A whole new (and hopefully much calmer) year is fast approaching, which means it’s time to rack ’em up and run the table on the Arkansas Times’ annual Best and Worst edition, our year-end salute to all the news that was fit to print — and some that probably wasn’t — that happened across our beautiful state during our most recent trip around the sun.
We’ve been doing Best and Worst for a long while now, but for the life of us, we can’t quite remember a year that lasted half as long as 2020. In case you need a refresher on stuff you’ve blocked out from sheer exhaustion or abject horror: A plague swept the land this year, pushing the U.S. economy off a cliff and carrying away nearly a quarter-million Americans as of this writing, even as the resident of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue in D.C. failed and flubbed, blowing off mask requirements and standing in the way of damn near anything that might help, blaming everybody but himself and denying reality right up until he was defeated at the ballot box in November (silver linings!). Protests — and sometimes rioting — roiled the streets of many American cities this year as well, including Little Rock, as Black people and their allies called for more accountability following the police murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis. The year ends with Trump on his way out and a vaccine on its way in, but just so 2020 doesn’t get you too excited, it also ends with the death of RBG and an election that saw Democrats in Arkansas and other red states failing to even come close to the heights projected by polling just days before the election.
There were, of course, diamonds of hope and humor among the cat turds of 2020, folks doing good (and bad enough to make bad funny) in terrible circumstances. You’ll read more about that in the following pages, along with a lonely and fitting end for The Blue Light Rapist, a big loan for the Little Piglet Soap Co., a behind-bars crime spree connected to a celebrated murder, Huckabees denied, U.S. Sen. Tom Cotton saying dumb stuff, a memorial for North Little Rock’s goose-chasin’ Good Boy, Republicans on the decent side of an argument for once, and more. It’s all here, so read it and weep. Or read it and laugh, if you’re too tired of crying to cry anymore. Either way, as surely as the clock ticks, the end of 2020 will be upon us soon, and good riddance to it. Our best to you, and ourselves, in the new year. Lord knows it can’t be any worse than this one.
Following a December 2019 Facebook post in which officials with the North Little Rock Animal Shelter said dogs and cats would have to be euthanized if not adopted because there was nowhere to house excess animals during a much-needed resurfacing of part of the shelter’s floor, officials announced in January that animal lovers had answered the call, adopting 84 dogs and cats from the shelter in less than a month.
Doyle Ashcraft of Little Rock pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 70 years in prison in January in a 2018 case in which investigators said Ashcraft stabbed his wife, Marjorie Ashcraft, 35, to death at their Little Rock home before setting the house on fire in the middle of the night in an apparent attempt to both cover up the murder and kill the couple’s 14-year-old son, who was sleeping inside. Luckily, the boy awoke as the house filled with smoke and was able to get out through a window. Investigators later found that Doyle Ashcraft had disabled every smoke detector in the house.
Worst letter of the law
Calling the requirement “absurd,” Pulaski County Circuit Judge Chris Piazza bowed to Article 5 of the Arkansas State Constitution in January and ruled that Lawrence County District Judge Adam Weeks of Powhatan (Lawrence County) should be struck from the ballot as a candidate for Third Circuit Court, which covers Sharp, Jackson, Randolph and Lawrence counties, over a misdemeanor conviction related to running a fictitious license plate on Weeks’ car when Weeks was 18 years old. Article 5 forbids any candidate previously involved in an “infamous crime” — defined in the Article as “an act of deceit, fraud or false statement” — from running for any office of public trust. Nobody tell the legislature about that, OK? Might get awful lonely up at the Capitol.
Maricopa County, Ariz., Assessor Paul Petersen resigned in January following his 2019 arrest over what authorities said was a smuggling operation that allegedly paid over 70 women from the Marshall Islands to come to Arizona, Utah and Arkansas to give up their babies for adoption, a practice that has been forbidden by law since 2003.
Retired attorney Beresford “Bere” Church of Little Rock died in January, decades after he helped integrate Little Rock’s Robinson Center Music Hall in the early 1960s as a founder of the music appreciation group Modern Music of Little Rock. A longtime lover of jazz, Church and his group helped bring a number of high-profile African American acts to Robinson Auditorium, including a March 1963 show by the Count Basie Orchestra that saw black fans descend from the segregated balcony to mingle with whites in defiance of the law.
Eight tornadoes touched down in Arkansas on Jan. 13, with the strongest reaching speeds of 135 mph and destroying several structures in Logan County, including at least five homes.
Defending his decision to keep allowing refugees to resettle in Northwest Arkansas through the end of 2020, Governor Hutchinson told a joint session of the Arkansas State Legislature’s House and Senate City, County and Local Affairs committees in January: “Each of you are leaders in your community. You’ve got a choice to make. You can create fear, or you can help resolve fear. I challenge you to help resolve fear.”
Fort Smith Police arrested Dwaun Davis, 26, in January after investigators said he fell asleep while in the process of buying a phone at a MetroPCS store after allegedly robbing a Burger King restaurant across town. Called to the scene by a report of an armed man, officers said they found Davis snoozing inside the store, with around $3,000 in cash that had allegedly been taken during the robbery. He was arrested on several charges.
Dick Antoine, who has appeared in costume as “The World’s Tallest Leprechaun” since 2003 at Hot Springs’ annual World’s Shortest St. Patrick’s Day Parade, announced in January that he would hang up his Kelly green duds after 17 years, allowing KABZ-FM, 103.7 The Buzz morning host Roger Scott to take up the name.
