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2020 REWIND: Newton's top stories of year ranked 1-5
The Covington News completes its review of the area's most impactful stories and topics
The Georgia National Guard in April assists the Newton County Sheriff’s Office Medical Team in testing more than 200 local government employees and inmate workers for COVID-19. - Contributed photo

No. 1 — COVID-19: Global health crisis hits home

By Taylor Beck |

Coronavirus. Quarantine. Social distancing.

At the start of 2020, these words were unfamiliar and rarely used, but as we step into 2021, these words have become regularly seen in headlines, articles and everyday use across the world.

The novel coronavirus, more commonly known as COVID-19, is a disease caused by a coronavirus called SARS-CoV-2. Initial reports stated it originated from a market in Wuhan, China, but the more scientists and researchers learn, the more unclear its origin becomes.

What has been made clear is the virus’ impact worldwide.

COVID-19 made its arrival to the U.S. in late February, early March. As of Tuesday, Dec. 29, there had been more than 19 million cumulative cases in the U.S. — more than 82 million positive cases and more than 1.7 million deaths recorded around the world.

COVID-19’s impact first reached Newton County as the community recorded its first positive case on March 15. Shortly after, the county’s school system opted to close over concerns about the novel virus. Local governments began to also close its doors to the public and instituted remote working plans for non-essential employees.

As of Tuesday, Dec. 29, Newton County had a cumulative total of 5,593 COVID-19 cases and 125 deaths.

Several states were forced to shut down, some longer than others, and many remain under a shutdown and/or various restrictions today. Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp was among several states’ leaders to institute COVID-19 guidelines and restrictions that included limiting restaurants and non-essential businesses and organizations to either close their doors altogether or adapt to COVID by limiting services.

Churches, civic groups and other organizations were forced to cancel in-person services and activities but then resorted to streaming meetings online.

There was a brief shortage of food in parts of the country, and there continues to be a shortage of cleaning supplies nationwide, which has led to reports of attempted price gouging.

Hospitals and health care workers were and are still being stretched thin in many parts of the the world. Many facilities were caught off guard as the number of cases soared over the early spring period, reaching their respective bed capacities and running out of PPE and ventilators, among other resources.

Millions of people were losing their jobs. Stocks were plummeting. Thousands of people were dying. And there was no cure.

On March 27, the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act, which was a $2.2 trillion economic stimulus bill, was signed into law by President Donald Trump in response to the economic fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic. This included specific aid for schools, businesses and families nationwide.

Later in May, the federal government-initiated Operation Warp Speed, a “public-private” partnership to facilitate and accelerate the “development, manufacturing, and distribution of COVID-19 vaccines, therapeutics, and diagnostics.”

Despite struggles, Newton County residents and businesses remained resilient by finding ways to help support each other. For example, the city of Covington jumpstarted a grant program to aid small businesses.

In late August, early September, Newton County saw a surge of COVID-19 cases, which led to mask mandates and more event cancellations, including the city of Covington’s annual Fourth of July fireworks celebration and annual holiday events in Porterdale and Oxford.

Newton County’s high school football was even temporarily suspended due to an outbreak and games did not begin until early September.

Newton County Schools started the 2020-2021 school year virtually, which proved to be difficult. Thanks to diligence of the district’s leaders and decrease in the virus’ spread, schools were able to fully reopen for in-person instruction in October under specific COVID-19 guidelines.

Sizable crowds were no longer allowed thanks to COVID-19, meaning the Class of 2020’s senior year was not only cut short, but graduation ceremonies were also scaled down. Funeral homes were sadly forced to abbreviate services and limit visitations.

After months of hard work by the world’s top leading scientists, vaccines produced by Pfizer and Moderna were approved by the FDA in December and immediately distributed to be administered around the world.

Though the virus dominated the headlines in 2020, the story of COVID-19 isn’t over yet as its impact will continue to be felt for months, and likely years, from now.

Washington Street Community Center
A voter places her ballot in a ballot marking device Nov. 3 at the Town precinct at Washington Street Community Center in Covington. - photo by Tom Spigolon

No. 2 – Newton County goes blue on Election Day

By Tom Spigolon |

The 2020 election year is when Newton County turned blue with a vengeance.

Newton County’s electorate had hinted at the possibility in the past three presidential elections by giving very narrow majorities to Democrats Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton.

But Newton voters also had chosen to keep their county-level offices mostly with Republicans with some exceptions, such as sheriff and county chairman, and they voted in-person on machines.

All that changed in 2020 as voters favoring Democrat Joe Biden appeared to also vote for anyone with a “D” by their name on the same ballots.

They also trended toward voting absentee by mail as the Secretary of State’s office encouraged it as a safety precaution as the COVID-19 pandemic raged in April and May in Georgia.

