Perhaps no story is as tragic as a child’s death, but the circumstances surrounding the Sept. 16 disappearance of 8-year-old Hiawayi Robinson gripped the community like no other in the past year. A massive statewide alert and community search effort ended Sept. 18 when Hiawayi’s body was discovered behind an abandoned warehouse on Rebel Road in Prichard. Rumors about a motive and possible suspects swirled as Prichard Mayor Troy Ephriam announced the person of interest in the case was not suspected of the crime. Subsequently, few details were revealed even as prosecutors served search warrants at the home of the victim’s father, Hiawatha Robinson Jr., and his girlfriend on Oct. 9.
It wasn’t until Dec. 16 that state law enforcement officials arrested Hiawatha, charging him with sodomy and murder in the case, alleging he caused the death of his daughter during a sexual assault. The arrest warrant indicated Hiawayi had died of suffocation. The next day, Hiawatha was granted a $500,000 cash bond, but also hit with a two-count indictment for federal firearms charges.
Serving search warrants in October, officials had allegedly discovered Hiawatha, having previously been convicted of felony burglary and assault, was in illegal possession of 12 gauge shotgun. Robinson is expected to face the federal firearms charges first. He remains in jail at press time.
Printed below, in chronological order, is brief review of other notable stories of 2014.
Jan. 1 — City budget changes and negotiations: Mayor Sandy Stimpson passed substantial budget amendments in 2014, but not without concessions to the Mobile City Council. An audit performed shortly after Stimpson was sworn in revealed a $15.8 million operating deficit, he announced Dec. 30, 2013, while also canceling pay raises promised by the previous administration, scheduled to take effect just two days later.
On March 13, Stimpson released a revised budget, trimming $21.6 million in expenditures while predicting $8.6 million in revenue over projections. The cuts primarily targeted unfilled budgeted employment vacancies, unnecessary overtime and the elimination of fee waivers. At the same time, the revisions allowed for the city’s overall workforce to decline along with natural attrition. Citing the threat of steep cuts to city services and employee benefits if the revisions were rejected, the Council unanimously adopted Stimpson’s revised budget April 1.
The administration’s proposed 2015 budget went further with cuts, targeting nonprofits aided by taxpayer money. Proposing to quash so-called “performance contracts” with organizations such as the Exploreum, the Mobile Bay Visitors and Convention Bureau and BayFest, the $2.1 million tradeoff would be a total 5 percent cost-of-living adjustment and pay raise for city employees, and a 400 percent increase in capital expenditures. At the same time, employees, including retirees, would have to pay for a larger percentage of their health care plan.
Later, the mayor attempted to veto council amendments allowing for the three-year extension of the “penny tax,” as well as a plan to move $2.5 million from capital expenditures to the general fund to offset health care increases for retirees.
On Sept. 16, having overridden his vetoes, the council passed the mayor’s budget with revisions, including one restoring funding to some nonprofits by taking money from capital expenditures and public safety.
Jan. 10 — Dustup over coal terminal ignites: A proposal by Walter Energy to build a new coal terminal at the foot of Virginia Street near downtown raised alarm bells from neighborhood groups and environmental organizations, primarily concerned about the threats from coal dust. After several hearings and concessions in the facility’s design, the company eventually agreed to sell the property to the Alabama State Port Authority and negotiate an arrangement to ship coal through the port’s existing McDuffie terminal.
Jan. 14 — Government funding bill means new federal courthouse for Mobile: U.S. Sen. Richard Shelby secured $69.5 million in federal money for a new federal courthouse in Mobile. A project to design and construct the new courthouse is expected to take at least five years, and the existing courthouse will also be renovated. The total project cost is estimated to be $118.5 million.
Jan. 17 — Guilty verdicts returned in drive-by murder: Trayon Washington and Pat Brown were both found guilty of the July 2012 murder of Wendy Fisher, who was shot after she yelled at the men for speeding through her West Mobile neighborhood. In March, the half-brothers received sentences of life and 30 years in prison, respectively.
Jan. 22 — Officials hope to stop leaks in Government Plaza: A $3.2 million project began to repair a perpetually leaky roof in Mobile’s 19-year-old Government Plaza. As the work continued, the building was evacuated twice due to fires started by workers, and a job that was initially expected to be complete by May stretched well into the fall. A $235,000 change order was authorized for the project in August.
