OHIO VALLEY — It has been a busy and eventful year throughout the region with everything from 150th anniversary celebrations to developments in both Gallia and Meigs counties.
As we begin 2014, we are taking a look back at some of the top news stories of 2013 in Gallia and Meigs counties.
10. Standoff on Ohio 248
For more than 24 hours in mid-May, officers from around the region converged on a small area on Ohio 248 near Chester.
Deputies with the Meigs County Sheriff’s Office had responded to a dispute call around noon on May 20 at the residence of Eugene “Jack” Ritchie on Ohio 248.
The dispute escalated with Ritchie reportedly threatening his business partner with a gun and also threatening Deputy Adam Smith who had responded to the call along with another deputy.
At 3:13 p.m. on May 21 — after hours of negotiations — the officers with the Athens, Gallia, and Washington Emergency Response teams and the Meigs County Sheriff’s Office took steps to remove Ritchie from his home. At 3:18 p.m., Ritchie was in custody.
Ritchie was indicted in June with abduction, a felony of the third degree; inducing panic, a felony of the fifth degree; aggravated menacing, a misdemeanor of the first degree; and having weapons while under disability, a felony of the third degree.
The case remains open according to the Meigs County Clerk of Courts web site with no future hearings scheduled. A competency evaluation was ordered in the fall of 2013, with the results sealed by the court.
9. GKN Expansion
GKN Sinter Metals announced in late May that there were plans for a $10 million expansion to the Gallipolis production facility.
Matt Daniels, Gallipolis plant manager, said at the time that the project was expected to add 50 full-time jobs and generate up to $20 million in additional sales for the company over the next two to three years. The expansion is to include the installation of a new 750-metric-ton, powder-compaction press, along with other capital equipment to launch production of differential-gear components developed at the plant.
GKN Sinter Metals received tax credits and development grants valued at nearly $800,000 to assist with the Gallipolis project from various state and local agencies. The State of Ohio awarded GKN a Job Creation Tax Credit and an Economic Development Grant with a combined value of $380,000.
The Southern Ohio Agricultural and Community Development Foundation (SOACDF), also known as the Tobacco Foundation, also provided the company with a $350,000 development grant. Local incentives included a City of Gallipolis Job Creation Tax Credit and a Gallia County Community Improvement Corporation (CIC) Economic Development Grant with a total value of $60,000.
Daniels said that the expansion project at hand is really a continuation of growth that has been happening over the course of the last few years years.
“Over the last three years, we’ve also generated roughly 40 brand new jobs; we have not been idle,” said Daniels. “That level of success — there’s no way it would be possible without the diligence and persistence of our community, our suppliers, our employees, our parent company, and most importantly, our customers.”
8. Bank Robberies
Two bank robberies and the resolution of a third one took place in 2013.
Just before 4 p.m. on May 30, Chad R. Rennicker, 25, of Ripley, W.Va., entered the Farmers Bank branch in Tuppers Plains, committing the second armed robbery of the branch in four years.
Within 56 hours of the crime, the Meigs County Sheriff’s Office, with the assistance of many other agencies apprehended Rennicker in Jackson County, W.Va.
Rennicker was indicted in June on six counts of kidnapping and one count of aggravated robbery. The six kidnapping counts were one count for each individual working at the bank at the time of the alleged offense.
On September 30, Rennicker entered a guilty plea to all seven counts against him. All seven counts merged for the purpose of sentencing in the case.
Judge Michael Ward, sitting by assignment in the case, sentenced Rennicker to eight years in prison, to run consecutively to the time he is serving from a similar case in Belmont County, Ohio.
Both the state and defense had agreed to a seven-year sentence, but Ward noted that the actions warranted more time than the agreed upon amount.
Just prior to the sentencing of Rennicker, the man who robbed the same bank in 2009 appeared in Meigs County Common Pleas Court for sentencing in that case.
Sean Bradford Mitchell, 45, formerly of Athens, had been charged with one count each of aggravated robbery, first degree felony; robbery, second degree felony; theft, fourth degree felony; and kidnapping, first degree felony.
