Boy’s murder, doctors’ moving top parish stories

Published 12:00 am Saturday, December 28, 2002

Even in rural Concordia Parish, with its slow pace and peaceful streets, things happen. And as much as anywhere else in the world, the parish had its share of triumph and tragedy in 2002.

Following are The Natchez Democrat’s top 10 stories for the year from Vidalia, Ferriday, Ridgecrest, Clayton, Monterey, and all the swamps, forests and cotton fields between.

4On Nov. 9, Vidalia resident Rachel Hudson found her 5-year-old son, Eric, floating facedown in a pond behind the family’s Rountree Road home.

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Sheriff Randy Maxwell initially said the death was a case of accidental drowning, but autopsy results later revealed that Hudson was probably strangled to death before his body was dumped in the pond.

Just a few days after the incident, investigators said the murderer may have been someone who knew Hudson, and Maxwell predicted that an arrest would be forthcoming.

But close to two months later, no arrests have been made, and the sheriff’s office has stopped commenting on the case.

4Tired of skyrocketing insurance premiums and out-of-control litigation and impatient with the Mississippi Legislature’s slow-as-molasses progress on enacting tort reform, dozens of Natchez physicians considered moving across the state line to Louisiana, where some of the legal costs of practicing medicine had been reigned in several years before.

Parish officials, eager to keep Miss-Lou doctors in the area, initiated an aggressive courtship, holding a series of meetings to inform the restless internists and heart surgeons of all the benefits the state could offer. At the end of June, state Attorney General Richard Ieyoub paid a visit to Vidalia to explain some of the finer legal points of Louisiana medicine.

Dr. Iley Dillon, who had practiced in Natchez for 24 years, was among the first to jump ship, moving both his practice and his home to Vidalia.

While Mississippi did pass a tort reform bill, it was only after hundreds of the state’s doctors had left for less litigious pastures. Dillon summed of the feelings of his fellow doctors when he moved at the end of July: &uot;The state of Mississippi has abandoned us.&uot;

4The entire Miss-Lou mourned the death of Sidney A. Murray Jr. on April 30.

Murray, a former Vidalia alderman and mayor of the town for 24 years, was the principal architect of Concordia Parish’s continuing efforts to rise from the depths of economic stagnation.

During his career in public service, Murray spearheaded the second span across the Mississippi River, Louisiana Hydropower’s hydroelectric plant in the southern end of the parish, the recruitment of industries like Alcoa and Fruit of the Loom and the construction of an industrial park.

His vision is perhaps most visible in the multimillion dollar riverfront development.

4Mosquitoes are a year-round problem in the balmy climate of Louisiana’s delta region, but during the summer of 2002, their buzzing took on a more ominous tone.

The West Nile Virus was first detected in dead crows and blue jays found around the parish. But the Asian tiger and southern house mosquitoes that carry the disease aren’t picky eaters, and by late summer, human cases had begun to appear.

In September, 78-year-old Ridgecrest resident Donald Houck died of West Nile in a Jackson hospital. Although many contracted the virus, including Natchez Mayor F.L. Hank Smith, Houck was the only reported fatality.

Public bodies responded quickly, rolling out the foggers for late evening rounds through the more populated areas of the parish, but some of the south Louisiana parishes with the most extensive mosquito-control programs also had the highest rates of infection. Public health officials around the country have said that no matter how much spraying is done, West Nile is here to stay.

4Faced with a potential flood of doctors crossing the Mississippi River to escape the jackpot justice crisis, some of the parish’s more enterprising public officials set out to construct a net Š in the form of a shining new medical center filled with state-of-the-art technology and hundreds of potential jobs.

When the Mississippi Legislature passed a tort reform bill, the doctors stopped talking about moving to Louisiana, but the efforts to bring a new hospital to Concordia continued.

