New PCHS, new traffic light, stellar football season dominated 2019 news in Pierce

Last year will be remembered as a year of growth and development, new beginnings, and another stellar season for the Pierce County Bears.

Construction of the new Pierce County High School was completed well under budget in time for move in over Christmas break. Students will start classes in just a few weeks in a new school.

The Blackshear Times marked its 150th year in operation and changed ownership for the first time in nearly 50 years when longtime Publishers Robert and Cheryl Williams sold the newspaper to Baxley natives Matt and Carrie Gardner in July.

The year was also marked by incredible performances by Pierce County athletes and multiple opportunities for locals to display their Bear pride, most notably the Bears’ appearance in the state playoffs and the team’s second consecutive undefeated regular season. The PCHS competition cheer team also brought home their seventh (fifth consecutive) state trophy.

Here’s a look back at the Top Ten news items of 2019:

No. 1  — PCHS construction finished: The new Pierce County High School was finished in early December and came in under budget approximately $450,000. The two-year long construction project’s final cost was $29.5 million. The new high school features 132 miles of electrical wiring, 37.7 miles of data wiring, 700,000 bricks and 360,000 blocks, 64 classrooms and 185,000 square feet. The high school is scheduled to open for classes Monday, January 13.

No. 2  — Newspaper ownership changes: This area’s oldest business, The Blackshear Times, turned 150 years old last year and changed ownership for the first time in nearly 50 of those years. Times Editor & Publisher Robert M. Williams Jr. and his wife, Cheryl, sold the newspaper to MC Gardner Publishing Company, Inc. Matt Gardner, formerly of Baxley and Folkston, took over as publisher in July. Williams was the longest serving editor of The Times with 48 years at the helm of this weekly paper, surpassing former Editor Kirk Sutlive’s record nearly 30 years ago.  The first edition published under his tenure is dated April 12, 1971. The Times wasn’t the only area newspaper to undergo a shakeup last year. Area newspaper readers were shocked to learn the Waycross Journal Herald would close its doors. The six-day-a-week newspaper published its last edition Monday, September 30. Rick Head, former sports editor for the WJH, purchased the publication’s name and began printing the WJH again in October as a weekly newspaper.

No. 3  — New traffic light at County Farm, U.S. Highway 84: A new traffic signal at the intersection of County Farm Road and Hwy. 84 was installed in record time earlier this year, but a near tragedy served as the catalyst for the long-awaited signal. Veteran firefighter Johnnie Anderson was struck by a truck and critically injured while directing afternoon school traffic there in April. The light was installed and functioning in late July, just ahead of the new school year.

No. 4  — The Chemours Company purchased Southern Ionics Minerals (SIM), a local mining company in Offerman. Company executives confirmed a previously announced expansion of mining operations and facility upgrades which would produce 100 new jobs would move ahead under the Chemours umbrella. Pierce County voted to join the Southeast Georgia Regional Development Authority (SEGRDA) alongside Appling, Bacon and Jeff Davis Counties in hopes of landing larger industrial prospects in one of those four counties and developing infrastructure in the Hwy. 84 Industrial Park. The county deeded 58 acres in the local Park to the joint authority as part of the deal. Larry’s Giant Subs on Hwy. 84 in Blackshear closed their doors last year, but the building didn’t sit empty long. Local developers Brian Smith and Doug Puryear renovated the space and opened Surcheros Fresh Grill, a Tex-Mex franchise, at that location in mid-summer. Southern Eagle, a regional beer distributor located in the Hwy. 84 Industrial Park, opened its new facility and added 20-30 new jobs. The new warehouse is approximately 25 percent larger than the former warehouse.

No. 5  — Bears have another record year: The Pierce County Bears football team finished with a 10-0 overall record, a second consecutive undefeated regular season record, another region championship and made it all the way to the second state playoff round before falling 32-29 to Hart County. The competition cheer squad brought home their seventh AAA state championship, too. The team took state in 2012, 2013, 2015, 2016, 2017, 2018 and 2019. The PCHS One Act team placed third in the state at the GHSA State One Act Competition for their performance of Sci-Fi fantasy “A Wrinkle In Time.”  The PCHS team was the only competing school to win three individual awards. Pierce County High School’s Literary Team won region, marking the third time in five years the team has brought home the region trophy. Individual first place winners included Jaeden Lincoln, Collin Hendley, JoHannah James, Claire Naylor and Isabelle Hall. Not to be outdone, PCHS “Sound of Silver” took first place in three competitions in their division, and were deemed Grand Champion at the Long County High School Band Competition.