Mitchell entered a guilty plea to the charges in late August. Due to the Ohio Supreme Court ruling in State vs. Johnson, both the defense and prosecution agreed that the four counts merged for the purpose of sentencing. Due to the ruling, allied offenses must be sentenced as one charge. Mitchell was sentenced on the aggravated robbery count.
Mitchell has been in prison in Mississippi following a bank robbery conviction in that state. He is not scheduled to be released from prison in Mississippi until November 2017.
Ward sentenced Mitchell to five years, consecutive to the time he is currently serving as part of the Mississippi case.
In Gallia County, the suspect in a November bank robbery at the Ohio Valley Bank branch in the Gallipolis Walmart is being charged with not only a third-degree felony charge of robbery, but also two counts of theft following the incident.
Donald David Crago, 38, address unknown, was arrested on November 26 in Huntington, W.Va., by officers with the Huntington Police Department on a warrant.
The Gallipolis Police Department reportedly following the November 21, 2013, incident that officers responded to the bank at approximately 6:27 p.m. and learned from bank employees that the then unidentified male had passed a note to the bank teller demanding money. After receiving the money, the suspect fled the area.
An indictment in this case was filed on December 5 and alleges that Crago stole a 2007 Chevy truck from a victim on November 21 — a truck allegedly used in the robbery — and subsequently stole $3,275 from Ohio Valley Bank while threatening to use force during the theft.
Crago’s bond was set at $20,000, 10 percent. He is currently being held in the Gallia County Jail.
7. War on Drugs
The methamphetamine epidemic, along with the sale, possession and use of other illegal drugs, is not only a battle in one portion of the region, but the entire area as a whole.
With that, Gallia and Meigs counties, along with the police departments from Middleport and Gallipolis joined together in recent months to form a Ohio Organized Crime Investigations Commission (OOCIC) task force.
The announcement came following the felony arrest of two individuals and the seizure of a large amount of cocaine, heroin and cash at a local business in Gallia County during the early morning hours on Dec. 10, 2013 — a result, according to officials, of an organized effort between multiple law enforcement agencies.
Porter Mitchell, 38, of Gallipolis, and Michelle Walker, 36, of Rio Grande, were both arrested early on the morning of Dec. 10 after task force members served search warrants at P.J.’s Pool Hall and a neighboring residence on Ohio 7 North in the Kanauga area just after midnight.
As a result of the search, authorities found more than 140 grams of powdered cocaine, 11 grams of heroin and a small amount of ecstasy. More than $18,000 in cash was also seized.
Investigators reported that the pool hall was the front for an ongoing drug trafficking operation. Mitchell reportedly operated the establishment and lived next door.
The cases against Mitchell and Walker have been bound over to common pleas court from municipal court.
During a press conference held at the Gallia County Sheriff’s Office later that afternoon, Gallia County Sheriff Joe Browning, Meigs County Sheriff Keith Wood, Gallipolis Police Chief Clinton Patterson, Middleport Police Chief Bruce Swift and Gallia County Prosecutor Jeff Adkins discussed the recent formation of the task force that will also pull resources from Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine’s Office as they work to combat the ongoing drug problem in the area.
“This is the first product of really what has been months of investigations into these crimes,” Browning stated. “We’re happy to take down what we consider to be a major drug trafficker in our community but also to unveil to the citizens that we do have another tool available to us now in the form of organized assistance from multiple agencies.”
Other steps have also been taken in the war on drugs. The Meigs County Sheriff’s Office announced in July the formation of a K-9 unit. Sadly, the unit saw tragedy before it to be utilized as Sheriff Deputy K-9 Zack died in late July.
With the support of the community and many local organizations and business, the K-9 unit with Deputy Brandy King and Deputy K-9 Bax is working cases in the county.
Law enforcement from Meigs and Gallia counties worked together on a large marijuana case on Zuspan Hollow Road near the Gallia-Meigs county line in August.
