Photo by Corinne Nicholson
When the calendar flipped from 1999 to 2000, there were concerns aplenty about whether the world would come to a standstill because computers couldn't operate with a date sequence that mirrored internal code.
Obviously that didn't happen, but many other events did transpire in the 10 years since that helped shape the past decade.
* Sept. 11, 2001
As the nation sat shocked, residents in Rockdale and Newton counties joined arms in solidarity and prayer immediately following the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Spontaneous prayer services and vigils were held in churches and other public meeting places throughout Covington and Conyers. Amid the unified mourning, however, local courthouses clamped down on security measures, air travel was suspended, the stock market closed and sports events were canceled. At the same time, citizens, unsure of what the future may hold, lined up for gasoline amid fears that supply would be disrupted and canceled travel plans.
Things slowly began to resume under a new normal. Metal detectors have been placed at the main entrances of the courthouses. Grant money from the newly created U.S. Department of Homeland Security flows to local law enforcement agencies to aid in anti-terrorism efforts and every year school children commemorate the Sept. 11 attacks by observing Patriots' Day.
* BioLab blows
One of the biggest events to occur in Rockdale County happened around 4:30 a.m. May 24, 2004, when an explosion at BioLab Inc., a Conyers chemical manufacturer, produced a thick gray plume of toxic smoke half a mile wide running parallel to Interstate 20 into Newton County, shutting down the interstate and forcing hundreds of residents to evacuate for two days. The explosion occurred in the 260,000-square-foot warehouse facility at the BioLab complex on Rockdale Industrial Boulevard. Stored in the warehouse were tons of pool and spa chemicals, containing a variety of chlorine-based products, as well as packaging and pallets. Multiple agencies from surrounding communities, including 20 deputies form Newton County, jumped in to help Rockdale County Sheriff's Office, Conyers Police Department and Rockdale County Fire Department officials battle the blaze and keep citizens away from toxic fumes.
BioLab's estimated insured losses exceeded $50 million, according to Georgia Insurance Commissioner John W. Oxendine.
Each year since then, area law enforcement and fire officials conduct a one-day training at the BioLab facility to prepare for chemical or fire-related disasters.
* Lanny Barnes kills
The nation stood shocked when it learned in May 2006 that a Covington man drove over two women and three children at McDonald's on U.S. Highway 278, killing a 2-year-old girl. Lanny Perry Barnes, 46, was charged with malice murder, felony murder, four counts of aggravated battery and five counts of aggravated assault. It was alleged during the proceedings leading up to Barnes' trial that he laughed while ramming the car repeatedly into the family, and Newton County District Attorney Ken Wynne sought the death penalty for Barnes. However, Barnes was diagnosed with leukemia shortly after his arrest. Wynne told the court that given his medical condition and his chances for survival, the victims agreed that entering into a negotiated plea was the best option. Barnes pleaded guilty in 2008 to charges of murder and aggravated battery. He continued to receive treatment while in state custody and he died in July 2009 in the medical prison in Augusta.
* GPC chooses Newton
Georgia Perimeter College opened a $24 million facility in 2007 off Ga. Highway 11 in Newton County that is able to serve 3,000 students. In addition to the land donation from the Arnold Fund, the Newton County Board of Commissioners contributed $2.5 million to the project.
GPC had been in negotiations for several years with officials in Rockdale County, where it already had a small campus. However, when talks between GPC and the city of Conyers broke down over building the facility at the Georgia International Horse Park, GPC officials began talking with Newton County.
* Stonecrest Mall comes to East Metro
Plans had been in the works for almost two decades, but in 2001, the Mall at Stonecrest opened its doors off Turner Hill Road in Lithonia, just over the DeKalb County line.
The 1.3 million-square-foot, two-level, indoor/outdoor regional mall opened to much fanfare in October that year. The Mall at Stonecrest was just the beginning of the overall plan that promised to be an economic boon to not only DeKalb County, but all of East Metro Atlanta, including Rockdale and Newton counties. The commercial real estate, mixed-use development now includes big box retailers, such as Sam's Club, Best Buy, Toys "R" Us and Target; restaurants, including Olive Garden, Chick-fil-A and Arizona's; and hotels like Hilton Garden Inn, Comfort Suites and Hyatt Place. Smaller retail, automobile dealerships and office space is also part of the overall development at Stonecrest. A paved walking trail also stretches from Panola Mountain to the mall area.
* Hurricane Katrina
victims seek refuge at FFA
Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast in August 2005, driving thousands from their homes in Louisiana and Mississippi. Nearly 400 of them made their way east and found refuge at the FFA-FCCLA Camp on Ga. Highway 36 in Newton County. The FFA-FCCLA Camp was one of 12 sites around the state that served as a temporary shelter for those fleeing the storms.
The community rolled out the red carpet for the evacuees by raising money and donating food, supplies, clothing, fuel, school supplies and temporary housing. A week after the Aug. 29, 2005, storm, the FFA-FCCLA Camp was so overwhelmed with donated items that organizers said no more supplies were needed there.
Local schools enrolled many students who had evacuated New Orleans and the surrounding area and Georgia Perimeter College agreed to waive out-of-state tuition and offered to defer that fall semester's tuition and fees for those students from areas affected by Hurricane Katrina.
* Tough sentences
Some high-profile criminals received heavy sentences over the past 10 years, but two of the more notorious were the student who went on a shooting spree at Heritage High School in 1999 and the man who burned his children to death.
Anthony "T.J." Solomon was sentenced in 2001 to serve 40 years on two 20-year consecutive sentences for aggravated assault and 65 years probation on additional charges for the May 1999 shooting spree at Heritage High School. However, upon learning that Solomon, who was 15 at the time of the incident, would not have his case reviewed for 36 years, Chief Superior Court Judge Sidney Nation cut Solomon's prison time in half and imposed specific conditions on his probation should he be released, including undergoing psychiatric examinations and being released to a diversion center when his incarceration period ends.
William David Riley
William David Riley received the death penalty in February 2003 after a Walton County jury found him guilty of killing his three small children by setting his trailer on fire in 2000. The jury took less than an hour to find him guilty of three counts of murder with malice, three counts of felony murder and two counts of arson. The jury took another hour to sentence Riley to death. He is now sits on Georgia's Death Row.
Riley torched the Pine Valley Mobile Home Park trailer with the children still inside. On the day of the children's deaths, Riley had an argument with his live-in girlfriend, who threatened to leave him. Riley told investigators in his confession that he wanted to "get (her) attention" by starting a fire in the trailer. Riley said he started the fire on a corner of a bedspread while the children slept.
* Dogfighting ring busted
Newton County's biggest news story of 2004 involved the busting of a large dogfighting operation that resulted in the arrests of 123 people. The suspects apparently planned a night of dogfighting, gambling, barbecue-eating and drinking in January of that year. However, those plans were thwarted when about 70 deputies surrounded the vacant home on Baker Lane with a Georgia Air National Guard helicopter hovering above and lighting up the scene.
Then-Sheriff Joe Nichols said planning for the raid had begun earlier that week when authorities from Bibb and Jones counties notified sheriffs' offices that they had reason to believe a large dog fighting ring was moving its main event from Middle Georgia to this area.
When officials busted through the house, which at one time had been a church, participants frantically tried to escape out doors and windows. Officials said there were about 14 pit bull dogs being used by the gambling operation, which was offering $50,000 to the owner of the dog left standing at the end of the night. Thirteen of the dogs were alive and one was dead. Officers also confiscated more than a quarter of a million dollars in the raid.