Missing citizen tops stories of past year

Published 6:00 am Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Lincoln County was abuzz with stories of Clydesdales, gas pricesand hurricanes throughout 2008, but the biggest and most troublingstory of the year was the disappearance of one of Brookhaven’s mostbeloved senior citizens.

The unsolved case of Virginia Ratliff, who disappeared inFebruary during an intended trip to Jackson and has not been heardfrom since, was voted by The DAILY LEADER’s staff and readers asthe top news story of 2008.

The 83-year-old woman has been missing for 11 months. Neithershe nor her 1999 Mercury Grand Marquis have been found, despitenumerous state-spanning aerial and ground searches involving localand state police and private agencies.

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A reward for information has been offered and Ratliff is stillfresh on local authorities’ minds, but there have been no leads inthe frustrating, almost year-old investigation.

“I keep her tag number on my dashboard,” said Brookhaven PoliceChief Pap Henderson. “But I never knew how many white Mercuriesthere are in Lincoln County before now.”

Relatives said Ratliff, who battled dementia, had not driven anautomobile in nearly a year before she embarked on what would havebeen a 50-mile journey to see her husband, Charles “Ploochie”Ratliff, at the G.V. (Sonny) Montgomery VA Medical Center inJackson.

She left behind a stunned community and a countywide demand fornews that produced 15 stories pertaining authorities’ efforts tofind her throughout 2008.

Ranking behind the unsolved Ratliff case last year was LincolnCounty’s struggle at the pumps. As gasoline rose to more than $4per gallon during the summer months and then plummeted to less than$1.50 during the Christmas holidays, the newspaper publishedapproximately 25 news stories detailing the precious liquid’seffect on everything from holiday travel to school budgets topolitics.

Throughout the warmer months of 2008, super-high fuel costscaused Entergy customers to see a 28 percent increase in theirpower bills, county residents’ garbage bills increased and thenumber of road miles scheduled for maintenance by countysupervisors fell. School districts and government agencies burnedthrough thousands of dollars of diesel and gasoline, forcingadministrators to double fuel budgets for 2009. Brookhaven’s DelphiPackard Electric Systems cut back its hours, as the gas-guzzlingGeneral Motors trucks it manufactures electronics for fell sharplyout of demand.

Then, during fall, the prices came tumbling down as the nationaleconomy worsened. Investors ran from oil corporations.

In early October, gas stations reported drops of more than 50cents per week. The working folks did not complain.

“Right now, if you’re someone with a lot of money invested inthe stock market, you’re hurting,” said Highway 84 ChevronPresident Neal Bozeman. “But if you don’t have money in the stockmarket, you’re enjoying this right now.”

There were ups and downs in the fuel price saga. One of the”ups” was September’s hurricanes Gustav and Ike, which blew intothe Gulf of Mexico – and the third spot on the list of top 10stories from 2008 – on a course fearfully close to that of 2005’sHurricane Katrina, sending thousands of the bayou’s evacuees intoLincoln County shelters.

Though the damage done to Lincoln County by the spinning stormswas comparatively light, Gustav dumped enough rain locally to causesome flooding, and Ike caused part of Texas’ oil refining capacityto go down for weeks, further contributing to increasing gasprices. The DAILY LEADER produced 27 stories covering thehurricanes’ approach, landfall and aftermath.

One of Hurricane Gustav’s biggest effects on Lincoln County wascatching the local American Red Cross chapter in a tight spot.Straining under the burden of caring for thousands of evacuees, theMid-South Mississippi Chapter’s years-old weaknesses finally roseto the top, forcing the chapter to disband with a lower-than-normalnumber of volunteers and approximately $25,000 of debt.

“We just couldn’t finance it with the lack of support,” saidchapter treasurer Melton McMorris. “We couldn’t raise enough fundsto pay our expenses.”

The closing of the Brookhaven-based Red Cross chapter and theongoing efforts to rebuild it prompted six stories over the lastthree months of 2008, and more will surely follow in 2009 as thechapter mounts a comeback.

Perhaps the most tragic news from Lincoln County in 2008involved the death of a 7-month-old baby, preceded by the shootingdeath of her eventual murderer.

The fifth biggest news item of last year generated five stories,covering all the events from the time 25-year-old Curtney Gaytenheld the child, then 2-week-old infant A’Keira Hooks, under thewaters of a pond on Highway 84 until her death seven monthslater.

