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2014 in review: Part 2 of 3

May through August bring stories from Bethune to Elgin

Posted: December 31, 2014 10:35 a.m.
Updated: December 31, 2014 1:00 a.m.
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From May through August the C-I covered many news items including the heated election for Kershaw County Sheriff, the debate over the possible closing of three elementary schools and a visit from Olympic Gold Medalist Nastia Liukin. We take a look back at the top headlines during May, June, July and August. On Friday, we will conclude our look back on 2014.

Former S.C. first lady passes away

The beginning of May saw the passing of Lois Rhame West, former First Lady of South Carolina. West died May 6 in Hilton Head at the age of 92. West was raised in Camden and both she and her future husband, the late Gov. John Carl West Sr., graduated from Camden High School. As detailed in an October 2010 edition of the Chronicle-Independent, Lois West was her husband’s No. 1 partner, making them a political power couple. They opened up their home in the Charlotte-Thompson community for parties, both political and social. An online University of South Carolina (USC) exhibit on Gov. West noted that Lois West was, indeed, an active partner in his political career.

Gov. West admitted in a separate interview that he consulted his wife often on political matters.

“She had an uncanny ability to sense how an idea or program would be perceived by the public,” he said.

Honoring mothers in Camden

Camden hosted its first Mother’s Day parade during the spring of this year. The Family Heritage Committee sponsored the parade and celebration to commemorate the 100th anniversary of Mother’s Day being officially recognized in the Unites States. Organizers said they hope it will be repeated yearly.

The day started at 10:30 a.m. with a parade from Camden City Hall to Zemp Stadium. Mothers could ride in the parade for a $10 fee. Upon arriving at the stadium, each one was escorted to a special seating area near the stage.

“You are making history here today,” host John Clinton announced. “This is the first event of its kind not only in Kershaw County, but in the world.”

Camden Mayor Tony Scully said mothers deserve the highest recognition and praise.

The mother declared to have the best hat was Willie Ann Ledwell. The oldest mother at the event was Mary Ice, 93. The original plan was to name a Mother of the Year, but organizers felt it more appropriate to honor all mothers and not single out one woman for the special honor.

Matthews named S.C. Sheriff of the Year

In May, the C-I reported that Kershaw County Sheriff Jim Matthews was named 2014 Sheriff of the Year by the S.C. Sheriff’s Association (SCSA). Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott nominated Matthews.

“Sheriff Matthews has restructured the agency to place more emphasis on improving response time and greater accessibility of deputies to the citizens he is sworn to serve,” Lott said in a statement released to the press.

According SCSA’s press release, members praised Matthews and the Kershaw County Sheriff’s Office (KCSO) for increasing DUI enforcement, which led to the department being named the top agency for DUI enforcement in the state for three years in a row.

The SCSA said Matthews received support not only from Lott, but endorsements for the award from other leaders within Kershaw County.

“Individuals in the community praised Matthews’ innovative ideas and willingness to reach out to everyone in the county regardless of race,” the SCSA said.

One supporter even admitted to campaigning against Matthews in the previous election.

“Matthews quickly won me over after he took office,” ALPHA Center Executive Director Paul Napper said. “Sheriff Matthews’ ability to maintain relationships with people who disagree with him formed the basis for our friendship and has helped him succeed in many ways in Kershaw County.”

The SCSA officially presented Matthews with the honor at the association’s annual conference in July in Myrtle Beach. Moseley Architects, a longtime SCSA supporter, presented Matthews with a $1,000 check for the KCSO.

Bethune councilman objects to BES closing

The closing of Bethune Elementary School in favor of consolidating it with two other elementary schools was a topic of heated debate in 2014. The consolidation was a part of the Phase 2 referendum proposal.

The referendum proposal included creating a combined North Central elementary school with a 500-student capacity to replace Bethune Elementary School, Mt. Pisgah Elementary School and Baron DeKalb Elementary School at a cost of $14.46 million.

At a public hearing in May, Bethune Town Councilman John Fulmer said he was against the consolidation. At worst, he said he would prefer that if Bethune Elementary School (BES) is closed, it should be consolidated only with Mt. Pisgah Elementary School at a location between the two existing sites. Fulmer said closing BES would have a negative economic impact on the town.

