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2007: Year of change
Multimillion-dollar deals, big crimes dominate Rockdale, Newton headlines

With a presidential election on the horizon, a changing economic climate, and challenges like continued growth and a severe drought to contend with, 2008 promises to be a busy news year for east metro Atlanta. But before we leave 2007 behind completely, it's important to take a look back and review the stories that shaped our year. The Citizen presents its Top Stories of 2007:

Signature makes $87.7M bid for RMC

The ongoing financial troubles at Rockdale Medical Center culminated with the announcement in August of the pending sale of the 53-year-old public hospital to Signature Hospital Corporation of Houston, Texas, for $87.7 million.

However, plans to have the transaction completed by the end of the year were sidetracked when Signature made a last-minute proposal to have part of the cash payment, up to $25 million, deferred in the form of payments on a promissory note.

The proposal was made this month on the night before the Georgia Attorney General's Office was to make a findings report to determine whether a fair value was being made on the proposed sale of public property.

Since then, hospital officials have agreed to Signature's proposal and have begun negotiations with the company on interest and payment plans.

The Attorney General's Office has postponed its recommendations until Jan. 14. Both Signature and RMC officials now hope to complete the deal by Jan. 31.

The Rockdale County Hospital Authority and RMC Board of Directors spent the better part of the year courting potential suitors for the 138-bed facility. The sale of the hospital became a consideration after the nonprofit RMC Inc. recorded a $15 million operating loss in 2005. The record loss was followed by a violation of RMC's bond covenants which governed the hospital's $90 million debt.

Heightened requirements for keeping cash on hand and less revenue than expected caused the hospital to seek a buyer.

Signature was selected during the summer from a field of about 20 interested parties.

Barnes enters guilty plea

One of the most notorious murder cases in Newton County history came to a close in 2007 when Lanny Perry Barnes pleaded guilty to killing 2-year-old Avery Nicole King and assaulting her mother, Anita King, along with Covington resident Stephanie Casola and her two sons, Isaac and Jake, with his car in the parking lot of a McDonald's restaurant.

For the murder, Barnes, 47, was sentenced by Judge Eugene Benton to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

Newton County District Attorney Ken Wynne, who had been seeking the death penalty in the case, told the court at Barnes' plea hearing that the defendant's medical condition played a role in his decision to allow him to enter into a plea deal.

According to Wynne, Barnes' cancer had progressed to the point that a bone marrow transplant was the only viable treatment available to him and that he stood only a one in three chance of survival.

During his time at the Newton County Detention Center, Newton taxpayers shelled out $542,985 to cover Barnes' medical expenses.

GPC opens new campus

In June, Georgia Perimeter College opened its Covington campus after moving out of the Conyers location that was its home of 14 years.

Chief Operating Officer Dr. Sallie Paschal said the West Avenue campus, which was once a shopping plaza, will be missed, but it was not big enough to accommodate the influx of students from Rockdale and surrounding counties.

"We opened our doors with about 375 students," Paschal said in May. "Last semester, we had right under 1,800. I don't think we could make it to 2,000 here. We've been maxed out for the last few years."

The Newton campus, located near Interstate 20 on Ga. Highway 11, serves students from Rockdale, Newton, Henry, Walton, Jasper, Morgan, Butts and Putnam counties.

Phase one of GPC's Newton campus, which is 104,000 square feet, opened in June to about 1,200 students.

GPC President Anthony Tricoli said when construction on the Newton campus is complete in several years, it will house 12 buildings on its 100 acres of land. The college expects to be able to ultimately accommodate 6,000 to 7,000 students at its campus.

GPC has maintained a presence in Rockdale County by offering courses at the Rockdale Career Academy on Parker Road.

Water dept. faces financial uphill climb

Rockdale Water Resources, the county's water department, faced serious financial difficulties and system inefficiencies during the past year that remain to be resolved in 2008.

However, county commissioners wanted to address inefficiencies in the department before considering a rate increase.

A disagreement between the Board of Commissioners and RWR Director Dwight Wicks on rate increases eventually led to Wicks' being fired. Wicks believed a rate increase was needed to help the water department through the rest of the year.

Wicks said that at the same time RWR was operating at a deficit, the utility needed to make increased debt service payments - which are expected to climb by $2 million next year - and to fund $4 million to $6 million in routine repairs to the system's aging pipelines and treatment facilities.

This news came at the same time consultant Christopher Quigley reported that RWR was operating under severe inefficiencies. Quigley, of Sandy Springs-based Peoples & Quigley, said that RWR has lost billions of gallons annually in unbilled services, such as lost and unmetered water and wastewater; the utility is operating with old, leaky pipes; and the system showed more than $2 million in uncollected, past-due bills as of August.

Following the announcement that Wicks' contract would not be renewed in November, the BOC moved the billing, collecting and meter reading responsibilities over to the county's Department of Finance.

The BOC plans to purchase new software for the water department in the coming year that it said will address most of the collections and billing problems.

Also, the search for a new RWR director will continue. A committee of RWR department heads will run the water and sewer operations on an interim basis until a director is hired.

Man charged with killing,

dismembering girlfriend

In late October, a Newton County woman made a grisly discovery when she came home to find her dogs fighting over a human foot.

The foot, along with other human remains discovered on the rural property off Ga. Highway 212, were later identified as those of 49-year-old Leslyan Williams.

Williams' boyfriend, Franklin Elliot Benson, 47, of Atlanta, was later arrested and charged in connection with her murder. Benson was denied bond at a hearing held last month in Newton County Superior Court.

