Gov. Kay Ivey and Alabama Emergency Management Agency officials were on the ground in the historic section of Wetumpka Monday, which was hard hit by an EF2 tornado late on Saturday.
“Though the tornado damaged & destroyed several homes, churches & other community buildings, we’re all grateful there wasn’t any loss of life,” Ivey said on Twitter. “There’s still much to be done in the coming days & weeks, but I assure the people of Wetumpka the state of Alabama will be here to assist.”
Particularly hard hit was the First Baptist Church of Wetumpka. The steeple was knocked off the 1968 built current sanctuary; but the adjacent original sanctuary, built between 1847 and 1852, lost its roof completely and has damage inside the building. A third First Baptist Church building on the campus was a total loss.
“DUE TO STORM DAMAGE OUR SERVICES TOMORROW WILL BE HELD AT THE WETUMPKA CIVIC CENTER AT 10 A.M.,” the First Baptist Church said on their website. “PLEASE CONTINUE TO BE IN PRAYER FOR OUR COMMUNITY AS WE CONTINUE TO MOVE FORWARD.”
The sanctuary of the historic First Presbyterian Church in Wetumpka, built in 1856, was completely leveled.
“Friends, The tornado that hit Wetumpka flattened the sanctuary and East wing of the church and tore off the back corner of our house. Stanton was home but escaped unscathed. No one else was home. We are okay. We do not need anything at the moment other than prayers. We are so blessed to live in the caring community we live in. Love your peeps. That’s all that really matters,” the pastor of the First Presbyterian Church, Rev. Jonathan Yarboro, said on the Church website.
Though the tornado damaged & destroyed several homes, churches & other community buildings, we’re all grateful there wasn’t any loss of life. There’s still much to be done in the coming days & weeks, but I assure the people of Wetumpka the state of Alabama will be here to assist. pic.twitter.com/YPRC2U7VRx
— Governor Kay Ivey (@GovernorKayIvey) January 21, 2019
Both Churches were on the National Register of Historic Places.
The back section of the Wetumpka Police Station was blown away and the rest of the building suffered severe damage. Prisoners from the jail were moving all of the furniture and file cabinets from the ruined police station to the City Administrative building while we were on the ground.
Numerous homes were total losses and more suffered damage.
The Alabama Department of Transportation, the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency, and numerous volunteers were on the scene protecting the area from looters and removing debris.
Gov. Ivey said, “On this #MLKDay, it’s great seeing hundreds of volunteers & first responders working together, while enduring the cold, to remove debris & get things back in working condition in @CityofWetumpka. @ElmoreCoEMA @AlabamaEMA”
One resident identified some of the demolished homes as being built in the nineteenth century.
One elderly resident whose home was intact but near ground zero came out to ask the Alabama Political Reporter about the other sections of his town. If they had suffered damage. We assured him that his town was still there, even if all of his neighborhood was not.
Economic developer Nicole Jones toured the area and shared, “This was a difficult scene, but we are thankful to see so many people spending their day off, this Martin Luther King Day, to help rebuild the precious community of Wetumpka.”
“A member of the Wetumpka Police Department shared with us that officers’ lives were spared because they left the building to run an errand. [The tornado destroyed the station]. There is no question the Lord has his hand on this. Prayers for Wetumpka.”
Four police officers had been in the station watching the storm coverage as the severe weather approached; but they made the decision to get in their vehicles to go out, just before the tornado touched down.
Monday night, the City re-opened the Bibb Graves Bridge. Traffic will encounter a four way stop condition on the west side of the bridge until ALDOT forces can replace the traffic signals and poles destroyed during the tornado. The City is requesting travelers who use the bridge to travel through town to Montgomery should use an alternate route until the signal is fully installed and operational.
Elmore County said in a statement that: “Beginning at 5:00pm on Monday, January 21, 2019, all calls regarding storm damage or volunteer information should be directed to 211. The Elmore County EMA office will be closed at 5:00pm and will reopen tomorrow at 8:00am. All emergency calls are to be directed to 911.”
There has been an outpouring of persons seeking to volunteer in the area. The city has stopped taking new volunteers at this time, but there will be a need for this weekend.
State senators briefed on prison construction plans
Alabama Department of Corrections Commissioner Jeff Dunn told members of the Senate budget committees Thursday that the department if moving forward with the process of seeking bids on three new state prisons.
Among other topics addressed was the status of the Alabama Prison Program.
Dunn said that because of the long neglected maintenance of the existing prisons, “We are being required to decommission a facility every 23 months.”
Dunn said that they have already decommissioned Draper and the main facility at Holman and there could be another prison that has to be decommissioned in the next year.
