Wacky weather, triumphs in sports, booming development and upheaval in local politics marked 2017 as a year Dawson County won’t forget any time soon.
From the much-anticipated summer solar eclipse to the over $80,000 clean up necessitated by a devastating Hurricane Irma to the up to 10 inches of early December snow (that no one expected), Dawson County saw many unusual natural events.
Schools were let out early so students could watch the rare solar eclipse on Aug. 21 as the sky dimmed and a ring of light was safely visible only through special event-viewing glasses and makeshift projectors.
While the county was besieged by power outages and torrential rain on Sept. 11, one local woman was surprised to wake up to a tree falling through her roof, knocking beams onto her bed where she slept during the midst of then-Tropical Storm Irma.
But natural occurrences weren’t the only events to hit hard in Dawson County.
New development, which climbed higher than the county has ever seen before in 2016, kept up its momentum as new stores and restaurants opened along the Ga. 400 corridor. The county’s first credit union opened, and an abandoned building was brought to life by a new electronic recycling company.
The Dawson County Chamber of Commerce celebrated 40 years of industry and tourism, and citizens freaked out, then calmed down a little, as the state’s first continuous flow intersection opened up at Ga. 400 and Hwy. 53.
2017 was also a year of heroic acts. One man selflessly aided four teenagers who were ejected from their jet skis on Lake Lanier. Michael Hall used his own boat to rescue the teens and helped emergency services personnel take them to ambulances waiting on the shore.
Another man saved two neighbors he had never met from a house fire that would have killed them; and a woman shot and injured a suspect who began assaulting a Dawson County Sheriff’s Office deputy outside a local gas station, while others tackled the suspect in an adjacent parking lot and held him until police arrived.
The sheriff settled into his first year in office and the Dawsonville City Council kicked out its mayor as the high school football team again made it to the region championship. Hall and Dawson welcomed a fifth Superior Court judge and State Rep. Kevin Tanner spearheaded a movement to save failing schools.
These are just a few of the major events that made headlines in 2017: As 2018 begins, Dawson County News offers a look back at these and other stories that make up the fabric of our community.
Good samaritans shoot, detain man who assaulted DCSO deputy
Several bystanders came to the aid of Dawson County Sheriff’s Office Sgt. Randy Harkness one December afternoon when he was allegedly assaulted by Justin Alan Foster, then 30, of Loganville, at a local gas station.
According to Dawson County Sheriff Jeff Johnson, Harkness had dropped Foster off at the Chevron on Ga. 400 near the McDonald's following a courtesy ride, and was in the process of giving Foster money when Foster began to assault him.
During the assault, a female bystander shot Foster at least once, Johnson said. Foster then fled across the road to the McDonald’s parking lot where he assaulted an elderly woman and attempted to carjack several vehicles.
Additional “good Samaritans” at the McDonald’s tackled and detained Foster until officers arrived, Johnson said.
Foster faces 14 charges including aggravated assault with the intent to murder.
Authorities are still investigating the incident that allegedly occurred around 2:40 p.m. Dec. 5, but Johnson said the female bystander, who has identified herself as April Adamson, likely saved Harkness’ life and the lives of other potential victims.
Johnson said it is not likely she will face any charges.
Harkness, then 52, has worked for the sheriff’s office for nearly 24 years. He received serious injuries to his head and neck and was transported to an area hospital and was later released.
The elderly woman was also struck in the head and transported. She has also been released.
The suspect was also transported to an area hospital to be treated for a gunshot wound, and is currently being held at a metro Atlanta county jail.
Woman accused of hitting, killing pedestrian with car
A Cumming woman was arrested Oct. 18 and charged in connection with the suspected hit and run death of 80-year-old Dawson County resident Bobby Eugene Wells.
Sherri Lynn Jennings, then 44, has been charged with first degree homicide by vehicle and hit and run, both felony charges, as well as failure to report an accident and failure to maintain lane, both misdemeanor charges.
According to Robin Stone, spokeswoman for the Georgia State Patrol, Wells was struck and killed the night of Oct. 9 as he was attempting to walk south across Dawson Forest Road from Chestatee Worship Center to Pinewood Trail. He was struck by a vehicle traveling east on Dawson Forest at 7:37 p.m.
Stone said the vehicle struck Wells with the front passenger side area and left the scene. Wells was deceased at the scene.
Jennings was released from jail Oct. 19 on a $30,200 bond.
State’s first Continuous Flow Intersection opens
After over two years in the construction process and several more in planning, Georgia’s first continuous flow intersection opened at Ga. 400 and Hwy. 53 in Dawson County overnight on May 15.
Only one traffic accident was reported within the first 24 hours of the CFI being open, and there has been no noticeable increase in accidents in the area since, contrary to expectations of locals who saw the intersection as both confusing and detrimental to adjacent businesses.
One of the most confusing aspects of the new intersection, which utilizes crossover lanes that guide left-turning drivers across Ga. 400 and to separated left turn lanes, are the right hand merge lanes onto Ga. 400 northbound and southbound.
