Crime, normally not a hot topic in Floyd County, became a hot issue locally in 2008 with the first murder in many years, a fatal shooting of a neighbor by the county’s animal control officer, a massive, multi-state manhunt by a local fugitive and criminal charges filed against a former Commonwealth’s Attorney.
But the year brought good news as well with the Floyd County High School girls’ varsity basketball team, led by the high-scoring Britney Avancina (right) capturing a state championship and the varsity football team coming ever so close.
So, from a purely subjective point of view, here is what we saw as the top stories in Floyd County over the past year:
- Murder and drugs: Joshua Hairston, an 18-year-old Collinsville resident, told police he went to the Check home of Sean Michael Neumann on June 5 to buy drugs but said Neumann threatened him with a knife and he emptied his 357 Magnum at the man. The 39-year-old Neumann died from four gunshot wounds. A Floyd County grand jury indicted Hairston on capital murder charges and the young man faces trial early next year.
- Tragic death. A month before the death of Neumann, Animal Control Officer Garland "Bucky" Nester found one of his cows had wandered off the property and tried to coax the recalcitrant animal back on his land. When that failed, an Nester reportedly pulled out his weapon and fired at the cow. One of the bullets struck neighbor Paul Belcher, who was coming to help Nester with the cow. Belcher died from the gunshot wound and a Floyd County grand jury later indicted Nester on charges of involuntary manslaughter and reckless use of a firearms. The county fired Nester and the former animal control officer, who once taught firearms safety to county residents, faces a jury trial in February.
- A former prosecutor on the wrong side of the law: Former Commonwealth’s Attorney Gordon E. Hannett Jr. stirred a lot of controversy during his one elected term as county prosecutor. He took Circuit Judge Ray W. Grubbs to court for appointing a replacement prosecutor when Hannett was called to active duty in Iraq with his Army reserve unit but the State Supreme Court rejected his complaint and backed the judge. He came under fire for plea bargains which let drug dealers and sexual offenders avoid jail time. He lost every jury trial as a prosecutor and then lost his bid for re-election in the GOP primary. Now Hannett faces six criminal charges for petty larceny and computer crimes for what State Police investigators say was removal of equipment, programs and data from county-owned computers before he left office. He is scheduled to appear in court on January 15.
- On the run: Steven Dale Branscome, grandson of former county sheriff George Branscome, became Virginia’s most-wanted fugitive in March and April after he shot a State Trooper following a chase into West Virginia. More than 400 police officers from around the Commonwealth descended on Floyd County to help in the chase, setting up roadblocks, speeding down winding country roads in armored personnel carriers and patrolling the steets of Floyd with assault weapons and full battle attire. Locals knew Branscome was long gone but the cops kept the heat on in Floyd County until Branscome was captured just outside Texarkana, Texas. He was on his way to Mexico.
- Third time was a charm: The lady Buffs varsity basketball team traveled to Richmond for the third straight year in March to try and win the state championship. They lost out the previous year in the final and the year before in the semi-finals. But the third time was a charm as the team overpowered Lancaster 64-50 to take the crown.
That’s the top 5. Other major stories of the year included the boys’ varsity football team’s 13-1 season to make it to the state final; the changing face of Floyd, which saw the closing of Lemon’s Jewelry, the retirement of longtime furniture retailer Vernon Baker and the efforts to revitalize the downtown area. Floyd County residents bucked the national trend and voted mostly for Republican presidential nominee John McCain while Democratic winner Barack Obama carried Virginia and the country. The economic woes that gripped the nation came home as well with an increasing number of Floyd Countians facing a future without paychecks or economic stability.
Our best wishes for a Happy New Year as we head into 2009.