The past year looked nothing like anyone expected.
Who anticipated months battling a pandemic virus and economic devastation in its wake? Or that we’d be faced with the death of a helpless infant? The year 2020 certainly brought its share of unexpected, difficult news. Here’s a rundown of the biggest stories to impact the lives of Cooke County residents.
The pandemic overshadowed everything in 2020.
A pandemic coronavirus that first appeared in Wuhan, China, in late 2019 spread through the U.S. in early spring, spurring Gov. Greg Abbott to order a statewide lockdown in April to try to slow its spread. Local officials responded by adding testing and critical care capacity at North Texas Medical Center in Gainesville and tracking the spread of COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus. Schools and businesses moved operations online, and some businesses shut down entirely.
Cooke County recorded its first case of the pandemic virus in April. On July 1, city and county officials jointly announced the county’s first COVID-19 death, a Gainesville man in his 30s. Days later, Abbott instituted a statewide mask mandate requiring face coverings in many environments where social distancing could not be maintained. The mandate remains in effect. Rising hospitalizations this fall and into the holiday season spurred local officials to urge residents to continue precautions. The first doses of a vaccine for the coronavirus arrived days before Christmas and were immediately administered to front-line medical workers who have daily contact with COVID-19 patients.
All told, the county has recorded 2,419 cases of the coronavirus in county residents this year. Of those, 36 have died, including seven deaths announced Tuesday, Dec. 29: three Gainesville men in their 50s, 70s and 80s; two Gainesville women in their 70s and 80s; and two men in their 70s and 80s living in unincorporated areas of the county. Thirty Cooke County residents were hospitalized as of Wednesday, Dec. 30.
Infant found dead
The death of 16-week-old Lyrik Aliyana Brown shook the community this past summer.
She was still strapped into her car seat in the rear of a Volkswagen Jetta that was submerged in the Red River when she was found June 9, law enforcement officials said.
The infant was the subject of an Amber Alert after her father got into a dispute with her mother. The public was asked to look for her and Jeremy Brown, who authorities believed had abducted her in the Jetta. She was found the same day the alert was issued.
Police say Jeremy Brown assaulted the baby’s mother before he fled in the Jetta with the infant in the back seat. The mother reportedly pleaded with Jeremy Brown, who was 30 at the time, not to take the child.
Jeremy Brown was seen later that afternoon underneath the I-35 bridge on the south bank of the Red River where he reportedly told a witness he wrecked his vehicle and needed to borrow a cellphone. When first responders arrived, Jeremy Brown refused to say where the child was, authorities said.
Jeremy Brown resisted arrest when Cooke County Sheriff’s Office deputies tried to detain him, according to a previous Register report. He had to be subdued and handcuffed, court records state.
Jeremy Brown faces a third-degree felony assault charge and a capital murder charge. He was indicted Aug. 19, according to District Attorney John Warren.
“If found guilty of capital murder it is automatic life in prison, no parole,” Warren said.
Those found guilty of capital murder in Texas could also face the death penalty.
Jeremy Brown remains in custody at the Cooke County Jail on bonds totaling $1.25 million, jail records show.
Two statues honoring Confederate veterans of the Civil War became surrounded by controversy this year as the nation grappled with instances brutal treatment of Black people by police in several cities.
Gainesville City Council members in July voted unanimously to have the city’s statue at Leonard Park removed. It remains in place for now, as the city works to develop a budget to move it to the Morton Museum of Cooke County.
Cooke County Commissioners in August voted 4-1 to keep the county’s statue where it stands on courthouse grounds. The more than 100-year-old monument had been the focus of regular protests since June and continued to draw both opponents of the decision and some supporters into the fall. Three leaders of PRO Gainesville, the group spearheading protests at the statue, turned themselves in to authorities in early September on misdemeanor charges stemming from actions at one of the protests.
—with reporting by Megan Gray-Hatfield
The casinos and many associated businesses at WinStar World Casino and Resort closed down in mid-March as a precaution to slow the spread of the coronavirus and remained shuttered or with limited operations only for about two and a half months. Employees who were not continuing to work were to be paid during the closure. As one of the area’s largest employers, WinStar’s shutdown was the most visible instance locally of how the pandemic battered the dining and tourism industries, which continue to struggle.
MOH week canceled
Also in mid-March, the Medal of Honor Host City Program committee announced its tough decision to cancel the 2020 Medal of Honor Week festivities, following a city order that events with more than 50 people be canceled to slow the pandemic’s spread. Established in 2001, the program brings recipients of the U.S. military’s highest award to town to meet with the community through a series of events each year. One longtime participant, Medal of Honor recipient Gary Beikirch, quarantined at his home in New York City beginning in March to protect his health; another, Bennie Adkins, was hospitalized with the virus the same month and succumbed to it on April 17.
COVID-19 and sports
High school sports in Cooke County were affected by the coronavirus pandemic a multitude of ways, from seasons cut short to seasons canceled altogether. Seniors missed out on their final opportunity to leave their mark and a wave of new safety protocols forced a systemic changes to games and practices. The pandemic kept the Gainesville soccer teams from their playoffs and cut short all softball and baseball seasons. Football’s schedule hung in the balance for months, but eventually officials marshaled through a season and playoffs. Basketball season got up and running and is in the middle of its season as the New Year begins.
It was a busy year for Cooke County voters. To start with, voters effectively chose a new sheriff and new commissioner for Precinct 3 in the March 3 primary election, ousting incumbent Republicans Sheriff Terry Gilbert and Commissioner John Klement in hotly contested races. Former state trooper Ray Sappington is set to take the reins at the sheriff’s office. Adam Arendt, a Cooke County EMT, bested Klement in the precinct where wind farm developments stirred deep feelings. In September and December, a special election and subsequent runoff set state Rep. Drew Springer, R-Muenster, to the Texas Senate beginning in January to fill the remainder of outgoing Sen. Pat Fallon’s term. And for the Nov. 3 general election, the county saw 70% of registered voters turn out, an all-time high.
City council race
Michael Hill won a seat on the Gainesville City Council in November during the city’s first contested race in 11 years. Hill faced Reagan Lynch for the Ward 3 position after incumbent Keith Clegg chose to not seek reelection.
Ward 3 covers the northeast portion of the city.
In August, members of the Gainesville Independent School District Board of Trustees called off a proposed $35.1 million bond election. The cancellation, according to school officials, was related to the pandemic.
The $35.1 million bond was to expand Robert E. Lee Intermediate, 2100 N. Grand Ave., for $13,013,400; to expand W.E. Chalmers Elementary, 600 Radio Hill Road, for $12,781,954; and to make various capital improvements throughout the district for $9,263,176, for a total of $35,058,530, according to a previous report in the Register.
Superintendent DesMontes Stewart said the bond issue is not dead. The district will save the information gathered during the bond process to bring back for public vote in the future.