Daily Progress, Jacksonville, TX

December 31, 2012

The top stories of 2012

Stacy Hunter, Lon Morris, new schools make list

Jo Anne Embleton, Ben Tinsley, Amy Brocato Pearson
Jacksonville Daily Progress


As 2012 drew to a close, we sat down to brainstorm the biggest stories of the year for Cherokee County. This was not an easy task for a news staff whose senior member has only been on board since Aug. 1. Assisted by Sports Editor Jay Neal, who has manned the sports desk for the past four years and is a wealth of institutional knowledge, we vetted a list of some of the things that have made an impact on our coverage area over the past 12 months. We also polled our readers via Facebook and received one overwhelming response as to the story which made the biggest impression on them: the October murder of beloved area coach and father-figure Stacy Hunter.

As the year ends, Hunter's alleged murderer has yet to be tried. His replacement with the City has been hired, but the void he has left in the community cannot be filled.

In addition to Hunter, the downfall of Lon Morris College cannot be ignored as a top story of the year. As that story continues to play out in the court system, former employees received a fraction of their wages owed, an auction of real property is set to take place and creditors are hoping to recoup some of what they are owed.

While Lon Morris was declining, Jacksonville College was posting record enrollment. And a at the same time, Jacksonville Independent School District was thriving. With the addition of two new campuses and updated construction at some of the existing schools, we celebrate the growth and fiscal security this signifies.

If you'd ever wanted to know what almost $20 million in marijuana looks like, ask a Cherokee County Sheriff's deputy. County officials, aided by federal and state agents, located, seized and burned marijuana with a street value of almost $20 million this fall. And the Jacksonville Daily Progress had the only reporter present allowed to be at the scene of the burn.

And speaking of "Bernie," that is, Rusk resident Kay "Baby" Epperson stole the show with her role in the movie that put East Texas "behind the Pine Curtain."

In the political arena, longtime incumbents Chuck Hopson and Elmer Beckworth were unseated by challengers Travis Clardy and Rachel Patton.

We share a little more about these top stories with you.

- Amy Brocato Pearson

Stacy Hunter murdered

It's not much of a gamble to determine 2012 will be remembered in the minds of many Jacksonville and Cherokee County residents for its political overturns and college chaos.

It is, also, a sure bet that their hearts will be troubled by the loss of Stacy DeWayne Hunter for some time to come.

Referring to Hunter as a "beloved area figure" is not hyperbole. There is no stretch of the imagination at play here.

Hunter was a city code enforcement officer, had been an important member of the city's code enforcement team for nearly two decades, and also coached youth athletics and many other community activities involving children.

In all these capacities, he excelled; he was adored by  friends, family and coworkers.

Then he was slain.

Hunter's  Oct. 27 death at the age of 43 was devastating for the family, friends and fans who held and continue to hold his life up as a symbol, a standard, of what of a hard working man truly is capable of becoming in terms of accomplishments and positively affected lives.

He was was shot and killed early Oct. 27 at the night club on North Jackson Street that bears his name. His alleged killer is a distant relative.

A group of like-minded Jacksonville residents have banded together in a petition drive to get a city holiday named after this local hero.

Veronica Hunter, the victim's sister, and Lucinda "Cindy" Hollis, a cousin-in-law, have determined they would honor his memory by leading the petition effort.  

“Stacy did so much. I'm telling you, there's no one else out there like him," Hollis has said. "What we're looking for is a holiday where everyone in the community can come together."

 Even Hunter's job replacement, Tim Campbell of Tyler said he was impressed and humbled by the accomplishments of the man who came before him.

And Tim Campbell would know something about accomplishments. He's a former Houston Oiler and the brother of former professional NFL running back Earl "The Tyler Rose" Campbell.

- Ben Tinsley

Lon Morris College closes

What it was that drove Lon Morris College to the brink of bankruptcy remains a mystery for now.

But it is no secret that the bankruptcy proceedings currently underway there have become an emotional roller coaster for many local residents and former employees — who believed it when they were told Bridgepoint Consulting LLC personnel had been hired to restructure the school's finances with intentions of reopening in the fall.

By the time Bridgepoint arrived at Lon Morris in May, the college was at a flashpoint. Around that time, most of Lon Morris's employees were furloughed. President Miles McCall submitted his letter of resignation.

Dawn Ragan was hired July 2 as  the college's chief restructuring officer. She was selected from the  Bridgepoint team working at LMC.

Supposedly, Ragan, billed by her colleagues as a "specialist in business turnaround" was going to do just that — restore the college's financial solvency.

But almost immediately, Ragan started to pursue a bankruptcy plan.

