Looking back, 2015 was a record-breaking year in Dawson County, specifically in high school sports.
For the first time in school history, the Dawson County Tigers' football team not only won the region and set a school record for the most wins in a season, but also made its first appearance in the state quarterfinals.
"It's the first time in school history that we've ever been in the Elite Eight," said sophomore quarterback Coey Watson. "I've never had so much fun in my life."
Since the program began, Dawson County had never progressed past the second round of the state playoffs. Just last year, the Tigers finished last in Region 7-AAA with a 2-8 record.
Then, Head Coach Sid Maxwell took over.
In his first year in Dawsonville, he helped the Tigers earn their first region title behind Watson's standout play (1,556 yards, 12 touchdowns) and senior running back Hunter Mitchell (920 yards, nine touchdowns).
"All I did was bring a plan," Maxwell said. "The biggest, probably, building process took the culture of our players, getting them to buy in and believing that they can play."
It was a journey that didn't start out well.
"We were a 1-2 football team, but what they kept doing was never quit and they started believing that they could do it too and to see a transformation of young men starting to buy in and believing and playing together, that's what we coach for and what an unselfish bunch we have," Maxwell said.
The greatest season in Dawson County football history came to an end with a 35-7 loss to No. 2 Blessed Trinity Nov. 27.
Lady Tigers go undefeated in regular season
The No. 1 Class AAA Dawson County Lady Tigers carded a perfect regular season in 2015, the first in school history, not just in basketball, but for all sports.
"This is a great group of dedicated and hard-working girls," said Head Coach Steve Sweat. "They are very competitive. They love playing basketball, and I am blessed to be their coach."
The ladies went into the post season on a 25-0 streak.
"This is really exciting to be able to have a perfect season," said senior Ashley Parker. "I'm so proud of our team, that we went the whole season undefeated and stayed a team."
Senior Sheyenne Seabolt thanked the legion of supporters that have followed the team throughout the history-making season.
"It just feels great to come out and be undefeated. It's just awesome to have so many people here tonight cheering us on," she said. "We're just really happy that we went undefeated this whole season."
The season ended with a heart breaking 70-64 loss at Laney High School in Augusta on Feb. 24 in the Elite Eight.
New development plans announced
Publix and Kroger made major announcements in 2015, setting the stage for two new retail developments to open along Ga. 400 in the coming year.
Kroger will move from its current location at Hwy. 53 to the southwest corner of Ga. 400 and Dawson Forest Road, just south of North Georgia Premium Outlets.
In addition to the Kroger Marketplace, Hobby Lobby and PetCo. have already signed on to open stores in the shopping center.
"I would expect over the next three months that we'll have a lot more announcements," said Charlie Auvermann, executive director of the Development Authority of Dawson County. "We're extremely pleased this is coming, and I think the citizens will find, after the construction hassles are all over with, this will be a very nice, very important place for people to shop and enjoy restaurants and that it will be a very significant project for this county."
Another massive retail development is also planned across Ga. 400 at the southeast intersection of Dawson Forest Road.
Set to open in the fall of 2016, a 45,600-square-foot space, Publix supermarket will anchor the shopping plaza, where Brooklyn Joe's Pizzeria, Lee Nails, Great Clips and a Chili's restaurant outparcel have already signed on to open locations.
Totally Running and Top Cleaners are also set to open locations in the 98,400-square-foot Halpern Enterprises Dawson Crossroads.
Halpern representatives said the high-traffic intersection that sees nearly 33,000 vehicles per day is a prime location for the development.
"We have a strong relationship with Publix and enjoy working with them," said John Brozovic, regional leasing director at Halpern Enterprises. "Publix is a high-quality brand that fits in well with other tenants and will certainly benefit the 35,000 nearby households."
11-year-old special needs boy dies in house fire
The local school system and community continue to mourn the loss of a Dawsonville boy who friends say had a smile that lit up the town and all who met him.
