The Star's top news stories of 2013
by Star Staff
Dec 31, 2013 | 4744 views |  0 comments | 33 33 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Workers file out of the Anniston Army Depot in their vehicles at the end of their shift  in this file photo. Photo by Trent Penny.
Workers file out of the Anniston Army Depot in their vehicles at the end of their shift in this file photo. Photo by Trent Penny.
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Jeniffer Morris, the mother of slain police officer Justin Sollohub, listens to testimony during the hearing for Joshua Eugene Russell, who was sentenced to death in the killing. Photo by Stephen Gross.
Jeniffer Morris, the mother of slain police officer Justin Sollohub, listens to testimony during the hearing for Joshua Eugene Russell, who was sentenced to death in the killing. Photo by Stephen Gross.
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Diners at the Peerless in Anniston turned out in force to sip in celebration of Anniston's new law permitting the sale of alcohol on Sundays. (Photo by Trent Penny/The Anniston Star)
Diners at the Peerless in Anniston turned out in force to sip in celebration of Anniston's new law permitting the sale of alcohol on Sundays. (Photo by Trent Penny/The Anniston Star)
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Auburn fans celebrate on the Jordan-Hare Stadium turf after a 34-28 win over Alabama. (Photo by Bill Wilson/The Anniston Star)
Auburn fans celebrate on the Jordan-Hare Stadium turf after a 34-28 win over Alabama. (Photo by Bill Wilson/The Anniston Star)
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The following were editors' picks for The Star's top news stories of 2013

Federal budget cuts

Thousands of Anniston Army Depot workers spent 2013 worrying over how federal budget battles would affect their paychecks — and residents throughout the area worried how it would affect the local economy.

Congress’ failure to reach an agreement led to across-the-board budget cuts known as sequestration in March. Department of Defense officials ultimately chose to have the agency’s civilian workforce — including 2,817 depot workers — take six unpaid furlough days (though they initially planned for 11).

Sequestration also placed a financial strain on groups supported by the federal government. For example, Anniston City Schools officials said the district received $161,000 less in federal funds; 70 fewer children entered the area’s Head Start program; and the state lost millions in cuts to disaster preparedness programs.

Partisan gridlock also led to a government shutdown in October. Though the vast majority of depot workers were not affected due to the facility’s funding schedule, 770 children in the area saw their regular Head Start programs cancelled. The Talladega National Forest also closed for more than two weeks.

Though federal lawmakers reached a budget deal, the agreement did not include the extension of long-term unemployment benefits, affecting about 471 Calhoun County residents.

Russell trial

Slain Anniston police officer Justin Sollohub’s name dominated headlines throughout 2013.

A Lee County jury found Joshua Eugene Russell guilty of killing Sollohub and recommended life in prison for the crime in September. As state law allows, Calhoun County Circuit Judge Brian Howell overrode the jury’s decision and sentenced Russell to death on Dec. 16.

According to prosecutors, Russell shot the 27-year-old police officer in the head with a .22 caliber pistol as Sollohub pursued him near 19th Street and Moore Avenue on Aug. 24, 2011. Russell testified that he ran from Sollohub because he was carrying a stolen gun and there were warrants out for his arrest. Russell was captured after an hours-long manhunt in the neighborhood where Sollohub, who died in a Birmingham hospital the next day, was found shot.

In January 2013, Russell was found competent to stand trial. By May, a Calhoun County judge ordered the trial to be held in Lee County due to publicity of the killing.

Also happening in 2013, Sollohub’s mother, Jeniffer Morris, cut the ribbon of the Anniston Police Department’s new headquarters, called the Justin Sollohub Justice Center.

Anniston Middle School

Officials from both Anniston’s City Council and Board of Education spent much of 2013 discussing the sale of the middle school to the city.

In May, the board voted to close the middle school and convert Cobb Elementary School into a junior high school housing the district’s seventh- and eighth-graders. According to the plan, sixth-graders would stay in the system’s elementary schools.

The city already owns more than 27 acres north of the middle school property, and city officials said they wanted to combine that with the school board’s 24 acres to offer developers a site that encompasses more than 50 acres, according to City Planner Toby Bennington.

In August, the council voted to update a June 2012 appraisal of the land and buildings, at $8.4 million and hire financial advisers to help with the property exchange and the approximately $9 million renovation of Cobb Elementary.

However, Anniston City Manager Brian Johnson told The Star Tuesday that the council will not offer to buy the property from board. He said a potential development deal was one of the many projects the council asked him to research upon taking the position in 2013, and he found buying the middle school property would be cost prohibitive for the city.

Sunday alcohol sales

In 2013, Anniston and Weaver did away with bans on Sunday alcohol sales. Legislation sponsored by Sen. Del Marsh, R-Anniston, let city leaders make the decision to allow bars, restaurants and stores to sell alcohol on Sundays.

Mayor Vaughn Stewart and other members of the Anniston City Council pushed for the bill, based on the notion that Sunday alcohol sales could help the city attract more tourism.

The passage of the bills in Montgomery was a rarity that defied Statehouse tradition because Rep. Steve Hurst, R-Munford and Rep. Randy Wood, R-Saks, opposed the bill. Normally, such bills stall with only one local lawmaker’s opposition.

Later in 2013, the Piedmont council agreed to ask state lawmakers to sponsor a bill in 2014 that upon passage would allow Sunday alcohol sales in the city.

