° empty

Prison riot leads year of highs and lows

File Photos | The Natchez Democrat — The riot at the Adams County Correctional Facility led the year's biggest news stories. Other big events in 2012 include, top row from left, the return of the American Queen, the Malt Shop being heavily damaged in a wreck, Gov. Phil Bryant's visit to announce new industry, Vidalia's financial troubles; second row, Concordia Parish Sheriff Randy Maxwell's retirement, the reorganization of the Natchez public schools and hiring of a new superintendent; bottom row, the election of Butch Brown mayor and the opening of a second Natchez casino.

Did all that happen in a year?

Looking back at 2012 in the Miss-Lou takes some time; the year was a busy one on many fronts and for many faces. It had its high points and low points, but both served to set the stage for 2013, local officials said.

Massive turnover in nearly every kind of key leadership position in the area marked an era of change that will continue for sometime. Economic development prospects continued to make commitments and move forward on projects.

But for nine hours one Sunday night in May, much of the community stood still with worry and fear.


CCA Prison riot leaves one dead, others injured

For the first few hours, few on the outside knew there was trouble within the walls of the Adams County Correctional Center on May 20.

But as word began spreading, the crowd of fearful friends and family began to grow along U.S. 84, just across from the prison which houses federal inmates, mostly illegal immigrants.

At the same time, local, state and regional law enforcement officers began to swarm the scene, setting up a perimeter but certainly drawing attention, too. Rumor, later largely confirmed, was that the inmates had taken over, were holding employees hostage and destroying the facility.

Day turned to night, and onlookers heard what they presumed were gunshots — though they weren’t — saw smoke and flames and watched as SWAT team members walked around on the roof of the prison.

Nearly nine hours had passed before Adams County Sheriff Chuck Mayfield — the only authority to speak publicly on the matter that day — said the chaos was contained.

No inmates had escaped, though local deputies reportedly stared a few in the eye through a razor wire fence, threating to shoot if the inmates tried anything.

Mayfield said this week that looking back on the incident six months later, he’s proud of the response of law enforcement.

“The bravery and the fortitude of not just my deputies but everybody who went into that extremely dangerous situation, and the way that it turned out, it kind of proves that something of that magnitude — 2,500 inmates could have been a problem — in this community, we can handle just about anything that comes along,” Mayfield said. “We passed with flying colors.”

The prison went on lockdown for weeks after the riot was contained and cleanup of more than $1 million in damage lasted most of the year.

And everyone’s worst fear was confirmed — an employee had been killed.

Catlin Carithers, 24, a senior correctional officer who served on the private prison’s special response team, died of blunt force head trauma during and assault on the roof of the prison early in the riot.

His family said goodbye at funeral services on May 26.

“It was a horrible situation, but it made you proud of the community and the department and how professional it was handled,” Mayfield said this week.

Since the riot, one inmate has been sentenced to serve 40 months in prison and pay $1.3 million in restitution.

Up to 30 more inmates could be facing charges.


Economic development announcements continue; Rentech abandons Natchez project

The city, county and Mississippi Legislature gave a resounding vote of confidence to the still-new Natchez Inc. early in 2012, renewing the economic development engine’s legislation until 2016.

And Natchez Inc. continued to deliver all year long with economic development announcements.

Elevance Renewable Sciences — which announced its Adams County plans the year prior — began producing fuel at its plant in 2012, hiring some employees. Its full ramp up isn’t expected until 2013, though.

Biofuels company KiOR announced in March that it would locate its second Mississippi production facility in Natchez, a move that will create 300 jobs.

Blain Sand and Gravel and Fores North America announced plans to create a fracking support industry, creating 60 jobs.

Genesis Energy, an oil-refining industry, announced plans to create 20 high-paying jobs, but more importantly to move 20,000 rail cars on the local railway. Area officials said that amount of rail traffic was exactly what was needed to keep the Natchez railroad open.

A year after it opened, Enersteel had added 100 employees in July, and was expecting to hire more. The company produces custom steel products.

“The past year has just been absolutely incredible,” Natchez Inc. board member Sue Stedman said. “It is evident that our process now is working and that we have the right personnel in place to move our economic process forward, and we are looking forward to a great 2013.”

Natchez Inc. was also left to deal with the aftermath of a failed development deal with Rentech, a company that had announced plans in 2005 to locate in Adams County and employ 400.

In a routine 2012 report, the company quietly announced it had abandoned its plans to bring a multi-million dollar coal-to-liquid plant to Natchez.

The company still owns the land, which Natchez Inc. and Adams County would like to have available for other developments.

“We hate that the Rentech project did not materialize, but you don’t let that type of thing slow you down; you say, ‘That didn’t work, and we will find something that does,’” Stedman said.


Vidalia faces financial woes; lays off employees; fails to pay federal taxes

The road was far rockier than normal for the City of Vidalia in 2012.

Extremely low levels on the Mississippi River cut royalties the city counts on from the Sidney A. Murray Hydroelectric plant, leaving Vidalia without the operational money it had grown to rely upon.

At the same time, the city had bills to pay from the 2011 flood on the river.

