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July 18, 2001


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OPINIONS

Loren Metts
Farewell, Madison County

Change is good, but it's not always easy, at least for me.

Frank Gillespie
Gov't should get out of welfare business

The political correctness people have now jumped into the "Faith and Community Based Charity" debate.


SPORTS

Directions to Area Schools

Senior League all stars win district but bow out at state
Madison County's senior league all stars became the only squad from the recreation department to advance to state tournament play after beating Toccoa 11-8 Thursday to secure the district championship.


Neighborhood News...
BANKS COUNTY
Inmate firefighter program suspended
Amidst allegations of arson, improper behavior, access to inappropriate materials and prohibited family visits, the inmate firefighter program between the Jackson County Correctional Institution and the Banks County Fire Department has been temporarily suspended.

Anti-nuclear pilgrimage to come through county Sat.
Two Buddhist monks will be leading an anti-nuclear pilgrimage through Banks County on Saturday, July 21.



News from...
JACKSON COUNTY
MTV goes to Arcade looking for 'ugly' people
A Los Angeles, Calif., film crew for MTV came to Jackson County over the weekend looking for "ugly" people to feature in a music video.

Tanger calls for vote on liquor by the drink
Tanger Factory Outlet Center manager Mark Valentine asked the Jackson County Board of Commissioners Monday night to consider calling for a vote on liquor by the drink in the Banks Crossing area.


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Tracy Lea Fortson

Fortson sentenced to life for killing Doug Benton
Jeff Bennett and Jerry Alexander spent an agonizing hour in Madison County Superior Court Thursday as attorney Tom Camp tried to pin the murder of their friend, Doug Benton, on them. The lawyer said the two killed their buddy then tried to frame Tracy Lea Fortson for the crime.
But the jury didn't buy this conspiracy theory, finding the former Oglethorpe County deputy guilty on all counts against her - malice murder, felony murder, two counts of aggravated assault and attempted arson.
Judge Lindsay Tise sentenced Fortson to life in prison on both murder charges, 20 years in confinement on both assault charges and 10 years in jail for attempted arson. He said the assault charges would run concurrent to each other, but consecutive to the life sentences.


Past Stories on the Fortson Trial


Fortson received the punishment for shooting Benton in the head with a 22 caliber rifle last June in his Colbert home as he slept, then stabbing him, wrapping his body in two shower curtains, putting his body in a water trough, filling it with cement, using a rope or cable tied to a tree to pull the entombed man off the back of her pickup in a wooded area in Oglethorpe County, then going back to his house and dousing his living area with kerosene in a failed attempt to burn it down.
District Attorney Bob Lavender told the jury that she committed the horrid act out of spite over a breakup with the victim after a rocky eight-month relationship.
"She was angry," said Lavender. "She was going to get this SOB cause he kicked her out."
As the verdict was read and the sentence issued, Fortson's shoulders shook hard once as she appeared to restrain sobs.
Others in the court were emotional too, but for different reasons, some mourning the loss of Fortson's freedom, others remembering the man they loved and lost.
"Overall, there's still just total sorrow because everybody loses," said the victim's brother, Scott Benton, after the trial.
The verdict followed three days of testimony, with all witnesses called by the prosecution. Surprisingly, the defense called no one to the stand. Instead, Fortson's attorney used cross examinations to try to convince the jury that investigators had botched the case by not checking leads and not considering every angle.
"This is a case based solely on circumstantial evidence," said Camp. "In order to convict on circumstantial evidence, then you must exclude every reasonable theory....The state has not met that burden."
The defense attorney maintained that the prosecution was "trying to make things fit." He questioned why no search warrants were issued for the homes of Alexander and Bennett.
But the DA said there was never any evidence to suggest the guilt of anyone other than Fortson.
"There is no evidence that points to anybody else," said Lavender.
Camp told jurors during his closing argument that Fortson was a religious woman who loved animals. He said she was not "the type of person who would have killed Doug Benton, taken him off in a metal container and left his animals (exotic birds) there to die."
Then the attorney attempted to show that Fortson was an "innocent victim," presenting the theory that Benton's friends - Bennett and Alexander - framed Fortson.
As the lawyer wove the tale, the victim's brother patted Bennett on the back, a show of support in the face of what they said was an atrocious deflection of guilt.
And the jury, too, believed that the yarn spun by Camp only stretched so far. Because Lavender presented a mountain of evidence showing that Fortson acted alone in the murder and the gruesome disposal of Benton's body in a cement-filled water trough.
The prosecutor presented a chilly picture of the defendant, showing the jury a devotional book in which Fortson had written herself a note dated June 10, 2000 - a week after the murder and a week before the discovery of Benton's body.
"Presented to myself by myself on the occasion of his absence from my life," read Fortson's note to herself.
Lavender said Fortson conceived a "good plan" which she would have gotten away with were it not for a couple of "fortuitous" events - a kid's flat tire on a four-wheeler leading the property manager to the remote area where the body was found. There was also the failed attempt to burn the house down. Had the candles Fortson left ignited the kerosene in Benton's home, the case may not have been solved, the DA said.
Lavender showed that Fortson had purchased the cement and water trough on June 4, the apparent day of the murder. He said Fortson hunted on the property where the body was found. He said she knew no one would be going near the body because it was on hunting grounds and it was not hunting season.
"She knew people weren't going to be back there," said Lavender.
There was also cement found in her truck matching the cement in the water trough. A piece of the bag of quick-dry cement was found in the trough, the same name brand purchased by Fortson at an Athens store on June 4. A neighbor saw Fortson at Benton's house on that date and said she heard a gunshot that night but didn't think much of it because gunshots aren't so unusual in rural areas - Camp questioned the credibility of the neighbor, wondering why she came forward with the news of the gunshot late in the investigation.
The prosecution also argued that Fortson forged a note from Benton to Alexander, which asked the victim's friend to look after his truck while he was gone. The DA said the former deputy stuck the note to Benton's truck with fingerprinting tape, which is used almost exclusively by law enforcement officers.
Green, black and khaki paint used on the water trough in an attempt to camouflage the entombed body was shown to be similar to paint found at Fortson's home and on her camouflaged mailbox.
After Tise sentenced Fortson, he asked the victim's side of the courtroom to exit first, then the defendant's side, keeping the two groups from mingling at such an emotional time.
Outside the courtroom after the trial, Bennett said he was happy with the verdict, saying he would have to move if Fortson was free.
"I feel justice has been done," said Bennett. "I can't say there will be closure other than knowing my safety is no longer in jeopardy."
He added that Benton was "the best friend I've ever had in my life."
Scott Benton said his brother embraced life and overcame tough times. He said he'd like people to remember his sibling's Herculean strength, how he attained recognition as one of the strongest men around, holding the state of Georgia bench press record in his weight class at 500 lbs.
"He worked his butt off to get it," said Benton.


