Leading stories of 2019
(Editor’s note: The following have been chosen as the top Monitor stories for 2019.)
Jason Walter’s trial
In July, a Wood County jury found Jason Walters not guilty in the fatal shooting of Chris Griffin, 18.
Walters was on trial for first-degree murder stemming from the shooting that happened on June 15, 2014 outside the Mineola EZ Mart on North Pacific Street..
Jurors heard several days of testimony that included multiple witnesses who were at the EZ Mart, police officers who responded to the scene, Walters’ daughter, a gang expert and the man Walters had an argument with inside the store just moments before the shooting.
Walters’ defense never disputed the fact that Walters shot Griffin, but attorney Cynthia Stevens Kent argued he pulled the trigger in self-defense.
During closing arguments, the prosecution called Walters’ actions “unreasonable and unjustified” and said the shooting was the result of a clash of egos between Walters and Dietrich Flournoy. Through testimony, Flournoy was identified as the person Walters had a verbal altercation with inside the store just moments before the shooting.
The prosecution pointed out that Walters and Griffin never exchanged words, calling Griffin “an innocent third party” and adding that “a license to carry concealed is not a license to kill.”
“It was wrong,” James Griffin, Christopher’s father, said “I do not think justice was served here at all. I pray God will bless this town, this system, and those who want justice for Chris.”
“I think it’s an extremely hard thing when you have a young person who dies,” defense attorney Cynthia Stevens Kent said. “It’s tragic for him and his family. But it’s also important that Jason had a fair trial and his rights were protected. And he was found not guilty, because clearly he was acting in self-defense.”
Albers appointed District Attorney
Angela Albers was appointed as the Wood County Criminal District Attorney Feb. 8 by Gov. Greg Abbott. Albers’ term will expire Dec. 31, 2020, or until her successor shall be duly elected and qualified.
“I want to thank Governor Abbott for my appointment as Wood County Criminal District Attorney. The Governor’s Office and staff have been incredibly helpful throughout the appointment process,” Albers said.
Former District Attorney Jim Wheeler stepped down from the position as a Texas Rangers investigation was opened regarding official oppression in October 2018. Wheeler won re-election in November did not fulfill his term in office.
An election will be held to fill Wheeler’s remaining two years in office. Albers and Jodi Cox of Winnsboro are the candidates in the March 3 Republican primary.
Albers functioned had acted as district attorney since Wheeler’s departure. She was serving as the first assistant district attorney for the Wood County Criminal District Attorney’s Office prior to Wheeler’s investigation.
Terry Bevill Lawsuit
Former Quitman police Capt. Terry Bevill filed a federal civil suit in June alleging that he became the target of a vindictive campaign of retaliation and punishment over an affidavit he signed in June 2017, a violation of his First Amendment rights.
Bevill alleged he was fired from his job with the Quitman Police Department and subject to arrest and aggravated perjury charges in retaliation for signing an affidavit in support of a motion for a change of venue sought by former Wood County Jail Administrator David McGee.
Named as defendants are the City of Quitman, Quitman Police Department, Sheriff Tom Castloo, former Quitman Mayor and current Mayor Pro Tem David Dobbs, former District Attorney Jim Wheeler, 402nd District Judge Jeff Fletcher and Wood County. The lawsuit, filed June 3 at the U.S. District Courthouse in Plano, seeks compensatory and punitive damages for “severe emotional distress, personal humiliation, mental pain and suffering, embarrassment, lost income and damage to reputation.”
Bevill had claimed McGee could not get a fair trial due to the close personal relationship between Fletcher, Wheeler and Castloo. At the conclusion of McGee’s trial, Fletcher signed a warrant for Bevill’s arrest. The judge asserted that in signing the affidavit, Bevill had essentially lied under oath. Bevill had offered an opinion with no basis in fact, Fletcher stated in June 2017. “For Mr. Bevill to make a statement that we have close relationships that are somehow detrimental to somebody getting a fair trial, that’s just a blatant misstatement and a plain lie,” Fletcher stated in 2017.
The lawsuit claims that Bevill signed the affidavit believing it to be true.
WCIC becomes WCEDC
In a sweeping move, County Judge Lucy Hebron has begun the reorganization of the Wood County Economic Development Commission (WCEDC) formerly the Wood County Industrial Commission (WCIC).
Kiki Bettis was removed from her position as executive director of the WCEDC by Hebron Sept. 30. In a brief meeting, Hebron thanked Bettis for her service and told her that her service was no longer needed. Hebron told Bettis the commission was going in a new direction.
Bettis, who was in her fifth year as executive director, was caught off guard by the action. “I just don’t understand….I don’t know what I did wrong. I have never been written up or reprimanded. I loved my job and working for the people of Wood County. I appreciate the board members, past and present, for all of their support.”
