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The Top 10 local stories of 2008

POSTED: January 5, 2009 5:00 a.m.
/The Associated Press

Meredith Emerson, shown with her dog Ella, was kidnapped and murdered last January.

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The results of our online poll are in, and of 25 newsworthy events we selected from 2008, your votes helped pick the top 10. They ranged from the devastating — hiker Meredith Emerson abducted from Blood Mountain and later found dead — to the heroic, such as our local soldiers in Iraq honored in different ceremonies.

While some stories, such as the lingering drought that continues to grip Northeast Georgia and Lake Lanier, came back to haunt us in 2008, others were new. Locals saw the ouster of Gainesville’s school superintendent, Flowery Branch High School’s football team make a trip to the state playoffs just six years after its formation and tornadoes rip across Hall County in a spate of bad weather.

1. Buford hiker Emerson slain

For three frantic days in January, law enforcement officials and volunteers searched in vain for missing hiker Meredith Emerson.

Emerson’s tragic death at the hands of a suspected serial killer chilled Georgians and ended with a massive outpouring of grief and an astonishingly swift resolution of the criminal case.

Less than a month after kidnapping Emerson from a Union County mountain trail and killing her in a secluded area of Dawson Forest, drifter Gary Michael Hilton, 61, pleaded guilty to one count of murder and was sentenced to the mandatory sentence of life in prison with the chance of parole in 30 years.

Shocking and grisly details about the case riveted the public’s attention. Emerson, 23, was held captive by Hilton for three days after he overpowered her at the Byron Reese Memorial Trailhead. Hilton admitted to beating her to death with a tire iron and cutting off her head and hands after her death in an attempt to conceal her identity.

Hilton was captured while trying to clean out his van in a DeKalb County convenience store. He soon agreed to a deal in which he would tell authorities the location of Emerson’s body in exchange for an agreement not to seek the death penalty.

In the aftermath, hundreds of mourners turned out to Emerson’s memorial service and several hiking events held in her honor, and Hilton’s criminal case was wrapped up with nearly unprecedented speed. He was later extradited to Florida to face murder charges there.

Stephen Gurr

2. Gas shortage after Ike leads to long lines, high prices

Georgians saw record high gas prices and fuel shortages in the wake of Hurricane Ike this September.

The storm hit coastal areas of Texas, halting production at many of the fuel refineries shut down in the area.

Though few of the refineries were damaged, it took weeks for them to get up and running after the hurricane.

The threat of a fuel shortage caused many people to panic.

Area gas stations experienced long lines at the pumps, with many topping off their tanks and filling up additional containers.

The high volume of consumers made it nearly impossible for area stations to maintain their supplies.

Though new shipments of gasoline began arriving on schedule, they were often dried up within hours because of the increased demand.

The situation became so dire at the end of September that the Environmental Protection Agency waived the more stringent requirements for fuel distributed in the Atlanta area in an effort to cushion fuel supply while gasoline production was limited in Houston.

In an effort to prevent running out of gas, many stations began limiting purchases to 10 gallons.

Prices also spiked as a result of the shortage, rebounding to around $4 per gallon for unleaded gasoline, similar to prices experienced earlier in the summer.

The Governor’s Office of Consumer Affairs received more than 1,000 complaints of price gouging from across the state. This office adopted strict measures to combat price gouging at that time to avoid a situation similar to Hurricane Katrina, where price gouging was widespread.

Melissa Weinman

3. Drought hangs on; Lanier sinks lower

In 2008, it was deja vu all over again for Georgia’s drought.

Lake Lanier hit an all-time record low on Dec. 26, 2007, but as the water level began to slowly rise in early 2008, it looked as if one of the worst droughts in Georgia history might be easing.

No such luck. For the third year in a row, Northeast Georgia was plagued by "exceptional" drought, the worst possible category.

Other than Tropical Storm Fay, which boosted the lake level by about 2 feet in August, the Lanier basin received scant rainfall in 2008. By December, the lake was again 20 feet below normal full pool, and only a mid-December storm system prevented Lanier from surpassing its previous record low.

The lake may still drop to that level, since there’s no indication that the drought will end anytime soon.