Worst big house crime spree
Rebecca O’Donnell — who would plead guilty to murder in August before being sentenced to 43 years in prison in the June 2019 stabbing death of her friend, former Arkansas State Sen. Linda Collins at Collins’ home in Pocahontas (Randolph County) — managed to rack up even more charges in January while sitting in jail awaiting trial, with investigators saying O’Donnell spoke with at least four fellow inmates at the Jackson County Jail about arranging various crimes. Inmates at the jail told investigators that while incarcerated there, O’Donnell allegedly inquired about blowing up her own car to destroy any evidence inside, along with killing Collins’ ex-husband and his wife, a prosecutor involved in the murder case and Judge Harold Erwin of Randolph County. O’Donnell was sentenced to an additional seven years on those charges.
Worst ‘partially smooshed’
A driver in his 90s miraculously escaped with only minor injuries in January after his car was hit by not one, but two passing freight trains after it stalled on the tracks south of Rixie Road in Rixey, with a tweet by the Pulaski County Sheriff’s Office saying the car had been “partially smooshed under one of the trains.”
Worst dog gone
A compact car wound up bumper-down over a retaining wall at the El Dorado Home Depot in January after police said a dog who had been left in the car knocked it out of gear, sending the car rolling backward through the parking lot to an inevitable crash. No one, including the dog, was hurt in the incident.
Home delivery of weekday and Saturday editions of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette ended in Central Arkansas on Jan. 25, part of the paper’s cost-cutting shift to delivering news to subscribers on digital tablets supplied by the D-G. Sunday home delivery of old-fangled paper copies continues for now.
Worst clearance sale
Opened in 2008 with an appraised value of almost $80 million, West Little Rock’s Promenade at Chenal Shopping Center was sold in January for what a report in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette said was “$10 in cash and other unspecified considerations in lieu of foreclosure,” reflecting the continued weakening of interest in malls and shopping centers nationwide. No, that’s not a typo. Ten bucks.
Worst bullet bra
Candayce Tabron, 33, of Little Rock, was sentenced to seven years in prison in January after pleading guilty to charges related to a September 2018 drive-by shooting at the Little Rock residence of a woman she had quarreled with. After arresting Tabron at her home, investigators said a search of her person found that Tabron had a spent 9mm shell casing in her bra. According to police, it was later matched to another shell casing found at the scene of the drive-by.
Worst ‘going out of business’
RAO Video, a somewhat seedy but beloved anchor of Little Rock’s Main Street for over 40 years, announced it would close in January. Opened in 1977 by Robert “Bob” Oliver as a small storefront catering to the fledgling community of Central Arkansas home video customers, the store eventually moved to 609 Main St. and grew into one of the largest video stores in the South, outlasting even giants like Blockbuster. Despite the announcement, in November, the business remained open as Oliver continued to try to sell the Main Street property.
There was high drama in the final moments of the Arkansas State Spelling Bee in February after judges determined that Garland County’s Thomas Sinclair, 10, had, in fact, correctly spelled the word “westerlies” — a word meaning westward-blowing winds — even though judges had previously declared his spelling incorrect. The revised decision helped Thomas clinch the state Spelling Bee crown.
Worst ‘The End’
Celebrated Arkansas novelist Charles Portis, whose narrow-but-beloved five-work bibliography includes such certified classics as 1979’s “Dog of the South” and 1968’s “True Grit” — the latter of which has made the jump to the silver screen not once, but twice — died at age 86 in Little Rock on Feb. 17 after living with Alzheimer’s disease for several years.
“People do not give it credence that a fourteen-year-old girl could leave home and go off in the wintertime to avenge her father’s blood but it did not seem so strange then, although I will say it did not happen every day.” — Charles Portis, “True Grit” (1968)
After having his “states visited” list stuck at 49 since the 1990s, 81-year-old Dan May of Georgia completed his quest to visit all 50 states with a trip to Little Rock in February, part of a spur-of-the-moment visit planned by his son Peter as a late Christmas gift. According to a story in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, stops on the father/son trip included the Clinton Presidential Center, Central High, Pinnacle Mountain State Park and a ride on the Rock Region Metro Streetcar.
Worst active shooter
Chaos reigned at a Forrest City Walmart just after 10:30 a.m. Feb. 10 after a gunman, later identified by police as Bobby Joe Gibbs of Forrest City, pulled a handgun and opened fire on Det. Eugene Watlington and Lt. Eric Varner of the Forrest City Police Department, who had responded to a call about a man threatening someone inside the store. Both officers were wounded in the firefight, Watlington seriously, but thanks to them, no patrons or employees of the store were hurt. Gibbs was shot multiple times and died at the scene.
Worst fender bender
The Spoofer’s Stone, a large piece of limestone that had become a campus landmark at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville since being abandoned during the construction of Old Main in 1875, was smashed to pieces after a worker apparently backed into it with a construction vehicle in February. The stone — which gained prominence as a note-passing place for young couples during the days when romantic fraternization between men and women on campus was forbidden — was meticulously glued back together the following month by a stone carver brought in from Wisconsin.
Little Rock’s Lassis Inn, the humble, long-lived fish restaurant at 518 E. 27th St. near Roosevelt Road, was named by the prestigious James Beard Foundation in February as one of its “American Classics,” a designation established in 1998 that celebrates eateries “that have timeless appeal and are beloved regionally for quality food that reflects the character of its community.” Started in 1905 by Joe and Molassis Watson and moved in 1931 to the small blue building where the restaurant still resides, Lassis Inn has long been a hub for Little Rock’s African American community.
An unidentified Cabot woman in her 30s suffered numerous but not life-threatening injuries in March after slipping and falling over 50 feet from the lip of Bridal Veil Falls near Heber Springs, with Cleburne County Search and Rescue and the Cleburne County Sheriff’s Department called in to help bring her to safety.
Governor Hutchinson announced in March that Arkansas liquor stores would be allowed to make home deliveries of booze to patrons bunkered up to help slow the spread of the coronavirus. Tens of thousands of beleaguered and thirsty citizens have taken the governor up on his offer to date, though only residents of “wet” counties were eligible for a visit from the Friendly Neighborhood Hootch Delivery Wagon.
