Big headlines made in 2011 across Region 8

JONESBORO, AR (KAIT) - Now that the new year has come, it's a good time to take a look back at some of the top stories in Region 8 this year. The following list is not an official countdown, but merely a mention of some of the biggest news makers this year. Some of the following stories you may have forgotten about, but others you will always remember.

We'll begin in the city of Wynne, where a large fire heavily damaged the plastics division of Mueller Copper Tube Products in September. Fire investigators said a spark ignited the fire, which led to 170 people being laid off. Some of those employees were rehired after a few weeks to perform repackaging work. That was after the company leased a 30,000 square foot building. Wynne Mayor Bob Stacy said he was unsure if the company would rehire employees immediately after the fire, but was happy with the company's optimism they would rebuild.

In June of this year, residents woke up one morning to find the facade of downtown Harrisburg forever changed. The American Legion building and Collier Jennings law firm building were destroyed when large flames torched the structures. Harrisburg Police Chief Gary Hefner said one man was arrested for setting the fire. American Legion members told Region 8 News they'd like to rebuild the building, but were unsure if they would ever the get chance.

Region 8 residents, in particular Arkansas State fans, were given a winning season by the Red Wolves. In one of the most highly watched seasons in ASU history, the scarlet and black surged to a 10 win season and an undefeated record in the Sun Belt Conference. After the Red Wolves won the Sun Belt title, former Head Coach Hugh Freeze took a job to become the head coach of the Ole Miss Rebels in December. The emotional high dropped for fans of the team, but not the team itself. A week after the departure of Freeze, ASU made national headlines by hiring Gus Malzahn from the Auburn Tigers, setting the stage for an optimistic 2012 football season.

The spring flooding in 2011 was historic. Several counties were declared federal disaster areas after heavy rain drenched streams and flooded swollen rivers. From Poplar Bluff to Caruthersville, Wynne to Pocahontas and Payneway to Paragould, flood stories were found all over Region 8. In Payneway, rain backed up the St. Francis River so much, water from the river entered multiple churches and homes. In Pocahontas, residents did all they could to hold the water back. In Poplar Bluff, homes in the center of town were heavily damaged by as much as 6 feet of water. Most of those homes dried out, but some people moved for fear of another flood.

Jonesboro was no stranger to big news. On August 24, 2011, the Jonesboro Police Department responded to the scene of a murder. Police said Marc Despain, 34 of Jonesboro, was killed by Terrance Barker after being paid by Carl Kelly, Despain's father-in-law. Police also said Kelley let Barker into Despain's home. According to police, Johnny Hubbard admitted to bringing Barker to meet Kelley before the murder took place. All three men have been through the court system since the murder. Police also reported witnesses placed all three men together before the murder. The neighborhood was rocked by the news.

Also in Jonesboro was the wave of sexual assaults Region 8 News has been reporting since early 2011. In September, police confirmed 8-11 sexual assaults could have been connected. Police said at least two of the reports were very similar in nature. Police said the investigation into these cases continue, but the rumor mill and internet were swirling with misinformation throughout the year. Police said the hype made it difficult to solve the cases. Some Jonesboro neighborhoods held National Night Out campaigns to promote safety from sexual assault and related crimes.

In Trumann, police and residents mourned the shooting death of Officer Jonathan Schmidt. Police said Schmidt, who was on the police force since 2007, was shot by Jerry Lard during a late night traffic stop in April. Scmidt was shot and killed in front of the Cottonwood Manor Apartments. After the shooting, Schmidt's family was honored for the officer's heroism and dedication to his job. Nearly a year before the shooting, Police Chief Tony Rusher awarded Schmidt with a medal after he performed CPR on a one-year old child, saving his life. Scmidt became the second police officer to die on duty in the last several years.

In August, the small town of Senath in Dunklin County was the center of a media circus after the body of a 3-year old girl was found in a drainage ditch in rural Dunklin County. In early August, police took a report that Breeann Rodriguez was missing from her home in Senath. Ten days after the girl's disappearance, her body was found. Police charged Shawn Morgan, 43, with first degree murder. The prosecutor's office said Morgan suffocated the child with a plastic bag before dumping her body. Police said Rodriguez was playing on Morgan's ladder attached to his outdoor pool. Hundreds of volunteers and police officers searched for the girl days after her disappearance. Police said Breeann's killer lived near the Rodriguez home.

Finally, we end with a story deeply dividing Region 8 and the nation. The so-called West Memphis Three were released from jail in August by entering into an Alford guilty plea, which allowed Damien Echols, Jessie Misskelley and Jason Baldwin to maintain their innocence, but acknowledge prosecutors likely had enough evidence to convict them. All three men were credited with time served, and were released from prison after spending 18-years behind bars. Celebrities were in attendance when the Alford guilty plea was given before a packed courtroom in downtown Jonesboro. The men were convicted of killing three eight year old boys in West Memphis back in 1993. After the men were released, they were greeted by an enthusiastic crowd when they made the walk from the courtroom to leave Jonesboro.

These are just a few of the top stories to make headlines across Region 8 in 2011 and by no means is it a complete list. Now that 2012 is upon us, we'll see what big headlines are made this year.

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