2021 IN REVIEW: COVID, crime and campaigns
A NEW SHERIFF: “I can’t thank you enough for being part of this journey,” new Darlington County Sheriff James Hudson told the audience at Hartsville’s Center Theater as he was sworn into office. Hudson, the county’s first African-American sheriff since Reconstruction, took over the Sheriff’s Office from departing Sheriff Tony Chavis. Both are Democrats; Hudson claimed the party’s nomination in the June primaries and defeated GOP challenger Michael August in November.
SCHOOLS REOPEN: Three weeks later than educators had first hoped, Darlington County’s public schools reopened Jan. 25 and returned to “the new normal” created by COVID-19. “Though the number of cases in Darlington County is still high, the numbers are decreasing,” county Education Superintendent Tim Newman said in a statement Jan. 21. “ … We took the time out of our buildings to get past the holiday surge, and we believe this was accomplished,” Newman said.
SAFETY CHIEF FOR SCHOOLS: The Darlington County School District announced that Darlington Police Department Capt. Kim Nelson will join the district as its new coordinator of safety and emergency management. Nelson previously worked with DCSD for two years as a safety, security and risk management technician before returning to duty with DPD. The position of coordinator of safety and emergency management is a new position within the district.
ENTER THE GRAND OLD POST OFFICE: It takes a man of vision to look at an old post office and see the endless possibilities and its true potential. That’s exactly what Darlington County Coroner J. Todd Hardee did, making a significant investment of time and resources to preserve this historic treasure while giving it a new purpose in just a matter of months. From an aging, empty building, the Grand Old Post Office, located on Pearl Street, has emerged as a venue that can host both large and small events while sharing a slice of Darlington’s proud history in every available space. The half-million-dollar renovation of the building, which included a new roof and installing 15 miles of new wiring, began on April 1, 2020, and was completed in December 2020.
COUNTY COUNCIL VICE-CHAIRMAN RESIGNS: A month after being sworn in for another term on Darlington County Council, District 7 representative J. Lewis Brown resigned, saying he was taking a new job that could pose a “conflict of interest.” Brown, who represented the Hartsville/-Kelleytown area, did not say what the new job was at the time, but it soon emerged that he was being hired to lead the county’s economic-development efforts.
COVID CLINIC IN DARLINGTON: Mike Wachowski of Effingham was rolling down his sleeve. He’d just gotten a COVID-19 vaccination shot inside the gym of First Baptist Church on South Main Street in Darlington. “Didn’t feel it at all! I didn’t feel anything!” said Wachowski, 77, one of the first people to take advantage of the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control’s day-long vaccination clinic Feb. 3 – an event that officials believed was the agency’s first such effort in Darlington County. At least “several hundred” people were expected to be vaccinated by day’s end, and DHEC was back at First Baptist the next month to administer the second shot needed.
PENNINGTON’S LONG GOODBYE: Mel Pennington, Hartsville’s mayor for the past 11 years, announced he would not seek a fourth term in November – setting the stage for a crowded fight to succeed him. Pennington announced his decision during Hartsville City Council’s Feb. 9 meeting, which was held online because of COVID risks. “I decided a while back that three terms is an appropriate amount of time for someone to work on a vision for Hartsville,” Pennington said.
FIVE HELD IN TEEN’S PARKING-LOT SLAYING: Five Darlington residents were arrested in the Feb. 12 Darlington parking-lot brawl that resulted in the death of a Hartsville teenager, and city officials vowed a crackdown on crime. Jalin Tremaine Mullins, 20, of 100 East Ave., Darlington, was charged with murder, attempted murder and possession of a weapon during a violent crime in the death of Kwelik Bacote, 17. Bacote was shot in the parking lot of a small business plaza off Governor Williams Highway during a fight involving at least six people, Darlington Police Chief Kelvin Washington said. Four other suspects were held on lesser charges.
DCSD STUDENTS BACK IN CLASS FULL-TIME: On Feb. 22, Darlington County’s public schools did something they hadn’t done in nearly a year: They put all students, at all grade levels, back in class, face to face, full-time. Except for about 3,000 students who opted for the school district’s full-time Virtual Academy online classes, it was a full house at the district’s nearly 25 schools for the first time since Gov. Henry McMaster closed all S.C. schools in March 2020 to combat COVID-19.
