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Top stories in Warren County news
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Motorist shot, killed on Sparta Highway

Gunfire erupted Sunday, Oct. 24 on Sparta Highway near McMinnville city limits as two motorists were traveling inbound. The altercation claimed the life of 36-yearold Christopher Hollis.

Two months after the incident, no charges have been filed against the shooter.

Three weeks after the fatal shooting, Jeremiah Benjamin Davis was named as the man who shot and killed Hollis, according to special prosecutor Craig Northcott. Davis had his name changed months before the shooting and was previously known as Jeremiah Dearinger, according to the prosecutor.

Davis reportedly pulled from Wild Bills BBQ, the former VFW, and made a left turn onto Sparta Highway. The subjects reportedly became engaged in an argument as they were driving on the highway with shots fired while the vehicles were in motion. The two men reportedly did not know each other.

The Hollis vehicle rolled to a stop on Sparta Highway at Dinty Moore Drive, which Google Maps shows is .6 of a mile from Wild Bill’s BBQ. Davis pulled over in the emergency lane a short distance in front of the Hollis SUV. A gun was reportedly recovered from the Hollis vehicle. It’s not known if Hollis may have pointed the gun at Davis.

Charges, if leveled, could range from murder all the way down to manslaughter. Or it could be determined Davis acted in self-defense and criminal charges are not filed. Hollis’ family is adamant it was not self-defense. “You can’t holler self-defense when you shoot somebody from behind through the back passenger window. My son needs justice. There needs to be charges,” said Christopher’s mother Vicki Marsh.

Marsh said the reason for the highway argument is because Davis nearly hit her son and his girlfriend when he pulled onto Sparta Highway.

“They were arguing side-by-side as they were driving because he nearly caused them to wreck,” said Marsh. “Then he backs off and fires two shots from behind.”

Since the shooting, the Hollis family has set up a memorial on Sparta Highway.

“That’s what we need right now because there is no justice being done at this point,” said Marsh.

Marsh also organized a peaceful vigil for justice for her son and other victims of gunshot deaths.

A crowd of 50 gathered on Court Square on Sunday, Nov. 28 seeking arrests for the gun-related deaths of Hollis and Japeth Gilley, who died after being shot at a residence in Morrison on Feb. 2.

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Milner Recreation Center opens

McMinnville Civic Center, now Milner Recreation Center, received a $9.2 million renovation and expansion. The project kicked off in February 2019 and reached its conclusion in June 2021.

The facility closed Feb. 18, 2019 so an 18-month project by Sain Construction Company could begin. Numerous delays pushed that time frame to 28 months. It reopened June 21, 2021 with a ribbon cutting. A grand opening was held one month later.

“This is truly a historic day for the city of McMinnville,” said Mayor Ryle Chastain, during the ribbon-cutting ceremony. “Some 50 years ago, some community leaders like Mr. Sam Martin envisioned a focal point in our community that could be used for fellowship and community gatherings. Through their hard work and contributions, that resulted in McMinnville Civic Center. Fast forward to today and we stand in a fully modernized facility that is reopening after over two years of very hard work.”

City officials agreed to borrow up to $10 million. While $9.2 million was actual construction cost, an additional $800,000 was included to cover architectural fees and any extras or surprises not covered in the project’s contingency fund.

Chastain gave special recognition to the facility’s namesake Dr Pepper Bottling Company owner Doug Milner, “Without the contributions of Doug Milner and his family, I don’t know what the city would have done over the years.”

Among many other things, Milner sponsors the city’s annual July 4 fireworks show.

What began as a 51,091-square-foot building is now 75,134 square feet. There was 11,270 added to the lower level, and 12,773 added to the upper level.

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Man killed, local gun violence on the rise

Gun violence, including at least one alleged homicide, left its mark on Warren County in 2021.

February saw the loss of two lives – one that remains under investigation, and one in which an arrest was quickly made.

On Feb. 2, Japeth Gilley, 19, was dropped off at Ascension Saint Thomas River Park’s emergency room at 6 a.m. A female driver left shortly thereafter. Gilley had suffered a gunshot wound to the head and succumbed later that day at Vanderbilt Medical Center.

The Gilley shooting death remains unsolved. According to District Attorney General Lisa Zavogiannis, the incident occurred at a residence in Morrison and conflicting stories from people who were reportedly at the home that night make it nearly impossible to determine what happened.

