Posted on 31 December 2014.
Triumph and tragedy provided the big news stories of 2014. Here’s a look at our Top Ten.
1. JUDGE TERRI JOHNSON, 3 OTHERS KILLED IN WRECK
For the second time in six months, the county unexpectedly lost an elected judge when Precinct 2 Justice of Peace Terri Johnson was killed in a multiple fatality car wreck on April 26.
APRIL ACCIDENT CLAIMED FOUR – Wise County Justice of the Peace Terri Johnson and three other people died April 26 in a head-on collision on U.S. 81/287 just south of Decatur after Johnson drove onto the wrong side of the highway. Messenger Photo by Joe Duty
Crash investigators said Johnson was driving her Volkswagen Passat at a high rate of speed southbound in the northbound lanes of U.S. 81/287 just south of Decatur when she struck a northbound Chevy Trailblazer, killing three adults in that vehicle. The accident happened about a quarter-mile north of the crossover at County Road 4228 near National Ropers Supply (NRS) Trailers at 5:52 that Saturday afternoon.
Those killed in the Trailblazer included the driver, Juan Jose Rios, 31, of Quanah; and two passengers, Amy Dee Culwell, 35, of Chillicothe and Sherry Ann Rios, 50, of Quanah. Juan and Amy’s 4-year-old daughter, Taylee, was seriously injured and flown from the scene to Cook Children’s Medical Center in Fort Worth. She was treated and released from the hospital.
Johnson’s autopsy report showed no drugs or alcohol in her system at the time of the crash. The report noted that Johnson had a “history of diabetes mellitus.” The toxicology report could not definitively point to a diabetes-related medical emergency as a cause of the wreck.
Following her death, Johnson’s husband, Craig, was appointed as interim Precinct 2 justice of the peace, and was later named as the candidate on the November ballot. She had been running unopposed.
Craig was elected in November without opposition.
2. J.D. CLARK ELECTED COUNTY JUDGE
Chico Mayor J.D. Clark took Wise County by storm in 2014.
The 28-year-old former Bowie schoolteacher won the Nov. 4 election for county judge in a landslide, soundly defeating Democrat Jim Stegall, 10,364 to 2,121.
Clark, who is perhaps the youngest county judge currently serving in Texas, never hit a bump on the campaign trail. He seemed to become the face of Wise County even before he was elected, attending countless events, speaking to numerous groups and taking an active interest in commissioners court.
Facing two opponents in the March primary, a runoff seemed inevitable for the young candidate, but Clark decisively won the Republican nomination with 55.33 percent of the vote. He defeated former county commissioner Kyle Stephens and Bridgeport Mayor Keith McComis.
Clark’s campaign continued to build momentum leading up to the general election, and as the numbers rolled in, the outcome quickly became certain. Clark jumped out to a big lead as soon as early voting numbers were released with 4,807 votes to Stegall’s 1,011, an 87.62 percent majority that slipped only slightly to 83 percent when the final votes were tallied.
“I feel completely incredible,” Clark said after the primary election. “I’m proud of the county, and it’s clear that the majority of us are on the same page. They’re ready for fresh ideas and positive leadership.”
Clark took office Nov. 12 when interim County Judge Glenn Hughes resigned. He was appointed to serve the remainder of Hughes’ term, which ends Dec. 31. The term to which Clark was elected starts Jan. 1.
3. BRAZILE CONTINUES RULE IN PRCA
The world’s top cowboy showed no signs of slowing down in 2014.
Trevor Brazile won his 12th Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association all-around gold buckle, finishing the year with $494,369 in winnings. He upped his career total to a record $5.5 million.
Brazile also captured his 20th and 21st world championships with his ninth straight all-around and fifth steer roping title.
He finished second to Decatur’s Tuf Cooper in tie-down and second in team roping with new partner Travis Graves.
4. TWICE AS NICE
After winning the program’s first state championship in 2013, the Decatur Lady Eagles came back for an encore in 2014.
Led by seniors Stormi Leonard, Cooper Martin, Caroline Lowery and Makayla Mayfield, the Lady Eagles rolled to a 40-10 record.
Decatur defeated rival Argyle in the 4A state title match in four games, 25-14, 27-29, 26-24, 25-19. Mayfield buried 21 kills and earned finals MVP.
Leonard earned Texas Girls Coaches Association 1A-4A Athlete of the Year. Decatur coach Claire Benedict-Gay garnered TGCA Coach of the Year.
5. FIRE FATALITIES
February was one of the deadliest months of 2014, with two fires killing three people. That’s the most fire fatalities in one year in Wise County since at least 2004, according to Fire Marshal Chuck Beard.
The first, an early-morning house fire in Chico on Feb. 8, took the life of Chris Conn, a 14-year-old boy. Beard said one of the two space heaters in Chris’s room was the cause of the fire, which also left Chris’s stepfather Johnny Hothouse with second- and third-degree burns as he tried to save him. Chris’s mother and two-year-old brother also suffered minor burns.
Two weeks later, on Feb. 22, two people died on the 400 block of County Road 1695 in Sunset after a fire that began in an 18-foot travel trailer spread to a single-wide mobile home parked less than five feet away.
