Somehow, the years seem to be getting simultaneously longer and shorter these days, something I blame on the gray in my beard and the cobwebs in my skull. August will drag out like the last class before summer break, and then September will zip by with all the impact of a mouse poot in Notre -Dame Cathedral. Halloween bleeds into Thanksgiving, which bleeds into New Year’s. I nod off on May 3 and wake up on June 29, wondering where the time has gone.
The year 2014, however, has been a long one in my estimation, pouring out of the jar of our shared existence slow as Grey Poupon, full as it was of near-daily drama of all stripes: political, meteorological, legislative, criminal, social, architectural. Throughout the year, between bouts of dozing at my desk and cussing the pile of losing lotto tickets in my desk drawer, I’ve kept an eye on the local news for those incidents and anecdotes that make Arkansas such an interesting place to live. Here, then, is the Arkansas Times’ picks for the Best and Worst of the year. May Whoever or Whatever It Is That’s Driving This Ship grant us all more of the first and less of the second in 2015.
Champ, an arthritic 11-year-old pit bull terrier, saved the day last January when owner Millie Fiser, 60, was pushed down and threatened by a man who demanded money as she was taking her trash to the curb near downtown Little Rock. Champ jumped a fence and accosted the man, driving him away, and then lay next to Fiser, keeping her warm until help arrived.
Best dog name
Champ’s full name, as reported in news stories at the time, is Champion “Champ” Bartholomew Alewishious 3000.
Andrea Clevenger, 32, one of the stage mothers who provided the drama on the TLC reality show “Cheer Perfection,” which centered on a cheerleading-centric gym in Sherwood, was arrested in January on charges she’d had sex with a 13-year-old boy. She was later sentenced to 10 years in prison.
Second worst reality
In February, Discovery Channel debuted the new reality show “Clash of the Ozarks,” set in Hardy. Among the recurring characters on the show: a guy named Crowbar, a mountain man who has allegedly never owned a pair of shoes, and a gun-toting old woman who is rumored to be psychic.
During the Republican National Convention’s 2014 Winter Meeting in January, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee said Democrats were patronizing women by fighting for the right to affordable birth control, saying, “[I]f the Democrats want to insult the women of America by making them believe that they are helpless without Uncle Sugar coming in and providing for them a prescription each month for birth control, because they cannot control their libido or their reproductive system without the help of the government, then so be it.”
Worst reason for a memo
In January, Pulaski County Judge Buddy Villines sent out a memo telling those who frequent the Pulaski County Courthouse that if they didn’t stop allowing their dogs to crap in the hallways without cleaning it up, all canine companions other than service dogs would be banned from the building.
Best bluff calling
Pine Bluff police said that in early February, a 36-year-old man was shot twice in the legs at a Pine Bluff apartment complex after, police said, he responded to a gunman firing a handgun near his feet by saying, “Well, are you gonna hit me or not?”
In January, the political blog Natural State Report discovered that former state Rep. Linda Collins-Smith (R-Pocahontas) had issued at least two official citations of merit to civic groups in her former district in 2013 and early 2014, even though she hadn’t been a member of the General Assembly since December 2012. A call to the House of Representatives found that Collins-Smith, who was running for state Senate, requested the citations on her last day in the House in 2012, squirreled them away, then proceeded to dole them out during her most recent campaign. She was later elected to the Senate.
Worst way to go
In February, a worker at a steel mill in Newport was killed when a crane malfunction caused a kettle containing 38 tons of molten steel to be poured over his body.
Police said a woman was arrested on Feb. 25 for shoplifting 330 frozen pizza rolls from a Conway Walmart.
Best April Fool
The Little Rock Police Department didn’t have to look hard for the perpetrator of a pre-dawn auto burglary in Little Rock on the morning of April 1, because they say the man was still at the scene, passed out drunk in the driver’s seat with a screwdriver in his hand.
According to an incident report, the owner of the car found James Lee Barry, 31, asleep in the car when she came out around 5 a.m. to go to work.
The woman in the above item told police that she tried to wake Barry up, “but he gave her the finger and went back to sleep,” at which point she called the cops. He was arrested on charges of public intoxication and breaking and entering.
A guest at a Berryville motel called police in April after he found what he believed to be a stick of dynamite in the room he’d just checked into, apparently left there by a previous guest. The Bentonville bomb squad responded and found that it was, in fact, a live stick of dynamite. They successfully detonated the explosive with no injuries.
