When it comes to the top stories of the year, the answer seems glaringly obvious.
The one thing that’s been on everyone’s mind, all across the country. The thing that has shaped the entire year. The thing that’s broken traditions, made people sick, and resulted in a whole world full of people wearing masks.
In considering the the top 10 stories of 2020, COVID’s place at the top is so much of a given, it was tempting to leave it out altogether and move on to less predictable headline-makers. But that wouldn’t be right. Because as much as the coronavirus has been a global phenomenon, it’s also had a very unique impact locally. That makes it a Pulaski County story, a Southern Kentucky story, as much as a national or international story -- and it’s still easily the no. 1 newsmaker of the year, even in that localized context.
But as much bad as there’s been in 2020, there has also been plenty of good -- though as is usually the case, people could see the same story in vastly different ways. Colorful murals brightened up downtown Somerset, but not everyone liked what they saw. Plans for a new university in the heart of the community were announced, but not without controversy. And racial tensions gripped much of America -- but here in Pulaski County, people came together to support each other in the midst of tragedy, which only helped draw attention to how lucky Somerset is to have its police chief.
Following are the top 10 local news stories of 2020, as voted on by the editorial staff of the Commonwealth Journal:
1. The Year of the Virus
It was in March when everything changed — but the month came in like a lamb. Indeed, the first few articles to address this mysterious “novel coronavirus” and its potential impact on the community featured the Lake Cumberland District Health Department informing the public that the risk posed by the virus was low, and that the flu was seen as a bigger threat. However, they also noted that the situation was “evolving” — and by the end of the month, Kentucky was in the midst of a large-scale shutdown of businesses considered non-essential, indoor dining, churches, schools, and numerous regular activities. Those restrictions have eased and changed over time, but Gov. Andy Beshear’s decisions have not always been popular. In August, local state legislators met for a Somerset-Pulaski County Chamber of Commerce event at the Harbor Restaurant where they fielded complaints about overreach on Beshears’ part in using his emergency powers — and those legislators pledged to do something about it when they return to Frankfort in 2021. Also, Somerset Christian School, a local private educational facility, showed support in November for a federal civil lawsuit against Beshear’s order closing both public and private K-12 schools late in the year as rising COVID-19 cases brought in-person learning in the 2020-21 academic year to a halt.
People felt the effects of COVID-19 in a variety of ways. The LCDHD provided updates throughout the year on the number of cases in the area, the number of recoveries — and the number of deaths related to the virus, which can pose a particular threat to the elderly and those with pre-existing medical conditions. In April, Somerset was selected to be a drive-thru COVID-19 testing site. Concerns about hospital capacity were an issue, especially later in the year. People adjusted their daily customs — everything from wearing masks in public to “drive-by” birthday parties that promoted social distancing. So many local events were canceled during the year, including the planned Derby festival in the City of Somerset, the first three months of the Somernites Cruise season, and the annual Somerset and Burnside Christmas parades. Somerset Mayor Alan Keck did push for normalcy, however, calling on the governor to ease some restrictions and showing concern for the devastating economic effects of the shutdown. Not only did this inspire the city to go ahead and hold its Moonlight Festival, albeit with numerous precautionary measures, in October, but Keck also got airtime on Fox Business Channel and an op-ed piece in the New York Times to make his case for a freer community in the time of the coronavirus, in addition to a number of Facebook Live addresses to the local public to both encourage spirits and communicate important information. Truly, COVID-19 made 2020 a year unlike any Pulaski County has seen before — and hopefully never will again.
2. Horse Soldiers Ride into Somerset
If not for COVID-19, Somerset’s taste of the Bourbon Trail-style life might have been the top story of the year. It was actually in late 2019 that word leaked out about plans by the Horse Soldier Bourbon brand to place their distillery here in Somerset. A unique group of Green Berets known for riding into northern Afghanistan on horseback as part of U.S. military action following 9-11 — the 2018 film “12 Strong” is based on their story — the veterans got into the liquor business after settling into civilian life and were looking for a new place to set up shop. Keck helped lure them to town with last year’s Moonlight Festival, and in January, the public finally got to meet the men and women behind the product at an introductory press conference before a packed room at the Somerset Energy Center. American Freedom Distillery would make Horse Soldier Bourbon right here in Somerset, launching a two-phase, $50 million project looking to add 56 direct jobs and enhance Pulaski’s already powerful tourism profile.