It took months to identify the bodies of Douglas Vaughn Crewell, 50, and Debora Lynn Miser, 54, who were recovered from the debris by investigators. Beard said Miser was believed to be the caretaker of Jerry Haire, who lived in the mobile home and escaped the fire with no injuries. Beard also said because there wasn’t enough evidence left at the site, the exact cause of the fire could not be determined.
6. ROSS REMOVED FROM OFFICE, RE-ELECTION BID FALLS SHORT
Former County Commissioner Terry Ross was at the center of local news again in 2014 as he attempted to sweep his legal trouble under the rug and win over voters in the March primary.
He was unsuccessful on both counts.
On March 19, Ross was legally removed from office, a job he’d been suspended from performing for more than two years. The removal was the result of a civil suit filed by retired Texas Ranger Lane Akin of Decatur in June of 2012.
Ross’ legal woes began in late 2011 and centered around the construction of a child’s playhouse in the county barn. The structure was removed from Ross’ home in February of 2012, and Akin filed his suit four months later.
In August of 2012, Ross was temporarily removed from office, and in September of 2013, he pleaded guilty to abuse of official capacity, a misdemeanor. He had to pay $500 restitution and had 180 days in jail probated for one year.
Despite pleading guilty to the crime, Ross was determined to get his job back. In the midst of his legal battles, he filed for re-election to the Precinct 4 post but was trounced in the March 4 primary, finishing third in a three-man race with only 19 percent of the vote.
Just two weeks later, he was permanently removed from office, but he continued to fight, filing an appeal in April of 2014. The Second Court of Appeals in Fort Worth heard his case – the first oral arguments in the ongoing saga – in October and issued its opinion just two days before Christmas.
Ross’ plea was overruled, and Judge Towery’s removal was affirmed.
Although Ross pleaded guilty to a crime and was removed from office as a result, it does not prohibit him from running for office in the future.
7. PARR FAMILY VS. BIG OIL
In what was billed as the first fracking lawsuit in the history of the United States, a Wise County family got a $2.9 million jury award from a petroleum company that drilled 21 gas wells within a quarter-mile of their home over a three-year period.
Robert and Lisa Parr, who live off U.S. 380 between Decatur and Denton, sued Aruba Petroleum, alleging the company’s drilling, fracking and completion activites were both a nuisance and a health hazard.
The trial was conducted in a county court-at-law in Dallas in front of a six-person jury.
After two-and-a-half weeks of testimony from an array of experts called by both sides, the jury awarded damages well short of what the couple sought. Still, they and their attorney said it was a milestone victory that should make drillers more aware of the people who live near well sites, and the impact their activities can have.
The tremors themselves were minor, but public criticism was felt all the way to Austin after a rash of about 30 earthquakes shook northeast Parker, northwest Tarrant and southern Wise counties throughout December 2013.
CALL TO ACTION – Wise County resident David Johnson, at a meeting in Azle, called on local energy companies to stop using injection wells after a rash of earthquakes. Messenger Photo by Joe Duty
It was in January 2014 that town hall meetings and public forums gave residents of that area a chance to air their grievances over government’s slow response to what most perceived to be man-made earthquakes – caused by disposal wells injecting waste fracking fluid deep into rock formations below the Barnett Shale.
By the end of January, the Texas House Committee on Energy Resources had announced the formation of a subcommittee on seismic acvitity.
In March, the Texas Railroad Commission hired a staff seismologist to study the link between injection wells and seismic activity, and in August they published new rules for injection wells that include monitoring of seismic activity.
9. WINTER WEATHER
Wise County experienced several rounds of winter precipitation last winter. After most schools missed an entire week due to an ice storm last December, February brought another round of snow and ice.
Most schools were closed or had a delayed opening on Monday, Feb. 3. Rain, sleet and snow began falling that Sunday, leading to 45 traffic accidents in a 24-hour period.
Schools were forced to use all their bad-weather makeup days, including those on Good Friday and, in Decatur’s case, Memorial Day. Schools were granted a waiver from the Texas Education Agency for the other days lost due to bad weather.
10. COUNTY RECLAIMS FAIRGROUNDS
The squabble surrounding the Wise County Fairgrounds, formerly the Sheriff’s Posse Grounds, began in the fall of 2013 but carried over into 2014.
The Wise County Sheriff’s Posse had leased the property from the county for $1 a year since 1955, but in the fall of 2013, the late County Judge Bill McElhaney said the lease would not be renewed.
Although the Posse moved out in early December 2013, they continued to negotiate into 2014 seeking reimbursement for the buildings and improvements made to the property during their tenure.
According to the lease, the county owned the land, but “improvements” – buildings, barns and arenas – belonged to the Posse.
In February, Posse President Russell Stephens and attorney Frank Newman attended a commissioners meeting hoping to strike a deal. A new lease was discussed, as was a $1.2 million reimbursement, but both were rejected by commissioners.
In April, the county added the fairgrounds’ facilities to the county’s insurance.
Although there was talk the Posse might sue the county, a lawsuit has not neen filed.