A1 A1
29-year-old Auburn man killed in officer-involved shooting following police chase

The Georgia Bureau of Investigation is investigating an officer-involved shooting that led to the death of a wanted man Thursday morning, June 24, after an attempted traffic stop in Auburn.

According to the GBI, a Barrow County sheriff’s deputy attempted to stop Steven Jesse Dylan Thompson, 29, of Auburn, in his Ford Fusion around 5:30 a.m. after a registration check of his vehicle indicated that he had an active warrant out of Hall County. Thompson reportedly refused to stop, sparking a chase that ended at the intersection near Brown’s Bridge Road and Bradford Park Lane when the sedan left the roadway and crashed into a power pole.

Thompson did not get out of the wrecked vehicle, but he looked out of it with a handgun and threatened to shoot himself if authorities approached him, according to a news release. Officers gave several commands for him to put the weapon down so they could assist him, but at one point he started firing at the officers, the release said. BCSO deputies and Auburn Police Department officers then returned fire, striking Thompson, and he was taken to a local hospital where he was later pronounced dead, the release said.

A female passenger who was in the car during the chase crawled out and immediately surrendered to law enforcement was taken into custody. She was transported to a local hospital with minor injuries from the wreck. It was not clear whether she was being charged with anything. 

No deputies or officers were injured in the incident, according to the release.

An autopsy on Thompson will be conducted at the GBI Crime Lab in Decatur at a later date, officials said.

The incident was the 46th officer-involved shooting the GBI has been requested to investigate this year. After the GBI conducts its independent investigation, the findings will be turned over to the Piedmont Judicial Circuit District Attorney’s Office for review.

This story will be updated. 

Trio of brothers from Winder complete national mowing challenge, hope to pass torch to other kids

A goal that started last summer turned into a time-consuming, but rewarding experience for three brothers from Winder.

Sixteen-year-old David, 14-year-old Johnathan and 8-year-old Zachary Koss of Winder spent the last year mowing 50 lawns free of charge for residents in the community who are either elderly, disabled, veterans or single parents as part of the national “50 Yard Challenge.”

The initiative was started by Rodney Smith Jr., an Aruban immigrant who has lived in the U.S. for 15 years and founded Raising Men Lawn Care, a Madison, Alabama-based nonprofit aimed at helping people in need. Smith has traveled around the country helping mow lawns and has gotten kids in all 50 states and a handful of other countries to take on his challenge.

Participants receive a different colored Raising Men Lawn Care shirt for every 10 lawns they complete along the way. When they are finished, they receive a black shirt and a personal visit from Smith, who also rewards them with their own lawn equipment — a mower, weed eater and blower.

The equipment part was a surprise to the Koss brothers, who recently finished their 50th yard, going full-circle to mow the lawn of an elderly woman whose was the first yard they did in July 2020. Johnathan said that yard, which became the boys’ favorite and which they returned to every two weeks to maintain, was perhaps the most challenging as they spent four hours the first go-around.

“Bushes are the most challenging thing for me,” David added. “It’s something we didn’t technically have to do, but a lot of people need help with that part of their yard. It just seems to take a lot of time. We helped cut their bushes way back and then had to haul them away.”

On June 16, a few days after the boys finished up their 50th yard, the Koss family received a visit from Smith at their Winder home.

“They thought Mr. Smith was just going to visit them and give them their black shirts,” the boys’ mother, Denise, said. “We also told them that he might mow a strip of our yard as a ceremonial thing. So, when he pulled up with boxes of mowers, they immediately just thought that that was why.

But when Zachary noticed the multiple mowers, he asked, “Do we have to work, too?”

When the boys were told they were each getting their own equipment, they cracked a big smile, Denise said.

The family acknowledged that the last year has been a huge time commitment on weekends, but after completing 71 service hours, they still plan to take part in some of Smith’s other challenges — including mowing yards for teachers, health-care workers, first responders and police officers — after David finishes up his Eagle Scout project.

At the end of the “50 Yard Challenge,” the boys agreed that “helping so many people” and “feeling good at the end of each yard” made their hard work well worth the time. And “the popsicles my dad gave me at the end of each work day,” Zachary added.

But even though the Koss family will be focusing a little more on their own schedules, Denise said they recognize that the need for help in the community remains. And that’s why the family would like to see the torch passed onto other local youngsters to carry the work forward.

“I worry about the people that we will leave without help,” Denise said. “It would be amazing if we could find or encourage more boys and girls in Barrow County to take on this challenge.”

For more information on the “50 Yard Challenge,” go to www.weareraisingmen.com.

UPDATED: School board appoints Lumpkin to fill District 1 vacancy

Kenny Lumpkin

The Barrow County Board of Education voted Wednesday, June 23, to appoint Kenny Lumpkin to fill the vacant District 1 seat, which will make him the third Black member to serve on the board in the last half-century.

Lumpkin was selected over six other candidates for the post following individual candidate interviews before the board Wednesday night at the school district’s central office. He will take over for former District 1 board member Debi Krause, who resigned earlier this month because she plans to run for a seat on the Statham City Council.