Mauricio Torres Sr., 50, of Bella Vista was convicted of battery and capital murder in March by a Bentonville jury in the March 2015 murder of his 6-year-old son, Mauricio “Isaiah” Torres, who died of an infection at a hospital the day after Torres used a stick to sexually assault the boy during a family camping trip to Missouri, part of what investigators said was a long pattern of abuse. The elder Torres had previously been convicted and sentenced to death in the case in 2016, but the conviction was overturned by the Arkansas Supreme Court. Torres’ wife is serving life in prison after accepting a plea deal in the case.
The day after Mauricio Torres was found guilty in March, Benton County Circuit Judge Brad Karren was forced to declare a mistrial in the case when, during victim testimony for the sentencing phase in which prosecutors again planned to go for a death sentence, Torres’ 24-year-old stepson leaped from the witness box and tried to attack Torres at the defense table as the shocked jury looked on. A planned third trial for Torres scheduled for August was canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Worst death from above
The Arkansas Game and Fish Commission announced in March that helicopter-borne snipers had killed almost 700 feral hogs in East and Northeast Arkansas the previous month as part of a U.S. Department of Agriculture effort to thin herds of the troublesome swine, whose ceaseless rooting and foraging for food often wreaks havoc on crops and gardens.
Governor Hutchinson announced March 11 that a patient at Pine Bluff’s Jefferson Regional Medical Center was the state’s first presumptive case of COVID-19 after a test administered by the Arkansas Department of Health came back positive. The disease would claim its first Arkansas life — a 59-year-old man from Sherwood who died at Baptist Health Medical Center in North Little Rock — in the early morning hours of March 24, with a 91-year-old Cleburne County man passing away later the same morning in Conway. By April 1, 10 Arkansans were dead, the beginning of a grim toll that grinds on. As of this writing, over 2,100 Arkansas residents have perished from the disease.
In response to the growing threat of the coronavirus, Little Rock Mayor Frank Scott Jr. imposed on March 16 a nightly midnight-to-5 a.m. curfew, part of a containment effort that would see much of the state’s commerce, education, industry and entertainment venues shuttered by the end of the month.
John Alexander McLean, 59, a former Little Rock Presbyterian minister, was sentenced to 21 months in the federal hoosegow in March related to allegedly helping former North Little Rock sports memorabilia and vintage photography tycoon John Rogers sell phony sports memorabilia to 10 separate victims in 2016 and 2017. McLean, who pleaded guilty to wire fraud in October 2019, had asked the judge for a probation-only sentence. Rogers, who formerly owned North Little Rock’s Sports Card Plus and the Rogers Photo Archive, the latter of which purchased a reported 80 million vintage photos from struggling newspapers all over America and some overseas, is serving a 12-year stretch in federal prison.
In March, a federal jury in Little Rock convicted Eric Scott Kindley, 52, of two counts of sexual assault and one count of possessing a firearm in furtherance of sexual assault after hearing testimony from multiple women who said that between 2014 and 2017, Kindley had sexually assaulted them while transporting them cross-country as inmates. Kindley’s one-man, California-based private prisoner transport company had previously contracted with jails nationwide to transport suspects who were arrested on out-of-state warrants, with prosecutors saying he was often allowed to transport handcuffed and shackled women alone for hundreds or thousands of miles during the 15 years he ran the company. Kindley faces a sentence of up to life in prison.
Best nick of time
FBI agents arrested Eric Scott Kindley in Stockton, Calif. in June 2018, the day after he signed up to be an Uber driver. Agents — who were already onto Kindley by then and were secretly monitoring his cellphone — later testified they moved to apprehend Kindley after he made internet searches about Uber drivers having sex with their passengers.
To help the state weather the coronavirus, Little Rock’s Rock Town Distillery turned a significant portion of the distillery’s output to making alcohol-based hand sanitizer in March after panic buying cleared Central Arkansas store shelves of much-needed disinfectants.
State Rep. Reginald Murdock (D-Marianna) announced on April Fool’s Day that he was the first member of the Legislature to test positive for COVID-19, one week after he had convened with other House members at UA Little Rock’s basketball arena, a venue chosen to allow lawmakers to socially distance in the stands. Murdock, who was asymptomatic at the time of his diagnosis, had asked his doctor to test him out of an abundance of caution because of his frequent meetings with constituents. A second legislator, State Rep. Vivian Flowers (D-Pine Bluff), also tested positive later the same day. Thankfully, both have since recovered, with no apparent ill-effects.
David Walter, 31, of Mabelvale, was arrested in April for misdemeanor criminal trespassing at the Pulaski County Regional Detention Center, which wouldn’t be all that weird except Walter was an inmate at the jail at the time. According to deputies, Walter had previously asked for an ambulance to be called for an unspecified issue, but when the ambulance arrived, he refused to leave with paramedics. After some arguing, Walter was returned to the jail and booked for causing a disturbance and refusing to leave the jail.
Best saying ‘no’ to the wealthy
Public health prevailed over big dollars in April, when a federal judge in Pensacola, Fla., refused to issue an injunction sought by 14 beachfront property owners — including former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and his wife, Janet — after they sued Florida’s Walton County over beach closures designed to help slow the spread of COVID-19. The Huckabees built a $3 million beachfront mansion near Destin, Fla., after moving there in 2010. Attorneys for the Huckabees argued that a county order closing the beaches between the waterline and their homes was an unconstitutional seizure of private property.
Worst ‘check please’
The owners of Brown’s Country Store and Restaurant, a Saline County home-cookin’ staple with a famous 100-foot-long buffet that offered a little something for everyone, announced that the restaurant would close in April after 47 years of dishing up all-you-can-eat, stick-to-your-ribs Southern fare beside Interstate 30 in Benton.
