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March 24, 2011 Issue

Avera shopping center closes
JCHS searched, found clean
DAJC purchases property between Wadley and Bartow
FirstCity Bank officials arrested

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Avera shopping center closes

By Garth Snow
Morris News Service

One Jefferson County town said goodbye Saturday to its only retail store. Avera Shopping Center closed after more than a century in the once-bustling downtown.

“Yes sir, we’re gonna miss it a lot,” said customer Terry Williams, 59, who took a seat at a table outside the store. “I’ve been coming here since I was a young’un.”

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The wholesale price of food and utility costs took the blame for the store’s closing.

Longtime manager Jimmy Lee Stone opened a smaller store just up the main thoroughfare on Monday. Customers said they were looking forward to seeing him at what was the old cotton gin. Still, Saturday was a time for reflection and farewells.

“I never thought anybody would have bought water,” Stones said on the final day of his 44 years at 9486 Broad St. Stone resumed selling bottled water, his trademark steaks and a limited line of groceries on Monday at 9401 Broad St. “My business is gonna be called J&P,” he said. The second initial stands for Phyricilla, his wife’s name.

Stone said he was 9 years old when he started tending stock in the store, then owned by Gerold and Dot Poole. “About 42 years they had it,” he said.

“Mom and Daddy bought the store in August of 1989,” said Juanice Smith Gordy, Her parents, B.C. and Joyce Smith, operated the store until December 2009. Gordy said her father was Avera mayor for 17 years, and her mother was town clerk for 16 years. “Momma’s health failed like a rock,” she said, and Stone and Loretta Herzog have run the store since then.

The building itself dates back at least to 1905, the date on a photo posted just inside the door.

“I hate to see it go,” Gordy said. The high-ceiling, century-old wooden building is too expensive to maintain, especially in the summer. She said just running the freezer and coolers and very little other cooling can run the power bill to $1,200 a month.

She said food prices keep rising. “And by the time you add your markup, people just can’t afford it,” Gordy said. “It just gets too expensive.”

Gordy said her mother ran the store by the rules of another day. If someone needed groceries and couldn’t pay, the store just made out a ticket and put it in a box. “You didn’t sign anything,” she said. Many of those tickets still fill a box in the old store.

Herzog said she enjoys cutting the steaks and preparing the hamburger that keep customers loyal. “Jimmy Lee taught me,” she said of her recently found skills. She predicted loyal customers will follow them to the new store.

Stone will move the grocery inventory to the new store. The hardware won’t fit in the new location, but he knows where to get plumbing supplies or other goods if a customer asks.

Double-edged razor blades and hair curler pins shared space on a rack Saturday. A few years worth of dust covered some fishing caps, which carried outdated price tags. “Some things are just for looks,” Herzog said. “It’s been here so long that it’s just considered part of the store.”

“I live in Wrens but I always come here to get my steaks,” Michelle Weatherford said. “But Jimmy Lee’s been here since he was 9 and he’s opening up a store up the street, so it’ll be the same.”

“When I first started working here we had about seven stores and three service stations,” Stone said. Now the town will have one, small store.

“It means a lot to me,” Stone said of his relationship with the community. “Forty-four years, you have to like it. People have been good to me.”

Troy Hadden, 78, kept a vigil in the alley outside the store at midday Saturday, watching traffic and reading his mail. Calendars from bygone years filled a cardboard box in the alley close to Hadden’s golf cart. He said he would miss the store where Stone has worked so long, and added, “Well, he’s got that one up yonder.”

Stone will lease his new store building from B.C. Smith and Steven Williams.

Gordy said Avera residents need to look after their new store and residents of neighboring towns need to take heed.

“Everybody needs to know that if you they’ve got a business in their town, that they need to be supporting it,” she said. “Shop with Jimmy Lee and try to keep something, because this is it, this is the last business in Avera.”




JCHS searched, found clean

By Faye Ellison, and Bonnie K. Sargent
Staff Writer & Apprentice

At 9:30 a.m. the morning of Friday, March 18, five minutes before the end of first period, students at Jefferson County High School were put on temporary lockdown while law enforcement with the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office and Richmond County Sheriff’s Office held a surprise drug search.

“We had been told not to let anybody with the school know we were coming,” Jefferson County Investigator Clark Hiebert said. “That was told to us by school officials. We did not notify anybody we were coming until we got into the parking lot.”

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Hiebert mentioned a recent drug dilemma a few months back at the school being one of the reasons the school needed to be searched.

“It was actually one of the cleanest searches we have had in a long time,” he said.

“I think it went really well,” said Dr. Alan Long, the school’s principal. “I think it was a thorough search. It took a long time and there were four dogs.”

After searching for more than an hour, there were only two spots where the drug dogs showed interest, but both spots were found empty.

“It is possible that something had been there prior to us coming,” Hiebert said. “Maybe even the day before.”

Hiebert explained that whether a drug dog hits on an area depends on the residue left by the drug.