Judge Hebron talked about the restructuring. “We are heading in a new direction. But, regardless of the composition of the board and this new direction, the mission of the entity remains the same and is in fact, mandated by the state statute, and that is to promote the prosperous development of business, industry and commerce in the county,” Hebron said.
Hebron named Neal Duncan of Mineola as the interim board chairman and the interim executive director.
The current board is Misty Davis, Alba; Joanne Wisdom, Quitman; Allene Dogget, Vic Savelli and Duncan, Mineola; and Cynthia Stansell and Gwen Winters of Jarvis College.
Ken Donahue is a former Ochiltree County Judge who owns Lake Fork Marina and has served on the board for years. “It was quite a shock to learn the county judge was dissolving the industrial commission through an impersonal letter without an explanation at all to any of us. We don’t know what is to come of all of this. The business owners who are paying the HOT tax are now without representation on the board that receives their tax money,” Donahue said.
Kieke named Quitman administrator
The Quitman city council named a local man, Rodney Keike, to the city administrator/secretary post in March.
An offer was made to hire Kieke at a March 4 special meeting after the City Council accepted the resignation of former city secretary/administrator Andrew Kloefkorn. Kieke’s offer included a 90-day probationary period. Voting in favor of hiring Kieke were Mayor Pro Tem Randy Dunn and aldermen Jack Robinson and Brad Medlin. Alderman J.R. Evans opposed. Alderwoman Susan Resnik abstained.
Kieke is the head of the Quitman Youth Foundation and his most recent position was working in sales at Fun Town RV in Mineola. He has experience in management, strategic planning and finance with his company Kieke & Associates. He has held various leadership positions throughout his career.
Wood County native Kacey Musgraves chiseled her name a little deeper into country music history this year. She joined the ranks of legends such as Jimmie Rodgers and Patsy Cline at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum in Nashville when her exhibit, “All of the Colors,” opened in July. It will be on display until June, 2020.
Musgraves won Female Vocalist of the Year and Music Video of the Year at the Academy of Country Music Awards for her song “Rainbow.” She was also afforded the rare opportunity to perform with Willie Nelson, singing a duet of “Rainbow Connection.”
To the two Grammy Awards Musgraves had previously earned, she added Album of the Year, Best Country Song, Best Country Album, and Best Country Solo Performance, bringing her Grammy Award count to six before the young age of 30.
“Swarm” takes state
Mineola ISD High School Band is the only band in Texas to hold both the Honor Band title and the State Marching title.
In April, the band achieved excellence at the UIL Band sight reading contest pushing them to state in the Honor Band Competition. In August, MISD Concert Band earned the rank of number one in Texas by Texas Music Educators Association as Class 3A 2020 Honor Band.
Defending their 2017 3A UIL State Championship, the Mineola Marching Band, Sound of the Swarm, advanced to state competition in November.
Under the leadership of Band Director, Chris Brannan, The Sound of the Swarm took home its second championship as the Best Marching Band in Texas in Conference 3A.
In August, Mineola ISD received its accountability ratings from Texas Education Association based on STAAR test results. The district earned a B rating, while the elementary school received an F.
Days later, the MISD board of trustees met for an executive session to discuss the separation and release of Dr. Kim Tunnell who has been superintendent since July 2015. With a vote of 5-1, with Jill Quiambao being the lone dissenter, the board accepted the voluntary resignation of Tunnell effective Aug. 22.
Tunnell received a severance pay of $117,771 and all parties signed a non-disparagement agreement.
On Sept. 17, Randy Hancock was voted by the MISD school board to serve as interim superintendent while searching for a permanent replacement. Hancock had worked in the field of education for 35 years and began with MISD on Sept. 23.
During the search for superintendent, the 45 applications received were narrowed down to six candidates.
After two weeks of interviews, Cody Mize, a former MISD graduate and the current Winona ISD superintendent, was selected as the lone finalist. MISD is currently in a mandatory 21-day waiting period before a vote to hire and contract approval. Mize should start as MISD superintendent on or before Feb. 3.
Stitchin’ Heaven moves to Quitman
After starting a quilting business in Quitman and later moving to Mineola, Stitchin’ Heaven has returned home to a large and beautiful facility in the Quitman Business Park.
From the small storefront shop in Mineola, the mother and son team of Deb and Clay Luttrell moved their nationally acclaimed business to Quitman. Stitchin’ Heaven has become a destination location for quilters from all over North America and even some foreign countries.
Deb reached out to Quitman Development Corporation (QDC) Executive Director Denea Hudman to help find a property for them in Quitman.
Hudman found some lots in the Quitman Business Park. After about three phone calls with Luttrell and an emergency QDC board meeting, Stitchin’ Heaven was approved for a spot at the park.
