Editor’s Note: We took a look at the stories that made the news in 2019 and narrowed down our picks for the Top 10 to include stories that captured the most attention on our website and print edition throughout the year.
We invite you to follow along with the news of the day in 2019 through our print and digital outlets: The printed edition of the Athens Daily Review; our web presence at www.athensreview.com; our Facebook page at www.facebook.com/athensreview; and our Twitter feed, found @AthReview.
Best wishes for a happy and successful 2020 from the staff and management of the Daily Review.
Now, in order, our picks for the Top 10 Local Stories of 2019:
Bus crash leaves one dead, one injured, driver in court
A 13-year-old Athens Middle School boy was killed and a 9-year-old elementary student injured in January, when a Union Pacific slammed into a bus making an after school run.
In June, after investigation into the wreck and the safety of the intersection, the bus driver, John Franklin Stevens, 78, of Mabank was charged by two separate indictments for Injury to a Child causing serious bodily injury and Manslaughter/Criminally Negligent Homicide.
The wreck gained attention throughout northeast Texas as other school districts stood in unity with the AISD following the loss of Christopher Bonilla and injuries to Joselyn Torres.
Stevens pled not guilty to the charges and the case is still in court.
Area woman pleads guilty to killing her two children
A mother who killed her two daughters in 2017 entered a guilty plea in July.
Sarah Nicole Henderson, 31, pled guilty to two counts of capital murder in 392nd District Court in return for a sentence of life without parole.
The Payne Springs mother of three shot and killed the girls, ages 5 and 7, on November 2, 2017. She also attempted to shoot her husband Jacob as he lay sleeping. When the pistol did not fire, her husband took the gun away from her and called 911.
After the plea, District Attorney Mark Hall said “Choosing between death or life without parole is a difficult decision, but given all the facts and circumstances, I am confident that this plea will allow the family to move forward without being concerned whether Henderson would eventually be released from a mental hospital were she found to have been insane at the time of the offense."
‘Cop killer’ gets new execution date
The 12-year-old case of Randall Mays, sentenced to death for killing two Henderson County Sheriff's Office lawmen in May of 2007 was back in the forefront in 2019.
On June 5, Texas Court of Criminal Appeals affirmed the decision by visiting Judge Joe Clayton that Mays is competent to be executed for the fatal shooting of Deputy Tony Ogburn. Mays also killed HCSO investigator Paul Habelt and seriously wounded Deputy Kevin Harris.
The appeals court issued a statement explaining the decision.
"The record supports the trial judge's determination that Mays is competent to be executed. Mays knows he is to be executed by the State, he knows he was convicted and sentenced for killing a police officer and he knows his execution is imminent."
Mays' latest rendezvous with lethal injection is set for May 13, 2020.
Body of missing woman found in lake
A three week North Texas search for a missing woman came to a grim conclusion in February, not far from where she was last seen.
The body of Brenda Montanez was discovered submerged submerged in Cedar Creek Lake in the Mazda she had been driving. The conclusion of officials was she had drowned.
“It is her,” Henderson County Sheriff Botie Hillhouse said. “We didn't release her name on Friday. But we know it's her.”
Montanez reportedly went to her boyfriend's house in Log Cabin in the early-morning hours of Jan. 27 after leaving a party in Plano. When she got no answer she left the property. When she never arrived home a multi-county search ensued.
Cain Center project on ballot
In 2019, the City of Athens let the residents decide how to proceed with the Cain Center renovation project, putting it on the ballot for a May election.
In a special city election, voters overwhelmingly favored restoring the Cain Center and using up to $5.3 million in certificates of obligation revenue to do it. The item was a non-binding referendum to guide the council in decisions about the proposed project.
“This puts to bed any debate on whether the citizens of Athens wanted this,” Councilman Ed McCain said. “To be basically 80-20 'for' is a clear demonstration of how important the Cain Center is that the citizens are willing to put their money where their mouth is.”
Bridge project underway
Construction of a new Texas Hwy. 334 bridge across Cedar Creek Lake got underway in 2019. The project has a price tag of about $41.5 million and is scheduled for a November, 2020 completion. In a December 2017 letter to Cedar Creek Lake residents, then State Representative Lance Gooden said that “the bridges between Gun Barrel City and Seven Points have been a dangerous crossing for many years and a source of frustration. During my first term in office, lake area leaders and I formed a group of concerned citizens and began discussions on a firm plan to ensure TxDOT prioritize our area and start work on this project. After many years of diligent efforts, lobbying and sadly, more accidents on a bridge that should have been replaced long ago, we are now closer than ever to seeing that project come to fruition.”
County uses vote center for polling places
Henderson County went to a vote center model for the November Constitutional Amendment Election which allows registered voters to cast ballots at any of the county's boxes on election day.
The county then submitted a request to the Texas Secretary of State to get to use the vote center concept on a permanent basis.
On December 30, County Judge Wade McKinney received a reply from the state Director of Elections Keith Ingram that Henderson County conducted a successful countywide polling place program.
"As a result, Henderson County is authorized to continue to hold its elections using countywide polling places subject to the approval of the county commissioners court."
AEDC moved under city manager
The City of Athens moved the Athens Economic Development Corporation under the umbrella of the city manager in 2019, a departure from the way it had been run since its inception.
The city council approved the move in May, to become effective when the Executive Director Lisa Denton left the position.
The city began receiving applications for a new director in June, after Denton resigned from the post. In October, Joan Ahlers from Los Alamos, New Mexico, was selected. She had been the Los Alamos Economic Development Administrator for about three years.
Ahlers will begin her duties in Athens in January.
Malakoff residents take on chicken processor
One of the largest civil suits in Henderson County was heard in 392nd District court in October and November when plaintiffs filed suit against a giant chicken processor.
The suit brought against Huynh Poultry Farms, T&N Poultry farm and Sanderson Farms claimed excessive noise and smell nuisances and a decrease in property value, and property enjoyment according to public documents. They were seeking the recovery of damages to their property in the form of monetary relief exceeding $1,000,000.
After a long deliberation, the jury found in favor of the Plaintiff's and awarded damages in excess of $6 million.