Williams' head and torso have yet to be recovered.

Rockdale faces foreclosure mess

The national epidemic of home foreclosures as a result of subprime mortgage lending was not lost on Rockdale County.

According to figures compiled by the Atlanta Regional Commission, Rockdale County had the second highest foreclosure rate in 2006 in the 10-county metro Atlanta area, trailing only Clayton County.

Hand-in-hand with that statistic, Rockdale had the fourth highest percentage of subprime loans in the nation in 2004 among the 914 counties with populations numbering more than 50,000.

Subprime lenders accounted for approximately 34 percent of all the loans made in Rockdale County in 2004, the most recent year for which statistics were available.

Since 2001, the number of foreclosures in Rockdale County has increased 175 percent.

Subprime loans are made to people who might not ordinarily be able to secure a mortgage loan at the prime rate and feature low initial payments which can soar dramatically when interest rates rise.

Covington Cable

sold to Charter

Charter Communications purchased Covington Cable TV in August for more than $27 million.

Soon after, cable customers were griping about outages, poor customer service and confusing bills.

In October, Covington City Council members told a Charter representative they were disappointed with the company's performance.

After paying off cable system debt and the cost of the sale, the city was left with more than $22 million.

So far, the council has agreed to spend about $12 million: $4.5 million to retire debt; $3 million to flesh out the city's pension fund; $3.1 million to reimburse the Newton County Industrial Development Authority for the purchase of 85 acres near Covington Municipal Airport; and $1.08 million to purchase property for a new homeless shelter and make repairs to existing buildings on the site.

Piggly Wiggly robbers

sent to prison

In one of the most talked about cases in Rockdale County in 2007, five teenagers were sent to prison for the brazen Aug. 26, 2006, armed robbery of the Piggly Wiggly store on Ga. Highway 20.

Four of the teenagers were under the age of 17 at the time of the incident, but because of the seriousness of the crime, Rockdale County District Attorney Richard Read elected to try them as adults.

Efforts by defense attorneys to have the case against the youngest of the perpetrators sent to Juvenile Court were denied by Superior Court Judge David Irwin.

Sebastian Xavier Brinson, 17 at the time of the robbery, was sentenced to serve the first 11 years of a 20-year sentence on two counts of armed robbery, kidnapping and three counts of aggravated assault.

Julian Eugene Brinson and Luthine Stewart III were ordered to serve the first 10 years of a 20-year sentence on two counts of armed robbery, kidnapping and three counts of aggravated assault.

Linton Edward Bonner was ordered to serve the first 11 years of a 20-year sentence on the same charges.

Joshua Joel Perry was ordered to serve the first 10 years of a 20-year sentence on two counts of armed robbery and kidnapping. Perry was the first to plead guilty, and the state dismissed the three counts of aggravated assault in his case in consideration for his guilty plea.

All five were students at Salem High School at the time of the robbery. Julian Brinson was 15, while Stewart, Bonner and Perry were 16 at the time of the incident.

The group was charged with entering the Piggly Wiggly around 10 p.m. brandishing a variety of weapons, including knives and a small handgun.

EMDET dismantled

After 17 years in operation, the East Metro Drug Enforcement Team was officially disbanded in August.

Authorities cited a number of different factors that contributed to the decision, including a lack of state and federal funding, the growth and increase in population of both counties, as well as the desire to focus on other crimes.

Since the drug task force's closure, the Newton County Sheriff's Office and Covington Police Department have joined forces to create the Covington/Newton County Special Investigations Unit.

In just its first few months in operation, SIU has made several large drug busts. The vice unit recently raided a Newton County flea market, in which many vendors were reportedly caught selling thousands of dollars worth of various counterfeited merchandise, including clothing, jewelry, handbags, DVDs and CDs.

Newton, Rockdale houses involved in pot operation

Three houses in Newton County and one house in Rockdale County were among the 55 residences discovered in 2007 that authorities say were being used across metro Atlanta in a large marijuana growing operation.

The illegal operation came to light after officials with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration in Miami raided a house and uncovered evidence that showed there were numerous homes in metro Atlanta being used for marijuana cultivation.

According to the U.S. Attorney's Office, authorities have thus far seized 8,638 marijuana plants and 2,279 pounds of processed marijuana.

In most cases, the marijuana was being grown using the hydroponic method in the basements of the houses, which were retrofitted with complex lighting and irrigation systems.

Those arrested in connection with drugs found in the Newton County homes include: Francisco Hernandez, Adalberto Hernandez-Cruz, Wenceslao Santiesteban, Eduardo Rey, Tomas Valiente, and Yaridys Gallardo.

Four people - Fresnio Jorge Perez, Minerda Perez Jorge, Benito Abreu Hernandez, and Cesar Fernandez Acosta - were taken into custody by Rockdale County authorities in connection with the alleged grow house discovered there.

Each of the defendants' cases is at a different phase of the judicial process.

Covington bankrolls

homeless shelter

Mayor Sam Ramsey cast the tie-breaking vote in September to purchase property on Turner Lake Circle for a homeless shelter at a cost of $980,000.

Two weeks later, some council members balked at the news that repairs to the building would add $235,000 to the purchase price.

The council agreed to spend a total of $1.08 million of revenues from the sale of Covington Cable TV for the property and repairs.

The property includes three buildings at a total of 17,000 square feet. FaithWorks, a local nonprofit organization that assists low-income residents with rent and utility payments, and the Newton County Community Food Pantry, will also locate there.

The Department of Housing and Urban Development recently provided a $100,000 grant to fund additional repairs.