Teen reveals alleged abuse by “cult-like” family
More than a year after she disappeared from Athens County, Serah Bellar resurfaced in May 2021 with a shocking Facebook post: She had fled ongoing sexual abuse linked to the family’s membership in a Waverly-based “church” that teaches siblings to procreate with each other. The investigation that followed led to indictments of her parents, Robert and Deborah Bellar; two of her brothers, Jonathan and Josiah Bellar; and former Athens County Sheriff Sgt. Jimmy Childs. Through a plea deal, Childs pleaded guilty to reduced charges and surrendered his law enforcement certificate in July in exchange for his cooperation with the Athens County Prosecutor’s Office. In a separate plea bargain, Josiah Bellar pleaded guilty to reduced charges in early December, also in exchange for his testimony.
Josiah Bellar, 24, is serving five years of community control and undergoing residential mental health and substance abuse counseling at Mended Reeds Mental Health, a private clinic in Ironton.
Robert Bellar, 54, and Deborah Bellar, 48, each face two third-degree felony charges of child endangerment and one third-degree felony charge of engaging in a pattern of corrupt activity. Both have pleaded not guilty. Their next court date is a status conference before Athens County Court of Common Pleas Judge Patrick Lang at 2 p.m. Jan. 7. A final pre-trial hearing is scheduled for both at 2:30 p.m. Jan. 25.
Jonathan Bellar, 26, is charged with gross sexual imposition, a fourth-degree felony. He is scheduled for a status conference hearing before Lang at 9:30 a.m. Feb. 9.
Athens County Children Services received multiple reports about the Bellar household between February 2017 and April 2020, when Serah ran away. To date, no one with the agency has been charged in the case.
Journalism professor stripped of tenure
Ohio University Faculty Senate and the Board of Trustees became entangled in a long-running fight between the university and journalism professor Yusuf Kalyango, who was stripped of tenure three years after OU’s Office of Equity and Civil Rights Compliance determined that Kalyango had sexually harassed a graduate student.
A Faculty Senate committee hearing Kalyango’s appeal voted 5-1 to recommend that OU end its detenuring proceedings and reinstate Kalyango immediately. The full senate subsequently voted to rescind the committee’s report to the trustees, saying that the committee’s investigation had violated Faculty Handbook policies and procedures. But senate President Robin Muhammad, who chaired the committee, had already sent the report to the trustees. After reviewing the report, the trustees rejected it, upholding the full senate vote. In April, the trustees officially revoked Kalyango’s tenure. Kalyango dropped a lawsuit against the university for discrimination, but filed a new one against that alleged discrimination by the trustees. In August, Scripps College Dean Scott Titsworth and former journalism school Director Bob Stewart were cleared of Kalyango’s allegations of racial discrimination.
Kalyango’s lawsuit against OU is on hold pending the outcome of his complaint with the Ohio Civil Rights Commission. That complaint is pending an initial determination.
Coronavirus pandemic waxes and wanes
Vaccines arrived, cases declined, and Athens County emerged from almost a year in isolation. But the delta variant sent caseloads soaring in the fall, pushing county deaths over 100. As the year ended, infections and hospitalizations hit new highs as the omicron variant arrived in Athens.
The Athens City-County Health Department began distributing vaccines in mid-January; by late March, everyone over age 16 was eligible. Over the course of the year, the CDC extended approvals of COVID vaccines to teens (ages 12–15) and young children (ages 5–11). Nelsonville-York offered $100 to any students who completed vaccination through school-based clinics. When vaccines were approved for children ages 5 to 11, the health department offered vaccine clinics at elementary schools across the county; many parents took their kids to public clinics.
The city of Athens exempted vaccinated people from mask requirements, but rescinded it in late summer. Enforcement of the ordinance was left to businesses — with mixed results. Mask mandates were adopted by every school district by early September.
Case rates bottomed out in early summer, but began rising again as the start of school approached. Athens City Schools closed briefly because so many bus drivers were ill that the district couldn’t provide transportation. In mid-December, the county hit a grim milestone: its 100th death from COVID — more than 10 times the deaths in 2020.
Public health officials project a surge in infections in mid-winter and continue to encourage people to get vaccinated and receive booster shots. Ten members of the Ohio National Guard have been deployed at OhioHealth O’Bleness Hospital to support patient care.