“We still haven’t recovered fully from the closing of our high school,” Fulmer said during a public hearing on Phase 2 of the Kershaw County School District’s (KCSD) facilities equalization plan.

Bethune High School closed in 1999; a charter school operated for a short time before closing as well.

“Our first choice is to keep our school in Bethune. Our second choice is to build a consolidated school between Bethune and Mt. Pisgah on (S.C.) 341, an equal distance from both,” Fulmer said, joined by fellow Councilman Don Witham and Bethune Mayor Charles McCoy.

KCSD Superintendant Dr. Frank Morgan said the biggest area of discussion still was in relation to elementary schools in the North Central area. However, he expressed hope that the board could come to a consensus towards the end of the month about where it wants to go so the district could move towards what would be on the ballot in November.

Grandparent: BDK is ‘a small school with a big heart’

Debate over the proposed closing of three elementary schools continued with a grandparent, Karen Fitzgerald Jackson, saying she did not want to see her grandchildren’s school close. Fitzgerald, the grandmother of 5- and 8-year-old Baron DeKalb (BDK) Elementary School students, spoke during a Kershaw County Board of School Trustees’ meeting in May, which served as the second of two public hearings on a possible Phase 2 bond referendum.

“I have been an active grandparent, volunteering often at BDK,” she said. “I have come to know the principal, secretary, cafeteria workers and teachers. In my opinion, the staff at BDK lives up to its vision which is ‘A small school with a big heart where everyone excels.’”

She noted the school has grant-funded after-school programs that offer students extra academic help. Jackson also listed the various awards and prestige the school has collected over the years.

“Baron De Kalb is an excellent school,” Jackson said, “and I am thrilled that my grandchildren are receiving a strong positive beginning to their educational career … in a small, personal environment … Baron DeKalb is a beacon of learning for students and treats her students very well. Please repair Baron DeKalb as was recommended nine years ago. That school has a heart.”

Kershaw County nonprofits work together for Midlands Gives

On May 6, seven Kershaw County nonprofit organizations participated in the first Midlands Gives, a 24-hour online giving campaign sponsored by the Central Carolina Community Foundation. A total of 150 nonprofit organizations from nine counties in the Midlands participated in the fundraising event. Kershaw County ranked fourth highest in raising donations with a total of $13,779 and 136 donors by the end of the 24-hour period.

Elgin dedicates Military Salute Memorial

Elgin Town Council had quite a busy year taking on several projects. One of those projects, headed by Councilwoman Melissa Emmons, established a Military Salute Memorial for Elgin. The memorial was dedicated on Memorial Day in Potter Community Park. The memorial features seven flag poles, each flying a separate flag to honor the county’s veterans. In addition to the American and South Carolina state flags, the Army, Marines, Navy, Air Force and Coast Guard flags were raised along with a POW/MIA flag.

Elgin Mayor Brad Hanley noted the attendance of both current elected officials and several candidates.

“We are here to recognize the brave men and women who gave their all,” Hanley said before Elgin Councilwoman and Mayor pro Tem Melissa Emmons.

“I consider it a privilege and an honor to be a part of such a project. I cannot take full credit, I can take just a little bit. I have used up all my free passes for this project. So, for those of you who helped out, you get a year off,” Emmons joked.

She also thanked council members Ed Smith and Dana Sloan, who served on the committee to form the project.

“Everyone has contributed,” Emmons said. “This has been a community project, and without our community, it would not have been made possible.”

Four speakers took the stand to make Memorial Day remarks, including James A. Rabon of Camden American Legion Post 195; Jodie Irlbeck, incoming commanding of VFW Post 11079; and Woodmen of the World’s Randy Barnett and Daniel Pharr.

Following the speeches and music from the Camden-based group Renaissance, representatives from each branch of military service raised the flags.

Hannah Potter, a member of the Potter family for whom the park is named, played “Taps” as the POW/MIA flag was raised. The service ended when that flag -- honoring those service members who were captured or reported missing in action -- reached the top of its pole, joining the other seven at the newly dedicated memorial.

