News in Brief

Democratic control of Kentucky House weakens further

FRANKFORT (AP) — Another Kentucky state lawmaker is switching from the Democratic Party to the GOP, further boosting the Republican Party’s mission to take control of the only Southern legislative chamber still run by Democrats.

State Rep. Jim Gooch, who chairs the Natural Resources and Environment Committee, announced Monday he will seek re-election as a Republican. He attributed his decision to President Barack Obama’s “radical agenda,” including environmental regulations and a push for gun control.

The move further ratcheted up tension over control of the House. Greg Stumbo, the Democratic Speaker of the House, said only: “We’ll see them on Election Day.”

Republican Party Kentucky Chairman Mac Brown sent a statement welcoming Gooch to the GOP: “As we continue our march toward a Republican majority in the State House, we are thrilled to add him to our ranks and look forward to supporting him,” he wrote.

Gooch is the second House Democrat to switch parties since Gov. Matt Bevin was elected in November, in a blistering defeat for Democrats that highlighted state voters’ drastic Republican turn. Two other Democrats accepted appointments from Bevin, leaving the House with 50 Democrats and 46 Republicans when the legislature reconvenes next month.

Special elections will be held to fill the four vacant seats.

Republicans will meanwhile likely try to persuade a few other Democratic representatives from conservative districts to switch parties. If successful, they could claim control of the House for the first time in nearly 100 years.


Man killed when vehicle he was working on runs over him

HINDMAN (AP) — Kentucky State Police say a Knott County man died Sunday afternoon when the vehicle he was working on rolled over him.

According to police, troopers and emergency workers were dispatched to the Pippa Passes community at about 12:30 p.m. after Post 13 received a call about a man run over by a vehicle.

Troopers found Steve Halcomb underneath a Dodge Durango sport utility vehicle. They determined that Mr. Halcomb had been working underneath the SUV, when it rolled off of a ramp and dragged him down the driveway onto Trace Caney Rd.

Knott County Deputy Coroner Donnie Salmons pronounced Halcomb deceased at the scene at approximately 1:04 p.m.

No foul play is suspected, and no autopsy will be performed. The death remains under investigation by state police.


Kentuckians identified as southern Illinois drowning victims

PATOKA, Ill. (AP) — A Kentucky couple and their three children headed to visit family in Minnesota have been identified as the weekend drowning victims caught in a rain-swollen southern Illinois creek.

Todd County, Kentucky, Coroner Timothy Wells told The Associated Press Monday that Adam Schutt and his wife Erin of Elkton died Saturday night after attempting to cross a low-lying bridge near the town of Patoka, Illinois, about 60 miles east of St. Louis.

Logan, Robbyn and Chad Schutt also died. Wells did not release the victims’ ages.

The family’s car had been on Interstate 57. Investigators suggested the Schutts got lost after stopping for gas or dinner before driving into several feet of water.

Patoka Fire Chief Blake Hyde estimated water levels had risen to 4 to 5 feet above the roadway.


Man granted new trial in 1987 murder walks free on bond

NEWPORT (AP) — William “Ricky” Virgil is free on bond after more than 28 years in prison for a murder he says he did not commit.

“I really ain’t gathered it all in yet,” 63-year-old told The Kentucky Enquirer as he walked out of the Campbell County jail on Thursday. “I feel probably like being beamed up.”

The Cincinnati man was charged in 1987 with the murder of Retha Welch, a Veterans Administration minister and nurse from Newport.

Virgil refused a plea agreement because he said he was innocent, but a jury found him guilty in 1988 and he was sentenced to 70 years.

The Kentucky Innocence Project took up Virgil’s case in 2010. Its investigation showed DNA evidence, including hair and blood, was not connected to Virgil or the victim.

Kentucky Innocence Project Director Linda Smith made the case that Virgil was convicted purely on circumstantial evidence. Last Friday, Campbell County Judge Fred Stine ruled Virgil could have a new trial.

Virgil was released on a $15,000 cash bond with certain restrictions, like a monitoring bracelet.

Kentucky Assistant Commonwealth’s Attorney Adam Hill had asked for a $1 million bond, arguing the DNA evidence doesn’t exonerate Virgil but shows that someone else was present. A pretrial hearing in Virgil’s new murder trial has been set for March.

Jennifer Carpenter, a Kentucky Innocence Project student volunteer who attends Chase Law School at Northern Kentucky University, was one of a small group of people who welcomed Virgil on Christmas Eve morning as he left her jail.

She said she feels for the victim’s family.

“It was hard seeing them in court,” Carpenter said. “It was a tragedy on both sides. I want justice for her, freedom for him.”

For now, Virgil will stay at a home owned by Calvary Ministries, which helps house ex-convicts. Bimp McAlister, a prison minister who met Virgil in prison in 1993 and believes in Virgil’s innocence, posted the bond.

“William is looking forward to going fishing,” Smith said. “That’s what he keeps telling me, ‘I can’t wait to go fishing.’”


State audit of Morgan Fiscal Court finds ‘abuse of power’

WEST LIBERTY (AP) — A state audit has concluded that hundreds of thousands of dollars in federal disaster aid are unaccounted for in Morgan County.

According to the Lexington Herald-Leader, outgoing state Auditor Adam Edelen’s report, released Monday, found evidence of “waste, fraud and abuse” in the aftermath of a 2012 tornado that devastated West Liberty.

The audit accuses former Judge-Executive Tim Conley of abusing his power and the Fiscal Court to create a situation in which there was minimal oversight.

Conley, who pleaded guilty in 2014 to mail fraud in a scheme in which he took $130,000 in kickbacks from a contractor, declared a state of emergency in Morgan County after the March 2012 tornado.

The audit found the possibility of abuse was so high it couldn’t rely on the county’s financial records.


Kentucky parks offers eagle viewing cruise for students

AURORA (AP) — The Kentucky State Parks is giving students the chance to take a cruise on Kentucky Lake to observe bald eagles and other wildlife.

According to the parks, the 2-hour cruise takes place on Jan. 29, departing from the marina at Kenlake State Resort Park at Aurora.

The program will be led by staff from Kentucky State Parks and Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources It is designed to align with Kentucky academic standards.

A 9:30 a.m. cruise is for public and private school students. A 1 p.m. cruise is for home school students.

The fee is $15 per student and the registration deadline is Jan. 20.

More information is available from Lisa Deavers at 502-564-8110, ext. 246 or [email protected]

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