Crossville Chronicle, Crossville, TN

January 1, 2013

Tornado top story of 2012

February storm claimed two lives


Staff writer

CROSSVILLE — A killer storm Feb. 29 claimed the lives of two Cumberland County women when a tornado ripped through the Rinnie community north of Crossville.

The storm resulted in six people being treated for injuries, seven homes were completely destroyed and more than 50 homes and businesses were damaged.

The storm was named the top story of 2012 by the staff of the Crossville Chronicle.

The National Weather Service confirmed a tornado hit the rural community at about 4:45 p.m. that evening, killing Melissa Carol Evans, 45, and Carolyn K. Jones, 69. The tornado was an EF-2 twister and contained winds up to 125 miles per hour.

The path of the storm began in the area of Keyes Rd. and traveled to Old Coal Springs Rd. with damage spread over a two mile wide and five mile long area from Clear Creek Rd. through the Rinnie community to Catoosa Ridge.

In the aftermath of the storm, the Volunteer Organizations Assisting in Disaster, VOAD, activated so that relief efforts could be coordinated to assist victims. An account was established so those in the community could donate if they so wished, and volunteers pre-certified as disaster responders helped clear debris around homes. Emergency work crews from Volunteer Energy Cooperative and contract workers also descended on the area to clear trees from lines, set new poles, replace transformers and restore electrical service as quickly as possible, with most service restore before the next morning. Cumberland County Road Department also worked through the night to clear roads in the area.

Just days later, severe weather threatened the area, but no devastating damage was reported in Cumberland County, though there was an outbreak of tornadoes across the southeast.

Taft Youth Center closed

Taft Youth Center closed its doors one last time in July, saying goodbye to the final three inmates that had been housed at the 95-year-old facility in Bledsoe County. The Tennessee General Assembly approved Gov. Bill Haslam’s budget, which included savings from closing the facility, in April.

State Rep. Cameron Sexton, R-Crossville, had been fighting the move for months, arguing the facility served a population of youthful inmates other centers were not equipped to handle and the closure would be an economic blow to the entire region. Taft employed more than 170 people from the Cumberland Plateau and Sequatchie Valley.

Department of Children’s Services Commissioner Kathryn O’Day defended the move, saying the state’s five juvenile jails operated at only 69 percent of capacity. Taft was the oldest and least efficient among them, she told the House Government Operations committee. Closing the center would reap $4.4 million in savings to the state.

Taft Youth Center served about 150 male students ages 16 through 19. Youth at Taft typically had adult sentences, serious delinquent offenses, were serving a third commitment or exhibited severe behavioral problems at one of the other regional youth development centers.

O’Day said there was also an opportunity to close the center while minimizing the economic impact because a new prison was opening in Bledsoe County that should provide job opportunities for most of the Taft employees.

No decision has been made regarding the use of the facility, which comes with equipment associated with its school and vocational programs and a water treatment plant that serves the adult prison facilities and nearby Fall Creek Falls State Park.

Merger proposed for TSUD

The embattled Tansi Sewer Utility District is continuing operations as the year comes to a close. However, it is still facing lawsuits regarding a loan from the Lake Tansi Property Owners Association and an engineering firm for engineering services.

In October, a proposal was offered to merge the sewer utility district and the South Cumberland Utility District with the city of Crossville’s water and sewer operations. The proposal sparked disapproval among residents of the area who objected to charges for the sewer service even if they were not sewer customers and a water rate reduction that was not as large as reductions offered in previous utility mergers.

The proposal, drafted by Crossville Mayor J.H. Graham III, was revised in December, with the service charge for those not using the service removed and a provision that would recognize many property owners in the community owned multiple lots, often in order to accommodate a septic system. Minimum monthly service charges would be $50, and at least 51 percent of the property owners on a street would have to agree to use the service and pay the tap fee of $1,250, as well as costs for installing a grinder pump.

Crossville City Councilman Pete Souza, in December, presented a motion to halt negotiations on the merger by the city, stating the community was divided and that the POA did not represent all the property owners affected. He asked that the Cumberland County mayor act as a negotiator in any future talks, barring any elected official from the city from engaging in negotiations.

The motion was tabled, with councilmen stating the need for further information. The city is expected to continue discussion on the proposal in the coming months.

Minister’s Treehouse closed by fire marshal

Over the Labor Day weekend, thousands of visitors were turned away from seeing the 10-story towering Minister’s Treehouse off Beehive Lane in Crossville after an order to cease operations was made by the Tennessee State Fire Marshal’s Office.

