Nationally, the top stories of 2021 included the Jan. 6 U.S. Capitol riots as Congress convened to certify the 2020 election results in Joe Biden’s favor, the introduction of COVID-19 vaccines, rising costs attributed to inflation and disruptions to the global supply chain, and America’s withdrawal from a two-decade-long war in Afghanistan. Locally, the biggest news stories of the year were:
10. City discusses request for alleyway easement for Mater’s Pizza
Local businessman Chris Roberts asked the Fort Payne City Council at its June 15 meeting to vacate an alley behind Jenni’s between First and Second Streets North so he could make progress toward converting the former department store into a restaurant dining room with a drive-thru window in the back. Roberts needed the action to finalize paperwork for opening a Fort Payne location of Mater’s Pizza & Pasta Emporium to join stores in Gadsden and Albertville. Roberts told The Times-Journal that the pandemic demonstrated the importance of having methods for delivering meals-to-go from such service areas, but the small amount of space behind the former store would not facilitate such an addition unless the alley was modified to permit this. As of December 30th, there’s no indication of progress made toward the start of construction on the proposed restaurant.
9. Rainsville woman drowns in flooded creek
Makayla Danielle Ross was leaving work at Santa Fe Cattle Company on June 19 at around 10 p.m. when her car became caught in rushing waters. Police officers, who were nearby, attempted to rescue her but the vehicle quickly submerged and was swept under a bridge. Swift water rescue teams found her body the next morning and Santa Fe closed for employees to mourn despite it being Father’s Day. Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey declared a state of emergency in eight Alabama counties because of power outages and the loss of lives, including one 17-vehicle crash on Interstate 65 in which 10 people died. Locally, six DeKalb County roads were closed due to washouts.
The National Weather Service in Huntsville attributed the intense rainfall to Tropical Storm Claudette. One DeKalb County observation station reported 9.83 inches of rain during a 12-hour period, whereas the area averages four inches of rain during the entire month of June. It marked the third time in two years that Fort Payne faced serious flooding.
In October, the family of Ross filed legal action against the City of Fort Payne. Over the summer, the municipality took steps to remedy flood-prone areas by installing new drainage pipes and both straightening and widening the section of creek behind the WZOB radio station where her body was recovered. During discussions about remediating the drainage system, it was revealed that large underground tunnels beneath older parts of the city have started to gradually collapse and present challenges that will likely continue well beyond 2022.
8. Citizens arrested for alleged crimes against children
Criminal justice stories typically earn a spot in the year’s top stories, but 2021 brought an unusually large number of cases involving children. In November, former DeKalb County teacher and coach Dustin Wade Dalton entered pleas of guilty to three felony sex offenses, was sentenced to 10 years in state prison and will be a lifetime registered sex offender. Dalton resigned in October 2020, the same month his twin brother Donavan was also arrested on a charge of having sexual relations with a student and resigned from the Fort Payne schools.
In September, Jonathan Todd O’Shields, 32, of Valley Head was arrested after detectives from the Rainsville Police Department Investigations Division were working a case involving Electronic Solicitation of a Child, which turned out to be a suspect from out of the country. The detectives received complaints that O’Shields attempted to solicit a young female online. He was released on a $30,000 bond.
In November, Rainsville Police Department investigators, working with DeKalb County Department of Human Resources, arrested Fyffe’s Teah Gabrielle Holland on Nov. 3 on one count of torture/willful abuse of a child. She was released from the DeKalb County Detention Center on a $7,500 bond and awaits her day in court.
Christopher Snow was sentenced to 25 years in prison for the strangulation death of Melissa Nichole Waldrop. The Crossville couple had the fatal altercation after a night of drinking in Guntersville in 2019.
7. Longtime Fort Payne public servant among the many lost in 2021
Former Fort Payne Assistant Police Chief Ronnie Warren received a hero’s farewell that reflected more than 40 years of service to the community as a police officer, emergency medical technician, sheriff’s deputy, revenue and compliance officer, and assistant police chief. Warren died in late October after battling COVID-19 for much of the summer. Warren actively participated in a number of local charitable events, including serving as coordinator for the city's annual Community Christmas Dinner.
Warren was one of many people we lost in 2021, not all of them victims of the pandemic. Among them was fellow former assistant police chief Harold Wayne “Skinny” Parker, All-American Crimson Tide lineman Wayne Freeman, retired carpenter Charles Ray Wright, influential evangelist Patricia Elaine Hollmer, the Rev. Forrest Ethridge, retired educators Rita Rupil, Marjorie Durham Malloy Fox and Jackie Scott, veterans Robert Dale Fischer and Robert “Bob” William Clark, longtime Fort Payne Improvement Authority clerk Laura Ruth Jones Stone, former Collinsville water board chairman James Randall Coker, Sr., businesspeople Phyllis Elaine Prewett Bell and Doyle Wayne Scott, and Jim Jordan. They join the dozens of others whose absence will continue to be felt in the new year.