Lumpkin, of Statham, is a lifelong Barrow Countian who has over 30 years of banking experience and has served on and been appointed to numerous community volunteer boards and agencies. He currently serves on the Barrow County Board of Tax Assessors and was previously board chairman for the Barrow Community Hospital. He is a founding member of the Brad Akins YMCA and the Barrow Glenwood Community and Historic Education Foundation. He is also a past winner of the Barrow County Chamber of Commerce Citizen of the Year and Community Service awards and has been involved in leadership roles with his church, White Oak Spring Missionary Baptist Church in Winder.

Lumpkin holds a Bachelor of Business Administration degree from the University of West Georgia and a Master of Business Administration degree from the University of Maryland. He has been married to his wife, Carol, for 31 years, and the couple have two daughters — one who graduated from Apalachee High School in 2010 and another who is a rising junior at the school.

Lumpkin received a majority of board member votes in the first tally (by private paper ballot) — six out of eight — while Lori Sands and Tremica Carter received one vote each. Edwina Brewer, Kirsten Bradford, Jessica Jackson and Barnard Sims also were interviewed after the seven candidates submitted letters of interest to the board.

“We had some excellent candidates,” District 5 board member Lynn Stevens said in a short discussion prior to the vote, with several other members echoing her thoughts on the field.

But it was Lumpkin — who has previously served on school system committees, including the governance board for Sims Academy — that seemed to command the room the most throughout his 15-minute interview.

“My life can be summed up as a life of service,” Lumpkin told board members. “I’ve always served as long as I can remember, so (the board seat) seems like a natural fit on the service end. I’ve been a banker so I’ve done a little bit of everything from business development and banking loans to community development.

“I understand the implications of taxes and how they impact our school systems and students. I understand the connection between taxes and the burden they can play on the citizens, and I understand the necessity of taxes as they relate to providing a sufficient and well-round education for students.”

The board interviewed a significant cross-section of candidates that included business owners, Barrow County natives, parents of current and former Barrow County School System students and a local government employee (Jackson, who is employed by Barrow County in the transportation and engineering department). A common theme among the candidates when asked why they chose to seek the seat was their desire to serve and provide a different perspective on the board.

That was also the case for Lumpkin.

“I think it’s important that, as a board, we stay connected and we understand the students and the positions that they’re in,” he said. “And, even in some cases, the cultural challenges that they face.”

And on a night where diversity was one of the main topics of discussion between the board members themselves and in their interactions with the candidates — three of the seven candidates who interviewed are Black (Lumpkin, Carter and Sims) — Lumpkin’s appointment was significant.

He will be the third Black board member since BCSS formed in 1971, as a consolidation of Barrow County Schools and Winder Schools, and the first since Robert Wimberly (2001-2004). Charles Colbert (1989-2002) was the first Black BCSS school board member.

At one point in his interview, Lumpkin was asked by Stevens about racial division in the country and how he would approach the subject of “critical race theory,” an academic concept that stresses the existence of systemic racism in America’s legal systems and many of its public policies since the country’s founding.

While the “CRT” movement has been around several decades, it has become a political lightning rod recently — including in Georgia, where the state Board of Education passed a resolution earlier this month in opposition to CRT at the urging of Republican Gov. Brian Kemp. In its resolution, the board declared that the U.S. “is not a racist country, and that the state of Georgia is not a racist state” and opposed use of public education resources to “indoctrinate” students. The board also vowed not to accept any public or private funding that would “require” teaching anyone that they are inherently racist or a victim of racism.

Critics of the resolution have said the state is attempting to stifle discussions about the history of race in America.

Lumpkin was the only candidate to face that question, though Sands alluded to CRT when she told the board that, in some cases, district parents don’t believe their concerns are always being heard by the board.

When asked, Lumpkin said he wasn’t sure whether historical aspects of “what we all know is a part of our history” should be taught in classrooms.

“I firmly believe that we live in a country that aspires to treat everyone equally. I believe diversity and inclusion are very important,” Lumpkin said, adding that he believes politics in America have become too divisive, to the point where they are hampering needed progress in certain areas.

“What we find today is decisions are divided strictly along party lines,” he said. “I believe you can take people in a room that have different opinions, and you can put them together and come up with something that’s greater than the individual parts. And we’re not seeing that today.

“What we’re seeing is people are digging their heels in and sticking to their mantra… And they’re refusing to work across the lines to do something that’s for the greater good of the country and in some cases for the students. My intention would be to always work across the lines.”

To that end, Lumpkin, who has been appointed to fill the remaining 18 months of Krause’s second term, was noncommittal when asked by the board if he would run for election a full four-year term next year. He would first need to run in either the Republican or Democratic primary for the seat, and he indicated a general opposition to school board seats being tied to political parties.

“Educating our students and providing them a quality education should be politics-free,” Lumpkin said. “We have to go by the rules that have been established. We can’t change the rules in the middle of the game. But at this point, I would say my intention would be to run, but I’ve got to think through all those dynamics. I’m new at this.”