“If it is residue from cocaine, it will get a hit as long as it remains potent,” he said. “If it is the scent of marijuana on clothes or in a car, it will remain for two to three days, if it is not washed or the vehicle is not aired out. If it is marijuana residues, it will remain whether it is in the seat of a vehicle or in the carpet.”

Along with one Jefferson County K-9 led by Gene Marsh, Jefferson County received assistance from three K-9 units from Richmond County. They searched numerous rooms, including the bathrooms, school gym, workshop and the cars in the parking lot.

Hiebert said when the school is put on lockdown, all children are ordered to stay in the class by the principal via the intercom.

“All the kids that are not in a class and those in the restrooms or hallways are asked to come to the office, rather than returning back to class,” Hiebert explained. “The rooms are chosen to be searched and those students are asked to leave all coats, sweaters and book bags in the desk or on the desk and leave single file into the hallway where they remain on the wall.”

Principal Long said he thinks drug searches are important to try and discourage students from bringing drugs to school.

“I do feel like drug sweeps deter students from bringing them to school, but not deter them from outside usage,” he said. “The only thing that will help that is education and good community examples.”

Hiebert echoed Dr. Long’s opinion.

“I guess there are numerous reasons to have drug searches,” Hiebert said. “If there are any drugs, they can be found with help of K-9 units and with the help of school staff alerting us that there maybe something to check.

“These searches help to rid the school of drugs and also serve as a deterrent. When people see drugs being found, it makes them aware that drugs can be found with dogs. I think this makes a difference in young people to see the dogs at work. It has a certain discouragement about children bringing drugs to school.”

While Hiebert works as an investigator, he has seen the devastation drug addiction can do to a child or an adult. Though he has seen many area youths get involved in drugs, whether experimenting or becoming addicted, he did say that in the past year or more he has seen less severe cases with young people than in the past.

“I think in our area, the challenge for young people is tremendous,” he said. “There are so many that are experimenting, are on drugs or are addicted to drugs, that it is a constant challenge for young people to remain drug free. It has become too much of a cool thing to use drugs. And those who don’t want to be involved, they are intimidated by those that encourage them to try it.

“I do know and we have found that young people who are going to school not only experiment, but have sold drugs at the school and some have become addicted. But I know the school is trying to work very closely with some of these individuals, they are trying to give them a chance, whether through the alternative school or other programs, to get clean or to stop selling. But it is also up to the young child to get help. They have to decide to get off, to quit, or to keep on using them.”




DAJC purchases property between Wadley and Bartow

By Carol McLeod
Staff Writer

A land purchase between the Development Authority of Jefferson County and Jimmie Tarver closed Tuesday, March 15, said Lil Easterlin, a staff member of the authority.

In a meeting held last week, the authority voted on exercising an option to purchase property in the Wadley-Bartow area.

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Easterlin said last week the authority has not decided how the property is going to be developed.

The property, which is on Highway 319, is on the rail line and has good transmission of electricity, she said.

The money to pay for the property comes from the new Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax that specifies the authority have land in that section of the county, Easterlin said.

“The final price ended up being $299,251.28. So it’s just under $300,000. I think it comes out to be 163 acres plus timber,” she said.

Easterlin said that during the meeting, DAJC Executive Director Tom Jordan gave a report on a project that might be interested in locating a business in the Kings Mill Industrial Park outside the city limits of Wrens.

“There’s a second project looking at Flint Logistics,” she said. “We don’t own that piece of property. We’re just working with them.”

Easterlin said the board also discussed security cameras, maintenance and upkeep on buildings.






FirstCity Bank officials arrested

By Faye Ellison
Staff Writer

Two former bank officials have been indicted on charges, including bank fraud, by a federal grand jury, federal prosecutors said Monday, March 21.

Former FirstCity Bank executives Mark A. Conner, 44, formerly of Canton, and Clayton A. Coe, 41, of McDonough, were indicted last week, according to a U.S. Attorney’s Office news release.

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FirstBank failed in March 2009, costing the FDIC’s Deposit Insurance Fund more than $100 million. At 6 p.m. Friday, March 20, 2009, the Georgia Department of Banking and Finance closed all FirstCity Bank, headquartered in Stockbridge, and its branches, including the bank in Gibson. The department appointed the FDIC as receiver.

Both Conner and Coe face conspiracy and bank fraud charges. Conner was charged separately with conducting a continuing financial crimes enterprise, along with an unknown number of co-conspirators, which allegedly netted more than $5 million.

Conner could face up to life in prison if convicted, and Coe could face up to 30 years, according to federal guidelines.

Conner, a former developer who at one time was the bank’s president and interim CEO, was arrested at Miami International Airport on Sunday, March 20, the second anniversary of the bank’s closure, while returning to the U.S. from the Turks and Caicos Islands. Conner’s initial appearance March 21 was before a federal magistrate judge in Miami, who preliminarily ordered Conner to be detained as a flight risk pending his transfer by Deputy U.S. Marshals from Miami to Atlanta for trial. A formal detention hearing will take place in Miami on Thursday, March 24, at 1:30 p.m. Coe’s initial appearance on the indictment in the Northern District of Georgia has not yet been scheduled.