In April, a Little Rock man was arrested after he allegedly confessed to burglarizing his sister’s home while she was hospitalized. As if that weren’t enough to put him in the Bad Sibling Hall of Fame, when the woman found out from a neighbor that her brother had been involved, she alleged to police that he’d told her he’d “kill her and her kids and shoot up her home” if she went to the cops. She did go to the cops, and he was arrested on several counts, including residential burglary and terroristic threatening.
Best false alarm
In April, a glitch in an automated warning system in Northwest Arkansas caused 250 people to be texted a warning that a giant tidal wave would soon hit the Fayetteville area.
On April 27, a tornado — believed to have been a mile wide at times — touched down near Paron before tracking northeast for 41 miles. A large swath of the town of Mayflower was wiped out, with winds pushing dozens of cars and heavy trucks off Interstate 40 before the tornado took dead aim on the town of Vilonia. Much of Vilonia was obliterated by the twister, which was strong enough to toss a 30,000-pound fertilizer tank three quarters of a mile and which swept many homes clean to the slabs. Before the tornado lifted, near El Paso one hour after it began, 16 people had died.
The April 27 tornado struck Vilonia exactly three years and two days after another strong tornado destroyed a large portion of the town on April 25, 2011. The 2014 tornado followed an almost identical path through Vilonia as the 2011 twister, flattening many of the same homes and businesses that had only recently been rebuilt.
Best stay the course
Despite tough odds, the state legislature renewed funding for the private option in March, preserving medical insurance for hundreds of thousands of low-income Arkansans. It took a Herculean, bipartisan effort from Democrats and Republicans and the steady lobbying pressure of hospitals and other health care providers, but in the end the Arkansas House of Representatives did the right thing. The bad news: The fight starts all over again in the upcoming 2015 session, and this time the conservative foes of the policy have gained seats in both chambers.
Rep. Josh Miller, a Republican from Heber Springs, repeatedly voted against the private option this spring even though Miller himself has received millions in healthcare assistance from the federal government. After he suffered a devastating auto accident 11 years ago that confined him to a wheelchair (he was uninsured at the time), Medicaid and Medicare covered most of his trauma bills and health insurance in the years that followed. Providing coverage to 200,000 low-income Arkansans, though, he characterizes as a “handout.” It’s hard to know what to say to that.
In March, Jim Bob Duggar of TLC’s ongoing “[A Passel of] Kids and Counting” reality show fame, announced that his family was withdrawing their political endorsement for David Sterling, a Republican running for Arkansas attorney general, because as an attorney Sterling had once represented a lingerie store in court.
In May, the interim CEO of Sparks Medical System hospital in Fort Smith was removed from his job after a Q&A session with hospital employees in which he reportedly answered a question about why he wanted to move from much larger Laredo, Texas, to Fort Smith with: “Have you ever been to Laredo, Texas? It’s 97 percent Hispanic.”
Best Your Honor
On May 9, Pulaski Circuit Judge Chris Piazza issued a ruling that struck down as unconstitutional the state’s ban on same-sex marriage, with the last lines of Piazza’s ruling reading: “It is time to let that beacon of freedom shine brighter on all our brothers and sisters. We will be stronger for it.”
The day after Piazza’s ruling, the deputy county clerk at the Carroll County Courthouse in Eureka Springs — which normally issues marriage licenses on Saturdays — closed the doors on around 50 same-sex couples waiting in line, with the clerk saying her boss was out of town and she couldn’t get an opinion from the attorney general on how to proceed. Minutes later, Deputy Clerk Jane Osborn, who was only there to handle early voting that day, took her place in Arkansas history by reopening the courthouse, eventually issuing 15 marriage licenses, the first issued to same-sex couples in the state. Several hundred more would follow in the next week before a stay was issued.
On May 22 — a few months shy of 57 years after the 1957 Central High School crisis, which lay well within the lifetimes and memories of many of those in attendance — several dozen African-American preachers showed up to an anti-gay marriage rally on the steps of the state Capitol thrown by the Family Council, the onionskin bigots who have worked for years to deny gays and lesbians their civil rights in Arkansas.
Second worst irony
Standing arm-in-arm with the black preachers at the rally was state Sen. Jason “We’re Not Gonna Allow Minorities to Run Roughshod Over What You People Believe In!” Rapert of Conway.