5,400 GET COVID SHOTS AT RACEWAY: If the massive COVID vaccination event at Darlington Raceway had been a race, there would have been about 5,400 winners. That’s how many people got their initial dose of Moderna’s COVID-19 vaccine between 8 a.m. and 6 p.m. at the drive-through event, sponsored by McLeod Health and the Raceway. It was called the biggest single-day mass vaccination anyone has yet held in the Pee Dee. Gov. Henry McMaster also stopped at the Raceway about midday to tour the operation and pose for photos with beaming McLeod employees.
SOCIETY HILL LANDOWNERS QUASH ‘ZOO’ RUMORS: Society Hill Town Council member Carolyn Oliver cut right to the chase. “You’re not going to open a zoo?” she asked town resident Joanne Duke. “No,” Duke replied as her husband, Dwayne, said, “We’ve already got the monkey, right here!” After months of rumors that the Dukes were planning to create a “zoo” on their 44 acres inside Society Hill town limits, the issue came before Town Council March 9 in an attempt to reconcile the Dukes’ activities with a 1970s town ordinance banning “livestock, swine, horses, donkeys, poultry or fowl” within town limits. “I apologize for any confusion or fear and anxiety,” Joanne Duke told council and a packed audience. “I know there’s been a little bit of anxiety going on.”
‘PLEASE GET INVOLVED,’ SHERIFF ASKS PUBLIC: Darlington County Sheriff James Hudson has a message for the public: Help us help you. “Please get involved,” Hudson said during a news conference. “The sheriff’s office, or any law enforcement agency, cannot do this alone. It’s going to take the help of the people.” “Once the people get involved, and see that things will change, I think they’ll be pleased,” said the sheriff, whose term began in January. “But we’ve got to have their help.”
GARLAND DEPARTS AS CITY MANAGER: For the first time in 11 years, Howard Garland is no longer Darlington’s city manager. After a 90-minute executive session on March 30, Darlington City Council unanimously voted not to renew Garland’s contract, which was to expire June 30. Council also approved a severance package equal to the pay Garland was to receive during the remaining three months of his contract, plus benefits (insurance, vacation days during that period), plus $75,000. “We just came to an agreement with the city manager,” Mayor Curtis Boyd told the News & Press. “He was in agreement with everything that we felt – (that) it was the best time to move in a different direction, and he was ready to go, also.”
PART OF ROAD MIGHT BE RENAMED FOR SLAIN OFFICER: A section of Hoffmeyer Road that runs through Darlington County would be renamed for slain police officer Terrence Carraway if two state lawmakers succeed. House Speaker Jay Lucas of Hartsville and state Rep. Robert Williams of Darlington filed a resolution asking the state Department of Transportation to name the section of Hoffmeyer from the Florence/Darlington county line to the Timmonsville Highway/S.C. 340 the Terrence Carraway Memorial Highway.
SRO ACCUSED OF ASSAULTING STUDENT: A school resource officer at Lamar High School, who once said he considered himself a “friend” to all the students he worked with, was arrested April 20 and charged with assaulting a student, according to jail records and the State Law Enforcement Division. William Kenneth Sumner, 57, is charged with misconduct in office by a public official and third-degree assault and battery, jail records show. SLED says that the 6-foot-8 Sumner grabbed a Lamar High student April 16 during a verbal altercation. The arrest warrant says: “SRO Sumner did assault a juvenile student (name redacted) by grabbing him by his clothing and lifting him from a chair in an office at the school. SRO Sumner then shoved (name redacted) along a wall while still gripping him by his clothing. This incident was captured by the surveillance cameras at the school.”
GOVERNOR WELCOMES NEW RACE WEEKEND: For a few seconds during his Columbia news conference to welcome Darlington’s new NASCAR race weekend May 7-9, Gov. Henry McMaster seemed to be gripping the steering wheel of a zooming stock car. “You have to be there (in person) and have to watch those cars as they go down the straightaway, coming up to the corner, they’re zig-zagging to warm their tires up just for that little edge, they’re going speeds up to 200 miles an hour,” McMaster said. “You talk about competition!” McMaster enthused. “This is high-level competition and it’s total excitement. We are glad we have Darlington (Raceway) in South Carolina; it’s a wonderful institution.”