Lugoff woman wins first S.C. Miss Amazing pageant

In May, Lugoff resident Angela Napoli became South Carolina’s first Miss Amazing pageant winner with the title of Sr. Miss Queen. Miss Amazing is a national pageant for girls and women with disabilities from ages 10 to 35. This was the first year South Carolina hosted such a pageant, held at St. Andrews Presbyterian Church in Irmo.

“I had a good time at the pageant. I won a crown, flowers, a sash and best personality … I’m having a good time,” Angela said of her new title and of being awarded the pageant’s “Amazing Personality” award.

Ross Beard Gun Collection for $700,000

At the end of May, Camden City Council discussed intentions to spend $700,000 to permanently acquire the Ross E. Beard Jr. Gun Collection, a significant portion of which was already housed at the Camden Archives and Museum. City Attorney Lawrence Flynn, who brought forward a proposal to generate a hospitality fee revenue bond to pay for the collection, said the collection would be “an exciting asset for the city.”

Flynn called the collection a “museum-quality exhibit” that would potentially drive tourism. He said that provides a valid reason to use hospitality tax funds to acquire the collection.

Flynn said the collection would officially transfer to the city on July 1. At that point, he said, everything in the collection becomes owned by the city. Flynn said Beard wished to be paid $100,000 during each of the next seven years for the $700,000 total.

Flynn called the price a “deal” considering the collection’s value.

“The current appraisal we have is approximately $2 million” for the entire collection,” City Manager Mel Pearson said in response to a question from Councilwoman Alfred Mae Drakeford. “The collection we have in the museum at this time is just under $700,000.”

Sale ready to promote ‘basket of goodies that Camden is’

The city of Camden welcomed Suzi Sale as its tourism development director in May. Sale had an extensive background with professional marketing strategies and, as her resume states, “a strong track record of successfully leading and executing comprehensive communications and growth strategies for a wide variety of public and private enterprises throughout the eastern U.S.”

As she develops tourism in the city, Sale said she would be augmenting its energy.

“I’ll be promoting at a greater level. We have passionate people in place and successful products and services already available,” she noted.

She was also a previous owner and operator of The Camden House Bed & Breakfast Inn.

“Everything that makes South Carolina great is here in Camden,” she said. “I don’t know that everyone realizes all we have. Camden has fabulous cultural and natural assets -- lakes, waterways, walking, cycling and hiking trails. The equine community is an enormous asset. It’s a place where people like the outdoors. They like history, animals, sports -- there’s something here for everyone.”

Family, life experiences inspire Clyburn’s ‘Blessed Experiences’

The third-highest ranking Democrat in the U.S. House of Representatives visited Camden in June, a homecoming of sorts as he signed his new book, “Blessed Experiences,” at Books on Broad.

Clyburn grew up in Sumter and attended Boylan-Haven-Mather Academy in Camden.

Clyburn said he has maintained close contact with his first cousin, Margaret Lawhorn, who works at the United Way of Kershaw County and its mentoring program. She spoke fondly of her famous cousin.

“Congressman Jim Clyburn and my father were first cousins with the same name which we had a great time laughing about growing up!” she said. “When my father, James E. Clyburn Sr. passed away last year, Cousin Jim -- which we affectionately call the congressman -- spoke at his funeral service. He stated everyone thought it was him on the news saying the congressman had passed, but the age gave it away -- which my father was 91 years old -- and there were quite a few people in line ready to take his job. The family enjoyed him sharing that story during such a time in our lives.”

Clyburn also maintains a relationship with other Mather alumni: Camden resident Clifton Harryton Anderson and Anderson’s sister-in-law, Ethel Mae Tillman-Anderson. Clyburn’s close relationship with his family was part of the inspiration for his book. He described the writing process behind “Blessed Experiences,” as one that took place during a period of 28 years. Clyburn said he’d been keeping notes since 1985 because he knew the kind of book he wanted to write required experiences.

