Top 10 2019 Cherokee County news stories

The remains of Caddo Mounds State Historic Site are shown after tornadoes struck Alto in April.

Jacksonville celebrated the re-opening of the Tomato Bowl and a new mayor this year, but Alto made the biggest headlines after three tornadoes struck the small town in southern Cherokee County.

The Progress staff has chosen what they believe to have been the Top 10 news stories in Cherokee County this year.

1. Triple tornadoes strike Alto; wreak death, havoc

April 13, 2019, is a date many south Cherokee County residents – primarily those in the Alto area – have etched in their minds: That was the day their community was struck by three separate tornadoes during a span of just a few hours.

According to the National Weather Service, the storms were rated as EF-2 and EF-3 events.

Approximately 20 people were injured that day – five severely – and an unidentified woman who was critically injured when the system struck the Caddo Mounds State Historic Site subsequently died from her injuries.

Homeowners' properties and Alto ISD facilities were destroyed or damaged, and a visitors' center constructed in recent years at the Caddo Mounds site sustained heavy damage, while a replica of a historic grass hut that opened in 2018 was decimated.

Alto residents quickly began clearing debris to begin restoration of their property, as the Texas State Historical Commission pledged its support to rebuild the Caddo Mounds site. State officials estimated the cost to rebuild the visitors center, replace vehicles, equipment and perform necessary repairs is estimated at $2.5 million.

2. The Historic Tomato Bowl

refurbished, re-opens

A grand opening celebration of Jacksonville's updated historic football stadium was held June 7, celebrating a state-of-the-art facility that kicked off with a free concert by native son Neal McCoy.

Built during the 1930s through the Works Progress Administration Program, utilizing native stone and local labor, the stadium was the site for a number of football and soccer games.

In 2018, the aging facility received a vote of confidence from local property owners, who overwhelmingly passed a $21 million bond proposal package that would, in part, pay for renovation of the historic site. This fall marked the first time in 16 years that high school play off football has been held there, with Jacksonville hosting out-of-town teams from Troup, Carthage and Alto.

In October, the project was named winner of the Best Public Improvement Design Category for a city below a 50,0000 population during an Oct. 30 awards gala held as a part of the 2019 Texas Downtown Conference in Georgetown.

3. TCEQ issues findings on Craft-Turney water supply contamination

Following a four-month investigation into an October 2018 water contamination incident, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality cited both Craft-Turney Water Supply Corp. and Arrington Lumber and Pallet Company, Inc., for issues.

TCEQ initially was contacted by Craft-Turney officials about cloudy, foul-smelling water reported by customers. A ban was immediately placed on about a dozen connections that were first identified as contaminated, but was quickly broadened to cover approximately 600 water supply customers as a health and safety precaution.

Its first set of findings, released in March, focused on violations by the Craft-Turney corporation, which included failure to protect the public water facilities from contamination, failure to immediately issue public notice of contamination, failure to immediately issue a boil water notice and failure to maintain normal operating water pressure “during emergency conditions such as firefighting.”

Investigation findings on the Jacksonville lumber company revealed that “an unprotected cross connection was present at Arrington Lumber and Pallet, where a water hose had been submerged into a vat with a mixture of fungicide and water.”

Arrington also was cited for “failure to ensure against the backflow or siphonage of contaminated water into a drinking water supply'” via a “commonly used” fire hydrant on the company property.

4. Rusk politics: Turn-over in local city council as two members ousted

A May 4 municipal election in Rusk drew a record number of voters, between the election of three members and the ousting of two others.

Mayor Angela Raiborn was re-elected by an overwhelming majority of votes, compared to those of mayoral candidates Jefferson Jackson and Connie Parsons.

However, voters cast ballots favoring the recall of Councilmen Ken Ferrara and Jan Pate, who were elected to office the previous year. A total of 123 votes favored Ferrara's recall from the District 4 seat, with 42 votes against the recall, while residents favored the recall of Pate – the District 5 representative – by a 146 to 64 vote. In mid-May, two new members were appointed to the council: Martha Neely was unanimously voted in as the new District 4 council member, while Frances Long was chosen to represent District 5.

In other municipal races, incumbent councilman Ben Middlebrooks retained his District 1 council seat, receiving 59 votes to Trey Todd's 16 votes, while the District 2 race was uncontested, with incumbent councilman and mayor pro tem Walter Session receiving 33 votes.

5. Alto ISD school bond passes

Seven months after Alto ISD property was damaged by tornadic activity, residents voted 408 to 212 in favor of a proposed $10.5 million bond package that would fund the construction of a new high school and gymnasium, as well as improve other parts of the property and provide school buses.

“Today, you said 'yes' to our students and our school district,” district superintendent Kelly West said shortly after votes were tallied from a Nov. 5 election.

In mid-April, multiple tornadoes struck the town, with one touching down on school property, damaging some buildings to the point that they were deemed unsafe for use. “The fact that this issue was given such support during the last few months is truly a reflection of the work of a tremendous team and a community that cares deeply about educating our students,” West said.

