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Reflecting back on the stories that have shaped me
As I start to look forward to reporting here on Tread with your support, I’ve taken some time to reflect back on the stories I’ve reported across Alabama that have shaped me both as a person and as a journalist.
Below, I’ve listed brief excerpts of 60 of the thousands of stories I’ve written that highlight the type of work I’ve done and hope to continue to do here for Tread. Each description links to the story’s original publication.
“This is one of the most appalling cases of jail abuse the country has seen,” the 37-page federal lawsuit began. “On the night of January 25 to January 26, 2023, Anthony Don Mitchell froze to death while incarcerated at the Walker County Jail.”
She had to share the truth. That was the reason that a Walker County correctional officer said she decided to share internal surveillance video of Anthony “Tony” Mitchell with someone outside of her agency. For that, a lawsuit claims, she was terminated from her position.
The video, his family said, was difficult to watch. The internal surveillance recording obtained by CBS 42, which lasts just over a minute, shows what the family says appears to be their loved one, Anthony “Tony” Mitchell, being carried into the loading area of the Walker County Jail. It contradicts a police statement that Mitchell was “alert and conscious” when he left the facility.
They were left waiting. Whether 10 minutes or 10 hours, the students and staff of the Islamic Academy of Alabama felt they had been left behind.
He suffered in silence. And on one cold Alabama night, the walls of his family home could no longer protect him. That night, in the first hours of February 16, 2022, Jeffrey Eugene Montgolf, 54, died in silence, just as he’d lived.
He hoped a bass guitar would save him. The eighth-grader at Magic City Acceptance Academy, an LGBTQ-friendly charter school in central Alabama, had picked up the instrument after a police officer, gun drawn, had ordered him and his classmates back into the auditorium where he’d just finished music class. The officer said there was a shooter on campus, the student recalled.
His family thought jail may be the safest place for him. But two weeks after his family called police for a welfare check and their loved one was subsequently arrested, Anthony “Tony” Mitchell was dead.
Only a clock stopped the execution of Kenneth Eugene Smith. But time may no longer be a burden for Alabama officials tasked with ending the life of its citizens.
For 18 years, Fred Randal went from house to house in Birmingham reading water meters. A self-described “grassroots citizen,” Randal, now retired, has lived in Belview Heights for over 35 years. Randal said he’s ready for change at Birmingham Water Works, but now there’s a restraining order in the way.
They knew she’d been shattered. And the four pastors, all leaders of the movement, wrote to the U.S. president to tell him just that.
She never made it to that doctor’s appointment. Dee Kent, then 77 years old, had been on her way from Valley to Opelika, Alabama, for a test that would determine if the cancer she’d already beaten twice had come back. But she wasn’t far into Lee County, she said, when she saw the blue lights. She was arrested for failure to pay a $141 trash bill.
She wished it hadn’t hit her. Ann Hodges had made that clear. The reserved woman, an Alabama native, told her then-husband she’d wished that the meteorite had burned up in the atmosphere. Or maybe just landed somewhere up the road. Or if the landlady wanted it, as she had argued in court, maybe it should have just hit her instead.
He told her not to cry. One of the officers who’d come to arrest Martha Menefield, an 82-year-old Black woman, for failure to pay a $77 trash bill, told her not to cry.
Justin Stewart can still remember raising chickens with his younger brother. He can remember — when they were young, maybe 4 or 5 years old — jumping on the trampoline with him, laughing together. His brother allegedly shot two police officers in Alabama last year, killing one.
For the men of Alabama’s death row, it was almost Thanksgiving. They spoke from Holman Correctional Facility, the maximum security prison in the southern part of the state where many of their neighbors, one by one, have been executed. The condemned men – all members of Project Hope to Abolish the Death Penalty – reflected on a rare concession from a state that has, for decades, fought for their deaths.
His candle burned at both ends. In 2018, two weeks before Christmas, John Jay Runnion – the old John, the new John – the only John his sister had ever known – was found dead on a picnic table in Avondale Park, his sleeping bag zipped up to his shoulders, according to a coroner’s report. The low temperature the night before John’s death was 25 degrees.
They all came to Gee’s Bend. They came from Birmingham and Montgomery. They came from New York and California. And they came from right up the road.
He carried an index card with him. On it, 16-year-old Aaron Brewer had summed up his view of the world: “If everyone looked for the lost, no one would have to be found.” But on a hot March afternoon, Aaron had been lost. After finishing a mile run during his 7th-period track practice, Aaron died beside the Pelham High School track. No one had found him until it was too late.