Top OU administrators call it quits
Deborah Shaffer, OU's vice president for finance and administration — already a target of criticism for accepting six-figure bonuses as the university was laying off hundreds of staff and cutting faculty in 2020 — came under fire again this year when an Athens NEWS investigation revealed that she no longer owned property in Ohio and both she and the university refused to provide any clarity about her potential whereabouts. Nellis penned a sharply worded letter to the the NEWS claiming that the report “concocted fiction.”
The university's board of trustees appointed Sherman, former dean of the College of Business, as president in late May. Although Sherman's selection was popular, faculty raised questions about the process.
Sherman will lead the university through 2023 as the institution searches for a permanent president. Shaffer continues to work as an advisor to Sherman until her retirement later this year. Following a sabbatical in the fall, Nellis — a tenured professor in the Department of Geography — is listed as teaching six sections of introductory geology this semester.
Nelsonville loses, then regains, city status
When results of the 2020 U.S. Census were revealed this year, it showed Nelsonville with 4,612 residents — just shy of the 5,000 required to be a city. Secretary of State Frank LaRose sent officials a proclamation declaring that the city would revert to village status in 30 days. Reverting to a village would affect funding for police and fire protection, as well as the Nelsonville-York School District, officials said. City Auditor Taylor Sappington spearheaded a recount that sent volunteers door to door for a final tally of 5,373. On Oct. 12, LaRose officially declared Nelsonville to be a city.
Ohio University grapples with COVID
Ohio University announced it would return to in-person classes in fall 2021, prompting concerns about the spread of the coronavirus. The university required all students and employees to disclose their vaccination status; those who were not vaccinated would have to undergo weekly asymptomatic testing. A month before fall semester began, OU officials estimated that less than half of returning students had been vaccinated.
Staffing shortages in the university’s COVID response system caused hours-long waits for students trying to notify the university of their test results and seek guidance. The university hired more staff for the program.
After the FDA gave full approval to the Pfizer-BionTech vaccine in the fall, the university announced that all students and employees had to be vaccinated or obtain an exemption by Nov 15. The deadline passed with thousands of students and employees still unvaccinated, and exemptions seemed fairly easy to obtain.
The university says that all students and employees are in compliance with the mandate, either through vaccination or an exemption. The portion of employees who are actually vaccinated varies from a high of 94.8% for Athens campus faculty to 75% classified staff on the Eastern Campus in St. Clairsville. Only 65.6% of regional campus students are vaccinated, compared to more than 91% of Athens students.
Students are suing Ohio University over its vaccine mandate and other COVID policies. Sharp rises in infections from omicron led to changes in the university’s COVID-19 policies just days before the start of spring semester.
Athens Mayor Steve Patterson comes under fire
Leaked audio from a private Republican luncheon revealed Athens Mayor Steve Patterson disparaging independent Athens City Council candidates Damon Krane and Iris Virjee — calling them “revolutionary socialists” — and failing to defend sitting council members of his own party against descriptions as "far liberal." Patterson defended the meeting, saying that the group discussed general issues in the city.
Patterson also faced criticism over the selection of a new director of Arts, Parks and Recreation after Terri Moore resigned in August. (Moore dealt with a controversy herself when lifeguards at the city pool resigned en masse, complaining of overwork.) Patterson did not include the APR Advisory Board in the hiring process; it's not clear if staff were involved. He denied knowing his appointee, Katherine Ann Jordan, despite having appointed her to the APR Advisory Board earlier in the year and Jordan's position with the College of Education, where Patterson's wife is an associate dean.
Other controversies involving Patterson were his proposal (accepted by City Council) to spend $91,000 from the general fund on racial equity training for all city employees, as well as comments about removing the dam at White's Mill to allow through access for canoes and kayaks.
State Rep. Jay Edwards takes controversial stands
Ohio House Rep. Jay Edwards, R–Nelsonville, started 2021 with a hot take on the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol, defending most of the marchers as peaceful supporters of former President Donald Trump — and claiming, falsely, that the attackers included members of the antifa movement. (Among the more than 700 people charged with crimes at the Capitol is Elijah Yazdani of Albany, who faces four charges; he has pleaded not guilty to all.)
In March, Edwards endorsed Senate Bill 22, which allows the legislature to override certain health orders issued by the governor and the Ohio Department of Health; he later voted to override Gov. Mike DeWine’s veto.
