In 2016, readers welcomed the news of a major hospital expansion and construction of a state-of-the-art football turf, mourned the loss of children gone too soon, and saw a county icon disappear from its Plain City home and be returned.

The community of London celebrated news of a handicapped playground improvement coming to Cowling Park. A part of London’s agricultural history abruptly ended just down the road.

A political figure’s legacy came to a conclusion. A nonprofit’s future was questioned. And, one of the county’s top government officials was accused of theft in office.

And The Madison Press was there.

Here’s a roundup of your top local news stories from 2016:

10. Drama at the Humane Society

What initially seemed to be a simple personnel change led to the discovery that the Humane Society of Madison County is facing a host of issues.

The public learned society’s tax-exempt status was revoked in May 2011, meaning the proper paperwork had not been filed since 2008, according to the IRS website.

No one seems to know exactly what led to the paperwork being overlooked.

According to former director and board member Betty Peyton, the IRS had been sending certified letters to the address of its previous treasurer, who had passed away in 2006.

The loss of status means any donations to the HSMC are not tax-deductible and the shelter cannot apply for grants. Failing to file their tax returns may result in fines from the IRS, though no fines have been assessed yet.

Personal drama within the shelter led to finger pointing and placing the blame. E-mails among board members revealed the board had known since at least June of 2012.

A team of concerned community members banded together and are currently working on saving the shelter. The team dismantled the previous board of directors, spearheaded several new fundraising efforts and is focusing on moving forward, focusing on transparency and accuracy.

A new board will be chosen next month.

9. Baby’s tragic death inspires playground project

Madison County mourned with an area family in May upon the death of their 7-month-old son when he was found face down and unresponsive in a portable crib. Months later, the tragedy inspired a community service project.

In the week’s after Noah’s death, thousands of dollars were raised on online funding websites. The child’s family used monetary donations received as seed money for an all-accessible park in his honor.

Using the family’s initial $15,000 as leverage, the London Community Organization is hoping to turn Hagmeier’s tragedy into something much bigger and wonderful: a $400,000 playground made for children with all abilities.

The project has been named Access Cowling.

The plan is to break up the construction and cost into five phases. The first includes a five-foot-wide multi-purpose path that will connect the parking lot to the shelter house and basketball court, as well as two swings (one of which is molded with a plastic harness), five activity boards and a kiosk, which will include information about the project.

The park would be not only a first for Madison County, but the entire region.

Jessica Carter, 35, of London, was caring for Noah Hagmeier when he was reported not breathing. Carter was charged with reckless homicide and endangering children, both third-degree felonies, in November. Her case will go to trial in April 2017.

8. Paul Gross loses election

It was described as a case of David vs. Goliath.

But even those who said they expected incumbent Paul Gross to lose his bid for county commissioner couldn’t stop talking about it this year. David Hunter, a lesser-known Madison-Plains school board member, won the Republican primary election by more than 1,000 votes in March.

Gross, a businessman and farmer, is a member of the Madison County Republican Party’s executive committee and had his party’s endorsement.

He was appointed to the seat in 2010 and elected for a four-year term in 2012. During his six years in office, he gained a reputation as a business-oriented leader, whose tactics to cut budgets and buck traditions were sometimes viewed as abrasive or even bully-like.

Hunter campaigned on promises to represent the southern portion of the county, which he said was sometimes forgotten.

As results rolled in that Tuesday night, Hunter admitted to The Press he was “taken aback.”

“I feel good about it. I want to thank everyone that supported me and believed in me that I can do this,” he said. “I’m a little shocked.”

Hunter went on to win the general election against independent Andra Troyer. Gross said last week his career in politics is over.

“Private enterprise is where I came from, and where I thrive, and where I belong.”

7. Plain City’s clock tower restored

A project a long time in the making came to a close this year in Plain City.

The village’s iconic clock was returned to its base in December following a six-month major restoration. The move took place just days before the village’s annual Christmas Under the Clock celebration.