GUNFIRE IN THE CITY, A CHASE IN THE COUNTY: It began with reports of shots fired on North Main Street in Darlington, and it ended with a high-speed chase and a blown-out tire several miles away. About 11 a.m. on May 10, officials got a call reporting people in “multiple vehicles shooting at each other” on North Main, but city police found no one injured in the area and no suspects. Sometime later, a county sheriff’s deputy noticed a vehicle matching one of the North Main cars – a black Nissan Altima with tinted windows — heading north on U.S. 52. The vehicle turned off onto Floyd’s Road, and roared away at speeds of 120 mph or more, the deputy reported. The vehicle then turned off onto Leavenworth Road and blew a tire. The fleeing car started spewing smoke, its speed dropped, and it made another turn, this time onto Journey’s End Road. Other law-enforcement vehicles caught up with it and forced it to stop.
WOMAN ACCUSED OF TRYING TO DROWN KIDS: A Tennessee woman was accused of trying to drown two children in a Darlington County pond after endangering their lives by driving the wrong way on Interstate 20. Laura Ann Breault, 28, of Mosheim, Tenn., faced multiple charges, including two counts of attempted murder, in the May 17 incident at I-20 and the Lamar Highway, according to arrest warrants and jail records. Warrants said Breault tried to pull the children into a pond by grabbing their arms and dragging them, “with the intent to cause (their) death.”
CITY COMES TOGETHER AGAINST CRIME: Darlington Police Chief Kelvin Washington drew a line in the sand at a news conference with county Sheriff James Hudson. “It’s got to stop,” Washington said of slayings that rocked the area last week – three deaths in a few days, a gun battle between people riding in two cars, a 16-year-old killed. The news conference came hours after an 8 a.m. prayer service at the Courthouse, where about 50 people sought “healing” for the crime and gun violence in Darlington County recently. “Darlington County needs a healing,” one speaker said. Mayor Curtis Boyd said, “The only thing that’s going to make Darlington change is for people to look here, and they see a difference – they see that Jesus is in Darlington.”
MAYO RANKED 4th-BEST HIGH SCHOOL IN S.C.: Darlington’s Mayo High School for Math, Science and Technology is the fourth-best high school in South Carolina, according to U.S. News and World Report’s annual rankings. Mayo, a magnet school with 280 students and a graduation rate of 100 percent, was praised for cracking the publication’s coveted Top 5 for the state when rankings were announced May 26.
LADY FALCONS ARE LOWER STATE CHAMPS: The Darlington High School Varsity Softball team won the AAAA Lower State Championship after defeating the Colleton County Cougars. The Lady Falcons were able to beat the Cougars after two games May 24 and May 26. Ultimately, the Lady Falcons emerged as runner-up in the state championships.
NEARLY 600 GRADUATE FROM PUBLIC SCHOOLS: Approximately 580 seniors graduated June 11 from Darlington County public high schools. About 230 received diplomas at Darlington High School in ceremonies held at the school’s football stadium. About 223 seniors graduated from Hartsville High School in ceremonies held at the school’s Kelleytown Stadium. About 70 seniors graduated from Mayo High School for Math, Science and Technology in ceremonies held at the school in Darlington. And about 56 seniors received diplomas from Lamar High School in ceremonies at the school’s stadium. “The pandemic does not define us or our experiences; it just made us stronger for the next chapter in our lives,” DHS salutatorian Laine Ward said.
HISTORIC BURIAL GROUNDS REDISCOVERED: Darlington County historian Brian Gandy and a Clemson University colleague rediscovered five lost burial grounds in the county, including one American Indian burial mound that may go back 500 years and a large cemetery that was the final resting place for “hundreds” of African-Americans going back to the Civil War era. “This is a very important find,” said state Rep. Robert Williams of Darlington. “ … It’s very important that we remember. And not only that, but we have to honor these people. … They played a very significant role in our county.”
53 ARRESTED IN COUNTYWIDE CRIME CRACKDOWN: Law-enforcement agencies from around Darlington County teamed up over the July 4 three-day holiday weekend for “Operation Summer Slam,” a crime crackdown resulting in 53 arrests. The operation involved the Darlington County Sheriff’s Office, Darlington Police Department, Hartsville Police Department, Lamar Police Department, Society Hill Police Department, the ATF, the Drug Enforcement Administration, the U.S. Marshals’ Fugitive Task Force, the state Probation, Parole and Pardon agency and SLED.