Gallia County residents Dennis C. Butcher, 60, and wife, Tammy L. Butcher, age 52, of 38067 Zuspan Hollow Road, Middleport, Ohio, were arrested at the scene. Deputies seized more than 100 pounds of packaged marijuana and more than $750,000 in cash from the search.
Dennis Butcher was indicted on three felony counts, having weapons under disability, a felony of the third degree; possession of drugs, a felony of the second degree; and trafficking in drugs, a felony of the second degree. A jury trial in the case against Dennis Butcher is scheduled for Feb. 10.
Tammy Butcher is charged with possession of drugs, a felony of the second degree; and trafficking in drugs, a felony of the second degree. A jury trial in the case against Tammy Butcher is scheduled for Jan. 28.
6. Missing Persons
In 2013, crews in Gallia County were on the search for two missing women, one whose case remains open and under investigation.
There is still no word as to the whereabouts of Sharon Yoczik, 68, who went missing from her Neighborhood Road residence on March 22, 2013.
Yoczik was initially reported missing by her husband who returned home to find her missing, and, following an extensive searching and investigation, Gallia County Sheriff’s deputies uncovered only two reported clues following her disappearance.
Investigators reportedly received information that the missing woman had been spotted walking along Ohio 7 near the intersection of Ohio 218 on the evening before her reported disappearance, and, with canine assistance, crews later discovered a pair of eyeglasses matching Yoczik’s prescription along a nearby riverbank.
Despite continued searching by countless volunteers and emergency officials, both on land and along and in the Ohio River, no other trace of Yoczik was uncovered.
The case in the reported disappearance of Yoczik remains open.
The remains of a Gallipolis woman reported missing in July were later discovered in the Ohio River by crews searching the West Virginia side of the river this summer.
The body of Lisa L. Miller, 43, was positively identified by the West Virginia Office of the Chief Medical Examiner in Charleston, W.Va.
Miller was reported missing by her family members at approximately 6 p.m. on July 10, and, according to reports, she had been living on the Ohio riverbank near Riverview Drive and Cruzet Avenue in Gallipolis.
After responding to this area, Gallipolis Police officers found signs that led them to believe that Miller may have entered the river. Crews immediately began a search near the area, and, employing the help of the Gallia County Sheriff’s Office and Gallipolis Fire Department, began to search the river near Gallipolis.
After a week of searching, what was believed to be a body was spotted in the Ohio River just north of the ice breakers at the Gallipolis City Park on Wednesday, July 17, and, with the aid of the Point Pleasant Fire Department, Gallipolis firefighters were able to bring the body to shore on the West Virginia side of the river.
No foul play has ever been reported in this case and additional information has not been released by the Gallipolis Police Department.
5. School Development — Southern and Ohio Valley Christian
A new high school and a new gymnasium facility at two local schools opened in 2013.
Southern Local School District opened the 2013-14 school year in a new high school, replacing the former high school, which opened its doors in the early 1960s.
Beginning classes on Sept. 4, the new high school was built as an addition to the current Southern Elementary building.
Constructed by Kinsale Corporation, the building was partially funded through a bond issue which was approved during a special election in August 2010.
Construction took just a little more than 14 months from ground breaking to the opening of the school year.
In addition to the new building for the high school, improvements were made to the existing elementary kitchen to allow it to serve the additional 200 students. New equipment has been put in place, including pass through warmers and refrigerators, and a second register area. There is also an expanded area for dry food storage.
The facility includes state of the art science rooms and media center. as well as many other technology upgrades in each classroom.
At Ohio Valley Christian School in Gallipolis, a new state-of-the art activity center/gymnasium was completed in 2013.
The $1.6 million, 16,500 square-foot addition to First Baptist Church and Ohio Valley Christian School located on Fourth Avenue in Gallipolis features not only a very large youth room, storage room and additional classrooms, but also a large gymnasium complete with cross-court volleyball and basketball practice surfaces, adjustable basketball goals, locker rooms, a weight room and a large concession stand.