The historic clock — a No. 15 model Seth Thomas — has stood from atop the building, now Tique-Tock Antiques, since 1902. Only two times before has the clock been removed from the tower — in 1966 to repair storm damage and in 1988 to repair a rotting base. It was donated to the village in 1902.

The clock, which is owned by the village although the storefront building below is privately-owned, is one of only two like it in existence. The other is housed at the Smithsonian.

The structure is about 16 feet tall and weighs about 4,100 pounds. It was removed in May for its facelift. Over time, water had leaked into the clock, causing damage to the wooden structure holding it in place. The tin pieces surrounding the clock’s face were also deteriorated. The exterior looked rusty.

The project cost about $60,000. About $30,000 of the funds were raised by the Uptown Plain City Organization Commission. The other $30,000 will be paid by the village and later reimbursed by state capital improvement funds.

“Before, the numerals were painted on and the fours didn’t match. It looked like a restored clock,” said village administrator Kevin Vaughn. “Now, it looks like a timepiece.”

6. Tolles student killed in crash

The tragic death of 18-year-old Tolles Career & Technical Center student led to much needed upgrades at the signs near the school zone.

Zachary George was killed March 4 when he pulled in front of a speeding semitruck as he turned into the school parking lot. The semitruck was going 60 mph in the active school zone. The speed limit was just 20 mph.

George was a second-year fabricated welding student.

The crash put the school’s request for local flashers to the top of ODOT’s priority list — they were installed about one month later.

School officials initially requested the upgrade in November of 2013. Michael Whetstone, the driver in the crash, pleaded guilty to vehicular homicide in Madison County Municipal Court in October.

The second-degree misdemeanor led to a sentence of 50 hours community service, two years probation, one year license suspension with work privileges and 30 days in Tri-County Regional Jail. Whetstone also had to pay a fine and court fees, totaling $1,359.

5. Madison Health announces major expansion

Madison Health announced in June it’s planning $26 million major expansion and renovation that will give the hospital a whole new face.

Construction will begin in spring 2017 on a two-story, 24,000-square-foot addition at the front of the hospital. The addition will face North Main Street and cover most of the current front of the hospital, providing a new front entrance and lobby. Front parking lots and landscaping will be re-done as part of the project.

The new building will house a 12,000-square-foot emergency department on the first floor, tripling the space currently allotted to the ER, and a new cancer center on the second floor.

To offset the cost the hospital is hoping to raise $6 million in a community campaign, and has raised $2 million so far, said CEO Dana Engle.

Significant growth has happened in the last two years, he said. The hospital has hired 10 primary care physicians, 11 specialists and opened satellite locations in London, West Jefferson and Mount Sterling, which opened in April.

4. London High School builds turf

There was no way to know the full impact of what adding an artificial playing surface to London High School’s Bowlus Field would have, but the school quickly learned how big that decision actually was.

London school board members approved a contract with Maumee Bay Turf Center in May. Construction was completed by August, making it possible for the Red Raiders athletes to use it for competition in the fall sports.

It also opened the door for LHS to throw its name into the hat to host Ohio High School Athletic Association postseason contests.

The stadium hosted a pair of OHSAA state semifinal soccer matches, as well as a pair of Division I playoff football games. Bowlus was also the site of a D-IV football state semifinal between Columbus Bishop Hartley and Kettering Archbishop Alter.

“I can’t say I expected this much this soon,” LHS director of athletic Jimmy Wolverton. “We knew the new turf would open up the opportunity to host some postseason games. But I can’t say I expected us to get three state semifinal games in two weeks.”

District officials launched a campaign to raise $500,000 of the estimated $650,000 cost. The economic impact for the school’s athletic department and various booster groups was significant. In total the games brought in over $25,000.

3. Bucket List Baby steals hearts

Her story immediately captured Madison County’s heart.

Shiann Lockhart, a 2-year-old from Lafayette, was diagnosed with terminal cancer. Her family made a remarkable decision to embark on a bucket list for their little girl.