“This issue is due to 30 years of neglect and is beginning to have a direct and measurable impact on our ability to do our jobs,” Dunn told the Senators. “We likely will have to decommission another one.”
Dunn explained that ADOC had requested corporations and consortiums to prepare proposals on building the mega-prisons in Spring 2019. By Fall ADOC had been able to ask four groups to make proposals to the state.
“Two have self-eliminated,” Dunn told Senators, Two groups submitted proposals to the state in May and now ADOC is in the process of studying the financials of the two remaining bidders. “The financial evaluation could be finished by the end of July.”
Dunn said that ADOC will be able to identify the bidder that has been invited to negotiate with the state as soon as August or perhaps in early September. There will be three bids, one for each of the three new facilities. The Governor will then negotiate with the bidder on the three contracts for the three facilities.
Dunn said he hoped that the contracts will be finalized by January. “The lease payments will come out of the general fund?
State Sen. Jim McClendon (R-Springville) asked: “Does the legislature have any role in this at all?”
Dunn said that one of the benefits of building the new facilities is that they will be, “Considerably more staff efficient than our facilities now. There will be staff savings, consolidation savings, and energy savings. It is not our intent to come to the legislature and ask for a bump up to pay for this.”
“We have requested to have facilities with a 50 year expected life,” Dunn said. “The maintenance is included in the contract.”
Dunn explained that the lease contracts will be for 30 years. “Something will have to occur after 30 years.”
Sen. Linda Coleman-Madison (D-Birmingham) asked if the state will own the three mega-prisons at the end of the thirty-year contracts.
“I do not know at this point what exactly will happen at the end of the lease,” Dunn answered. “We will not own the buildings.”
State Sen. Bobby Singleton (D-Greensboro) said, “We are going to spend $2 billion and never own it!”
“I can’t speak to what will or will not happen in the future,” Dunn responded.
State Sem. Cam Ward (R-Alabaster) said, “We have not build a new facility in 30 years. Facilities built 30 years ago are pretty worthless.”
The state is facing lawsuits in federal court over its chronic prison overcrowding.
“We will not completely extinguish the overcrowding problem by building these new facilities,” Dunn told the Senators.
“The purpose of these three new facilities is to more from warehousing criminals to rehabilitating citizens,” Dunn said. “These new facilities are built with that vision in mind. 95 percent of our inmate community will eventually return to the community.”
It is in our best interests to prepare those inmates for their return to society Dunn said. “Right now our facilities fight against that they don’t support that.”
“These are huge projects,” Dunn said when asked to provide estimates of when the new prisons would open. There will be a six month stagger between the opening of each of the three facilities. The construction time for each facility is ranged from 28 to 36 months. The third facility is bigger than the other two and it will take more time. “We will be negotiating all of that.”
“Currently we are at 155 percent capacity,” Dunn said. “Once we get these facilities built we will be somewhere between 120 and 125 percent capacity.”
“137.5 percent was the number used in the California case,” Dunn explained. “We wanted a number below that. We felt the need to build in a buffer to protect the state.”
Sen. Bill Beasley (D-Clayton) said, “I am concerned about the local governments, the water and sewer boards who have entered into debt to support current facilities. How are they going to be compensated for if they have indebtedness?”
“We are working on an infrastructure masterplan,” Dunn answered. “Did it stay in inventory? Could it be repurposed? Could it be re-missioned for another purpose? Could it be a lite industrial site? We have had talked with the Department of Commerce and Secretary Canfield about that.”
“Nothing is going to close or change for two or three years when we open the first facility and they are staggered after this.” Dunn said. “Those concerns will all be vetted. I do not have the ability to make any commitment at this time.”
Dunn said that the main facility at Holman prison has been closed taking their population fown from 1000 prisoners to 314.
“Death row has been moved,” Dunn added. That staff has been decreased. “28 members have been reassigned from Holman to Fountain Correctional Facilities a mile and a half away.”
Dunn said that ADOC is currently in negotiations with a corporate owned prison in Perry County to purchase that facility and convert it into a transitional reentry center.
“We are in active negotiations with then and hope to have some news soon,” Dunn said.
Dunn also briefed the Senators on the COVID-19 impact on ADOC at the same committee meeting.
Lt. Gov. Will Ainsworth endorses Tuberville in GOP Senate runoff
Lt. Gov. Will Ainsworth has endorsed former Auburn football coach Tommy Tuberville for U.S. Senate. Ainsworth cited the candidate’s outsider status, support for President Donald Trump and deep commitment to conservative issues as reasons for the decision to endorse the Coach in Tuesday’s Republican primary runoff for U.S. Senate.
