We used a mixture of statistics and human discretion to review some of the top news stories of 2020 from Christian County.
Using all of the website analytics tools at our fingertips, we went back to determine the 11 most read pieces on our website, CCHeadliner.com, from Jan. 1-Dec. 29, 2020.
Not counting photo galleries and some breaking news items, we determined the top 11 most viewed stories for the year, plus one honorable mention. We present the 12 most clicked and most influential pieces of news coverage in Christian County for the year that was 2020.
1. “H— yeah, I did.”
About a quarter of a million people visited our website in 2019 to read about the arrest of Audrey McAlister in Clever. The story reached its conclusion in January 2020, and was met with similar six-figure enthusiasm when McAlister was sentenced to six years in prison on second-degree assault and unlawful use of a weapon convictions.
McAlister, 31, was sentenced per the terms of a plea agreement. She was arrested for attacking another woman with a metal baton and then fleeing from police, resulting in a pickup truck accident in northern Stone County.
A Christian County deputy wrote in the probable cause statement that he asked McAlister if she struck the woman “in the head with a baton,” and McAlister allegedly replied, “H— yeah, I did.”
2. COVID patient attended church service in Ozark
We really wish this would have been the height of COVID-19 coverage in Christian County. It was only the beginning.
When COVID-19 arrived in Christian County in March, the Christian County Health Department offered dates, times and locations of potential public exposures. One of the first cases was a COVID-19-positive patient who attended a Sunday service at James River Church.
We understand a lot more about how the coronavirus spreads today, but the Christian County Health Department staff is also far too overwhelmed with new cases to account for every possible exposure event that occurs in Christian County on a daily basis.
The James River Church south campus is Ozark is the largest church in Christian County, regularly drawing thousands of worshippers every Sunday and Wednesday.
3. Billings man sentenced to 330 years in prison
A Billings man will spend the rest of his life in prison after a Christian County judge sentenced him to a total of 330 consecutive years on 11 different charges.
Gary W. Hicks, 24, was sentenced to 30 years each on three counts of first-degree child molestation, and 30 years each on eight counts of sexual exploitation of a minor child.
Circuit Judge Jennifer Growcock sentenced Hicks at a hearing in Ozark Nov. 6.
4. Ozark High School drive-through graduation
Class of 2020 graduates lined up in their cars and took part in a walk across an outdoor stage at Ozark High School. One by one, the graduates received diplomas. Ozark held a larger graduation ceremony in the fall. The drive-through ceremony was for students who would be away at college, in the military or working elsewhere at the time of the fall graduation event.
5. Mask orders issued in Nixa, Ozark
Oct. 21, 2020, marked the start of face covering requirements in public places in Ozark and Nixa in a concerted effort to reduce the spread of COVID-19.
To sum up several months worth of coverage, the requirements have been met with mixed reactions from the general public. The orders in Ozark and Nixa have since been extended into the spring of 2021, and are carried out by executive orders from the mayors of the two cities.
“The decision to enact this mask covering order is not taken lightly, and a great deal of consideration went into this decision,” Ozark Mayor Rick Gardner said when the orders were given. “We considered that hospitals in our area are overwhelmed with patients and the Ozark School District is seeing an increase in quarantined students and teachers. We need to do our part at slowing the spread of COVID-19 and support our neighboring cities such as Springfield, Nixa and Branson that have also enacted individual masking orders."
6. Governor speaks at Sparta graduation
The 2020 graduating class of Sparta High School, 44 of them, took part in graduation ceremonies May 21, in the midst of a global pandemic. Public health orders regarding COVID-19 led administrators to make several adjustments to the way graduation exercises were conducted, but the ceremony went on.
Missouri Gov. Mike Parson was the keynote speaker, in large part because his granddaughter, Michaela House, is one of Sparta’s 2020 graduates.
“2020 will never be about the coronavirus, so just set that off to the side, that’s not what we’re going to remember 2020 about. I’m going to tell you what 2020 will be remembered by. It will be remembered as the launchpad for you,” Parson said. “It will be the launchpad for what you’re going to do with your career and your life.”
7. Ozark Mill reconstruction continues
By law, construction work is considered essential.