Shiann was born with a congenital heart and underwent a heart transplant when she was five weeks old. Because Shiann took anti-rejection drugs following the surgery, she contracted post transplant lympho proliferative disease, which spawns cancerous cells.

The Lockharts tried having her treated with chemotherapy. But seeing her little body depleted by it was more than they could bear. On May 9 chemotherapy stopped.

The family started the bucket list for their little girl shortly after. When the bucket list was created, acts of kindness toward the Lockhart family abounded, continuing on for months.

Shiann was the honorary Miss Strawberry at the London Strawberry Festival in June, served as the grand marshal in the Fourth of July Parade, rode in a Columbus police helicopter, threw out the first pitch at a baseball game, showed a rabbit at the Madison County Fair, enjoyed Christmas in July and attended prom in May.

Other items on the list included being baptized, driving a car, throwing out a pitch at a baseball game, getting a tattoo, going on a safari, a sleepover with makeup and movies, making root beer floats and pictures in mom’s wedding dress.

The toddler died at home Sept. 30 surrounded by her family and friends.

2. Ohio prison farms close

More than 100 years of history ended when the state announced in April it would close all of Ohio’s prison farms, including the farm at London Correctional Institution.

For many in Madison County it came as a surprise, as LoCI was working on a $9 million expansion of the prison dairy and cattle yards.

Prison officials argued it was because few inmates participated in the program and fewer still ended up in an agricultural career after their time.

The Ohio Civil Service Employees Association, which represents prison workers, has consistently opposed efforts to halt farming operations within the system, calling the move “short-sighted.”

The prison worker’s union even attempted a lawsuit to stop the closings, citing a circumvention of collective bargaining rights for workers at the farms. Their lawsuit was dismissed in September, where the judge argued he did not have jurisdiction over the case.

Various parts of the farm were auctioned off throughout the summer, including the dairy cows.

The land itself was divided into four parcels for lease and was bid on in November. The leases will be awarded in January.

1. Johnson charged with theft in office

It was the case that rattled the county.

Former Mount Sterling Administrator Joe Johnson was indicted in July on 30 felony counts, including engaging in a pattern of corrupt activity, theft in office, money laundering, tampering with records and failing to file personal income taxes.

He’s accused of systematically stealing at least $600,000 in village funds between 2012 and 2016.

Between June 2013 and December 2015, Johnson transferred more than $190,000 in excess payroll to the personal bank account he shared with his wife, Tara Johnson, who withdrew the money immediately after checks were deposited in her husband’s account, according to a search warrant.

Johnson also allegedly backdated his retirement to cash in early and used village funds to purchase vehicles he either kept for personal use or resold.

Mount Sterling’s village council was rocked by turbulence after Johnson’s arrest. Citizens began angrily attending meetings, demanding comment from council on the matter but received none.

One council member posted onto Facebook a picture of a swinging noose which she claimed was representing how she felt members of the public wanted to “do to her.” Some Mount Sterling citizens interpreted it as a death threat.

New Village Administrator John Martin said facilities weren’t being maintained under Johnson’s tenure, and had fallen into extreme disrepair.

Johnson’s trial is set to start in February 2017. He has been in Tri-County Regional Jail since July 19 under a $500,000 bond.

During the past year, readers welcomed the news of a major hospital expansion and construction of a state-of-the-art football turf, mourned the loss of children gone too soon, and saw a county icon disappear from its Plain City home and be returned. A political figure’s legacy came to a conclusion. A nonprofit’s future was questioned. And, one of the county’s top government officials was accused of theft in office.


During the past year, readers welcomed the news of a major hospital expansion and construction of a state-of-the-art football turf, mourned the loss of children gone too soon, and saw a county icon disappear from its Plain City home and be returned. A political figure’s legacy came to a conclusion. A nonprofit’s future was questioned. And, one of the county’s top government officials was accused of theft in office.

File photo

A look back at the biggest stories in Madison County in 2016

Staff report

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