Four days later, in the early morning hours of Feb. 6, Javier Dante Wiley, 30, was shot and killed in the front yard of an apartment on Fair Street, not far from downtown McMinnville. Arrested at that time was James Tyler Garrett, 30.

According to McMinnville Police, Garrett allegedly shot his friend multiple times with an AR-15 after a night of drinking in Murfreesboro spiraled into physical and verbal altercations and ended with gun violence.

The grand jury indicted Garrett for criminal homicide in April. Garrett’s bond was set at $600,000. As of Dec. 29, he remains at Warren County Jail unable to post bond.

On Dec. 10, a shooting victim was found behind Westwood Church of Christ. McMinnville officers were dispatched as a welfare check on an individual seen walking in the wooded area behind the church. They discovered a man with a gunshot wound to the head. McMinnville Police say foul play is not suspected.

In between those months, at least four instances of gun violence occurred around the county -- at Walmart when a gun was dropped inside a dressing room and discharged, at Warren County Courthouse when a bullet was shot through the front door, at a home on Edgefield Street, and at Turner’s Marine on Smithville Highway.

In April, Robert Harris was charged after his gun discharged while he was in the dressing room of Walmart. He was shot in the back of the leg and airlifted.

In mid-June, one bullet ripped through the front glass door of Warren County Courthouse. No arrests have been made.

Later in June, five rounds were shot into a home at 203A Edgefield Street in the early morning. At home were a husband and wife and their four children. No one was injured in the drive-by shooting and the shooter has yet to be identified.

Another drive-by shooting involved Turner’s Marine on Smithville Highway. Within days, Regan Turner Muncey, 30, was charged with one count of vandalism and one count of reckless endangerment for shooting into the building.

Two found with enough fentanyl to kill 10,000

In a huge drug-related story occurring late in the year, a local couple was charged for allegedly possessing fentanyl in a quantity large enough to potentially cause the deaths of 10,000 users.

Jesse “Eric” Self, 18, and Kalene Michelle Hoch, 25, were both were charged with manufacture, delivery or sale of a controlled substance and possession of a firearm during commission of a felony.

“We seized 20 grams of a powder- like substance that tested positive as fentanyl,” said McMinnville Police detective Sgt. Eddie Colwell. “It only takes 2 milligrams of fentanyl to overdose someone and cause their death. That 20 grams is enough to kill approximately 10,000 people, which is the majority of people currently living in the city of McMinnville.”

According to 2020 Census results, the city of McMinnville has a population of 13,788.

A search warrant was issued at their home on Gay Street on Dec. 15. Det. Colwell, along with other city officers and Warren County Sheriff’s Department deputies Jared Jacobs and Brystol Davis, responded. Law enforcement was concluding a drug investigation and specifically hunting for drugs within the residence.

“We’ve been working on a drug investigation for some time with Jesse ‘Eric’ Self as the target,” said Colwell. “Upon execution of the search warrant, we seized the powder-like substance believed to be fentanyl and three guns. We have sent the substance off to confirm our test results.”

Bond was set at $300,000 each. Fentanyl use is surging nationwide, along with overdose deaths associated with the drug. Fentanyl is 100 times more potent than morphine and 50 times more potent than heroin.

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Blue Building deal reached

After more than a decade of indecisive discussions about the Blue Building, McMinnville officials voted Nov. 23 to enter negotiations with Investment Partners to sell it.

That decision came one week after officials listened to three proposals made for the property. Along with Investment Partners, which is Bobby Kirby, Lake Kirby and Jewell Hale, offers were also made – and voluntarily pulled from consideration – by Hickory Creek Capital Partners and McMinnville Heritage Preservation.

Kirby provided both verbal and written assurances that Investment Partners would not demolish the Blue Building. Instead, the plan is to renovate and convert it to condominiums/ apartments as well as develop the rear portion of the property for townhomes that will complement the architecture of the original building. Also, a portion of the Blue Building will be used for commercial space.

According to McMinnville Heritage Preservation president Neil Schultz, the Blue Building was constructed as a home about 150 years ago by John Pickett for his brother, James. It was built between 1869 and 1871 on 5 acres.

James lost his fortune in the Civil War and “Picket Place” was sold during a bankruptcy sale in 1873. Purchased by Col. Mumford, the home was renovated and ash shade trees planted around it.

