Avoyelles Parish's 'Top 10' stories of 2019
This year began and ended in tragedy, but there were some positive events in between to make 2019’s Top 10 News Events a mix of positives and negatives.
Following are the Top 10 stories/events of 2019.
1. YOUTH GROUP TRAGEDY
It was every child’s dream, but the House of Mercy youth group’s trip to Disney World became a nightmare for many.
On Jan. 3, an 18-wheeler crossed a median on I-75 near Gainesville, Fla., and struck the church van, killing five children and injuring seven other church members.
“It’s just beyond belief,” Marksville Mayor John Lemoine said. “It just hasn’t set in yet, to just finish the Christmas holidays and have a new year start off with such tragedy. It’s affected everybody.”
For several weeks after the accident, a stunned community grieved. There were public memorial services for the deceased -- Joel Cloud, 14, Jeremiah Warren, 14, Cierra Bordelon, 9, Cara Descant, 13 and Brieanna Descant, 10.
The semi-truck also struck a passenger car and another 18-wheeler. Both truck drivers were killed. The driver of the other car was seriously injured.
2. SCHOOL CALENDARS
Seven new Avoyelles Parish School Board members were sworn in at the beginning of 2019. Many observers had said the dramatic change of membership was the public’s way of saying it was tired of the same old ways.
After only one month, the new board members discussed adopting a four-day school week. A survey of employees and parents found employees overwhelmingly in favor. Parents’ reactions were less favorable.
In March, the board adopted the new calendar, effective with the 2019-20 school year.
School days are lengthened by about an hour. Students and employees have Mondays off. There are fewer school days during the year, which means there is very little “cushion” to absorb any “snow days” during the school year.
One reason for the change was the hope that it would improve the district’s ability to recruit and retain teachers in a district that has the lowest teacher salaries in the state.
Shortly after the School Board made this change, the independent Avoyelles Public Charter School announced it would be adopting what is commonly called a “year-round” school calendar.
The schedule is also called a “balanced” school year, with school starting in late July and ending in the third week of May.
There are breaks after each grading period.
APCS retained a five-day school week.
The parochial schools and Head Start centers retained the “traditional” five-day week and the August-to-late May schedule.
The new Red River Charter Academy (see No. 3), which was to open in August, said it would also have a four-day week but its calendar would be slightly different than APSD’s. It would also operate its own buses.
3. NEW CHARTER SCHOOL
After gaining approval of the state Board of Elementary & Secondary Education in October 2018, Red River Charter Academy spent the first few months of this year looking for a place to open for the 2019-20 school year.
RRCA officials asked the School Board to lease them the former Mansura High School property. After initially being rejected on a 4-5 vote at a special meeting, the board held a second special meeting three days later and approved the request 4-1 with one member abstaining and three absent.
District Attorney Charles Riddle told a small delegation of RRCA supporters at the meeting that the second special meeting was called because state law requires a local school board to give a state-approved charter school the opportunity to lease vacant school property.
The terms of the lease give the School Board the right to reclaim the property if it is needed due to the loss of a school to fire or natural disaster.
The lease took effect May 1 and RRCA immediately began work cleaning up the long-vacant buildings and preparing to open school in August.
The school had about 197 students in grades 6-8. It will add a grade per year until it is a 6-12 high school.
4. 2019 ELECTIONS
While most political observers were watching the governor’s contest, there were several local races and a controversial proposition on the ballots in the fall elections.
Five incumbent police jurors drew competition -- three just finishing their first term in office and two with many terms under their belts. After the Oct. 12 voting was over, the first-termers were ousted and the old-timers were once again triumphant.
Avoyelles Parish also had a new coroner, a new clerk of court, a new sheriff and three new legislators.
However, it did not have a new Justice Center to house the courtrooms and judicial offices now on the third floor of the 92-year-old courthouse.
Connie Desselle, a long-time employee in the Clerk of Court’s Office, became clerk of court in July when incumbent Connie Couvillon resigned with a year remaining in her term.
Desselle defeated two opponents in the Oct. 12 primary to become clerk.
