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Former Sheriff Joe Nichols left memorable mark on law enforcement in Newton County
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Joe Nichols, the soft-spoken, self-described “Army brat” who put his indelible fingerprint on law enforcement in Newton County for more than four decades, died Monday in Statesboro. He was 77.

A native of Jesup, George Joseph Nichols Jr. served three terms as Newton County sheriff before retiring in 2009. He began his law enforcement career with the Covington Police Department and was chief deputy for the Sheriff’s Office from 1976 until 1996 under Gerald Malcom before winning election as sheriff when Malcom retired.

When Nichols – who was lauded for both his sense of fairness and sense of humor – retired, he moved with his wife Lois back to Southeast Georgia, where he was born and raised.

“My father did over four decades of law enforcement and he did his time for Newton County, and when he retired he said that was my mom’s time for all the years she was the wife of a sheriff and chief deputy,” said Nichols’ son, Joe Nichols III. “That job obviously takes away a lot of time from the family. I understood what my father did. I thought my father was a great man. But because of the nature of his work, that work always came first.”

Newton County Sheriff Ezell Brown, whose law enforcement career also began with the Covington Police, has served as sheriff since Nichols’ retirement and earlier this week shared his condolences, also noting that in addition to Nichols being his immediate past predecessor (and boss), he and Nichols once opposed each other for sheriff, and that they were both members of the original Covington-Newton County SWAT Team in 1979.

“What do you say about an individual who is no longer here but who shared your law enforcement space for so many years?” wrote Brown in a prepared statement. “…Joe and I both grew up in South Georgia, to which he returned after retiring in 2008. We made Newton County our home…I extend my heartfelt condolences to his family and friends. A loss of this type is never easy. The Newton County Sheriff’s Office and the Georgia Sheriff’s Association will sincerely miss him.”

The extra mile

John Ott, chief judge of the Alcovy Judicial Circuit (which includes Newton and Walton counties), had a long career connection with Nichols. Ott was hired as an assistant district attorney in 1981, was elected district attorney in 1984 and was appointed to the bench in 1990, winning re-election in every term since.

“I’ve worked with him over the years and maybe more closely with him when I was district attorney and then judge,” said Ott. “I always found Joe to be the consummate professional, extremely competent, always willing to go the extra mile for anything you requested, both in the District Attorney’s Office and from the bench.

“He was the quintessential public servant. He’s exactly who you want to be a public servant. All he was concerned about was doing his job as best he could and helping and being of service to everybody. I thoroughly enjoyed working with him through the years, and we got to be real good friends.”

Covington Police Chief Stacey Cotton, who was appointed chief the same year Nichols was first sworn in as sheriff, said he made it a priority early in his career as a patrol officer to make an impression on Nichols and wanted nothing more than to be part of the SWAT team, of which Nichols was then team leader.

“When I found out about the Covington-Newton County SWAT Team, that was my No. 1 goal, probably because I was an athlete in high school and to me, the SWAT team was like being on the football team,” said Cotton, who joined the Covington Police in 1987. “I wanted to be a part of it.”

An appointment to the SWAT team meant a promotion on the police force, and Cotton recalled he couldn’t wait to tell Nichols the good news.

“One of the things that happened then was all the SWAT team members were able to move up in rank,” said Cotton. “The next year, when I was promoted to sergeant, I was so proud I went to Joe to tell him I’d made it to sergeant and to me it was like telling a mentor that I was living up to the standard he’d placed on that SWAT team – which was to be the best you could be.”

The notion of service

Ott and Cotton concurred that when it came to the limelight, Nichols could not be less interested.

“He was quite a humble man,” said Ott. “He did not try to get headlines, and he did not put himself out there with pride or anything. He was just a very humble man that really took to heart that notion of service.”

“I remember Joe’s unassuming personality – he never wanted to be the center of anybody’s attention,” said Cotton. “I remember I became chief and he was elected sheriff about the same time. We actually got into our roles in the same year. That was fun for our relationship to be the chief and the sheriff in the same community.

“We would go to community functions we were invited to, and he always wanted to sit in the back, never wanted anybody to make a fuss over him. I always enjoyed that about him, and more importantly, he taught me to humble myself in the service of others. It wasn’t about the chief or the sheriff – it was about whoever had invited us. It was their event, and we were humbled to be there and honored they’d think to invite us. I’ve tried to keep that attitude ever since.”