Luttrell said Hudman really made the deal happen. Moving back to Quitman gives the quilting shop room to house a retail store, a retreat center and a potential distribution center in the future.
Quilting cruises with World Caribbean and classes are also among the opportunities for customers. Stitchin’ Heaven was named one of the top 10 quilt shops in North America by Better Homes and Gardens magazine in 2000, Luttrell said.
“We provide opportunities that most quilt shops don’t offer,” she said.
Deb became interested in quilting by learning from her 65-year-old aunt and started quilting for stress relief. She developed it into a business, opening in 1996.
The Luttrells also bring other businesses to Quitman, including Lone Star Laser, Stitchin’ Heaven Travel, The Bunkhouse (the retreat center) and their Block of the Month headquarters.
Newspaper changes hands
The Wood County Monitor became locally owned and operated again after decades of being outsourced.
In January, independent owners Phil and Lesa Major purchased the hometown newspaper from Bill Woodall. The Majors previously owned The Clay County Leader in Henrietta and worked for The Kaufman Herald.
They have been active in Texas Press Association and in the North and East Texas Press Association, with Phil Major serving as president in both.
At The Wood County Monitor, Phil is publisher, Lesa is business manager, and their son, Sam, does graphic design and photography.
Wayne Collins, a longtime Mineola businessman, civic leader, Rotarian and pilot, who made countless contributions to Mineola and Wood County, passed away this year at 94 years old. The loss has been felt deeply in Wood County.
The life-long Mineola resident was known for his leadership of numerous civic initiatives, love of flying, association with the Boy Scouts, and his commitment to the Mineola Rotary Club where he served for more than 70 years.
After serving in World War II as a Navy officer in the Pacific, Wayne joined his family’s dry-cleaning business full-time in 1948. He remained in the Naval Reserve, retiring as a captain.
Collins did two stints as president of the Mineola Chamber of Commerce and was a fixture on the Planning and Zoning Commission. He spurred revitalization of downtown Mineola through his work in making Mineola a Texas Main Street City.
After retiring from the retail business, Collins turned his attention to the Wood County Airport Board, which he helped found. Like he did so often through his life, he turned his personal interests into service to others.
He participated in Angel Flights which provide transportation to families in need of medical treatment, introduced young people to flying through the Young Eagles Program and delivered two single-engine planes to medical missionaries in Africa for Wings of Hope.
In 2017, his contributions to Wood County Airport were recognized as it was renamed Wood County Airport Collins Field.
Quitman lost an icon in January when former Quitman educator and girl’s coach Pat Neighbors passed away. She was born in New London on May 22, 1936, the only child of Alta Lois and Jackson Arnellious “Jack” McQuaid. After graduating from Big Sandy High School in 1954, Pat McQuaid married the love of her life, Lon Neighbors, on May 31, 1957. She earned her bachelor’s degree at East Texas State College (now Texas A&M University at Commerce) in 1958. Neighbors continued her education by earning a master’s degree, licensure to teach in many fields and certification to become a school counselor.
Her initial focus, when she was hired in 1961, was to build an athletic program for girls at Quitman High School. Tennis was the only competitive sport available for QISD girls until Coach Neighbors started volleyball in the mid-1960s. Texas had its first volleyball state tournament in 1967, and Coach Neighbors took her Lady Bulldogs to Austin in 1971. She was the only girls coach at QISD from 1961 through the early 1970s. Her coaching duties included volleyball, track, cheerleading and pep squad for seventh through 12th grades. She has been a prominent influence on thousands of young lives in her professional career.
She was a member of Faith Baptist Church, Pilot Club and Anchors, Autumn Trails Model A Club, East Texas Lazy 8’s, Retired Teachers Association, Red Hatters and Grand Lodge Auxiliary.
Lou Mallory, a pillar of historical preservation and education in Wood County, passed away Aug. 10 at the age of 85.
She lived in Mineola with her husband, Gene, and two children, Mary and Bill. After retiring from Mineola ISD as bookkeeper and secretary in 1994, she turned her attention to Mineola history.
Mallory was the founding chairman of Mineola Landmark Commission in the mid-1990s and served as the chairman of Wood County Historical Commission since 2000.
She advocated for historical preservation through historical markers, fundraising and other projects including the redevelopment of the old Mineola Post Office into the Mineola Historical Museum.
Her dedication to researching and documenting history was instrumental in starting the Junior Historians Program at Mineola Middle School.
Because of her efforts, Mineola is on the National Register of Historical Places, and the Wood County Historical Commission was honored by the Texas Historical Commission with the 2018 Distinguished Service Award.
She was a tireless worker and asset to Wood County.