Attorney Joe Brandon Jr. (center) argues on behalf of Islamic Center of Murfreesboro opponents on April 26, 2012, during the trial before Chancellor Robert Corlew in Murfreesboro, Tenn. He was denied a final appeal Oct. 31, 2013. (File photo)
MURFREESBORO, Tenn. -- During 2013, Rutherford County continued to see economic growth and development throughout the area, leaving residents with many reasons to celebrate.
However, as with every year, there was controversy, trials and crimes, new initiatives and even the loss of some notable figures. In other words, there was plenty of newsworthy events that took place this year.
Here is a look at what made the cut as the Top 10 stories of 2013, in no particular order.
1. Mosque appeal denied
The controversy over the Islamic Center of Murfreesboro lingered on throughout much of the year, with opponents trying in vain to get a ruling from the Tennessee Court of Appeals overturned.
Try as they might, the Tennessee Supreme Court was not convinced that the Rutherford County Planning Commission failed to provide adequate public notice prior to approving construction of the Islamic Center.
In late October, the state Supreme Court denied an appeal by opponents and affirmed an appellate ruling in favor of the Planning Commission, bringing a three-year battle to a close at the state level.
The mandate came down only a few months after the Appeals Court overturned a decision by Chancellor Robert Corlew III, who oversees the Rutherford County Chancery Court.
Corlew has long contended that more should have been done to notify residents in May 2010 about a proposed mosque, though advertising a site plan proposal using multiple media outlets is not required by law.
Since then, Corlew has announced he is retiring from the bench and opponents are now threatening to take the case to the U.S. Supreme Court – a move that will probably not do any good. According to several lawyers, the highest court in the country accepts less than 1 percent of cases annually and rarely butts into state matters.
Either way, the mandate issued by the state Supreme Court now stands as the law of the land regarding public notices in Tennessee.
Despite this chapter coming to close, opponents have vowed to continue fighting against future development projects, including a proposed Islamic Center cemetery, in the future. So, this battle will most likely extend into next year, possibly even into 2015.
2. DUI checkpoint sparks national debate
The issue regarding the legality of sobriety checkpoints morphed into a national debate in July in light of a controversial video involving a Rutherford County Sheriff’s Office deputy accused of violating a man’s rights during a Fourth of July roadblock.
With millions of views on YouTube, the viral video features Deputy A.J. Ross interacting with Chris Kalbaugh, a member of the Rutherford County chapter of the Libertarian Party of Tennessee, being forced out of his car and detained for several minutes on suspect grounds.
The controversy even garnered the attention of Bill O’Reilly, the Fox News host of “The O’Reilly Factor.”
In the video, Ross was captured making various rude comments about Kalbaugh while searching the car, only moments after a K-9 unit made a suspicious alert, even though the 21-year-old Middle Tennessee State University student showed no signs of being intoxicated.
The controversy centered on the fact that many Rutherford County residents, as well as other Tennesseans, thought Ross showed outright disrespect toward Kalbaugh and argued law enforcement officials had no right to search the vehicle because even the K-9 handler told Ross that the dog did not make a strong hit.
Subsequently, several legal experts questioned whether Deputy Mike Hoekstra improperly handled the drug-sniffing dog while searching the outside of the vehicle and concluded Kalbaugh should not have been treated as forcibly. However, experts also said if he had been more forthcoming with law enforcement officials, Kalbaugh could have avoided the confrontation altogether.
Despite the backlash, Rutherford County Sheriff Robert Arnold insisted all policies were followed and stood by Ross, who was just recently honored by the law enforcement community with the Deputy of the Year Award.
3. Valentine’s Day murder stuns community
The killing of a 30-year-old mother on Valentine’s Day came as a blow to the community when residents learned the suspect was her own husband, Jacob Pearman.
The 30-year-old Alabama native was taken into custody only a few hours after he allegedly strangled and beat his wife, Carla Dillard Pearman, to death during a domestic dispute at their shared Murfreesboro residence.