Seeking a moratorium on evictions and a rent freeze after tens of thousands of Arkansans were laid off or furloughed from their jobs due to the economic slowdown related to the COVID-19 pandemic, about 30 protesters showed up at the gates of the Governor’s Mansion on May 1 to bang pots and wave signs, hoping for relief.
Worst gone with the wind
Around 500 Central Arkansas workers got a pink slip just as the pandemic got rolling after LM Wind Power announced in April that it would close its vast windmill-blade manufacturing plant near the Port of Little Rock, which it opened in 2008. LM Wind Power said the closure was due to a global move to windmill blades that were longer than the 204-foot blades the factory could produce.
After 70 years in El Dorado, Murphy Oil Corp. announced in May that it would close headquarters there and move Murphy HQ to Houston, citing cost-cutting required by the nosedive in crude oil prices. Officials with Murphy said they planned to keep paying for the El Dorado Promise, a program started in 2007 that provides free college tuition to any child who attends a high school in the El Dorado School District.
Worst ‘shooting the messenger’
In May, Arkansas Times Editor Lindsey Millar notified the Arkansas Division of Workforce Services of a vulnerability in the state’s Pandemic Unemployment Assistance website that exposed the Social Security numbers and bank account and routing numbers of some 30,000 applicants. Millar was alerted to the flaw by a computer programmer applying for the assistance. The programmer, who had gained access to the site simply by altering the website’s URL, contacted the Times only after reaching out to two state agencies and getting nowhere. The state took the website offline shortly after the Times emailed the division. Rather than thank the programmer for acting as a whistleblower, Governor Hutchinson portrayed him as a likely criminal for looking where he wasn’t supposed to, which computer security experts told the Times was akin to “shooting the messenger.” In September, a state official told a legislative committee that the state had seen no evidence that any of the exposed information had been misused. An FBI investigation into the matter remains ongoing.
Satanic Temple co-founder and spokesman Lucien Greaves, whose organization is fighting in court for the right to install an 8-foot bronze statue of the goat-headed demigod Baphomet on the Capitol grounds after the state opened the door to religious displays there with the installation of a Ten Commandments “monument” in June 2017, released pages from a transcript of a deposition in the case in May on Twitter, highlighting an exchange between Greaves and an attorney with the Arkansas Attorney General’s Office. In the exchange, after Greaves told the attorney he wasn’t sure what “BDSM” stood for, the attorney said: “[J]ust guessing here, but: Bondage, Domination and Sadomasochism?” To which Greaves replied: “I don’t think you’re guessing.”
Best good riddance
Robert Todd Burmingham, 54, a former St. Francis County farm worker who struck terror in the hearts of East Arkansas residents during what investigators said was a two-year spree as the “Blue Light Rapist,” died May 13 at Little Rock’s UAMS Medical Center from COVID-19, which he contracted in prison while serving a life sentence. Burmingham, who prosecutors said used a flashing blue light to pull over women at night before sexually assaulting them, was arrested and convicted in the rapes of two women in 1997, receiving 80 years, with investigators saying he was suspected in assaults reported by at least two other motorists. He was sentenced to an additional term of life in prison after a 2000 conviction for the rape of a Wynne woman in her home. Passed in 2017, “Shannon’s Law,” which makes it illegal for anyone other than law enforcement officers to possess flashing blue lights, was named for one of Burmingham’s victims.
After police pulled over James Homan, 40, of Mabelvale in May on Little Rock’s Mabelvale Pike, officers said, he not only admitted the vehicle he was driving was stolen, he also claimed he had stolen it from another man who stole it from the original owner. A check of records showed that the vehicle had, in fact, been reported stolen by a resident of Saline County. Perhaps proving the adage that two wrongs don’t make a right, Homan was booked on one count of theft by receiving.
Best ‘lotta crap’
Police arrested Jennifer Porter, 27, of Fort Smith in May after a high-speed chase in which Porter allegedly demolish a Sebastian County sheriff’s SUV and damage three Arkansas State Police cruisers as they tried to stop the heavy-duty Ram 4×4 pickup she was driving. After police forced the truck into a spin, Porter was arrested, with police saying that while being transported to jail, she allegedly told officers: “I didn’t intend on all this destruction. I’m just going through a lotta crap.” We feel your pain, sister.
Eddie Sutton, who coached the University of Arkansas basketball team between 1974 and 1985, turning the Razorbacks into a nationally respected powerhouse with a 260-75 record during his time as Head Hog, died in Tulsa on May 23 at the age of 84.
Best public art
Following the murder of George Floyd by police in Minneapolis on May 25 and the nationwide protests that began soon after, artists in Little Rock channeled their grief and hope for a better tomorrow into a series of colorful murals — including a large memorial to Floyd by artists Jose Hernandez and Jermaine Gibson — that now cover nearly every surface of a concrete train underpass on Seventh Street a few blocks from the state Capitol. Though there had been murals there before, the site has since blossomed into a block-long feast for the eyes, with much of the artwork celebrating cooperation, Black leaders, civil rights heroes and victims of police shootings.
In June, Little Rock Mayor Frank Scott Jr. announced the makeup of a nine-member commission — including lawyers, a sociologist, a retired cop and the dean emeritus of the local law school — that Scott said will oversee a review of the practices and internal workings of the Little Rock Police Department. The move comes after years of police shootings of Black suspects by LRPD officers, cases that have mostly come up light on cops being disciplined or criminally charged when investigated by the LRPD, but which have enraged already grief stricken families and cost the city a bundle in civil court.
