Allen Wigington convicted of 44 felonies and 5 misdemeanors

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Judge Allen Wigington, indicted

JASPER, Ga. – Arrested in January of 2020, former Chief Magistrate Judge for Pickens County, Allen Wigington was convicted recently on his charges racketeering, forgery, and theft. Now serving a 15 year total sentence. However, he is expected to only spend 5 years in prison.

According to the state, Attorney General Chris Carr announced that the office’s Prosecution Division has concluded its case against Judge William “Allen” Wigington.

They said, “He was found guilty of 1 count of Racketeering, 3 counts of Fourth Degree Forgery, 5 counts of Theft by Taking, 39 counts of Unauthorized Use of a Financial Transaction Card, and 1 Count of Violation of Oath of Office. In total, his crimes amounted to 44 felonies and 5 misdemeanors. He was sentenced to 15 years in prison.”

The Pickens County Sheriff’s Office worked alongside the Georgia Bureau of Investigation in the case reaching all the way back to 2016. According to the the Georgia Attorney General’s Office, the investigation began when a local non-profit organization noticed that Judge Wigington had paid his personal credit card bill using the non-profit’s bank account. He reportedly made several questionable purchases for instance he made three separate transactions of $923, $848.31, and $317 from Pickens County Magistrate Court to give to a nonprofit with the “intention of depriving owner of said property.” In reports of the crimes investigated, it was stated that he charged $96.27, $137.82, and $343.84 on Pickens County government card for personal expenses at Hampton Inn in Kingsland, Ga, Doubletree by Hilton at Atlanta Airport, and Hilton Bonnet Creek Hotel in Orlando, Fla. It was also discovered that he had been double billing the county for travel reimbursements. The Attorney General’s Office also specifically noted that “Judge Wigington also stole 200 dollars that was designated to purchase a suit for a child whose family could not afford to purchase it.”

Attorney General Chris Carr, Wigington

Attorney General Chris Carr

Attorney General Chris Carr stated in a press release, “Mr. Wigington violated the public’s trust in the worst way, and he will now serve time for his deceitful behavior. I commend the work of our Prosecution Division, the Georgia Bureau of Investigation and the Pickens County Sheriff’s Office for uncovering the extreme lengths that Mr. Wigington went through to defraud his community. The theft of taxpayer funds will not go unpunished, and we will continue to root out this type of public corruption in our state.”

When the investigation became public and a GBI Warrant was executed to search his office on January 29, 2020, authorities reported that Judge Allen Wigington turned himself in and later resigned his position as Judge.

Though the Attorney General’s Office notes a 15-year sentence, it was stated in their release, “He will serve 5 in custody, followed by the remainder on probation.”

The Office of the Attorney General provides the following case notes:

Incident 1

Judge William “Allen” Wigington was appointed Chief Magistrate Judge of Pickens County in May of 2011. He resigned in February of 2020 related to these charges.

In March of 2019, Judge Allen Wigington was a member of a Masonic Lodge in Jasper, Georgia known as the Blaine Lodge. He held the position of treasurer. At the March meeting of the Lodge, the Lodge secretary noticed that there was a discrepancy in the Lodge bank account. There was supposed to be $8,000 in the account, but the bank account balance was only approximately $5,900. Examination showed that Wigington had paid his personal Chase credit card bill out of the Lodge account in the amount of $2,118.37. The secretary immediately sent a text message to Wigington who advised that the account must have been hacked and that he would take care of the matter the next day. Wigington contacted the secretary the next day and advised that the bank refused to help Wigington, and the bank told him that he would have to contact Chase to solve the problem. As a follow up, Wigington told the secretary that Chase said that they couldn’t directly deposit the fraud reimbursement in the Lodge’s account. Therefore, Wigington planned to have Chase send the money to the Courthouse, and Wigington would reimburse the Lodge through the courthouse.

Wigington thereafter wrote three checks from Pickens County Magistrate Court account to cover the Lodge’s loss. The three checks totaled $2,188.37, which was more than was drawn out of the Lodge’s account. The Lodge secretary immediately noticed the discrepancy and knew that Wigington had lied to him. The secretary communicated the issue to another Lodge member.

That member confronted Wigington at the courthouse. Wigington told the member that he received the reimbursement checks from Chase, but that his clerk accidentally deposited them in the Magistrate Court’s account, and that he reimbursed it from the Magistrate Court’s account. Wigington showed the member copies of the alleged checks. Eventually, Wigington changed his story saying he made an error. He said he used the Lodge’s account to pay his credit card bill.

The Georgia Bureau of Investigation (GBI) followed up with Chase Bank in January of 2020. A subpoena to Chase found that Wigington had forged the three Chase checks that Wigington showed the member to corroborate the lie that Chase had reimbursed him for the alleged hacked account.

Incident 2

On January 28, 2020, the GBI received documentation that Wigington had purchased multiple Apple tech products on his Pickens County Magistrate Court Purchase Card (p-card) on November 19, 2018. Three of the purchases would later be substantiated as work-related, but there was not an explanation for an Apple Watch and AppleCare support.

As a result of these documents, the GBI expanded its investigation into Wigington’s p-card usage. The results found the following inappropriate expenses:

  • September 14, 2017 – Hampton Inn, Canton, Georgia
  • September 15, 2017 – New Orleans Hyatt Riverside
  • March 31, 2018 – Doubletree Hotel in Atlanta
  • February 17, 2019 – Disney Hotel
  • September 23, 2019 – Jacksonville Hotel on the way to take a cruise

Four of these hotel expenses are related to family vacations to Disney, cruises, etc.

Incident 3

The GBI and Pickens County Sheriff’s Office discovered that Wigington falsified documents to cover up his personal expenses. For example:

On July 18, 2019, Wigington documented a P-Card expense of $366.99 as an HDMI converter box, HDMI switch, and computer charging case. Normally, these would be considered appropriate expenses. However, when the Sheriff’s Office and GBI looked at the actual Amazon documentation, it was noticed that Wigington had purchased a Nintendo Switch, Apple Airpods, and an Airpod charger.