Eleven-year-old William Shawn Lee died when his home in western Dawson County erupted in fire overnight Dec. 6.
"He was the life of our school. It was absolutely impossible to have a bad day anytime that you were around Will," said Chess Hamby, a teacher at Riverview Elementary where Will was in the fourth grade and took classes for special needs children.
"He lived life to the fullest and never let any challenge hold him back. I am very thankful that I had the opportunity to spend as much time as I did with Will."
The son of Joanna Lee, Will was a lifelong Dawson County resident who enjoyed westerns, football, basketball, deer hunting and ketchup, according to his obituary.
"It didn't take Will and I long at all to bond. We had the same passion for sports, especially football," said Hamby. "He would always ask me about the ‘ball game' on Friday nights."
Dawson County Coroner Ted Bearden said William died at the scene of the Davis Road blaze in western Dawson County.
"He was removed from the fire. The exact cause of death is still under investigation. We won't know anymore until after the autopsy is performed," Bearden said.
Dawson County Emergency Services Chief Lanier Swafford said the 1,200 square feet, double-wide mobile home was about 50 percent involved when first responders arrived soon after the 10:15 p.m. call to 9-1-1.
"Callers advised a subject was possibly still in the residence," he said. "A search of the residence located an 11-year-old male patient, whom after extrication and evaluation was determined to be deceased."
Three others, including a second child, were at the home at the time of the fire.
"They were able to escape," Swafford said.
A woman in at the home was taken by ambulance to an area hospital and treated for smoke inhalation.
Authorities are unclear on what caused the deadly blaze.
"After investigation, the cause has been ruled undetermined, not suspicious," Swafford said.
The home is considered a total loss.
Sheriff's family loses home in fire
Friends, family, neighbors and even strangers poured on the love for Dawson County Sheriff Billy Carlisle and his family after their home caught fire in early January.
"We can't thank you enough for your support of us at this unbelievably painful and difficult time in our lives. The love and support we have felt from our community as a whole has been overwhelming," Carlisle said following the blaze that destroyed the home.
"The fact alone that my family is all here and safe is enough to be grateful for."
Carlisle's daughter Cara Nix flew into town from Hawaii to be with her parents and younger siblings.
She said the family is grateful for the outpouring of support they have received.
"Words cannot express our gratitude for all of the prayers, thoughts, help and encouragement offered to our family during this difficult time," she said. "So many individuals have reached out to help us. The outpouring of generosity from friends, family and the community is unimaginable."
According to Dawson County Emergency Services Chief Lanier Swafford, the fire that destroyed the home appears to have started in the laundry room.
"It was called in that flames were in the laundry room," he said.
No one was injured in the blaze.
Crews from Dawson and Forsyth counties worked to contain the fire, which also torched one of the family's cars and destroyed everything inside the 1,748 square foot home located on Carlisle Road, in southeastern Dawson County.
Firefighters recognized for action after car collides with engine
Tim Pastore stepped back for a moment after seeing the damage to the fire engine he was driving Oct. 2 that collided head on with a passenger car.
"I don't remember it being this bad," he said as he assessed the pumper's wreckage.
He doesn't recall the extremity of the crashed truck, because as soon as the engine came to a stop at the bottom of the 30 foot embankment west of War Hill Park Road on Hwy. 53, he and volunteer firefighter Eli Kesting, jumped to the attention of the young lady in the passenger car that was in dire need of medical care.
"We were more concerned about her," Kesting said. "The most important thing for us was to help her."
Kesting, who joined the department as a volunteer less than a year ago, and Pastore, a 10 year fire service veteran, did exactly what their training has led them to do, even as the injuries they sustained in the crash began to come apparent.
"I think it's very commendable that their first thoughts were not on their own injuries," said Dawson County Emergency Services Capt. Jeff Bailey. "First and foremost on their minds was doing their duty as firefighters. They immediately went back to their damaged rig to get extrication tools to try to assist the other person involved in the incident."