6. I-59 under construction
A long overdue major reconstruction of Interstate 59 began in the spring and will continue well into late 2022, costing $25.2 million. Lane shifts occurred between the existing roadways, temporarily turning four lanes into two and causing some headaches and delays for motorists as speed limits reduced from 70 to 55 miles per hour between Attalla to the Georgia State Line. Heavy machinery from the contractor dug up the existing road, crumbled the material and resurfaced it with those materials recycled. Said Seth Burkett, ALDOT’s North Region public information officer: “I-59 has been a constant maintenance issue in recent years as the underlying concrete deteriorates with age,” Burkett said. “This project will address one of the most troubled areas by completely reconstructing seven or eight miles of the northbound roadway from Exit 218 in Fort Payne to north of the U.S. 11 overpass.”
5. Little Ridge Intermediate School opens, BEAT center breaks ground
Twenty-eight months after the groundbreaking, the $22.8 million Little Ridge Intermediate School finally opened for the new school year without a big public event due to continuing concerns about the COVID-19 coronavirus. The school contains 50 classrooms, plus dedicated spaces for project-based and STEM learning, gymnasium and lunchroom. It will also be the first school in Alabama with Power Over Ethernet lighting and is structurally reinforced to withstand even the force of an EF-5 tornado. It replaces Williams Avenue Elementary School, which has been in service since 1954.
A month later and roughly a mile east, the governor helped to break ground on Fort Payne High School’s BEAT (Building, Electric, Aviation Technology) Center, where students will learn vocational skills such as drone aviation, electric vehicle technology and construction, including plumbing, electrical and drywall classes. A $1 million grant made it possible after Superintendent Jim Cunningham was approached by Rep. Nathaniel Ledbetter and Sen. Steve Livingston to come up with a good use for unexpected money on a week’s notice.
4. After years of anticipation, the hospital demolition begins
Considering how long he fought to see it happen, it was only fitting that former Fort Payne Mayor Larry Chesser be on hand when the bricks started to fall at the site of the old DeKalb General hospital, which the City of Fort Payne completed foreclosing on in July. Constructed in 1950, the building became a retirement community in 1986 but sat empty since 2013. Mold and asbestos posed a risk to anyone entering the eyesore at the 1300 block of Forest Avenue. On Nov. 12, heavy machinery started tearing down large portions of the structure. The process continues into 2022.
3. A new generation of leaders takes over
Nearly simultaneously, city and council schools faced change at the top. Fort Payne High School Principal Brian Jett was hired to succeed Jim Cunningham, whose retirement was met with appreciation from many whose children had attended classes during his 18 years on the job and witnessed the expansion of academic and athletic programs to new heights. The DeKalb County Board of Education elevated Wayne Liles to take over for Jason Barnett, who left for a similar opportunity in Guntersville. Chief David Davis replaced Randy Bynum at the Fort Payne Police Department, while Chief Michael Edmondson took over at the Rainsville Police Department from Kevin Smith. At Fort Payne City Hall, Brian Baine assumed duties as mayor. City council members Phillip Smith and John Smith now occupy seats held in 2020 by Wade Hill and Red Taylor. And DeKalb County’s district attorney since 1996, Mike O’Dell, announced he would retire rather than seek another term.
2. DeKalb a potential site for Poarch Creek Indian casino
Legislation that would have allowed the Poarch Band of Creek Indians (PCI) to set up a proposed casino in either DeKalb or Jackson counties made it out of committee but failed a vote of the entire Alabama Senate in March. Wind Creek Hospitality VP of Business Development Arthur Mothershed told The Times-Journal that PCI – the only federally recognized tribe in Alabama – would not give up on efforts to let Alabama voters decide whether to establish a statewide lottery for funding schools, allow the building of five new casinos in the state and establish commissions to heavily regulate them. Mothershed said PCI had “put out feelers” on multiple parcels of land locally where a 1,000-room luxury resort employing about 2,500 people could accommodate guests seeking to visit a world-class spa, gourmet culinary studio, outdoor amphitheater, infinity pool, movie theater, RV park and fine dining restaurants. The draw would be proximity to Chattanooga, where a lottery exists but casinos can’t operate.
Schools emerge from mask mandates
With the emergence of the three vaccines, hope of a return to normal life seemed likely to definte 2021, but impatience grew with lingering mask mandates intended to protect children in schools from spread of the disease. Since July 2020, Alabamians had lived under a public health order. Gov. Ivey allowed the restrictions to end in early April 2021. DeKalb County students returned to school without such requirements, but Fort Payne Superintendent Brian Jett faced a major challenge early in his tenure, reversing course on a stated “personal preference” policy right before city schools returned. The move came at the recommendation of health officials, who cited the rapid spread of the more contagious Delta variant of COVID and the fact that the vaccines were not authorized for anyone under 12 at the time.
Alabama ranked dead last the nation in vaccination rates with only a third of the population fully vaccinated. About 22% of the population of DeKalb County had received at least one dose of a vaccine. A group of protesters showed up at a September school board meeting to complain about the mask requirement. A month later, the masks became optional as new case numbers dwindled.
As the year ended, leaders faced fresh choices with the introduction of the Omicron variant. Dr. Karen Landers from the Alabama Department of Public Health cautioned that more infectious variants would potentially compromise existing vaccines and antibody therapies, posing an imminent threat to those who have already been immunized. She also warned the public about disinformation spread on social media “hurting people and [it] will result in preventable deaths.”