Jan. 24 — Environmental groups sue Corps over pipeline permit: The Southern Environmental Law Center filed a lawsuit on Jan. 24 on behalf of Mobile Baykeeper, challenging a permit issued by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for the Plains Southcap, LLC pipeline routed through the Big Creek Lake watershed. A federal judge would dismiss the case in October, citing the lax nature of the Corps’ permit requirements.
Jan. 29 — Unique and historic winter weather freezes Mobile: Schools, offices and airports across Mobile and Baldwin counties were closed as temperatures dipped to below 20 degrees and a blast of arctic air caused an otherwise normal precipitation event to leave a layer of slick ice on the roads. However “Winter Storm Leon,” as it was dubbed by some media outlets, spared the Mobile area of worse effects seen elsewhere in the Southeast.
Feb. 4 — Council takes to the road, but brings along the division: Despite a 6-1 vote of approval, division over Councilman CJ Small’s nomination of Barbara Drummond to the MAWSS board led to heated rhetoric. Months later, tension would rise again as Councilman Fred Richardson nominated former Mayor Sam Jones to the MAWSS board. The divisive nomination led to a tug-of-war between Mayor Sandy Stimpson’s administration and a faction within the council. The stalemate ended after Stimpson supported the nomination and urged the City Council to approve it in June, but not before he and other members of the administration dramatically walked out in the middle of a council meeting in protest of the division. Because the council’s vote was initially split along racial lines, the mayor would later recommend a series of “community conversations” on race relations.
Feb. 6 — USA names Waldrop president: The University of South Alabama named just the third president in its 50-year history in Dr. Tony Waldrop, previously the provost and executive vice president at the University of Central Florida. Waldrop succeeds Founding President Dr. Frederick Whiddon and Gordon Moulton, whose 15 years at the helm of the university oversaw a dramatic expansion.
Feb. 27 — Joe Cain traditions upended: Organizers of the Joe Cain Parading Society ordered its traditional footmarchers to complete applications and pay registration fees for the privilege to march, threatening to end the procession’s decades-old stature as the “people’s parade.” In December 2014, the foot marchers obtained their own parading permit, allowing them to carry on the tradition without the governance of the parading society. But in a technicality, the police department opted to place the footmarchers behind the more contemporary floats, possibly ending the decades old tradition of Chief Slacobamorinico leading the procession.
Feb. 28 — Mayor Stimpson declares ‘War on Litter:’ In an attempt to fight back against the ubiquitous bottles, cans, plastic bags, illegal curbside signs and cigarette butts that litter the city’s ditches and clog stormwater drains, Mayor Sandy Stimpson drafted an updated litter ordinance to tackle the problem at the source. The ordinance was approved by the end of the summer, and stepped-up enforcement began in the fall.
March 20 — Commission can’t agree on price, location of proposed soccer complex: Two members of the Mobile County Commission revealed dual plans for a proposed soccer complexes March 20, with Commissioner Jerry Carl proposing a $5.5 million, 10-field facility in Irvington and Commission President Connie Hudson initially proposing a $12.1 million, 10 to 12 field facility with hiking and running trails near the intersection of Interstates 10 and 65.
In April, Commissioner Merceria Ludgood joined Hudson to approve an $18,000 master plan on the property while in May, the two, without the endorsement of Carl, exercised an option to purchase the $2.9 million property.
On Oct. 8, Hudson attached a $40 million price tag to her total proposal, which built in phases, would eventually include a water park and a 25,000-square-foot building for an indoor pool. At the same time, Hudson and Ludgood also submitted an application to the state’s RESTORE Act council to fund the project with the state’s share of civil penalties resulting from BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil spill.
In November, the $18,000 study was complete, indicating the first phase of the project’s development would cost more than $20 million.
April 16 – Mobile Housing Board receives ‘substandard’ designation; $750 million plan revealed: As the Mobile Housing Board received a failing score on the federal Public Housing Assessment System (PHAS), the board also revealed what was then a $439 million plan to redevelop three of its communities for mixed-income families and commercial development. By November 2014, the costs had soared to $750 million and included a plan to use three separate developers for the project, which will displace thousands of existing residents to eventually construct a mixed-use, mixed-income community consisting of 3,000 to 4,000 housing units and commercial retail facilities on the 330 acres where R.V. Taylor Plaza, Thomas James Place and the Frank W. Boykin tower currently sit.