Britney Dixon said that John Wayne Snider would do anything for anybody. Dixon, a critical care nurse and the mother of Snider’s 13-year-old son, said that if somebody needed him, John Snider was always there. But in August 2020, she said, the city John had grown up in – Piedmont, Alabama – didn’t return the favor. That month, she said, following an arrest for unpaid fines, Snider died in the city jail, neglected by the community that he called home.
A JSU football player allegedly assaulted his teammate again and again. The warrants against him went unserved for months.
When Julie Nordmann walked into the Grand Hotel in Point Clear, Alabama, she was starstruck. There, sitting in the hotel’s Birdcage lounge with two pitchers of margaritas flanking her, was Joni Mitchell.
When Avri Gillispie walked across the stage as a graduate of Pelham High School, she thought the trauma was coming to an end. Gillispie had finished her senior year remotely, pushed out of the school by bullying that had intensified into death threats and physical intimidation.
They called for mercy after the murder of their mother. The state called for death anyway.
In May 2020, Kristie Williams got news no mother ever wants to hear. Her daughter, a Marine stationed in Hawaii, had been sexually assaulted by her superior officer. Williams wanted nothing more than to be by her daughter’s side. But in a lawsuit filed by Williams in federal court, the longtime employee of UAB claimed the university violated federal law by requiring her to work during her military family leave.
As snow fell across the Magic City in the first days of 2022, Rentle Lee Wilson was left out in the cold. Wilson, who said he’s faced homelessness for three years, had heard from others living on the city’s streets that Boutwell Auditorium wasn’t open as a warming station as it had been in years past. According to the city, Boutwell Auditorium was “unavailable” as a warming center on Sunday.
“Mayor Woodfin likes to say that he’s a progressive politician,” said Fabio Melo, an organizer with Adelante Alabama. “Progressive cities in this country are not signing agreements with ICE.” Woodfin’s response? “Try Jesus. Don’t try me.”
When Carol Clarke realized she was the first woman to represent her district on the Birmingham City Council, she was stunned. On Tuesday, Clarke joined four other women — Valerie Abbott, Wardine Alexander, Crystal Smitherman, and LaTonya Tate — to form a majority on the city’s top legislative body.
As Alabama governors, Republican Robert Bentley and Democrat Don Siegelman presided over 16 executions: eight each. Years after the ends of their respective administrations, Bentley and Siegelman’s positions on the death penalty have evolved, with both former state leaders saying they have serious concerns with the practice of putting prisoners to death.
Bubba Wallace’s historic win at Talladega this week was a milestone for the sport, but it wasn’t the first time a Black driver has won a top NASCAR race. Before Bubba Wallace, there was Wendell Scott.
When Alaina Browning got the message, she looked at her phone and cried. Browning, a 30-year-old librarian from Jasper, was watching her fears come true. She and her husband may not be able to adopt a child in her home state of Alabama.
Hailey Swann said Layton River Ellison had never met a stranger. To him, everyone was a friend. Ellison, who was only 19, was one of two linemen that died while working to restore power to communities in west Jefferson County.
When the American Samoan Teacher of the Year came to attend Space Camp in Huntsville, Alabama, alongside her decorated colleagues, she was already concerned about the state’s reputation of discrimination.
She helped him with his costume. Her classmates did, too. Stitch by stitch, the senior at Magic City Acceptance Academy helped her history teacher become a Mardi Gras queen.
When the behavior of Kathleen Mclaughlin’s two-year-old son began to take a turn for the worst, she couldn’t pin down the cause of the problem. Her child, who would later be diagnosed with autism, was refusing to eat some foods, and he kept repeating a phrase Kathleen and her husband couldn’t understand: “No hot.”
Lindsey Dukeminier and her fiancé were driving through Montgomery to visit family when they saw the sign. Their hearts sank into their stomachs.
Arturo was a lover. When he would see Erica Star Robbins across Linn Park in Birmingham, he’d speed over to her on his wheelchair, a smile stretched across his face. He’d ask her to marry him – not an unusual occurrence – and then he’d turn to the person next to Erica and ask them, too, for their hand in marriage. “There’s enough of me to go around,” he’d say.
Hattie Howard-Collins remembers it all. Nearly 60 years later, she can still remember the mass meetings at the churches in her hometown of Marion, Alabama. She still remembers the police dogs. She remembers Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. Above all, she remembers the deep love of her parents. She could never forget.
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