Horse Soldier Bourbon in Somerset brought a bit of a celebration before the scourge of COVID-19 soured things. January ended with the bourbon product arriving in Somerset stores, which sold out in a couple of hours, as Keck learned. The CJ visited the Mole Hole in downtown Somerset, where people could try shots of the bourbon after it arrived; the place was packed with curious bourbon fans. Later, in February, it was announced that the Waitsboro Hills Golf Course property would serve as the location for the distillery, with the purchase being finalized February 13. Once the coronavirus storm had cleared a bit, the city, SPEDA, and the Horse Soldiers moved ahead with their planned “Whiskey & War Stories” event in October, delayed from earlier in the year, which allowed a crowd at The Center for Rural Development to hear the Horse Soldiers talk about their famous military adventures in person. (A new Veterans Park in downtown Somerset was also announced at the event.) Horse Soldier Bourbon also sponsored this year’s Moonlight Festival in October, lifting spirits toward the end of a difficult year.
3. Constable Consternation
Two Pulaski County lawmen found themselves on the wrong side of the law in 2020, leading to a lengthy court saga after a dramatic confrontation with federal authorities. Fifth District Constable Mike “Wally” Wallace had already attracted unfortunate attention when photos of suspects posing with signs Wallace had made, reading “This DRUG HOUSE is CLOSED for Business, Courtesy Of: Pulaski County Constable’s Office Michael ‘Wally’ Wallace” turned up on social media. The suspects apparently wished to be photographed with the sign and the constable obliged them, leading to some online controversy. But things would get worse for Wallace when he and Fourth District Constable Gary Baldock were served with FBI arrest warrants in early March after having been indicted the month before in U.S. District Court on charges of Conspiracy Against Civil Rights. Baldock was injured in a shootout with the federal agents when they arrived at his home to arrest him; Baldock reportedly shot and injured an agent, and was shot by agents himself, and both injured parties were taken to the hospital for treatment of injuries.
Wallace pleaded not guilty, as did Baldock later on — the latter also pleaded not guilty to charges of assault a federal officer. The charges were upgraded later in March to Attempted Murder of a Federal Agent, to which Baldock also pleaded not guilty in April. In May, Wallace asked the court to separate his case from Baldock’s (or to separate Baldock’s additional charges from the original case); this was okayed. Fallout from the bombshell case continued throughout the year. In May, a Eubank man arrested by the constables had his charges dropped, and another man arrested after a probe by the constables was denied the request to have his sentence vacated. In September, a Ferguson man filed a lawsuit claiming his civil rights were violated during arrest by the constables. New drug-related charges popped up during July against Wallace and Baldock, and both pleaded not guilty. In October, the trial for the constables was delayed until January 19, and in November, Baldock’s attempted murder trial was pushed to March. A new federal civil lawsuit was filed against the constables in December, keeping the heat on the elected public figures even until year’s end.
4. Race and Pulaski County
If COVID-19 was the story of the year nationwide, racial issues leading to civil unrest was surely in second place. The deaths of Black individuals like George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, and Louisville’s Breonna Taylor sparked conversations about injustice based on race all over America, particularly when it comes to issues of abuse of power by law enforcement. The phrase “Black Lives Matter” became part of the national consciousness, and demonstrations were sparked in cities across the country, often resulting in violence and destruction of property. Courtney Ribeiro, a nurse from Somerset, was at the scene of a fatal shooting during a Louisville protest in June, the death of photographer Tyler Gerth, and helped provide medical attention to others in the area.
Here in Somerset, a Juneteenth event was used to spark discussion this past summer. Many demonstrated their views at the Judicial Plaza downtown and held signs, but the event was a peaceful one that brought members of the community together. There were concerns raised on social media that a more dangerous element might arrive, however, and specifically target the Confederate cemetery and monument to General Felix Zolicoffer at the Mill Springs Battlefield, historical markers related to those associated with slavery during the Civil War. A group of armed citizens from around Nancy gathered in June at Zollicoffer Park to protect what stands there, but there was ultimately no incident. Sports was not immune to racial controversy: In late October, Pulaski County High School football players were accused by a Tates Creek parent of uttering racial slurs during a contest between the two. schools, and in July, local author Jamie Vaught dismissed the idea that Kentucky basketball coaching great Adolph Rupp was racist. The role of police in racial injustice issues placed Somerset Police Chief William Hunt in the spotlight, but in a positive way: Hunt performed well in June during a KET panel discussion about police reform. Later, in September, Hunt was named Police Chief of the Year by the Kentucky Association of Chiefs of Police, proving an example of a leader in law enforcement doing things the right way.
5. Welcome to the University of Somerset
While Somerset Community College and Campbellsville University-Somerset have served the community for years now, one thing that’s been lacking is a four-year university belonging exclusively to this county. That could change if plans for the University of Somerset come to fruition. The private non-profit research institution, announced in October, would be founded in the classic liberal arts tradition while embracing technological innovation and scientific development, and was the vision of the late Dr. Michael Hail and Mayor Keck’s brother, Michael. Hail, a political conservative, dealt with the dilemma of not fitting in with more liberal peers throughout his career in higher education, and the goal for the University of Somerset became to offer a place where those on the right and those of Christian faith could feel safe to study, teach, and operate. This drew cheers from the community as well as criticism, with concerns that anyone who wasn’t Christian or conservative wouldn’t be welcome, but Michael Keck presented it as a place where all viewpoints could be represented in balance.