On June 1, the day after Little Rock’s first mass protest at the Capitol over the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police, 35 people blocked traffic by standing and lying down in the crosswalks at Broadway and Third Street near downtown, some of them holding paper tombstones bearing the names of African Americans killed by police. Little Rock police would arrest 28 protestors for blocking the intersection, but protesters were undeterred. Protests followed at the Capitol in defiance of an 8 p.m. curfew set by the city and continued in Little Rock for much of the summer.
Kevin Costner, a beloved Hollywood movie star who starred in “The Bodyguard,” “The Untouchables,” “JFK,” “Bull Durham” and “Dances With Wolves” — the last of which won him Oscars for Best Director and Best Picture — said during a June interview on Sirius XM Radio that he plans to build a museum in Hot Springs to display memorabilia from his film career. Costner told host Storme Warren that he decided on Hot Springs as the location for the museum after visiting the Spa City. “I went there and kind of really dug it, the history of it,” Costner told Warren. “It’s kind of like a little Switzerland.” We don’t quite get a “Switzerland” vibe from Hot Springs, but OK. Costner’s only previously known connection to the state was that his band, Modern West, played a gig in El Dorado in July 2016.
Willie May Harris, now 72 years old and blind, was released from an Arkansas prison at Wrightsville on June 5, 34 years after she was convicted of killing her husband, Clyde Harris, in what she said was an accidental shooting as she tried to fend off her abusive spouse. Convicted and sentenced to life in prison in 1985, she was granted clemency in March by Governor Hutchinson, and plans to live with her daughter in Dallas.
Worst ‘no quarter’
U.S. Sen. Tom Cotton, regrettably of Arkansas, stirred controversy June 1 when he posted unabashedly authoritarian tweets that encouraged federal officials to use military troops against civilians involved in protests and rioting rocking most major American cities in the wake of the murder of George Floyd. “Anarchy, rioting, and looting needs to end tonight. If local law enforcement is overwhelmed and needs backup, let’s see how tough these Antifa terrorists are when they’re facing off with the 101st Airborne Division. We need to have zero tolerance for this destruction,” Cotton wrote, followed by another tweet that said: “And, if necessary, the 10th Mountain, 82nd Airborne, 1st Cav, 3rd Infantry — whatever it takes to restore order. No quarter for insurrectionists, anarchists, rioters, and looters.” As critics pointed out, Cotton — famously a military man — would know that “no quarter” is military shorthand for executing prisoners.
Worst near-ghosting while ghosthunting
Mark Galloway, 31, of Mountain Home, was arrested at a Little Rock motel off 65th Street in June after investigators said he stabbed a 30-year-old friend during an argument over whether they should continue looking for ghosts in a local cemetery. A woman who was with the two men told police that Galloway wanted to continue their paranormal adventures but the victim didn’t, and when the victim started to drive away from the cemetery, Galloway allegedly stabbed him. Galloway was arrested on one count of first-degree battery. The victim was expected to make a full recovery.
Worst snake oil
In June, attorneys for convicted felon, televangelist and bucket-o-food pitchman Jim Bakker — yes, THAT Jim Bakker — issued a press release condemning an effort by the office of Arkansas Attorney General Leslie Rutledge to get information about Bakker’s church as part of an investigation by other states into Bakker’s hawking of “Silver Solution,” a phony cure-all that goes for up to $5 per fluid ounce. “Experts” appearing on Bakker’s show have claimed that, among other things, taking Silver Solution can cure COVID-19. The state of Missouri, where Bakker parks his medicine wagon, sued him and his production company in March over the product.
Former U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs pathologist Robert Morris Levy, 53, of Fayetteville pleaded guilty in June to involuntary manslaughter related to a 2014 case in which investigators said Levy misdiagnosed a U.S. Air Force veteran with cancer, then lied to say a second pathologist backed up his diagnosis. According to prosecutors, the veteran died after five months of cancer treatments for cancer he did not have.
Worst ‘even worse …’
Tragically, investigators said the 2014 death was one of three cases in which Levy, who claimed to have problems with substance abuse, issued a misdiagnosis that led to a patient’s death. The cases were uncovered during a Department of Veterans Affairs review of Levy’s work that was ordered after he was arrested for drunk driving in 2018. Investigators conducting that review reported that they found over 3,000 errors in cases Levy had been called on to diagnose, including 30 cases in which patients with serious health issues had been misdiagnosed by Levy.
Best participation trophy revocation
Just in time for Juneteenth, Little Rock Mayor Frank Scott announced on the evening of June 18 that the Confederate Memorial statue in front of the city’s MacArthur Museum of Arkansas Military History would be permanently removed. Scott said of the removal of the memorial, which had been donated to the city in 1911 by the Sons of Confederate Veterans: “Our parks belong to every resident of Little Rock, who support them with their tax dollars. It is our intent to ensure our parks are inclusive and welcoming for all. This statue was divisive and in opposition to this administration’s internal why — to unite Little Rock.” Scott said the statue would be put in storage until a suitable place to display it can be found. Hey, mayor, might we suggest the bottom of the Arkansas River?
Walmart announced in June that it would stop keeping “multicultural hair care and beauty products” — AKA: hair care products marketed specifically to Black people — in locked cases in some of their stores, following online complaints by activists in Denver who questioned why products marketed largely to Blacks at their local Walmart needed an extra layer of security against shoplifting.
Best holds barred
Saying he was responding to the concerns of Little Rock protesters in the wake of the death of George Floyd, Little Rock Mayor Frank Scott Jr. announced June 17 that he had signed an executive order barring Little Rock Police Department officers from using or training new recruits in the use of neck restraints to control uncooperative suspects. As termed in the order, “neck restraints” are “defensive actions or techniques that can affect a person’s trachea, or interrupt the person’s breathing… [or a] vascular compression hold which compresses the carotid artery, [or] other vascular arteries on the side of an individual’s neck, and may cause unconsciousness.”