The entire incident resulted in the first killing of a suspectby a Lincoln County Sheriff’s Deputy in more than 20 years, as theofficer shot and killed Gayten at the scene. Hooks was rescued fromthe water, resuscitated and spent several weeks in intensive careat the University of Mississippi Medical Center in Jackson. Hereventual death in November was ruled a homicide.

The sixth most important news item last year happened inmid-December, leaving time for only four articles that followed theevents, but there are many stories within the story behind thelayoffs initiated at King’s Daughters Medical Center.

In the following three weeks, the hospital has laid off morethan 40 employees – mostly administrative and technical jobs – inan effort to reduce expenditures by as much as $1 million peryear.

The facility is in almost as much debt, brought on by anunexpected decrease in patient volume and mounting bad debt causedby uninsured patients who partake of, but never pay for, medicalservices.

“KDMC has been one of the more successful hospitals,” saidMississippi Hospital Association Vice President of Finance/ChiefFinancial Officer Mike Bailey. “They’ve done a really good job ofmaking the best out of what they had, but there’s only so much thata hospital can do.”

Thankfully, there’s no heartbreak in Lincoln County’s No. 7story of 2008, as almost anyone asked will tell you how much theylove downtown’s new look.

Historic downtown Brookhaven was born again in 2008, as upstairsapartments, businesses and the much-loved Haven theater were therecipients of millions of dollars of renovations.

More than 20 stories have been written to chronicle the ongoingbeautification of the downtown area, and 12 have been centered onthe Haven. Brookhaven Little Theatre, the thespian group overseeingthe renovations, has constantly raised funds for the ongoingmulti-phased, $1 million renovation. Progress to date wascelebrated in style in October, when hundreds attended astreet-side ceremony to light the newly restored Haven sign, whichfilled downtown with neon light for the first time in decades.

But the improvements to the Haven are only a part of downtown’srebirth. At least five different upstairs apartments have beenrestored and filled with tenants, gallons of new paint and hundredsof board feet of lumber have spruced up the scene and a pair ofCherokee Street residents worked with the city last year tobeautify 300 downtown planters.

The nice improvements came at a pertinent time for the city,which celebrated its 150th birthday throughout 2008. More than 10stories were written during the year to let readers know ofupcoming Sesquicentennial events, earning the yearlong celebrationthe eighth spot on the list.

“Know that 150 years ago there wasn’t much here at that point,”said Brookhaven-Lincoln County Chamber of Commerce SesquicentennialSteering Committee Chairwoman Rita Rich. “Think how far we’ve comeand the progress that’s been made. I can’t even begin to thinkabout the fact that there used to only be woods here, a settlementof sorts.”

The ninth story on the list celebrates the continuation of theprogress began 150 years ago. Fourteen stories were penned in 2008to keep Lincoln County up-to-date with what is perhaps its biggestinvestment toward the future – the $6 million future industrialsite named Linbrook Business Park.

Last year, heavy machinery and muddy men turned the park fromconcept into reality with the installation of a $1.5 million,million-gallon elevated water tank, well and pump; and theinstallation of $2.5 million worth of infrastructure, such asroadbeds, water and sewage pipes and fiber optic conduit.

The 400-acre industrial park – which is adjacent to hundredsmore acres, the addition of which would transform the park into a”supersite” – is scheduled for completion this year. Uponcompletion, officials said the park would be “industry ready,” withenough space to house six to 12 businesses, depending on size.

“The next generation of children coming along will hopefullyhave opportunities for employment here in the county,” said JoelSmith, an officer for local contractor Oddee Smith and Sons Inc.,which is installing the infrastructure. “I guess this is kind ofthe groundbreaking for the future.”

The 10th and final biggest story of 2008 deals with good timesexperienced by the hospital – the construction of additionalfacilities that will house the medical services officials say willeventually bring KDMC back to a stable financial position.

Last year, the hospital made great progress on its $12 millionproject to construct a new Intensive Care Unit and renovate theexisting emergency room facilities. It also opened a new WoundHealing Center that uses hyperbaric medicine – pure oxygentreatments – to heal old, troublesome wounds, opened a studentclinic on the campus of Copiah-Lincoln Community College, installeda new LED message board to communicate with the public andpurchased an electronic records system that has sped up treatmenttime for patients.

Fourteen stories were written to track the expansion of LincolnCounty’s hospital, a centerpiece of the community and one of itsfive largest employers.

“The project looks like the perfect storm, but I believe oncewe’re done, people will see what we have here and I believe it willhelp us,” outgoing KDMC Chief Financial Officer Dean Snider said ofthe expansion. “It will help bring patients in and help us recruitphysicians. In the long run, it will be one of the best thingswe’ve done.”