CRIMINAL-JUSTICE SYSTEM FAILING, COUNCIL TOLD: Darlington County Council has no control over the criminal-justice system, but four residents stood before council to vent their anger and frustration over local crime and, especially, bonds that are set low enough for suspects to be out of jail in hours or days. “I call it catch-and-release,” said Chanda Pate, who said her daughter was badly injured recently in a felony DUI crash. “It’s kind of like fishing. You catch one and it ain’t big enough, and according to what it is, you turn it loose. That’s the same way here.”
NEW CITY MANAGER PROMISES HANDS-ON APPROACH: What are residents going to see now that Darlington City Council has hired John Payne, a Florence financial adviser, as its first new city manager in 11 years? “They will see more financial accountability, and they’ll see a city manager that is engaged with the citizens and the local leaders,” Payne told the News & Press after council voted 5-2 on July 20 to hire him for the job. “And they’re going to see me more in the public,” Payne added. “I’m not one that’s going to just sit in City Hall.”
FIREFIGHTERS LOSE A BUILDING, BUT SAVE A BLOCK: When Darlington Fire Chief Pat Cavanaugh first saw the blaze consuming a building on the Public Square the night of July 16, his main thought was: We cannot let this spread through the rest of the block. That didn’t happen. The fire didn’t spread beyond the 1890s brick building where it started, destroying a jewelry shop and an antiques store, but sparing the buildings on either side, including Edward Jones Co., Darlington Office Supply and the former Wells Fargo building. “We dodged a bullet, yeah,” Cavanaugh says. “It was nerve-wracking. It was our town, our Square. It was a nerve-wracking deal to me.”
FILING OPENS FOR 10 COUNCIL SEATS, 3 MAYOR’S RACES: Filing opened for mayor or council seats in every municipality in Darlington County – off-year races that will be decided in November. Darlington was the only town in the county that did not hold a mayor’s race this year, although three City Council seats were up for election. In Hartsville, the mayor’s post was wide open – longtime Mayor Mel Pennington didn’t run again – and three City Council seats were up. In Lamar, the mayor’s post, currently held by Darnell Byrd-McPherson, was on the ballot, as were two council seats. In Society Hill, the mayor (currently Tommy Bradshaw) and two council seats were up for election.
PREPPING FOR THE SOUTHERN 500: For the first time since the pandemic began, officials announced that the stands would be open at 100 percent capacity for Darlington’s Southern 500 race weekend in September. However, Darlington Raceway and NASCAR still required face masks for anyone in enclosed areas during the weekend of racing Sept. 4-5. At a news conference in Columbia Aug. 17 with Gov. Henry McMaster, Darlington Raceway President Kerry Tharp indicated that should be no huge problem for the fans: “We ARE an outdoor sport,” he said.
DCSO SEIZES $250,000 WORTH OF DRUGS: The Darlington County Sheriff’s Office in August intercepted a shipment of drugs worth $250,000 on the street, officials said. The drugs – including 4 pounds of methamphetamines with a street value of $220,000 – were being transported to a home off Wildcat Lane off Cashua Ferry Road in Darlington County, the DCSO said.
HAMLIN WINS COOK OUT SOUTHERN 500: Denny Hamlin entered the NASCAR Playoffs winless, but at Darlington Raceway, he outran Kyle Larson to win his third Cook Out Southern 500. Heading into the 72nd running of the prestigious race, Hamlin and Larson were two of the favorites to win, but no one could have predicted the finish that fans were treated to.
ROAD-MAINTENANCE FEE VANISHES, BUT FUNDS REMAIN: By the time you read this, vehicle owners won’t have to continue paying Darlington County’s $30-a-year fee for road maintenance – but the county won’t lose the $1.7 million that the fee has brought in annually. Faced with potential legal problems from the road-maintenance fee, County Council killed the fee entirely. As the annual $30 road fee goes away, the county is raising the annual emergency-services fee that drivers must pay from $15 to $45.
HUNDREDS MOURN TEACHER LOST TO COVID: Hugs, tears and face masks filled the Darlington High School gym as hundreds paid their respects to a Darlington teacher who died from COVID at age 28. Jackqueline M. “Jackie” Lowery taught 7th-grade science at Darlington Middle School for the past five years and served as girls’ volleyball coach for the past three years, the Darlington County School District said. She died Sept. 18 after battling the virus at a Charlotte hospital. Speaker after speaker at the Celebration of Life for Lowery, a single mother of two children, expressed shock at how “unexpected” her death was at such a young age, when she had just bought a home, when she was nursing her 8-month-old child, when she was very close to earning a master’s degree.
