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Year in review: A look back at 2014
4 YinR Elliott pic1
Chase Elliott was crowned the 2014 Nationwide Series Champion following the race at Homestead-Miami Speedway in Miami, Fla. - photo by File photo

Looking back on 2014, it would be difficult and a bit deceiving to continue calling Dawsonville and Dawson County a quiet mountain town.

And no one caused more noise to be made in the last 12 months than Dawsonville's newest NASCAR champion Chase Elliott.

At 18, Elliott broke records, set records and literally put Dawsonville back in the racing spotlight in 2014.

Fast-tracking his way to NASCAR stardom with back-to-back wins at Texas and Darlington in his first year competing in NASCAR's Nationwide Series, followed by a third win at Chicagoland, Elliott had an insurmountable lead over teammate Regan Smith with one race left in the season.

To top that, he made history by being named rookie of the year and most popular driver in his inaugural championship year.

"It's just been a very, very fun road," he said following the season-ending race in Miami.

Reflecting on the history-making season, which included 16 top-five and 26 top-10 finishes, Elliott wouldn't take the credit alone.

Keeping with tradition, every time Elliott took a checkered flag, the now world famous "si-rene" atop the Dawsonville Pool Room, exploded throughout the town, just like it did when Elliott's legendary father Bill Elliott was dominating NASCAR.

Chase Elliott's new found fame in racing circles has fans from far and wide visiting Dawsonville to be a part and celebrate in his history-making career.

"I just think that Dawsonville, Ga. is key to NASCAR from the history and I just always wanted to come here," said Jeff Murrell, who drove from Sarnia, Ontario, Canada to live out a dream of watching the younger Elliott race at the Pool Room in Dawsonville.


Death row inmate granted clemency

A local family was devastated after the Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles commuted the death sentence of convicted killer Tommy Lee Waldrip on July 9.

"We are in shock and disbelief that this is the outcome," said Angela DeCoursey, younger sister to Keith Lloyd Evans of Dawsonville, who was murdered in 1991 days before he was set to testify against Waldrip's son in an armed robbery case.

For his role in the slaying, Waldrip was scheduled to be put to death by lethal injection July 10 at the Georgia Diagnostic and Classification Prison in Jackson.

In a rare decision, the five-member pardons and parole board granted Waldrip clemency, which means he will spend the rest of his days behind bars.

"We feel that the justice system failed Keith originally and again now. We feel that there is no justice system at all," DeCoursey said.

The move came after hours of testimony by the Evans family and prosecutors wishing to see the death penalty sentence carried out, as well as Waldrip's relatives and lawyers requesting that his life be spared.

Waldrip was sentenced to death in 1994 following his conviction for killing Evans, a popular college student and manager of a Forsyth County grocery story, in April 1991.

District Attorney Lee Darragh led the prosecution of the case in Gwinnett County, where it had been moved to avoid a tainted jury among Dawson County's then 10,000 residents.

"It is certainly disappointing for my office and for the family of the courageous Keith Evans that the parole board has chosen to commute the death penalty that the brave, right-thinking jury imposed upon Tommy Lee Waldrip 20 years ago," he said.

The slaying 23 years ago was one of the most brutal murders in Dawson County history.

Evans was driving home from his job as night manager of a small grocery store in nearby Cumming when he was run off the road and forced out of his truck. A short time later, he was shot, beaten to death and buried in a shallow grave.

Evans was set to testify against Waldrip's son and his brother-in-law, Howard Kelly Livingston, in the trial for the 1989 armed robbery. The trial had been scheduled to start two days after he was reported missing.

In October 1994, a jury found Tommy Lee Waldrip guilty of malice murder, two counts of felony murder, kidnapping with bodily injury and aggravated battery.

He was sentenced to death.

In separate trials, John Mark Waldrip and Livingston were sentenced to life in prison for their parts in the slaying.

The Georgia General Assembly is expected to consider legislation that would increase transparency in the parole board and its decisions.

 

Popular coach murdered

An arrest was made Dec. 10 in the fatal shooting of a popular coach and father of three.

Dawson County Sheriff's investigators charged Herman James "Bo" Seppenfield VII, 50, of Dawsonville, with murder in connection with the death of Brandon Weaver, also of Dawson County.

"Investigators met with the District Attorney's Office and determined there was probable cause to charge him with murder in the death of Brandon Weaver," said Sheriff's spokesman Capt. Tony Wooten.

