2013 big news: What didn’t happen

LCRA-Alcoa sale canceled; no death penalty trial
Reporter Editor

Brandon Cotton (L) avoided death penalty trial by accepting a life without parole plea bargain. Sherill Small was charged with capital murder in death of two-year-old for whom she was providing foster care. Brandon Cotton (L) avoided death penalty trial by accepting a life without parole plea bargain. Sherill Small was charged with capital murder in death of two-year-old for whom she was providing foster care. In 2013 it wasn’t what happened in the Rockdale area that made some of the year’s biggest news, it was what didn’t happen.

As 2012 ended, Rockdale’s two biggest stories waiting to be played out were LCRA’s acquisition of land at the former Alcoa Rockdale Operations and the death penalty capital murder trial of Brandon Charles Cotton.

Neither one of them happened.

Alcoa still made headlines by announcing it would close its atomizer, the last producing facility at Rockdale Operations.

And another high-profile adjudication is looming. A new resident to Rockdale was charged with capital murder in the shocking death of a two-year-old girl for which she was providing foster care.

Lon Williams, city building code inspector, checks out construction on Hunter’s Chase common area. Project is nearing completion. 
Reporter/Mike Brown Lon Williams, city building code inspector, checks out construction on Hunter’s Chase common area. Project is nearing completion. Reporter/Mike Brown SAGAS—The Rockdale City Council continued one ongoing saga and terminated one before it could get going.

Demolition on the former Cameo Insurance Building, mortally damaged in a 2012 retaining wall fall, was ordered, then rescinded, then ordered again.

A new firm was hired to promote tourism in Rockdale, then fired after its initial events did not do well and a substantial budget deficit was revealed.

There were so many split council votes that five times a mayor had to cast a tie-breaker. ( Rockdale mayors don’t vote unless there’s a tie.)

Something else that didn’t happen in 2013 was the choosing of a new superintendent to replace Dr. Howell Wright, who resigned.

A successor was actually chosen but she turned down the position the day before trustees were to cast a final vote.

An interim was hired and a new superintendent is to be selected in 2014.

LCRA— As 2013 dawned, Alcoa and the Lower Colorado River Authority were thought to be finalizing a deal, mostly about water rights, that would transfer ownership of the 34,000 acres of land at Rockdale Operations to the river authority.

The companies were in “due diligence”—big biz talk for doing their homework on each other— but only two months into 2013 the wheels started coming off.

In a February LCRA board meeting, the river authority’s directors deadlocked 7-7 on a pair of votes tied to the proposal, one of them a motion to terminate it.

The proposed deal survived when directors agreed to a negotiation extension.

The extension came and went with no word. Finally LCRA said the deal was dead with one blunt summary sentence:

“LCRA elected not to purchase the property.”

In December Alcoa announced it would close the Rockdale Operations atomizer, which had remained open since the smelter was shut down in 2008-09.

Thirty-seven atomizer employees are losing their jobs.

NO TRIAL—Milam County had budgeted hundreds of thousands of dollars to cover costs of a capital murder trial and a long and laborious jury selection process had already begun when everything changed the afternoon of Nov. 15.

Brandon Charles Cot ton accepted a life-without-parole plea bargain, admitting his guilt in the 2011 murder of 50-year-old Sandra Phillips of San Gabriel.

Prosecutor Bill Torrey said Phillips’ family had agreed to the offer. Torrey noted the outcome was a legitimate life sentence as Cotton also agreed to forego parole and any appeals.

Investigators said they believed Cotton was the trigger man when Mrs. Phillips was killed by two shotgun blasts.

Cotton and Tanner Aaron Baker were both charged in connection with the case.

Charges against Baker remain pending in 20th District Court and a resolution is anticipated in 2014.

SHOCK—It was one of those “is this really happening here?” moments in October when a two-year-old girl died after being slammed to the floor by her foster mother, and the woman was charged with capital murder.

Alexandra “Alex” Hill died in Scott & White Hospital two days after the incident in the San Jacinto Street home of Clemon and Sherill Small.

Mrs. Small, 54, was arrested after an investigation by Rockdale police who said she told them she had been “playing a game,” swinging the child above her head, then back down almost to the floor, but lost her grip.

Police didn’t believe it, saying autopsy results showed the child sustained a mortal blow to the top of her head, a bruise on the right side of her face and a lacerated liver.

Clemon Small was not charged. Police said they have restaurant surveillance tape of him at the time it is believed the incident occurred. In it, Small receives what appears to be the telephone call from his wife informing him of the injury to the child.

The Smal ls had lived in Rockdale about a month and a half when the incident occurred.

Prosecutor Torrey said he doubted the death penalty would be sought against Mrs. Small. The case qualifies as capital murder due to the age of the victim.

Clemon Small was subpoenaed to testify before a grand jury but invoked his fifth amendment rights not to testify through his attorney.

CAMEO, ORASI—Most of the downtown Cameo Building, extensively damaged when a 125-year-old retaining wall fell on Aug. 29-30, 2012, was removed during 2013 but the ultimate fate of the remainder, including its landmark pink facade, remains unsettled.

The matter came up numerous times before the city council during the year, which voted alternately to demolish the building and to give owner Gloria Thrasher a chanc e to secure and reconstruct.

As 2014 gets underway the most recent city order is to demolish. But stay tuned.

The council wanted to have a “new set of eyes” come on board to handle Rockdale promotion and tourism during 2013 and it certainly got that.

In February, Orasi made a dazzling presentation on those possibilities at the Patterson Civic Center and the firm was hired with funds from the city’s hotel-motel tax.

Orasi was to report to a new tourism commit tee. Several high-profile events were scheduled for September.

Things didn’t go well. One-hundred persons attended an antique appraiser visit to Wolf Park but a planned two-day antique fair, promised by Orasi, was canceled.

A concert by John Corbett at Fair Park was sparsely attended. A second concert, by Reckless Kelly, drew a larger crowd.

But when the tourism committee reported to the city council that Orasi was $30,000 over a $32,000 budget for the events, the firm’s contract was terminated.

SPLIT DECISION—The council had an interesting year with numerous split votes and a couple of sessions—involving a never-enacted nuisance ordinance and concerns over water issues—drew large, edgy, vocal crowds of local residents.

Rockdale mayors don’t vote unless there are ties, something that’s happened rarely in past years. It happened five times in 2013.

Mayor Larry Jones broke tie votes on funding for the Chamber of Commerce, method of selecting Post Oak Savannah Groundwater Conservation District directors and proceeding with new water tower construction.

New Mayor John King broke tie votes on demolishing the Cameo Building and appointment of a city council member to the MDD board.

SUPERINTENDENT—The school board had a less lively, but equally interesting, year.

Trustees started by taking no action on the contract of Supt. Dr. Howell Wright, who then submitted his resignation in March.

A superintendent search firm was brought in and numerous community and school personnel meetings were held to develop a profile of the kind of superintendent desired by the community.

The board interviewed candidates and made its selection, Vicki Bridges, an administrator with the Grand Prairie ISD. Bridges came to Rockdale and was introduced to RISD staffers.

But it was to be another of those 2013 news stories that didn’t happen. The day before she was to be formally hired by the board, Bridges called trustee president Lee Jenkins and declined the position, noting that she had been offered a “significant” pay increase by the Grand Prairie ISD to remain.

Donald Denbow of Corsicana was named as interim superintendent and trustees plan to re-list the superintendent position in January.

HEADLINES—For a week-toweek listing of 2013’s major news headlines from The Reporter see page 4B.

Also see photos, page 1B.

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