Matthews reelected as sheriff

One of the most heated elections in Kershaw County this year was the race for Kershaw County Sheriff between David Thomley and incumbent Sheriff Jim Matthews, both Republicans. Matthews received 7,653 votes to Thomley’s 3,047 votes in the June primary. There were no Democratic candidates so the primary determined the race.

More than 200 campaign workers and supporters crowded into the Robert Mills Courthouse in Camden to celebrate Matthews’ win.

“I’m overwhelmed,” Matthews told the crowd shortly after Thomley conceded via his campaign’s Facebook page. “We were committed to running a clean campaign and didn’t sling mud … the Kershaw County Sheriff’s Office has made great strides. I told my officers not to campaign or lobby for me, because if I lost, they’d be without jobs. The best way to campaign is to do your job and do it well. I want to thank my army of volunteers.

In Elgin, supporters gathered at the Bowen House to show their support for Thomley.

Just before conceding, he said he knew it would be a difficult race.

“I’m a blessed man. It’s been a long year and we knew it was going to be a tough battle from the start,” Thomley said. “I respect the voters’ decision and I am thankful that we live in a country where we have the opportunity to vote.”

He said he would not run for sheriff a third time four years from now.

“I am finished with politics; twice is enough,” Thomley said.

In his Facebook concession to Matthews, he added, “It’s time for a vacation.”

Thomley, who served as a captain of investigations at the Kershaw County Sheriff’s Office under former Sheriff Steve McCaskill, said he would continue to support deputies and other officers.

“This is my home. I will continue to be supportive of law enforcement and of Sheriff Matthews,” Thomley said.

Thomley files lawsuit against Matthews for $2 million

David Thomley filed a $2 million lawsuit against Sheriff Jim Matthews two days after losing his bid to be Kershaw County Sheriff during June’s Republican primary. The suit alleged Matthews made disparaging comments about Thomley’s investigation of a reported case of “fighting and bullying” involving several students at Camden Military Academy (CMA).

Thomley’s suit says that in June, 2013, Matthews said Thomley, “as a former Kershaw County Deputy Sheriff in connection with his relationship with CMA, failed to investigate the alleged fighting, withheld evidence, and was negligent in not laying any blame with CMA.”

The suit claims Matthews statements were “false, made with reckless disregard for the truth, and known by the Defendant (Matthews) to be false at the time the statements were made because the Plaintiff (Thomley) had nothing to do with the investigation, did not even take possession of any evidence, and refrained from any involvement with the incident due to his relationship so as to avoid a conflict of interest.” Thomley’s suit says Matthews statements “amount to defamatory slander and libel … which are actionable under the common law of the State of South Carolina.”

Thomley alleges Matthews’ statements caused damage to Thomley’s reputation, caused emotional distress, embarrassment, humiliation and a potential loss of earning capacity. The suit asks for $1 million in actual damages and another $1 in punitive damages. The lawsuit was dropped in November.

Bethune residents urged to fight school referendum

In June, discussions over the referendum to consolidate three schools into one continued. Bethune residents upset about the Kershaw County Board of School Trustees recent vote to consolidate three elementary schools, including Bethune Elementary School (BES), into one larger school discussed the matter at the June Bethune Town Council meeting.

The proposition is part of the “Phase 2,” $137 million referendum that was voted on in the November general election. Former Kershaw County Board of School Trustees member Jim Smith urged everyone to fight the referendum and suggested they should encourage others in all parts of the county to do the same.

“If you want to stop the closure of your school, get out and get every relative from Lugoff, Camden, everywhere else you can to work and stop the referendum. I don’t really think it will pass,” Smith said. “But don’t take a chance. Do everything you can do to stop it. That’s the bottom line.”

Consolidation opponents said their children would have a much longer commute to a new school and supporters have suggested the school district would use “express buses” to move the students quicker.

CMC remembers beloved volunteer Jean Pruett

In June, the Community Medical Clinic (CMC) of Kershaw County remembered and celebrated one of its beloved, long-time volunteers, Jean Pruett. Pruett was a CMC volunteer for 10 years, and during that time, touched the lives of many people involved with the organization. Along with CMC volunteers and staff, Pruett’s daughter and son-in-law, Pam and Donnie Wilson, and their son Brian were at the celebration.