Best consumer dreams come true
After years of rumor, gossip and innuendo that the opening of a Central Arkansas Costco location was on the cusp of being announced, Costco — a bulk-quantity warehouse store open to members only — announced that it would, in fact, for realsies, break ground on its first Arkansas location, having purchased a 32-acre site near the intersection of Chenal Parkway and Kirk Road in West Little Rock.
Best missed appointment
Future for America, a church near Bonnerdale in Hot Spring County, caused some consternation and head scratching in June after publishing a full-page ad in Nashville’s The Tennessean newspaper that predicted “Islam” would detonate a nuclear bomb in Nashville, Tenn., on July 18, and that Donald Trump would be the last president of the United States. The ad, which also directed readers to a website chock-full of loonery, led The Tennessean to issue three things: an apology to local Muslims, a $14,000 donation (the value of the ad) to the Nashville-based American Muslim Advisory Council, and its advertising manager a termination letter. Lo and behold, July 18 came and went with no Big Bang in Nashville. As for Trump being the last president of the U.S., the election of Joe Biden in November would seem to preclude that, but there’s still time for Agent Orange to do something nuts, we suppose.
Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD), the group that works to end the scourge of drunk driving that claims the lives of up to 10,000 Americans per year, announced in June that it was pulling out of the state, with leaders saying Arkansas’s too-cheap fee requirement for DUI violators had forced the organization’s operations in the state to run in the red for the past decade. According to Arkansas law, those convicted of DUI must attend a program produced by an organization like MADD, during which they hear from victims who have lost loved ones to drunk driving. The law also says organizations can collect a paltry $10 from each participant, which MADD officials claim has caused their Arkansas chapter to run at a total loss of over $150,000 since 2012. Speaking with local media at the time of the state pullout, leaders with MADD said Arkansas state legislators repeatedly rebuffed their attempts to up the fee.
On July 1, the city of Little Rock snuck out a Request for Proposals (an invitation for companies to issue a bid to provide a service) for a venue to provide “golf entertainment” to the citizens of Little Rock. Critics quickly sniffed out the RFP as yet another attempt by some city leaders to lure a location of the Top Golf bar and grill chain to Little Rock. That would have been hunky dory, except the location the city proposed for said alleged “entertainment” was 18 acres of publicly owned parkland formerly occupied by the War Memorial Golf Course, with construction requiring the bulldozing of an irreplaceable grove of old-growth pines on a knoll overlooking Interstate 630 and busy University Avenue. Luckily, citizens of Little Rock (including the author of this article) — knowing that public land was no place for a privately-owned golf-and-beer venue with massive, 100-plus-foot catch fences — let the mayor have it on social media.
Best ‘not interested’
When envelopes containing responses to the city’s RFP for “golf entertainment” were opened in August, the only response received was from a local roofing company, who said it was “not interested.” Us either, at least not in War Memorial Park. Still, stay frosty, citizens. Developers — and elected officials happy to slop private troughs with public treasure — never sleep.
Best big box
Just as a wave of COVID-19-related layoffs and furloughs were washing over Central Arkansas, Amazon delivered the state some good news in July, announcing that a massive five-story, 3.3 million-square-foot building under construction near the Port of Little Rock will be the first Amazon order-fulfillment center in the state, employing at least 1,000 workers.
After weeks of hemming, hawing and foot-dragging as coronavirus cases and COVID-19 deaths in the state spiraled out of control, on July 16 Governor Hutchinson announced a statewide mask ordinance. The order allowed municipalities to write misdemeanor tickets of up to $500 for those who repeatedly flouted wearing a mask in public, with kids under 10 and those with a medical condition that keeps them from wearing a mask excluded. Enforcement of the order, however, was sparse to nil. By the day Hutchinson announced his mask order, the state had passed 31,000 total cases, with 341 Arkansans dead.
Arkansas U.S. Sen. Tom Cotton, no stranger to saying dumb stuff, sparked his umpteenth firestorm of criticism in July after he told the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette that slavery had been a “necessary evil.” “As the Founding Fathers said,” Cotton opined, “it was the necessary evil upon which the Union was built, but the Union was built in a way, as Lincoln said, to put slavery on the course to its ultimate extinction.” After a furor arose about his comments, Cotton — that bold, stick-to-his-guns man of unshakable character — quickly accused others of mischaracterizing his statement. Not a lot of ways to spin putting “necessary” before “evil” when talking about using violence and murder to keep human beings in chains as slave labor, but whatever helps you sleep at night, senator.
Ganell Tubbs, 41, of Little Rock, was arrested by the FBI in July after investigators alleged she bilked the federal Paycheck Protection Program — which issued billions in loans to help businesses struggling to meet payroll due to the COVID-19 pandemic — for almost $2 million. The office of U.S. Attorney Cody Hiland alleged that Tubbs claimed on forms that her company, Suga Girls Customs, paid out over $1.3 million in benefits and wages to its employees in the first three months of 2020. Tubbs allegedly received a federal loan for $1,518,887 in May. Investigators say she later received an additional $414,375 loan to help support payroll at her other venture: Little Piglet Soap Co.
On Aug. 5, the U.S. Bureau of Prisons released Milton “Rusty” Cranford, 59, the former Arkansas health care executive and lobbyist sentenced to seven years in prison in November 2019 for bribing several Arkansas legislators related to the Preferred Family Healthcare corruption case. Cranford’s attorneys had argued that due to his age and medical issues, he was particularly vulnerable to a potential prison outbreak of the coronavirus. He will reportedly serve the remainder of his sentence on house arrest.