Investigators, acting on a complaint of safety concerns, sent Horace Burgess, the man who spent 19 years building the Treehouse, a certified letter ordering the site closed due to safety concerns.

Safety violations included being more than 60 feet over the allowable height and eight stories over the allowable number of stories; not having a registered design professional involved in the construction; questions regarding structural stability; uneven decking presenting a tripping hazard; fall hazards from areas with no guard rails and no hand rails; step rises too high and the step run too short and ladders with missing rungs; exits that are not obvious or marked and a maze-like design to the structure, making navigation difficult; and no fire alarm, sprinkler system or fire extinguisher present. The state has adopted the 2006 International Building Code and 2006 International Fire Code, which do not specifically address tree houses. However, the office noted the Treehouse was not a traditional treehouse used for personal recreation, with a sanctuary that could accommodate at least 50 people and an area attraction drawing 100 visitors every day.

Burgess said he started building the Treehouse in 1993 after he received a vision from God.

The Treehouse remains closed at this time.

Fungal meningitis outbreak affects state, county

Fourteen people have died in Tennessee from an outbreak of fungal meningitis following injection with epidural steroids from the New England Compounding Center, NECC.

Tennessee leads the nation in deaths from the outbreak that has claimed 39 lives and sickened more than 620 people. Tennessee’s total case count is 124. Most of those cases are meningitis while others are injection site infections along the spinal column or infections in a peripheral joint.

It’s estimated as many as 14,000 patients were exposed to the injections July 1 to Sept. 28. The infections are not transmitted from person to person and there continues to be questions regarding incubation period for the illnesses. The drugs were shipped to 23 states, and all medications have been recalled. NECC has shut down its operations and voluntarily recalled all of its unexpired products in circulation.

At least one patient affected by the tainted injections has filed a lawsuit. Marjorie Helen Lewis and her husband, Ronald, have filed a suit in Cumberland County Circuit Court against the compounding pharmacy, based in Massachusetts, as well as related corporations and the principals of those companies. Marjorie Lewis was hospitalized for treatment following lumbar injections with the tainted steroids and continues to need medical treatment due to her exposure.

The suit seeks $2.5 million in compensatory damages and an additional $2.5 million in punitive damages for Marjorie Lewis while Ronald Lewis is seeking $500,000 in compensatory damages and an additional $500,000 in punitive damages. The plaintiffs are seeking a trial by jury.

VanWinkle plans for retirement

The Cumberland County Board of Education is set to begin its search for a new director of schools in the coming months following the announcement Director of Schools Aarona VanWinkle will retire at the conclusion of her contract June 30, 2013.

VanWinkle has 32 years of service to the Cumberland County school system, beginning as a substitute teacher and a cafeteria worker. She worked as a teaching assistant and clerk before becoming a classroom teacher. She was a principal and a supervisor and was appointed director of schools in January 2007.

In December, the board voted to retain the services of Wayne Qualls as a consultant for its search for a new director. It is hoped a new director will be hired and be available to work a month or so with VanWinkle to provide an easy transition.

VSO arrested for theft

Cumberland County’s former Veteran’s Service Officer Mark Allen Daniels was indicted by the Cumberland County Grand Jury Sept. 10 on a charge of theft of more than $10,000.

Daniels, 48, was taken into custody at his office and transported to the Justice Center where he was booked and placed under $50,000 bond. Daniels was recently in criminal court and is scheduled to return to court with an attorney Jan. 22 and the case was placed on the deadline docket for Jan. 30.

The indictment states that between Oct. 1, 2010, and June 15, 2012, Daniels did “knowlingly exercise control over ... currency and checks of the value of over $10,000 belonging to Cumberland County.”

Following the indictment, the Veterans Service Office remained open thanks to the efforts of a part-time employee and several volunteers, including veterans service officers from surrounding counties. In October, the Cumberland County Commission appointed retired 1st Sgt. William Ward as the new Veterans Service Officer. Ward has 32 years of military service, having served in the U.S. Navy and the U.S. Army.

Cumberland County changes Congressional district

The U.S. Census in 2010 brought changes to voting districts at the county, state and congressional level and Cumberland County found itself sitting in a new Congressional District, District 6.

Cumberland County had belonged to the 4th Congressional District, represented by Congressman Scott DesJarlais. The district was often described as sprawling, stretching from the Kentucky border in the north to Georgia and Alabama in the south and encompassing 24 counties.

The new district boundaries moved Cumberland to the Sixth District and, in November, voters returned incumbent Congressman Diane Black to the seat. She officially begins representing the county in January.