Pastore and Kesting were responding with emergency lights and sirens running to a call of an "unconscious, unresponsive, not breathing" patient when they collided with a teen driver, who was attempting to pass traffic that had slowed and was moving on to the shoulder for the oncoming fire engine.
After impact, the fire engine traveled off the shoulder and down on embankment, while the teen was entrapped within her crushed car.
"Even immediately following the accident, they were able to extricate themselves and saw a need to provide equipment to get her treatment and expedite her extrication and get her on to the hospital," said Chief Lanier Swafford. "We're very proud of their actions, their reactions following the accident."
The 17-year-old driver and her family were at the department's annual awards ceremony in early December to thank the pair for their service.
Record number of traffic deaths on Dawson County roads
Traffic deaths on Dawson County roads reached at least a 10-year high in 2015 with 14 reported fatalities since March.
Georgia State patrol reported five in 2014, six in 2013 and three in 2012.
Prior to 2015, the highest number of deaths on roads in Dawson County was in 2008 when 10 were reported.
Earlier this year, the Georgia Department of Transportation began noticing a disturbing trend in fatalities statewide - 26 per week - even as it touted its DriveAlert ArriveAlive campaign to reduce the number of deaths.
"Each morning, the Georgia DOT daily fatality report lists the deaths reported in the past 24 hours on Georgia's roads," Commissioner Russell McMurry said. "It is a somber account.
"After all, these are not just statistics. They are people whose families are torn apart by tragic loss."
Woman holds up Zales jewelry store
The Dawson County Sheriff's Office continues to investigate the August armed robbery of Zales Jewelry at North Georgia Premium Outlets in which a woman made off with more than $13,000 in jewels.
The unidentified, dark-haired woman was reportedly wearing a dark baseball cap, blue button up shirt and khaki pants.
She is considered a suspect in at least three other jewelry store robberies in Panama City Beach, Fla., Bluffton, S.C. and Woodstock.
More than $400,000 in jewels was taken during the Panama City Beach heist.
Authorities believe the woman is in 20s, approximately 5'8" tall and 130 pounds. An unidentified black male described in his late 30s to early 40s, about 6' tall and 250 pounds has also been named a suspect in the cases.
Each of the "robberies mirrored the Panama City Beach robbery and the suspects appear to be of the same build in reviewed surveillance video," according to a press release from the Federal Bureau of Investigation Jacksonville office.
"In all [the] cases, the woman has the same M.O. She comes in early in the morning, forces the employees to the back of the store and zip-ties their hands," said Dawson County Sheriff's Maj. Ray Goodie.
While no one has been injured in either of the robberies, the FBI is calling the suspects armed and dangerous.
The Jewelers' Security Alliance is offering a reward of up to $10,000 for information leading to the arrest of the female robbery suspect.
Anyone with information is asked to call Dawson County Sheriff's Inv. Travis Greene at (706) 344-3636, or the the FBI Jacksonville Field Office at (904) 248-7000.
The reward hotline can be reached at (800) 325-1883.
Family holds out hope that missing man will come home
The family of a missing Dawsonville man continues to hold out hope for his safe return.
Quinton Jimmy Walls, 50, was last heard from on June 6 when he spoke by phone to his daughter about meeting at church the next morning.
That call appears to have been the last time Walls used his cellphone, according to records collected by Dawson County Sheriff's Investigators.
"There has been no cellphone activity or financial card activity since he has been missing," Capt. Tony Wooten said.
While the sheriff's office continues to actively investigate Walls' disappearance, Wooten said they have no indication that a crime has taken place.
"There were no signs of foul play in or around the vehicle located in Dawson Forest," he said.
The truck was found near the horse trailer parking lot in the management area off Dawson Forest Road. Campers believe they saw him in the area sometime overnight June 6, according to Wooten.
Authorities also found a red polo-style shirt, which Gracie Lou Walls claims belongs to her son.