Coroner Dr. L.J. Mayeux did not seek re-election. Dr. James Bordelon was elected coroner without opposition.
Assessor Heath Pastor was re-elected to his second term, this time without opposition.
Sheriff Doug Anderson, seeking his fourth term, finished second to political newcomer David Dauzat. Mansura Police Chief John Johnson, who also ran against Anderson in 2015, finished third.
Dauzat defeated Anderson in the Nov. 16 election.
All three of the legislators serving this parish were prohibited from seeking re-election due to term limits.
All three new legislators are Republican business owners.
Daryl Deshotel of Hessmer was elected state representative, succeeding Robert Johnson.
Heather Cloud of Turkey Creek was elected state senator, succeeding Eric LaFleur.
Glen Womack of Harrisonburg was elected senator, succeeding Neil Riser.
The campaign for a 1/2-cent sales tax to fund the Avoyelles Parish Justice Center began last year when the Legislature adopted a bill creating the district as a political subdivision with authority to seek taxes.
Judges Billy Bennett and Kerry Spruill were joined by former Assistant District Attorney Mike Kelly in leading the effort to gain voter support.
A.J. Roy III donated property on La. Hwy 1 as the site of the $9 million facility.
Despite many months of hard work, the proposition was soundly beaten in the Nov. 16 election.
5. ACY OPENS
For the past two years the vacant complex on U.S. 71 just outside of Bunkie seemed to be taunting the area. The Acadiana Center for Youth was supposed to be part of a one-two punch that would energize the Bunkie and Avoyelles economies.
The other “punch” was Gulf Coast Spinning, which pulled out of the Bunkie Industrial Park just after groundwork had begun a few years ago.
Many were afraid the second punch was also going to go unlanded.
Once ACY had been finished, the state ran into financial problems and the Legislature could not -- or would not -- allocate the funds to operate the juvenile detention facility.
In the 2018 session the Legislature approved enough funding to open the doors and turn on the lights.
Gov. John Bel Edwards was the featured speaker at the center’s ribbon-cutting/dedication ceremony on March 26.
ACY has been gradually moving toward full operational capacity. It should be at full staff and full capacity in early 2020.
The center’s start up has been marred by three incidents -- two mass escapes and an allegation that a female employee had inappropriate relations with a male juvenile at the facility.
The Office of Juvenile Justice took immediate action in the employee matter. It has also taken steps to improve security to prevent future escapes and implemented an automated telephone alert system to call nearby residents and others in the event of an escape or other emergency situation at the detention center.
6. HESSMER ‘FEUD’
For most of the year, the little village of Hessmer captured the parish’s attention over something that many thought sounded silly, but others said was an important matter establishing the authority and responsibility of elected officials.
The issue that provoked the battle between the mayor and aldermen on one side and the police chief on the other was a past due Verizon cell phone bill.
The council refused to pay the bill for several months. Mayor Travis Franks said the village did not authorize the contract for Verizon services. He noted that other departments’ cell phone service is through AT&T.
Police Chief Kenneth Smith said the cell phone agreement was legitimate and the municipality owed the bill.
Verizon cut off service on April 1. Smith obtained cell phone service through other means, rejecting Franks’ offer to make AT&T cell phones available to the police department.
The village filed a legal action seeking a court decision on whether it owed Verizon anything. The court ruled there was never a legal contract between Hessmer and Verizon.
In addition to the cell phone bill, there were some spillover issues between the police chief and the municipality’s other elected officials.
The council adopted an ordinance enabling it to call an election to ask the voters to make the office of police chief an appointed position rather than an elected one.
To date, the council has not moved forward on putting that proposition before the voters.
The council cut the Police Department budget, eliminating funding for all but one police officer -- Smith.
The aldermen and mayor said the action was necessary because the Police Department had not been issuing tickets. The decline in revenue required a reduction in spending, and police personnel was the area selected for cuts.
Smith complained that he couldn’t write tickets because the speed radar was broken.
Franks noted the council had authorized the purchase of a new radar in December 2018 but never received any information from Smith as to whether he had received prices for the equipment.