In August, the city laid off 14 employees, moved four workers from full time to part time and asked four employees to retire early.

A month later City Manager Ken Walker — the city’s highest-paid employee — announced he was resigning. Just days later, the city learned it owed $635,412 in unpaid federal taxes.

The debt was handled, and Mayor Hyram Copeland blamed the errors on Walker while promising to prevent such problems in the future.

The city will enter 2013 looking for ways to save money, including potentially eliminating the sanitation department.

Alderman Vernon Stevens said he is hopeful rising river levels will alleviate the city’s problems.

“When you have got about $4 million between what we spent on the flood and what we didn’t get from the hydro, it’s unfortunate,” Stevens said. “Hopefully we will recoup the hydro funds when the river comes back up. It is nobody’s fault, it is just the nature of the river.”

The city also celebrated the opening of a new municipal complex and recreation complex — both projects in the works for years.


American Queen returns

For the first time since 2008, a steamboat returned to the Mississippi River below Natchez.

Fully restored, the American Queen docked for the first time in May, returning 15 more times. Thirty trips are planned in 2013.

The steamboat stops brought back not only nostalgia that has long been a part of life in Natchez, but regular trips of 400-plus passengers who explore Natchez — cash in hand — for a day each time the boat docks.


Butch Brown returns at mayor of Natchez

In a race for the ages among three men who had filled the office of Natchez mayor before, many would argue that the most storied and controversial candidate of all took home the prize.

Twelve years after two-term Natchez Mayor Larry L. “Butch” Brown was defeated in a bid for re-election, he walked back into the office in a landslide June victory against independent Bill Furlow after defeating incumbent Jake Middleton and former Mayor Phillip West in May.

Brown ran on a campaign of cleaning up the city, restoring Natchez to its former glory while moving into the future and finding new money to complete overdue projects.

Among the headlines of his first six months in office were the hiring of Natchez Police Chief Danny White, the purchase of the former pecan factory site, fights over an existing city-county fire protection contract that ended in compromise and the selection of a new waste disposal company for the city.


Sheriff Randy Maxwell retires

After 22 years in office, Concordia Parish Sheriff Randy Maxwell said goodbye in June 2012.

His retirement came just a few months after a Louisiana jury cleared him of all wrongdoing in a case that had spanned the last five years of his time in office. He was accused of a law enforcement vendetta against a parish resident arrested in 2003.

But his term, when looked at in full, also included the growth of a small civil and criminal staff and small parish jail to a staff of 291, with two correctional facilities housing more than 1,000 inmates combined, and an annual, self-sustaining budget of nearly $15 million.

When he left, the office and correctional centers were one of the parish’s largest employers with a payroll of $8.5 million.


Second casino opens in Natchez

After six years of planning, debates and a few lawsuits, the Magnolia Bluffs Casino opened its doors to gamblers earlier this month.

The business has 265 employees and a $7 million payroll. It will also contribute $1 million annually to the City of Natchez coffers.

But more significantly, perhaps, was the company’s success in being the first casino to open its doors in Natchez in nearly 20 years.

More than 600 people lined up on opening day to try their luck at the Roth Hill Road casino.


Natchez public schools reorganize, hire new superintendent

When the Natchez-Adams School Board started talking about making significant changes last spring, it seemed wild to think their plans could be pulled off as quickly as they were.

All within the year, the board opted to rearrange all the grade levels, close Robert Lewis Middle School, open a ninth-grade academy, hire a superintendent and begin a plan to create a magnet school. Every plan they outlined had come to fruition by September.

Superintendent Frederick Hill joined the district, from the Tupelo schools, in July.

In August, the district reverted to an organization that looks something like neighborhood schools, with elementary students in grades kindergarten through sixth grade housed in one of four schools closest to their homes.

Morgantown became the middle school, and Natchez High gained a new ninth-grade wing and ninth-grade administrator.

The district is ending the year facing significant financial woes and an uncertain future, while plans to open a magnet school at RLMS are still on the table for next year.


Car crashes into The Malt Shop for second time

It was déjà vu in October, when a vehicle destroyed parts of the famed Natchez restaurant The Malt Shop for the second time in less than two years.

In a bizarre accident, a vehicle driven by an elderly Natchez woman crashed into the building after it had rear-ended another vehicle.

The impact sent the second car crashing into a house across the street and its driver to the hospital.

But just like after the first crash in July 2011, owner Gloria Neames was able to get the establishment open and running again soon after, much to the delight of many Natchez food connoisseurs.


Aldermen debate police chief hire; White gets job

The official title of Natchez police chief sat unfilled for nine months as Natchez aldermen fought over two candidates and citizens protested outside City Hall.

Three aldermen walked out of a city meeting in April after the matter was brought to a vote, presumably to prevent a decision from being made at all. Aldermen were divided, for much of the debate, along race lines. One candidate was black, the other white.

Ultimately, the man serving as interim during that time, Danny White, received the full-time job.

White, a Natchez native has spent almost 29 years at the Natchez Police Department, where he started as a booking officer in 1983.