Weaver, 37, died from shots fired at close range during a fight with Seppenfield in southeastern Dawson County on Nov. 22.

Wooten said Seppenfield "did commit the offense of murder when he unlawfully and with malice aforethought caused the death of Brandon Weaver by shooting him."

The fight on Whitney Place reportedly started when Weaver and another man arrived at the home to confront the people living there.

Wooten said Weaver's son had been at a birthday party at the home several hours earlier that evening and had called his dad to say he wanted to go home.

The child felt uncomfortable about something going on at the party, according to Wooten.

The confrontation escalated and shots were fired. Weaver was hit twice in the chest. He died on the scene.

Seppenfield remains in jail held without bond. He is set to appear before a Superior Court judge in early January.

Weaver, a well-known parks and recreation coach, is survived by his wife Heather Weaver, three young sons, numerous family members and friends throughout many communities.

 

Political blogger arrested at rally

A Roswell woman was arrested in August after she refused to stop recording a political rally in Dawson County with her video camera.

Nydia Tisdale, 51, was charged with felony obstruction of an officer and criminal trespass, a misdemeanor.

According to Sheriff Billy Carlisle, Tisdale was advised that the owner of Burt's Pumpkin Farm, where the local Republican Party event was held, wanted her to stop recording and leave.

Johnny Burt and his wife Kathy, who own the popular tourist attraction on Hwy. 52 in northeastern Dawson, played host to the event.

"He has the right to invite guests on his property. And he also has a right to ask people to leave. And if you refuse to leave, then you're committing the offense of criminal trespass," Carlisle said.

Sheriff's Capt. Tony Wooten made the arrest, which feel under scrutiny and led to him being placed on administrative leave to determine if he followed protocol in the arrest.

He was later cleared of any wrongdoing, while Tisdale continues to face the charges against her.

When Tisdale refused to stop recording and leave the farm, Wooten attempted to escort her off the property, according to the sheriff.

"That's when she kicked him in the shin and elbowed him in the mouth," Carlisle said. "From that point on, she was charged with criminal trespass and felony obstruction."

Tisdale maintains she had told Kathy Burt when she got to the farm of her intention to record the speakers. The Burts deny that contention.

According to Johnny Burt, he instructed Wooten to get Tisdale to stop recording.

"Tony only done what he was asked to do by the property owner, and that was me," he said.

Tisdale, who describes herself as a "citizen journalist," contends she did nothing wrong and plans to fight the charges.

"I have to defend myself in court. The second [charge] is obstruction of officer, and I'm told that is a felony. I need to get these charges dropped or resolved or settled or whatever."

Sam Olens, the state's attorney general, was the only official present to address the incident publically that day.

"If we stand for anything as a party, what are we afraid of having a lady with a camera filming us? What are we saying here that shouldn't be on film? What message are we sending that because it's private property they shouldn't be filming it?" he told the crowd.

In 2012, Olens filed a lawsuit against the city of Cumming after Tisdale was told by Mayor H. Ford Gravitt that she could not record the council's April 17 meeting.

A Superior Court judge had ruled in favor of Olens in the open meetings dispute involving Gravitt. He ordered Cumming and mayor to pay $12,000 in penalties plus attorney fees.

 

Woman charged after house explodes

A woman whose Dawson County home caught fire and exploded in March has been charged with felony insurance fraud after officials say she exaggerated the extent of her losses from the blaze.

Dawson County Fire Marshal Tim Satterfield said additional charges are likely to be filed against 55-year-old Nancy Ann Phillips, whose current address is listed as Spring Hill in Cobb County.

She surrendered to authorities on Nov. 9, days after a warrant was issued for her arrest.

Satterfield said the charge is a result of the investigation into the house fire.

"We charged her because what she listed as property or items that she said was in the house, in relation to what the investigation uncovered," he said.

Phillips declined to comment on the matter, according to her Atlanta-based attorney Lisa Wells.

No one was home at 115 Wildwood Court, Dawsonville when the nearly 4,000-square-foot house, which was on the market, burst into flames March 20.

Friends said the family lost nearly everything. The initial assessment by fire investigators was that the explosion could have been propane related.

However, in September, Allstate Insurance officials denied Phillip's compensation claim, stating the house fire was not an accident, according to company spokesman Daniel Groce.

"After a thorough investigation into the insured's claim, Allstate determined the fire was intentionally set, which is not a covered loss," Groce said at the time.

"Further, it was determined the insured misrepresented material facts regarding the claim during the course of our investigation."

According to Satterfield, the insurance company's investigation is separate from the probe his office is conducting into the explosion and blaze.

"Our ongoing investigation is independent of the insurance company," he said. "We're still doing all the fact finding and doing our own investigation and working in conjunction with the state."

Groce said Allstate would not deny the claim or make the accusations "if we didn't have very good reason."

 

Lady Tigers' softball team makes Elite 8

The Dawson County Lady Tigers returned to Dawsonville with their heads held high, knowing they accomplished a feat that no other fast-pitch softball team in the high school's history had been able to achieve.

The team's season, along with the hope of a state Class AAA title, ended Oct. 31 with a 10-0 loss to Central-Carroll in the team's third game of the softball championship tournament in Columbus.

It was Dawson County's first trip to the state playoffs since starting a fast-pitch program in 2001.

"Coming into this year, it was a goal of Coach [Jimmy] Pruett's and a goal of the team's to make it to Columbus," said Joy Lewis, pitcher. "We set that goal for ourselves. At the beginning of the season, we thought that was a really high goal. I don't think anybody thought we were going to do what we did."

Pruett said the team knows how proud he is of them.

"I'm extremely proud of our players," he said. "Nobody really gave us a chance, but we just found a way to win."

Lewis was among seven seniors to play their final high school game during the tournament.

Lady Tigers Savannah Haverkam, Emily Hunsucker, Samantha Keeney, Anela Melton, Hannah McConnell and Brooke Wende also are set to graduate in May.

Hunsucker called the experience a dream come true and one that "shocked so many people."

"What I loved about the tournament is that we all got even closer than what we were, and we became even better best friends," she said. "We learned to stick together as a team."

The tournament kicked off for the Lady Tigers with a come-from-behind win over Pierce County. Bouncing back from a 4-1 deficit, the team defeated the Lady Bears 5-4 after scoring four runs in the bottom of the seventh inning.

Later that night, the team fell 11-1 to Ringgold, before being eliminated from competition with the loss to Central-Carroll.

Playing in their first "Elite Eight" game, the Lady Tigers said they were grateful for the community support they received throughout the season.

"This was special to me, because it's never been done before. We're the first in Dawson County history, and when we came back, everybody has been so supportive and thanked us and congratulated us," Kenney said.

 

Teens drown in lake

Autopsy reports confirmed that two Dawson County men pulled from Lake Lanier in early January drowned.

"The manner of death is accidental caused by drowning and compounded by hypothermia," according to Georgia Bureau of Investigation spokeswoman Sherry Lang.

The men's bodies were recovered from Fredericks Cove near Ga. 400 in Dawsonville on Jan. 10, more than a week after they were reported missing by family.

Mason Cox and David Wood, both 20, were last seen about 3:30 a.m. Jan. 2, when they went to go fishing.

Fishing poles were found at their homes, along with items including one of the men's cellphone and wallet.

The GBI and Georgia Department of Natural Resources were also called in to assist in the search, which included ground and air sweeps.

Extreme temperatures and nearly an inch of ice blanketing the cove delayed divers going into the lake to search.

A sonar scan hit on the two bodies about a quarter mile from the dock where family believed the two men went fishing.

The bodies were submerged in between 15-20 feet of water and about 30 feet from a dock.

 

Snow shuts downs schools

With ice and snow hitting Dawson County during January and February, students and teachers missed almost two weeks of school.

"As you know, this winter has been especially harsh, which has resulted in nine days of absences due to the inclement weather...," said then Dawson County School Superintendent Keith Porter in a letter addressed to parents dated Feb. 21. "The difficult situation with missed days is made worse due to the fact that we started the year two days short of a full student calendar due to budget."

Multiple weather systems shut down most of Dawson County on Jan. 6, 7, 28 through 31 and again from Feb. 11 through 14.

While the state passed a resolution to allow flexibility in making up the nine days, Porter said the system was hesitant to immediately accept.

According to the current plan, pending any additional weather issues, the system made full student days out of Feb. 17 and 18, March 12, 13 and 14, as well as April 7. All schools will also extend the end of the school day by 30 minutes, March 3-28.

"We are deeply concerned by the amount of valuable instructional time that has already been missed...," said Porter. "Although some of this flexibility will be used, it is imperative that sufficient instructional minutes are added to ensure that our students have a fair opportunity to ... master content and skills essential for future coursework."

Porter said that the options considered were: Saturday classes, extended school days, inclement weather days, removal of spring break, extending the school year and use of other flexible days, such as professional learning and early release days.

Porter said that, despite what may be an unpopular decision, great care and consideration was put into deciding the days.

 

Schools get new superintendent

The Dawson County school system welcomed a new superintendent on June 1.

Damon Gibbs, Hall County Schools' former executive director of facilities, succeeded Keith Porter, who announced his retirement last December. His final day was May 31.

"I want to thank the board for its confidence in me," Gibbs said at the time. "My family and I are very excited about Dawson County and the opportunity the board has been gracious enough to give us, to become part of not only your school system but your community."

A University of Georgia graduate with a doctorate in educational leadership, Gibbs served as a principal at Johnson High and Spout Springs Elementary in southern Hall County and as assistant principal at Flowery Branch High School. He had been a Hall system employee since 1996.

Gibbs also serves as a Flowery Branch city councilman, with his term ending Dec. 31, 2015.

"We are very fortunate that the Hall County Board of Education and Superintendent Will Schofield agree for Dr. Gibbs to get out of his contract in a timely manner so that he and I can work together and transition," Porter said.

 

New development planned for 400

At least six retail shops, including three restaurants, have contracts or commitments in place to be among the first to open in a new commercial development on Ga. 400.

"Don't ask me the names of those ... I can't tell you that. You can't go over there and apply for jobs yet, so hold off on that," said Dawson County Commission Chair Mike Berg.

"It's nice to know that sometime next year we'll be starting that process."

Atlanta-based Blanchard Real Estate Capital purchased the 102-acre lot just south of North Georgia Premium Outlets between Carlisle and Dawson Forest roads last year with plans to development a commercial "power center" that will bring national retail and restaurants to Dawson County.

"We are going to be a magnet for commercial building for the next few years," Berg said.

Berg also announced earlier this year that a major grocery store chain is eyeing a piece of property at the southeast intersection of Ga. 400 and Dawson Forest Road.

Charlie Auvermann, executive director of the Development Authority of Dawson County, said the property is located directly south of Arby's on Dawson Forest Road and connects with the strip mall on Ga. 400 that houses Johnny's Pizza and Outside World.

Berg said he could not reveal the store's name but did say the developer wanted to build a grocery store on the property.

While the identity of the potential development remains under wraps, Berg confirmed earlier this year that representatives with Publix Super Markets want to open a store in Dawson County.

"It's definitely happening. They've definitely been looking," he said in late January. "They have been out for two years now trying to figure out a spot where they want to be."

Berg also expects to see an influx of residential development in the coming months.

"Housing permits were up 31 percent in the last year, which is good for us. Some of the folks I've talked to in the banking industry ... say while south Forsyth is really growing like crazy, it's all moving up this way," he said. "We can expect both residential and commercial development to be up in a larger portion than it's been over the last six years."

 

Sheriff fights for pay increases

A gallery of uniformed deputies, plainclothes officers and administrative staff filed into the Dawson County Board of Commissioner's meeting room Nov. 20 to see if budget demands made by the sheriff to increase pay would be approved.

While none of his employees spoke during the public comment portion of the budget hearing, an attorney for Sheriff Billy Carlisle addressed the commission, saying the proposed salary increases planned in the county's 2015 budget are inadequate.

"Some issues have been resolved and others remain. The proposed salary increases are really the crux of why the sheriff is here today," said attorney Steven Liebel

Earlier this summer, Carlisle said he would fight the commission on behalf of his employees, who have not received raises in more than six years, an issue he said that has been detrimental to his department.

Carlisle said he needs about $230,000 more than the county's budgeted amount to get his employees' salaries where they need to be.

A portion he said could come from the $205,000 of fund balance planned to be used to replace 11 aging patrol cars.

Carlisle said he would opt to take those funds to increase pay and wait for special purpose local option sales tax revenue to purchase cars.

"Patrol cars are not going to do me any good if I don't have the deputies to drive them," he said.

Those raises would be in addition to the 2 percent cost of living adjustments for all full and part time staff, as well as salary increases based on a recent pay study that showed Dawson County salaries below the recommended minimum pay level compared to neighboring jurisdictions.

The $21.66 million spending plan was approved as presented in a 4-0 vote, but with the premise that Carlisle and the county would continue working together to resolve his salary issues.

Carlisle said he believed they could find a way to repair the discrepancies.

"I think the meeting was progressive. We didn't get where we wanted to be at but we took another step forward of coming together," he said. "I think we all probably need to sit down and discuss this more in detail about it."

 

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