As phase two of years of planning to move the church and school from their former location at Third Avenue and Locust Street in Gallipolis, the new activity building was unveiled to the public in August and dedicated in September and completes the move from their former location that is now owned by Elizabeth Chapel Church.
4. GDC Layoffs and Infocision Closing
It was announced in mid-October that 80 positions would be eliminated at the Gallipolis Developmental Center (GDC).
Administrators with the Ohio Department of Developmental Disabilities (DODD) may have quickly expressed their desire to mitigate the effects of the pending elimination of 80 jobs at the GDC, but representatives from the OCSEA — the union representing the majority of GDC employees — vocally expressed their disappointment and deep concern for not only those facing layoffs, but more importantly, those individuals currently being served by GDC.
Ohio DODD Director John L. Martin said that the decision to downsize the state’s largest developmental center aligns with an ongoing statewide initiative to move away from long-term patient care solutions, focusing instead on short-term admissions whenever possible.
Monty Blanton, OCSEA representative and retired GDC employee, and Mitch Salyers, OCSEA representative and 26-year employee of GDC, expressed their concern for employees and their families following the elimination of 80 GDC positions in January, but their primary focus was on the negative effects of Martin’s initiative on GDC’s most vulnerable population — the individuals served by GDC.
“GDC for the last four or five years has been serving a population that’s one of the hardest there is to serve anywhere in the system, the extremely medically fragile and the extreme behaviorally challenged. That’s our calling now,” said Blanton, “but at the same time, we’ve got residents who’ve been here 50 or 60 years. This is their home, and they’re forcing them out, without any doubt. This is the only family that a lot of these residents have — the employees who’ve been working with them for the last 20 years.
In January 2013, Gallia County call center InfoCision, which opened it’s doors in 2000 on Third Avenue and has employed hundreds of Ohio Valley residents since that time, announced that they were closing their brick and mortar operation in Gallipolis. Instead, they moved to a work-from-home model. The change affected 112 employees.
InfoCision executives said in a prepared press release at that time that employees had been offered the opportunity to remain with the company and work from their homes or transfer to InfoCision’s Huntington, W.Va. call center.
In the telemarketing industry, working from home has been a growing model for many years, and with advances in technology, it’s a trend that will continue to grow as more people have access to high speed internet and computers, especially in rural areas, according to the InfoCision release.
3. Murder Cases
In Gallia County, several high-profile murder cases made headlines in 2013.
Juries heard cases against Semaki Corfias and Bruce Hively, while plea agreements cancelled trials against the suspects accused in the Zane Taylor murder early in 2013.
James C. Garrett, 22, Point Pleasant, was the last suspect to enter a plea in February 2013 in relation to the murder of Zane Taylor during the summer of 2012.
Reportedly, on June 11, 2012, the suspects traveled to Taylor’s home on Ohio 218 where they robbed the victim and subsequently caused his death.
Garrett pleaded guilty to involuntary manslaughter and was sentenced to 11 years of imprisonment early last year.
Garrett’s co-defendants, Lacey Redmond, 26, Gallipolis, Steven L. Williams, 31, Bidwell, and Eugene O. Wasonga, 25, Point Pleasant, although facing complicity to commit murder, also entered plea agreements in their respective cases.
Wasonga pleaded guilty to one count of robbery and one count of tampering with evidence, while Redmond pleaded guilty to aggravated robbery and complicity to involuntary manslaughter and Williams guilty to a charge of robbery and tampering with evidence.
Wasonga and Williams were both later sentenced to 30 months of imprisonment, while Redmond is now serving a 15-year sentence in relation to the incident.
In April 2013, a jury returned a not guilty verdict in the murder trail against Semaki G. Corfias, 53, Gallipolis.
Corfias had been charged in relation to the February 22, 2012, death of Thomas Marr, 29, who was found unresponsive by first responders who arrived at his home on Ohio 7 North following a 911 call.
Marr had reportedly died of a stab wound to the chest and, during trial, the prosecution maintained that Corfias and the victim had gotten to an argument that morning — a confrontation that resulted in Marr’s stabbing death. However, the defense maintained that Corfias had only discovered Marr and attempted to help save his life prior to the arrival of first responders.