“I know Coach Tuberville is a deeply committed Christian conservative who is running for the Senate because of a desire to serve others and not because he is a career politician,” Ainsworth said. “Like me, Coach Tuberville is believer in pro-life, pro-gun, and pro-family issues, and anyone who has seen him stalk a sideline knows he will be the tough fighter that Alabama needs in the U.S. Senate.”
“Coach Tuberville understands that our country must reclaim manufacturing jobs from China and bring them back home so American workers can make homegrown products,” Ainsworth said. “And the fact that he has promised to donate his full Senate salary to charities and organizations that serve military veterans shows that he is a patriot who wants to give back to those who have given so much to our nation.”
As lieutenant governor, Ainsworth has launched a major workforce development initiative and heads the commission to protect Alabama’s military bases from closure. He noted that Tuberville has also been outspoken about the need to expand vocational training, preserve Alabama’s military infrastructure, and keep the promises our nation has made to its servicemen, servicewomen, and veterans.
Ainsworth added that President Donald J. Trump’s (R) endorsement of the the retired football coach in March influenced his decision to endorse Tuberville.
Ainsworth is a former legislator, former youth pastor and a current small business owner in Guntersville. Ainsworth ran for lieutenant governor in 2018 and received the most votes of any candidate for constitutional office on the general election ballot. Ainsworth is an Auburn University graduate.
Tuberville was endorsed by Alabama Republican Executive Committee member former State Rep. Perry O. Hooper Jr. on Thursday.
Tuberville is running against former Sen. Jeff Sessions. The winner of the Republican nomination will face incumbent Sen. Doug Jones (D-Alabama). Defeating Doug Jones is considered critical for Republicans to hold onto control of the Senate, in a year where a number of Republican seats appear vulnerable at this point.
Black disabled veteran sentenced to spend 60 months in prison for medical marijuana
A 2016 arrest for marijuana that has turned into a 60-month sentence in an Alabama penitentiary for a disabled veteran from Arizona is drawing national attention.
On June 30, Alabama Appleseed Director Leah Nelson wrote an account of an arrest and pending imprisonment of a Black disabled veteran that could not have happened in many other states. The story has been picked up by the New York Times and a number of national news outlets.
Black disabled veteran Sean Worsley and his wife, Eboni, were arrested in Pickens County in August 2016. The Worsleys had visited Eboni’s family in Mississippi and were on their way to North Carolina to visit his family. They however made the life-altering mistake of stopping to purchase gas in Alabama on their way to NC.
Sean was wounded in Iraq. The 33-year-old veteran is disabled with a traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress disorder from his service in Iraq. He uses medical marijuana to calm his nightmares and soothe his back pain. His medical marijuana was prescribed and purchased in Arizona, where it has been legal since 2011.
A Gordo police officer approached the Worsleys at the gas station. He said their music was too loud, was a violation of the Gordo noise ordinance and asked to search the vehicle. The Worsleys assented believing they had broken no laws. That was a mistake. Marijuana is still illegal in Alabama even if you purchased it in one of the states where it is legal.
The officer said that he smelled marijuana and asked the couple about it. Sean told him he was a disabled veteran and had a medical marijuana card.
“I explained to him that Alabama did not have medical marijuana. I then placed the suspect in handcuffs,” the report reads.
Eboni told the officer that the marijuana was behind the seat. The officer found the marijuana and the rolling papers and pipe Sean used to smoke it, along with a six-pack of beer, a bottle of vodka, and some pain pills Eboni had a prescription for. Both of them were arrested.
Eboni’s pills weren’t in the original bottle, which the officer said constituted a felony. The couple were both charged and spent six days in jail, but that was just the beginning of their Alabama legal saga.
Once the Worsleys were released on bond, they paid $400 to get their car out of impound and had to have the car professionally cleaned because venison they had been transporting to North Carolina went bad.
When they returned to Arizona, they found the charges made it difficult for them to maintain housing and stability. They moved to Nevada and leased a house.
Almost a year later, the bail bondsman called and told them the Alabama judge was revoking bonds on all the cases he managed. They had to rush back, or he would lose the money he had put up for their bond, and they would be charged with failing to appear in court. They borrowed money to return to Alabama.
When they got to court, the Worsleys were taken to separate rooms. Eboni explained that Sean was disabled with serious cognitive issues and needed a guardian to help him understand the process and ensure he made an informed decision. Eboni claims that Sean told her that prosecutors told him that if he didn’t sign the plea agreement that they would have to stay incarcerated until December and that they would charge her with the same charges. Rather than see his wife go to jail he signed the agreement.