Madison Co. planners deny rezoning for Booger Hill Road restaurant
County planners faced a "standing room only" crowd at Tuesday night's public hearings of the planning and zoning commission.
The majority of those present were there to oppose the rezoning of a home on Booger Hill Road for a proposed restaurant.
The home's new owners, George Nenes and Jean Long, want to rezone a portion of a 9.92-acre tract from R-R (rural residential, two-acre minimum) to B-1 (commercial) in order to subdivide the property to provide a lot no larger than 2.5 acres for a restaurant and a business office in the existing older home, known as the Sorrells house.
The planning commission voted unanimously to recommend denial of the request to the board of commissioners after hearing from a number of neighbors to the property who expressed concerns over increased traffic and other anticipated problems that could be caused by zoning the home to a business designation.
Nenes and his wife, Gail, told the commission they want to open a restaurant that will serve breakfast six days a week, dinner three evenings a week, and a Sunday lunch.
The Nenes also want to house outreach ministry offices on the second floor.
Construction to convert the home has already begun, although the building permit was obtained for "residence purposes only," according to zoning administrator Kim Butler.
The BOC will have the final say on this and other zoning matters at their public hearings next Monday evening.
In a separate controversial matter, the commission voted unanimously to approve a request by Frank Strickland, representing Thomas Michael Gearing, to rezone a 5.31-acre parcel from A-1 to R-R.
Gearing, who recently purchased 2.77 acres of the tract, wants to build a home there.
County attorney Mike Pruett advised the commission to "apply only the criteria always considered" in their recommendation, and not to consider a restraining order and lawsuit to prevent construction that is currently involved in the division of the land.
"We have done this (approved rezones) in several cases like this before. This request is the same as ones we normally have approved before in this area," commission member Roy Gandy said. "On our attorney's advice, we can have nothing to do with the lawsuit, or with what was done in the past."
For the rest of this story, see this week's Madison County Journal.


 

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To read more about the local events in Madison County, including births, weddings, sports news and school news, see this week's Madison County Journal.


GBI continues Mac Almond
investigation

The investigation of former Comer principal Mac Almond is ongoing with no clear end in sight.
Bill Malueg of the Athens post of the Georgia Bureau of Investigation said Tuesday that the GBI hasn't been able to complete the investigation of Almond because of a heavy caseload.
"We would like to have been through with it by now, but we've had too many things come up," said Malueg, who had no estimate on when the investigation would be done.
He said the Almond issue is not among its most pressing matters right now.
"It's not on our top priority list," said Malueg.
The agent said the GBI has been looking into Almond's bank records.
Almond, Comer Elementary's principal for 26 years, resigned this past spring amid allegations that he illegally used school funds for personal gain, that he disposed of records that might have incriminated him, that he falsified leave records for himself and for teachers, that frequent absences left him unable to perform his duties and that he failed to obey the school system's policy prohibiting admission of out-of-county students.
His supporters maintained that the allegations against the principal were politically motivated.
The school system's investigation of Almond was handed to the District Attorney's office, which turned the matter over to the GBI. Malueg said that the GBI's findings will be presented to the DA.


Commerce-Neese Road may be widened next year
Madison County leaders plan to widen Commerce-Neese Road next year from Hwy. 106 to Hwy. 98 by two feet - one foot on each side of the road.
The project will cost an estimated $490,000, with $290,000 coming from the state Department of Transportation.
BOC chairman Wesley Nash told commissioners Monday that the road-widening project will use up all of the funds promised to the county by the DOT for 2002. Commissioners recently met with DOT head Tom Coleman and were informed that Madison County is supposed to receive approximately $140,000 per year from the DOT for local projects - this does not include work to state roadways, such as Hwy. 98.
However, the state agreed to fund an extra $150,000 next year for the widening of Commerce-Neese Road. Leaders say the widening is needed because the road is heavily traveled and very narrow, creating dangers for motorists.
Nash and the commissioners talked about the proposed project during a Monday meeting on county roads. The group took no action on the matter.
For the rest of this story, see this week's Madison Coounty Journal.