“The entire country has felt the deep economic impact of failed banks,” U.S. Attorney Sally Quillian Yates said in the release. “At the heart of this indictment is an abuse of power by key insiders, who are charged with tricking their own colleagues into approving millions of dollars in commercial loans to fund the defendants’ own personal business activities, and to enrich themselves at the bank’s expense. Along the way, these defendants also allegedly defrauded state and federal bank regulators and examiners, and at least ten other federally-insured banks in Florida and Georgia that invested in the fraudulent multi-million dollar loans.”

FDIC Inspector General Jon Rymer said, “The Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) Office of Inspector General (OIG) is pleased to join the United States Attorney’s Office for the Northern District of Georgia and our law enforcement colleagues in announcing this Indictment. We are particularly concerned when former senior bank officials, who have held positions of trust within their institutions, are alleged to have been involved in criminal activity. We will continue to aggressively pursue bank officials and others who victimize financial institutions.”

“Today’s indictment marks yet another occasion where bank executives are alleged to have turned to criminal fraud in the midst of the financial crisis, including an attempt to obtain millions of dollars from the American taxpayer through the Troubled Asset Relief Program,” SIGTARP Special Inspector General for the Troubled Asset Relief Program Neil Barofsky said. “SIGTARP will continue to work with our law enforcement partners to bring those who engage in such crimes to justice.”

President Barack Obama established the interagency Financial Fraud Enforcement Task Force to wage an aggressive, coordinated and proactive effort to investigate and prosecute financial crimes. The task force includes representatives from a broad range of federal agencies, regulatory authorities, inspectors general, and state and local law enforcement who, working together, bring to bear a powerful array of criminal and civil enforcement resources. The task force is working to improve efforts across the federal executive branch, and with state and local partners, to investigate and prosecute significant financial crimes, ensure just and effective punishment for those who perpetrate financial crimes, combat discrimination in the lending and financial markets, and recover proceeds for victims of financial crimes.

This case is being investigated by Special Agents of the FDIC, Office of Inspector General; the Office of the SIGTARP, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and Internal Revenue Service-Criminal Investigation.

According to Yates, the charges and other information presented in court included Conner served in a variety of top positions at FirstCity Bank between 2004 and 2009, including as vice chairman of the Board of Directors, as a member of the bank’s loan committee, as president, and later as acting chairman and chief executive officer. Coe served as a vice president and as FirstCity Bank’s senior commercial loan officer. While serving in these positions, Conner, Coe and their co-conspirators, allegedly conspired to defraud FirstCity Bank’s loan committee and Board of Directors into approving multiple multi-million dollar commercial loans to borrowers who, unbeknownst to FirstCity Bank, were actually purchasing property owned by Conner or Coe personally.

The indictment charges that they misrepresented the essential nature, terms, and underlying purpose of the loans and falsified documents and information presented to the loan committee and the Board of Directors. Then allegedly caused at least 10 other federally-insured banks to invest in, or participate in the fraudulent loans based on these and other fraudulent misrepresentations, shifting all or part of the risk of default to the other banks. Coe’s bonus compensation was tied to the origination of FirstCity Bank loans, including the fraudulent loans with which he and Conner allegedly assisted each other.

In the process of defrauding FirstCity Bank and the participating banks, the group allegedly routinely misled federal and state bank regulators and examiners to conceal their unlawful scheme. They also unsuccessfully sought federal government assistance through the U.S. Treasury Department’s Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) and engaged in other misconduct in an attempt to avoid seizure by regulators and prevent the discovery of their fraud.

The charge against Conner for conducting a continuing financial crimes enterprise carries a mandatory minimum sentence of 10 years in federal prison, a maximum sentence of life in prison, and a potential fine of up to $10 million. The conspiracy and bank fraud charges against both, Conner and Coe, and a remaining charge against Coe for fraudulently influencing the actions of a federally-insured bank, carry a maximum sentence of 30 years in prison and a potential fine of up to $1 million on each count.

At the time of the Gibson closing, representatives from the FDIC called a town meeting on March 22, to talk with consumers and answer questions.

During the town meeting, representatives of the FDIC and a representative of the banking and finance department were on hand to provide information and answer questions.

Many of the citizens there expressed their surprise at the bank’s closing and said they had conducted business on Friday. That Friday, customers learned the bank’s parent company defaulted on the trust and funds of its customers, leaving them in an even worse bind.

At 6 p.m. customers’ accounts were suspended, not allowing them to use their debit cards or making them subject to bouncing a check.

While the alleged actions of Conner and Coe resulted in the closing of all FirstCity banks, including Gibson’s branch, no one in Glascock County or the surrounding area has been charged nor faces pending charges in relation to this case, a spokesman from the U.S. Attorney’s office said.




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