“He’d been very adamant about not wanting a lot of drama; that was not him,” said Joe Nichols III. “The hoopla and the parades and all that – that was not my father. I appreciate immeasurably the response that we’ve had.

“A lot of people will talk about what my dad did, because he was sheriff and chief deputy. I hope people will talk about what he was and not just what he did for a living. And what he was, was a whole lot more than a sheriff. The outpouring speaks volumes about how he was regarded.”

‘100,000 bosses’

For many in local law enforcement, the last few years have been sad ones with the deaths of Nichols, former Covington Police Chief Bobby Moody and former assistant chief Almond Turner.

“We’ve lost Joe and we lost Chief Moody over Labor Day weekend last year,” said Cotton. “So to lose two iconic law enforcement figures – one of them hired me and the other was the SWAT team leader when I got there. And we lost Almond Turner back in 2019. It’s kind of lonely, actually.”

In an interview with the Newton Citizen upon his retirement, Nichols got right to the point about being in charge yet still having thousands of supervisors. It’s clear he wouldn’t want it any other way.

“I think the sheriff’s office is the greatest law enforcement agency around,” he said. “A sheriff answers directly to the people. I have 100,000 bosses. If you don’t do a good job, if you embarrass the people of the county, if you don’t take the badge seriously, if you don’t serve the people well, you’re replaced. The Sheriff’s Office is unique because you don’t have a boss, a council or a commission to direct its movements.”

According to the obituary from Rinehart and Sons Funeral Home in Jesup, Nichols is survived by his wife of 53 years, Lois; his sons Joe Nichols III and Josh Nichols; and six grandchildren. A private celebration of life was planned.

Empty Bowls Dinner returns for 10th year
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CONYERS — State School Superintendent Richard Woods will try his hand at ceramic bowl-making Monday at General Ray Davis Middle School as part of the school’s 10th Annual Empty Bowls Dinner.

Woods will be joined at the school by Superintendent Dr. Terry Oatts; Leigh Gant, Business Development officer from Georgia United Credit Union, a long-time sponsor of the event; Shelli Seibert, executive director of the Conyers Rockdale Council for the Arts; and Peggy Lawrence, director of Food Nutrition for Rockdale County Public Schools. Other sponsors include Publix Grocery Stores, Snapping Shoals EMC, Conyers Civic League, Covington Woman’s Club, Conyers Rockdale Council for the Arts, and the Rockdale Foundation.

Art students at Ray Davis Middle have been busy creating bowls in preparation for the Empty Bowls Dinner, which will take place Thursday, May 20, from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m., as a drive-through event. According to Katy King, art instructor at Ray Davis Middle, this year’s theme for bowls is “The Places We Wish To Go.” Students were asked to create bowls that reflect all the places they want to visit when the pandemic is over.

“We know that this year our community needs this event more than ever, and it gives our students the opportunity to truly assist our community,” said King.

This year’s Empty Bowls menu will consist of spaghetti, salad, bread and dessert. Meals will be delivered to cars as they drive through at General Ray Davis Middle School, 375 East Fairview Road SW, Stockbridge.

Tickets for the Empty Bowls Dinner can be ordered by visiting this link: https://bit.ly/3ffLtwD. Tickets are $5 each.

“Empty Bowls is a chance for our students to truly make a difference in the world through their art,” said King. “At the drive-through dinner, you will be invited to take home a ceramic bowl as a reminder of those who have ‘empty bowls’ in our community. All proceeds will go to Rockdale Emergency Relief to help fight hunger in our community. The Art Club will be hosting a canned food drive at the event, so bring your nonperishable food items to donate.”

Kevin Hanna named president, CEO of Conyers-Rockdale Economic Development Council
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CONYERS — The Conyers Rockdale Economic Development Council (CREDC) has selected Kevin Hanna as the organization’s new president and chief executive officer. The board of directors voted unanimously to hire Hanna, a Conyers resident, effective June 1. The announcement was made by Mayor Vince Evans who serves as chair of the economic development organization.

The position became vacant earlier this year when long-time executive Marty Jones announced his plans to retire once a new professional was in place.

“Kevin is a great fit for our community and for CREDC,” said Evans. “The search committee was looking for a visionary in terms of economic and community development. Kevin has proven himself in these areas in several metropolitan cities. His determination to build collaborative partnerships with our local, regional and state partners was key in the committee’s decision to select him as the new leader.”

