Louisiana, and the West Side saw ups and downs and many firsts in 2017. Three landmarks honoring Confederate soldiers were removed from the state’s landscape, we said goodbye to Fats Domino, one of Rock ‘N’ Roll’s founding fathers, and lawmakers failed to pass a budget during a regular session for the first time since 2000.
There are new laws, leaders and lessons ahead for 2018 but first, let’s take a look back at the ones from 2017.
On Jan. 20, President Donald Trump was inaugurated as the 45th President of the United States, with Mike Pence serving as his Vice President. Trump and Pence visited Louisiana while on the campaign trail. In May, Pence visited Port Allen where he met with business leaders to hear from them first-hand about health care, the economy and job creation. He gave public remarks to the city and urged an end to the Affordable Care Act in a speech at Cajun Industries in Port Allen.
The West Side also had its share of inaugurations in 2017, starting with Scot Rhodes taking the reigns of Brusly on Jan. 3. Rhode served a single term on the town council more than 20 years ago, and again in 2012. Rhodes was elected as mayor with no opposition in October 2016.
While serving his second term as a Louisiana state representative, Rep. Ed Price (Democrat – Gonzales) became Sen. Price after defeating businessman Warren Harang III (Democrat – Donaldsonville) in a runoff election for Senate District 2 on May 27. The Senate seat was vacated after a resignation from former Sen. Troy Brown.
After the response of the Cajun Navy to aid flood victims of Hurricane Harvey, which caused historic flooding to Houston, the head of the Governor’s Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness wants the state to build a closer bond with the Cajun Navy. West Baton Rouge residents packed and delivered food, rescued Houston residents and donated to relief efforts.
A bill to increase state gasoline tax died quietly without debate in the House of Representatives. The tax, which would have gone toward repairs to Louisiana’s infrastructure, was pulled by the sponsor of the bill after he resolved that it did not have enough votes to pass. The vote was a huge issue for the Louisiana Legislature at its 2017 session. House Bill 632 by Republican Representative Steve Carter of Baton Rouge would have added 17 cents to the gasoline tax. It would have taken a constitutional amendment approval by Louisiana voters to become law. The bill’s failure came largely because of an anti-tax view in the House, as well as an aggressive campaign for its defeat by Americans for Prosperity, a national anti-tax group.
Students of the Year, which are selected through a committee from each school and voted on by the school board, are:
Elementary Student of the Year is Arin Primus of Lukeville Upper Elementary School.
Middle School Student of the Year is Alayah Gedward of Brusly Middle School.
High School Student of the Year is Dara Badon of Brusly High School.
Teachers of the year, which are selected through an interviewing process by the school board, are:
Elementary School Teacher of the Year is Kacy Patin of Chamberlin Elementary School.
Middle School Teacher of the Year is Lisa Battle of Devall Middle School.
High School Teacher of the Year is Amber Holaway of Port Allen High School.
The $90-million bond for West Baton Rouge school facility upgrades approved by voters in 2016 was put to work in 2017 with bigger projects on the horizon.
Air conditioning was installed in gyms at Port Allen Middle, Brusly Middle and Port Allen Elementary.
The new year will bring a new school, The Northside School, and new multi-purpose buildings at Cohn and Brusly Elementary, which will break ground on Jan. 16 and 17, respectively.
The Brusly Elementary School addition is a multi-purpose facility. It will house Head Start classrooms, a conference room, time out room, reception area, break room and multi-purpose area with a stage.
The Cohn Elementary addition includes a new administration wing and a multi-purpose facility with a stage.
The facility upgrades are expected to continue through 2020 and include the creation of a new high school in Brusly and a pre-K through eighth-grade school at Chamberlin.
Both tax proposals are aligned with the School District’s plan to put the West Baton Rouge School System in the top 10 school districts in the state by 2020.
Kim Eckert, a ninth grade teacher at Brusly High School, became the first teacher from the district to be named the Louisiana State Teacher of the Year by The Louisiana Department of Education.
Eckert was named 2018 Louisiana State Teacher of the Year at the 11th Annual Cecil J. Picard Educator Awards Gala on Friday, July 28.