This occurred numerous times over years with Wigington purchasing everything from electronics to skin care.

Incident 4

Wigington was an associate of the High School Mock Trial program. One of the children could not afford a suit for a competition, so a local defense attorney gave Wigington $200.00 to purchase a suit for the student. Wigington pocketed the $200.00 and used his P-Card to purchase two suits from K&G: one for the student and one for himself.

Incident 5

The Violation of Oath of Office is an all-encompassing charge for his misconduct.

 

Request for 8th Graders to march with band denied

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EAST ELLIJAY, Ga. – In March 2021, the latest revisions to Board Policy IDE(3) were made for Competitive Interscholastic Activities. This month, Band Director David Wiebers submitted a request to allow a waiver to the policy for the band.

That waiver would allow a small number of students in the 8th grade to march with the high school band. Wiebers told the board that the waiver would help the band as it has had middle schoolers march before. With stated benefits to the students, retention rate, the high school band, and the middle school band, the request would allow the continuation of the practice in spite of the policy.

Policy IDE (3) states,

The Board of Education (“the Board”) hereby adopts this policy regulating competitive interscholastic activities.

1. Each middle and high school principal is responsible for properly supervising and regulating competitive interscholastic activities in his or her school and shall ensure that all staff members adhere to the school system’s athletic guidelines, this policy, and related rules of the State Board of Education. The principal may delegate responsibility for supervising one or more student activities and clubs to a member or members of his or her professional staff, provided such individuals must act under the principal’s direction.

2. A student wishing to participate in interscholastic competitive activities must be enrolled full time in the school that sponsors the competitive activity. (Dual Enrollment students are included in the “enrolled full time” group eligible to compete.)

3. Retention of students for athletic purposes is prohibited by the Gilmer County School System.

4. Each principal of a school covered by this policy is responsible for ensuring and maintaining documentation of adherence to the requirement of this policy.

5. Permission must come from the Superintendent or Superintendent’s designee for a coach to have practice on a non-school day (Ex: snow day).

Because of line 2 in the policy requiring a student to be “enrolled full time in the school that sponsors the competitive activity,” a student of Clear Creek Middle School cannot be allowed to march competitively with the Gilmer High School band.

Wiebers said that middle schoolers who have marched with the high school return to their middle school program with stories and experiences to share, increasing interest in the high school program. It also increases the level of excellence for those students involved as they are introduced to the higher level program earlier than normal. Wiebers said that since only the highest level members of the middle school band are allowed to participate, it keeps the number lower while maintaining quality.

Wiebers said, “I don’t view it as a high school position, I view it as a six through twelfth grade band program.”

Assistant Director Holly Kinsey also spoke during the meeting supporting the request with her own story of when she was in middle school band and was given the opportunity to march with the high school. She spoke about how the experience reinvigorated her desire for band. She said she was bored with band at the time, and it was the gifted program for marching with the high school that gave her a bit of a push to continue.

However, all of this would be in direct violation of the policy due to IDE(3). Thus, the request for a waiver.

Even with participation, students have faced restrictions and extra requirements when participating in high school band as a middle schooler, according to Kinsey. They must be accompanied at all times as Kinsey spoke about busing the students and following in her car to the high school. Additionally, in long or overnight trips, these students must be accompanied by their parent and they would room with the parents in overnight situations.

The board also unanimously approved the policy, as it currently exists, in March, two months ago. Additionally, Superintendent Dr. Shanna Downs stated in the regular meeting, “I can’t, in good conscience, with the feedback we’ve received, recommend a change to that policy.”

Much of the board agreed as the motion came to approve a waiver from board member Joe Pflueger. A second to the motion never came, meaning the motion died and a waiver was not approved. Thus, eighth grade band members cannot participate in high school band due to the standing Policy IDE (3).

Gilmer Schools lifts masks mandate on buses

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EAST ELLIJAY, Ga. – Step by step, little by little, Gilmer County is lifting restrictions and slowly moving back to far more casual life. Leaving behind masks and other PPE, the entire nation is taking steps as people are returning to sports arenas and school events like proms and graduations are showcasing the step back to life without certain constraints.

This week saw Gilmer’s Board of Education take another step on that same path as requests came for the board to lift the mandate for masks on buses.

This mandate has been in place all school year since Gilmer welcomed students back into class with the options for in-person or virtual learning. Now, a week before graduation, the board unanimously agreed that the time has come to step back from such restrictions. This does not mean you won’t see masks anymore. Superintendent Dr. Shanna Downs made note that lifting the mandate only means they are optional now. Each student and parent are still the ones talking about the choice. According to Downs, many students do still wear the masks and have their own ready.

Downs said that many drivers have noted that students who don’t wear masks throughout the day will tend to forget them in a classroom. Bus drivers have some available, but the need for more has gone up as more students have laid down their masks throughout their standard day.

Board member Ronald Watkins, who has voiced opinions in favor of personal choice before, commented in the work session saying, “I say let them take them off.” Watkins advocated in favor of the request as he said to give the kids the option to wear them or not.

When questioned, Downs said that she has seen more masks used in elementary levels as opposed to higher grades.

While some comments were made among the board that this is only taking effect in the final days of this school year, it does set an indication as to what the board plans moving forward. As of now, this means that masks will continue to be optional on buses into the next school year.

Of course, should things change, the Board could always reinstate, but for now, it is 5-0 vote for lifting the mandate and allowing students and parents to make their choice on masks.

County renames park to Ralston River Park

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ELLIJAY, Ga. – Honoring the entire Ralston family for contributions to the county and the park specifically, including that of Georgia House Speaker David Ralston, the Gilmer County Board of Commissioners voted unanimously to rename the riverside park along Old Highway 5 to “Ralston River Park.”