CMC volunteer coordinator Deb McAbee described Pruett as “a character,” and said, “We just loved her.” McAbee said all patients coming through the clinic would stop and talk to her and share something significant from their lives.

Volunteer Mary Clark said, “Jean was just unique and there will never be another Jean. She was good in every respect. She was the best teacher that Camden High School ever had. When I say she was unique and different and will leave a mark, it will be a very positive mark … we can smile and remember that she was one of a kind, a beautiful one of a kind.”

Natural gas line rupture

Elgin started off July with a bit of excitement when a natural gas line rupture caused authorities to evacuate a 400-foot area and shut down U.S. 1 in both directions for several blocks in Elgin.

At the time it appeared a flat-bed truck ran over the gas line.

“The initial report was that a truck ran over the line while turning a corner and busted a valve,” Lugoff Fire-Rescue (LF-R) Chief Dennis Ray said.

Elgin Police Chief Harold Brown provided additional information, saying the original call came in at 6:53 a.m on July 1. He said an eyewitness who called in the incident said the truck drove off after striking the gas line.

“So far, there is about $7,000 worth of damage to the gas company. If we find the driver, there will be a hefty charge. We are looking at a lot of damage; (the driver) would be charged with a hit and run, property damage and leaving the scene of an accident,” Brown said.

 Brown estimated that about 40 gallons of natural gas escaped the broken line. Two weeks later, the Elgin Police Department found and charged the truck driver responsible for causing the gas leak. He claimed he was not aware that he ran over the line.

Penny sales tax

On a 6-1 vote with two members absent, the Kershaw County Board of School Trustees approved a resolution in July amending a proposed bond referendum that would ultimately ask voters to support a penny sales tax in order to pay for new school construction and improvements. The board also voted, 6-1, to approve the language of a second referendum listing out those projects. Trustee Kim Durant voted against both measures; trustees Don Copley and Derrick Proctor were absent.

Kershaw County School District (KCSD) Chief Financial Officer Donnie Wilson estimates the cost of Phase 2 of the district’s facilities equalization plan (FEP) at $130 million.

 Wilson said that if a penny sales tax is not implemented, Kershaw County would have to place an additional 35 mills on every piece of property owned by county residents.

“What we are attempting to do with the penny (tax) is to mitigate to the greatest extent possible any millage increase,” Wilson said. “If we had that penny sales tax, that 35 mill increase would basically be reduced by half.” The referenda was rejected in November with voters deciding “no” to the 1-cent sales tax.

Nastia Liukin visits Camden gym

On July 12 the Wateree Gymnastics Center in Camden welcomed Olympic gold medalist and former world champion gymnast Nastia Liukin to lead a day-long seminar and training session for young girls. She won a gold medal, three silvers and a bronze at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, China, putting her in a three-way tie with Mary Lou Retton and Shannon Miller for the most medals received by a gymnast at a single Olympic Games. She retired from competition after Beijing.

 “I do a lot of different summer camps. This one is a little bit different because I’m able to spend more one-on-one time with everybody, so it’s really great. A lot of the camps I do, there’s 200 to 500 people, so doing something like this is great because I can spend more time with the kids and have time with every single kid,” Liukin said.

Liukin said she enjoys teaching her sport, but also enjoys answering questions from the girls about other topics, as well.

Wateree Gymnastics Center owner Jennifer Piasecki said having Liukin visit the center is a special treat for the children who take classes there.

“We love having her come here, since she’s an accomplished gymnast and world champion. For the kids, she’s such a great role model,” Piasecki said.

Prestage Farms owner arrested

Ron Prestage, president of Prestage Farms and a Kershaw County resident, was arrested in Washington D.C. in July after officers discovered he was carrying a loaded handgun and a magazine with ammunition in a briefcase while trying to enter the Cannon House Office Building.

U.S. Capitol Police (USCP) Lt. Kimberly A. Schneider said Prestage was arrested after what is known as an “administrative search.”