Sean’s plea agreement included 60 months of probation, plus drug treatment and thousands of dollars in fines, fees, and court costs. Because the Worsleys had lived in Arizona at the time of their arrest, his probation was transferred to Arizona, instead of Nevada, so they broke their lease agreement and moved back to Arizona. Sean’s Arizona probation officer however told them that their month-to-month rental did not constitute a permanent address. At her direction, they contacted Sean’s probation officer in Alabama, who told them to return to Pickens County. They were short on funds so tried to do it by proxy. Drug treatment was another part of the terms of the probation. Sean was denied treatment by the VA because smoking cannabis for medical purposes “does not meet criteria for a substance use disorder or meet need for substance abuse treatment.”
Eboni, is a certified nursing assistant who works with traumatized children. Her job offer was rescinded due to the felony charge in Alabama. She also lost her clearance to work with sensitive information to which she needed access to do her job. For a while, the Worsleys slept in their car or lived with family. In January 2019, they were homeless. Sean lost his homeless veteran benefits with the VA because Alabama had issued a fugitive warrant for his arrest after Sean had missed a February court date in Pickens County. The case was referred to the district attorney’s office in March 2019.
Now Eboni’s health failed and she needed heart surgery. Sean stop taking on extra gigs to help her recover. To cover costs, the couple took out a title loan and lost Eboni’s truck when they could not keep up with the payments. With no transportation they lost their home. Sean’s benefits resumed in August 2019, but to save money he failed to pay the $250 to renew his medical marijuana card. In 2020, Sean was arrested at a traffic stop in Arizona and the officer found that he possessed marijuana without a valid medical marijuana card.
Pickens County demanded that he be extradited back to Alabama at a cost to the state of Alabama of $4,345. That was added that to the $3,833.40 he already owed in fines, fees, and court costs. On April 28, the Pickens County judge sentenced Mr. Worsley to 60 months in prison. That sentence would already have begun; if it were not for the chronic prison overcrowding and the COVID-19 crisis that has gripped the prison system killing five inmates and two ADOC employees thus far.
Sean has been in the Pickens County jail since early 2020. On April 28, the judge revoked his probation and sentenced him to 60 months in the custody of the Alabama Department of Corrections.
Sean’s mother hired an attorney to appeal the case, but that process has just begun and most inmates begin their sentence while the case is under appeal. Former Speaker of the House Mike Hubbard (R-Auburn) was sentenced to a four-year sentence four years ago and has not served a day; but Sean Worsley does not have the friends that Mike Hubbard has. He is in the Pickens County jail awaiting transport to prison in Alabama.
Eboni is in the hospital for more heart surgery and Sean will leave behind two children from a prior relationship, ages 12 and 14.
“I feel like I’m being thrown away by a country I went and served for,” Sean wrote in a letter to Alabama Appleseed. “I feel like I lost parts of me in Iraq, parts of my spirit and soul that I can’t ever get back.”
State Senator Cam Ward (R-Alabaster) chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee. Ward is aghast that this could happen in Alabama.
“This is an anomaly, this is not the norm,” Sen. Ward said. “Most police departments in Alabama do not arrest people any more solely for marijuana possession.”
Ward said usually when someone is charged with marijuana possession they are charged with other felonies and marijuana possession is an add on charge.
Ward said that marijuana possession is a class D offence under the sentencing reform package that he sponsored and which passed the Alabama legislature in 2016. With a class D offense there is no prison time.
In Sean Worsley’s case, the arresting officer in Gordo determined that the marijuana was not for personal use and thus charged Sean with a Class C offense. The arresting officer is no longer with the Gordo police department.
Ward told APR that out of the 23,000 inmates in the Alabama Correctional system there are only 60 or 70 that are in there just for marijuana offenses.
“They got arrested for a whole truckload, semi-truckloads even, for trafficking,” Ward said, not the small amount that Worsley will lose five years of freedom over.
Ward said that the state passed sentencing reform in 2016 so that things like this could not happen; but there was a lag time between passage and implementation so Worsley was likely charged under the pre-reform standards.
Chey Garrigan is the Executive Director of Alabama Cannabis Industry Association.
Garrigan said that her non-profit advocacy group is fighting to change Alabama’s marijuana laws so that medical marijuana is legal in this state and so that travelers like Sean Worsley don’t have to fear long incarcerations for amounts of marijuana that would be legal in 33 states.
“The Alabama Cannabis Industry Association, is extremely passionate about working with policy makers to bring about a necessary compassion for social justice,” Garrigan told APR.