Ralston

In April of 2018, Speaker David Ralston attended the opening of the new playground at River Park which a state grant aided local funds in creating.

Originating in this month’s meeting as an agenda item to rename the walking path for the Ralston family, discussion turned to the 28 years of service the county has received through numerous efforts from the family as a whole. Parks and Recreations Director Kevan White spoke during the Commissioners Work Session on the topic saying that some of those efforts include employment with the Parks and Rec Department, officiating basketball games over the years, memberships to the Parks and Rec Advisory Board, coaching various sports, GRPA awards and recognitions, state level service with  public service since 1992, state legislation since 2002, volunteer services in disasters like Hurricane Isaac, state-level support in the recent upgrades, county level public service in the commissioners office, and more.

The original proposal the White spoke of was to name the path the “Ralston Riverwalk.” However, Post Commissioner Hubert Parker offered a step-up alternative in naming the whole park instead of the just the walking path. While White said he had thought about it, but didn’t propose it at first, he noted that several parts of the park, like the tennis courts, bear names of people who have dedicated great services to the county and the Parks and Recreation Department as well. White also noted that he has further plans for other dedications in the Clear Creek area as well.

Ralston

Kevan White speaks to the Gilmer BOC in May of 2021 about renaming the park as “Ralston River Park.”

Ultimately, no objection came, and a unanimous agreement to increase the dedication from the walking path to the park in general was made. The BOC May Regular meeting saw the formal motion to add the honorific.

The official name change completed, Chairman Charlie Paris did tell FYN that the county would be placing some sort of plaque or signage bearing the name in the future. But does not currently have a sign ready for it.

Ellijay sees surge at gas pumps with Colonial Pipeline shutdown

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ELLIJAY, Ga. – With the recent news of both the Colonial Pipeline’s shutdown and restart, many citizens have resorted to stocking and gathering extra gas. While citizens have reported people filling extra cans and tanks in Gilmer County, nothing has yet been reported as some photos on the internet show in major cities where people are filling everything from trash cans to plastic bags in order to store and collect gasoline for future use.

Despite the lines and crowds of this week, today saw gas stations across Ellijay with very few cars waiting and very few stations closed.

On Tuesday, Governor Brian Kemp suspended Georgia’s gas tax and prohibited price gouging. The Murphy gas station in the Walmart parking lot in Ellijay had an attendant walking pump to pump on Tuesday, some said the attendant was monitoring vehicles to make sure no one person was filling too many extra tanks. However, the attendant declined to comment with the media directly.

But Murphy is not the only station that would be doing this. One resident living in Pickens, Mark said that he found the BP in Jasper limiting the amount of gas citizens could buy as well.

Lines have formed over the last few days as people continue either topping off their tanks or collecting extra, and Green’s Country Store at the corner of Old Highway 5 and Highway 515 did have its sign shutdown on Tuesday. The Conoco next to the Walgreens in Ellijay also had pumps closed one day. However, despite some closures here and there and lines for only a couple days, the county has not seen mass shutdowns or devastating effects like some major cities.

gas

Shutdowns have occurred in Gilmer County, but not to the extent of some larger cities. Still, some stations like the Valero on Highway 382 have seen the effects of the surge in the county.

That does not mean that authorities are not responding and trying to help citizens. Gilmer’s Public Safety Department posted to social media yesterday saying “The Georgia Consumer Affairs Protection Division has set up phone lines for the purpose of reporting price gouging.”

Federal authorities are saying that many places will see a “return to operations” by the weekend. In fact, as pictured, most gas stations in Gilmer today are devoid of the lines from the past few days, and few have been seen closed.

Attacked by hackers, media reports have indicated that Colonial Pipeline paid the ransomware attack to the tune of $5 million. Nobody knows if that cost is going to keep gas prices high in the coming weeks. Gilmer alone saw many of its stations hovering around and just under $3 per gallon over the last few days, while before the attack, most prices were closer to $2.70 per gallon.

Although there have been no current reports in Ellijay or East Ellijay, citizens have feared over the last few days that some might seek to take advantage of the shortage by hiking prices to outrageous amounts. For those cases of extreme hikes, Gilmer Public Safety’s post about price gouging included some directions for reporting.

The Division has been overwhelmed with calls and asks that you review and confirm the elements of price gouging, as outlined below, before calling their office.

They can be reached at 404-651-8600 or Toll Free 1-800-869-1123 if outside of the Metro Atlanta calling area. Representatives are available weekdays between 8:30 AM and 5:00 PM Monday through Thursday, and 8:30 AM and 4:00 PM on Friday.

Price gouging in Georgia is defined as follows:
Selling items or services determined by the Governor during a declared state of emergency to be necessary for public safety at a higher cost than they were immediately prior to the declaration.
Charged as a deceptive or unfair trade practice (and investigated by the AG as such); an additional civil penalty of up to $10,000 for each violation if “disaster-related.”

One day ago, massive lines and wait times plagued gas stations like this one in Blairsville, Georgia.

GTC confirms 515 alternate path to Boardtown road project

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GILMER COUNTY, Ga. – An official statement from the Georgia Transmission Corporation (GTC) today has given relief to the Boardtown road community, through Highway 515, who have been vocally opposing the major project’s plans to build on the road.

The community and its leaders often stated that they supported the project and agreed with it being a needed upgrade, but wanted the project relocated to a different location. Many specifically stated Highway 515 as an alternative.

Even GTC said they had originally looked at 515 but were turned down.

515 515Today, with the aid of House Speaker David Ralston and Senator Steve Gooch, the GTC said, “Following months of extensive analysis at the request of the local community, Georgia Transmission has determined that Highway 515 is a viable corridor for the Whitepath Electric Reliability Project. Conversations are underway with the Georgia Department of Transportation to develop a proposed route for the project adjacent to Highway 515 that meets engineering and safety constraints.”