No. 6  — Grady takes over Pierce County EMS: Grady EMS/South Georgia EMS of Atlanta took over as Pierce County’s new Emergency Medical Service (EMS) provider in April after county commissioners voted unanimously in January to approve a five year, annually renewable contract with Grady EMS/South Georgia for $350,000. The privatization was reportedly projected to save Pierce County between $108,000 and $380,000 per year. Pierce County retained its ambulances, EMS license and facilities in both Blackshear and Patterson.

No. 7  — Crime in Pierce County: Several prominent and long-running cases came to a conclusion in 2019, including three murder cases. A Pierce County deputy was also cleared in the shooting of a burglary suspect.

• A 13-year-old seventh grade student was taken into custody in January and charged with terroristic threats in connection with a bomb threat posted to Pierce County Middle School’s Facebook page. The teen was also charged with transmitting a false public alarm, a felony. No suspicious items were found and no explosives were detected during a search of the school grounds and PCMS resumed normal operations the following day. The teen was sentenced to two years in a detention facility in February after pleading guilty.  

• The body of Eugene Wesley of Waycross was found in early February near the area of Murdock Drive and Ware Street Extension just west of Blackshear. Foul play was not suspected by investigators, but friends and family members initially expressed outrage at preliminary reports indicating no foul play. Early reports from the initial 911 call reportedly included comments from the person calling in that the man appeared to have a broken neck. That comment was apparently based on casual observation and was not accurate, says Sheriff Ramsey Bennett. • Dana Larson Bowen, former owner of Management South Insurance Agency, pled guilty to two felony counts of insurance fraud, one count of felony perjury and three counts of failure to report insurance premiums in Pierce County Superior Court in March and was sentenced to 25 years, 23 1/2 of which will be served on probation. She was ordered to pay restitution to her victims, capped by the court at $100,000 and to pay $3,500 in fines, and was banished from the Waycross Judicial Circuit for the balance of her sentence (24 years).

• Willie James Wilson had his death penalty vacated and was instead sentenced to two consecutive life sentences for the 1981 murders of two local men. Wilson, convicted of the murders of two Pierce County men June 22, 1981, was sentenced here in 1982 for the shooting deaths of Alfred Boatright, 64, and Morris Highsmith, 58, during an armed robbery at Boatright’s store in Bristol. He had been on death row in Jackson since his conviction.

• Blackshear resident Rocquel McNair, charged with aggravated assault in the June 2018 shooting of Wilbur Hightower, was sentenced to 10 years probation in Superior Court, instructed to have no contact with Hightower, and released in May after being in custody for nearly a year.

• Leesa Mattox, owner of L & M Bookkeeping and Tax Service on Main Street, was arrested and charged with 27 misdemeanor counts of theft by deception, following BPD’s execution of a search warrant at L & M where investigators removed five or six filing cabinets of documents. Many of those documents reportedly belong to locals whose tax returns were allegedly never filed by Mattox.  

• A case against Blackshear Councilman Timmy Sapp for disorderly conduct was referred to District Attorney George Barnhill for further investigation in June.

• Pierce County Sheriff’s Deputy Jacob Winters was cleared of wrongdoing for shooting burglary suspect Tyler Scales in a midday incident in the Comfort Inn parking lot in July. Scales fled with officers in quick pursuit to Oak Plaza Inn where he was apprehended from a second-story motel room and taken to Orange Park Medical Center in Jacksonville for treatment. Scales has since recovered from his injuries. The case was investigated by Columbia County Sheriff’s Office. The DA’s office ruled Winters’ actions were “legally justifiable” in September.

• Eric Rawls and Judeah Williams were found guilty of drug trafficking in a Pierce County trial in September. Chief Judge Dwayne Gillis  of the Waycross Judicial Circuit sentenced Rawls to 30 years (serve 15) and a $200,000 fine, and Williams to 20 years (serve 10) and a $200,000 fine.

• Corey Adams pled guilty and was sentenced to life in prison for the February 2017 murder and dismemberment of his mother, Cecelia Broida. Adams entered a plea of guilty to a count of malice murder in Pierce County Superior Court in October before Judge Jeffrey Kight. As part of the plea deal, Adams agreed to not seek eligibility for parole for 35 years.