Twice this year, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has agreed to Georgia’s request to temporarily reduce the amount of water released from Buford Dam.

But a permanent solution may not come for several years, after the corps completes its new water management plan for the Lanier basin.

Meanwhile, 2008 brought no resolution to the 19-year "water wars" between Georgia, Florida, and Alabama over who should get the lion’s share of Lanier’s water. At least seven lawsuits are still pending in federal courts.

If Georgia loses any of those cases, it could bring significant economic hardship to a region already battered by drought.

Debbie Gilbert

4. Economic slump hits Northeast Georgia

The impact of the economic downturn was evident in Hall County and Northeast Georgia in 2008.

The once-booming housing industry had ground to a halt by late 2007 and the aftermath was felt in 2008. Many completed homes and partially finished subdivisions were foreclosed on by the banks which had financed them.

Industries dependent on housing, such as the carpet industry, began to layoff workers.

Carpet giant Mohawk announced in April it would close its yarn plant in Dahlonega, sending 366 people to the unemployment line.

At the start of the year, Peachtree Doors had completed a layoff announced in late 2007 and in August, Jeld-Wen, a maker of doors and windows, said it would end manufacturing operations in Gainesville.

The lessening demand for automobiles and heavy manufacturing equipment brought a layoff earlier this month at ZF Industries, which makes transmissions.

When oil prices plummeted in November, the value of recycled plastic also went down, resulting in a layoff of 80 workers at Sundance Products.

Governments, from state to local, faced declining revenues and began major cutbacks, including a monthly furlough for Hall County employees. The two public colleges, Lanier Technical College and Gainesville State College, will begin 2009 with significantly reduced budgets.

On the upside, two new banks, Chattahoochee Bank of Georgia and Independence Bank of Braselton opened their doors in 2008.

Harris Blackwood

5. Stricter laws and fewer jobs force Latinos to leave

Hall County’s once-thriving Latino population appears to be on the decline.

Staples of the county’s Latino community, from grocery store owners to owners of taxicab businesses, all say that Latinos are leaving the area because of the lack of jobs for immigrants and recent changes in local law enforcement measures.

The economy is one of the reasons those inside the local Latino community say the once-flourishing population is declining. The decline in the local construction industry has forced many Latinos to head elsewhere in search of jobs, many say.

Managers of rental units that cater to Latinos said many of their tenants have moved out, telling their former landlords that they can no longer afford the rent and are headed elsewhere, maybe even home, to find work.

Recent law enforcement initiatives could also be a part of the reason Latinos are leaving Gainesville. Since the Hall County Sheriff’s Office has been able to process illegal immigrants through 287(g), hundreds of immigrants arrested in the county have been turned over to Immigration and Customs Enforcement and eventually deported.

Owners of a grocery store, a bus station and a cab business that all cater to Latino customers say that the people in their community are leaving Hall County to other areas where law enforcement is not as strict on illegal immigrants.

Ashley Fielding

6. Falcons fly to state title game

The season began and ended with a loss for the Flowery Branch High School football team.

But ask anyone at Flowery Branch High if they are happy with their 2008 season and you’ll get a resounding "Yes," because the season-ending loss happened in the Class AAA championship game.

The Falcons were the talk of Class AAA, winning four playoff games on the road and finishing their season at the Georgia Dome, falling 28-14 to the top-ranked Cairo Syrupmakers.

Behind first-year starting quarterback Connor Shaw and the running tandem of Daniel Drummond and Imani Cross, the Falcons reeled off seven consecutive wins in the regular season before losing the region championship to Gainesville.

In the postseason, the Falcons’ road to Atlanta was something straight from a movie. They played four games in four different towns, totaling more than 1,000 miles traveled, to reach the final in the Georgia Dome.

"I am so proud of this team, our community and the wonderful support we had all season in general," Falcons coach Lee Shaw said after the loss to Cairo. "It’s been an awesome ride."

Jonathan Zopf

7. Budget woes doom Ballowe

In the heat of the summer, tempers boiled over as a multimillion-dollar deficit in the Gainesville school system came to light.

Business leaders of the community squared off against former Gainesville schools Superintendent Steven Ballowe, who proposed as much as a 20 percent property tax increase to offset the deficit then estimated at $6.5 million. Angry residents pressed Ballowe for an explanation for the deficit. He provided few satisfactory answers.