Jacob Pearman, a well-known personal trainer at the Murfreesboro Athletic Club, and Carla Pearman, who is originally from Manchester, had been married for less than six months and lived in the house with her young son, who was not there at the time of the murder.
On the day of her death, Jacob Pearman was scheduled to appear for a criminal summons on a charge of felony child abuse and neglect regarding an incident with his stepson.
The killing sparked a renewed wave of domestic violence awareness efforts in the Murfreesboro community, including a fundraiser held in September to raise funds for area outreach programs.
Meanwhile, Jacob Pearman has remained in custody since February. His trial is scheduled to begin in the spring of 2014.
4. Reed makes history
History was made in September with the swearing in of Mary Esther Reed, who took the oath office as the first female mayor of Smyrna.
In what many described as a surreal moment, Judge Keta Barnes, the first female in history to serve as a Smyrna Municipal Court judge, administered the swearing-in ceremony.
Reed took over as mayor following the resignation of Tony Dover, who held the position for three years. Prior to his resignation, Reed served as vice mayor of the town of Smyrna.
Reed comes from a long line of family members who have served as elected and volunteer government leaders down through the past century.
Her father, longtime community businessman and civic leader Kenneth “Coon” Victory, served as a commissioner of the Smyrna Town Government for 15 years during the 1970s and 1980s when the legendary Sam Ridley was mayor.
Reed, whose grandfathers also served on the Rutherford County Commission, has already expressed intentions to run during the November 2014 elections.
5. Murfreesboro mourns loss of Scales
Local legend Mary Scales died in October at her Murfreesboro residence, following a long, hard-fought battle with cancer. She was 85 years old.
Revered by many for her work during the Civil Rights era alongside her late husband, Robert “T-90” Scales, Mary Scales was a beloved community icon whose death marked the end of an era in Murfreesboro.
Mary Scales, who moved to Rutherford County from Alabama, was the first black faculty member at MTSU and the first black female member of the Murfreesboro City Council.
Mary Scales and her husband were best known for their ability to bring the community together during a time of great strife, especially in regard to education and civil accord between races.
In recognition of their commitment to education, Scales Elementary School is named in their honor.
6. MTSU purchases former hospital site
In April, Middle Tennessee State University announced it had purchased the former Middle Tennessee Medical Center site near downtown Murfreesboro.
The university paid $11.1million for the 17.4-acre site, which includes the 115,000-square-foot Bell Street Building, a 143,000-square-foot parking garage with 407 parking spaces; surface parking with 188 spaces; and a large green-space area that was the site of the old main hospital building.
MTSU President Sidney McPhee announced university officials decided to purchase the property in order for academic purposes, though final decisions on what units and operations will occupy the former hospital site have not yet been determined.
Hospital administrators had been looking for a buyer to purchase the site ever since Middle Tennessee Medical Center, which has now been renamed Saint Thomas Rutherford Hospital, moved to Medical Center Parkway.
7. Killing of Smyrna man remains a mystery
The murder of a Smyrna man just days before Christmas has left Rutherford County Sheriff’s Office detectives baffled because they have yet to determine why someone would want to kill the 47-year-old father.
Jackie G. Warpoole Jr., a lifelong resident of Rutherford County, was found shot to death in mid-December inside his car on Interstate 24 near Smyrna by a motorist who stopped to check on the car, which was parked near the Almaville Road exit.
Warpoole was found slumped over the steering wheel inside his car from an apparent gunshot wound, which detectives quickly concluded was not self-inflicted.
Although law enforcement officials know his was killed, they have yet to determine why anyone would want to kill Warpoole, who by all accounts has been described as a hard-working, generous family man.
Since his death, which came only weeks before Warpoole was to celebrate his 20th wedding anniversary, family and friends have established a $15,000 reward in hopes someone will come forward with information about what happened in the hours leading up to his death.