In August, this strategy led to the permanent loss of the college's Title IV funding, which it needed for access to Higher Education Act funding such as federal Pell grants, teacher education assistance, SMART grants, work study and federal student loans.

Under the law, the loss of Title IV was automatic once bankruptcy was declared.  Ragan and Houston attorney Hugh Ray III, the college's counsel, fought the development tooth and nail in the court of federal bankruptcy Judge Bill Parker.

They lost.

During the course of the bankruptcy, LMC estate officials in the capacity as "Debtors In Possession," have taken out two loans to stay financial afloat and defray bankruptcy costs: A $750,000 loan from Amegy Bank and a $500,000 loan from a conglomerate of lenders led by Amegy that was completed just this month.

One LMC estate tactic has been to pursue money from several restricted college endowments. But the Texas Attorney General's Office intervened in October in its capacity as protector of the public's interest in charity.

The AG in particular was investigating a missing $1.07 million missing from an endowment fund that was supposed to revert to Sam Houston State University the event the college shut down.

Additionally, the AG currently is suing LMC to make sure the estate does not sue former staff members against a "Directors and Officers" liability policy to generate revenue.

Other entities have sued the LMC bankruptcy estate to protect endowment money. The Texas Methodist Foundation, for instance, has filed a suit to prevent Ragan from liquidating five separate charitable endowments totaling $265,000.

In December, Ragan agreed to stop pursuing money from an endowment belonging to the United Methodist Higher Education Foundation in return for a $7,000 payout. As part of this settlement, $130,000 in back pay was agreed to be returned to the furloughed LMC employees. All of this money came from a $1 million UMHEF endowment fund.

Ragan tried to portray the employee backpay as a Christmas gift from the bankrupcy estate. But some employees, such as Michelle Zenor, a former associate professor of English at LMC, were less than impressed.

"I received approximately 10 percent  of the money LMC owes me," Zenor said. "I would characterize the payment as very little and very late. I am also unhappy with the public relations spin that this is some sort of Christmas charity.  It was not a benevolent gift--these were  wages earned months ago."

Several Jacksonville residents continue to hold hope that a buyer will step in, make the right offer, and rescue the college from extinction.

But the clock continues to tick toward the Jan. 14 Lon Morris College bankruptcy estate auction.

A last minute reprieve is always possible, but it's more likely the campus will be sold in pieces. These purchases would be confirmed by the bankruptcy court Feb. 4.

Ragan, meanwhile, remains LMC's last remaining employee — while she awaits the $144,001 payment from LMC she has requested to receive two days after this auction.

 - Ben Tinsley

Pot bust largest in county's


Cherokee County officials, with the help of state and federal agents, took a huge bite out of crime this summer when they found and destroyed the largest single amount of marijuana in the county's history, some 18,000 plants with a street value of an estimated $18.2 million.

According to an Aug. 31 story in the Jacksonville paper, Sheriff James Campbell said the plants were seized from an area just off the bank of the Angelina River just south of FM 343 on the eastern border of the county. The plants, which covered about four to five acres located in different spots along the site, were seized as part of a Domestic Marijuana Eradication, in which the sheriff's department, Texas Department of Public Safety narcotics officers, DEA agents and the Army National Guard worked together.

The plants – which ranged from 12 inches to 8 feet in height – filled the back of a truck and two 16-foot trailers, and were destroyed under a destruction order issued by the court. Officers worked overnight and into the following day to confiscate the yield.

Campbell said the site was planned and well-maintained with water pumps, shelters and camping sites complete with food, even a garden with tomatoes and squash growing. The pot-growing culprits fled the scene before agents arrived, and no suspects were arrested.

 - Jo Anne Embleton

Jacksonville ISD growing and thriving

In 2012, Jacksonville ISD saw successful completion of four construction projects funded through a $49.8 million bond voters approved in November 2010. Pogue Construction of McKinney was contractor on all the projects, said Dr. Joe Wardell, JISD superintendent. Two new 85,000-square-foot buildings were constructed at the Joe Wright and East Side elementary campuses; the building that formerly house East Side's program was razed. Fred Douglass Elementary received a new cafeteria, and the building once used to serve meals for students was renovated into classrooms. The Douglass campus also saw its library expanded. Both new schools opened in time for the beginning of the 2012 school year, while projects at Fred Douglass wrapped up early in the fall semester.

At the high school campus, students were using the new cafeteria by mid-October, but according to district public information officer Marc McCloud, projects that called for renovating the former cafeteria into a bandhall and the addition of a new wing with eight science labs are still ongoing.

- Jo Anne Embleton

Patton upsets longtime District Attorney

How did veteran Cherokee County District Attorney Elmer Beckworth lose the Nov. 6 election to challenger Rachel Patton anyway?