GTC gave specific thanks to Ralston and Gooch and the community saying the result was a culmination of efforts and input from “community partners including citizens, civic organizations, and elected officials.”

As plans continue for the official path the 46 kV sub-transmission line will take, a preliminary path has already been laid out in consultation with Speaker Ralston. GTC said that this new path involves purchasing easements to minimize the impact of the line on rights of way owned by both the public and the Georgia Department of Transportation.

In late September of 2020, GTC said they were beginning “an extensive look” into the 515 and another alternative path. Just over seven months later, they are confirming this path as viable.

The opposition started last year after a series of public information meetings showed a pathway leading down Boardtown road after GTC had already ruled out the 515 path and one along a CSX rail line.

GTC said the Highway 515 path was denied due to limitations including a request denial by GDOT. 

Now, with the path approved, House Speaker Ralston said, “This outcome demonstrates that workable solutions can be achieved when parties come together in cooperative spirit for the betterment of the community. Sen. Gooch and I are pleased that our partners at Georgia Transmission and Amicalola EMC have done their due diligence in service to the community and are now able to take the next step in ensuring reliable electricity for households and businesses in Gilmer County.”

Ralston was brought in on the project discussion after Gilmer County’s Board of Commissioners drafted letters to him and Gooch last year. Citizens flooded into the county’s monthly meeting asking for help in discussions to find an alternative path from Boardtown. With the board’s letters and offers to set up additional meetings for citizens, they pledged to aid in what ways they could.

With the confirmation of this alternative path’s viability, Georgia Transmission Vice President of Project Services John Reese said, “Georgia Transmission is proud that we were able to honor our word to the community while fulfilling our mission of helping to keep the lights on for Gilmer County. Although considerable work remains to be done we appreciate the active engagement of Amicalola EMC and its members, and the leadership of Speaker Ralston and Senator Gooch, in identifying a solution to the critical electric reliability need in the area.”

According to GTC’s statement, they will soon begin undertaking the process necessary for “advancing the route along Highway 515.” This process involves finalizing the route, contacting property owners in the area, and more public meetings.

For citizens wishing to continue following this project, Georgia Transmission will offer updates on the project page of their site.

Missing Mother of two discovered in Cherry Log murder

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GILMER, Ga – Last seen in Doraville, Georgia, on April 17, Rossana Delgado was discovered as the victim of a murder in Cherry Log on April 20, 2021.

Delgado

Juan Ayala-Rodriguez

The Gilmer County Sheriff’s Department continued investigations and offered a report on the activity clarifying, “We DO NOT feel that there is a current threat to our citizens in the area.” The Sheriff’s Office was working alongside the Georgia Bureau of Investigation (GBI) in the death investigation.

Since then, FYN has confirmed with authorities that the victim was Rossana Delgado. A mother of two has been missing from the Barrow County area since last Friday. The GBI now has four suspects with a possible fifth. Pictured are those suspects.

According to other reports, Delgado’s last known location was in Doraville, Ga. on April 17. They also indicate that she spoke to her husband at about 7 p.m. last Friday night. This was before picking up a person for her job. Reports say she drove a red 2017 Ford Focus as part of a job with a taxi service. However, it is unclear whether it was with Lyft, Uber, or another similar service.

Mario Barbosa-Juarez

While her husband did track her through her phone for a while, he and authorities did not find Delgado as her phone was discovered in public storage on Covington Highway. Unfortunately, that search ends today as Gilmer County Sheriff’s Deputies identified the victim of a murder in Cherry Log.

Since Thursday, April 22, 2021, social media has been covered in theories, reports, and rumors that citizens have spread about the crime while authorities have tracked evidence and worked with the GBI in the investigation. Now, they are releasing more information on their discoveries. As with most police investigations, details are limited due to the ongoing investigation and other duties like notifying family members first.

The GBI has officially issued murder warrants for suspects in the Gilmer County murder of Delgado.

Megan Colone AKA Grace Beda

The GBI stated, “The suspects that are wanted in connection with this murder are Megan Alyssa Colone, 30, of Stone Mountain, GA, Juan Ayala-Rodriguez, 35, of Gainesville, GA, Oscar Manuel Garcia, 26, of Austell, GA, and Mario Alberto Barbosa-Juarez, 29, of Oklahoma City, OK.  It is believed that the four suspects plus a fifth suspect, that has yet to be identified, may no longer be in Georgia.”

It is also noted that Colone may be traveling under the alias, Grace Beda. Colone is believed to be traveling with her minor children. Authorities nationwide have been alerted about these individuals.

According to the GBI’s press release, “On Tuesday, April 20, 2021, at approximately 7 a.m., the Gilmer County Sheriff’s Office conducted a welfare check at a residence in Cherry Log, Georgia.”

Concerted efforts to identify the fifth suspect are ongoing.

Oscar Garcia

The GBI asks anyone with information about the whereabouts of Colone, Ayala-Rodriguez, Garcia, or Barbosa-Juarez are asked to call the GBI Tipline at 1-800-597-TIPS(8477), report the information online at https://gbi.georgia.gov/submit-tips-online or by downloading the mobile app, See Something Send Something.  If you see any of these individuals do not approach them, call 911 immediately.

The Gilmer County Sheriff’s Office has asked for patience and understanding with this case. The GBI echoed the sentiment saying that this investigation is still very active.  The GBI and the Gilmer County Sheriff’s Office continue to coordinate with the Barrow County Sheriff’s Office, the DeKalb County Police Department, and the Chamblee Police Department, as well as multiple state, local, and Federal agencies to locate and hold the responsible parties accountable.