Officials are still urging anyone with information about the case to call Detective Jamin Humphress, who works for the Sheriff’s Office, at 615-904-3054 and leave a message.
8. Murfreesboro renews red-light contract
In November, the Murfreesboro City Council approved a contract extension with American Traffic Solutions for the use of red-light cameras until November 2014, as part of a larger effort to reduce traffic fatalities.
Police Chief Glenn Chrisman, who has long supported the use of red-light cameras, emphasized the efficiency of using them versus requiring officers to physically patrol Murfreesboro’s myriad intersections, but he faced several questions by council members.
The red-light cameras have faced stiff opposition in the past from local residents and stewed debate for years since the City Council unanimously voted to install them in August 2007.
During the meeting, Councilman Eddie Smotherman questioned whether tickets issued for such violations carried any meaningful enforcement, noting that the Tennessee General Assembly passed legislation last year barring any negative credit implications from failure to pay such citations.
Attorney Susan McGannon, who represents the city of Murfreesboro, agreed that such citations do not carry credit implications for nonpayment. Chrisman agreed, noting that they do not count against residents’ driving records.
After quite a bit of discussion, the City Council voted to renew the contract, with Smotherman being the only member to vote against the measure.
9. Wilson Bank faces legal troubles
A Rutherford County jury awarded a total of $7.5 million in March to a local real estate developer who sued Wilson Bank & Trust over allegations that a former bank president committed fraud and forgery to the detriment of two companies.
Developer Ken Howell was awarded $3.6 million in punitive damages after the jury found that Wilson Bank is accountable for the demise of his two companies that were affected by the alleged fraud and forgery by Stan Hayes, who served as the Murfreesboro branch president from 2004 through June 2008.
The jury awarded Howell $3.9 million in compensatory damages relating to the loss of income and property as a result of various foreclosures on loans that were unlawfully modified.
Wilson Bank has also been ordered to pay all of the attorney fees and court costs associated with the trial, which was held before Chancellor Robert Corlew III in Rutherford County Chancery Court.
For more than three weeks, jurors listened to a slew of testimony that raised questions as to how Wilson Bank managed lending when it first entered the Rutherford County market and whether some business owners turned a blind eye to questionable practices until it personally affected their finances.
A few months later, Wilson Bank officials learned they would be defending themselves against another lawsuit involving Coconut Bay Café, which is owned by Amanda Gallagher and her father, Tony Hinson.
In November, a judge ruled a multimillion-dollar lawsuit involving Gallagher will go to trial in Rutherford County Circuit Court in Murfreesboro.
Although a trial date has not yet been set, the trial will likely be held in the spring of 2014.
Hayes, who has not been charged criminally in connection with the case, has repeatedly invoked his Fifth Amendment rights in both cases.
10. MTSU plants first ginseng seed
The new MTSU ginseng initiative that officially launched at its Experiential Learning and Research Center in November could be an economic game changer for Tennessee agriculture, according to local officials.
Officials broke ground and planted seeds at the university-run farm to mark the launch of the program, which is being conducted in collaboration with the Guangxi Botanical Garden of Medicinal Plants in Nanning, China.
The Tennessee Center for Botanical Medicine Research, an arm of the university, is in charge of overseeing the exploration and cultivation of American ginseng, which is most commonly used as an over-the-counter remedy to bolster the immune system and improve energy.
Although Asian ginseng has been used in traditional Chinese medicine for centuries, Western cultures have only recently started to seriously examine its American counterpart for potential use in treating cancer, viral infections and other ailments.
For state Sen. Bill Ketron, who strongly pushed for the project, he believes the desire for more medicinal research, as well as the existing worldwide demand for ginseng, has presented a unique opportunity for the university – one that could eventually become a multimillion-dollar export for Tennessee.
The first fruits of their labor are expected pop up in the spring of 2014. If all goes well, Rutherford County could help transform the agricultural industry and enjoy even more economic development – a prospect that has left many rural residents hopeful the future holds strong ginseng profits.