Vehicles often stay at those lights until they turn green, even though Georgia law allows for vehicles to cautiously enter the intersection to make a right turn after stopping at a circular red signal. A new sign placed on the light should help ease the confusion, but many drivers still decide to play it safe rather than sorry.
Planning for the intersection started in the early 1980s under a grant for Appalachian funds. At the time, overpasses were being considered but were ruled out due to cost and disruption of traffic, as the work was estimated to cost $150 million or more.
GDOT unveiled the official plan for the intersection early in 2010, and it was projected to cost around $14 million. Eight years later the project is complete at a cost of $11.2 million.
Community mourns tragic death of soccer coach
Tragedy struck hard in Dawson County when high school soccer coach Jed Lacey was killed in a four-car collision that occurred shortly before 6:30 a.m. Aug. 12 on Ga. 400.
His daughter Fallan and her boyfriend Joey Toal, both Dawson County High School juniors, were riding in the back seat and eventually recovered from minor to serious injuries.
Lacey had celebrated his 200th win in the soccer program in March, and was named the Region 7-AAA Girls Coach of the Year. His fellow coaches voted to award him the honor.
In an interview in March, Lacey said his dream was to die on the field one day after winning a state title.
"This is what I do for life. I coach soccer," he said. "I never could retire. I wake up and I think about how to get this team better."
A prayer vigil was held on the high school football field the same night of the crash.
Fellow DCHS Coach Chess Hamby said it was hard to believe Lacey is gone.
“He was somebody larger than life, with a huge personality, that loved these kids with every last beat of his heart,” Hamby said.
Dawsonville Mayor impeached, interim appointed
In an unprecedented 3-1 vote on May 15 by the Dawsonville City Council, James Grogan was removed from his seat as mayor following the council’s investigation into his alleged misuse of city funds and violation of the city charter.
The investigation was initiated after a February meeting in which council members openly denounced a previous decision by Grogan to allow Gold Creek subdivision residents to annex and rezone their properties into the city at a rate lower than was specified in the city charter without a vote from council.
Further accusations of the misuse of funds to buy alcohol with city money and lowering the amount a city property owner paid for water and sewer were also brought up during the investigation, among others.
Council members Justin Power and Caleb Phillips as well as former council member Angie Smith voted to remove Grogan while former council member Mike Sosebee opposed the action.
Grogan fought the decision in court with an appeal to the Dawson County Superior Court, but his case was thrown out in October due to error in the legal process.
Grogan announced in October that he would be running for mayor again in the special election set for March 20.
The council appointed an interim mayor during a December meeting. Mike Eason, 67, is the former chief of police for the City of Cumming and veteran of the Georgia Bureau of Investigations. He will perform the duties of mayor until the election and a new mayor is sworn in.
DCHS football makes it to region championship
For the second straight year the Greater Atlanta Christian Spartans defeated the Dawson County Tigers in the Region 7-AAA championship game on Nov. 3.
The Tigers became region runners-up with the 49-10 loss on the road.
The Tigers state playoff run then ended in the Sweet Sixteen with a 58-13 loss on the road to the defending state champion Cedar Grove Saints on Nov. 17.
The Tigers ended the season at 8-4 overall and 5-1 in region play.
Coming off a season where 34 seniors graduated, this year’s team fought to continue to raise the bar for the program as a whole.
“A lot of young men stepped up. A lot of first year starters were seniors,” said Head Coach Sid Maxwell. “They help set the standard for those to follow, keep raising the bar. The challenge for this group was to keep that bar up there. I think they maximized their potential.”
Maxwell said that the success and greatness come with continuing to build the program to be competitive.
Under his three year tenure, the program and team have continued to set records and excel in post-season play.
Vaughn Clark set a single season rushing record with 1,784 yards on 286 attempts.
Senior quarterback Coey Watson went 119 for 188 with 1,725 passing yards— averaging 9.2 yards a pass. He also ran for another 702 yards and surpassed the 100 touchdown mark in his four years at Dawson County.
Ryan Glass finished the year with 760 yards receiving and Ethan Cameron had another 457.
Man, woman sentenced in child cruelty case
A Dawsonville man was sentenced in September to serve 80 years in prison after being found guilty of inflicting multiple serious injuries on an 18-month-old child. The child’s mother was sentenced in October to 15 years for related crimes.
Mitchell Dewayne Samples, 29, pleaded guilty Sept. 8 to nine counts of cruelty to children in the first degree, according to District Attorney Lee Darragh. Samples pled guilty to breaking the child’s arm and leg, burning the child’s hands and foot and causing other serious injuries, as well as failing to obtain medical treatment for the child.
Samples will serve 80 consecutive years on four of the charges and probation for the remainder.
The mother of the injured child, Amy Lynn King, 25, of Dawsonville, was arrested March 5 and indicted on nine felony charges of first degree cruelty to children.
She was sentenced on Oct. 31 to serve 15 years in prison and 25 on probation, as well as 100 hours of community service.