That’s why construction workers were busy on the Bass Pro Shops Finley Farms property as March turned to April and springtime weather arrived in Ozark. That’s why many Christian County residents likely took an interest in project updates as the spring and summer seasons progressed.
The redevelopment of the old Ozark Mill continued while people in other lines of work were ordered to stay home throughout Christian County. Finley Farms includes the revitalization of the historic Ozark Mill and the conversion of what was once a Missouri Department of Transportation garage and a plant nursery into a working farm with multi-purpose communal meeting space.
The development plan calls for a restaurant, a speakeasy-style bar, agricultural farm development, river access and nature trails. The historic Ozark Mill is slated to be made into a restaurant.
8. Charges dismissed against Lambert’s Cafe founding family member
In January 2020, prosecutors dropped charges against Benjamin P. Lambert after he was deemed mentally incompetent to stand trial.
In September 2018, a grand jury indicted Lambert on five felony charges. He was accused of enticing two children to participate in sex acts for money. He is accused of taking video footage of persons under the age of 18 taking part in sex acts.
The chapter of Missouri statutes which Lambert’s defense attorney Thomas Carver referred to, in part, states, “No person who as a result of mental disease or defect lacks capacity to understand the proceedings against him or her or to assist in his or her own defense shall be tried, convicted or sentenced for the commission of an offense so long as the incapacity endures.”
Carver explained in court that Lambert lives in a nursing home in Sikeston, where the Scott County public administrator has been appointed as his legal guardian in a decision field April 2, 2019.
9. Cruisin’ the Square
The turnout for Cruisin’ the Square on Aug. 15 proved without a shadow of a doubt that the people of Christian County had a collective case of cabin fever and wanted something to do.
The Ozark Historic River District hosted Cruisin’ the Square 2020 in downtown Ozark in cooperation with the Christian County government and the Ozark Department of Public Works.
Hundreds of car enthusiasts and onlookers came to downtown Ozark on Aug. 15 to see the classic vehicles and mingle.
10. Stay-at-home orders
On March 24, Ozark was the first municipality in Christian County to come under a stay-at-home order in an effort to reduce the spread of the novel coronavirus.
The Christian County Commission voted 3-0 to start a 30-day stay-at-home order at 12:01 a.m. March 26. Nixa issued a stay-at-home order shortly after the county commission’s decision.
Missouri Gov. Mike Parson issued a statewide “Stay Home, Missouri,” order on April 6. The statewide stay-at-home order was something the governor said was difficult to issue.
"This power is something I think should be rare for government to ever take advantage of, and for one person to make the decision for 6 million Missourians without due process, jeopardizing their liberties," Parson said.
The original stay-at-home order extended once and expired on May 6.
11.Victim identified in suspicious death case
Darrell A. Hamilton was arrested March 11, after Ozark police discovered his girlfriend Amy Phippen’s body inside Hamilton’s home on South Street. Hamilton himself made the initial 911 call that led police officers to the scene. It’s estimated that Phippen had been dead for at least 12 hours when officers arrived.
Police did not confirm Phippen’s identity until April 15.
Dr. Ransom Ellis, Johnson County Deputy Medical Examiner, performed Phippen’s autopsy, and found that she died of bronchopneumonia, “an infection within the lungs.” He testified at the preliminary hearing that Phippen, “appeared older than her stated age, and she appeared to me as malnourished.”
“There were several injuries scattered across the body,” Ellis said.
Hamilton appeared for preliminary hearing that lasted five and a half hours on Oct. 23. Near the end of the hearing, Associate Circuit Judge Doug Bacon dismissed the sodomy charge filed against Hamilton, ruling the prosecuting attorneys failed to establish probable cause for Hamilton to come to trial.
Honorable mention: Fishing license requirement temporarily suspended
We knew that people in the Ozarks love to go fishing, but we didn’t know exactly how much until 2020.
In light of the COVID-19 pandemic and the stay-at-home orders that went with it, fishing became one of the safest and readily available activities people could turn to in order to get out of the house and get some fresh air. The Missouri Department of Conservation temporarily suspended the requirement for persons ages 16-64 to have fishing licenses from March 27 to April 15.
That meant Christian County residents could head to the Finley River, the James River or any other body of water in Missouri and fish without a license. More than 13,000 anglers read about the relaxed requirement on our website.