By CHARLES OWENS
Bluefield Daily Telegraph
The year 2012 will be remembered for dramatic and troubling headlines across southern West Virginia and Southwest Virginia.
From a violent wind storm that left thousands in the dark to the murder of a well-known southern West Virginia mayor, 2012 proved to be another tumultuous year for the region.
As we celebrate the waning hours of 2012, the editorial board of the Daily Telegraph has selected the Top 10 Stories of 2012. They include:
1.Tragedy strikes at Mercer County serpent handling church.
A Mercer County pastor, Mack Randall Wolford, 44, of Green Valley, died on May 27 after being bitten by a timber rattlesnake during a religious service at the Panther State Forest in McDowell County. The story quickly captured national attention.
Wolford, pastor of the Full Gospel Apostolic House of the Lord Jesus in Matoaka, was bitten in the thigh by the timber rattlesnake during a homecoming service. The church in question had a history of practicing serpent handling. A freelance photojournalist from Washington who was at the homecoming service when Wolford was bitten reported that about 25 people were in attendance and witnessed the incident.
Parishioners transported Wolford to a residence in Mercer County a short time after the snakebite. Emergency personnel also were contacted a short time later. Wolford was pronounced dead at Bluefield Regional Medical Center.
McDowell County Prosecuting Attorney Sid Bell later ruled that serpent handling was a “constitutionally protected religious service.” However, Ken Caplinger, chief of state parks in West Virginia, said state officials were unaware of serpent handling services taking place at the Panther Wildlife Management Area. Caplinger said if asked — the state would not allow such a service to take place.
2. Powerful wind storm leaves region in the dark — thousands evacuated from Mitchell Stadium as derecho strikes.
With the exception of a large and ominous cloud in the sky, there was otherwise no advance warning of the approaching calamity. And the timing couldn’t have possibly been worse. A crowd of thousands was assembled at Mitchell Stadium for the Second Chance Rocks the Two Virginias Concert. And a derecho was fast approaching.
The National Weather Service in Blacksburg, Va., said a derecho is a persistent and intense mesoscale thunderstorm complex that follows a straight line. The term derecho is Spanish for direct or straight ahead. It is a storm capable of producing hurricane force winds in the mountains — as residents across the region found out on June 29.
Emergency responders across the region were able to safely evacuate Mitchell Stadium. Thousands were removed from the stadium without injury before the 80 mph wind gusts pounded the stage Eric Church and Jake Owen were to perform on. The destructive winds even moved a 5,000-pound wall that was beside the stage.
Damage across the region was widespread following the powerful wind storm, including downed trees and power lines. More than a half million customers in Appalachian Power’s service area were left without electricity — on a weekend when the mercury soared into the triple digits. The misery continued for almost two weeks for many across the region before their electrical service was finally restored.
The Second Chance Rocks the Two Virginias concert was rescheduled — and successfully completed — in late August. The second attempt at the concert once again attracted a crowd estimated in the thousands.
3. Abduction of 8-year-old girl by murder suspect leads to manhunt by ground and air.
A manhunt was launched on April 12 for Tracey Lee Atwell, 38, of Spanishburg, after the man allegedly murdered his wife and abducted his daughter.
An extensive search started on April 12 after the body of Christina Marie Atwell, 33, was found at her home on Browning School Road in Rock. Investigators estimated that she had been murdered sometime between April 9 and April 11.
On April 12, Atwell arrived at his parents’ home on Beckley Road in Camp Creek, admitted to killing his wife, then bound his parents and left the area with his 8-year-old daughter, Porsche. Atwell fled with her in a white 1999 Jeep Laredo.
An Amber Alert also was issued for the missing girl, and a manhunt by both air and ground was launched by area authorities. Troopers with the West Virginia State Police Princeton Detachment, the Mercer County Sheriff’s Department, and other agencies combed the region by both ground and air. Atwell was arrested on April 14 while traveling near the intersection of Nubbins Ridge Road and Egeria Road along the Mercer and Raleigh County line. His daughter Porsche was found safe.
Tracey Atwell was arrested on one charge of murder involving the death of his wife, armed robbery, kidnapping, concealment of a child and grand larceny.
4. Long-time McDowell County mayor murdered, two charged in investigation.
Although a local historian and educator, Tom Hatcher was perhaps best known for his public service, including his 15 years of work as mayor of the city of War. Hatcher was found dead on July 17 by city employees who had come to check on him after the mayor did not show up for work at city hall — something Hatcher would do as mayor on a daily basis.
Police launched an investigation into Hatcher’s death, and later charged his daughter-in-law, Rebecca Hatcher, 31, of War, and her brother, Earl Click, 26, of Grundy, Va. Investigators allege Rebecca Hatcher and Click stole $1,100 from the mayor before killing him, according to the original criminal complaint against the two.
