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Top stories of the year

It was the year that ended the first decade of a new century. And what a year 2009 was. The year spanned the extreme highs of seeing the first African-American take the office of presidency to watching the train wreck of our economy continue its somersault off the tracks.

Locally, 2009 in Lawrence County mirrored the nation’s with extreme highs to tragic, heart-wrenching lows.

As we at The Tribune do each year, a majority of the staff voted on stories of the year.

We have ranked the stories of the old year making a list of what we think are the most important events of 2009.

You may not agree with us and you certainly may have a list with other happenings we haven’t included.

But here is what we think are the top 10 stories of the year that in just a few days will come to an end.

MURDER OF AMY WILCOX

A county was plunged into shock and later grief at the brutal attack on a young mother and educator.

On April 29, Amy Wilcox, 38, of Perry Township, was assaulted at her home and then set on fire when gasoline poured on her was deliberately ignited.

She lay for weeks in critical condition at the burn unit of a Cincinnati hospital. Throughout the next two months, friends, colleagues and total strangers came together in fundraisers, prayer vigils and other support for Wilcox and her family as a county hoped for her recovery.

Then on June 12, the young woman died from her injuries as her friends and family mourned.

Her estranged husband, Tom Wilcox was subsequently arrested for the attack and now faces three different aggravated murder charges in her death. If convicted that could mean the death penalty for him.

More than 300 came to the woman’s funeral at the Dawson-Bryant High School gym where the Rev. David Lambert officiated. Lambert is the pastor of Community Missionary Baptist Church where Wilcox attended and was an active member.

Many spoke of their love for Wilcox as she was remembered as a compassionate woman who never had an unkind word for anyone and practiced the teachings of her faith.

THE SAGA OF BETH RIST

The former police officer whose dismissal has been at the heart of a more than year-long battle with the city of Ironton and the city police department found herself with a different career definition as 2009 came to an end.

Now Beth Rist is one of the city of Ironton’s policymakers. That happened after the November election when Rist came in third in total votes, garnering a spot on the city council.

In 2008, Rist was fired from the police force and indicted on felony charges in connection with her falsifying a traffic ticket.

She pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge of falsification and was placed on two years’ probation.

Later an arbitrator ruled that the woman was the victim of disparate treatment and decreed she must get her job back. However, the city administration continues to fight that ruling and has yet to re-instate her.

In late summer of 2009 Rist filed for the council seat. About three months later she reaped a victory coming in third in a six-person race where the top four vote getters won 4-year seats on council.

LUTZ SETS MILESTONE

The county was front and center when all eyes from across the state were on us on a warm fall night on the 23rd of October at Tanks Memorial Stadium.

There Ironton High coach Bob Lutz became the winningest high school football coach in the history of the state. The magic number was 361 games won and shouts that night reverberated throughout the arena.

The win came in the Ironton and Nelsonville-York game where the hometown beat the visitors 32-12.

Lutz has had only one losing season in his 40-year career. He broke the record held by former Hamilton Catholic-Badin coach Terry Malone. The night of celebration ended with the grounds at Tanks Memorial getting a name change. Now it is called the Bob Lutz Field.

SONNY RIFFE RAPE TRIAL

An Ironton man will spend the rest of his life in an Ohio prison after he was convicted of repeatedly raping a 9-year-old girl.

Sonny Riffe, 59, was sentenced in January by Lawrence County Common Please Judge Charles Cooper to life without the possibility of parole for the first-degree rape conviction. In a trial that often elicited emotion-packed testimony, Riffe had both defenders and accusers. But after four hours of deliberation a jury determined that Riffe was guilty.

He appealed his conviction, but in December the Ohio Fourth District Court of Appeals upheld the conviction rejecting Riffe’s claims that evidence at trial was insufficient and his counsel was ineffective.

TRIPLE MURDER, INVESTIGATION, TRIAL

The case of the triple murders that rocked the eastern end of Scioto County at the end of last year moved forward throughout 2009.

On the night of Dec. 22, 2008, the bodies of Ed Mollett, 46, Juanita Mollett, 43, and their daughter, Christina Mollett, 20, were found in their trailer in Franklin Furnace. The trio had been shot to the death.

The accused shooter Kara Garvin, 30, also of Franklin Furnace, was charged in the early part of this year with an 18-count indictment that includes aggravated murder, aggravated burglary and aggravated robbery charges. She now faces the death penalty and will be represented at her mid-February trial by Charles Knight and William Eachus.

ECONOMIC WOES

While stimulus money came into the county, the local economy felt the same effects as on the national horizon. Many Lawrence Countians lost their homes as the wave of foreclosures continued. Belt-tightening was the order of the day for those in government, both in the city and county.

Though not hit as hard as metropolitan areas, the county suffered job lose.

And workers and consumers were especially hit hard when one of the county’s oldest discount retailers, Kmart in South Point, shut its doors just before the Christmas shopping season.

