The big story at the end of 2019/beginning of 2020 was the raid of a massive marijuana growing operation in a building on Highway 13 South near the Alabama state line. When the site was raided by the Wayne County Sheriff’s Office, officers discovered nearly 500 six-foot-tall marijuana plants, along with equipment used to extract THC from the plants. Three individuals were arrested in the weeks following the raid: Stuart Marc Greenberg, a Muscle Shoals, AL optometrist; Mart Steven DeArman, a nursing home administrator from Russellville, AL; and Alisa Lynn Balentine. The building, known as the old Johnny’s Club, had been stated by the owner, Dr. Greenberg, as a medical records storage facility.
“Operation Omerta,” a multi-state year-long investigation led by the Wayne County Sheriff’s Office that included thousands of man hours with help from the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation, 22nd District Drug Task Force and the 22nd District Attorney’s Office, resulted in the Wayne County Grand Jury returning indictments in January 2020 against fourteen individuals for Conspiracy to Distribute over 300 grams of Methamphetamine. Sheriff Shane Fisher identified Darrell Alonzo White, aka “Choppo,” of Florence, Alabama, as the head of the conspiracy operation. Also indicted were Raymond Charles Inman, Marilyn Faye Skaggs, Michael Shane Risner, Thomas Shayne Seitz, Michael Tilley, Shayna Nicole McDonald, Miranda Haggard, Lois Ann Ritenour, Luke Freemon, Brian Keith Smith, Roy Dee Horton, April Rumbaugh, and Sandra Satterfield. Sheriff Fisher said that the suspects arrested were not just users, but upper level dealers suspected of bringing hundreds of pounds of methamphetamine into Wayne County. He said that this is the first major conspiracy to distribute methamphetamine case to be prosecuted in our county.
A major business announcement was made in January 2020, when CapStar Bank announced a merger agreement with The Bank of Waynesboro. With current assets of $175 million, the Bank of Waynesboro was chartered on February 16, 1904 and has operated continuously in Wayne County since then.
Middle Tennessee weather is famous for being “predictably un-predictable,” and February 2020 was a perfect example! Spring-like temperatures brought out the flip-flops and shorts early in the month, followed by flash floods and tornado warnings a few days later, and then finally a fluffy, pretty snow that covered trees, cars, and houses…all within about one week!
A tragic single-vehicle accident claimed the life of a Waynesboro woman on the Clifton Turnpike on February 6th. Angela Ellison, age 49, died from injuries she sustained when the car driven by her husband, Curtis Mitchell Ellison, failed to negotiate a curve and ran off the roadway, striking a tree. Mr. Ellison also sustained serious injuries in the crash.
The mighty Tennessee River unleashed her fury once again on homes and businesses along her banks in February, following several periods of heavy rainfall. Flooding of near-epic proportions warranted evacuations and caused property damage in Wayne County and surrounding counties as well. The river city of Clifton and its surrounding camping and resort areas were inundated from the flood waters that flowed above and beyond the banks of the river. All the rain caused normally docile creeks and streams to overflow their banks in other parts of the county as well, causing flash flooding and making roads impassable at times.
In another twist of geological news, the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) reported that a 2.0-magnitude earthquake was recorded at around 4:11 p.m. on Friday, February 21st, about 12 miles west of Collinwood. The earthquake had a depth of approximately 1.5 kilometers, or a little less than a mile. A 2.0 earthquake is relatively small, and may not be felt or noticed. Experts say that an earthquake of that magnitude can cause trees to sway, ponds to ripple, and doors to swing slowly, but you probably wouldn’t know that an earthquake was to blame. The New Madrid Fault Line, which runs in close proximity to the Mississippi River, is at the center of a seismic zone that has had four of the largest North American earthquakes in recorded history. Those quakes had magnitudes estimated to be as large as 7.0 or greater, all occurring within a three-month period between December 1811 and February 1812. The fault line begins near Cairo, Illinois, and the seismic zone includes parts of five states, including Tennessee. In a report filed in November 2008, the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency warned that a serious earthquake in the New Madrid Seismic Zone could result in “the highest economic losses due to a natural disaster in the United States,” further predicting “widespread and catastrophic” damage across Alabama, Arkansas, Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Mississippi, Missouri, Oklahoma, Texas, and particularly Tennessee.” Wayne County is close enough to the seismic zone that the effects of a major earthquake occurring along the New Madrid Fault would certainly be felt here, and damage could occur to homes and infrastructure.
