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Body of missing man found near his Nelsonville home

In mid-November, the body of Kyle Bridgeman was located in the Wayne National Forest. He had been missing for five months as family and friends searched for his body.

Acting on information obtained through the investigation into his disappearance, law enforcement discovered the body was discovered near Bridgeman's home close to the intersection of Matheny and Huddy roads in Nelsonville, Athens County Sheriff Rodney Smith said.

The sheriff’s office followed up on a rash of tips after Bridgeman's disappearance in July. The five-month investigation involved local, county, state and federal law enforcement. Several people were arrested on charges that appeared to be connected to Bridgeman's disappearance and death.

Council gets a facelift — although progressives stumble in election

Athens City Council got a facelift in 2021, with four newly elected Democratic council members — Solveig Spjeldnes, Alan Swank, Ben Ziff and Micah McCarey. Ziff and McCarey had both been appointed to the previous session of council earlier in 2021, replacing former members Peter Kotses and Beth Clodfelter respectively, who left city council for separate reasons.

Swank defeated incumbent Chris Fahl in the Fourth Ward primary, taking 65% of the vote. It was the only contested race on the May primary ballot. Incumbent Arian Smedley decided not to seek re-election; Spjeldnes was the only person to file for the seat.

The highest-profile race in the city was for three at-large council seats, which pitted a trio of incumbent Democrats (Ziff, McCarey and Sarah Grace) against two independent challengers, Damon Krane and Iris Virjee. Ziff, McCarey and Grace handily won, each receiving more than 26% of the vote. Virjee captured 11.2% of the ballots to Krane's 9.5%.

Former Nelsonville deputy auditor sentenced

Former Nelsonville Deputy Auditor Stephanie Wilson was sentenced in April in Athens County Common Pleas Court to four years and 11 months in prison and ordered to pay more than $200,000 in restitution to the city. Wilson, of Stewart, previously pleaded guilty to tampering with records, a fourth-degree felony; forgery, a fourth-degree felony; telecommunications fraud, a third-degree felony; and theft in office, a third-degree felony — all charges related to funds she reportedly stole from Nelsonville during her tenure as the city's deputy auditor.

Subsequently, Wilson was indicted on additional charges, including engaging in a pattern of corrupt activity, a second-degree felony, and theft in office, a third-degree felony. Those charges are based on allegations that she filed and processed inaccurate tax returns for Wilson Construction (operated by her husband, Richard Wilson, 51, of Stewart) and created fake businesses as collection accounts for fraudulent tax returns from Nelsonville. She pleaded not guilty and was placed under a $2.5 million bond. That case is still pending. Richard Wilson was charged in March with aggravated theft and theft in office — both third-degree felonies — although charges were later dropped.

In October, the Internal Revenue Service relieved Nelsonville's debt of nearly $400,000 stemming from the former deputy auditor’s theft in office. The IRS agreed to relieve the city of $382,761.11 in penalties and interest the city incurred from Wilson’s scheme.

Nelsonville loses two first responders on the job

Nelsonville mourned the loss of two first responders in 2021.

Senior Nelsonville Firefighter Jeff Armes suddenly collapsed and died May 3 at the scene of a structure fire on Pleasantview Avenue. Fellow firefighters administered CPR and advanced life support care until Athens County EMS arrived to take him to OhioHealth O'Bleness Hospital in Athens, where he was pronounced dead.

Exactly three months later, Nelsonville Police Officer Scott Dawley died in a three-vehicle crash Tuesday while responding to a report of shots fired on the city's east side. Dawley suffered serious injuries in the crash, and first responders performed CPR until he was pronounced dead at OhioHealth O’Bleness Hospital. The Ohio State Highway Patrol determined that Dawley had not entered the intersection cautiously and was not wearing a seat belt.

Both men were honored with parades and funerals attended by law enforcement and first responders from across the state. Armes was buried at Greenlawn Cemetery in York Township. Dawley was laid to rest at Carbon Hill Cemetery in Hocking County.

Baileys Trail project scores big bucks in state budget

Ohio's biennial budget for 2022–23 included a nice surprise for outdoor recreation in Athens County: $2 million for the Baileys Trail project in the Wayne National Forest.