Worst dodged justice
Steve Branch, 66, of Austin (Lonoke County) killed himself Aug. 3 a few hours after Arkansas State Police showed up at his house to question him and request a DNA sample. The State Police had connected Branch to the May 1996 sexual assault and murder of Jessica Baggen of Sitka, Alaska, who was abducted, raped and killed the day after her 17th birthday. During questioning, Branch refused to submit a DNA sample, and apparently committed suicide soon after the troopers left. A DNA sample taken at autopsy later conclusively connected Branch to evidence collected from Baggen’s body and at the crime scene.
In August, the Arkansas Secretary of State’s office certified that hip-hop artist, clothing mogul, mentally ill person and fervent Donald Trump supporter Kanye West got his paperwork in just in time to be certified as a presidential candidate for the Arkansas ballot in November. Breaking news: He did not win.
The experience of watching a movie from the comfort of your Studebaker returned to Central Arkansas for the first time in decades in August after MP Outdoor Cinema opened a 200-car drive-in theater on an industrial lot at 6700 Allied Way in Little Rock. Showing family favorites and classics including “Jurassic Park,” “Dirty Dancing,” “Men in Black” and others, the drive-in has been a hit with movie fans kept away from traditional theaters by the pandemic.
Worst grudge that probably should have been let go five years ago
Joseph Allen Stroud, 79, of Bentonville was arrested in August after a hidden camera set up in a cemetery near Pea Ridge by loved ones of the late Fred Allen McKinney caught video of a disguised person, who investigators later alleged was Stroud, putting a dead animal carcass on McKinney’s grave. Since May, McKinney’s family told police, 16 animal carcasses had been left on the grave, including one that stained the headstone so badly that it will have to be replaced. According to McKinney’s family, Stroud and McKinney had been neighbors until McKinney’s death in August 2015. Stroud was charged with misdemeanor harassment and one felony count of defacing objects of public respect.
Kimberly Rogers, a bus driver for the Bryant School District, was charged with DUI in August after a frightening accident in which investigators said Rogers crashed the school bus she was driving into a ditch while 11 children were aboard. Luckily, no injuries were reported. Investigators later tested Rogers and allegedly confirmed she was under the influence of prescription drugs. She was charged with DUI and 11 counts of endangering children, among other charges.
Bass Pro Shops announced in early August that founder Johnny Morris was the mystery buyer in June of the dilapidated former Dogpatch U.S.A. theme park in Newton County near Harrison for $1.1 million. Locals hope the Missouri-based sporting goods mogul will have the clout, connections and cash to bring back a Heckuvah Day to the overgrown property, which closed as a hillbilly-themed amusement park in 1993 after years of declining attendance. The park has sat largely vacant ever since.
In August, officials with the state reported that in the 21 days leading up to Aug. 4, Arkansas medical cannabis dispensaries exceeded $600,000 per day in total sales, selling just over 1,400 pounds of The Kind-Kind to Arkansans who hold a state-issued card that allows them to legally purchase and use medical marijuana. According to the Arkansas Department of Health, as of this writing, over 93,000 Arkansas residents have been approved for a medical marijuana card, with the state on track to break 100,000 cardholders by the end of the year.
In September, Andrea Michelle Barfield, 47, of Little Rock, pleaded guilty to second-degree murder in the September 2019 death of Anastacia Brewer, 62, who died the day after being found brutally beaten in a North Little Rock alley. Barfield’s weapon in the assault, investigators said, was an unopened can of tomato soup, which was found by detectives at the crime scene covered in blood and hair. Barfield was sentenced to 12 years in prison.
Dominique Duyanh Chu, 24, of Springdale was arrested Sept. 1, accused in what several Northwest Arkansas police departments said was a pattern of nighttime thefts from squad cars parked at the homes of police officers. Officers with agencies including the Rogers Police Department, Bella Vista Police Department and the Crawford County Sheriff’s Office reported patrol car break-ins during the months-long string of break-ins, with investigators saying the culprit made off with a load of police-issue gear, including two AR-15 rifles and magazines, police jackets and bulletproof vests.
In September, the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette reported the story of Deana Osborne, 46, who moved into a Little Rock apartment in July after spending over 25 years living on the streets of Little Rock. Osborne told D-G reporter Ginny Monk that she first experienced homelessness after being unexpectedly dropped off by her father in front of a Salvation Army shelter in Little Rock on her 18th birthday, and had never had a home of her own since then.
Arkansas-based retail behemoth Walmart announced in September that it was launching a pilot (or should that be “pilot-less”?) program to use unmanned flying drones to deliver orders to homes from a Walmart store in Fayetteville, N.C. The announcement followed similar moves to develop drone-based airborne delivery systems by online rival Amazon.
Best job well done
University of Arkansas Clinton School of Public Service Dean Emeritus Skip Rutherford, dean since the school opened in 2004, announced in September that he would retire. During Rutherford’s time at the helm, the school brought a bevy of iconic figures to speak in Little Rock and graduated scores of Clinton School students who went on to better their communities in ways big and small.
The state reached a grim milestone on Sept. 15, with Governor Hutchinson telling reporters that Arkansas had lost a total of 1,003 residents to COVID-19 as of that day’s briefing at the state Capitol.
The Downtown Little Rock Partnership and the Little Rock Zoo made the best of Halloween celebrations put on hold by COVID-19 in October by hosting Shadows at Sixth, which saw a parking deck at Sixth and Scott streets in Little Rock temporarily converted into a spooky drive-through experience not unlike a haunted house. The event ran nightly from Oct. 9-31, helping Central Arkansas families find a little safe fun during a Halloween season in which events like parties, hayrides and trick-or-treating were drastically scaled back.
Critics scourged Arkansas House of Representatives District 86 candidate John La Tour for promoting violence against protestors in September after the Republican made — and later deleted — a Facebook post that said: “Antifa and BLM are now saying they are coming to the country. I wonder what the bag limit is and where I can purchase riot-idot [sic] hunting license.”
