A few weeks before the July 4 holiday, Amherst County was several months shy of reaching a three-year mark since its last homicide.
Three separate fatal shootings from late June to mid-November halted that streak. Those headlines and more — including the removal of an Amherst town official, the community’s goodbye to a fallen Virginia State Police officer and a competitive Amherst County sheriff’s election race — were among the top stories of 2019. The following is a look at the year’s top stories.
1. Three charged with murder in separate incidents
A June 25 shooting at a home on Bobwhite Road in Amherst left Doris T. Puleio, 92, dead and her daughter, Trudy Ann Goetz, injured with two gunshot wounds. Justin Jay Sales, 18, of Amherst, was arrested July 10 and is charged with first-degree murder, aggravated malicious wounding and two counts of using a firearm in commission of a felony. He awaits a March jury trial in Amherst Circuit Court. On Oct. 1, another shooting at 147 Riverview Road in Madison Heights resulted in the death of John Austin, 83. His son, Chris Hamilton Austin, 48, was arrested at the scene and is charged with second-degree murder and use of a firearm in commission of a felony. His case is set to go before an Amherst County grand jury in February. Another shooting on Nov. 16 in the Canodys Store Road area of northern Amherst County led to the death of Justin Samuels, 43, and injured Blakeman Norconk, 40. Carson Grey Candler, 18, was arrested and is charged with second-degree murder, malicious wounding and two counts of use of a firearm in commission of a felony. Candler is set to face a March 31 preliminary hearing in Amherst General District Court, according to court records.
2. Amherst remembers fallen state trooper Lucas Dowell
Though the Feb. 4 death of Lucas Bartley Dowell took place in Farmville as he and other members of Virginia State Police’s Tactical Team entered a home after securing a search warrant as part of a drug investigation, the Amherst community felt the loss. Dowell had served in the state police’s Area 20 office in Amherst, where a makeshift memorial was set up in the days following his death as residents, friends and public safety colleagues paid their respects. The community memorialized Dowell by dedicating a bridge in his memory over the U.S. 29 bypass in early August.
3. Amherst councilwoman removed from office, wins back seat in election
Amherst Town Council voted July 10 following a closed session to remove Councilwoman Janice Wheaton. Town officials said they could not comment as to the reason why, citing the closed session and council’s code of ethics. Town officials said in a statement the measure, which is made possible in the town’s charter with concurrence of two-thirds of council’s vote, was done in the town’s best interest. Wheaton won the seat a second time in a Nov. 5 special election.
4. Sheriff E.W. Viar re-elected in contentious race
The four-way race for sheriff was the seat’s most competitive race in 24 years and featured three former Amherst sheriff’s deputies who lobbied for change they said was much needed. Sheriff E.W. Viar won a second term with 62% of the vote, topping George Lee, Noel De Palma and Luciano Freitas. In other races, Tom Martin, a Lynchburg city chief planner, was elected to the Amherst County Board of Supervisors’ District 1 seat after Kenneth Campbell stepped down, while residents Ginger Burg, Christopher Terry and John Grieser were elected as newcomers to the Amherst County School Board.
5. Madison Heights mother sentenced in infant son’s death
In April, Maegan Elaine Collier, 25, was sentenced to six years in prison on charges of involuntary manslaughter and child neglect in the death of her son, Kolton, who was just shy of 2 months old when he died in March 2018. Prosecutors said the child was starved to death due to lack of proper care and Collier’s drug addiction. Collier’s attorney said she didn’t intend his death and will punish herself the rest of her life.
6. Second Amendment sanctuary movement engulfs Amherst
A crowd of more than 100 overflowed the Nov. 19 Amherst County Board of Supervisors meeting to demand the county become a Second Amendment sanctuary, a term for localities taking formal stances against legislation aimed at infringing on the right to bear arms. The movement followed the Nov. 5 election that tilted the state legislature to a Democratic majority. Many residents spoke on the need to preserve gun rights while a handful of others said they favor sensible gun control legislation they feel is needed in the wake of mass shootings across the country. Supervisors unanimously passed a Second Amendment sanctuary resolution in December; more than 100 cities, counties and towns in Virginia have now passed similar resolutions.