State Rep. Jay Edwards, R-Nelsonville, championed the funding in the budget bill; the Ohio Senate had removed the earmark from its version, but it was returned in conference committee.

The funds will be used to continue work on one of the largest mountain biking trails in the eastern United States. Project leaders estimate the funding will support an additional 30 miles of trail, bringing the project more than two-thirds towards its goal of 88 miles. The project's advocates say the trail will generate $40 million in increased spending across the region over 10 years, create 78 new jobs, retain 150 jobs, and facilitate $10 million in new wage growth.

Streaming series put Athens in the limelight

Two Netflix shows released this year, “The Queen’s Gambit” and “The Minds of Billy Milligan,” both had Athens County connections.

“The Queen’s Gambit” follows the story of fictional chess prodigy Beth Harmon, as she comes of age and deals with her career in the male-dominated world of competitive chess and her own substance abuse issues.

“The Queen’s Gambit” is based on the eponymous novel by former Ohio University English professor Walter Tevis. The book was published in 1983, one year before the author’s death and five years after he left Athens for life in Manhattan. Although the novel was not written in Athens, marks of his time in Southeast Ohio are woven throughout the story.

The miniseries became the most-watched scripted drama in Netflix history and was the first streaming show to win an Emmy Award for Outstanding Limited or Anthology Series.

A four-part documentary series titled "Monster Inside: The 24 Faces of Billy Milligan" chronicled the life of Billy Milligan, a former Athens State Hospital patient. The docuseries included footage of Athens residents and locations.

The series — at one time the fifth most-streamed program on Netflix in the United States — explores Milligan’s life from childhood until death. He ended up at The Ridges after being arrested in Columbus for sexually assaulting, kidnapping and robbing three female Ohio State University students. While incarcerated prior to his trial, he was diagnosed with multiple personality disorder (now called dissociative identity disorder) and was deemed not guilty by reason of insanity.

Pumpkin gets the spotlight

Pumpkin the Election Cat — a favorite of Uptown shoppers — became a social media star in 2021.

Grace Eberhart, 20, a junior at Ohio University, tweeted a photo of the usually lethargic cat hissing and baring his teeth at a dog on the Court Street sidewalk, with the caption, "pumpkin is the great protector.” The snap racked up more than 3,000 likes and 300 retweets. Pumpkin's fame was ensured when Ohio University Athletics changed its profile picture on social media from the Attack cat to the hissing Pumpkin.

"Pumpkin is usually dead asleep when people see him in the window, so it was wild seeing him stancing up and defending his kingdom,” Eberhart said.

Local start-up makes good

Stirling Ultracold, a privately held developer and manufacturer of ultra-low temperature freezers, was acquired in March by publicly-traded BioLife Solutions.

Stirling became national news in 2020 because it offered the only line of ULT freezer systems that could store mRNA vaccines requiring temperatures of -20°C to -86°C. The company's ULTs are powered by piston-free Stirling engines; the company owns more than 80 patents.

The deal was the largest venture-backed exit in southeast Ohio and one of the larger exits in the state, said Lynn Gellermann, executive director of TechGROWTH Ohio and Ohio University’s Voinovich School of Leadership and Public Affairs’ associate dean of innovation partnerships.

REAL? More like really controversial

In August, Athens City Council rushed through passage of an ordinance to spend over $91,000 on mandatory racial equity training for all city employees.

In its first meeting after the July recess, council completed the Finance and Personnel Committee hearing on the proposal, then suspended the rules and passed it unanimously after first reading.

The ordinance allows Athens Mayor Steve Patterson to spend up to $91,650 from the city’s general fund on racial equity training through the National League of Cities “Race, Equity and Leadership” courses. All 251 city employees will be required to complete the training.

The training normally costs approximately $102,000, Athens Council Member Sam Crowl said, but the city gets a 10% discount on the training because Athens is a member of the NLC. With the discount, the cost per employees for the training is $365.14.

Case Western First Amendment Clinic takes up “Crackheads” Facebook suit

A clinic of law students and an attorney at Case Western Reserve University adopted the Nelsonville Crackheads lawsuit pro bono in March, arguing that the former Nelsonville city clerk’s defamation claims against the Facebook group have no legal basis and chill free speech.