Waynesboro drivers noticed something different when they drove around the square the first week of March…the blue-sided building, the one with the mural on the side, was gone! The building was demolished to make room for the new Quik Mart expansion. The building was originally constructed sometime between November, 1895, when J.V. Gallaher purchased the lot, and October, 1923, when the property including the “concrete store building known as the Gallaher building” was sold to D.N. Morrow and J.I. Pitts. The property changed hands several times over the years, eventually housing Barnett Insurance from 1981-1984, and then the Wayne County Chamber of Commerce when it was first organized in 1984. A legal firm called Lackey and Lackey bought the building in 1989, and owned it for two years until Attorney Robert Freemon purchased it for his law practice in 1991. The building began to fall into serious disrepair when Attorney Freemon closed his law office, and was sold once again in 2016.
The month of March 2020 was when most of us started to became familiar with two words that have sadly become a part of our everyday vocabulary – “coronavirus” and “COVID-19.” The second week of March was the week that Governor Bill Lee issued Executive Order #14, declaring a state of emergency in Tennessee to facilitate the treatment and containment of COVID-19. “While the risk to the general public remains low, we encourage all Tennesseans to exercise caution and maintain good hygiene practices as there are serious risks to our vulnerable populations,” said Governor Lee at the time. “We will continue to evaluate and adapt our position accordingly to fit what we believe is best for Tennesseans.” When the Executive Order was issued, there were only 52 confirmed positive cases in the state of Tennessee. Little did we know just how much devastating sickness and loss of life would come about in the following months as a result of the horrible virus.
Wayne County Schools shut down abruptly and unexpectedly in March due to the coronavirus pandemic. At the time of the shutdown, officials were hopeful that school could be called back into session before the end of the school year. Unfortunately, that didn’t happen, and Wayne County school children had to finish out the year online. Thankfully, Wayne County’s school lunchroom employees worked hard to continue to distribute free school lunches to local children.
On Monday, March 30th, 2020, an arrest was made in connection with the death of Brentlyn Hunt. On February 1st, 2020, Hunt was found deceased inside the home of John Rich at 210 W. Broadway Street in Collinwood. The death was initially classified as suspicious. During the course of the investigation, evidence was obtained to determine that Hunt’s death was in fact a homicide. After a special session of the Grand Jury was convened on Monday, March 30th, 2020, John Rich was indicted on charges of Felony Murder, 2nd Degree Murder, and two counts of Rape. Rich was arrested and booked into the Wayne County Jail on $500,000.00 bond.
The month of April 2020 brought increasing COVID-19 numbers and worry. Governor Bill Lee signed Executive Order 23 requiring that Tennesseans stay home unless carrying out essential activities. “The month of April stands to be an extremely tough time for our state as we face the potential for a surge in COVID-19 cases,” said Governor Lee. “Every Tennessean must take this seriously, remain at home and ensure we save lives.”
A Wayne County Sheriff’s Deputy was injured on Friday, April 3rd, 2020 while assisting the Tennessee Highway Patrol at a vehicle accident scene. Deputy Brent Butler was struck by a vehicle and injured, and was taken by air ambulance to Vanderbilt Hospital for treatment. The initial accident occurred on Collinwood Highway near Bryant’s Auto Repair. While investigating the accident, Deputy Butler was standing in the roadway with all emergency vehicles present operating their blue lights so as to be visible to anyone approaching the scene. An approaching vehicle came to a sudden stop when they came upon the scene, causing the vehicle behind them to swerve and strike Deputy Butler. The deputy was thrown into the air and landed facedown on the pavement several feet away. After being transported to Vanderbilt, Deputy Butler was treated for several lacerations and severe road rash, but he suffered no broken bones or other serious injuries. He was released from the hospital later that day.
Strong straight-line winds blew through Wayne County on Easter Sunday, causing damage to homes, property, and power lines in the Collinwood area. Several large trees were also blown down across the Natchez Trace near Collinwood.
On Wednesday, April 8th, Wayne Medical Center CEO Tyler Taylor issued a memorandum directed to the WMC Board of Directors, Wayne County Commissioners, State Representative David Byrd, and State Senator Joey Hensley. The memorandum stated in part, “…effective May 4, the Collinwood practice (Collinwood Medical Clinic) will have a provider on site two days per week from the MRMG Waynesboro practice. MRMG is in the process of recruiting another physician and nurse practitioner to assist in serving this community and we will keep you apprised of our efforts.” The Wayne County News reached out to CEO Taylor following the posting of the memorandum on social media, and Mr. Taylor confirmed that all four staff members at the Collinwood Clinic had been notified of their termination effective May 1st, 2020. When Mr. Taylor was asked if the four employees of the Collinwood Clinic are expected to be called back to work, he stated that they are not. When asked the reason for the abrupt termination of the four long-time Collinwood Clinic employees, Mr. Taylor’s response was “no comment at this time.” He did confirm that MRH is actively recruiting a new physician and nurse practitioner to staff the clinic, and there are plans to build a new larger Collinwood Clinic with an ambulance bay onsite.
Be sure to watch next week’s edition of The News for Part II of “2020..The Year in Review.”