“I received this incredible honor, for doing what so many other educators do every day: Teaching with all my heart,” Eckert said.
West Baton Rouge Parish was the only school district in Louisiana honored by the College Board with placement on the 8th Annual AP® District Honor Roll. To earn this honor, West Baton Rouge Parish had to, since 2015, increase the number of students participating in AP while also increasing or maintaining the percentage of students earning AP Exam scores of 3 or higher.
Transportation and Development
The West Side is growing, and experiencing some growing pains. Here’s a look at what popped up and which projects began in 2017:
The Village at Huns Grove, located on La. Hwy. 1, opened with local clothing boutique, SoSis, Community Coffee and Rotolo’s Pizzeria.
Tony Clayton, developer of Huns Grove and Chief Felony Prosecutor of Iberville, West Baton Rouge, and Pointe Coupee, hopes to see the shopping center become a community resource where people of all ages can come and enjoy what life has to offer he said.The Village hosted local vendors and artists for pop-up markets throughout the year, complete with live music and face painting. A monthly Saturday morning farmers market is something that is on the horizon, SoSis owner Chelsey Blankenship said.
Keith Morris took ownership of the gun club formerly known as Hunter’s Run, which now operates as Bridgeview, in the beginning of 2017.
A West Baton Rouge Parish court ruled in favor of Sheriff Mike Cazes in a civil suit, awarding the West Baton Rouge Law Enforcement District $29,500 in damages after a dispute with the Great International Land Company, also known as Hunters Run Gun Club.
In a previous interview, Cazes said he was not happy with the upkeep and direction of Hunters Run Gun Club, which Duplessis said caught him off guard.
So far, Morris said he has dropped about $400,000 into renovations at Bridgeview. He is only about halfway done, though he said. The West Baton Rouge Council allocated $30,000 for a youth target shooting program with the gun club in its 2018 expense budget.
Several major and fatal crashes occurred between Lafayette and Baton Rouge, before the Horace Wilkinson or Mississippi River bridge.
On Feb. 26, a two-vehicle fatality crash took the life of Tranisha King, 34, and resulted in the arrest of Kevin Dickens, 33, both of Del City, Oklahoma, after they were traveling on Interstate 10 near Grosse Tete.
An investigation by State Police Troopers revealed that the crash occurred as Dickens was traveling in a reckless manner in his 2007 Lexus E35.
An 18-wheeler crash caused a massive fire on I-10 April 19, in rush-hour traffic, snarling the highway for hours into the night and impacting traffic the following day as well.
The crash took the life of 26-year-old Ronald Allen of Alexandria when an 18-wheeler failed to slow down as it approached heavy traffic near La. Hwy. 415 on I-10, before the Horace Wilkinson Bridge, according to the Louisiana State Police.
Five-year-old Xander Benoit died in a crash after an 18-wheeler plowed through stalled traffic between the Horace Wilkinson Bridge and La. Hwy. 415 on Sept. 28, authorities reported. The crash totaled multiple cars and severely injured five others. Benoit’s mother and another passenger were also badly injured in the accident.
West Baton Rouge Sheriff Mike Cazes swore in Benoit, who had dreams of becoming a police officer, as an honorary deputy on Oct. 10.
Less than one month later, a four-vehicle crash on Interstate 10 east of Grosse Tete killed two Texas men in the early hours of Monday, Oct. 30, according to a release from the Louisiana State Police.
Alex Willett, 55, of Orange, Texas, and his passenger, John Mack, 53, of Beaumont, Texas, were both killed in the crash, bringing the number of deaths on that portion of I-10 to five in 2017.
Nearly 1,900 inmates were released early in October as a result of new laws overhauling the state’s criminal justice system signed by Gov. John Bel Edwards in June. The measures are projected to reduce the state’s prison population by up to 10 percent over 10 years.
As new laws were overhauled, others were broken. Here is a look at some of the top crime stories from the West Side in 2017:
Port Allen grieved over the loss of Fatrell Queen, the city’s first homicide since 2014. Queen was found murdered in his home at the corner of 8th and Burbridge streets in the early hours of Thursday, Nov. 2. Those who knew Queen, or “Trell,” described him as a good person with a charming smile who had a large impact on his friends and family.