"I do his laundry. I know he has a shirt like that and I know it's not here," she said in a phone interview the week she reported her son missing.
Gracie Lou Walls said it's uncharacteristic for her son to stay gone for this long without contacting the family.
"He'd go off and maybe stay two nights somewhere, but never more than three, and this is nearly two weeks," she said.
His nephew Lance Walls said the family is appreciative of the community's support in the effort to help locate his uncle.
"There's been tons of phone calls and people swinging by, just checking in. The sheriff's department has done a great job of keeping us informed and out there," he said.
Dawson County Emergency Services Chief Lanier Swafford said crews continue to conduct searches of the wildlife management area.
"While [we] can't go through what the family's going through, it hurts us that we can't give them what they are looking for right now, and that's getting Jimmy back," he said.
Jimmy Walls is described as 5'9" and weighs about 165 pounds. He has brown hair and blue eyes.
His family said he was wearing blue jeans and a checkered shirt when they last saw him.
Anyone with information is asked to call the sheriff's office at (706) 344-3636.
Separate murder-suicides rock tight-knit community
One was described as a mercy killing, while the other had little explanation.
Separate murder-suicides rocked the tight-knit community and had so many people asking why in 2015.
Authorities said Erin Niccole Jones, 28, was shot to death on July 8 by her live-in boyfriend at the couple's home on Maple Hill Drive in downtown Dawsonville.
David Geyer II, 43, then turned the gun on himself as officers arrived on the scene a short time later.
It is believed that Jones, a Forsyth County 911 communication officer, was on the phone with emergency dispatch when she was shot and killed.
"We had to make sure those kids were not going to be hurt. That's when we made the decision to bust the front door and went in."
Investigators said they were not aware of any earlier reports of domestic violence incidents at the home.
Pat Giordano, the director of the 911 center where Jones worked, said the "loss of one of our own is indescribable."
"Our center staff is truly like a family, and this tragedy has saddened us to the core," Giordano said. "Erin's presence in our department will be greatly missed. We appreciate everyone's thoughts and prayers as we struggle with this heartbreaking loss."
Dawson County Sheriff Billy Carlisle said his 911 officers that worked the call were given the rest of the afternoon off.
"I think it hit them pretty hard, because they knew the lady as someone that was doing the same job they were doing. It upset them, but yet they were still able to hold their composure and get everybody dispatched that they needed to," he said.
The victim in the county's second murder-suicide of 2015 was 14-year-old Dustin Hicks.
Sheriff's spokesman Capt. Tony Wooten said authorities believe Nina Hicks, 53, shot and killed her special needs son before turning the gun on herself.
Their bodies were found Nov. 5 in the basement of their southeastern Dawson County home near Ga. 400 in the Biscayne subdivision.
"We were contacted to do a welfare check at the residence by a family member," Wooten said. "After forcibly having to enter the residence, two bodies were discovered by responding deputies."
The son reportedly had severe mental and physical disabilities. The two lived in the home alone.
"The father called 9-1-1, saying his normal scheduled visitation was on Thursday at the residence. He went to the residence and tried to make contact, but couldn't make contact with anybody and didn't hear any sounds from inside the house," Wooten said. "He described this as being unusual because Thursday is his normal visitation."
Authorities did not reveal how long they believe the woman and teen had been deceased.
Greg Moffitt, a volunteer with the Atlanta Sparks special needs hockey program, said he knew the family and had worked one-on-one with Dustin.
"I skated with Dustin several times before they quit coming to the program," he said.
He recalled a time when the single mother was struggling to tie her son's skates.
"She was ready to give up and go home. I stopped, helped finish getting him dressed and we took the ice," Moffitt said. "Dustin was very excited. Although mostly, non-verbal, he kept repeating ‘hockey, hockey, hockey.'"
Investigators said Hicks wrote about her son's medical issues and the difficulties she had handling them in a note she left behind.