Pickett Place was renamed Mumford Mansion. It was the first home in Warren County to have a bathroom with running water. The property was considered gracious Southern living and included a tennis court and flower gardens.

Phase one, which Kirby said will begin as soon as a purchase contract is signed and Tax Increment Financing (TIF) is secured, will include renovation of the Blue Building and site work for the rear property. Phase two will be vertical construction of townhomes. While phase one is estimated at 12 months, phase two is estimated at 24 months.

Development cost is projected at $13.5 million for an estimated 64 new homes in downtown McMinnville.

Agreement details are currently being worked out between the city of McMinnville and Investment Partners.

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Debate soars over masks at school

This summer, the Warren County School Board crafted a comprehensive plan to guide the school system on the appropriate actions to take during the 2021-22 school year depending on COVID levels in the community.

Gov. Bill Lee, in August, then signed an executive order allowing parents to opt their kids out of wearing a mask at school. This sparked debate.

Lee’s executive order letting parents opt their children out of mask mandates in K-12 schools was in response to school districts issuing mask requirements. If school officials were to enforce a mask requirement, Lee said, “I suppose that would be against the law and we would see what would happen there.”

This executive order meant that masks could not be required at Warren County Schools, no matter how high the level of COVID infection level soared or what action local officials tried to take.

Bill Zechman was firmly in favor of keeping the mask mandate.

“The very idea we send our children into a shooting gallery where they are very likely to be harmed is repugnant,” said Zechman. “This is basic, commonsense safety. The idea we can opt to expose other people’s children to the coronavirus is repugnant.”

Zechman asked if there was a way to segregate students who want to wear masks from students who don’t. He suggested teaching them in entirely different classrooms. He was told this is not an option.

James Bennett, a 38-year educator, spoke against relaxing the facemask policy, saying his primary focus is on keeping students and teachers safe at school.

The debate continued when Lee signed into law a comprehensive legislative package passed in the middle of the night in late October to reduce the power local agencies have over COVID-19 restrictions. Among its requirements, the new law severely limits the ability of public schools to issue mask mandates for students and staff. Only in the most dire circumstances would districts be allowed to require masks.

The new state law was quickly blocked by federal judges.

As of Dec. 10, Tennessee public schools may continue requiring masks for now, according to a ruling by a federal judge in Nashville. The ruling blocks Tennessee’s recently passed law that is meant to prevent schools from passing mask mandates except in severe situations.

The law has now been blocked or blunted in federal courts in East, Middle, and West Tennessee. Legal proceedings continue.

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COVID continues, 5 deaths in one weekend

Unfortunately, 2021 was not the year COVID-19 disappeared as many had hoped. Instead it was a year consisting of different variants of the virus, more closures, and more deaths.

In August, Ascension Saint Thomas River Park Hospital had five COVID19 deaths in one weekend.

Many events were cancelled due to COVID concerns. The Warren County High School football season opener was rescheduled due to the number of sick players.

“By Thursday night, I had 13 kids who had been contacted about quarantining or isolating. Twenty percent of my varsity was out and I was still getting messages on Friday morning about players who had to be quarantined,” said WCHS coach Matt Turner on postponing the opening game.

Warren County Schools shut down for a week in late August through early September in an attempt to lower the case numbers. Director of Schools Dr. Grant Swallows said there were 228 students and 23 employees in isolation, meaning they had tested positive. Another1,000 students were identified as being in close contact with an infected person.

Some other local cancelations included: Halloween in the Park at Viola, Autumn Street Fair in downtown McMinnville, the Sister Cities exchange program with Japan, and Park Theater shows.

The city of McMinnville also closed their lobbies to the public in late August following a COVID-19 surge. Milner Recreation Center also postponed large indoor gatherings.

The Delta variant hit the U.S. in the summer and contributed to many of the new cases and cancelations. In the middle of December, the Omicron variant had been detected in most states and is rapidly increasing the proportion of COVID-19 cases it is causing. The CDC does not yet know how easily it spreads, the severity of the illness it causes, of how well vaccines and medications work against it.

Since it was first detected, Warren County has experienced 9,131 reported COVID-19 cases and 152 COVID-related deaths, according to the Tennessee Department of Health.