As the investigation continues and authorities continue to release information, FYN will continue to update this story and new articles as it becomes available. The GBI stated that the autopsy results are pending, but upon completion of this investigation, the file will be provided to the Appalachian Judicial Circuit District Attorney for prosecution.

Full press release from GBI below:

Ellijay, Georgia (April 24, 2020) – Murder warrants have been issued for suspects in the Gilmer County murder of Rossana Delgado, 37, of Bethlehem, GA, that occurred on April 20, 2021.  The suspects that are wanted in connection with this murder are Megan Alyssa Colone, 30, of Stone Mountain, GA, Juan Ayala-Rodriguez, 35, of Gainesville, GA, Oscar Manuel Garcia, 26, of Austell, GA, and Mario Alberto Barbosa-Juarez, 29, of Oklahoma City, OK.  It is believed that the four suspects plus a fifth suspect, that has yet to be identified, may no longer be in Georgia.  Colone may be traveling under the alias, Grace Beda.  Colone is believed to be traveling with her minor children.  Authorities nationwide have been alerted about these individuals.

On Tuesday, April 20, 2021, at approximately 7 a.m., the Gilmer County Sheriff’s Office conducted a welfare check at a residence in Cherry Log, Georgia.  Gilmer County deputies responded and then requested the assistance of the Georgia Bureau of Investigation’s (GBI) Regional Investigative Office in Cleveland, GA.  The victim found at the scene was later identified as Delgado.  Delgado was reported as a missing person in Barrow County, Georgia on April 16, 2021.  She was last seen in DeKalb County on April 16, 2021.

Concerted efforts to identify the fifth suspect in this case are ongoing.  Anyone with information about the whereabouts of Colone, Ayala-Rodriguez, Garcia or Barbosa-Juarez are asked to call the GBI Tipline at 1-800-597-TIPS(8477), report the information online at https://gbi.georgia.gov/submit-tips-online or by downloading the mobile app, See Something Send Something.  If you see any of these individuals do not approach them, call 911 immediately.

This investigation is still very active.  The GBI and the Gilmer County Sheriff’s Office continue to coordinate with the Barrow County Sheriff’s Office, the DeKalb County Police Department, and the Chamblee Police Department, as well as multiple state, local and Federal agencies to locate and hold the responsible parties accountable.

The autopsy results are pending.

Upon completion of this investigation, the file will be provided to the Appalachian Judicial Circuit District Attorney for prosecution.

See more press releases and updates as the GBI and Gilmer Sheriff’s Office continue the investigation with updates about the fifth suspect and asking for citizens help in identifying another person of interest.

Watkins announces final term in Board of Education

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EAST ELLIJAY, Ga. – Referencing the recent dissension over the school’s 2021-2022 calendar, board member and current Chairman Ronald Watkins said he has caught major backlash over the issue.

Watkins announced in the BOE’s public comments session this month that he will not be running again in the coming elections. Dealing with much of the frustration from the public and what he stated as “people telling a little bit of the truth and a little bit of lies,” Watkins voiced his anger over the issue and the backlash to him as a public official.

Ronald Watkins, Member of the Gilmer County Board of Education

During his comments, he denounced citizens who, according to Watkins, claimed he voted based on his own vacations. Saying that he raises chickens, he said he could not plan vacations on the calendar regardless of which one it was. He went on to say that if he had his choice, Gilmer’s Calendar would be that of Murray County.

Watkins said he has been on the board for years working for the public. He said, “I took up for every kid, teachers, and everybody.” He condemned the public’s response on the recent issues referencing something he saw in “emails.”

As if speaking directly to those people in the meeting, Watkins said, “You ain’t going to get to vote against me next year,” as he announced that this would be his final term.

However, the calendar issue may not have been the direct cause of this announcement, Watkins claimed that he had previously spoken with Superintendent Dr. Shanna Downs about this being his last term and not wanting to run again. He said he had “made that promise” a while ago.

Linking in another resignation, Watkins furthered addressed the resignation of Dr. Downs saying that she resigned and that “We did not run Dr. Downs off. She had my full backing. You can sit there and shake your head no, I don’t care. She had my full backing. This was her decision.”

While it is unusual to see such an early announcement of decisions on running for office, it was made publicly, in an open county meeting. This makes two absences that the Board of Education will face in its future. However, Watkins did not tender a resignation, meaning that he will continue to serve the remainder of his term as of this time.

The board has faced member resignations in the last five years, which is how Watkins current service began as he filled the remainder of a term left from a resignation before running for office for the following term.

BOE names Kim Cagle as Interim Superintendent

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EAST ELLIJAY, Ga. – As the Board begins its search for a new Superintendent, they officially named Kim Cagle as the county’s Interim Superintendent.

Cagle

Interim Superintendent Kim Cagle

Cagle is currently Assistant Superintendent for Student Services in Gilmer Schools. She will step into the role of Interim Superintendent on May 28, 2021, the final day for current Superintendent Dr. Shanna Downs. This will also be when the board transitions from accepting applications to actively pursuing its new Superintendent through interviews.

AS the Interim Superintendent, she will be guiding the board over the summer during the selection process as she was approved as Interim Superintendent from from June 1 until August 31, 2021.

Cagle has operated alongside Downs during her time as Superintendent, bringing experience in the position, the board’s ongoing tasks and operations, and the community.

Official approval for Cagle came after an executive session during April’s regular meeting. There were no other recommendations made and she was unanimously approved.

Cagle

Gilmer Schools Superintendent Dr. Shanna Downs

Dr. Shanna Downs later stated in a press release, “I believe the Board’s selection of Mrs. Kim Cagle as Interim Superintendent will allow for a very smooth transition and help the district maintain continuity of progress and programs. I feel very comforted to know that I am leaving the district in such capable hands.”

Cagle will be working with the board and alongside King-Cooper and Associates during the search. While the board hopes to review applications and conduct interviews in late May and early June and to select the next Superintendent by July, the board’s approval is effective until the end of August should any delays arise.