According to a district timeline, bonds will be sold in February 2020, then shortly thereafter, designs will be developed for the new structures. Construction is expected to begin in May or June of 2020, with estimated completion of the complex scheduled for August 2021, coinciding with the beginning of a new school year.

6. Jacksonville: New mayor, members elected to City Council

Former District 3 Councilman Randy Gorham was elected mayor of Jacksonville, following an uncontested race, while Tim McRae – also uncontested – stepped into the District 3 spot on the council. A third uncontested race – which only drew incumbent District 1 Councilman Hubert Robinson – led to the cancelation of the May 4 municipal election in Jacksonville, with McRae jokingly describing the event as a “friendly election.”

Gorham succeeds Dick Stone, who served two terms as mayor, beginning in 2015. Robinson has served on the city council since 2003.

7. Jacksonville's police chief resigns, interim named

Andrew Hawkes, Jacksonville's Chief of Police, stepped down from the position in October following a three-year stint with the local department.

Mike Alexander, who retired from Austin Police Department in 2009 and later served as the interim police chief and city manager in Palestine, began serving as interim chief on Oct. 1.

According to city leaders, Hawkes implemented best practices through the Texas Police Chief Association “Recognition” program, began a departmental bike patrol program and a canine team, as well as purchased a drone for the department. Hawkes also created a healthier, safer work environment by ordering the removal of mold from a retaining wall on property where the police station is located and remodeled the front lobby to ensure safer conditions for personnel, as well as ordered a new illuminated sign for the department.

In 2017 and 2018, the city's National Night Out program ranked 18th in the nation.

Hawkes is the inaugural police chief for Sunnyvale, located east of Mesquite. There, he launched the Sunnyvale Police Department from the ground up. Prior to that, Sunnyvale contracted with the Dallas County Sheriff’s Office for a number of years for law enforcement services.

8. Former Cuney police chief faces legal woes

Gregory Sinkfield, who served three years as the Chief of Police for Cuney, found himself on the wrong side of the law in 2019 after separate charges of tampering with a government record and engaging in organized crime were filed against him.

On Dec. 12, Sinkfield, 48, entered a plea of guilt to Judge Scott Novy in the 188th District Court on the two tampering charges and received a five-year deferred adjudication sentence and must perform 240 hours of community service, according to court documents.

Local media outlets reported that according to an indictment, Sinkfield falsely certified on a basic peace officer sponsorship form with the East Texas Police Academy that his department had a female employee. He was arrested in early March, but was only briefly in the custody of the Gregg County Sheriff's Department.

Two months later, in a separate, unrelated incident, Sinkfield and two other men were arrested May 29 on charges of engaging in organized criminal activity gambling probation following a months-long investigation launched into the Cuney Sweepstakes and Game Room in late 2017 by the Cherokee County Sheriff's Office.

A search warrant was executed at the Game Room, where approximately 150 gambling devices and approximately $19,000 in U.S. currency was seized, according to a release from the sheriff's office.

Following his arrest, Sinkfield was immediately released from the Cherokee County Jail on a pre-set $7,500 bond. That case is pending, according to court officials.

Sinkfield was released from his duties as police chief on July 31.

9. Jacksonville: Local residents mull US 69 Relief Route options

A Nov. 14 state-sponsored public scoping meeting drew approximately 200 people to Jacksonville's Norman Activity Center, many who were primarily concerned about the impact of a proposed U.S. Highway 69 relief route west of the city.

TxDOT began a project study in May 2017 in Cherokee County to provide a recommended relief route around Jacksonville that would improve safety, enhance freight mobility, mitigate congestion and provide an improved hurricane evacuation route for evacuees traveling from the Gulf Coast area.

The state has held several public meetings – its most recent one in November – inviting citizens to review maps of proposed routes and discuss their concerns with officials, in person or in writing.

The project study is near the end of a three- to five-year schematic design and environmental study phase.

At this time, three options are on the slate: TxDOT's proposed Gold Loop – which is the northernmost route that merges in northern Cherokee County – and the Blue Loop, which merges with the highway just south of Love's Lookout. Residents also have an option for “No Build.”

A more detailed, rigorous evaluation of an environmental impact study, as per the National Environmental Policy Act, and no other public meetings have been scheduled.

Meanwhile, a group of concerned citizens opposed to a relief route launched a petition at the beginning of the year, with signatures continuing to be collected.

10. Triple fatality outside Jacksonville

Three people died during a Nov. 20 two-vehicle wreck on Texas Highway 204, just outside Jacksonville.

Cushing residents Robert Earl Sanders, 64, and Johnny T. Sanders, 84, and Bryon Andrew Luna, 54, of Reklaw, were pronounced dead at the scene by Cherokee County Precinct 4 Justice of the Peace Judge Rodney Wallace.

According to a preliminary crash investigation report by DPS, a 2017 Nissan Altima driven by Sanders, with the older man as a passenger, was traveling southeast along the highway, while Luna – who was driving a 2002 Chevrolet Tahoe SUV – was traveling towards Jacksonville.

The wreck occurred when the Altima crossed the center stripe, striking the Tahoe, which caught fire, while the Altima came to a rest in the southbound lane of the highway.

The crash remains under investigation, according to DPS officials.

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