He also made a Facebook post that claimed a law he helped pass paved the way for Athens to create a designated outdoor refreshment area. DORA laws loosen open container laws, allowing bar patrons to bring alcoholic drinks into the streets. The bill Edwards referenced — House Bill 674, passed in December 2020 — eased restrictions on brewpubs’ restaurant operations, allowed sale of liquor pods, and expanded areas in airports where people can buy liquor. It had nothing to do with DORAs.
But the biggest controversy was Edwards’ association with Larry Householder, the former speaker of the Ohio House of Representatives who is at the center of a scandal involving a $60 million scheme to pass legislation raising electricity rates to bail out nuclear power plants owned by First Energy. Althrough the FBI arrested Householder in July 2020, he was re-elected that fall. The House voted 75-21 to expel Householder in June; Edwards was one of 20 Republicans voting not to expel him. At first he declined to explain his vote, even telling reporters that he would issue a statement when he “[felt] like putting it out.” Eventually, though, he defended the vote, saying that Householder deserved to be tried before being ejected from the chamber. He also said the vote was insignificant because it wouldn’t “change one life in the 94th House District.”
Edwards was majority whip under Householder, making the Nelsonville legislator a part of the party’s leadership. Edwards has repeatedly denied any knowledge of Householder’s scheme, although he was identified as the unnamed legislator mentioned in FBI documents who was included in conversations about it.
State passes anti-hazing legislation honoring OU student
The law, which received bipartisan approval in June, also pays tribute to Stone Foltz, a Bowling Green State University student who died in March following an alleged hazing incident at an off-campus event hosted by the Pi Kappa Alpha Fraternity, often referred to as “PIKE.” Foltz’s death reignited calls for legislative action against hazing after a previous version of Collin’s Law stalled in the Ohio Senate in 2020. Local supporters of the measure included Athens County Prosecutor Keller Blackburn and Ohio University Police Department Chief Andrew Powers, who both testified before an Ohio Senate Committee, and then-OU President Duane Nellis, who was one of 14 state university presidents who signed a letter urging DeWine, Ohio House Speaker Bob Cupp and Senate President Matt Huffman to enact the legislation.
Members of the Wiant and Foltz families attended the signing at the Ohio Statehouse, along with representatives of from both OU and Bowling Green. Southeast Ohio attendees included Blackburn, Ohio University President Hugh Sherman and state Rep. Jay Edwards (R-Nelsonville).
Wiant’s parents filed suit in October 2020 against two former Sigma Pi fraternity leaders, alleging that during Sigma Pi Epsilon’s pledging process, Wiant’s class was subjected to “extensive hazing.” Specifically, the suit alleges pledges were beaten with belts or “forced to beat others with a belt;” punched; pelted with eggs; forced to drink 1.75 liters of vodka in 60 minutes; deprived of sleep and “forced to do planks on sharp ends of bottle caps;” among other acts.The suit also alleged that during the pledging process in 2018, Wiant was “subjected to physical abuse, verbal abuse, mental abuse, sleep deprivation, forced drug and alcohol use, and other forms of hazing intended to humiliate and demean him.”
State water infrastructure grant program overlooks major projects
In June, the Ohio legislature passed House Bill 168, which allocated $250 million in American Rescue Plan Act funds to water and wastewater infrastructure improvements and directed the Ohio Department of Development to “establish and administer the Water and Sewer Quality Program to provide grants to political subdivisions related to water and sewer quality projects.” The funds are part of an initiative Gov. Mike DeWine dubbed “Broadband, Utilities, and Infrastructure for Local Development Success,” or BUILDS.
The program was good news for southeast Ohio, which needs at least $183 million to update and replace outdated and failing water and wastewater infrastructure.
When the grants were announced, though, officials in Athens and Vinton counties were surprised to find that their most pressing projects had been passed over in favor of smaller, less urgent ones. Hocking County, though, received funding for its top projects. After repeated calls, ODED revealed that it was still reviewing project applications — meaning that the state awarded $247 million in grants before all the proposals were read. Exactly how grants were selected is unclear; the law required county engineers to submit prioritized lists of projects, but also allowed independent proposals. Some of the criteria the state used (such as order of proposal submission) were not stated in the application materials.