Gilmer BOE takes first steps in new Superintendent Search

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EAST ELLIJAY, Ga. – With official approval having come on April 15, 2021, in their monthly meeting, the Gilmer County Board of Education has begun its search for the next Superintendent with King-Cooper and Associates search firm.

With a press release, Gilmer Schools made a statement about the search saying that they would accept applications for the position until May 21, 2021. They stated, “The vacancy will be advertised by electronic postings on the school system web site, the search firm’s web site, and on the web sites of the Georgia School Superintendents Association and the Georgia School Boards Association.”

King-Cooper an d Associates was approved as the firm by a memorandum of understanding during the board’s April regular meeting. They are a small search firm based in Thomaston, Georgia. According to their release, “King-Cooper and Associates specializes in customized and affordable superintendent searches for small and medium size school systems. The firm assisted the Board in their last search in 2015 and has conducted over 65 successful superintendent searches in Georgia.”

Because they will accept application until late May, this date falls in conjunction with the previously reported final day of current Superintendent Dr. Shanna Downs on May 28, 2021. In the time after, Gilmer’s Board of Education named Ms. Kim Cagle to serve as Interim Superintendent.

Steps of the search will include advertising the position, receiving and processing applications, verifying reference and background information, sorting applications based on the Board’s selection criteria, and the scheduling and facilitation of interviews. Dr. Sandy Addis will serve as the lead facilitator of the search.

“Our job is to secure a strong pool of applicants and to assist the Board to select the very best superintendent for Gilmer County,” Addis said. “We handle the details of the search and provide the best possible information for the Board to make a good choice but we don’t tell the board who to hire,” Addis stated. “There will be strong interest in the position because of the positive reputation of the school system, the community, and the Board. Gilmer County is one of Georgia’s most desirable and attractive school systems.”

According to their press release, the Board hopes to review applications and conduct interviews in late May and early June and to select the next Superintendent by July. During April, the Board will conduct surveys to determine what characteristics and qualifications the community and school system employees think are most important in the selection process. A survey for parents, students, and community members will be posted on the system web site at www.gilmerschools.com. A similar survey will be emailed to all school system employees.

They stated, “The Board will utilize survey results in the interview and selection process to employ a superintendent that meets the needs and expectations of the community.”

County Advertises Version 9 with a look to further changes later

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Gilmer County BOC, Intergovernmental Agreement, session, Meeting, Board

ELLIJAY, Ga. – After months of debate, revisits, revisions, and deliberations, the Board of Commissioners is advertising its Land Development Ordinance changes as proposed in Version 9 for the county. Citizens are now able to see what the final document could look like if approved in both May and June.

After the months of preparation and details surrounding other minor details like standardizing and limiting personal driveway slopes to maintain access for public safety vehicles and emergency services, the county almost hit a tenth version as discussion continued onto the subject of workforce housing returning to the subject brought up by the Greater Gilmer JDA (Joint Devel0pment Authority) in recent months and years.

The topic was broached with discussion of high density housing through apartments and similar structures to provide affordable housing to working citizens supporting the community. It was noted these structures would need to be closer to the cities as they would require water and sewer access. The subject touched on drastically reducing the restrictions on the highest density residential zonings to support such structures and relying on the need for water/sewer access rather than wells, septic tanks, and similar options used by more of the unincorporated areas of the county.

Ordinance

However, full details were not delved into and discussed as the board sought to broach this subject later and no longer delay the main changes to the Land Development Ordinance that has been in process for months.

The board spoke of discussing the subject with the Planning and Zoning board as well as others involved including developers.

Additionally, Kent Sanford, Greater Gilmer JDA Executive Director, thanked the board this month as he spoke during the Citizens Wishing to Speak. He noted that demographics in Gilmer are continuing to show increasing retirement age citizens. However, Sanford said the county still needs more workforce housing and thanked the board for considering that.

One counterpoint came in the discussion saying that easing restrictions and allowing such density could still result in constructed “luxury apartments” that would still be unaffordable to many people working local jobs.

With more discussion to come and this topic not included in the current version, the board is looking at options to restrict or encourage affordable housing over luxury style.

The current version of the Land Development Ordinance is not in place yet, and even if final approval comes in June, the board is also looking to not implement these changes until at least 2022 or possibly one year from approval. No formal date has been set yet, but will be set before approvals come in May and June.

Post Commissioner Karleen Ferguson also told citizens that this was not the only look into affordable housing as she shared she will be attending a meeting in the coming week on the topic looking for answers in the county.

As the “final version” of land development moves through its process, the board’s continued discussion is indicating that the current changes may complete soon, but it will not be the end of the discussions on housing in the county.

BOE tours CCES in final stages

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CCES

EAST ELLIJAY, Ga. – With only a month left as representatives from Breaux & Associates Architects said the Clear Creek Elementary School (CCES) should complete near the end of June, school officials toured the interior of Clear Creek Elementary School with representatives from the architectural firm.

CCES

The entrance of CCES will be blocked by a glass wall as a security entrance, directing visitors to the office via a window access or door.

The Board of Education has told the public for months that the project would complete and be ready for teachers to move in before the start of next semester. This is coming to fruition as Board members requested to tour the facility and advertised a called meeting to do so. The entire board arrived on site at 6 p.m. on May 26, 2021, along with Superintendent Dr. Shanna Downs, and both county and CCES administrators looking to explore the new facility. While some are being allowed into the facility, like the guide tour, general visitation and teachers are not yet allowed in during the final stages.

CCES

With angled access doors, four classrooms can be viewed from a single spot in the hallway as they are grouped together.

