PINE BELT - The Pine Belt has had an exciting year. Here are WDAM's Top 5 stories of 2015.
5. Forrest County manhunt
The Forrest County Sheriff's department's year started with a manhunt for Ryan Ledingham.
Ledingham was accused of kidnapping his ex-girlfriend, stealing three vehicles and eluding police for two days. The search ended in the woods of Paul B. Johnson State Park.
"We have been chasing this character for two days and nights now, it's been a long and drawn out process. He is a bad act, and we are fortunate to have him off the streets," said Forrest County Sheriff Billy McGee.
Ledingham was charged with kidnapping, burglary, armed robbery and grand larceny of an auto.
He's still in jail, and the judge denied bond on the armed robbery and kidnapping charges.
The Mississippi Department of Corrections placed a hold on him for a previous burglary charge.
The investigation will be handed over to the district attorney's office next year to be presented to a grand jury.
Thankfully the victim was able to escape unharmed.
4. Back Fire or Gun Fire? The reported shootings at Camp Shelby
That "gunfire" turned out to be a truck's "backfire."
Soldiers reported seeing a man in a maroon truck driving away from the scene.
After an exhaustive search the manhunt was called off. Less than 24 hours later, authorities were called back to the scene for the same thing.
During the investigation, they pulled over 61-year-old Alfred Baria.
Authorities said he admitted he was the person they were looking for.
He claimed he did not fire any shots and the sound everyone heard was just his truck backfiring.
He's back in prison after a judge revoked his probation from a previous felony conviction.
He still faces a felony charge for illegal gun possession and four misdemeanor charges of disturbing the peace in connection to the incident at Camp Shelby.
3. Hattiesburg Mayor Johnny DuPree held in contempt of court
Mayor Dupree was responsible for nominating qualified candidates to 17 vacant positions including city attorney, public defender and police chief. By May, Judge Breland Hilburn found the mayor in contempt of court for failing to comply to bring forward qualified nominees in a timely manner.
On June 4, the judge ordered the mayor to find a police chief by July 10 or he would be fined $150 a day until he did.
Eleven days later Dupree nominated Anthony Parker for the position.
In the meantime, Dupree fought his contempt of court charge.
The judge dropped the charge in September.
2. To Fly, or Not To Fly? The Mississippi State Flag Debate
The debate over the Confederate battle flag arose once again across the state of Mississippi.
Following the Charleston, South Carolina church shooting in June, House speaker Philip Gunn called for the removal of the Confederate flag from Mississippi's flag. Senator Roger Wicker agreed. Governor Phil Bryant disagreed.
"It is the people that they need to respect. Not what the governor thinks, not what the legislature thinks. The majority of the people voted to keep the state flag. Now we have institutions that we ignore the will of the people. And I'm very peculiar. I think that the people are the sovereigns of the state and they should be respected and their decisions should be respected," said Governor Phil Bryant.
Other cities including Columbus, Clarksdale and Starkville have voted or issued executive orders to remove the flag.
Conversely, Petal and Gautier voted to keep the flag.
"We respect everyone's viewpoint. We understand that. But you have to understand too that removing the symbol does not change the past. As far as the political nature of our state. That is our flag, we are a political body and we will fly our flag," said Petal Mayor Hal Marx.
In August, notable Mississippians including John Grisham, Morgan Freeman and Jimmy Buffett, signed a letter asking to get rid of the flag.
In October, the University of Mississippi and the University of Southern Mississippi removed the state flag from their campuses.
1. The shootings of Hattiesburg Officers Benjamin Deen and Liquori Tate
On May 9, a traffic stop turned tragic when Hattiesburg police officers Benjamin Deen and Liquori Tate were gunned down.
The incident unfolded after Officer Deen pulled over a car in downtown Hattiesburg.
Officer Tate arrived to back-up officer Deen.
Authorities said Tate asked the passenger Marvin Banks to exit the car while Deen was talking to the driver, Joanie Calloway.
They said Banks opened fire as he exited the vehicle hitting Deen in the head and Tate in the back.
Both officers were pronounced dead at the hospital.
Hattiesburg police arrested nine people in connection with the officers' murders.
Joanie Calloway and Marvin and Curtis Banks were arrested within hours after the incident.
Authorities charged Marvin Banks with two counts of capital murder, grand theft auto, and felon in possession of a firearm.
Curtis Banks is charged with one count of accessory after the fact of capital murder.
Calloway is charged accessory after the fact.
- Cornelius Clark is charged with obstruction of justice and hindering prosecution.
- Abram Wade Pete Franklin is charged with rendering criminal assistance.
- Jimmy Brady is charged with possession of stolen firearm.
- Anquanette Alexander and Douglas McPhail are charged with obstruction of justice.
- And Broderick Vardnado is charged with accessory after the fact of capital murder.
The shooting marked the first time in 30 years that an officer was killed in the line of duty in Hattiesburg.
Another twist to the story...the main suspect, Marvin Banks was found dead inside his jail cell December 11th.
The coroner said he died of severe heart disease.
Tragedy struck the Deen family 6 months later.