HELP FOR GALEY & LORD SITE? The abandoned, contaminated Galey & Lord textile plant on the edge of Society Hill is “very, very close” to being added to the priority list for federal Superfund cleanup, Society Hill Mayor Tommy Bradshaw said. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has proposed adding the 234-acre site as a Superfund priority, Bradshaw said. Now the agency will be collecting letters of support for the plan for the next couple of months. Society Hill Town Council happily passed a resolution favoring the project at its Oct. 12 meeting.
DOZENS OF FIREFIGHTERS BATTLE SCRAPYARD BLAZE: Crews from the Darlington County Fire District, aided by crews from 17 other departments in the area, spent a day and night battling a burning pile of debris at Darlington Shredding Co. off U.S. 52. No injuries were reported, but the blaze produced smoke heavy enough to be seen for miles. Officials said a large pile of scrap metal caught fire during normal operations at the recycling facility.
HOWELL ELECTED LAMAR MAYOR: When election commission staffers were shutting down for the night Nov. 2, it still wasn’t certain who had been elected mayor of Lamar – Inez Lee or James Howell? Unofficial returns showed Lee, a Town Council member seeking the mayor’s post, with 155 votes, and rival James Howell with 164 – a nine-vote difference. Elections officials were double-checking the totals. By the next day, county elections officials said that those nine votes stood, and that the election was Howell’s. Incumbent Lamar Mayor Darnell Byrd-McPherson chose not to run for another term.
HANCOCK ELECTED HARTSVILLE MAYOR: “Roll up your sleeves, Hartsville. We’ve got work to do,” Hartsville’s new mayor, Casey Hancock, said after winning a Nov. 16 runoff election to lead Darlington County’s largest town. Hancock, who runs an information technology consulting business and is part owner of Wild Heart Brewing Co., the county’s first brewery, solidly defeated his runoff opponent, Justin Evans, by a vote of 836-682. Shortly after his win, lifelong Hartsville resident Hancock posted a message to supporters on his Facebook page: “Thank you. Such simple words, but they carry so much weight in my heart right now.”
CENSUS: AS COUNTY SHRINKS, SO DO ITS TOWNS: The 2020 Census already had found that Darlington County shrank 8.4 percent — losing 5,776 people — since 2010. Now, Census numbers say its four towns are shrinking as well. Census figures say that, between 2010 and 2020, the city of Darlington lost 2.2 percent of its residents, the city of Hartsville lost 4 percent of its population, the town of Lamar lost 12 percent and the town of Society Hill lost 22 percent.
DARLINGTON’S $825,000 STREETSCAPE PROJECT: Not too many months from now, downtown Darlington should have a new look. Along with a new $17 million judicial center and a $3.1 million expansion of the county Historical Commission’s museum, Darlington is also launching a major downtown streetscape project – and all these projects may be completed at just about the same time. The city has been awarded a $750,000 federal Community Development Block Grant for the streetscape work, said city planner Lisa Bailey. Along with $75,000 in matching funds approved by Darlington County Council, that gives the city $825,000 to work with.
3rd VOTE MAKES DUKE MAYOR-ELECT OF SOCIETY HILL: After three elections, two runoffs and two recounts, challenger Dwayne Duke is officially mayor-elect of the town of Society Hill. Darlington County election officials on Dec. 2 certified Duke winner of the Nov. 30 “runoff of the runoff,” defeating incumbent Mayor Tommy Bradshaw by 2 votes. A recount confirmed that Duke led Bradshaw 112-110. Those results marked the end of a month-long series of elections and runoffs that were very rare, maybe unprecedented, in Darlington County history. The Nov. 2 general election ended in a runoff between Bradshaw and Duke. The Nov. 16 runoff resulted in a 98-98 tie vote. That prompted another runoff.
‘I FOUGHT HARD, SO HARD’: “I didn’t think I would get that far,” Quincey Walker says of his second-place finish on CBS’ make-you-sweat reality series “Tough as Nails.” Walker’s claiming the No. 2 spot was revealed to the nation Dec. 8 when the series concluded its third season. For Walker – a Lamar native who lives in Florence and works at Nucor Steel in Darlington – it meant he could finally talk about his experience as a cast member on the show. “All those times I felt like I was going to punch out gave me fuel to be able to fight, fight, fight,” he said. “I never doubted myself. I never doubt myself. … I gave it all I had. … I fought hard, so hard, all the way to the end.”