CIVIL RIGHTS LAWSUITS

Educators, administrators, law enforcement and city officials became the defendants in a variety of lawsuits where the plaintiffs claimed their civil rights had been violated.

Lawrence County Sheriff Jeff Lawless, Sheriff’s Deputy Charles Hammond and Chesapeake Police Chief Dennis Gibson are currently the defendants in a federal civil rights case filed in August by Anthony Patrick, a Huntington, W.Va., construction firm owner.

Patrick is claiming he was wrongly stopped by law enforcement, Tasered and arrested. The case is before the U.S. District Court in Cincinnati.

Staff and administrators at Ironton’s Open Door School are facing a lawsuit filed in June by Chesapeake resident Donna Hundley whose 11-year-old son was a student at the school.

The child has been diagnosed with autism, cerebral palsy and ADHD.

Among other claims the suit alleges that the meetings at the school were in violation with the Individual with Disabilities Education Act; and the curriculum was not geared for autistic children.

The family of the man whose body was dragged through the streets of Ironton during a snowy winter night in 2008 filed a suit against the city and a former police officer.

On the evening of March 8, 2008, the body of Thomas was found in the parking lot of the city police station under the cruiser of then officer Richard Fouts.

Thomas’s death sparked protects and marches from family members and friends who questioned the circumstances of the incident. Louverne Miller and Juan Thomas, co-administrators of the estate of Thomas, filed the suit in Lawrence County Common Pleas Court in June.

NEW YEAR, NEW SCHOOLS

This fall students in two county districts started the new school year by going to classes in brand spanking new buildings, where high-tech teaching tools were teamed up with top notch design elements. Ironton city schools welcomed a new elementary and new middle school building.

The middle school features classrooms that measure 900 square feet a piece and each equipped with white boards, SMART boards for electronic programs, an overhead projected and amplified sound with wireless microphone capabilities for the teachers. The cost was about $34 million.

In the South Point District there were two new elementary buildings to start out the fall. Carrying a combined price tag of $16 million, both the Burlington Elementary and South Point Elementary are now home for 440 students each.

Each class has four computers with 25 more units in the communal lab, along with music rooms and a modified stage in the round at each building. Both buildings are wireless with SMART boards.

As South Point superintendent Ken Cook said at the time the schools opened, “You’d be hard-pressed to find any building in the state with that kind of technology. We have a big investment, but that’s the future.”

NEW LEADERSHIP

One-time beleaguered Rock Hill School District got a new leader for the next three years when the school board named Wes Hairston as its new superintendent back in August.

Hairston, a 20-plus-year veteran of the district has been the assistant principal at the middle school.

The educator promised that his goals are to improve academics within the district, establish a monitoring system that will provide feedback on the effectiveness of the curriculum and establish good community relations.

Three days before Christmas Jeff Saunders was name the new superintendent at Symmes Valley district, following retiring chief Tom Ben. Ben had led the district for 17 years.

Saunders, principal at Symmes Valley High, was chosen in a 4-1 vote.

At the time of his hiring he said his most pressing priorities were finances and improving Symmes Valley’s academic performance

RECALLING A LEGACY

The last direct descendant of the Burlington 37 died this year.

Owen Pleasant passed away April 20 at the age of 95. It was in 1849 that Virginia plantation owner James Twynam freed 37 of his slaves and gave them farmland in the eastern part of Lawrence County.

Over the next century and a half that settlement prospered into the community known today as Burlington.

Pleasant was the last surviving grandchild of Susan Gordon, one of those original 37 settlers.

“We have lost a great historian, the greatest historian of Burlington. He was a great friend, a father figure to everyone,” Harriette Ramsey of Concerned Citizens of Burlington said at the time. “There will be such a void.”

Other stories that had significance for 2009 include:

Chesapeake Schools Strategic Plan — Teachers, students and community members worked for more than a year to devise a mission statement for Chesapeake students and goals they want to see accomplished by the district. It was a first for the eastern end schools.

Russell Bennett steps down — The Chesapeake police chief accepted a retirement buyout from the village and was replaced by Dennis Gibson, an officer on the force.

Mended Reeds — The Lawrence County Commissioners purchased the Mended Reeds facility on State Route 93 and moved its group home there.

St. Paul Lutheran — One of Ironton’s stately and historic downtown churches marked its 150 anniversary as a parish in the county.

Ro-Na restoration — The onetime grand dame of Ironton’s theater got a boost when work was begun to put a new roof on the former movie house.

Comfort Suites opens — The eastern end of the county got an upscale accommodation when the hotel complex opened this spring.

Memorial Day Parade controversy — Members of a local Confederate re-enactment group sought to march in Ironton’s historic Memorial Day parade and were rejected.

Saga of Portsmouth Rock — Local historian Steve Shaffer, who resurrected the Portsmouth Rock from the Ohio River, got a break in his ongoing legal battles when Kentucky decided not to pursue criminal charges against him.