April 17 — Jockisch convicted of attempted child sex charges: A jury found former Mobile County Commissioner Freeman Jockisch guilty of attempting to lure a child for unlawful sex in federal court. After a daylong trial, the jury spent close to three hours deliberating. On July 15, he was sentenced to 10 years in prison and ordered to register as a sex offender. His case is currently on appeal.
May 6 — Court order closes store after spice sale: Mobile police took aggressive tactics against spice, or synthetic marijuana, this year, after a spike in related visits to local emergency rooms. In addition to multiple seizures and arrests, the MPD also successfully sought and obtained court orders to close businesses or condemn properties where spice was sold.
May 14 — Residency of Prichard council president in question: Mobile County District Attorney Ashley Rich filed a complaint against Earline Martin-Harris, alleging the Prichard City Council president actually lived in Daphne. The three-page document alleged Martin-Harris had a home in Daphne, worked in Daphne, sent her kids to public school in Daphne and did her routine shopping in Daphne. Martin-Harris resigned shortly after and unsuccessfully fought a petition to be stripped of her Mobile County voting rights. She still faces criminal charges of perjury related to case.
May 14 — Same sex couple prepared to take adoption case to Supreme Court: Cari Searcy and Kimberly McKeand, who were married in California but reside Mobile County, named Gov. Robert Bentley, Attorney General Luther Strange and others in a 2014 complaint seeking an injunction allowing Searcy to legally adopt McKeand’s son. McKeand gave birth to her son in 2005, and she and Searcy have raised the 9-year-old as equal parents. Bentley was later dismissed, but Strange remains a key defendant in a case both parties are prepared to appeal no matter what decision U.S. Magistrate Judge Katherine Nelson recommends.
June 11 — Questions raised as to whether a Western artist’s works, among others, were copied by a local: A June 11 Lagniappe cover story explored complaints against heralded local watercolor artist William C. Morris, who was suspected of copying the works of West Coast artists and attempting to pass it off as original.
June 17 — Dispute over License Commissioner’s newsletter ‘resolved:’ Mobile County Revenue Commissioner Marilyn Wood wrote an email to License Commissioner Kim Hastie complaining that Hastie’s recent newsletter was “misleading” and “took shots” at Wood, as Hastie led a PR campaign for legislation to consolidate the offices. As Hastie took a step back from the newsletter, Wood later said the issue was “resolved,” but Hastie was indicted over the campaign in November.
June 30 — City reaches agreement with ADEM, includes $135,000 fine: The city of Mobile reached a settlement agreement with the Alabama Department of Environmental Management over violations of the Alabama Water Pollution Control Act. As part of the agreement, the city admitted no fault, but agreed to pay $135,000 in fines to ADEM, to purchase at least one litter boat in 2015 and to replace its 2012 stormwater management plan with a new plan implemented by September, according to the settlement filed in Mobile County Circuit Court.
July 3 – Prichard police chief resigns for New Jersey job: Prichard Mayor Troy Ephriam was surprised to learn through the media that the city’s Police Chief Jerry Speziale had taken a new job in his native New Jersey, effectively resigning his post. Speziale also cited his wife’s death as a reason for his departure after only nine months on the job. Prichard native and former Bay Minette Chief of Police Michael Rowland was announced to replace Speziale on an interim basis. On Nov. 9, less than a week after accepting Rowland’s resignation, the city of Prichard named Bernard Parish as its new chief of police.
July 9 — Council travel records boomerang around the globe: A snapshot of years-old travel records for the Mobile City Council confirms the long-rumored suspicion that District 1 Councilman Fred Richardson is the most routine traveler of the group, taking an average of four-and-a-half trips per year on the city’s behalf. At the time, Richardson had been on a total of 83 trips approved by the City Council since he was first elected in 1997. On 16 trips he took between 2005-2008 for which Lagniappe was provided expenditures records, he spent an average of $1,744.86 per trip, for a total of $27,917.77 in the three-year period.
July 9 — New public safety director to decide fate of fire chief: The appointment of Richard Landolt as executive director of public safety opened speculation about Interim Fire Chief Randy Smith’s appointment, but the administration intially said Landolt would advise Mayor Sandy Stimpson on the right time to bring Smith up for confirmation. In September, Stimpson would rescind Smith’s nomination while Landolt proposed the closure of three fire stations. The department remains without a permanant chief today.
