia woman. Pritchett worked as chief from his home in Ellijay, Ga., most of the time and only lasted three months on the job.
* Murphy Health and Fitness took over the long-struggling Hiwassee Valley Pool and Wellness Center and likely saved the facility from an inevitable bankruptcy, preserving a year-round pool for county residents.