BREAKING NEWS 4-CHambers case

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Chambers case, Polar Express top county’s news

By Rita Howell
The Panolian editors have compiled their list of the top five news stories for Panola County for 2015.
The year began with Panola County under the cloud of the horrific murder of Jessica Chambers December 6, 2014. The story of the teenager burned alive in her car near Courtland made headlines around the country, and brought together multiple agencies whose investigators have pored over evidence for more than a year. No one has been arrested in the murder.
District Attorney John Champion and Sheriff Dennis Darby have cited a dearth of “street talk” that informants usually overhear about crimes and pass along to law enforcement.
The Panola County Sheriff’s Department, the F.B.I., the Mississippi Bureau of Investigation, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms and the Justice Department have all been involved in the case, representing the most extensive coordination of investigative assets ever to concentrate on a crime in Panola County.
Remaining unclaimed is a $54,000 reward for information in the case.
Investigation continues “24/7,” Sheriff Dennis Darby said in a November 4 story in The Panolian. “This is never going cold.”
Election Year
Politics dominated conversations and newspaper pages throughout most of the year as statewide and county elections were held.
The February 27 deadline for candidate filing drew a flood of last-minute hopefuls to the courthouse.
Fourteen candidates ran as independents, thus removing themselves from the primary elections and ensuring a spot on the November ballot.
Among the independent candidates were incumbents Sheriff Dennis Darby and Chancery Clerk Jim Pitcock. Both won reelection.
On the November ballot Darby faced former Panola Sheriff Otis Griffin, also an independent,  and Democratic nominee Mark Whitten, who had outpaced Roger Vanlandingham in that party’s August 4 primary.
District One Supervisor James Birge, District Three Supervisor John Thomas and District Five Supervisor Cole Flint, all Democrats, received mandates with strong showings in each of their races in November.
District Two Supervisor Vernice Avant outdistanced challenges by independents Keith Mothershead and Tim Holliday in the general election.
Democrat nominee for District Four, Donald Phelps, was the winner in that race, overcoming bids by Republican nominee John Greene, and independents Joe Horton, Mike Moore and Whit Tidwell. Phelps had previously defeated two-term supervisor Kelly Morris, board president, in the Democratic primary.
Batesville attorney Charlie Baglan led all challengers for the position of Justice Court Judge District Two, a seat held for 31 years by Bill Joiner, who did not run for reelection.That race drew 10 candidates, including eight Democrats and two independents who faced Democratic nominee Baglan in the general election.
Court District Two Constable Raye Hawkins, a Democrat, easily won reelection over challenger Earl Burdette, an independent. District One Constable Buck Harris faced no challengers. Also without opposition were Justice Court Judge District One Mike Wilson, Tax Collector/Assessor David Garner, Coroner Gracie Gulldege, and County Attorney Gaines Baker.
Circuit Clerk Melissa Meek-Phelps had won the Democratic nomination in August, and faced no opponents in November.
In school trustee elections, Sandra C. Darby defeated Justin Pope to retain her seat on the South Panola School District board, and in the North Panola School District, trustee Verna Hunter was unopposed.
In House and Senate races, District 10 State Representative Nolan Mettetal, a Republican, defeated challenger Ken Daugherty, an independent.
In Senate District 9, Senator Gray Tollison defeated Cristen Hemmins.
Panola County’s three precincts in Senate District 14 gave incumbent Republican Senator Lydia Graves Chassaniol a win over Democrat Georgio Proctor and independent Donny Ryals.
Batesville Elementary School fire
July 10, 2015 will be long be remembered as the night flames consumed the kindergarten wing of Batesville Elementary School. Investigators suspected the source of the fire was electrical.
The 60-year-old kindergarten wing, which also housed the school’s cafeteria and offices, was destroyed, but firefighters were able to save the historic red brick two-story building next to it. That structure, built in 1897, now houses the school’s Child Development Center and a spacious auditorium upstairs.
Also saved was the first grade wing of Batesville Elementary.
The loss of the school building triggered enormous support from this community and beyond as donations of school supplies began to pour in almost before the smoke cleared.
At an emergency meeting of the school board the day after the fire, plans were laid to ensure that school would start on time on August 6. Classes were shifted at Batesville Middle School and Batesville Junior High to allow space for the kindergarteners at Batesville Middle School for this school year.
In the meantime, the school board quickly approved plans to replace the kindergarten wing, with the goal of having the building ready for the start of school in August, 2016. Simultaneously, work is progressing on the new ninth grade wing at South Panola High School, a project already in the works when the BES fire occurred.
Three murders
The year was nearly over when Panola’s first murders were committed.
Grandmother and granddaughter Emma Jackson and Cearea Jackson were shot to death on November 27 at the elder Jackson’s home in Como. The boyfriend of the younger victim was arrested on November 30 and charged with their murders. Quendarius Robinson, 24, remains in the Panola County Jail.
What started out as a “cooking” at Buddy’s Truck Salvage on Mt. Olivet Road ended in shots fired, two men injured, and one dead.
Eric Love, 40, of Memphis, is charged with the murder of his brother, Archie Love, 44, and with aggravated assault for injuries to two bystanders during the melee.
He is being held in the Panola County Jail under a $2 million bond.
Polar Express
In early July came the unexpected and unlikely news that would stir up a frenzy of activity on the Batesville Square unlike anything ever seen before here. The Polar Express was coming.
Iowa Pacific Railroad CEO Ed Ellis visited Batesville June 30 and told Mayor Jerry Autry about his company’s proposal to base the fantasy train trips to the North Pole from the Batesville Square.
“He liked Batesville because the track ran right through the center of town,” Autrey told the Batesville aldermen during a special meting called July 1 for briefing and planning.
The imminent arrival of the Polar Express coincided with the renovation of sidewalks and parking areas on the Batesville Square, a project long in the planning and for which the bid was awarded May 19. An MDOT grant provided up to $420,000 of the funding for that project.
As the November 20 departure date approached for the first trip to the North Pole, contractors scurried to have the town square presentable for the expected visitors.
The city made available to local businesses small, no-interest loans from its revolving loan fund, for sprucing up their exteriors or increasing their inventories, or otherwise preparing for the influx of customers that Polar Express was expected to bring to town.
In the end, 55,000 tickets were sold. The vintage train made 88 trips to the North Pole, carrying pajama-clad families who were entertained by chefs, elves, conductors and Santa Claus, recreating the fantasy of the holiday book and movie.
About 300 part-time jobs came about as a result of the Polar Express.
Iowa Pacific owns the Illinois Company Railroad that has been formed to lease and operate the 187-mile track between Southaven and Canton. Several employees of the company have indicated that a “dinner train” specialty rail event is in the works for Batesville.

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