Beckworth had the backing, the infrastructure, and years and years and years of practical experience.

These are among the questions being asked by some after a dramatic overturn in which Patton took the election by nearly 60 percent.

Very speculative explanations for how Patton defeated Beckworth include incumbent fatigue, a successful grass roots campaign and even holding onto the coattails of a general GOP landslide into office.

But Patton, as both a Republican and a voter, doesn't put much stock on the landslide theory. She attributes it to the appeal of a district attorney's office without compromise, forever free of political concerns, conflicting loyalties, or jockeying for status.

She's been praised by many, including Democrat Beckworth, for her great success and dogged determination in  prosecuting prosecuting child molestation and harassment cases.

Her prosecutions, like her candidacy, was plain-stated, no-frills, aggressive and effective.  

Beckworth was out of the office at the end of this week, but Patton took a few minutes Friday to discuss what her office will be like come 2013.

"Simply, the mission of the Cherokee County District Attorney's office will always be to see that justice is done," she said. "That is the framework with which we will approach everything we do."

Patton said she and Beckworth have been working on transitioning the office since shortly after the election.

"I am confident that everything will run smoothly January 2," she said.

First up in 2013: Getting getting caught up on the un-indicted cases — the most serious cases-child abuse, murder, aggravated assault that warrant the most serious of attention.

"I sincerely appreciate the confidence the voters of Cherokee County have expressed by electing me District Attorney," she said. "I understand that the District Attorney's office does not belong to me, rather I represent the people of Cherokee County, and I will do so to the best of my ability."

- Ben Tinsley

Travis Clardy claims District 11 victory

Travis Clardy, R-Nacogdoches, broke a glass ceiling of over a decade when he defeated incumbent Chuck Hopson, R-Jacksonville, to represent District 11 in the Texas House of Representatives.  

By virtue of winning the July 31 primary runoff election, Clardy became the first newcomer in 12 years to go to Austin to represent District 11, which he will do in January.

The race itself was a bit of a squeaker, with 367 votes making the difference between Clardy's victory over Hopson by an overall 3 percent.

Clardy had 51.14 percent, 8,184 ballots, to Hopson's 48.85 percent, or 7,187 ballots.

After redistricting, this district is comprised of Cherokee, Nacogdoches and Rusk Counties.

The numbers were more favorable for Hopson in Rusk and Cherokee Counties, but not enough to close the gap. Hopson pulled 64.76 percent in Rusk County to Clardy's 35.23 percent.

In Cherokee County, Hopson's hometown, he netted 65.46 percent of votes to Clardy's 34.53 percent.

- Ben Tinsley

Jacksonville College makes capital improvements

Jacksonville College, which traces its founding to 1899 and is now owned by the Baptist Missionary Association of Texas, also saw activity in and around the campus. As part of a long-range goal, a new dormitory was proposed for the campus that would house 50 students, but in order to meet present-day needs, the school purchased two houses near the campus, and along with two donated homes, which were renovated. In addition, residence hall renovations were done at the Pine Street dormitory by G-III Quality construction of Rusk. Tennis courts on the campus were resurfaced and cement walkways were updated. In a separate project, a 2,700-square-foot addition was built on to the school's fine arts building by faith-based volunteer group Master's Builders, which travels across the nation to help communities with building projects. These volunteers helped with renovation of the homes and installed a long food counter in the food service area of the cafeteria, in addition to the fine arts storage project. Total cost: $600,000, which college business officer David Pittman said was kept to a minimum thanks to volunteer help.

- Jo Anne Embleton

Spotlight shines on Epperson

Also this year, a Cherokee County resident found herself on the silver screen.

Kay "Baby" Epperson of Rusk became a familiar name across the country after an April 27 limited national release of “Bernie,” a movie based on true events preceding a controversial court case in the early 1990s. Jack Black starred in the titular role, portraying Bernhardt “Bernie” Tiede II, a former assistant director of a Carthage funeral home found guilty of the murder of local widow, Marjorie Nugent, who'd been found in the bottom of a large freezer in her home.

The 81-year-old Nugent's body was undiscovered for nine months before people began searching for her; the story attracted the attention of Texas Monthly writer Skip Hollandsworth, whose January 1998 article, “Midnight in the Garden of East Texas,” attracted the attention of fellow Texan and director Richard Linklater.

It was Linklater's call for extras in “Bernie” that drew Epperson to an audition in Tyler, where she was told Hollywood “loved her voice” and wanted her as one of movie's town gossips whose commentaries peppered the storyline, Epperson told the Daily Progress in a 2010 interview.

“I was so excited when I found out that I had been cast. It has definitely been one of the funnest things I have done in my entire life,” she said.

- Jo Anne Embleton