Samples is currently incarcerated at the Georgia Diagnostic and Classification State Prison, while King is being held at the Arrendale State Prison.
DCHS cross country teams see success
The varsity boys cross country team for Dawson County High School had its best finish ever when it took second place at the Class AAA state race in Carrollton on Nov. 4.
“The boys’ team came away yesterday as state runners up, the best finish ever by a cross country team at DCHS,” said Coach Charles Beusse.
The team took second behind Westminster on Nov. 4.
Beusse said that in his fifth season of coaching the program, he had not seen a team like this one: Dawson County had five runners in the top 20 at the state meet.
“Furthermore, our team average was in the top 10 for all classifications at the state meet this year. That shows just how good this team is,” he said.
The same weekend the varsity girls cross country team traveled to Carrollton for the Class AAA state meet and finished sixth overall behind junior Frankie Muldoon who was also sixth overall.
“While the girls were shooting for top five, I was proud of them,” said Beusse. “This is a very young team with four of our top seven being first year runners. To finish sixth in the state with such youth is incredible.”
Muldoon earned all-state honors for her third consecutive year with her finish at 20 minutes, 45 seconds.
The next finisher for the Lady Tigers was Jenna Lecours in 28th at 22:51.
Beusse said he was pleased with the season overall for both programs and that the teams are now being recognized as part of one of the top programs in the state.
“Our coaching staff has put in a tremendous amount of work over the past five years to get the program to where it is, but it's really the runners that have made the difference,” he said.
Beusse was also named state cross country coach of the year for Class AAA by the Georgia Track and Field Coaches Association.
Citizen journalist sentenced after Burt’s Farm incident
Nydia Tisdale was sentenced Dec. 18 to serve 12 months of probation, 40 hours of community service and pay a $1,000 fine for her August 2014 altercation with a Dawson County law enforcement officer.
Tisdale was found guilty of misdemeanor obstruction of an officer, but was found not guilty of felony obstruction of an officer and criminal trespass. The charges stemmed from her forced removal from Burt’s Pumpkin Farm in Dawsonville, where she was filming a Republican campaign event.
Tisdale was sentenced under Georgia’s First Time Offenders Act, which means that if she completes the sentence without issue, her record will be cleared.
In 2014, Tisdale was arrested by then-Capt. Tony Wooten at a campaign event attended by many high-profile Republicans. The audience included Gov. Nathan Deal and U.S. Rep. Doug Collins along with other statewide officeholders.
Tisdale continued filming the publicly advertised event, held on private property, after being asked to stop filming by organizers. She was then forcibly removed by Wooten, who claimed during the trial that he was kicked and elbowed by Tisdale as he took her away from the campaign event.
Tanner passes bill for failing schools
Gov. Nathan Deal signed a bill in May that is intended to help turnaround failing schools in Georgia.
The legislation, House Bill 338, was sponsored by Rep. Kevin Tanner, R-Dawsonville, and signed amid a list of other education and high-profile bills from the latest legislative session.
Tanner has deemed the "First Priority Act" an alternative to the Opportunity School District amendment, which was defeated by 60 percent of Georgia voters in the fall of 2016.
The legislation will attempt to incentivize school systems to cooperate with the state to help their schools get better as well as hold them accountable.
There are around 153 schools in the state that have been identified as failing, Tanner said in May. The bill should help address that through the assistance of a board-appointed Chief Turnaround Officer, who would appoint turnaround coaches to go into schools and help them to figure out why they're struggling and create a student improvement plan.
Under HB 338, if after three years a school continues to refuse to implement what is laid out in its student improvement plan, that school would lose its flexibility waiver.
Tanner was also appointed chair of the House Commission on Transit Governance & Funding in June.
Lady Tigers basketball reaches Elite Eight round
The Lady Tigers ended their 2016-2017 season in February when the team traveled to Morgan County for the Elite Eight round of the Class AAA tournament and lost on the road.
The 66-55 loss ended what Sweat Head Coach Steve Sweat then called an amazing run.
The Lady Tigers surprised many by earning a second place spot in the Region 7-AAA tournament before defeating Lovett and Monroe in the first two rounds of the state tournament.
"Repetitive daily drills of fundamentals and plays all came together for this team when the region tournament started," Sweat said. "The big win over Union County in the first round of region after just losing to them the week before really sparked us."
The defending state champion Bulldogs eliminated Laney High School out of Augusta last year in the Elite Eight. Laney High School sent the DCHS girls' home from the tournament in 2015 and 2016.
The Lady Tigers ended their season at 12-18 overall.
City council race unseats two incumbents
Political newcomers Mark French and Stephen Tolson won the Nov. 7 Dawsonville City Council election and have replaced incumbents Mike Sosebee and Angie Smith.
French led with 157 votes and Tolson came in second with 134.
Smith tallied 105 votes and Sosebee 118.
French and Tolson were sworn in as members at the Dec. 18 meeting and their terms officially began Jan. 1.
Currently also on the council are Caleb Phillips and Jason Power, as well as Interim Mayor Mike Eason.
Other big stories this year: