Top 10 stories of 2017

By the Gulf Coast Media staff
Posted 1/2/18

Looking back on the year that was 2017, our staff has compiled the Top 10 stories on the year based on the top hits on our website, gulfcoastnewstoday.com.

1. Spanish Fort High AP reading list …

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Top 10 stories of 2017

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Looking back on the year that was 2017, our staff has compiled the Top 10 stories on the year based on the top hits on our website, gulfcoastnewstoday.com.

1. Spanish Fort High AP reading list pulled after concerns from residents

Concerns about bias from local residents have led to a summer reading list for a Spanish Fort High School AP Government/Economics being pulled, and made national news in the process.

Spanish Fort High teacher Gene Ponder’s summer reading list for his class included a number of texts from majority conservative and right-leaning authors including Ann Coulter, Michael Savage, Ron Paul, Thomas Sowell, Chuck Colson and Ronald Reagan.

Some of the titles of the books included “Trickle Up Poverty: Stopping Obama’s Attacks on Our Borders, Economy and Security,” “Liberty and Tyranny: A Conservative Manifesto,” “48 Liberal Lies About American History,” “Guilty: Liberal ‘Victims’ and Their Assault on America,” “Liberalism is a Mental Disorder,” and “The Land of Fair Play: American Civics from a Christian Perspective,” to name a few.

In a statement released to the media, Baldwin County Superintendent Eddie Tyler said the list was removed by the teacher and will not be used.

“Mr. Ponder’s reading list that is going around on social media has not been endorsed by the school system,” Tyler wrote. “The list has been removed by the teacher. Baldwin County Public Schools has a process to vet and approve reading lists so that a variety of sources are used. I expect all employees to follow our processes, procedures and policies.”

2. Woman contracts flesh eating bacteria in Fairhope

A 70-year-old, retired teacher from Mississippi says she has contracted vibrio vulfinicus bacteria in Fairhope. It is unclear whether the bacteria came from local waters or shrimp she was using as bait.

The woman, whose name is being withheld for privacy reasons, spent 10 days in a Mississippi hospital fighting the disease, commonly referred to as the flesh-eating bacteria because of how swiftly it destroys soft tissue.

The woman, who frequently visits Fairhope with her husband, was fishing near the municipal pier 10 days ago when she reached into a bait bucket of live shrimp and pricked the back of her hand. Her husband said three hours later she was “deathly sick.”

The woman’s hand began to swell and she experienced fever, chills, and headaches. Hours, later, about 3 a.m., the couple headed home to Mississippi where he checked her into the emergency room.

The man said she was in surgery within hours as doctors attempted to save her hand.

3. Assault claim made against Fairhope mayor

A claim was filed by Fairhope Human Resources Manager Pandora Heathcoe against the city of Fairhope after an alleged assault against Heathcoe by Fairhope Mayor Karin Wilson.

The claim was filed Friday, May 19 with the city clerk’s office.

According to the claim, the incident occurred on Dec. 29, 2016. Heathcoe met with Wilson and then Public Works Director Jennifer Fidler in a meeting where Wilson wanted to create a part-time position and fill it with her campaign supporter, Lynn Mazer.

Heathcoe wrote she advised the mayor that they needed to create a job description for that position before it could be filled, and said Wilson replied she “didn’t care.”

Heathcoe wrote she reiterated the position must be a budgeted line item because city rules do not allow for the hiring of new employees in non-budgeted positions.

“Wilson started screaming ‘We don’t have a f------ budget,’” Heathcoe alleged in the claim. “While she did so, she shook me violently leaving me dazed. While shaking me, the Mayor yelled ‘How many f------ times do I have to tell you to do something?’”

Heathcoe wrote “the mayor’s assault and battery” left her injured and emotionally shaken. She added she was unable to carry out her work at top form and it continues to leave her emotionally distressed.

Heathcoe wrote in the claim she had filed a police report with the Fairhope police, but has not proceeded to swear out a warrant against Wilson.

While Wilson did not return phone calls from Gulf Coast Media, she did post the following on her official Facebook page shortly after this story broke:

“I remember when I contemplated running for Mayor how worried my husband was for me,” Wilson wrote. “I kept asking him what he thought could happen that would warrant such stress?

“He’d give me hypothetical situations and I always responded, 'but that’s not the truth.' If we allow worry and doubt to control our decisions based on an unknown future, there would never be positive progress.

“I’m surrounded by opportunists, people who believe I’m naive and those who try to demoralize me. But no one can or will take away the truth.”

4. Bay Minette woman killed in head-on collision

A head-on collision Monday, May 8 on Alabama 59 at the entrance of the Loxley Municipal Park just south of U.S. 90 has resulted in the death of a Bay Minette woman.

According to a release issued Monday by Lt. Doug Phillips with the Loxley Police Department, Sarah Echols, 49, of Bay Minette was killed instantly when a 2001 Jeep Grand Cherokee traveling southbound crossed the center line and struck her 2014 Hyundai Tucson head-on. The collision occurred at around 7:20 a.m.

5. Bay Minette woman gets $300,000 bond on child pornography production charges

A 37-year-old Bay Minette woman has been given a $300,000 bond in charges stemming from the production of child pornography involving her own children.

Jennifer Lynne Weekley is charged with three counts: sexual abuse of a child under 12, permitting or allowing a child to engage in production of obscene matter and production of obscene matter.

During a bond hearing on June 21, Assistant District Attorney Matt Simpson laid out the charges against Weekley and some of the information that led to her arrest.

“What we have in this case is Ms. Weekley has communicated with an individual in Florida via text message conversations,” Simpson said. “We have those text message conversations. In those conversations, she discusses with this person in Florida as to the acts that she would perform with her children who were a girl at the age of 6 or 7 at the time and a boy the age of 3 or 4 at the time.”

6. The Cowboy Way Alabama

A new original docuseries, which is currently being filmed partly in Baldwin County and featuring a local cowboy, has been picked up by a national cable network and began airing in 2017.

“We’ve been doing a lot of filming and we’re hoping that we are going to be a part of the network for years to come,” said Robertsdale’s Cody Harris, who is featured in the series “The Cowboy Way: Alabama” along with fellow ranchers Bubba Thompson and Chris “Booger” Brown.

According to the release, The Cowboy Way: Alabama follows the adventures of three modern-day cowboys: Bubba Thompson, an industrious rancher and carpenter; Cody Harris, a celebrated rodeo champion and cattle dealer; and Chris "Booger" Brown, an expert cattleman and gifted horse trainer.

“Much like the cowboys of the Old West, these friends live and ride according to a timeless cowboy code as they build their cattle business in southern Alabama,” according to the release. “The long days and exhausting work leave little time for personal lives, but this entertaining and engaging series explores the manner in which they balance the challenges of life on the open range with the demands of raising a family.”

7. ‘The detail invoice that was sent I think will get me in trouble’

Instant messages and other documents released by Elias Technologies to the Fairhope City Council show Mayor Karin Wilson was directly involved in investigating equipment belonging to former city employees Sherry Sullivan and Jennifer Fidler.

While Wilson had previously denied much direct involvement with the company regarding the investigation, the instant messages show months of communication between Wilson and Elias Technologies employee Dan Dollarhide.

In the messages and emails, Wilson asks for the searches on Fidler and Sullivan’s equipment, as well as searches into Council President Jack Burrell’s personal email, searches on communications involving Burrell and former Mayor Tim Kant, searches into a private citizen’s IP address, a request to sweep several city offices for surveillance equipment and repeated acknowledgement that her requests were outside the scope of work for the contract with Elias, which was contracted to help create a separate IT department for the Fairhope Police Department.

8. ‘They are ignorant by choice’

Tensions flared at a congressional town hall meeting in Orange Beach in February, as a video surfaced showing Orange Beach Mayor Tony Kennon appearing to call some of the attendees ignorant.