The Crackheads Facebook group primarily posts about crime and other city issues, including frequent posts regarding the controversy surrounding Greg Smith, whose residency has been questioned repeatedly by other council members. (Smith also is suing the city and members of the council over attempts to remove him from the body.)

In 2020, Nelsonville’s former city clerk, Andrea Thompson-Hashman — Smith's daughter — sued the Facebook group’s administrators, including Korey Whitmore, alleging that it’s members libeled her with false statements about a pay raise she received and levied damaging claims of nepotism against she and her father.

The First Amendment Clinic will defend Whitmore, who needed legal representation after his attorney dropped him.

Page admins filed a counterclaim in July 2020 alleging that the initial lawsuit had little to do with Thompson-Hasman’s community reputation and was really designed to silence criticism of local government by swamping the Crackheads page in legal fees, as the Messenger reported.

In September, the clinic filed a claim that alleges that Thompson-Hashman’s legal counsel, Sierra Meek, attempted to conceal relevant information from the defense by redacting many mentions of words clearly related to the case, such as “crackheads” and “Whitmore,” from case documents.

Athens masks up again

Athens City Council amended its existing mask mandate in August to require indoor mask use regardless of vaccine status — standing practically alone as city health departments across the state found their hands tied under recently passed legislation.

Council suspended the rules to vote on the amendment, which was passed unanimously. The order expires on Feb. 28, 2022, although Athens City Council could rescind the order before then.

In May, the city had amended the original mask order to exempt fully vaccinated people.

Senate Bill 22 which took effect earlier this summer, forbids local health departments from issuing blanket health mandates among people not diagnosed with any disease.

Athens City-County Health Department Administrator Jack Pepper said SB22 has essentially stripped the department of power to issue a mask mandate. The ACCHD has recently issued a county-wide mask advisory, which is unenforceable.

On the home front, some have expressed concern about enforcement of the mask policy in town. In a December letter to the editor titled ‘Mask mandate? What mask mandate?,’ Athens resident Jennifer Woody Collins argued not enough was being done to ensure masks are worn indoors.

“The City of Athens apparently has a mask mandate, but you wouldn’t know it by all the naked faces and noses poking out all over town,” Collins wrote. “While there are a few businesses that you can be sure to not interact with unmasked people, they are rare. Holzer? Nope. Kroger — absolutely not, not even in the 7-8 a.m. “vulnerable shopper hour.” There are zero hardware stores in our city that seem to have heard about the mask mandate.”

Those we lost

In August, Ohio University announced the death of former President Charles J. Ping. Ping, president of Ohio University from 1975 to 1994, died at his home in Athens on July 27. He was 91.

“I consider him to be the greatest president of a university that I have ever known,” said Richard Vedder, Distinguished Professor of Economics Emeritus.

"He was a philosopher — he was supposed to be interested in truth, beauty, right and wrong," Vedder said. "Charlie was interested in those things, he was very thoughtful, but he was also very good businessman. He was a sound money man. He always had people who could say 'No,' and he backed them up."

Athens County also lost J.D. Hutchison, a prominent figure on the local music scene. The singer/songwriter/picker/raconteur/bandleader succumbed to cancer on Nov. 2.

“He was among the most interesting, funny, iconoclastic and massively talented individuals I’ve ever known," wrote former Athens NEWS Editor Terry Smith. "He couldn’t speak a line of song or sentence without injecting a dollop of his singular perspective and wit into it.”

The city of Athens also reflected on the passing of long-time council member Jim Sands. Sands passed away in November at a small assisted living facility in Ashley, Ohio. He was 75. 

Sands' sister Janeen said the two grew up on Mulberry Street, right by East Green of Ohio University. After serving in the U.S. Navy, Sands and his partner, David Ratliff, purchased the Athens Flower Shop at the corner of Madison Avenue and East State Street.

Sands, a Democrat, spent 16 years on Athens City Council, serving seven terms as a member between 1998 and 2011 and then one term as president from 2012 to 2014.

“Jim was probably the finest example of a public servant I've ever met,” said former Council President Bill Bias, who knew Sands for 50 years.

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