The council purchased a radar without Smith’s input. Smith criticized that action, saying two radars were donated to the department and the council had no right to purchase equipment for the Police Department without his knowledge.
7. HEALTH CARE NEWS
If there is any area of the economy that seemed to flourish this year, it was the health care industry.
Perhaps it was the expansion of Medicaid, which made health care more accessible and affordable to low income families. Maybe it was just time that Avoyelles Parish’s health care providers caught up with the health care needs.
Whatever the reason, the fact is that new health care centers were popping up and existing ones were expanding throughout the year.
The new centers included SouthStar Urgent Care, Compass Behavioral Center, Freedom Behavioral and Fresnius Kidney Center. Avoyelles Hospital and Bunkie General both had $1 million remodeling projects and both announced expansions of health care services.
The two hospitals are already among the parish’s largest employers and are growing. With the additional centers opening, this segment of the workforce could become an even greater influence on the overall economy.
8. CLECO BUYS BUNKIE INDUSTRIAL PARK
Another event that seemed to be a harbinger of better times ahead was Cleco’s purchase of 97 acres of the Bunkie Industrial Park in March. The $1 million purchase “is good for the town because Cleco can do things to induce a company to locate here that the city can’t do,” Mayor Bruce Coulon said. “It is a win-win for everyone.”
Cleco, which began as an ice company in Bunkie in the early 20th Century, “will work hard to get someone in the Industrial Park -- and they will work with the city to ensure the right kind of business locates there,” Coulon said.
One advantage a company would have in locating in the Bunkie site is access to abundant electrical power. Coulon said Cleco can provide more electrical power to tenants in the Bunkie Industrial Park than can be provided at any other industrial site in the state.
9. TWO MYSTERIES
On July 26, skeletal remains were found on the S&B Cutoff Road. They were later identified as the body of Kasey Bigum.
Two people were arrested and charged with her murder -- her 20-year-old son Tristin James and his girlfriend, Hannah Desselle, 18.
Investigators said Desselle led them to where Bigum’s body was dumped after she was killed during an argument with James on May 30.
Perhaps because it involved a son killing his mother, or maybe because it started out as an “unsolved mystery” with unidentified remains found in a rural area, this crime stands out among many others that occurred this year.
Another “unsolved mystery” case that captured the parish’s attention was the trial of Lisa Rabalais, charged as an accessory-after-the-fact to the murder of Ray Lachney, whose body was found in January 2016.
Rabalais, 42, was convicted in September, primarily on testimony of two witnesses who said Rabalais told them she knew Lachney had been murdered.
Rabalais denied ever saying such a thing or ever knowing anything about Lachney’s death.
She, Lachney and another man were together the day in July 2015 when Lachney went missing.
Rabalais was sentenced to five years -- the maximum for the offense -- on Nov. 12.
Riddle said he expects other arrests in the case.
10. COTTONPORT CLUB
As the saying goes, last but not least is the Nov. 24 mass shooting incident at the ironically named Club New Beginnings near Cottonport on La. Hwy 29.
Two men were killed, two were wounded and a 16-year-old boy was arrested and will be tried as an adult for 1st degree murder and attempted 1st degree murder.
The incident occurred at about 2 a.m.
When deputies arrived, one man was dead at the scene. Another died at Bunkie General.
The wounded were treated at Alexandria hospitals. One required surgery for non-life-threatening wounds.
The two deceased victims were Justin Heath and A’Martinaz “Monte” Jones, both of Mansura.
Derrionte Boyer, 16, of Mansura was arrested. After a court hearing, it was determined he will be tried as an adult for the crimes.
He is awaiting trial in custody under $1.5 million bond.
There were many other “big” stories in 2019. There is never a shortage of news in Avoyelles Parish.
There were interesting individuals who were featured, important actions taken by municipal and parish officials, good news and bad news articles dealing with local businesses and future economic development, and individual tragedies resulting from accidents and criminal actions.
Not being included in this “Top 10” does not detract from the significance or impact of those events on this parish and its people.
These are the 10 that, in this newspaper’s opinion, best defined the news of 2019.