The Alabama Senate has passed medical marijuana bills, sponsored by Sen. Tim Melson (R-Florence) in both 2019 and 2020; but the bills have never come before the Alabama House of Representatives for a vote. This year the legislative session was interrupted by the coronavirus crisis before the House could consider the Senate bill.
Will Smith, Beth Kellum in GOP runoff for Court of Criminal Appeals
Voters will head to the polls Tuesday to vote in their party primary runoffs. The Democrats do not have a statewide race in a primary runoff. The Republicans have two. The Senate race between former Auburn football coach Tommy Tuberville and former Sen. Jeff Sessions is the one that is getting all the attention, but the GOP also has a hard-fought battle for Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals Judge Place 2.
There incumbent Beth Kellum faces challenger Will Smith. Both campaigns have been working to sway undecided Republicans to their side in the days before the election. The winner of Tuesday’s Republican runoff will be the next Place #2 Judge since there is no Democrat or Independent candidate on the ballot in November.
“Alabama needs a judge with experience, conservative values, intelligence, and courage representing each of them on the Court of Criminal Appeals. Judge Beth Kellum has and will continue to fight to uphold the law and respect the constitution when re-elected!” the Kellum campaign wrote on social media.
William “Will” Smith is a Florence attorney and former Lauderdale County Commissioner.
“Conservative grassroots Alabama political organizations have spoken. I am their conservative choice,” Smith claimed in a statement. “I have been endorsed by the two largest Republican groups in Alabama as well as other conservative groups throughout the state because I am a Christian, a conservative and a family man.”
“I am running for the Court of Criminal Appeals because I have the legal experience of practicing law in Alabama for over a quarter of a century, the conviction to follow the rule of law, and I am a constitutional conservative,” Smith added.
The Kellum campaign wrote: “Experienced Judge Beth Kellum serves the people of Alabama on the Court of Criminal Appeals. The Court hears all appeals of felony and misdemeanor cases, including violations of city ordinances and all post-conviction writs in criminal cases.”
In the March 3rd Republican primary Kellum received the most votes by a margin of 43 percent to 37 percent for Smith.
“Our campaign message really resonated with primary voters and it is amazing we were within 6 percentage points of the incumbent despite being outspent over 15 to 1,” Smith said. “While I was outspent, I was not outworked. I traveled to the 4 corners of Alabama visiting almost 60 counties during the 60-day primary.”
Will and his wife, Laura, reside in Killen with their seven-year-old daughter, Angel Joy, who has autism. The Smiths are active members of Greenhill First Baptist Church. Will has served as a Sunday school teacher, international missions worker and Upward basketball coach. Smith has a bachelor’s degree and a master’s degree from the University of North Alabama and a law degree from Sanford’s Cumberland School of Law in 1992 where he received the American Jurisprudence Award for receiving the highest grade in Criminal Procedure. Smith is licensed to practice law in Alabama, Georgia, and before the United States Supreme Court. He operates a full service law firm representing clients from all walks of life in both civil and criminal matters including appeals in both the Alabama and federal appeals systems. Smith is a fifth generation Lauderdale County resident.
Kellum is an Alabama native She grew up in Vance in Tuscaloosa County. She graduated from Brookwood High School in 1977. She has a bachelor’s degree from the University of Alabama and a law degree from the University of Alabama School of Law.
Judge Kellum was hired in 1985 by Attorney General Charles Graddick as an Assistant Attorney General. She worked in the criminal appeals division where she primarily prosecuted appeals before the Court of Criminal Appeals and the Alabama Supreme Court. She later worked as a staff Attorney for the Court of Criminal Appeals from 1987 until 1990. Kellum went into private practice with the Montgomery law firm of Robison & Belser, P.A., working on a wide variety of civil and criminal cases in state and federal courts. In 1997 to went back to the Court of Criminal Appeals to work as a Senior Staff Attorney for the newly-elected Judge Jean Brown. She worked as a Senior Staff Attorney for the Alabama Supreme Court from 1999 until 2001, before returning to the Court of Criminal Appeals as the Senior Staff Attorney for then newly-elected Judge Kelli Wise.
Kellum was elected to the Court of Criminal Appeals in November 2008 and was re-elected in 2014. She is currently seeking her third term on the Court.
Judge Kellum is a member of the First Baptist Church of Montgomery. She has served as a docent at the Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts, and is a member of a number of professional, civic, and political organizations.
The polls open at 7:00 am on Tuesday and close at 7:00 pm. You must be a registered voter, vote at your assigned polling place and have a valid photo ID in order to participate in any Alabama election. It is too late to apply for an absentee ballot. If you already have an absentee ballot you must get it in the mail or turn it in to your courthouse before the close of the business day on Monday.