“An administrative search requires people entering the congressional office buildings to submit to inspections of their persons and packages by the USCP,” Schneider said in an email. “Individuals are required to pass through a metal detector. Packages or items carried by the individuals go through an X-Ray machine in order to detect weapons, explosives or other prohibited firearms. This is merely part of our multi-layered security procedures.”

Schneider identified the weapon USCP officers recovered from Prestage’s bag as a 9-mm Ruger.

Miller attached the charging document against Prestage to one of his emails. It states Prestage is charged with “carrying a pistol [outside home or place of business].”

Prestage plead guilty to the misdemeanor gun charge in October.

Camden woman arrested for allegedly defrauding KCSD

In August, it was discovered that a woman with a special needs child was accused of defrauding the district out of approximately $151,000 during a three-year period. The Kershaw County Sheriff’s Office (KCSO) reported Malinda Wynette Johnson, 34, was charged with “breach/obtain signature or property under false pretenses, value $10,000 or more,” according to online court records.

The C-I learned of the case shortly after Johnson’s arrest on June 27 and spent the next month learning more about the situation from KCSD and KCSO officials.

According to a May 21 KCSO report, KCSD officials filed a complaint that stated Johnson had a Kershaw County address on Red Hill Road near Camden and has a special needs child whose needs could not be met by the district. Therefore, the child was enrolled at A.C. Flora High School (ACFHS) in Richland School District One with Kershaw County paying Richland I for Johnson’s child’s classes.

In addition, the district paid Johnson a mileage reimbursement for driving her child to and from ACFHS.

The district filed the complaint against Johnson after learning she failed to inform KCSD officials that she had moved into Richland County sometime after May 2010. By moving, the district contends, Johnson no longer qualified for the mileage, nor should the district have had to pay Richland One for her child’s classes.

Bethune man sentenced to life for 2013 murder, robbery

A jury of six men and six women found Willie Thomas Starnes, 33, guilty of murder and robbery during his trial in August. The charges came from an incident that occurred Aug. 24, 2013, when Starnes, who admitted being under the influence of alcohol and drugs at the time, struck and killed Alan Thomas Robinson, who was 67 at the time, with Starnes’ 1999 Chevrolet Taho SUV.

Robinson was riding what family members described as “his prized possession,” a scooter, on Freeman Road in rural Bethune, near his Camp Road home. Starnes stole the scooter and took it to Kershaw in Lancaster County, where he sold it for $100, according to testimony from witness LaKendrick Miller, who bought the scooter from Starnes. Jerry Crawford, Miller’s uncle, testified he gave Miller the $100 to purchase the stolen scooter.

Robinson’s nephew, Lloyd Pate, and his wife, Martha, found him gravely injured along Freeman Road. They testified Robinson told them he had been knocked off the scooter, it was stolen and loaded into the SUV. They testified that Robinson said Starnes went further down Freeman Road, turned around at Camp Road, came back and ran over him as he lay beside the road.

Following the trial, Robinson’s niece, Cynthia Moore, said the entire ordeal was difficult, but she felt justice had been done.

“I’m very satisfied with the verdict. He (Starnes) got what he deserves. I feel for his family. They’re going through this just as much as we are,” Moore said. “He (Robinson) never married and never had any children, so I’m the closest he got to a kid.”

Judge Stegner honored

Camden Municipal Judge Michael E. Stegner retired after 20 years on the bench in August. Camden Mayor Tony Scully read a certificate of appreciation to Stegner and his wife, Neal, that noted Stegner took office on Feb. 1, 1994.

“His period of public service has been distinguished by a profound sense of duty and responsibility for the welfare and prosperity for the welfare and prosperity of the city of Camden and its citizens … (and) invaluable service and generous contributions to this community extend beyond the courtroom. His knowledge of law and impartiality was an asset to the city and will be missed,” Scully read. “Members of council … take this occasion to express to (him) our personal appreciation and the deep esteem we have for his unselfish contributions … and wish him the best in his future endeavors.”

Scully handed Stegner the certificate and a plaque with a judge’s gavel affixed to it as gifts.

“Thank you for everything,” Stegner said, adding that he would miss working with fellow judge, Rick Todd, and Clerk of Court Belinda Davis.

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