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Vaccinations begin, many reluctant

Warren County residents began rolling up their sleeves to receive COVID 19 vaccines on Dec. 21, 2020. By the end of 2021, almost 20,000 residents have received at least one dose.

Jerry Wakefield, a licensed first-responder with North Warren Fire Department, was the first person vaccinated in Warren County.

According to the state’s COVID-19 vaccine tracker, Wakefield has been joined by 17,323 other Warren County residents who have also been fully vaccinated, which is 42.82% of the county’s 40,454 population. People vaccinated with at least one dose is 19,420 or 48.01% of the population.

While the rush for vaccinations bombarded local pharmacies and Warren CountyHealthDepartment early in 2021, the high demand teetered off by mid-year. Both Stacy’s Wellness Pharmacy and Graves Family Pharmacy reported the vaccine was administered between 30 to 40 times per day initially, but in July that number had dropped to between two and seven per day.

Don’t come to us, we’ll come to you. Vaccination clinics were offered by Graves Family Pharmacy throughout Warren County to increase the number of vaccinated residents. Those were hosted at local businesses and churches, as well as the Farmers Market, Warren County Senior Center, Warren County High School, Magness Library and during the Warren County A& L Fair.

Tennessee Department of Health Commissioner Dr. Lisa Piercey, who spoke before The Rotary Club of McMinnville in June, stated that up to 30% of the population will never get vaccinated, no matter what. That group, she said, has a distrust of government.

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Woman sentenced for curling iron attack

A local woman found guilty of attacking an elderly couple in their bedroom with a curling iron was sentenced to serve one year in jail.

Savannah Mason, 32, was sentenced in December to serve one year of her 10-year sentence at the Warren County Jail after a jury convicted her in November of nine felonies.

Mason was ordered by Judge Bart Stanley to report in January to begin serving her sentence.

The charges stem from altercations at three houses that happened on Feb. 24, 2020. Mason was in the Morrison area to play music with a male friend and had been drinking Jack Daniels.

Unprovoked, she reportedly he grabbed a long knife and attacked her friend, who was able to wrestle it away. Mason ran out of the house toward a nearby home and began beating on the door to get in. She threw a flower pot and smashed a window on the door in an attempt to gain entry, but never entered the home.

Mason then went to the home of an elderly couple and was able to gain entry through their utility room. Once inside, she went into the bathroom where she armed herself with a curling iron before going into the bedroom and striking the man and woman with it. The couple was able to subdue her and call the police and she was arrested.

At the sentencing hearing, assistant district attorney Felicia Walkup argued Mason should be sent to prison.

“We’re dealing with folks who were injured,” said Walkup. “We’re dealing with folks who were violated in the safety of their own home and who were attacked with weapons, first with a knife and second with a curling iron. In her mind’s eye, none of this is her fault. The defendant does not take any responsibility for her actions which a jury has found her guilty of during a fair trial.”

In issuing sentence, Judge Stanley said there is no defense for Mason’s actions, especially since she violated the victims in their own homes. He also noted it’s troubling Mason tries to find excuses for her actions.

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Black History Museum opens

Saturday, Feb. 20 marked the fulfillment of a dream for local resident Wayne Wolford. That day was the grand opening of the Black History Museum of Warren County, established to preserve history before it is lost to time.

“I am pleased and honored that the museum was selected to be one of the Top 10 stories in the Southern Standard newspaper this year,” said Wolford. “There has been a lot of work to get the museum where it is today. With the help from the board of directors, and people throughout the county, there are still plenty of ideas, suggestions, donations, grants, and work to do.”

Wolford says he recognized as a young child that documenting and remembering historic eras in black history is important. That realization would eventually become a pursuit in his adult life.

“I used to hang around old folks and I’d listen to them talk,” said Wolford. “Something inside me said, ‘We need somewhere to preserve these stories.’ I started writing them down. I would eventually use a lot of it in my book. This museum is something I’ve wanted for a long time. I was beginning to think it wouldn’t happen, but here it is.”

The Black History Museum of Warren County is located at the old clinic building on West Main Street, adjacent to First Presbyterian Church. Admission is free.

Hours are Tuesday thru Friday from 12 to 4 p.m., and Saturday from 12 to 2 p.m. Closed Sunday and Monday. Appointments can be made anytime. To make an appointment, offer an artifact or volunteer, Wolford can be reached at (931) 212-6609.