In late June, Gainesville realtor Jack Waldrip made his stance on the school system’s financial crisis clear. Just blocks from the school system’s central office, the realtor proclaimed on the billboard of the school system’s large red elephant mascot: "Fire Ballowe or dissolve city system."

Many parents of Gainesville students, particularly Southside community residents, flocked to school board meetings in Ballowe’s defense and credited him for raising the test scores of minority students to unprecedented levels.

On July 3, the board voted 3-2 to fire Ballowe. The racial undertones of the conflict were illustrated by the racially divided vote.

On Aug. 27, the board voted 3-2 to settle with Ballowe for $190,000. The former Gainesville school system superintendent is now working in the Glynn County school system as a high school principal.

Jessica Jordan

8. Multiple tornadoes hit Hall

Hall County was hit by three EF1 tornadoes within four hours on Aug. 26, which resulted in damage to homes, businesses and two schools but no deaths or injuries.

All three tornadoes were estimated at EF1 on the Enhanced Fujita Scale, a system for estimating wind speed based on damage.

Hall County seemed to be the center of activity for the round of storms that accompanied the remnants of Tropical Storm Fay, although one EF1 tornado hit Jackson County twice, and an EF0 also touched down in Wilkes County, according to the National Weather Service.

One of the tornadoes that hit Hall County struck the roof of Lyman Hall Elementary School on Memorial Park Drive while about 65 children were still in the school attending an after-school program sponsored by the YMCA.

There were no injuries reported in the storms, but 107 properties were damaged causing approximately $3.36 million in damages across the county.

In the aftermath of the storms, local emergency and school officials stepped up their efforts to improve emergency notification systems at all area schools. In addition to weather radios, officials at each school will receive weather alerts via mobile devices.

The tropical storm remnants also dropped several inches of rain on the area, raising the level of Lake Lanier.

Ashley Fielding

9. Will it be Gov. Cagle?

In September, Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle took the initial steps to begin a bid for governor in 2010.

The Republican from Chestnut Mountain formed an exploratory campaign committee and began the process of accepting campaign contributions.

In deference to the current state budget crisis, Cagle quietly shared his decision with his hometown newspaper, The Times.

The decision had been expected, but the subtlety of the announcement came as a surprise.

"There is a time for a robust and public gubernatorial debate and that time is not now," Cagle said. "Our state faces a budget crisis of historical proportions and as lieutenant governor. I will be spending the majority of my time this year preparing for the difficult task of balancing our budget, blocking tax increases, and cutting wasteful spending."

Cagle said he will not make a formal campaign announcement or discuss the 2010 campaign until after the 2009 session of the General Assembly.

"There will be plenty of time to talk about the 2010 campaign after the session is over," he said.

A six-term state senator, Cagle surprised many within his own party by handily defeating former Christian Coalition director Ralph Reed in the 2006 GOP primary for lieutenant governor. A lopsided victory in the general election over Jim Martin catapulted Cagle into office.

Harris Blackwood

10. Wars hit Northeast Georgia

Wars abroad touched communities here at home this past year.

Hundreds of people stood silently along Dahlonega Highway in July as a hearse carried the body of Army Cpl. Matthew Phillips to Coal Mountain Baptist Church.

Phillips, 27, died July 13 during a battle with Taliban militants in the eastern Afghanistan province of Kunar.

He was the first Forsyth County soldier killed in combat since the Vietnam War.

Army Pvt. Nathon Bagwell of Gillsville was set to come home from Iraq in March. He arrived much sooner, a casualty of the violence in Sadr City in late April, undergoing numerous surgeries.

While on assignment in the Baghdad suburb, he was struck by a bullet that ripped through the left side of his abdomen, shattering four vertebrae in his lower back and damaging his intestines and kidneys.

Ceremonies to rename area post offices after two fallen soldiers also took place.

The Lula post office now bears the name of Army Pfc. Johnathon Millican, who was killed by a grenade in Iraq in 2007.

And residents can recall Army Sgt. Jason Robert Harkins, who was killed in Iraq in 2007, when they enter the Cleveland post office.

Jeff Gill



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