“We pray that Trell’s life not be in vain. If you look around, you see that Trell has brought this town together tonight,” Garrett Brown said to those at a vigil held in Queen’s memory. “Let this be the last.”
Todd Cutrer, 52 of Port Allen, pled guilty to mail fraud in the amount of $250,000 before federal judge John W. DeGravelles on Thursday, Oct. 26, according to a release from the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Middle District of Louisiana.
In his plea, Cutrer acknowledged that he executed a scheme to defraud victim investors by means of materially false and fraudulent pretenses, promises and representations, from about January 2014 to November 2016, the court release said.
Cutrer owned and operated West Baton Rouge Credit, Inc., a Port Allen lending company that made high-interest loans to individual customers. He raised capital for WBR Credit by obtaining lines of credit from local banks and by personally soliciting investments from individual investors. Cutrer first made news earlier in 2017 when WBR Credit filed for a Chapter 11 bankruptcy, or a “reorganization,” in February. Bankruptcy documents showed that Cutrer owed almost $6 million in unsecured claims to its top 20 largest creditors.
More than two dozen creditors filed a petition for damages against WBR Credit in March.
As a result of his guilty plea, Cutrer faces a significant term of imprisonment, fines, restitution orders, forfeiture and a term of supervised release following imprisonment, the Middle District Court release stated.
A routine traffic stop turned into a high-speed chase which ended with the suspect in critical condition in November. Herman Junior Lovelady, 47 of Plaquemine, is accused of leading West Baton Rouge Parish authorities on a high-speed chase was run over by a WBR Parish Sheriff’s Office unit after jumping out of a vehicle during the chase, according to the Brusly Police Department.
Lovelady was pulled over by Brusly Police for minor traffic offenses and fled the scene after officers found he was driving under suspension and had an outstanding warrant in Rapides Parish.
“I have never seen anybody run that hard to get away from the police in 20 years time,” Brusly Police Chief Jonathan Lefeaux said.
A deputy-involved shooting occurred March 10 after a traffic stop on La. Hwy. 1 in Plaquemine.
Deputies stopped Gregory Hardin, 32, of Addis, after receiving an anonymous tip that he was coming from Baton Rouge to bring drugs into Plaquemine, Iberville Sheriff Brett Stassi said.
When deputies exited their vehicles to apprehend him, he took a sharp right and accelerated towards officers, Stassi said.
One deputy fired two shots at the vehicle, striking Kenyatta Kelly of Plaquemine, in the elbow. An 18-month-old child was unrestrained in the backseat, which deputies could not see until after Hardin was detained, Stassi said.
Hardin was arrested on counts of possession of marijuana, two counts of assault with a vehicle, child endangerment and possession of controlled dangerous substances with a child. Kelly was later arrested and booked into Iberville Parish jail for possession of schedule I narcotics, distribution of schedule II narcotics, possession of controlled dangerous substance in the presence of a juvenile, criminal conspiracy, and obstruction of justice.
Sylvester Henry Bracey, 27, and Arsenio Montrell Haynes, 27, both of Jackson, Mississippi, and suspects authorities said are tied to the kidnapping of a Lafayette woman, were found dead in the Intracoastal on Aug. 7. A third suspect, Michael Handley, of Lafayette, was arrested on Aug. 11, by Slidell Police. The kidnapping stemmed from a domestic dispute between Handley and the victim, according to a Lafayette police spokesperson.
The kidnapping victim was found handcuffed in the back of a van that police chased into West Baton Rouge Parish on Aug. 6, before engaging two armed suspects on foot.
Local law enforcement conducted an intense manhunt in the area that night, but to no avail.
Brusly Police Cpl. Shellie Maranto resigned in April after she threatened and pointed a pistol toward her sister-in-law who was in a domestic dispute with her brother. The news of Maranto’s resignation surfaced after WBRZ released body-cam footage of Maranto visibly upset. Brusly Police Chief Jonathan Lefeaux said Maranto resigned shortly before the town of Brusly could terminate her employment.