Another controversy surrounding the planned university involved its location. Plans are to build the college over Cundiff Square, an ailing nine-acre commercial complex where a townhouse facility also sat. The individuals living there were evicted prior to the City of Somerset buying the property, and Mayor Keck faced criticism over the way the city’s purchase of the property and the evictions were handled in October and November council meetings, particularly the complaint that the evictions took place in the middle of the COVID-19 crisis and residents were not given assistance finding new housing from the city. Also, the son of C.K. Cundiff, Richard, told the Commonwealth Journal in December he sought to save the monument his father erected at the site, near the old historic Town Spring. Truly, for many involved, the mission to bring the University of Somerset to life has already been a learning process.
6. Saying Goodbye
Whether a matter of stepping down from a position or passing away from this earth, this area said farewell to a number of familiar individuals in 2020. Among unexpected deaths, that of Dr. Michael Hail was one of the most notable from a headline-making standpoint. Hail served as the chairman of the Somerset Independent School Board, and was the founding president of the planned University of Somerset, but passed away in August after a brief illness at age 53. Another life taken too soon was that of former Somerset High School and University of Kentucky student athlete Brynlee Bigelow, who died in a February car accident in Woodford County at age 21. Other notable members of the community to pass away in 2020 included former Mill Springs Battlefield Association administrator and Lake Cumberland Winery founder Norrie Wake, 77; Haney’s Appledale Farm matriarch Oreida Haney, 95; and Scott “Sully” Sullivan, 50, who in September took the offer of a private plane to see his son Cade play football for PCHS against Belfry in Pike County even though he was weak with cancer.
Others in the community simply left the roles in which we knew them. State Rep. Tommy Turner served in his final General Assembly in 2020, choosing not to run again after 24 years in Frankfort (Shane Baker will take his seat). Dr. French Harmon preached his final sermon in September at First Baptist Church in Somerset, moving on to be president and CEO of the Kentucky Baptist Foundation after 13 years here. Danita Ellis retired in December as Southwestern High School Principal after nearly a decade in that office. Local product Todd Dalton retired from his six-year job as Kentucky State Police Post 11 Commander in late July, with an eye on running for sheriff in Pulaski County. Cody Gibson and Ron Pfaff stepped down from the SPEDA board in December. And Video Palace, the last remaining video rental store in Somerset, announced in December that it was closing by the beginning of 2021 due to the death of owner Tana Tarter last month, after more than 35 years of bringing movies to Pulaski County homes.
7. Painting the Town
Certainly, downtown Somerset is a lot brighter than it used to be. Murals have been popping up all over town — Jordan Justice paired his work on the side of the Somerset-Pulaski County Chamber of Commerce building with a new mural on the side of the old Food Fair, which now houses new businesses, celebrating the community’s arts, agricultural and railroad-utilizing heritage. Amanda Brooks has been responsible for several works, including a bright new design for the basketball court at Rocky Hollow Park. Community pillar John L. Perkins was immortalized by Louisville artist Damon Thompson on the side of a building overlooking his old workplace, the downtown Somerset Post Office, where he was Postmaster. And Bryan Landon II and Tyler Whitaker painted “The Spirit of Southern Kentucky” on the steps of the Energy Center. Likewise, framed art stations have been put up around town as part of a project by Watershed Arts Alliance, Downtown Art in the Open. In November, the City of Somerset received the prestigious Government Award from the Governor’s Awards in the Arts.
But beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and even the artwork around town hasn’t been without controversy. The mural on the Energy Center steps drew criticism because it featured the image of the American flag on the ground, where it could be stepped on, something a number of individuals who addressed the Somerset City Council felt was disrespectful. Mayor Keck had the flag painted with a mountain design, but that wasn’t all; councilor John Ricky Minton objected to the project being done without input from the council, questioned the cost of the project, and remarked on a friend’s comments that coming into Somerset “looked like you were pulling into a comic book.” He also compared the artwork to urban-area graffiti left in the wake of political protests, drawing criticism from members of the local arts community. If nothing else, 2020 proved that pleasing everyone is an art that’s hard to master.