7. Monroe man sentenced in shooting involving Amherst deputies
An Amherst County jury in September found Trevor Dawson Ewers, 24, guilty of two counts of attempted capital murder of a law enforcement officer, a count of aggravated malicious wounding and two counts of using a firearm in commission of a felony. Two years prior, he was arrested after shooting deputy Jason Meador of the Amherst County Sheriff’s Office, who survived. Another deputy shot Ewers in the shoulder. Prosecutors said Ewers tried to shoot at her also. In December a judge sentenced Ewers to 108 years in prison. He plans to appeal the rulings and has filed a lawsuit seeking $2 million in damages.
8. Cline holds town hall in Amherst, weighs in on impeachment
In the spring, U.S. Rep. Ben Cline, R-6th, held a town hall meeting in Monroe several months after beginning his first term in Congress. Some residents said they couldn’t recall the last time a congressional town hall was held in the county. Cline returned to Amherst in October to speak at an Amherst County Republican Committee meeting and blasted Democrats’ efforts to unseat President Donald Trump through an impeachment process he described as unconstitutional. Some residents protested outside the meeting and said they favor the impeachment process while voicing thoughts critical of Trump.
9. New events lift spirits in Amherst
In late June, a daytime parade to honor first responders brought a patriotic scene to the streets of Amherst. Town officials organized the event along with a concert and fireworks display and plan to hold future parades. That parade and the Amherst Christmas Parade, which returned in December after a year’s absence due to weather, featured a new route through the town. Celebrate Old Town Amherst, a first-time event aimed at generating community pride and participation, also was held at multiple locations in town the last Saturday in April.
10. Phelps Road site becomes national landmark, Winton sale completed
A former school on Phelps Road in Madison Heights in 2019 reached a major milestone by becoming a national historic landmark, a key milestone in receiving tax credits as part of the site’s $7 million renovation to become 41 market rate apartments. Waukeshaw Development, Inc., which owns the building, received final zoning approval this year to move that project forward and also took ownership of the Winton golf course and country club in northern Amherst County. The Winton site is targeted to become the new home of the Amherst County Fair in 2020.
Other notable stories from 2019
» The Central Virginia Training Center in Madison Heights continued to dwindle in residency and workforce in its final full year of operation, as the site is set to close in summer 2020. Proposed legislation in the General Assembly session to keep some residents on-site failed to advance and Amherst supervisors and the county’s Economic Development Authority contributed $100,000 combined toward a redevelopment plan for the site.
Broadband expansion in rural areas of the county received a boost in the summer with the first of seven towers across the county receiving equipment through SCS Broadband in Nelson County. The fourth tower was fitted by December, the county announced.
» Co-defendants Rodney Hamlette and Katelyn Webber each were sentenced in the October 2016 murder of Troy Tyrone Roberson, who was found dead outside a Madison Heights barbershop. Hamlette, the triggerman, was sentenced to 23 years while Webber, described as the mastermind in a plan to rob Roberson, received more than 20 years on felony murder and other charges. Another co-defendant, Floyd Archie Jr., was sentenced to nine years after he was convicted of accessory after the fact to murder.
» Efforts to help families recovering from the April 2018 tornado that devastated portions of the county, mainly in Elon, continued with new homes for Frank James and the Goff family, who each lost their previous residences in close proximity to each other on Virginia 130. The Amherst Disaster Recovery Group helped both families; the James family moved into the new home in July and the Goff home in Amherst also was built this year.
» The Amherst Mountain Biking Club installed a network of bike trails in the L. Barnes Brockman, Sr. Business and Industrial Park through an agreement with Amherst town officials, a project the club said would help bring more economic activity to Amherst businesses.
Reach Justin Faulconer at (434) 385-5551.