By TODD KLEFFMAN & STEPHANIE MOJICA
1:56 PM AKST, December 29, 2012
In looking back over the stories published by The Advocate-Messenger in 2012, it was apparent the year started out slowly in terms of big news. But the headlines got bigger as May rolled around and stayed that way throughout the rest of the year. As with any year, there were stories to celebrate and stories that caused despair in 2012. Danville hired its first black police chief, who was quickly besieged by an uptick in violent crime, including three murders. Candidates Joe Biden and Paul Ryan and the world came to town and liked what they saw. A year of acrimonious politics at Danville city hall ended with voters choosing new faces in November. Boyle schools distinguished themselves, while Danville High said goodbye to its legendary football coach. The following 10 stories resonated the loudest in 2012.
Hail to the chief
It wasn’t long after Tony Gray was made police chief that it seemed all hell started breaking loose in Danville.
“I was sworn in on May 14 and on May 21 we had that double homicide, triple shooting,” Gray recalled last week. “I hadn’t even been on the job a full week and we had a crime of that magnitude, which doesn’t happen around here very often.
“And then we had several armed robberies not long after that, so it really was kind of a baptism by fire. But we’ve been fortunate enough to make arrests in most of those cases, so that’s the up side.”
Gray, 46, grew up in Danville and spent 17 years with the local police department before finally earning the top job, becoming the city’s first black police chief. A longtime assistant chief, Gray was passed over for the chief’s job in 2006 but won the job this year with widespread support from across the community.
Gray’s tenure literally started out with a bang, several of them in fact, with the drug-related shootings on High Street that left two dead and a third injured. That hectic pace has continued through most of Gray’s seven months as chief, with a string of at least six armed robberies occurring over the summer and then another murder in October, on the eve of the vice-presidential debate.
“That was a long 48 hours,” Gray said of the stretch between when Mellisa Luna-White was gunned down on the front porch of her Longview Drive apartment and the point where everyone involved in debate security could exhale after its successful conclusion. “Again, we made an arrest in that case fairly quickly, and the debate came off without a catch.”
“Even though we’ve had our ups and downs as far a violent crimes, it’s really been an enjoyable ride so far,” Gray continued. “You guys in the media, the community, the citizens and most importantly the employees that I lead have been great to work with and that’s made the job easier. Hopefully, 2013 will be a better year for us.”
The Great Debate
In October, lightning struck the exact same spot in Danville where a bolt was delivered 12 years earlier — the stage at Centre College’s Norton Center for the Arts.
No offense to the first vice-presidential debate Centre hosted in 2000, but the 2012 showdown between Vice President Joe Biden and VP hopeful Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin seemed to carry more voltage and deliver more electricity to the college and community. The stakes seemed higher this time around and the degree of difficulty more daunting, yet the whole event went down without a hiccup.
“They aced it in 2000, and this year was even better,” said Janet Brown, executive director of the Commission on Presidential Debates.
For their part, the stars of the show, Biden and Ryan, delivered fine performances. Biden’s toothy smile and hearty laughter camouflaged some stinging remarks and helped re-energize Democrats after President Barack Obama’s sleepwalk through his first debate, while the comparatively inexperienced Ryan held his own by staying close to his talking points and making no big mistakes. Moderator Martha Raddatz of ABC News was widely praised for her handling of the feisty candidates, who many thought battled to a draw.
There were 3,200 media credentials issued, including 600 to foreign journalists and other news personnel from 48 different networks hailing from 40 countries. Chris Matthews of MSNBC hosted his “Hardball” on campus, and several of Fox News’ biggest personalities such as Bret Baier and Juan Williams hobnobbed with the crowd.
About 7,500 people attended the Debate Festival, which included a performance by the Marshall Tucker Band. Two anti-abortion protestors were arrested after they climbed trees and shouted out their messages, creating the little bit of trouble that transpired during the event.
Hager the horrible?
When it comes down to it, Thomas Hager Jr. will have a tough choice to make between a likely plea offer of life in prison without parole or a possible death sentence if he is convicted at trial.
Though Hager has pleaded not guilty, police have said he already has confessed to shooting Ted Sparks and Mark Snyder to death and wounding Phillip White on May 21 inside Sparks’ home on High Street.
Police have said the shootings were drug-related but provided few other details of the crime. Sparks, 54, and Snyder, 21, of Waynesburg, already had been killed when White, 37, of Lancaster arrived at the house. Hager allegedly shot White as he tried to flee. He was critically wounded but survived.
After Hager was charged in the murders, Patricia Devine reported to police that her son, Clint Diskin, was missing. Diskin had lived briefly with Hager in Hustonville and was last seen with him prior to the Danville murders. Diskin’s decomposed body was found a few days later in a barn near the Hustonville trailer he shared with Hager and his death was ruled a homicide.