At present, however, progress has stalled. Tennessee-based consultant Dana McClendon, hired to help lure a hospital owner/operator to the parish, gave detailed instructions to every involved entity to help make the area more attractive. Most bodies did as he said, but the Riverland Medical Center Board of Commissioners threw a wrench in the works with a hesitant and concerned &uot;welcome&uot; to any investor willing to shell out $70 to 75 million to

build a new hospital. The problem, as the board saw it, was that there was no guarantee that Riverland would go on providing medical care in the resolution McClendon suggested.

Parish Economic Development Director-in-waiting Teresa Dennis has said the requests for proposals, weak as they might be without a unified voice from the parish, will still go out.

4Since 1992, the riverfront development has attracted millions of dollars in state and federal grants to the parish.

The project started off somewhat small, with a walking path and an amphitheater on the Mississippi River levee, along with Riverview RV Park a bit farther down the way.

But after construction began last year on the $5.6 million, 102-room Comfort Suites hotel, which opened for business in October, things started moving fast.

At the end of July, ground was broken at the site of the future Riverpark Medical center, a $6.2 million outpatient care center.

At the end of November, Lorraine’s on the Riverfront, a 150-seat restaurant with a view of the river from every table, opened.

On the horizon is Phase III, a massive undertaking that will add shade structures, road an walking path extensions and the &uot;Gateway Center&uot; project, a welcome center and museum. 4Ferriday’s most famous son was a no-show at the first-ever Delta Music Festival on March 2, but the Rev. Jimmy Swaggart and country singer Mickey Gilley made up for their cousin’s absence. Thousands of music fans swarmed onto Louisiana Avenue to celebrate the induction of Ferriday natives Gilley, Swaggart, Jerry Lee Lewis and late jazz musician Leon &uot;Pee Wee&uot; Whitaker into the Delta Music Museum’s Hall of Fame.

4In spite of what the Village People song promises, a young man in Ferriday has nowhere to go when he’s short on his dough or just wants to shoot some hoops.

But after a year of confusion, miscommunication, bickering and litigation, that may change. At the end of 2001, the Town of Ferriday completed a nearly $100,000 renovation of the old Florida Street gym with the intention of handing over operations to the YMCA of Central Louisiana.

The local Y steering committee secured the requisite funding commitments, and everything was set to go, but then the bottom fell out. The Recreation District No. 1 Board refused to pay up, and all sides stopped talking to each other.

Volunteers kept the gym open for a few months, but persistent vandalism forced the town to lock it up. Local children got a chance to use the facilities only when Mayor Glen McGlothin could round up an off-duty police officer to keep watch.

At the end of December, McGlothin met with members of the recreation board, the board of aldermen and Lloyd Love, a founding recreation board member who successfully sued that body to release the funds it had promised.

4The Concordia Parish School Board’s 2000-2001 fiscal year audit revealed that the mileage reimbursement scale for bus drivers was not in accordance with a scale that was approved by the state Legislature in 1986.

Upon learning of the oversight, the school board vowed to give the drivers what they are &uot;legally due&uot; and adjusted bus driver contract amounts for the second half of the current fiscal year to reflect the 1986 reimbursement scale.

But no one could agree on what &uot;legally due&uot; meant. The drivers wanted every penny they were shorted for the entire 16 years. The board said three years of reimbursement was the best it could do, citing the &uot;Three Year Prescription Law,&uot; which allows public bodies to go back three years for back pay, but no further. On Sept. 20, Judge Kathy Johnson split the difference, ordering the board to pay the drivers for the past 10 years of mistakes, preventing a bus strike at the beginning of the school year.

4There weren’t too many surprises in the 2002 election season. Seventh Judicial District Judge Leo Boothe was the sole qualifier for the Division B seat. District Attorney John Johnson also faced no opposition. But Judge Kathy Johnson had to fight to hang on to the Division A seat. At the beginning of May, Assistant District Attorney Madaline Gibbs left her post to run against Johnson. A strong showing by Gibbs in the primary forced a runoff Nov. 5, the first time two women had ever faced each other for that particular seat. Johnson won the final bout.