In May, organizers of Little Rock’s Riverfest stopped payment on a check to entertainer CeeLo Green after he sang for only about 40 minutes of what was supposed to be a 75- to 90-minute show, sending out another singer and a DJ to perform, with the stand-ins reportedly billed as part of “The CeeLo Experience.”
In June, police departments large and small all over the state, including the Benton Police Department, the Bryant Police Department, the Little Rock Police Department and the Hot Springs Police Department, took possession of military surplus armored trucks weighing 57,000-plus pounds, with enough armor plating to drive away from a direct hit by a shoulder-fired missile. The trucks, provided by the Department of Defense, are planned to be used as transportation for police SWAT units.
In May, Republican gubernatorial candidate Asa Hutchinson — a longtime advocate of voter ID laws that require a driver’s license or other government-issued ID to cast a ballot — forgot his driver’s license when he went to vote, and had to send a staffer across town to retrieve it. The Arkansas Supreme Court later ruled that the state’s voter ID laws were unconstitutional. Hutchinson, meanwhile, won the governor’s race, meaning he won’t be driving himself for at least the foreseeable future.
Best story for the nursing home
In August, an elderly motorist in Mountain Home lost control of his sedan, raced through an elevated parking lot and jumped almost entirely over another street before hitting two parked helicopters. He was treated for minor injuries.
Best instant karma
In June, three people who police say forced their way into a Hensley man’s home before pepper-spraying and robbing him of his wallet and $400 were involved in a serious car accident literally minutes later as they sped from the scene. One of the suspects died in the crash and another had his legs crushed so severely that firefighters had to use the Jaws of Life to extricate him from the wreckage. The robbery victim’s wallet and cash were recovered at the scene by police.
Worst illegal alien catcher
In June, a Bryant man was arrested for threatening a couple after he became convinced that the silver sports car they were riding in was a spaceship and that they were extraterrestrials. According to police, James Bushart, 44, followed the couple around town in his own vehicle, harassing them. After the couple called police, officers say they found methamphetamine and a pipe in Bushart’s car, with Bushart reportedly telling the police that he was concerned because the car looked so futuristic, and that “he was a very big deal and had 100,000 Asian flowers.”
Worst helicopter parenting
Charges against a woman accused of stealing relief supplies after the Mayflower/Vilonia tornado were dropped in August after the Faulkner County prosecutor discovered that the arresting officer had failed to reveal that the woman had recently broken up with the officer’s son.
In September, police arrested a Little Rock man who worked for a pizza restaurant in the Heights after, they say, he allegedly pushed down a co-worker in front of yet a third employee of the restaurant before telling the victim he had a gun and demanding his wallet. The suspect fled the scene, but — based on the eyewitnesses getting a pretty good look at him over the months they’d worked together — he was quickly arrested.
Chris Peterson, the athletic director of the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, resigned shortly before it was made public that on Aug. 22, a microphone left on in the press box during a UALR women’s soccer game led to the live Internet broadcast of Peterson’s comments about a certain player’s mother, including: “She had two of ’em, and they were out there for display!” And: “We’ve got to make sure that on Parent’s Day, I’m in town for the weekend.”
Worst when animals attack!
Tense moments at the Little Rock Zoo in October, when a 3-year-old boy fell over the rail and into an enclosure that is home to two full-grown jaguars. A genuinely terrifying police report released about the incident said the jaguars bit the boy on the foot and neck but were driven back by witnesses throwing heavy objects at them and a zookeeper spraying a fire extinguisher. A ladder was lowered down, and the boy, who suffered a skull fracture, puncture wounds and lacerations, was taken to a local hospital. After a few days’ stay, he was released.
Best candidate for a medal of valor
Whoever descended the ladder into the jaguar enclosure to rescue the kid.
Second worst when animals attack
A 17-year-old girl from Jonesboro was rushed to the hospital in October after a buck deer dashed out of the woods at her moving car and impaled her cheek with its antler. She’s expected to recover.
Best when faux animals attack!
A woman called Bryant police in September to report that she’d seen a dead tiger on the side of the road there, but had been too afraid to approach and check on the beast’s condition. Responding officers found that it was, in fact, a tiger, but one of the stuffed variety, much like you might win for a bull’s-eye ring toss at the State Fair.
Worst peer pressure
A man in Rogers told police in October that he was attacked with a knife and beaten after he declined a bottle of whiskey two friends tried to give him as a gift. The man, who said he was slashed and pummeled after politely telling the two that he didn’t drink, suffered cuts to his hands and head.