Hager has not been charged in Diskin’s death but is considered the prime suspect.
Prosecutors and police in Lincoln County are waiting to see how the murder case against Hager plays out in Boyle Circuit Court before moving forward on the Diskin case.
The next hearing for Hager is scheduled for Jan. 8.
Making the grade
In athletic endeavors, achieving a Top 10 ranking in sports has always been the goal, something to brag about. In recent years, educators have openly sought that status for their school’s academic efforts as well, and this year Boyle County schools finally broke into that elite group for the first time.
Boyle County became a “District of Distinction” in November based on the new K-Prep assessment tests that replaced the old CATS model that had been used for more than 20 years. Overall scores from all five Boyle schools placed the district in the 95 percentile of all school districts in the state.
Test results showed Boyle schools to be solid across the board. The high school, middle school and Woodlawn and Junction City elementaries all earned a “proficient” designation. The district’s crown jewel of academic achievement, Perryville Elementary, was awarded the “distinguished” label for its performance on the tests.
For their efforts, the district’s school and staff were rewarded with a visit from Gov. Steve Beshear on Dec. 20.
“You’ve heard that famous saying, ‘It takes a village to raise a child?’ Well, it takes a community to make a great school system,” Beshear told the crowd.
Finally, a city manager
In May, after nearly a year of controversy, Danville City Commission hired Boyle County resident Ron Scott as the permanent city manager to replace the fired Paul Stansbury in a 3-2 vote.
The vote was split in accordance to what some city residents called a “voting bloc,” with Mayor Bernie Hunstad and Commissioners Ryan Montgomery and Gail Louis voting for Scott, and Commissioners James “J.H.” Atkins and Kevin Caudill casting the dissenting votes.
The settlement paid to Stansbury, legal fees, the city manager search and other related expenses cost city taxpayers more than $340,000, according to a reporter’s audit of financial records obtained through multiple open records requests.
One of the many issues raised by residents who disagreed with Scott’s hiring was that he does not live within the city limits. Scott’s contract, which includes a $92,000 annual salary and a full benefits package including an auto allowance, states he must secure a residence within the city limits by May 2013.
B-I-S-C-O spells trouble
The city’s purchase of the former Boyle County Industrial Storage Facility, better known as the BISCO building, drew a lot of controversy along with legal battles during the second half of the year.
During its Aug. 13 meeting, Danville City Commission unanimously voted to buy the building at auction for $1,237,550. The city had leased the building for its public works department for at least seven years.
But a bidder hired by the city after a “consensus” was reached in a possibly illegal executive session action had purchased the building three days prior to the public vote, and city officials had issued a down payment check of $123,750 to Rector-Hayden Realtors for the purchase.
Residents such as Wilma Brown raised concerns about the nature of the purchase, especially since then-Commissioner Ryan Montgomery’s father, Mike, had a long-standing business relationship with the building’s former owner. After being publicly prodded, Mayor Bernie Hunstad acknowledged that his wife, Susan, worked for the bidder the city hired to handle the auction process.
The Advocate-Messenger filed an open meetings complaint regarding the July 23 executive session.
The state attorney general agreed with the newspaper’s allegation and ruled that the commission’s “consensus” regarding purchasing the BISCO building at auction during a July 23 executive session was illegal.
The city has appealed the AG’s decision to Boyle County Circuit Court, and the outcome remains to be seen. If the city loses the case, the outcome could impact how local governments conduct business statewide, said City Attorney Stephen Dexter.
BISCO became an issue again when the building’s former owner, Mitchell Barnes, decided in October to publicly discuss his business relationship with Mike Montgomery.
Mike Montgomery, the father of then-Danville City Commissioner Ryan Montgomery, expected a significant finder’s fee from the city’s purchase of the BISCO building, according to Barnes, who supported his claims with surveillance audio and video tapes.
During a taped Sept. 5 meeting between Mike Montgomery and Barnes in Barnes’ Lexington office, Mike Montgomery told Barnes he was entitled to 50 percent of any amount over $1 million. Barnes disagreed with that assertion and told The Advocate-Messenger that Mike Montgomery had also called him multiple times in September and October demanding money.
These conversations appeared to be in conflict with Ryan Montgomery’s public statements that no one in his family had anything to gain from the sale of the BISCO building.
Mike Montgomery acted as a property manager for the building and not only received free rent for his business, but also 10 percent of the money the city paid for renting the facility.
Both Montgomerys, along with Mayor Bernie Hunstad, denounced the newspaper’s coverage as politically motivated due to the upcoming election for City Commission seats.