During a preliminary hearing for the two in July, Assistant Prosecuting Attorney Ed Kornish said a plastic bag had been found next to Thomas Hatcher’s head on the bed. Marks on his head were consistent with a struggle. Kornish said suffocation could have been a primary or secondary cause of death along with a heart attack.
The investigation into Hatcher’s death continues. The case against Click and Rebecca Hatcher has not yet been presented to the McDowell County grand jury.
5. Murder suspect hangs himself in Bluefield City Jail.
October 1 turned out to be a sad day in Bluefield as a well-respected U.S. Army veteran, Doug Watkins, was killed and his wife, Monika Watkins, was shot, had her throat cut and was beaten nearly to death by a neighbor who later admitted that his rage was fueled by his addiction to crack cocaine.
Donald Adams, 54, of Bluefield, gained entry into the Watkins’ home on Burton Street, shot and killed Doug Watkins, attacked Monika Watkins, left her for dead, stole about $200 from the home and fled. Police took him into custody a few hours after the home invasion.
During his initial appearance in magistrate court, Adams confessed his guilt. After that hearing, he told the Bluefield Daily Telegraph and other media reporters that he wished West Virginia still had the death penalty, and he would probably deserve it. Adams took his own life while being held in the Bluefield City Jail awaiting transport to the Southern Regional Jail.
Monika Watkins was unconscious for 18 days, but on Oct. 19, she regained consciousness and was able to return home within another two weeks and was able to vote in the Nov. 6 election.
Hundreds of coal mining jobs lost in the region, presidential election viewed as turning point for industry.
6. The year 2012 will not be remembered as a particularly good year for the region’s coal industry. Hundreds of miners were displaced during the year by mine closures and idlings, and the industry’s hope of electing a pro-coal president — Republican Mitt Romney — were crushed by the commanding re-election victory of President Barack Obama. Obama’s re-election was made possible once again by the Commonwealth of Virginia, while West Virginia overwhelmingly voted in support of Romney.
In the Mountain State, an estimated 4,740 miners had sought unemployment benefits since Jan. 1. Many laid off miners opted not to file any claims, choosing instead to retire or seek work in another industry, Russell Fry, acting executive director of WorkForce West Virginia, told the Associated Press earlier in the year.
Consol Energy told another 145 workers in southern West Virginia that it would start laying them off in late December because of a dispute over permits for surface mining related to the King Coal Highway project. The Pittsburgh-based coal producer said it decided to idle its Miller Creek operations in Mingo County, which include Wiley Surface Mine, Wiley Creek Surface Mine, Minway Surface Mine, Minway Preparation Plant, and Miller Creek Administration Group. Consol had sought U.S. Environmental Protection Agency permits to redirect the Mingo County operations to mine land that would then become a five-mile stretch of the King Coal Highway.
The news was equally troubling in Southwest Virginia where hundreds of miners also were laid off. Coal producer Alpha Natural Resources announced it was cutting production by 16-million tons and eliminating 1,200 jobs company wide, laying off 400 workers immediately by closing mines in Virginia, West Virginia and Pennsylvania. In all, the layoffs amounted to nearly a tenth of Alpha’s 13,000-person workforce. The company said it was closing four mines in West Virginia, three in Virginia and one in Pennsylvania. The impacted mines were a mix of deep and surface mines, and all are non-union operations.
About 400 of the 606 miners who were temporarily laid off in September at Consol Energy’s Buchanan Mine returned to work in early November. However, another 190 production and maintenance employees did not return to the Buchanan County mine, Consol spokeswoman Cathy St. Clair said. She added, the company would work to reassign those 190 employees, as well as some salaried employees, to other Consol mines.
Pittsburgh-based Consol idled the Southwest Virginia mine in early September due to a decline in global steel demand. Both mines produced metallurgical coal, which is used to make steel.
7. Police investigate death of 12-year-old boy who was bullied in school
Police launched an investigation into an alleged bullying incident at Princeton Middle School following the March 26 death of a 12-year-old boy. And area parents, teachers and school administrators found themselves grappling with the dilemma of school bullying.
Dalton Lee Walker, 12, died outside his home in Princeton of a “self-inflicted injury,” Chief P.V. Powell of the Princeton Police Department confirmed in an earlier report.
Lt. P.W. Hill, the lead investigator in the case, said Walker’s mother had told him that her son had been frequently bullied, and that the bullying “had been going on for some time and that she had spoken to school officials several times.”
Mercer County School Superintendent Dr. Deborah Akers — faced with questions from parents and the media following the child’s death — said the school system does have policies against bullying in place.
“We are well aware that bullying is a much-reported issue nationwide and, naturally, parents are concerned about their own children and schools,” Akers said in a prepared statement following the incident at Princeton Middle School. “I would tell parents that this district, its administrators and teachers, are committed to the strong anti-bullying measures we have in place in all of our schools.”
