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Top Stories of 2017: Singers, judges, governor, more let their voices be heard loud and clear

Staff Reports • Updated Jan 1, 2018 at 8:15 AM

Staff Reports

From stories of crime to a reality show winner and a cupcake theft in between, the stories that shaped 2017 in Wilson County will not soon be forgotten. 

It was a year that included an iconic Nashville light show moving to Wilson County. There were surprises such as the sudden firing of a city government member and a local girl who won a national singing competition. 

The community was saddened when a Wilson County icon died following a Wilson County Commission meeting. 

So, without further adieu, we give you the second part of the top 17 stories of 2017 as compiled by The Lebanon Democrat staff. 

9.

 Lebanon mayor fires finance commissioner

Lebanon Finance Commissioner Robert Springer was placed on administrative leave with pay after Lebanon Mayor Bernie Ash attempted to fire him Nov. 13. 

“He called me into a meeting and said he was firing me,” said Springer, who said the only reason he was given for the termination was Ash believed he called a city meeting during the mayor’s absence while recovering from heart surgery.

“He’s not fired. He’s on administrative leave with pay,” said city attorney Andy Wright, who, along with Lebanon Human Resources Director Sylvia Reichle, was not present during the meeting.

Wright said department heads are to receive a termination hearing, per the city charter. Wright said Springer would receive a letter with the reasons for his potential termination and hearing date.

“In this particular instance, I have been informed by the mayor that his cause for taking disciplinary action against Robert [Monday] was Robert’s alleged violation of Rule X, Sec. 7, Rule 53: Insubordination,” Wright said.

“I called the meeting,” said Councilor and Mayor Pro-Tem Rob Cesternino, who said the meeting was to address a gap in the city charter that could have put Cesternino in the mayor’s position until the next election.

Cesternino said Springer’s only role in the meeting was organizing and scheduling a time for all relevant parties to meet.

Ash emailed councilors Nov. 13 and notified them Stuart Lawson would act as interim finance commissioner until further notice. He said he believed the city would be in good hands with Lawson leading the finance department.

8.

Chancellor reverses Bowen decision, reinstates him as police chief

Wilson County Chancellor C.K. Smith wasted no time Nov. 20 to reverse a hearing officer’s previous decision and reinstate former Lebanon police Chief Scott Bowen.

Bowen filed the appeal in chancery court based on the previous ruling on his firing by then Lebanon Mayor Philip Craighead in 2014.

Smith also ordered Bowen to be awarded back pay for the three-year-long legal battle.

“In the end, all we wanted was our day in court in front of a proper independent judge,” said Bowen. “This decision is just another example of how certain department heads were treated by former Mayor Craighead.”

Smith said he came to the decision after he realized the evidence submitted by the city violated Bowen’s constitutional right to due process. 

According to Smith, hearing officer Brett Gipson made his original decision based on a section in the city charter that gave the mayor the right to fire certain city employees.

“I don’t think the city can put out their own rules that trump somebody’s constitutional rights,” said Smith. “That’s essentially what their position is.”

Smith told the court none of the evidence submitted by the city in the hearing could be entered legally because it violated Bowen’s rights.

“There’s supposed to be all this evidence supporting the city’s defense, and if you consider illegally entered evidence, there is,” said Smith. “If you strike all of the illegal evidence, though, you strike 100 percent of the evidence. It seems to me like [Gipson] just ignored what the code section said.”

Smith came to his ruling after five days of reading more than 1,100 pages of evidence submitted by both legal teams.

7.

Governor exonerates Lawrence McKinney

Gov. Bill Haslam signed an executive order Dec. 20 to exonerate Lawrence McKinney, who was convicted nearly 40 years ago of crimes he didn’t commit.

Haslam’s grant of executive clemency for McKinney, of Lebanon, came after the state Board of Parole ruled it would not recommend exoneration following a hearing in September 2016. McKinney was then eligible to apply for wrongful-imprisonment compensation from the state of up to $1 million.

Although the Board of Parole didn’t have the ultimate power to decide McKinney’s exoneration, the group’s decision appeared to strike a blow at the time to the wrongfully convicted man’s chances of clemency from Haslam.

“It was very emotional. It was nine years of effort, nine years of war to stand behind this man and it was the right thing,” attorney David Raybin said during a press conference Dec. 20. “You asked, ‘why did the governor go against the parole board.’ Because it was the right thing to do, and he was relying on evidence.”

There remained a chance McKinney could not receive the full $1 million compensation he was eligible for, but Raybin said he believed he should receive the full amount. 

“The statute is mandatory that he receives compensation,” Raybin said. “I have handled the other case in Tennessee about six years ago like this, and they awarded the person who had been incarcerated for, I think, two or three years, several hundred thousand dollars. He’s been in prison for more than 30 years, so we’ve more than met the cap on this case.”

McKinney, 61, said the exoneration was in the spirit of Christmas. 

Raybin represented McKinney during the September 2016 hearing, along with Jack Lowery.

McKinney was released from prison in July 2009 thanks to DNA evidence after he spent 31 years of a 100-year sentence in prison for rape and first-degree burglary he didn’t commit in 1977 in Memphis.

When McKinney was released, he received a $13,556 payment from the federal government. However, citing the payment was a mistake, the government started garnishing McKinney’s wages when he worked at Lifeway Christian warehouse in Nashville. In 2014, McKinney’s record with the state was finally expunged.

However, according to the Innocence Project, the agency that forced DNA testing that eventually cleared McKinney, Tennessee state law allows “a maximum of $1 million for the entirety of a wrongful incarceration. The Board of Claims, in determining the amount of compensation, shall consider the person’s physical and mental suffering and loss of earnings.”

McKinney has yet to see a penny of the potential $1 million, but with clemency granted, he is eligible to apply for the compensation.

6.

Darryl Worley apprehended at Friendship Christian

Lebanon police officers apprehended country music star Darryl Worley on May 12 at Friendship Christian School on suspicions of theft of sugary substances after the school’s students presented their case. 

Worley said he “would have gotten away with it if it weren’t for those meddling kids,” after Lebanon Cpl. PJ Hardy handcuffed the star after fifth- and sixth-grade students presented their case aimed at Worley for theft of cupcakes.

At the end of each school year, fifth- and sixth-grade students at the school combine for their final Fun Lab. This year’s theme was, “CSI: Case of the Missing Cupcakes.” The friendly educational exercise featured someone who “stole” the students’ cupcakes, and it was up to them to find the culprit.

Worley served as this year’s celebrity thief and was one of several suspects that included faculty members Greg Armstrong, Terri Rice and Terri Seagraves; the Chick-Fil-A cow; bus driver Gary Strickland; Santa Claus; and the Friendship Christian Commander mascot.

Volunteers set the “crime scene” in the school’s Fun Lab classroom and students split into teams and started their investigation.

Students were assigned the roles of team leader, detective, data recorder, photographer and more. Each group had one witness and two suspects they were allowed to interview.

Two groups correctly identified Worley as the cupcake thief, with icing on his boots as one major indicator. Even with principal Veronica “the Hammer” Bender as his legal representation, Hardy handcuffed Worley for the crime.

Students used a variety of science and forensic skills to identify their suspects, as well as other tools, including Siri on an iPhone, which helped one group determine if cows have black hair. 

5.

Jury finds Shepard guilty

A jury in the Michael Shepard case deliberated an hour and a half Nov. 17 before it returned a guilty verdict on both counts of statutory rape by an authority figure.

Shepard, who was 36 at the time of the two incidents, had sex with a 16-year-old Wilson Central High School student. Shepard was the softball coach at the school, and the victim was one of the players.

Two days of testimony from the victim, her parents, law enforcement and a teammate, proved the district attorney’s case that Shepard was still an authority figure over the victim, even though he was not actively coaching her when the incidents took place, which was the defense Shepard’s attorney used.

Shepard and the victim had sex two times at a boat ramp off Highway 109, she said on the stand. He did not force her, and she did not protest, Assistant District Attorney Tom Swink said, which meant he did not “rape” her. 

However, state law defines statutory rape by an authority figure as sexual intercourse of a child between 13-17 years old by someone more than four years older than the victim. Since she was 16 and Shepard was 20 years older, that fact fit into the law, Swink said. 

Adam Parrish, Shepard’s attorney, argued because the school year was over and she was not his student or her coach at the time of the incidents, nor did the incidents happen on school grounds or at a school event, he wasn’t an authority figure over her.

Defense witness Kayla Varner, who referred to Shepard as “coach” throughout her testimony, said she still calls him coach because he is an authority figure and is like a father figure to her.

After the verdict, Swink said, “justice was done for this victim for this family.”

The family was relieved after the verdict.

“We’re very pleased with the district attorney’s case and the way he represented us,” said the victim’s father.

Parrish was not available for comment after the verdict was read.

Shepard will be sentenced Jan. 19 at 1 p.m. in Wilson County criminal court Judge Brody Kane’s courtroom.

4.

 Fairgrounds welcomes Dancing Lights show

Wilson County welcomed the Dancing Lights of Christmas for the first time Nov. 17, and those who experienced it said it’s worth every penny. 

“It’s just awesome,” said Monique Murray, a Wilson County mother. “We went through it at Opryland, and the kids love it.” 

Formerly located at Jellystone Park, the show had about 1.5 million lights that flashed in sync with music. Guests turned off their headlights, tuned the radio to 102.3 FM and rolled through the show on roads used for parking during the Wilson County Fair. There were about 25 songs that cycled through on the radio station. It took about 20-30 minutes to drive through. 

“We have a wide variety. We have some slow stuff. We have some fast stuff. We have patriotic stuff. We have some stuff that borders on heavy metal, just something for everyone,” said show owner Mike Scalf. “We believe in Christmas and the meaning of Christmas, so we have songs that speak to that, as well. We do a Christmas show. We don’t do a holiday show,” Scalf said. “It’s good clean family fun.”  

The light structures had several hundred bulbs on them that were controlled by a computer that added color to the lights and synchronized them to the music playing on the radio station. Scalf said with the move to Wilson County, the show has plenty room to expand next year. 

With the large amount of space available, cars could line up on the property instead of clogging up traffic on the road, and after going through the light show, guests had a chance to park at Santa’s Village for photos with Santa, pony rides, a campfire, various craft vendors and concessions. 

Tickets for the show cost $25 at the gate per carload. Visitors who brought three canned goods could get a $3 discount per carload every Monday and Tuesday, and any car with a veteran got a $5 discount. The canned goods were donated to Second Harvest Food Bank of Middle Tennessee. 

There were also a few organizations with tickets for $15, and 100 percent of the money stayed with the organization that sold them. The tickets were purchased at Ronald McDonald House and Walden’s Puddle in Joelton. Fiddlers Grove had discount tickets, but they sold out quickly, according to Scalf. 

The show ran through Dec. 31 and was open Thanksgiving and Christmas. 

3.

Wilson County icon Hale Moss dies

Wilson County icon Hale Moss died April 17 after he attempted to attend a Wilson County Commission meeting.

Moss, who was inducted into the Wilson County Agricultural Hall of Fame in April, was well known for his work with the Wilson County Fair and his business, Moss’ Florist and Garden Center.

“In my mind, he is an icon in Wilson County,” Wilson County Mayor Randall Hutto said.

Moss taught at Lebanon High School for four years, starting in 1970. He also served as the Tennessee Department of Agriculture director of fairs and livestock shows.

Moss and his family operated Moss’ Florist and Garden Center for 39 years. He retired from the business last year.

Moss was the 23rd participant in the Wilson County Library Roast. Lifelong friend Andy Brummett spoke about his childhood with Moss, along with his passion – the Wilson County Ag Center.

“The James C. Ward Agricultural Center is his passion, and it’s a better place because of him,” Brummett said during the roast.

“He was one of the pioneers with the Wilson County Fair and had a lot to do with making it what it is today,” Hutto said.

Hutto said Moss had a passion and skill of bringing people together and educating people about the importance of agriculture.

“One of his sayings was ‘brown milk doesn’t come from a brown cow.’ He worked to educate people how things got to the grocery store. He also worked well with people when you think about the number of volunteers that work the Fair every year. Hale had a lot to do with that,” Hutto said.

Moss also received credit for upstarting the Fiddlers Grove portion of the fairground last year. Fiddlers Grove creators and leaders Genevia and Carlton Thomas credited Moss and Randall Clemons with the area’s start.

Hutto said Moss was a pioneer who “served his county well.” He said Moss’ attempt to attend the Wilson County Commission meeting April 17 showcased his love and passion for Wilson County.

During Moss’ Wilson County Library Roast, it was said honorees needed to be “a good sport, generous and brave.”

Moss was described as all three. 

2.

 Mt. Juliet coach indicted on child sex crimes

Darin Plumlee, a teacher and coach at Mt. Juliet High School, was indicted by a Wilson County grand jury on child sex charges.

Plumlee faces three counts of statutory rape by an authority figure, three counts of sexual battery by an authority figure and one count each of unlawful sexual contact and sexual exploitation of a minor.

Plumlee turned himself in at the Wilson County Sheriff’s Office on May 12. He was booked in at Wilson County Jail and released after posting $10,000 bail bond.

Detectives with the sheriff’s office launched an investigation into Plumlee in April after a student made complaints about inappropriate behavior. 

Plumlee has a hearing set for Feb. 6.

1.

 Chloe Kohanski is ‘The Voice’ 

After a season of singing in hopes to win the hearts of viewers everywhere, “The Voice” contestant and Mt. Juliet native Chloe Kohanski won the grand prize of a recording contract in December.

“Stay true to who you are and don’t compromise for anybody,” Kohanski said. “Blake [Shelton] has really helped me with that. Thank you.”

Addison Agen was the runner up on the show. Brooke Simpson came in third, and Red Marlow finished fourth.

“I think we’re going to be friends for long time,” said Shelton, Kohanski’s coach. “Maybe you’ll let me open for you one of these days.”

During the show, some season 13 favorites returned to perform with popular artists like Nora Jones with Addison Agen, Bastille with Noah Mac, Kelly Clarkson, who will be a coach on the next season of “The Voice,” last season’s winner Chris Blue, Sia with Brooke Simpson, Chris Weaver with his drag queen friends, Demi Lovato, Jesse J with Davon Fleming, Vince Gill with Red Marlow, NERD and Billy Idol with Kohanski.

When Shelton told Kohanski she would be singing with three-time Grammy award nominee, Idol, she teared up and said, “I may pass out.”

The Wilson County native and Idol rocked the stage with a performance of “White Wedding.”

Kohanski grew up in Mt. Juliet, where she began her musical career. She worked at Billy Goat Coffee Shop, studied for a year at Cumberland University and worked at Starbucks in both Lebanon and Mt. Juliet. Before trying out for “The Voice,” Kohanski played with a local band at several venues in and around Nashville.

Honorable mentions: 

• Pody wins state Senate seat after Beavers vacates it to run for governor.

• Mt. Juliet Police mourn Officer Brittany Frazier’s death.

• Veterans Museum gets grand opening.

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