No one will ever know how big of a role the BISCO transaction played in the outcome of the election, but in the end Hunstad’s political allies Ryan Montgomery and Gail Louis were defeated, replaced by Paige Stevens and Paul Smiley. Incumbents James “J.H.” Atkins and Kevin Caudill were re-elected.
What some residents referred to as a “voting bloc” of Hunstad, Montgomery and Louis was broken at least for the next two years. The mayoral post will not be on the ballot until November 2014.
Bad company, bad end
Mellisa Luna-White was awaiting trial in connection with the death of one man when she became a murder victim herself.
Luna-White, 29, was shot to death just inside the front door of her Longview Drive apartment on Oct. 10. The bullet that killed her was apparently intended for her boyfriend, Derrick Ball, who was scuffling with two men on the porch.
Danville police said Ball was engaged in a struggle with David Harlan when Harlan’s acquaintance, Lamar Stallworth, fired two shots from a handgun with Ball as his target. The shots missed, striking Luna-White as she stood watching the fight.
Stallworth, 27, and Harlan, 23, both of Danville, were charged with murder, but a Boyle County grand jury declined to indict Harlan, and charges against him were dropped. Stallworth remains in the Boyle County Detention Center after being indicted on the murder charge.
Ball, 25, of Danville, who was not charged in Luna-White’s death, was arrested himself on Dec. 16, after he allegedly tried to flee from Deputy Casey McCoy during a traffic stop. Police recovered a stolen handgun, a large amount of cocaine and cash during the arrest.
Ball also had outstanding warrants for first-degree robbery and kidnapping for allegedly forcing Harlan to strip at gunpoint and robbing him of $450 and prescription antibiotics on July 4. Ball also remains in jail.
At the time of her death, Luna-White was free on bond and awaiting trial on a charge of tampering with evidence in the 2011 strangulation death of Michael Begley Jr., 27, of Richmond, whose body was discovered along Taylor Road. Her sister, Gina Priest, is also charged with tampering with evidence, and Luna-White’s husband, Jordan Montez White, is awaiting trial for reckless homicide in Begley’s death.
Gone Gone Gorillas
It’s been nearly five months since federal, state and local authorities swooped in on Go Go Gorillas, and owner Christopher Turner is still waiting for the hammer to drop.
Danville native Turner, 48, saw his long-suffering dream of creating a Christian-themed business empire based on animated apes come crashing down on Aug. 14, when officers, led by the U.S. postal inspectors, raided the Go Go Gorillas Fun Center on the bypass, Turner’s office in Greenleaf Shopping Center and his home on Colonial Way.
According to court records, Turner is alleged to have defrauded dozens of people in Danville and surrounding areas out of several million dollars — much of the money raised through church congregations — as he convinced them to invest in his failing business ventures and diverted some of that money for his private use.
Turner voluntarily submitted to questioning from authorities and has not been charged with any crimes.
Recent efforts to find out the status of the case were unsuccessful. Misty Racimo, the postal inspector from Lexington who led the raid, did not return several phone calls. Commonwealth’s Attorney Richie Bottoms said his office has not been involved in the case beyond requesting the search warrants and expects any case against Turner will likely be filed in federal court. Such cases involving massive amounts of business and personal records often take a long time to put together, Bottoms said.
After several false starts, Go Go Gorillas finally opened its doors in December 2010 in the old Goody’s building. It operated as a self-described “fun center” built around animated characters called the Avenging Apes of Africa created by Grace Global Media, one of Turner’s companies.
Admiral Harp sets sail
Like calling a fake punt on fourth-and-long, Danville High School football coach Sam Harp caught nearly everyone off guard earlier this month when he left his longtime post for a job at a Tennessee high school that hasn’t had a winning season in six years.
“I’m looking for a new challenge, and I feel like I’ve done everything I can do at Danville and it’s time to turn the page and move on,” Harp told The Tennesseean newspaper in Nashville about his move to nearby Lebanon High School.
In 25 years leading the Admirals, Harp won seven state championships while amassing a 276-72 record that also included four state runner-up finishes and two undefeated seasons, and only one losing campaign. He’s a member of the DHS athletic hall of fame, and the football complex on Stanford Road is named in his honor.
He leaves Kentucky with a 326-106 record in 32 seasons, placing him fifth among the state’s all-time wins leaders.
Harp’s daughter lives in nearby Henderson, Tenn., and he said being closer to her was part of the reason behind his move. He also will also be able to draw his full teacher’s pension from Kentucky while earning a paycheck from his new employer in Tennessee.
Harp will be honored with a reception at Danville High School on Jan. 10.
Copyright © 2013, AM News