July 11 — GulfQuest issued certificate of occupancy: The GulfQuest National Maritime Museum received its official Certificate of Occupancy after taxpayer investment exceeding $45 million and delays exceeding 24 months. Previously, GulfQuest Director Tony Zodrow suggested the opening date of the national maritime museum was dependent on the certificate, saying a soft opening may occur as soon as six months after its receipt. Since, the opening has been extended to at least March 2015.
July 23 — Constable charged with murder: A Mobile County constable faces a murder charge after allegedly shooting a man in the head outside a local bar just after midnight July 20. Spanish Fort Police said Mobile County Constable Larry Sheffield, 68, and Jeffrey McMillan, 53, got into an argument inside Traders bar on the causeway. According to Spanish Fort Police Chief David Edgar, the confrontation began inside the establishment and carried on outside, where Sheffield shot McMillan in the parking lot. McMillan was dead when police arrived on the scene.
July 28 — Costco opening scheduled for 2015, officials say: With shovels in their hands and smiles on their faces, local officials broke ground on a huge new retail development near Hank Aaron Stadium. The ceremonial movement of dirt meant the McGowin Park project was officially underway. Jeff Smith, president of real estate and development firm Hutton thanked the city and county for their support. McGowin Park will be a 600,000-square-foot complex, anchored by Costco, but also including Dick’s Sporting Goods, Field & Stream and Ross Dress for Less, among many others.
July 30 — With environmental study, a new momentum on I-10 bridge: After years of delays, plans for a new project to replace the congested George Wallace Tunnel on Interstate 10 with a soaring new bridge may finally be underway. Vince Calametti, Alabama Department of Transportation regional engineer, called the release of the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Draft Environmental Impact Statement a “significant step” toward the construction of a bridge over the Mobile River. Later, the Coastal Alabama Partnership released a study indicating the $750 million bridge could have a $1.5 billion economic impact statewide. Proponents also believe the expedited route, which would eliminate the bottleneck at the Wallace Tunnel, will also have ancillary benefits for the regional economy and emergency evacuation.
Aug. 21 — 600 employees file grievance against county over insurance costs: A grievance addressing problems with new health insurance policies was filed with the Mobile County Commission on behalf of 600 employees. The majority of employee concerns dealt with the rising costs of prescription medicines, especially for retired employees of Mobile County.
Sept. 2 — MAWSS declines takeover of Prichard water system: Even though a countywide ballot initiative in July effectively approved the dissolution of the Prichard Water and Sewer System and the transfer of its assets to the Mobile Area Water and Sewer Service, MAWSS announced in September it would decline the takeover, citing a last-minute $32 million management contract approved by the Prichard board that MAWSS would not be able to terminate. The vote resulted from ongoing complaints of high rates and poor service in Prichard.
Sept. 24 — Orange Beach voters defeat school split referendum: Orange Beach voters responded with a resounding “no” to a 5-mill ad valorem tax increase intended to fund a new city school system. Initial results for the ballot measure, which had a record turnout for a referendum in Orange Beach, showed a clear victory for those opposed to the city’s plan to create its own system with 1,842 residents voting against a new school system and only 928 supporting the new tax. On Nov. 19, the Baldwin County Public School System announced a large capital campaign for new schools in Orange Beach and elsewhere.
Oct. 8 — Mayor’s ethics inquiry prompts utility board resignations: In October, Bayou la Batre City Council members George Ramires and Kimberlyn Barbour opted to step down from their paid positions on the city’s utilities board due to an inquiry from Alabama Ethics Commission. It was confirmed a week later that the Ethics Commission had been notified by the office of Mayor Brett Dungan, who said he was “required by state law” to notify the commission once he was made aware the pair had voted for themselves to placed on the paid utilities board in 2012.
Oct. 14 — Former County Commissioner Stephen Nodine freed from jail: Controversial public figure, convicted felon and former Mobile County Commissioner Stephen Nodine was released from prison after serving a two-year sentence. Nodine who was charged and went to trial for the murder of his longtime mistress Angel Downs — which resulted in a mistrial after a jury couldn’t reach a unanimous decision. After pleading on lesser charges, Nodine went to jail on perjury, ethics violations and harassment. Nodine will be on probation for another 34 months.