Still, at least two-thirds of Newton County voters chose to cast their ballots in-person despite the sudden popularity of the mail-in option.

Obama and Clinton had outpolled their Republican opponents by a few hundred votes in each of the 2008, 2012 and 2016 elections in Newton County.

This year, Newton voters gave the Democratic presidential candidate a 6,000-vote edge over the Republican.

It was the largest margin of victory for a presidential candidate in Newton County since Republican George W. Bush defeated Democrat John Kerry by 7,000 votes in 2004 — the last time county voters gave a majority to a GOP presidential candidate.

In the four years since the 2016 presidential election, Newton County added about 20,000 registered voters to its rolls — equating to a 35% increase — and a majority apparently were Democrats.

In the 2016 primaries, about 9% more Newton County voters participated in the Republican Primary than in the Democratic Primary.

In 2020, roughly 50% more Newton voters participated in the Democratic Primary than in the GOP Primary.

As a result, any Democratic candidate in a contested race elected countywide in Newton County outpolled their Republican opponent.

Democratic challenger Dorothea Bailey-Butts defeated Republican incumbent Tommy Davis for the coroner position, and Democratic challenger Marcus Jordan ousted Republican incumbent Dana Darby from the tax commissioner position.

Incumbent Democratic Sheriff Ezell Brown easily won re-election despite being outspent almost three to one by Republican challenger Ken Malcom.

Democrat Destiny Bryant won by a wide margin over Republican Randy McGinley in the district attorney’s race, if only Newton County votes were counted.

McGinley, however, ultimately won the district attorney race because the winner had to receive a majority of the votes cast in the two-county Alcovy Judicial Circuit, which includes Newton County and heavily Republican Walton County.

Clerk of Courts Linda Hays and Probate Judge Melanie Bell, both Republican incumbents, won re-election without Democrat opposition in their countywide races.

Republican incumbent county commissioners Stan Edwards in District 1 and Ronnie Cowan in District 5 won re-election over Democratic challengers but neither were seeking countywide offices.

Democratic incumbent Marcello Banes won re-election without Republican opposition in his countywide race.

However, voters in northwest and west Newton also apparently wanted change and chose challenger Alana Sanders over three-term incumbent Nancy Schulz for the District 3 seat on the Newton County Board of Commissioners.

Peaceful Rally
Women encircle the nearly 115-year-old "The Confederate Dead of Newton County" statue on the Covington Square during a "Save the Statue Peace Rally" in July 2020. - photo by Mason Wittner

No. 3 – Confederate statue in Covington: Should it stay or should it go?

By Tom Spigolon |

The future of a century-old Confederate memorial statue was up in the air at year’s end as groups for and against its removal from the Covington Square waited on the Georgia Court of Appeals to take action.

It followed the county governing board’s July vote to remove it; two groups asking the courts the same month to halt its removal; a judge’s October order that cleared the way for its removal; and appeals of the order to the state court of appeals.

The Newton County Commission and community members had debated the proposed removal of the divisive “To the Confederate Dead of Newton County” statue for years before its 2020 action.

After some neighboring counties chose to raze similar Civil War memorials, Newton commissioners on July 7 publicly discussed the issue during a meeting and showed that a majority favored the Covington statue’s removal. 

Attendees of all ages met July 12 at the foot of the statue to raise funds for a legal challenge and discuss their opposition. 

Commissioners voted 3-2 on July 14 to remove it from the county-owned park in the center of downtown Covington where it had stood since 1906.

Opponents met again July 19 and attendees charged that the board would be violating state law by removing the historic memorial.

Their legal challenges came a day before, and a few days after, the commissioners’ vote when a local resident and the Georgia chapter of the Sons of Confederate Veterans asked Newton County Superior Court to issue injunctions to halt the removal until hearings could be held.

A Newton County judge conducted a hearing and finally denied the requests in October. Both parties opposing the removal appealed the order and the cases now await action in the Georgia Court of Appeals.  

The same judge also ordered county officials not to take action to remove it after rumors flew that the county government did not want to wait on the courts to act. The order forbade any action until all legal challenges were exhausted.

From left, Deputy Chief Assistant District Attorney Amber Dally, Chief Public Defender Anthony Carter and defendant Jennifer Bellah stand before Judge Ken Wynne Jr. on Aug. 26 in Newton County Superior Court in Covington. Wynne sentenced Bellah to 15 years in prison without the possibility of parole, followed by life on probation, in the 2018 murder of her daughter. - photo by Tom Spigolon

No. 4 – Violent, unusual deaths top Newton's 2020 crime

By Tom Spigolon |

Violent and unusual deaths and child trafficking arrests dominated the crime news in Newton County in 2020.

• Police in September arrested a woman after a body identified as her father was found in a Newton County Boy Scout camp the previous month. Human remains found Aug. 13 in a wooded area in Bert Adams Boy Scout Camp in southern Newton County were identified as Perry Davis, 72, of Kirk Street in Covington.