A Batesville man who’d already bought a tombstone for his future burial plot was shocked to learn in mid-October that someone had gone into the cemetery where he’d placed it and carved a date of death on the stone: Jan. 15, 2012. The man told investigators he’d been in the cemetery a few days before the discovery, and the space was blank then. The carving appeared to have been done by a professional, but local police are still stumped as to why it was done.
Best kill the messenger
Little Rock TV crews trying to cover two homicides that happened near the Arkansas State Fairgrounds on the same October night were reportedly chased away from the scenes by crowds of young men wielding baseball bats.
During a win over the University of Alabama at Birmingham on Oct. 25, the Arkansas Razorbacks ran a trick play in which 6-foot, 5-inch, 350-pound Razorback offensive lineman Sebastian Tretola played the part of quarterback, throwing a perfect spiral to long snapper Alan D’Appollonio for a touchdown. The play reportedly made Tretola the new SEC record holder for the heaviest player to ever complete a touchdown pass.
A Fayetteville police officer pulled a man from a parked car engulfed in flames on a city street there in October, saving the man’s life. In response, police say, the man threatened the officer who’d rescued him, telling the cop he had “more guns than a pawn shop” before allegedly promising to come kill him and sexually assault his mother when he got out of jail. The driver was booked on charges of DWI and resisting arrest.
Worst vocal tic
Sen.-elect Tom Cotton was nothing if not disciplined on the Senate campaign trail, and the centerpiece of his strategy against incumbent Democrat Mark Pryor boiled down to one word: Obama. In one October debate, he said the president’s name 74 times over the course of an hour or so, which led a frustrated Pryor staffer to assemble a YouTube video stringing together every “Barack Obama” into a hypnotic, minute-long reel. What’s worse, judging from the election, it’s a plan that worked.
The owner of a Hot Springs firing range announced on her website in September that she was declaring her business a “Muslim-free zone,” writing of her decision to ban almost a quarter of the world’s population: “I choose to err on the side of caution for the safety of my patrons.”
In a column that ran in late October, Arkansas Democrat-Gazette columnist Dana Kelly argued that hooded sweatshirts are “the uniform of choice for armed thugs and a ubiquitous symbol of crime,” before closing with: “That’s reason enough to stigmatize hoodies and publically shame those who want to dress like hoodlums.” Hope he never goes to a football game on a crisp fall day, or runs into a hoodie-clad toddler on the playground. Hoodlums in hoodies everywhere! Hoodlums as far as the eye can see!
Second worst winner
During the campaign for attorney general, it was revealed that while Republican candidate Leslie Rutledge was working as a lawyer at the Department of Human Services, she had forwarded an email to five co-workers that featured a white colleague writing about a black family who’d come into her office seeking help with a domestic violence issue. That might have been fine, had the writer not employed black dialect so stereotypical it would have made the writers of “Amos ‘n’ Andy” tone it down a notch. Representative sample: “[H]e done been payin’ chile suppote fo 5 year cuz Jesus done sent dat baby and it doan make no diffence who be de daddy iffn Jesus want him to be de daddy.” Rutledge later defended herself by saying she didn’t find the email funny and only forwarded it to her colleagues because the situation depicted was “similar to the sort of cases we dealt with every day.” Like Milligan, she was later swept into office on the Red Tide.
Worst failed exam
In November, a 19-year-old was arrested after police say he drove himself to Arkansas State Police headquarters in Jonesboro to take his driver’s license test. After an examiner there told officers the would-be licensee had driven himself to the office without actually having the item he’d come there to procure, police say the teenager fled in his car, struck a patrol unit on his way out of the parking lot, and then led troopers on a high-speed chase that ended when he crashed through the wall of a house, causing around $20,000 in damage. Needless to say, he didn’t get his driver’s license.
Police responding to a Thanksgiving Day domestic violence call in the little town of Barling in Sebastian County said a 6-year-old boy swore them to secrecy before leading them to a water bong, a closet grow-room outfitted with florescent lights, and three marijuana plants — which, the boy allegedly told cops, “helps my dad to make bubbles.”
Best hint that he probably got a lump of coal from Santa for Christmas
According to the same report, as the boy was revealing the alleged grow-room to officers, an unidentified family member in the other room shouted: “Shut up! Shut the f**k up!”