Accountability Act

The Alabama Accountability Act was a source of heated debate in the Legislature. The bill started its life as the School Flexibility Act, a measure that would give schools the ability to opt out of some state regulations for academic reasons.

Then the bill went into conference committee, the process by which House and Senate versions of bills are reconciled. It came out longer, with a new title — the Alabama Accountability Act.

The new bill set up tax credits for parents wanting to take their kids out of “failing schools” and place them in private academies. It also allowed parents to transfer their children to nearby non-failing districts.

According to numbers provided by the Alabama Department of Education in September, more than 700 students throughout the state transferred to schools within their home districts, with 18 more transferring to other public school districts, and 52 taking advantage of tax credits to attend private schools. Even though Anniston Middle School was included on the state’s list of “failing schools,” no students had transferred under the new law by September, according to Star reports.

Infant death

Katherine Elizabeth Papke, 35, of Anniston, was arrested by Anniston police Aug. 9 after she found her 4-month-old son, Bennett Owen Smith, unresponsive inside her car in a parking lot on Goode Road at McClellan.

Calhoun County Coroner Pat Brown told The Star that the cause of the child’s death was hyperthermia, or heat stroke.

Papke was originally charged with two felonies after her arrest, including manslaughter and leaving a child unattended in a motor vehicle. The second charge was dropped by District Judge Chris McIntyre after prosecutors agreed the new law was intended for caretakers of children, such as daycare workers.

Papke’s lawyer, James Sturdivant, told The Star in November that the death was a tragic accident that occurred because a change in routine for Papke, who believed she had taken 4-month-old Bennett Owen Smith to daycare near her job at the Alabama National Guard training center at McClellan. Sturdivant told The Star after the grand jury indictment that he was disappointed in the decision because similar accidents happen all over the country during the summer — including a strikingly similar incident in Homewood in which the mother was not charged.

Papke is out of jail on a $50,000 bond and her case is expected to go to trial in 2014.

Veterans Memorial Parkway


Gov. Robert Bentley and local officials on Dec. 19 broke ground on a $12.2 million project to construct the final 3.7 miles of Veterans Memorial Parkway.

The parkway will connect Interstate 20 to northern Anniston by a route through McClellan. The project is expected to be complete in the summer of 2015.

The 7-mile-long parkway has been under construction for more than 10 years at a total cost of about $150 million. The parkway begins in Oxford at I-20 and travels north through southeastern Anniston to McClellan and finally to U.S. 431.

Local officials say the new road will help attract manufacturers and retail development to McClellan and the surrounding areas — something that will bring in jobs and tax revenue to surrounding communities.

Smith trial


Calhoun County Circuit Judge Brian Howell in September sentenced 24-year-old Nicholas Smith to death for the murder of 29-year-old third-grade teacher Kevin Thompson.

Prosecutors say Smith, Tyrone Thompson and Jovon Gaston kidnapped the Wellborn Elementary School teacher on April 20, 2011, from his Jacksonville apartment, took him to several ATMs, robbed him of $400 at gunpoint and stabbed him to death with a steak knife.

A local jury in July recommended Smith be put to death after a nine-day trial.

Calhoun County District Attorney Brian McVeigh said by phone Tuesday that prosecutors expect to try both Gaston and Tyrone Thompson in 2014.

BCS Championship


Alabama’s football team visited Miami in January and brought home a heck of a souvenir: The crystal trophy that goes to the No. 1 college football team in the country. The Crimson Tide hammered Notre Dame 42-14 in the BCS Championship Game, winning a national title for the second straight season and third time in four years. Even Alabama coach Nick Saban, who often says he focuses on the process of winning rather than the winning itself, admitted tiredly afterward “I'm happy as hell” about the championship.

Iron Bowl

Auburn’s Chris Davis chiseled his name into Iron Bowl history as part of the most improbable play in one of college football’s greatest rivalries. Davis returned a missed Alabama field goal 109 yards on the final play of the game, giving Auburn a 34-28 victory and causing Tigers fans to stream onto the Jordan-Hare Stadium turf. The win knocked Alabama out of the running for a third straight national title and vaulted Auburn into the BCS National Championship Game, which comes a year after the Tigers went 3-9 and lost to Alabama 49-0.

Child deaths

Community leaders in 2013 pointed to the beating deaths of two young children as need for more public awareness about child abuse.

A grand jury in August indicted two people in the death of 5-year-old Gregory Caver.

The child's mother, India Latrice Kimble, 28, and her boyfriend, Vonta Montrell McClellan, 26, both of Anniston, were charged July 30 with the capital murder. Each has a cash bond of $1 million, according to court records.

In a separate incident, 24-year-old Bryan Butts of Oxford was charged with capital murder in the May beating death of 2-year-old Cody Allen Rollins.

The deaths prompted awareness events from groups such as 2nd Chance, a local organization that helps victims of domestic and sexual abuse. Volunteers with the agency held a classroom supply giveaway at Zinn Park in August, where they spoke with parents about child abuse.

Victory Headquarters Christian Center in Anniston also held a memorial for Caver at which several public officials spoke about domestic violence and child abuse.

According to online court records, Butts has a court date scheduled for Feb. 13, 2014, and Kimble has a bond hearing set for Jan. 13, 2014. Online records did not list the next court date for McClellan.

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