Oct. 17 — Museum board members resign amid legal dispute with city: After more than of a month of turmoil between members of the History Museum of Mobile and the Mobile City Council, three members of museum’s Board of Directors resigned in protest. David Smithweck, Wayne Sirmon and Lisa Young each resigned after a majority of the board voted to hire an attorney to fight the city for financial information and for the waving of the facility’s admission fee. Earlier, the city cautioned the museum board against “meddling” with personnel after it was discovered the board agreed to pay for expensive meals and massages for certain city and board employees — an expenditure that has returned to highlight a “murky” relationship between the board and the city. The money used for the meals and massages was not from public funds, but Colby Cooper, Mayor Sandy Stimpson’s chief of staff, said the unusual nature of the board and city’s public-private partnership made the purchases questionable.
Oct. 21 — Speaker of the Alabama House of Representative Mike Hubbard indicted: After months of speculations and leaked details from a Lee County grand jury, the indictment of State Rep. Mike Hubbard of Auburn sent political shockwaves throughout the state. The 23-count indictment alleged Hubbard used his positions as the chairman of the Alabama Republican Party and as speaker of the House for personal gain. He was reelected in November, has pleaded not guilty and has vowed to fight the charges.
Oct. 23 — Lawsuit filed against state’s hotel and convention center project: After Gov. Robert Bentley gave the final approval to move forward with the $58.5 million hotel and convention center project at Gulf State Park in Baldwin County, an environmental group filed a lawsuit in federal court to halt further progress. The Gulf Restoration Network filed the suit because the state was pledging more than half of the initial Natural Resource Damage Assessment (NRDA) funds it gained in response to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill toward the project.
Nov. 5 — Friends remember NOW founder Noble Beasley as ‘courageous leader’: One of Mobile’s civil rights icons and co-founder of Neighborhood Organized Workers, Noble Beasley passed away from an apparent heart attack Oct. 26. Community leaders City Councilman Fred Richardson and Mobile County school board member Robert Battles weighed in on his legacy in the port city, which included a coviction for drug trafficking.
Nov. 19 — Baldwin schools seek tax increase for capital plan: Baldwin County school officials presented a $350 million plan to construct several new schools in the public school system, pushing for an 8-mill increase in ad valorem tax. A countywide referendum on the plan is likely to be seen on ballots in March. Officials said the $28.6 million in additional annual revenue from the proposed increase would stay in Baldwin County and be used solely for building and maintaining facilities to accommodate the rapidly increasing number of students in its school system, which has seen a 25 percent increase in 10 years, representing about 6,158 new students.
Nov. 26 — Hastie indicted on corruption charges: Mobile County License Commissioner Kim Hastie was indicted by a federal grand jury Nov. 26 on 16 counts of public corruption, including charges of conspiracy, extortion and wire fraud. Deputy Commissioner Ramona Yeager was also named in the indictment. The charges stemmed from Hastie’s year-long lobbying and public relations campaign to merge the offices of the license and revenue commissioner.
In doing so, the indictment alleged, Hastie buried expenses for the effort — which would have resulted in her promotion and pay raise — in professional contracts with Victor Crawford, a software consultant.
In July, Lagniappe reported Hastie’s office had been raided by the FBI after she could not account for expenses related to the merger campaign. The indictment later alleged a shakedown scheme, where Crawford and certain License Commission employees were intimidated with threats of retaliation. The indictment alleges Hastie ordered Crawford to pay for public relations expenses related to the campaign, as well as TVs and electronic notebooks as gifts for her office Christmas party, or possibly lose his lucrative software contract.
The felony charges come with sentencing guidelines of up to 85 years in jail and $1.25 million in fines for Hastie and 60 years and $750,000 in fines for Yeager, but attorneys for both parties have disputed the charges and on Dec. 10 entered a plea of not guilty. Jury selection is tentatively scheduled for February 2015.
A separate claim filed by two citizens in September alleged employees of the License Commission, at the direction of Hastie, provided the Sandy Stimpson campaign with personal information of 30,000 Mobile County residents. Hastie publicly endorsed Stimpson in 2013.
Dec. 17 — State council agrees to economic focus for first RESTORE Act projects: After two years of planning, the money allocated through the RESTORE Act got closer to coming to fruition mid December. However, some in environmental community were shocked when the council — mostly consisting of local mayors and commissioners — chose to almost exclusively set aside the first $56 million for economic development projects. Council members said the decision was reached after considering the “economic restrictions” on future monies expected to flow into the state from the BP settlement.