A group of residents had come to Orange Beach’s City Hall for a question and answer session with Congressman Bradley Byrne’s office.

Byrne was in Singapore on an official trip, so Baldwin County District Representative Daniel Catlin was representing the congressman’s office.

The video footage, taken by Jackie Gano, begins amid a discussion following a question about the Affordable Care Act and went as follows:

Kennon: Then there’s a choice of being ignorant because you don’t know the facts, you haven’t done the research and you haven’t educated yourself. I hear people talk about the Affordable Care Act, they are ignorant by choice. They do not know what they are talking about. They are preaching from a point of emotion, but no science, no studies, no research. That’s my definition of ignorant. If that doesn’t fit you, then don’t take offense to it. But if you haven’t done your homework, you probably ought not … what’s the old saying?

Unnamed Woman: Why do you think we haven’t done our homework?

Kennon: I don’t think y’all are listening to me and what you’re telling me is not the case for someone who’s been in the business for 30 years. You really don’t know what you’re talking about.

Unnamed Woman: You’re telling me that I am ignorant and haven’t done my research.

Kennon: I’m telling you that you are ignorant of the true facts, ma’am. I’m telling you that you do not know what you are talking about, and I have a right to say that. If you don’t like that, then don’t accept it. This is one town where there is going to be a counter from the public to your assertions.

Unnamed Woman: I don’t mind the counter, but I’m not convinced this is a productive way to get your point across.

Kennon: I see. I see. So the productive way for you guys is to shut the other side out.

Unnamed Woman: I’m not shutting you out, but please don’t call us ignorant. I heard you call us ignorant.

Kennon: Don’t take offense to the word ignorant. Ignorant means you don’t know what you’re talking about.

Unnamed Woman: That’s offensive to me.

Kennon: Well, get over it. You’re a grown woman. Get over it.

At that point, Catlin stepped back in and urged all parties to calm down.

“Let’s all take a deep breath here,” Catlin said. “I want everybody to be respectful of one another. We can disagree on every point here, but we can act civilly toward one another.”

With regards to the exchange in the video, Kennon said he was trying to share his expertise about the healthcare industry learned from his years of work experience in that sector.

“I’ve been in healthcare for 30 years,” Kennon said. “I have a good feeling about what healthcare is about. I felt like I had a degree of knowledge that leant something to the conversation, but it countered their narrative, so they started attacking.”

The woman featured in the video exchanging with Kennon said she felt nothing had precipitated the mayor’s response.

“In general, we were just discussing decisions about the Affordable Care Act and had made some points about the concerns we had,” she said. “Nobody was going against anything or saying anything rude about the congressman, but it was angry from the get-go.”

Attendees said a further exchange happened between Kennon and another attendee that was not caught on video, with those attendees alleging Kennon had threatened to have the police remove them.

Kennon said he never threatened anyone in the audience and simply wanted to make sure every opinion was heard.

Kennon said things did seem to get heated, but he felt nothing rose to a personal attack on his part.

“I’m the first one that can get red-faced or upset, but, at the same time, I try not to get personal,” Kennon said. ‘We understand things get overheated at times, but everyone has the right to speak. No one comes to Orange Beach and will shut down dialogue. That’s not how we do things here.”

The woman from the video disagreed that Kennon had not gotten personal.

“The mayor made it personal when he called us all ignorant,” she said. “I didn’t necessarily feel threatened, but I felt like he was trying to intimidate us and it certainly got me to stop my part of the discussion. The last thing I need is to be on the news being escorted out by the police.”

9. Fairhope councilman lays out issues between council, mayor in letter

On June 27, Fairhope City Councilman Robert Brown issued his own letter to Fairhope Mayor Karin Wilson, the other members of the council and attorney Harry Satterwhite, whom Wilson had hoped to hire as her attorney through the council’s vote June 26.