The CREDC is a joint partnership of the city of Conyers, Rockdale County Board of Commissioners, Development Authority of Rockdale County and the Conyers-Rockdale County Chamber of Commerce. Funding and support for the economic development organization is provided at different levels by the partners.

Since 2014, Hanna has operated as president/CEO of Donaldson Development Group LLC, a real estate development company; principal of Kevin Hanna & Associates LLC, a boutique consulting firm with a mission of collaborating with local community organizations to attract capital to transform neighborhoods; and chairman of the board, for Liberty Group Senior Services,Inc., a 501c(3) non-profit that provides health care services to seniors in the metro Atlanta area.

Earlier in his career, Hanna served as director of Real Estate Development, New Orleans Redevelopment Authority, New Orleans, and Secretary of the Office of Housing and Community Development / director of Redevelopment Authority of Philadelphia. From April 1997 through 2002, he was president of the Atlanta Development Authority (now known as InvestAtlanta).

“I see this as a unique opportunity to share my knowledge and experience in a way that benefits my ‘home’,” Hanna said. “This position affords me the opportunity to help lead the effort to improve the quality of life for my neighbors. There is a great foundation in place for existing industry retention, film and movie productions, and potential for new business growth. I look forward to engaging with the community and continuing building upon the past success.”

Hanna is a graduate of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill with a master of business administration degree with a concentration in banking and finance. He received his undergraduate bachelor of science in economics from Davidson College, Davidson, N.C.

Members of the CREDC search committee, in addition to Evans, included Dr. Steve Boyle, Development Authority of Rockdale County; Pam Brown, Rockdale County Board of Education; Craig Johnson, Conyers-Rockdale Chamber of Commerce; and Commissioner Sherri Washington, Rockdale County Board of Commissioners.

Other members of the CREDC board include Mark Flowers, Dr. John Fountain, Eric Fears, John Hurt, Don Murphy and Laura Sistrunk.

CREDC retained the services of The Chason Group, a Georgia-based business that specializes in executive searches for economic development organizations, chambers of commerce, foundations and other nonprofits.

Shooting over $20,000 at Pine Log Park leaves one dead, three charged with murder
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CONYERS — Rockdale County Sheriff’s Office deputies are investigating a shoot out on May 4 at Pine Log Park that left one person dead, three others charged with murder, and more than $20,000 in federal PPP funds missing.

According to a report from Fox 5 Atlanta News, Malik Maddox, 21, of Conyers, was fatally wounded after he and three other men met at the park around noon on May 4 to allegedly split the money, which investigators say was fraudulently obtained from an approved PPP (Payroll Protection Plan) loan.

Maddox, along with Reginald Smith and Elijah Earlington, arrived at Pine Log Park in one vehicle, Tristan Crane arrived in a second vehicle, and investigators are looking for a third unidentified driver and vehicle. Within minutes of meeting, Crane allegedly fired into the car carrying Maddox, Smith and Earlington, and they returned fire before fleeing the scene and dropping a wounded Maddox off at Piedmont Rockdale Hospital.

According to Rockdale County Sheriff’s Public Information Officer Jedidia Canty, the hospital notified 911 that a gunshot victim had been dropped off. Maddox died from his wounds.

Meanwhile, Crane crashed an SUV into a tree at the park, abandoned the vehicle and fled on foot.

“The vehicle was unoccupied,” Canty said. “During the investigation they observed some shell casings on the ground.”

Crane, 20, of Conyers, turned himself in on May 5. Smith and Earlington were also picked up and are in custody. Canty said all three are currently charged with felony murder.

Rockdale investigators still believe there is one person who needs to be questioned about what happened last week. They are looking for the driver of a black sedan spotted in the parking lot during the shooting.

“Right now we just want to get some information on the vehicle,” Canty said. “We do know that the vehicle was involved, and we’re looking to identify the vehicle and the driver.”

Investigators are also looking for the money and trying to determine how more than $20,000 in federal funds were fraudulently obtained in the first place.

This is an active ongoing investigation; anyone with any information on the shooting should contact Investigator Grote Levett #201 at 770-278-8166 or by email at grote.levett@rockdalecountyga.gov. Anonymous tips can be made to the Crime Stoppers Tip Line at 404-577-TIPS.