Covington Police arrested his daughter, Tamela Renee Carter, 48, of Covington, on Sept. 14 after she reportedly told investigators Davis had died in his bed in mid-April at the Kirk Street home they shared. Carter told investigators she had taken her father to a wooded area off Scout Road in south Newton Count, placed his body there and continued to access Davis’ Social Security funds for four months following his death, a spokesman said.

Meanwhile, a judge denied bond in December for a Newton County woman accused of murdering her mother in April 2019.

Carly Walden, 36, is charged with the murder of Andrea Walker, 57, of Covington after sheriff’s deputies found her dead of a gunshot wound in a bedroom of the home they shared at 355 Alcovy Way

Walden was arraigned on charges of Malice Murder, Felony Murder, Aggravated Assault and Possession of a Firearm during the Commission of a Felony in August 2019 in Newton County Superior Court and has been held without bond in the Newton County jail since the incident

• An Oxford woman pleaded guilty in August to shooting her 2-year-old daughter to death but being mentally ill at the time of the 2018 incident.

Jennifer Michelle Bellah, 33, on Aug. 26 pleaded Guilty but Mentally Ill to a charge of Felony Murder in the 2018 shooting death of her daughter, Natalya Bellah.

Superior Court Judge Ken Wynne Jr. sentenced her to 15 years in prison without the possibility of parole, followed by life on probation.

And a judge ordered that a Covington woman should be denied bond in October as the suspect awaited trial on charges she murdered her 5-month-old daughter.

Lakristy Jdeon White had requested that a bond be set to allow for her release from Newton County Jail where she had been held since Sept. 21 on charges of Felony Murder and Cruelty to Children following the death of Aryan White Sept. 13.

A medical examiner stated there was evidence of blunt force trauma to the child’s head and torso, as well as other injuries that had healed, according to testimony at an Oct. 15 hearing.

• The Georgia State Patrol was investigating after three people were killed in September when their vehicle crashed and caught fire as they attempted to flee from pursuing Newton County sheriff’s deputies.

The incident Sept. 7, at the intersection of Jack Neely and Fairview roads west of Covington began when sheriff’s deputies responded to a call about two people attempting to enter automobiles in a neighborhood off Fairview Road, a spokeswoman said.

As the suspects’ 2010 Toyota Tacoma was traveling north on Fairview Road, and being pursued by a marked sheriff’s office patrol car with its siren and emergency lights activated, it attempted to negotiate a curve to the left and crashed, caught fire and trapped the three inside, a Georgia State Patrol spokesperson said.

• Two people were charged in Newton County in August following a two-week operation in Atlanta and Macon to rescue endangered missing children.

Kirk Waters of Covington was arrested on a charge of Felon in Possession of a Firearm; and Trevonte Shareef was charged with Obstruction and Interference with Custody.

Waters and Shareef were arrested after a teen, who had been reported missing, was found hiding in a Rockdale County garage. U.S. Marshals told WSB-TV the girl had been trafficked for sex since she was 12 years old and she only knew the two suspects as her traffickers.

• A Covington man was charged with murder in November after his wife was found dead from a gunshot wound in a bedroom of their Cook Street home.

Tony Lamar Holder, 48, was charged with malice murder, felony murder and other charges connected to the incident Nov. 18, said Capt. Ken Malcom of the Covington Police Department.

According to a witness, Mr. and Mrs. Holder got into an argument which escalated to Tony Holder firing a weapon, which struck and killed Carol Holder, a report stated.

Meanwhile, another Covington man was charged with murder in December more than nine months after police found women he had relationships with in two separate counties had been killed.

Arrief McKenzie, 50, is facing charges of malice murder, felony murder, burglary, home invasion and others in Newton County related to the March 3 death of his estranged wife, Niki McKenzie, at a residence on Keyton Drive in Covington.

He recently was transported from Gwinnett County jail to the Newton County jail in December.

McKenzie had been taken to the Gwinnett County jail after Gwinnett officers arrested him on a murder charge connected to the death of 36-year-old Jillian Myles-Walters in unincorporated Lawrenceville. Myles-Walters and the suspect reportedly had been in a prior relationship.

And a Conyers woman waived an arraignment on a murder charge Nov. 17 in Newton County Superior Court and will await trial for the May 13 fatal shooting of the girlfriend of the father of her child at a Covington apartment complex.

Dalanna Bailey, 22, allegedly fatally wounded La’Peachah Nash, 27, in the head and shot Deshawn Grayson, 20, in the shoulder at Fieldcrest Walk apartments May 13.

According to a Covington Police Department report, Bailey arrived at the apartment complex with her 11-month-old child and proceeded to get into an argument with Deshawn Grayson, the father of the child, before shooting Nash and Grayson.