Just after Thanksgiving, Gary and Roxann Tackett, a couple from Quitman who had gotten to know a Missouri Cracker Barrel restaurant waitress named Cindi Grady during their frequent trips to Branson, Mo., tipped Grady following a meal with the keys to a silver Ford Fusion. At the time, Grady — who has a disabled son — had been driving a sputtering blue compact that lacked a driver’s side window, had only one working headlight and featured a hood held on by bungee straps.
Worst tail of woe
A man was arrested on charges of robbery, resisting arrest and theft in December after, police said, he was caught trying to shoplift three oxtails from a Little Rock Kroger store.
Two St. Francis County duck hunters were arrested and charged with animal cruelty in December after they posted pictures of themselves on Facebook that featured the pair decked out in their duck hunting gear and holding up two dead housecats they’d allegedly shot for sport.
Speaking about the two men in the above item, St. Francis County Sheriff Bobby May told a local media outlet that he was sickened by the photographs, adding: “You know, to them, they’re being brave and showing off bravado. But really, they’re just yellow cowards, because only a coward would do that.”
Worst life imitates a horror film
A Little Rock filmmaker who went out for a late-night coffee while filming a low-budget horror movie at his house in early December told police he was unexpectedly stabbed in the back — possibly with a steak knife — by a man at a 24-hour gas station near 53rd Street and South University Avenue. After the assault, the filmmaker told police, his assailant demanded his keys and then fled in his van. A 17-year-old was arrested soon after, and the filmmaker is expected to make a full recovery.
In December, legendary jazz trumpeter Wynton Marsalis came to Pine Bluff to play a private concert in the hospital room of even-more-legendary jazz trumpeter Clark Terry. Terry, who is 93, was mentored early on by Louis Armstrong before playing his way through the golden age of the Big Bands, performing with Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Charles Mingus and Quincy Jones and eventually influencing the styles of trumpeters Miles Davis and Dizzy Gillespie before retiring to Pine Bluff in 2006.
In December, police said, an 11-year-old girl from Bryant stole $10,000 cash from her grandmother’s sock drawer, hitchhiked to Little Rock in the middle of the night and hired a taxi cab to take her to Jacksonville, Fla., reportedly to see a boy she’d met while on vacation several years before. Agreed-upon cost for the cab ride: $2,500. She got as far as Atlanta before the cab company and her parents tracked her down. The girl’s mother and father drove all night to pick the girl up, and likely had an interesting conversation with her on the nine-hour trip back home.
Worst lost in translation
In December, a woman and her infant daughter, both from China, flew into Northwest Arkansas Regional Airport near Bentonville, which serves Fayetteville, Ark. The only problem: The woman wanted to go to Fayetteville, N.C., and only had $20 when she landed.
Best Arkansas travelers
Seeing the woman from the above item in distress, a student waiting for a flight at the airport stepped in to translate for her. Soon, other good Samaritans bought the lost traveler and her child a meal, rented them a hotel room for the night, and paid for a plane ticket to take them on to the other Fayetteville in North Carolina the next day.
A Craigslist ad was posted in July seeking volunteers to move to 100 wooded acres in North Arkansas, with the goal of replicating the customs, language, mating habits and social structure of the Ewoks, the small teddy bear-like forest creatures from the movie “Star Wars: Return of the Jedi.”
A tsunami of anti-Obama sentiment swept droves of Republicans into public office in Arkansas in November, including new State Treasurer Dennis Milligan, who had tried to force his primary opponent Duncan Baird out of the race at a November 2013 meeting at a Krispy Kreme donut shop in Little Rock. During that meeting, which Baird secretly taped and during which Milligan reportedly wore sunglasses, Milligan insinuated that he’d alert the press to video footage of an after-hours visit to the state Capitol building by Baird and some tipsy friends unless Baird dropped out. Baird refused, the video turned out to be nothing scandalous, and, after Baird released the recording of their meeting, Milligan was revealed to be a conniving dirtbag of the first order. Nevertheless, one year after his donut shop palaver with Baird, the voters of Arkansas — apparently believing that even a Republican blackmailer was preferable to any Democrat — voted Milligan in.
During a game between the Arkansas State University Red Wolves and the University of Miami Hurricanes in September, ASU attempted to distract the other team during a fake punt attempt by running the coach-approved “Fainting Goat Play,” which involved receiver Booker Mays clutching his chest and falling backwards as if struck dead at the moment of the snap. The ensuing pass was intercepted as Mays lay stiff as a railroad spike on the field, and ASU later lost the game 41-20.
Benjamin Hardy contributed to this story.