Teachers have mentioned in previous meetings that they are looking to move in to the new school as soon as possible so that they may have the time they need to move in their furniture and prepare the rooms for students. Everything from desks and supplies to decorations and alternative seating have been used in Gilmer’s elementary schools with teachers utilizing their classrooms to provide an environment for students. The BOE has seen these efforts as different schools present new efforts, programs, and other points of interest to the board during the monthly meetings.

Though bare now as no furniture or personalization has been brought in by teachers, yet. Classrooms are nearly completed and ready for the coming school year.

CCES

Food preparation is still awaiting larger appliances which Breaux said would be some of the final equipment brought into the new school.

Much of CCES mirrors itself on both sides as the facility hosts smalls “pods” as Douglas Breaux of Breaux & Associates called them. Four classrooms connect to each other in their corners, allowing someone standing in the hallway to view into all four rooms from a single spot. Eight classrooms are in each hallway with four halls of classes not including larger rooms like music, art, and gym.

Breaux said that the facility is in the final phase with virtually all of the major construction steps done. Now, they are finishing up the details of the facility, finishing floors, starting to bring in furniture, applying fixtures, and painting are a few of the remaining steps.

The Media Center, pictured, is near the front entrance of CCES with central access by the school’s inhabitants, but also designed by the architects to be a “show piece” as one of the first rooms visitors will see upon entering.

CCES

CCES’ cafeteria includes a stage which administrators already have plans for. It can be accessed by two hallways or by outer doors to the rear of the building.

Also mentioned during the tour, the complete facility has already prepared room to expand. According to Breaux, their is graded land already prepared should the board ever need to expand further, 16 extra classrooms could be added, eight on each side of the school with the halls expanding to include one more “pod” of four classes each.

This school is preparing for a full return of students in late 2021 as the new school year is planned to completely remove distance learning from the lower grades in Gilmer County, marking a return to pre-COVID proceedings.

CCES

With more room, administrators are already planning on how to best operate the back side of CCES, pictured, where students will go for daily drop-off and pick-up.

Daily pick-up and drop-off and bus traffic will all be directed through the rear of the facility and administrators have already begun planning on how to handle the daily operations now that they have seen the facility nearly completed.

While the larger rooms like the cafeteria, music room, art room, and media center do not yet have the major furniture in them, the general layouts can be seen. The media center is wired for a full technology area along one wall and has its main desk up. The cafeteria has its stage finished where administrators say they will utilize the area for presentations and awards when needed, but also have a daily uses planned like a special dining area at different style table where certain students with good behavior are allowed to sit, supporting PBIS (Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports) programming. The art room already has a space prepared with necessary ventilation for a kiln. Something the school received through a grant but has not yet been able to use in this school.

Ready to see furniture, teachers, and students, CCES is on track for the 2021-2022 school year as the Board of Education is ready to finally move from its old location at what was once Ellijay Primary School to its new location neighboring Clear Creek Middle. Leaving behind the old facility, this move marks one culmination of the system’s 2019 redistricting for its elementary schools to serve geographic portions of the county.

The plan, as stated in 2019, “will allow students to experience less transitions during critical early learning years and will improve efficiency of bus routes for community schools.” Downtown Ellijay may also see slightly less traffic in the area as it only serves one school now, not two.

 

BOE tours CCES in final stages

News
CCES

EAST ELLIJAY, Ga. – With only a month left as representatives from Breaux & Associates Architects said the Clear Creek Elementary School (CCES) should complete near the end of June, school officials toured the interior of Clear Creek Elementary School with representatives from the architectural firm.

CCES

The entrance of CCES will be blocked by a glass wall as a security entrance, directing visitors to the office via a window access or door.

The Board of Education has told the public for months that the project would complete and be ready for teachers to move in before the start of next semester. This is coming to fruition as Board members requested to tour the facility and advertised a called meeting to do so. The entire board arrived on site at 6 p.m. on May 26, 2021, along with Superintendent Dr. Shanna Downs, and both county and CCES administrators looking to explore the new facility. While some are being allowed into the facility, like the guide tour, general visitation and teachers are not yet allowed in during the final stages.

CCES

With angled access doors, four classrooms can be viewed from a single spot in the hallway as they are grouped together.

Teachers have mentioned in previous meetings that they are looking to move in to the new school as soon as possible so that they may have the time they need to move in their furniture and prepare the rooms for students. Everything from desks and supplies to decorations and alternative seating have been used in Gilmer’s elementary schools with teachers utilizing their classrooms to provide an environment for students. The BOE has seen these efforts as different schools present new efforts, programs, and other points of interest to the board during the monthly meetings.

Though bare now as no furniture or personalization has been brought in by teachers, yet. Classrooms are nearly completed and ready for the coming school year.

CCES

Food preparation is still awaiting larger appliances which Breaux said would be some of the final equipment brought into the new school.

Much of CCES mirrors itself on both sides as the facility hosts smalls “pods” as Douglas Breaux of Breaux & Associates called them. Four classrooms connect to each other in their corners, allowing someone standing in the hallway to view into all four rooms from a single spot. Eight classrooms are in each hallway with four halls of classes not including larger rooms like music, art, and gym.

Breaux said that the facility is in the final phase with virtually all of the major construction steps done. Now, they are finishing up the details of the facility, finishing floors, starting to bring in furniture, applying fixtures, and painting are a few of the remaining steps.

The Media Center, pictured, is near the front entrance of CCES with central access by the school’s inhabitants, but also designed by the architects to be a “show piece” as one of the first rooms visitors will see upon entering.

CCES

CCES’ cafeteria includes a stage which administrators already have plans for. It can be accessed by two hallways or by outer doors to the rear of the building.

Also mentioned during the tour, the complete facility has already prepared room to expand. According to Breaux, their is graded land already prepared should the board ever need to expand further, 16 extra classrooms could be added, eight on each side of the school with the halls expanding to include one more “pod” of four classes each.