During the June 26 meeting, Brown told Satterwhite he would be sending a letter to explain why he didn’t feel the need to meet with the mayor or Satterwhite regarding the issue of Wilson being allowed to hire her own attorney.

Portions from Brown’s letter read as follows:

“This letter is in response to both your initial letter to council on June 9, 2017 as well as your letter on June 23, 2017. Mr. Satterwhite, I am not sure if you are aware of what I would consider disruptive actions and events since all of us took office on November 7, 2016. So I want to recap these events so you can have my perspective why I did not support hiring your firm. These issues might not be in chronological order, but I believe that is irrelevant.

- Sherry Lea Bloodworth-Botop hired as Economic & Community Development Dir.

- Heather Hudson fired

- Mayor Wilson fires Sherry Sullivan and Jennifer Fidler, two of the most dedicated city employees with over 35 years experience.

- Mayor Wilson pushes for the city to take over the airport property

- Mayor Wilson continues attack on the Airport Authority with claims of corruption, and filed an ethics Complaint against Council President Jack Burrell and board member, both ruled baseless

- Mayor Wilson holds meetings with employees telling them that their health insurance plans are going to change and that they are going to have to start paying for some of it.

- Sara Smith turns in her resignation as Nix Center Director

- Mayor Wilson conducts meetings telling the Library Board that they are going to lose their independence and become a department under the city

- Claim filed against Mayor Wilson for assault

- Mayor Wilson places tracking software on targeted supervisors

“These are all actions taken by or against Mayor Wilson, not the Council in 8 months. None of these actions are speculation or misunderstandings. They have happened. With this said, I find it difficult to believe the Council is totally responsible for the current political atmosphere of the City of Fairhope. Mayor Wilson continues to believe that it is 100% the Councils (sic) fault, and to me that is the issue.

On June 29, Wilson told Gulf Coast Media she had received Brown’s letter and wanted to be able to meet with him to discuss the points he laid out in the letter. She added she had just returned from a conference in Miami and had not fully had time to process a full response.

“I appreciate the invitation and look forward to meeting with Councilman Brown to discuss the concerns mentioned in his letter,” Wilson wrote in a statement to Gulf Coast Media that was also sent to Brown. “The citizens of Fairhope spoke loud and clear about the future of Fairhope by choosing me as their new mayor. There are fundamental policy and financial issues that need to be addressed and I hope this will be the start a collaborative process to find common ground. My door is always open to council members and the public to discuss ways to improve our City.”

10. Perdido shooting death believed to be dispute over money

The Baldwin County Sheriff’s Office investigated the shooting death of a Perdido man in August in an apparent dispute over money.

Capt. Steve Arthur, BCSO chief investigator, said deputies found Perdido resident Christopher Allen at around 7:45 a.m. Tuesday, Aug. 22 in an open field near Hoyle Bryars Road and Dallas Hadley Lane in Perdido after neighbors reported hearing gun shots.

“He had apparently went to a residence where the suspect, along with another male and female were staying to recover money he said he was owed from a construction job,” Arthur said.

When he was refused payment, Allen then took a pair of bolt cutters and cut power to the trailer. A foot chase followed and gunshots were fired, Arthur said.

“One of the shots hit the victim in the upper chest,” Arthur said. “He then ran about 50 to 100 yards and collapsed.”

Allen was pronounced dead at the scene, Arthur said.

Deputies arrested 31-year-old Justin Bryan Stills. While reports say Stills is from Atmore, his address on the Baldwin County Corrections Facility website is listed as McKinley Road in Perdido.

“We believe that he bounces back and forth between the two areas,” Arthur said. The same is true of the victim, who is believed to be in his mid to late 20s, he said.

After an extensive search, deputies recovered a .22 caliber North American Arms pistol at another residence that is believed to be the murder weapon.

“The wounds are consistent with those that would have been made by the weapon,” Arthur said, “and we also have witnesses that say they saw Stills enter the residence, drop the pistol and say something about the shooting. Ballistic tests will have to be conducted, but we’re pretty confident that was the weapon used.”