As shocking as it might be to some, given the white-hot rhetoric (and Federal Goon Squad tear gas) spewed toward Black Lives Matter protesters by the GOP’s Big Orange Party Head in the fall, among the harshest critics of La Tour’s beyond-reckless “BLM hunting” comments were members of his own party, with Arkansas Republican Party Chairman Doyle Webb telling the Democrat-Gazette that La Tour’s comments were inappropriate and did not reflect the views of the GOP, Republican U.S. Rep. Steve Womack calling La Tour’s words inflammatory and unacceptable, and Governor Hutchinson issuing a statement condemning La Tour’s post, adding: “No citizen, candidate or public official should be suggesting or even alluding to violence and threats.”
La Tour’s opponent in the race for District 86, Democratic incumbent Nicole Clowney, who said she was outraged by her opponent’s comments, would go on to — electorally, and in a completely metaphorical sense — open up a family-sized can of Whoop Ass on La Tour in November, raking in over 70 percent of the 11,800 votes cast in the district, which includes portions of Washington County.
Worst final bell
The Atkins School District announced Sept. 29 that District Superintendent Jody Jenkins had passed away due to complications from COVID-19. Jenkins had been superintendent of the Atkins district since 2019. “He loved the community, he loved his school, and he adored all of the students,” a release from the district said.
The Arkansas Department of Parks, Heritage and Tourism announced in September that it had removed items bearing the Confederate Battle Flag from the Historic Washington State Park gift shop in Hempstead County and issued an apology following social media posts by a Little Rock resident that showed numerous Confederate-flag-themed items being sold there, including 3-by-5 foot rebel flags, small flags on sticks, shot glasses, insulating can koozies and more.
Best Good Boy
Officials with the North Little Rock Parks and Recreation department announced they will place a memorial at the Burns Park Golf Course for Shep, an 8-year-old mixed-breed dog who had to be put to sleep in October after cancer was discovered in his liver. Since 2014, Shep had been an ever-vigilant defender of Dogtown, trucked in by NLR Parks and Rec to chase off flocks of Canada geese from the city’s soccer fields, North Shore Riverwalk, Burns Park Golf Course and other facilities before the birds could mar citizens’ good times with their plentiful droppings.
The White County Sheriff’s Office announced in October the arrest of Jeremy Lemons, 42, of Searcy on three counts of animal cruelty after someone called police to report that Lemons had allegedly set three small kittens on fire, killing two of them and burning the tail of the other.
Officials with the state reported a record 42 deaths from COVID-19 on Nov. 17, breaking the previous toll of 33 deaths reported in a single day Nov. 1. On Nov. 17, the state announced the total number of deaths had reached 2,225, with no apparent end in sight until we all line up for a vaccine at some point, hopefully next year.
Libertarian Ricky Dale Harrington of Pine Bluff, the sole candidate left to challenge birthday-cake-loving authoritarian U.S. Sen. Tom Cotton after Cotton’s Democratic opponent unexpectedly dropped out of the race in November 2019, won over 33 percent of the vote in November, making Harrington the best-performing Libertarian U.S. Senate candidate in American history. Harrington’s bid broke a record that had previously been held by Libertarian Joe Miller of Alaska, whose unsuccessful bid for a U.S. Senate seat in 2016 garnered just over 29 percent of the vote.
Lang Holland resigned as chief of police in Marshall (Searcy County) one day after Holland — apparently apoplectic that President Trump was losing the race for president — posted angry screeds on social media calling for violence against Democrats. “Death to all Marxist Democrats,” Holland wrote in one post on the social media platform Parler. “Take no prisoners and leave no survivors.” In another post, Holland encouraged Trump supporters to assault “Democrat bastards,” writing: “When you see one in public get in their face do not give them peace. Throw water on them at restaurants. Push them off sidewalks. Never let them forget they are traitors and have no right to live in this Republic after what they have done.”
Best ‘sometimes when God closes a door, He opens a sunroof’
Holland resigned from the position he’d held for two years a few hours after major news networks officially called the 2020 presidential race for Democratic candidate — and now President-Elect — Joe Biden.
Best rec room
An online real estate listing placed in spring for a seemingly ordinary house in Van Buren raised a few eyebrows when eagle-eyed house-hunters noticed that among the photos depicting the home’s spacious living area and beautiful exterior were images of a hidden door, behind which lurked a fully outfitted sin den with blood red walls, a neon-lit bar and several pieces of sturdy bondage furniture, including a human-sized cage and a large, X-shaped St. Andrew’s cross.
Best ‘entertainment’ device
The secret room in that Van Buren home also included a well-anchored stripper pole, which the listing referred to as an “entertainment pole.”
Best big win
Democracy was on full display as Arkansas voters turned out in force for Election 2020 in November, with many casting their ballots early or by mail weeks before to protect themselves from COVID-19. Arkansas, as had been predicted since roughly the turn of this century, voted to give its six electoral votes to the Republican candidate, President Trump, with Trump carrying the state by 28 points. It wasn’t enough to offset Biden wins in Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Nevada, Arizona and Georgia — the latter two of which hadn’t gone blue since a fella from Arkansas ran for president in 1992. After nervous days of vote counting, in which Biden slowly overtook Big Orange as Trump lied through his teeth about fraud, major networks called the election for Biden on Nov. 7, leading to literal dancing in the streets of majority-Democratic cities all across this land.
State Sen. Joyce Elliott (D-Little Rock), a former teacher who polls had shown neck and neck with incumbent Republican Rep. French Hill in the race for Arkansas’s 2nd Congressional District, inadvertently gave Arkansas Democrats a harsh lesson on the foolishness of trusting any poll except the one taken in the voting booth on Election Day, losing her race by over 11 points.