The Sixth Congressional District includes Cannon, Clay, Coffee, DeKalb, Fentress, Jackson, Macon, Overton, Pickett, Putnam, Robertson, Smith, Sumner, Trousdale, White and Wilson counties and a portion of Cheatham County.

State senate and house districts also saw changes under the plan. State Sen. Charlotte Burks, representing the 15th District, lost Pickett County and picked up representation for Bledsoe County. She will continue to represent Overton, Putnam, Jackson, White and Cumberland counties.

State Rep. Cameron Sexton, 25th District, lost representation of Bledsoe County but took on VanBuren County and a portion of Putnam County, including Monterey.

More than 30 dogs rescued

A local couple were indicted on animal cruelty charges following the rescue of between 31 and 36 dogs from a rural Cumberland County residence in June.

Thomas Alan Uchytil, 48, and his wife, Marci, were indicted by the Cumberland County Grand Jury for cruelty to animals. Marci Uchytil was also charged with obstruction of service of a legal writ.

The investigation into the condition of the dogs came to the attention of the Cumberland County Animal Control department and later involved the Tennessee Division of Animal Control, District Attorney’s Office and Cumberland County Sheriff’s Department.

Workers with the Humane Society of the United States’ Tennessee division out of Nashville met with other animal care persons and, accompanied by law enforcement officers, traveled to the wooded lot and assessed the condition of the dogs, giving them medical care and crating them for transfer to safe locations.

When responders arrived on scene, they found 14 large and medium mix-breed dogs kept chained to trees around the property without adequate shelter and 19 chihuahuas living in small crates inside a shed without ventilation, running water or electricity. Some of the dogs were very thin and had severe skin conditions, infections, and other medical conditions such as tick-borne disease, according to the HSUS.

Reportedly, officials worked with Thomas Uchityl and reached an agreement that he would be allowed to keep one chihuahua dog, while officials removed the rest of the dogs.

The dogs were placed with HSUS emergency placement partners across the state, their medical needs assessed and then placed up for adoption.

The Uchytils are scheduled to return to court on Jan. 30.

New face on Crossville City Council

Voters returned former Crossville City Councilman Jesse Kerley to the council and brought a new face to the board with the election of Councilman Pete Souza in November.

The November election of two new council members to the Crossville City Council began with six candidates, but Lou Morrison withdrew from the race on Aug. 23.

Shortly after the deadline for candidate petitions to be turned in, many residents of the city received surprising phone calls, automated campaign calls purporting to be from Crossville City Hall.

“The calls absolutely did not come from the city of Crossville,” Crossville City Manager Bruce Wyatt told the Chronicle the next morning. “We are as surprised and as embarrassed as anyone.”

Calls began around 4 p.m. Thursday afternoon, reaching an unknown number of residents. The content of the call was called a “survey” and was an automated call, commonly called “robo calls” or “push polls.” Some calls may even have stated, “This is from city hall.” Those with caller ID saw the phone number for city hall. The Truth in Caller ID Act of 2010 amended the Communications Bill of 1934 making it illegal “to cause any caller ID service to transmit misleading or inaccurate caller ID information, with the intent to defraud and deceive.”

The city of Crossville does not and has not endorsed, promoted or otherwise campaigned for or against any political candidate, a press release from the city stated.

The city council called for an investigation into the source of the calls but the results of that investigation have not yet been released.

Lantana Rd. expansion complete

Though the contractor continues to work on punchlist items, all lanes are now open for traffic on an expanded Lantana Rd.

The 3.37-mile project had an estimated budget of $21.9 million, funded by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act funds. It was first announced in 2003, when state lawmakers visited Crossville to announce that what one lawmaker once called “the worst highway in the state” would be a top priority for improvements. That moniker was coined by state Rep. Charles Curtiss of Sparta.

Work began on the road in July 2009 following acquisition of 154 tracts of land, which included four business relocations, one non-profit relocation and 14 residential relocations. Twenty-six signs were also relocated.

The project had a few hiccups, with the completion day originally set for May 2012, but that was moved back due to significant delays due to utility relocation plans. Some of the plans submitted by the utility companies were inaccurate and plans had to be changed after work began. Those changes put the contractor, Rogers Group, Inc., of Nashville, behind schedule.

The project included widening Lantana Rd. from Miller Ave. to Dunbar Rd., with a five-lane highway. Much of the improvements were made away from the old Lantana Rd. alignment.

Speed limit on the new road is 45 mph.