This school is preparing for a full return of students in late 2021 as the new school year is planned to completely remove distance learning from the lower grades in Gilmer County, marking a return to pre-COVID proceedings.

CCES

With more room, administrators are already planning on how to best operate the back side of CCES, pictured, where students will go for daily drop-off and pick-up.

Daily pick-up and drop-off and bus traffic will all be directed through the rear of the facility and administrators have already begun planning on how to handle the daily operations now that they have seen the facility nearly completed.

While the larger rooms like the cafeteria, music room, art room, and media center do not yet have the major furniture in them, the general layouts can be seen. The media center is wired for a full technology area along one wall and has its main desk up. The cafeteria has its stage finished where administrators say they will utilize the area for presentations and awards when needed, but also have a daily uses planned like a special dining area at different style table where certain students with good behavior are allowed to sit, supporting PBIS (Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports) programming. The art room already has a space prepared with necessary ventilation for a kiln. Something the school received through a grant but has not yet been able to use in this school.

Ready to see furniture, teachers, and students, CCES is on track for the 2021-2022 school year as the Board of Education is ready to finally move from its old location at what was once Ellijay Primary School to its new location neighboring Clear Creek Middle. Leaving behind the old facility, this move marks one culmination of the system’s 2019 redistricting for its elementary schools to serve geographic portions of the county.

The plan, as stated in 2019, “will allow students to experience less transitions during critical early learning years and will improve efficiency of bus routes for community schools.” Downtown Ellijay may also see slightly less traffic in the area as it only serves one school now, not two.

 

Superintendent Downs Resigns at Gilmer Board of Education

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Downs

East Ellijay, Ga. – A special called meeting of the Gilmer Board of Education was silenced as the personnel section, the only item on the meeting’s agenda, saw Gilmer’s Superintendent of Schools, Dr. Shanna Downs recommend a motion to “accept the Superintendent’s resignation.”

Downs

Gilmer Schools Superintendent Dr. Shanna Downs

The meeting room was silent as no board member made a motion or even a statement for a few moments. But only a few seconds before the official motion came from Michael Bramlett with a second from Michael Parks. The resignation is effect May 28, 2021.

This means that Dr. Downs will remain with Gilmer Schools through the next two months before officially moving on to her new position. In a statement after the meeting, Downs confirmed that she would be accepting the position of Executive Director of West Goergia RESA (Regional Education Service Agency).

She said it felt like the right time as “It’s a good opportunity, one that I didn’t think would present itself again.” Downs explained that positions like the one she will be taking are not often available.

In her resignation letter, she thanked the school board for the opportunity to serve the community saying, “After 6 years of continued improvement and multiple accomplishments for our students to academic achievement, updated facilities, new buildings, significantly lower millage rates, and strong financial reserves, my time has come to pursue a new endeavor.”

With the resignation set to take effect in May, the board ended their Special Called Meeting in Executive Session with no action anticipated. It was stated that they would be discussing a Superintendent search. The board could have two months to find the new Superintendent and complete the interview and hiring process.

She stated, “Given the recent change to the dynamics of the Board of Education, I believe the timing of my resignation will allow the Board to prepare for the FY22 school year with a candidate selected by the board.”

Downs promised to complete her last two months in Gilmer supporting the board’s mission and vision for the school system.

Fire Department called to Gilmer High Gym

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South State, fire

ELLIJAY, Ga. – Parents are receiving messages from Gilmer High School today informing them that the Fire Department had to be called to the school.

Gilmer Schools Superintendent Dr. Shanna Downs

According to those messages, due to smoke coming from the mechanical room in the gym, school officials called the Fire Department to investigate. Immediately removing all students from the facility, they were taken to the Band Practice Field for safety.

According to a statement from Superintendent Dr. Shanna Downs, no students were harmed and the fire was quite small.

She added that as of 10:30 a.m, the Fire Department has extinguished the fire and cleared the area for students to return.

While authorities are still looking into the situation, preliminary information from the Fire Department said that the fire could have been electrical in nature. However, this was speculative as they were still looking into it. Reports indicate that only minor damage has been caused to the mechanical room of the gym.

Lower Cartecay Bridge to start construction before a temporary closure to 52 East

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ELLIJAY, Ga. – During the county’s monthly work session today, information received over a zoom call was revealed as Commission Chairman Charlie Paris, along with Public Works Director Jim Smith spoke on it’s involvement with another Georgia Department of Transportation (DOT) bridge project.

According to Smith, the state is discussing replacement of two bridges on Highway 52 East. The project would require a detour along state roads as they plan to go about the project. Smith went on to add that this could mean closure of as section of the highway for up to a year.

Through traffic would take alternative state roads. However, Smith noted that much of the local traffic would end up relying on Lower Cartecay Bridge for certain traffic and access routes. The project has been under discussion since it was condemned in April, 2017. It was later adopted into a state replacement program, and it was later given a priority over another local bridge.

Now, the bridge could see the beginning of construction to replace it over five years later. According to Chairman Paris, the date given by the state would be August, 2022.

In addition to this, Smith said that the state hopes to start its 52 East Bridges project in 2025.

Public Works Director Jim Smith

Paris added later that Smith presented a strong argument that the DOT needs to move the start date on Lower Cartecay to a earlier date so that the bridge will definitely be completed and available for traffic as necessary for local traffic.

While the state made no official promises, Smith said representatives “didn’t disagree” with a need for an earlier start to Lower Cartecay.

This project has gone through several plans for replacement in the county as former Post Commissioner Travis Crouch debated for setting aside money in the annual budget to replace the bridge before the board found the state replacement program.

A massive reduction in local costs, the county applied and was accepted into the program, but has, until today, never heard of official start dates for the physical construction as the state has been acquiring right of ways and engineering plans for the project.

Paris said both he and Smith stressed the importance of having he bridge completed sooner rather than later, especially with another major bridge project nearby so close behind it on the timeline.

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