Corfias was also charged in an unrelated case with manufacturing methamphetamine following an incident that occurred on September 8, 2012. Following his acquittal for murder in April, Corfias was sentenced in relation to the meth case in December after pleading guilty to the illegal assembly or possession of chemicals for the manufacture of drugs. He was sentenced to three years of imprisonment and ordered to pay a fine of $5,000.
The final murder trial settled in Gallia County in 2013 was the case against Bruce A. Hively, 57, who was found guilty on November 7 of aggravated murder, with a gun specification, and tampering with evidence, following the shooting death of Charles T. Addis, 18, on April 4, 2013, at the intersection of Elliott Road and Hannan Trace Road in Harrison Township.
During the trial that spanned four days, the defense maintained that this was a case of self defense, while, in the end, the jury sided with the prosecution.
Hively was subsequently sentenced to life imprisonment with the eligibility of parole after 30 years have been served.
In Meigs County, one homicide case was resolved through a guilty plea, while the case against another individual is still on going after a murder at Meigs Motel in May.
The case against James E. Gardner, 42, in the death of his father, James W. Gardner in Nov. 2012, concluded with the acceptance of a plea agreement by the defendant.
The younger Gardner entered a guilty plea in April to the charges of murder and aggravated robbery.
James W. Gardner was found dead at his residence on Paulins Hill Road, in Rutland Township near the Gallia County line on November 11, 2012. At the time of the death, the unofficial cause was blunt force trauma.
James E. Gardner was on the run from law enforcement for nearly a month after the crime, before being located in Gallia County.
Judge I. Carson Crow sentenced Gardner to an indefinite prison term of 15 years to life, the mandatory term associated with the charge of murder. The single count of aggravated robbery was merged with the murder charge for the purpose of sentencing.
Soon after the resolution of the Gardner case, officials in Meigs County were on the scene of another homicide.
Officers with the Meigs County Sheriff’s Office responded to the Meigs Motel in the early morning hours of May 9, finding hotel guest Wallace R. Chafin deceased.
Soon after, three individuals were arrested in connection with the crime. One of those three, Ryan A. Cozart, was ultimately indicted for the murder of Chafin.
A month after being indicted on the charges of aggravated murder, tampering with evidence, and aggravated robbery, Cozart entered a plea of not guilty by reason of insanity.
Cozart, 33, was found competent to stand trial in October by Judge Crow.
A jury trial is scheduled for Jan. 30 in the case. Cozart remains in custody as he awaits trial.
2. Meigs Health Care Campus Expansion
The announcement came early in the year, with the groundbreaking held in late August.
Meigs County would not be without an emergency room facility for much longer.
Currently under construction, the emergency room facility is a collaborative effort between Holzer Health System and the Meigs County Community Improvement Corporation.
It has been more than 13 years since there has been a 24-hour emergency care facility in the county.
The facility will feature a 24-hour staffed emergency department, equipped with state-of-the-art equipment and a helipad.
The building, which has been designed by Don Dispenza of Panich and Noel, will include eight treatment rooms, one double trauma room, two triage rooms, lab, pharmacy, general radiation and CT suite, along with areas for public and staff. Kinsale Corporation of Chester, Ohio, is the contractor for the project.
When completed in the fall of 2014, the facility is expected to create 30 full-time jobs.
The facility is located near the Meigs County Emergency Operations Center, and Hopewell Health Center Inc., (formerly Family Healthcare) which opened in April 2012.
The Emergency Operations Center (EOC) was also a new addition to the Meigs Health Care Campus in 2013.
The EOC, which was constructed by grant funds, will house the 911 dispatch, Emergency Management Agency offices, Emergency Medical Services offices, and a command center in case of emergencies in the region. Funding for the EOC was provided by a grant through the Federal Emergency Management Agency through the West Virginia Port Authority.