8. A Battlefield Defended
For a long time now, a push has been made to enter the Mill Springs Battlefield into the National Parks System, and that dream finally became a reality in 2020. In February, the Pulaski County Fiscal Court approved its portion of a three-way agreement with the NPS (National Park Service) and MSBA (Mill Springs Battlefield Association) following President Donald Trump’s move last year to sign legislation designation the battlefield and its museum there in the Nancy community a national monument. In a September signing ceremony in Washington D.C., the Mill Springs Battlefield Monument was officially established as the 421st unit of the NPS. Mill Springs was the site of the first significant victory for the Union Army during the Civil War, on January 19, 1862.
U.S. Rep. Hal Rogers and Sen. Mitch McConnell visited the Battlefield Museum in October for a ceremony unveiling the National Monument marker. The property includes not only the museum and battlefield in Pulaski County, but properties in Wayne County as well, including the Brown-Lanier House and West Metcalfe House. The move helps protect and preserve the battlefield, which was once in poor shape when Rogers first visited in the 1960s and made it a pet project, and the work of the MSBA and its former president Bill Neikirk to take care of the property and see it to this point was lauded at the October event.
9. Chicken Wars
Every year brings plenty of new developments in Pulaski County, but perhaps the tastiest of them all happened early in the year, when a number of new chicken-based restaurants opened up in town all around the same time. Popeye’s Chicken actually opened in December of 2019. Southern-styled Slim Chickens was first in January; then directly across from Popeye’s came Chick-fil-A, which saw fans camp out in the parking lot the night before it opened for a chance to win a year of free weekly meals. Evenly locally-owned Pollo Feliz — “happy chicken” in Spanish — flew into town in February, making Somerset a great place to cross the road if you’re hungry for chicken.
There were lots of other new developments in the area though with the hopes of big commercial success. The old Food Fair building downtown is now home to the Charred Oak Whiskey Grill and the Be You Boutique. Next door, the new downtown Farmers Market opened in June. Hemisphere Limited LLC opened in February in the vacated First and Farmers National Bank building. SPEDA named the new industrial park the SPEDA Commerce Park, the City of Somerset purchased the Virginia Cinema with an eye toward finally making progress with the empty space, and Burnside is building “The Don Franklin Family of Dealerships Performance Stage” at Cole Park after this year’s Labor Day “Thunder Over the Island” event showed the need for a permanent venue there. Progress was made on the construction of the Ky. 80-Ky. 461 cloverleaf, and in September, Rogers and McConnell introduced a bill to give the Cumberland Parkway an interstate designation, a federal spur of I-65. In Wayne County, the November General Election saw the county opt to go “wet” for the sale of alcohol by a margin of 4,901 to 3,996, a $7 million East Kentucky Power Cooperative substation is being built near the Monticello Post Office. And way back at the beginning of the year, Somerset rang in 2020 in style with a ball drop party on the Fountain Square — celebrating a year to come that no one could have predicted.
10. Crime and Punishment
On August 31, 1995, two Southwestern High School students, 17-year-old Matthew Coomer and 15-year-old Taiann Wilson, were murdered by 25-year-old Jeffrey Brian Coffey while on a first date near Tick Ridge in western Pulaski County. Coffey was convicted of the double murder but spared the death penalty. Instead, a Laurel County jury recommended life in prison without the possibility of parole for 25 years. That time came due in 2020, and a petition effort to keep Coffey in prison was created, generating close to 10,000 signatures. In June, the Kentucky Parole Board decided that Coffey would spend the rest of his life in prison, with no future opportunity for parole. In August, Coffey filed a civil lawsuit in Franklin Circuit Court against the Kentucky Parole Board, arguing that the “serve out” unjustly changed his sentence to life without the possibility of parole. In September, Justice and Public Safety Cabinet attorney Angela Dunham filed a motion to dismiss the case on behalf of the commonwealth and parole board.
The year 2020 brought more crime stories in Pulaski County. In March, Clark County’s Jayme Danielle Barker was charged in connection with the shooting of Jermaine Bennett, Jr. of Winchester, which took place in Pulaski County. A second suspect, Zachary Kinnard, was arrested in April. The two were indicted in June, and released on signature bonds in August. In April, skeletal remains were discovered in the Garland Bend area in the southern part of the county and investigated by the Pulaski County Sheriff’s Office; in early May, they were identified as belonging to Ella Jackson, a Richmond woman missing since October. Her husband, Glenn Jackson, had taught at Somerset Community College and Eastern Kentucky University; he was charged with her murder prior to the discovery. And a Eubank man, Charles Wilson, engaged in an all-day stand-off with law enforcement at Smith Ridge Spur in May, an incident that started over a man bringing a lost dog to Wilson’s house. He was shot and spent a month in the hospital before pleading not guilty to his charges. He was indicted on numerous charges including Attempted Murder and Wanton Endangerment in September. Truly, there were many sad stories from 2020 — but those dealing with crime might have been some of the most unfortunate of all.