• Byron Kenneth “Kenny” Jernigan was sentenced to two consecutive life sentences without parole for the December 2017 beating deaths of an elderly Patterson couple, Dan and Flora Hollmon. Jernigan entered a guilty plea to two counts of malice murder before Waycross Judicial Circuit Senior Superior Court Judge Dwayne Gillis in Pierce County Superior Court in November.

No. 8  — Accidents, wrecks and fires: No one was hurt in a house fire that burned hot and fast on Strickland Ave. early Thursday morning, Jan. 31, but the Bell family of seven was displaced when one of the oldest homes in town went up in a blistering blaze. The home is located directly behind the Pierce County Courthouse and initial reports indicated the courthouse was on fire too. Construction year for the home is unknown, but an accessory building on the property was constructed in 1900, according to local tax records. Lynn Davis Roberts who grew up in the home told The Times her former family home was one of the first in Blackshear to be outfitted with indoor plumbing.  Johnnie Anderson, 59-year-old Blackshear native, was struck while directing school traffic at Hwy. 84 and County Farm Road by 81-year-old Charles Samuel Daniels of Blackshear. Daniels has not been charged in the wreck, but the investigation is still pending. Anderson was life-flighted from the scene and underwent several surgeries to repair internal organs and stop internal bleeding. Anderson was welcomed home May 22 after a lengthy rehab stay amidst a public safety escort. Well-wishers lined Main Street to cheer his return. Three Pierce County families are coping with the loss of loved ones following a fiery, two vehicle crash on Dean Still Road in June. Cheryl “Sherry” Barnes, Joseph Herman “Joey” Fennel, and Cerriea “CJ” Matthew, all of Blackshear, were killed. Sheriff Ramsey Bennett described the scene as “awful.”

No. 9  — Elections: A special election to fill the unexpired term of former Blackshear Mayor Dick Larson was set for March 2019, but the Rev. Kevin Grissom, pastor of Blackshear Church of God, was the only person to qualify for the seat. Grissom was sworn into office February 20, and will serve through 2021 to finish the remainder of Larson’s term.  Linda Dennison was elected to fill the District 6 seat on Blackshear City Council while Shawn Godwin (District 5) won a four year term in his own right in the November municipal election. The county’s one cent local option sales tax also passed.  There were no elections in Offerman and Patterson as all incumbents  ran unopposed.                                                                         

No. 10  — Leadership changes: Chris Bond, a Pierce County native, was hired as the county’s new code inspector. Bond is tasked with handling code issues including permitting, building plan review and approval, inspections and any code violation investigations. Longtime Emergency Management Agency director/fire coordinator Leonard Roberts was terminated in February after an extended medical leave of absence. Santo Niño was hired as Pierce County’s new EMA director/fire coordinator in March. A native of Edinburg, Texas, Niño served for 15 years in the U.S. Army. He was previously employed with the Waycross Fire Department for 10 years attaining the rank of lieutenant. Suzanne Manning took over as Blackshear City Clerk early in the year following Susan Fowler’s retirement, but resigned in September after being placed on paid administrative leave pending an investigation into the release of un-redacted personal information of police department employees during the fulfillment of an open records request. Ryan Herring, former defensive coordinator for the Bears under head coach Craig Davis, was hired to lead the Pierce County Bears football team after former Head Coach Jason Strickland left the post in April to become head coach of the Ware County Gators. Herring returned to Pierce County from Oxford, AL. Mandy Williams and LeAnne Dixon were hired as assistant principals at Blackshear Elementary School, joining Principal Dee Treadwell’s administrative team. The Rev. Dr. Bill Young, pastor of First Baptist Church (FBC) of Blackshear for over two decades, stepped down in September. Pierce County Recreation Director Patrick Arrington also resigned in September after being placed on paid administrative leave. County officials cited “recent events” that caused a significant change in his “work environment and conditions of employment” as the reasons for his resignation. Blackshear Police Officer Carey Smoak resigned in lieu of being fired in October after an internal investigation into his alleged inappropriate messaging of a 17-year-old female high school student.

Other notable happenings: Lakeview Golf Club is once again a scenic spot Blackshear residents can be proud of. The lake, drained in December 2018 from a partial dam failure, was full again in mid-March, just days after a dam repair was completed. A group of local artists partnered with the city to open Patterson Art Gallery in Eagle Station, a space for Pierce County artists and others from around the region to display and sell their work.