A key figure in an 11-year-old legal fight against the City of Pendergrass was killed in the line of duty Sunday night.
Bill Garner, 53, a deputy with the Franklin County Sheriff's Office, was killed after he had stopped to assist with a wreck on I-85 around 7 p.m. Another vehicle lost control and hit Garner as he was standing outside his patrol car, according to published reports. The driver of the vehicle was charged with vehicular homicide.
Garner, a former officer with Pendergrass, was one of the "whistleblowers" involved in the multi-year legal battle against the town. He had won a large court settlement in the suit, which is still involved in appeal litigation.
Garner, along with former town clerk Katherine Rintoul, first sued the city in 2009 in federal court. They lost that round, but subsequently filed suit in superior court in 2011 alleging that the city had violated the state’s Whistleblower Act. Rintoul was fired in what the city said was a financial crisis layoff in 2009 while Garner resigned later that year under what he said were hostile working conditions.
Before they were fired or resigned, both Rintoul and Garner, along with another police officer, complained to Pendergrass Mayor Monk Tolbert in July 2009 about the misuse of city funds and allegations that city administrator Rob Russell had been “fixing” city traffic tickets.
But instead of backing the whistleblowers, Tolbert backed Russell and fired Rintoul and four other city employees in what was portrayed at the time as a layoff for financial reasons.
The whistleblowers then went public with their allegations, which hit like a bombshell and got extensive media coverage throughout the state.
In October 2009, a group of Pendergrass citizens attempted to recall the Pendergrass City Council, but that effort failed following a court hearing at which the judge refused to let it proceed.
Meanwhile, the GBI and other agencies were called in to investigate the allegations, but no charges were ever filed against city employees by the district attorney’s office.
In November, 2017, a 14-member jury, after nine days of court action, found that Pendergrass had violated the Georgia Whistleblower Act.
Rintoul was awarded $218,000 in lost wages and $300,000 in damages by the jury while Garner was awarded $175,000 in lost wages and $372,600 in damages.
In 2018, the judge ordered Pendergrass to pay an additional $156,600 in attorney fees to the plaintiffs.
The verdict was upheld on appeal in March 2020.
Pendergrass is now appealing the decision to the Georgia Supreme Court.
It was hard to find Evan Davis not doing something involving baseball. That’s just one of the ways in which Commerce baseball coach Steve Cotrell remembered the Tiger standout a day after his passing.
“He was a kid that if he wasn’t fishing or studying in the books, he was hitting or throwing a baseball,” Cotrell said Thursday (July 16). “He was one of those kids that put the team first.”
The 17-year-old Davis, a rising senior, passed away July 15 after a one-vehicle accident on Hwy. 98 in Madison County. Davis’ 17-year-old sister, Emma, was also in the vehicle but sustained minor injuries, according to a report from the Georgia State Patrol.
A July 16 community vigil at the Tiger baseball field was held to honor Davis.
“It’s one of those things where we’re just going to have to lean on each other, and do what we need to do to honor him and what he brought to the team, to his family, to his friends, just to everybody,” Cotrell said.
Davis, who was part of the Tiger baseball program since the sixth grade, was a standout on the diamond for Commerce. Davis batted .343 in the middle of the Tigers’ lineup this past spring. But he was never caught up in his own accolades, according to Cotrell.
“He wanted to please everyone and do everything he could do help,” Cotrell said.
The coach remembered a player who put pressure on himself to perform for his teammates.
“If he didn’t have a great game, or if he went into a little bit of a slump, he felt like he wasn’t doing what he needed to do to help the team,” Cotrell said. “He hit in the three-hole for us, so he felt like that he had to be perfect every at bat and he had to win the game every at bat. And that’s just kind of the kid he was.”
One of Cotrell’s lasting memories of Davis is how he handled early struggles after moving to that No. 3 spot in the Tiger lineup this season to become one of the team’s top hitters.
“It was almost like the lightbulb came on from him still being a kid to becoming a young man,” Cotrell said. “Not so much the game of baseball, but how he handled the adversity along with everything else. It never changed his attitude, it never changed his work habits, how he dealt with other kids and players.”
Cotrell said Davis, who also played basketball at Commerce High School, thought of others.
“He’s one of those guys, I’d get a random text, ‘Coach, how are you doing today?’ That’s just what he thought about people,” Cotrell said.
The coach said Davis’ death has been a struggle for a tight-knit Commerce baseball team.
“We’re all still trying to wrap our head around it,” Cotrell said. “We need to be there for the family and make sure we support them and help get them through this time right now.”
Cotrell said all his players “are like my own." Davis, he said, was “a great kid.”
“He walked the narrow path, man,” Cotrell said. “… He never got disturbed or followed-the-crowd type thing. Even the older kids, they’ll tell you that. Evan was going to do what he was supposed to be doing. That’s the type of person he was.”
With a unanimous vote, the Georgia High School Association (GHSA) Board of Trustees has pushed back the start of the football season two weeks to Sept. 4 as the group met July 20 to discuss how to proceed with fall sports amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
All other fall sports – softball, volleyball, cross country, competitive cheerleading and flag football — will start on time.
The original start date for football games had been Aug. 21. The new schedule will still allow for 10 games with five rounds of playoffs. Under that timeline, state championship games would be played Dec. 24-26, but new state finals dates have not been set.
The state-wide period for conditioning will begin on July 27 as originally planned. Practice with pads will still start Aug. 1.
A move to begin the fall sports season with the current calendar failed with an 8-4 vote.
Here are the season-opening games for each school in Jackson County, now pushed back two weeks:
•Commerce at Banks County, Aug. 21 to Sept. 4.
•East Jackson at West Hall, Aug. 21 to Sept. 4.
•Jackson County at East Jackson Aug. 28 to Sept. 11.
•Jefferson vs. TBA. The Dragons were initially slated to open against Westside-Anderson (S.C.) on Aug. 28 but the state of South Carolina pushed the start of its football season back to Sept. 11 with a seven-game season.
Fourteen resident of Northridge Health and Rehabilitation center in Commerce have died of COVID.
According to state data compiled from nursing homes around Georgia, as of July 20, the center has had 66 positive cases of COVID out of 124 residents. In addition, 17 staff members have tested positive for the virus.
The 14 deaths were a jump from eight a week earlier.
So far, Jackson County has recorded 631 cases of the virus with 12 deaths and 69 people hospitalized.
The number of confirmed cases went up by 100 people during the week of July 13 to July 20.
Jackson County's three school systems are planning to return to in-person classes in the coming weeks — but that could change as cases of the COVID virus surge in the area.
In recent days, several Atlanta-area school systems have delayed reopening or moved to online only classes. Nearby Gwinnett County, the state's largest school system, decided this week to open with online classes and no in-person classes due to the virus surge.
The Jackson County School System may adjust its plans later this week, said superintendent April Howard. Howard said a number of staff members in the system have tested positive for the virus.
"That is an impact on planning and potential adjustment," she said.
Around 18 percent of students in the system have requested virtual learning rather than attending in-school classes, Howard said.
The City of Jefferson School System plans to return to class on July 31. Superintendent Donna McMullan said those plans are still on, but the system is monitoring the current surge in the virus. Less than five percent of Jefferson students have opted for online virtual learning, she said.
The City of Commerce School System is set to reopen on Aug. 7. Superintendent Joy Tolbert said those plans remain the same. Around five percent of Commerce students have opted for virtual learning only, she said.
The state revised its guidelines for reopening schools last week to focus less on community spread of the virus and more on dealing with the virus within school facilities.
None of the three local systems will mandate students wear a mask, but leaders in the systems say masks will be encouraged.