The main operations room will allow for up to 12 agencies to work from the building in the case of a major event. Byer added that there will be 12 desks, each with a separate phone line, allowing for agencies such as the Red Cross, National Guard and other state officials to work in one secure location. There is also a sliding glass window between the main operations room and the executive operations room to allow for easy communication between the two groups.
The building is designed for emergency operations, while keeping communications and administration in the same facility.
1. Sesquicentennial celebrations
It was the year of 150th celebrations. From the Battle of Buffington Island in July to the Meigs County Fair in August and the Gallia County Emancipation Proclamation Celebration in September.
July 19, 1863, marked the only significant battle of the Civil War to be fought on Ohio soil.
A century and a half later, historians converged on the same ground as the soldiers did 15 decades before to remember the historic battle.
A living history telling the story of the life and times of Civil War soldiers was a highlight of the commemoration of the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Buffington Island held at the Memorial Park in Portland the weekend following that historic anniversary.
In addition to the camp sites of the Confederate and Union soldiers where visitors got a glimpse of the lifestyle experienced by soldiers in war times, there were wagon tours of the battlefield with a narrator from the Ohio Historical Society on board. As they traveled along he related the history of the encounter of the Confederate soldiers with massive Union forces near the Ohio River and being pushed back to land where they were defeated and surrendered.
A memorial to the over 100 men lost in that battle was conducted by the Sons of Union Veterans reenactors as a part of the sesquicentennial celebration. There was also a special tribute to Union Major Daniel McCook who died in that battle held by the Ohio Commandery Military Order of the Loyal Legion of the United States. He was remembered by the Ohio Historical Society with a monument many years ago.
On display in the Portland Community Center museum were the rifle used by Major McCook along with two flags which flew over Buffington Island during that 1863 raid. They are part of the permanent Civil War collection of the Ohio Historical Society and were brought in especially for the observance.
The next month marked the 150th Meigs County Fair.
While the first fair was held in 1851 in Middleport, by 1854 it was moved to Chester, and in 1879 to the Rock Springs Fairgrounds. No fairs were held during the World War 11 years. They were resumed at Rock Springs in 1945.
Special recognitions were held during the opening ceremony following the junior fair parade.
Those representing state and local officials spoke about the 150th Meigs County Fair. Letters and proclamations were read on behalf of Senator Rob Portman, Governor John Kasich and Lieutenant Governor Mary Taylor, Secretary of State Jon Husted, Ohio Treasurer Josh Mandel, and the Ohio Fair Managers Association. Meigs County Commissioner Mike Bartrum read a proclamation on behalf of the commissioners.
Scholarships and the crowning of Fair Queen Sarah Lawrence and other royalty also highlighted the opening ceremony of the 150th fair.
The 150th Meigs County Fair ended with a fireworks display near the grandstand.
September provided the final of the three 150th celebrations.
The 150th anniversary of the Gallia County Emancipation Proclamation Celebration was indeed celebrated by people across Gallia County who gathered in late September for the very successful annual event — an event that is reportedly the longest running celebration in honor of the Emancipation Proclamation in the country.
This year’s events kicked off in beautiful musical style on Friday, September 20 at the Ariel Theatre where local musicians took the stage, filling the historic theatre located in downtown Gallipolis with song.
Following the musical acts, those in attendance at Friday’s event marched to the Ohio River where they held a candlelight vigil in honor of those slaves who had, so many years ago, crossed from slavery and into freedom as they landed on the banks of the Ohio.
Following Friday’s concert, Gallia Countians flocked to the Bob Evans Farm in Rio Grande on Saturday and Sunday where the remaining weekend activities were held. Events included reenactments of historic figures, a presentation by the Columbus Zoo and keynote speaker Justice Yvette McGee Brown, the first African-American female justice on the Ohio Supreme Court.
The Gallia County Emancipation Proclamation Celebration is held each year in late September to coincide with the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation by Abraham Lincoln on September 22, 1862.
For more information on the annual event, visit www.emancipation-day.com.
Managing Editor Stephanie Filson contributed to this story.