When school personnel deal with a student accused of bullying or any other infraction, the parents of the child who was bullied cannot be told the result, according to Mercer County Board of Education President Greg Prudich. By state and federal law, school personnel cannot share information such as details about a student reprimand, Prudich said.
The tragedy at the middle school led to the formation of a new organization, the Mercer County Parents and Students Coalition Against Bullying, and a renewed push by area parents to address bullying in the schools.
8. Little charged with March 1 stabbing death of Buckner.
A Princeton man was found stabbed to death at his Honaker Avenue home in Princeton on March 1. Prosecutors said Jerry Buckner, the brother of former sheriff and magistrate Harold Buckner, died from more than 30 stab wounds to his neck and throat.
Gerald W. Little, 60, of Princeton, was indicted on charges of first-degree murder, first-degree robbery and burglary in connection with the death of Jerry Buckner.
Little pleaded not guilty on Oct. 22 to all the charges. He faces the possibility of life in prison. Defense attorneys for Little are currently seeking a change of venue in the case.
The senior status judge assigned to the case, John S. Hrko, heard motions in late December in Mercer County Circuit Court calling for the trial’s venue to be changed, the removal of Prosecuting Attorney Scott Ash from the case due to a conflict of interest, and a psychiatric evaluation for Little.
Defense Attorney Derrick Lefler, who is representing Little and seeking a change of venue, argues that relatives of Jerry Buckner work both in the Mercer County Circuit Clerk’s Office and the prosecutor’s office. Hrko said Ash has frequent contact with these relatives, and that these relatives would have contact with potential jurors.
In a separate case, Little was indicted on a charge of failure to register as a sex offender. Little was convicted on July 24, 2007 in Raleigh County on a charge of sexual abuse. Little had failed to report that he had dropped out of a trucking school that he was attending. He has pleaded not guilty to that charge.
9. Long-awaited Bramwell segment of Hatfield-McCoy Trail opens in Mercer County.
Plans for the Hatfield-McCoy Trail actually date back to 1996, and that’s when Mercer County was first proposed as one of the counties for the southern West Virginia-based trail system. However, it took until Memorial Day weekend of 2012 before the first 100-plus miles of trails were opened in Mercer County near Bramwell.
A community connector system to the town of Matoaka also is still planned by trail officials, and advocated by town officials in Matoaka. And the city of Bluefield is working to bring off-road visitors into the city as well.
The new trail system is already having a positive impact on Mercer County — and the town of Bramwell in particular. Mayor Louise Stoker says the town has seen visitors from as far away as New Hampshire, Massachusetts, New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Michigan, North Carolina, Virginia, South Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Mississippi, Kentucky and Canada.
Permit sales along the five-county trail system also were up 10 percent in 2012 from 2011, according to Hatfield-McCoy Trails Executive Director Jeff Lusk.
10. Job losses mount in Bluefield, controversy erupts over vacant Kroger store.
The news went from bad to worse for the city of Bluefield in 2012, and neighboring Bluefield, Va., also shared in the pain.
On the heels of the closure of Flowers Bakery, workers at the Cumberland Road Kroger, in Bluefield, and at Bluefield Beverage, in Bluefield, Va., were told in January that both facilities would close. In all, 164 jobs were lost between the grocery store and the bottling company. And word came in late 2012 that the long-feared consolidation of Bluefield’s Mail Processing and Distribution Center would begin in February — resulting in more jobs being lost for the region.
Grant’s Supermarket, a locally owned grocery chain, soon announced it was seeking a lease on the old Kroger building with a goal of opening a new grocery store at the site. However, Tom Lilly, co-owner of the Bluefield Plaza, later confirmed he was awarding the grocery store lease instead to K-VA-T Food Stores Inc., the corporate owners of Food City.
K-VA-T Food Stores Inc., President Steve Smith originally told the Daily Telegraph that the company was hoping to open a grocery store — either a Food City or Super Dollar Foods chain — at the Cumberland Road site, which is within close distance to the existing Food City store in Bluefield, Va. However, Smith reversed course in August telling the Daily Telegraph that K-VA-T Food Stores Inc., would not be developing a grocery store at the site. Smith said putting in a new store would be more cost effective than renovating the old Kroger building.
Bluefield officials disagreed; arguing that city inspectors checked out the old Kroger building, and determined it was not in a bad condition. They also argued that keeping the old Kroger building empty was adversely impacting existing businesses on Cumberland Road, and economic development and growth across the city.
Greg Shrewsbury, the city’s economic development director, said the city is losing more than $1 million in revenue annually because of the current vacancy. The board passed a resolution in December asking Smith and Lilly to attend their Jan. 8 meeting to explain why the old Kroger building is still empty.
— Bill Archer contribued to this story.