Statham council approves revised FY22 budget

After a rarely-used procedural maneuver by Mayor Joe Piper, the Statham City Council on Tuesday, June 29, approved a revised budget for fiscal year 2022, ending a month-long and at-times contentious process just in time for the city to continue operations past the end of FY21 on June 30.

The passage of what was the proposed $4.57 million balanced budget that Piper presented to the council earlier this month came one week after the body approved a different version that he ultimately vetoed due to his contention that it jeopardized public safety in the city by cutting some police funds in lieu of money for a sidewalk project.

The version approved Tuesday — by a 3-1 vote with councilman Dwight McCormic opposed and councilwoman Tammy Crawley absent — puts $53,500 back into the police department’s more than $1 million portion of the budget, which will allow the department to purchase two new vehicles for the two new officer positions it plans to add. It also excludes, entirely, funding for sidewalks in the area of Broad Street and Hammond Road that McCormic has sought.

After the council failed to take a vote at its June 15 meeting, when it was initially scheduled to adopt an FY22 budget, McCormic successfully led an effort — with Crawley and councilwoman Hattie Thrasher in support of his motion — to take $53,500 out of the police department’s budget (money for one of the new vehicles) and put it under the public works department budget for a proposed sidewalk project along Broad Street between 8th Street and Hammond Road.

But two days later, on June 24, Piper notified the council that he was vetoing the budget it had just passed, specifically the re-appropriation of the $53,500 for the sidewalks.

That prompted a special-called meeting Friday, June 25, in which the council voted 3-1 to uphold Piper’s veto — four votes would have been required to override it — with McCormic opposed, councilman Gary Venable absent, and Crawley and Thrasher crossing over to join councilwoman Betty Lyle in support of the mayor’s move.

Crawley said Friday that inaccurate information had factored into her initial vote to approve McCormic’s amendment.

“I would like to apologize to the mayor and staff for putting extra work upon you go through this,” Crawley said. “And my apologies to the police department. I always support the police department. I want to apologize to the citizens. I did not do my due diligence as a councilperson.”

Crawley was referencing a point made by McCormic at the June 22 meeting when he said that because the city no longer planned to shift two existing vehicles from the police department to the public works department, the city could get by to start the new fiscal year by only purchasing one police vehicle. As it turned out, McCormic said, the two new vehicles are needed for the two additional officers the department is planning to add to its staff.

“After we decided to keep the trucks in the police department, I felt like the need was no longer there,” McCormic said Friday, adding that he wished the need had been “conveyed to the council a little bit better.”

“I always support the police department in any way I can,” he said. “It was simply a misunderstanding. …We had a failure to communicate.”

McCormic and Piper have been at odds in previous meetings over the mayor’s proposed budget that cut out $130,000 in sidewalk funding that was included in earlier, unbalanced versions. Piper has maintained that was necessary to balance the budget and has said that the sidewalk project should be better planned out with firmer numbers before it is included in the budget.

McCormic’s amendment would have taken police department appropriations for FY22 down to just under $1 million — which still would have meant an increase of roughly $175,000 over the approved FY21 amount. The department is adding two more police officer positions, which Chief Ira Underwood has said are necessary for the department to have adequate staffing and ensure the city 24/7 coverage. Police officers will also see their starting pay increase, additional Covid-19 hazard pay and cost-of-living pay raises that other city employees are set to receive.

McCormic has contended that sidewalks are a critical public-safety concern themselves and has pushed back against Piper’s suggestions that he supports underfunding or “defunding” the police. Instead, he said, the city should study more closely the rate of the department’s growth and “where the money is being spent.”

South Carolina man drowns at Fort Yargo

A South Carolina man drowned at Fort Yargo State Park in Winder Saturday afternoon, June 26, after going underwater while swimming and never resurfacing.

According to officials with the Georgia Department of Natural Resources and Winder Police Department, the body of Geraldo Morales Gonzalez, 21, of North Charleston, was found inside the swimming area under water about three hours after authorities received reports around 2 p.m. that he had gone underneath the surface and did not come back up. 

Morales Gonzalez was visiting the park with his family and was reportedly not a strong swimmer, according to authorities. 

Independence Day events planned in Auburn, Statham

Local residents will have a couple of opportunities in Barrow County Saturday, July 3, to view fireworks and take part in Independence Day festivities. 

The City of Auburn will host its annual Independence Day celebration starting at 5 p.m. along 4th Avenue. The event will features family activities, food and other vendors, games, live music, a kids' zone, and fireworks at dark.

Also Saturday, Casto Trading Company will host the sixth annual "Star-Spangled Statham" event starting at 6 p.m. at its downtown Statham location, 1898 Railroad St. The event will include inflatables (with a small fee to use), live music and vendors. Fireworks will be set behind the Casto building at approximately 9:30 p.m. Organizers said the best viewing opportunities will be to the east of the building.