•  A Jasper County man was charged with the murder of a woman that sheriff’s deputies found with multiple gunshot wounds at a Covington residence in July.

Alex Khalil Smith, 27, of Monticello was charged by the Newton County Sheriff’s Office with one count each of Felony Murder, Possession of a Firearm and Aggravated Assault in relation to the murder of Cassandra Arnold, 32, of Conyers July 8.

Deputies reportedly responded to a call July 8 at 10:45 p.m. about someone needing help after suffering “penetrating trauma” at a residence at 270 White Birch Drive in Covington. They found the victim with multiple gunshot wounds, a spokeswoman said.

• An accused murderer waived his arraignment Nov. 10 on charges related to a May shooting at a Covington motel that left a man dead from a gunshot wound to the head.

Terry Yates, 30, was scheduled to be arraigned in Newton County Superior Court on charges connected to a May 27 shooting at Super 8 motel on Alcovy Road at I-20 that left Nijee Anderson, 31, dead.

Yates is charged with malice murder, felony murder, aggravated assault, possession of a firearm, and tampering with evidence

• A Newton County jury deliberated just under 90 minutes in January before finding a man guilty on multiple charges, including murder, for shooting and killing a friend in 2018.

Miguel Angel Garcia-Martinez, 34, had been charged with the Jan. 6, 2018, murder of 27-year-old Daniel Antonio Lopez. An interpreter translated the guilty verdicts as they were read by Superior Court Judge Samuel Ozburn.

Prosecutors said Garcia-Martinez shot Lopez four times, including once in the head, during an argument on Russell Drive. He left the scene and was arrested by authorities a short time later.

Horace J. Johnson Jr.
Horace J. Johnson Jr., a Newton County native, was appointed as a Superior Court judge in 2002. He died July 1, 2020. - photo by Special to The News

No. 5 – 2020 brings upheaval to Alcovy Judicial Circuit

By David Clemons | The Walton Tribune

The Alcovy Circuit had been a model of stability but as with many aspects of life, 2020 changed everything. 

The year ends with two new judges — both historic choices by the governor — and a third new judge about to take office after a wild election. But jury trials have been suspended and other court functions are being held under strict guidelines for social distancing. 

As 2020 dawned, it appeared all five Superior Court seats would be on the ballot. It would be fairly neat. 

Judge Horace J. Johnson Jr., who in 2002 became the first Black judge in the circuit, said he would run for an open seat on the state Supreme Court. Cheveda McCamy of Covington, the chief assistant district attorney of the Flint Circuit, planned to run for Johnson’s seat.

Judge Samuel D. Ozburn, who like Johnson hailed from Newton County, said he wouldn’t seek reelection and would retire at the end of the year. Lined up to seek his seat was District Attorney Layla H. Zon, also of Covington. 

Also planning to retire was Judge Eugene M. Benton of Monroe, who has served since 2005. Although Covington attorney Bob Stansfield first said he would run for the Johnson seat, he decided to seek Benton’s post, opposing Monroe attorney Jeff Foster. 

But in late January, Ozburn said he would retire at the end of April. That meant, instead of an election, Gov. Brian Kemp would appoint Ozburn’s successor. 

And later, Justice Robert Benham also decided to retire early, and the Judicial Nominating Commission omitted Johnson from its list of finalists. So Johnson decided to run for reelection, prompting McCamy to instead oppose Foster and Stansfield for the Benton seat. 

That race was to be decided in a May primary, which was delayed to June 9 due to the pandemic. 

Foster led the field but couldn’t avoid a runoff. Stansfield finished third in his home county but got just enough votes in Walton to make the runoff. 

Although neither candidate won a precinct in the other candidate’s county, Foster did better in Walton than Stansfield did in Newton. Foster got 52% of the overall vote and nearly 73% in Walton to claim the victory. 

He was sworn in Wednesday and took office Friday. 

Meanwhile, Kemp appointed Zon to the role of judge to succeed Ozburn, and appointed Ozburn as a senior judge. Zon became the first female Superior Court judge in the circuit. 

Zon was seated June 2, and on July 1, Johnson died from cardiac arrest after having been diagnosed with COVID-19. Chief Judge John M. Ott also had been diagnosed with the illness. 

Kemp chose McCamy to succeed Johnson, making her the first Black woman to serve on the bench locally. She was seated Oct. 26. 

Johnson would have been sworn in Wednesday, Dec. 30, to a fifth full term. He was reelected without opposition in June. 

Also reelected without opposition were Ott and Judge Ken Wynne. 

Zon’s ascension to a judgeship caused a vacancy for district attorney. Her chief deputy, Randy McGinley, has served as interim district attorney and was elected to the position permanently in November. 

He becomes the first Walton resident to serve as district attorney since Ott gave up the role to become a judge in 1990.