2019 in review: Top stories in Laurel County for the year

File photo

Former Gov. Matt Bevin was a big story maker for 2019 as he had Vice President Mike Pence help him on the campaign trail, lost in the 2019 election and then made over 600 pardons. Above, Bevin shakes hands with one of the military personnel participating in the IRT program, while Vice President Mike Pence looks on during a visit to Manchester in August. 

2019 was an eventful year for not only Laurel County residents, but Kentucky as a whole. London enjoyed industrial development and locals making national television. However, the city was rocked by shocking crime and crashes. In reviewing the year, the following are the top stories and topics that readers viewed on www.sentinel-echo.com in 2019 and created the most discussion on social media and in the community.

BEVIN

Kentucky as a whole ended 2019 with a significant change -- the defeat of former Gov. Matt Bevin by Andy Beshear. The election was hard-fought, with Beshear coming through with less than a percent over Bevin. Beshear won over 49.2 percent of voters, topping Bevin's 48.8 percent -- 709,890 votes to 704,754.

The governor's election saw Vice President Mike Pence visit London to endorse Bevin. Glenna Bevin, Matt Bevin's wife, also attended the city during a Women's Republican Club meeting.

Bevin's defeat quickly made way for controversy, with the former governor's last actions being the pardons of more than 600 inmates. Some of these pardons included a handful of convicted murderers.

One such individual who was pardoned was Justin Wibbels, who was convicted after colliding head-on with a van in an emergency lane on KY-30 in Laurel County in 2014.

There was also the pardon of London's Patrick Baker. He had been convicted of reckless homicide in the death of Donald Mills in Knox County after breaking into Mills' home in the guise of a police officer. He along with four others had been convicted of the crimes that evening, two are still serving their sentences. Baker's pardon also came under speculation as reports showed Baker's family and family-friends, like local businessman Terry Forcht, had donated to Bevin's campaign and also asked for Bevin to pardon Baker on multiple occasions.

Another local pardon was that of former Laurel County school official Charles Douglas Phelps. Phelps pleaded guilty in 2013 to possession of child pornography. Following his acquittal, Phelps was removed from the sex offender registration.

FATAL CRASHES

There were nine vehicular deaths in 2019 - the lowest since 2015. Eight of the nine persons who lost their lives were from London. The sole out-of-towner was a 17-year-old woman from Barbourville who died when the UTV of which she was a passenger flipped.

The sole double fatality of the year occurred on July 1, 2019, in which a Laurel County educator lost her life. Jamie Gilliam, 38, of London, was driving along Old Way Road when a vehicle driven by 21-year-old James Dylan Johnson, also of London, topped a hill and hit Gilliam's vehicle head-on. Both Gilliam and Johnson died from the scene, while Gilliam's husband and three children also suffered serious injuries.

Gilliam had served as a teacher at Bush Elementary and was principal of Johnson Elementary. On the day of her death, she had just completed her first day as Director of Pupil Personnel with the Laurel County school district.

CRIME

The county also faced a handful of crimes committed during the past year. One particular incident was the torture and death of a dog in East Bernstadt.

Noah Blevins, David Griffith and Toby Glen Harrison, along with a minor, are all facings charges for the incident after a social media video circulated online showing one male punching the dog. A woman who had been caring for the stray dog found the dog near death and was taking it to get medical attention when the dog passed away.

Meanwhile, former South Laurel Choral Director Mark Felts was indicted for third-degree sodomy in August. The indictment charges he had sexual intercourse with a minor in 2017.

In October, another indictment charged Felts with six counts of first-degree sexual abuse with a 15-year-old that occurred between March 2015 into the spring of 2017. In that indictment, Felts was also termed as "a person in a position of authority or position of special trust."

April saw the arrest of Vaughn Ashley Brock II, who was charged with murder and first-degree arson in an incident that took place on March 30 in which he fled the scene after his residence caught fire and his son was found dead inside a washing machine in the torched residence. Brock reportedly told police the child was playing with a lighter and started the fire. The initial investigation, however, showed that the fire started in a different section of the mobile home than Brock initially described to the police.

GROWTH FOR LONDON - LAUREL COUNTY

2019 had its fair share of bad news, but there were numerous positives Laurel saw. London acquired ownership on the Levi Jackson Wilderness Road Park. With new management, the park is seeing an ongoing renovation, including the removal of dead trees and the installation of a new electric system.

The former Kmart store on KY 192 saw its vacancies filled. Kohl's, Marshalls, Planet Fitness and Five Below were all welcomed as new businesses in London.

Construction began on London Town Center next to London Elementary School. The center is shaping up to form a small park for residents and tourists to sit down and enjoy. There will also be a performance stage, in which the city hopes to bring national acts.

More controversial was the acquisition of a 34-foot Christmas tree. The $85,000 investment bewildered some residents. The city hopes the tree can bring visitors over the years to come.

EXTRACURRICULAR ACCOMPLISHMENTS

The county also experienced numerous extracurricular achievements through its local students.

The South Laurel Band won the Class 4-A State Marching competition for its second consecutive year. The North Laurel Lady Jags competed for the first time at the KHSAA Girls Sweet Sixteen Basketball quarterfinals.

On the middle school level, the North Laurel seventh grade girls basketball team took home the KBC State Championships. Meanwhile, the North Laurel eighth grade football team saw victory during the KMSFA Eighth Grade Division 1 State Championship.

Exciting audiences was also the first-ever official boxing tournament in Laurel County. Hosted by Loughran's Boxing and put together by USA Boxing was the 2019 Southeastern Kentucky Boxing Invitational in March. Amateur fighters of all ages performed in front of a larger-than-expected crowd.

LOCALS GO NATIONAL

Laurel County was thrilled again after seeing their neighbors on national television. Rockholds' Elaine Scott competed on the 39th season of "Survivor" and it was announced that Williamsburg's Nick Wilson would compete in the 40th all-winners season of the popular reality TV series. Wilson had previously competed in 2018 during the shows 37th season.

East Bernstadt native Christina McQueen participated in Discovery's hit program "Naked and Afraid," fighting to survive off the coast of the Philippines. Another Discovery hit, "Homestead Rescue", kicked off the year by featuring the local Rains family. The cast of the show helped the Rains by installing a new water well and building an enclosure for their goats.

dcombs@sentinel-echo.com

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