On Oct. 2 of last year, long-time Rome resident Balerie Byars launched the nonprofit organization “Lips Unchained” for domestic violence awareness and support after her best friend was murdered by her abuser.
On Oct. 2 of this year, a jury found that abuser, Nakotah Javez Smith, guilty on all nine counts in the shooting death of Byars’ friend Crystal Dawn Vega in front of her two young children in June of 2018 in their West 13th Street apartment.
“Nakotah was found guilty exactly one year after I started this organization,” Byars said Wednesday. “That’s amazing. And I’m doing it to keep her name alive and spread awareness to save other women and men through her story.”
Another unintended date coincidence involves Lips Unchained’s Saturday fundraiser, The Domestic Violence Gala at the Courtyard Rome Riverwalk from 7 to 10 p.m., and Hospitality House’s “Phoenix Fest” fundraiser from 2 to 10 p.m. at the Brewhouse Music & Grill.
Hospitality House’s event featuring an all-female musical line-up comes with a $5 entry fee and is part of a four-event October calendar honoring Domestic Violence Awareness Month, starting with the annual Candlelight Vigil that was Thursday night. It also includes the Walk a Mile in Her Shoes event Oct. 25 at Rotary Plaza.
Hospitality House opened as a 27-bed shelter for abused women in 1978.
Byars said she is hoping the Lips Unchained gala with the ticket price of $50 per person will help raise funds for another domestic violence shelter in Rome, as well as an educational center for youth.
“I just want to help as many people as I can,” said Byars, who works as a hospice nurse for Floyd Medical Center during the day before volunteering her time in the evenings helping abuse victims. “As soon as I started this nonprofit last year, I had all kinds of people coming to me for help. And many times I send them to Hospitality House or Cedartown.”
Byars said she needs to raise at least $4,000 at Saturday’s fundraiser just to break even on the cost of the semiformal event. Beyond that, she believes she’ll need at least $50,000 to open a shelter.
But Lynn Rousseau, the returning executive director of Hospitality House, said that Byars would need to go through an extensive licensing process through the state’s Criminal Justice Coordinating Council in order to be approved as a certified shelter able to receive state and federal funding.
Rousseau said she’s not sure how far she’d get with the 47 standards that would need to be met.
“Typically in a community this size, the state would not certify two domestic violence programs,” Rousseau said, adding Byars could, instead, open an uncertified shelter, but she wouldn’t be able to get any government grants to help fund it. “I know Lips Unchained has come out to our candlelight vigils and our Walk a Mile event and we really appreciate all they’re doing for awareness.”
Rousseau said Hospitality House is usually at or close to capacity, but they are always able to find emergency housing for those fleeing violent situations.
“Our criteria is that we value safety,” she said, explaining there are hotels or shelters in Cedartown and Cartersville that can usually take victims in. “We want to be sure people have beds when they need them the most.”
Byars, who grew up with Vega’s killer and never knew his dark side, said she definitely wants to look into the licensing process for her dream shelter.
“I’m still learning about what all needs to be done to help as many people as I can,” Byars said. “If I have to be certified, I am willing to do whatever I can do to get all the necessary resources together to fulfill this promise to my friend.”
Byars said she hopes anyone interested in Lips Unchained will come to Saturday’s gala designed for 180 guests — even if they don’t have the $50 entry fee.
“There’s enough room for everybody,” she said, adding there will be food, guest speakers, a DJ and a cash bar in a second-floor ballroom. “I’m hoping to drop by Phoenix Fest earlier in the day to support Hospitality House. There’s no reason why we all can’t work together.”
Byars can be reached through the Lips Unchained Facebook page, by emailing email@example.com or by mail at P.O. Box 5113, Rome, GA 30162.
Firefighters responded to 100 Hopewell St. around 4:30 p.m. Friday after the two-story home’s occupant, Jerry Smith, had been rescued by neighbor J.P. Sauls when a fire broke out in the home’s downstairs bathroom, according to lead investigator Brenton Whatley. Whatley said Smith was taken to Floyd Medical Center to be treated for smoke inhalation. He had been asleep in the bedroom next to the bathroom and was awakened by a smoke alarm.
“Smoke alarms save lives,” Fire Marshall Mary Catherine Chewning said Friday.
The house was “pretty much a total loss,” with most of the damage centered in the bathroom and living room, Whatley said. The fire is not considered suspicious, but the cause is still under investigation, he noted.
When Richard Baumgartner was a child, his family said he always had a toy car in his hand, and by 10 years old he was helping his dad work on the real thing.
He took that childhood passion for all things automotive and made a career out of it, working on cars in high school and at a gas station beginning at 15 years old, then racing a 1971 Chevrolet Chevelle in West Hampton, New York, when he was only 17 years old, before moving to Canton and earning a wealth of accreditations while working as a service advisor throughout his life.
The one thing he didn’t get to do, though, was race the 1983 Oldsmobile Cutlass he’d been working on for so long before he died.
On Sunday at noon, with the help of his longtime friend Chris Carlisle and many other friends and family, that Cutlass will get to run at Paradise Dragstrip in Calhoun.
Richard’s brother Gregg will drive the Cutlass with Richard’s ashes on the passenger seat in a parade-like fashion with other race car drivers following behind.
The second pass, Carlisle will drive it down the track in a time trial.
“His dream was to completely finish the Cutlass and take it down the track,” said Richard’s mother, Karen Baumgartner. “He told me, ‘Mom, I’m almost finished with it!’ He was so excited. He kept telling me he would finish it soon, as soon as he felt better.
“Sadly, that day never came for him.”
Karen said her son always have a love of everything automotive. She said he learned to drive a manual transmission by age 11, had completely disassembled and reassembled an engine by the age of 15, and he bought and started working on the Cutlass when he was only 20.
“Richard was working on the Cutlass for many years while working at various automobile repair shops as a service advisor,” Karen said.
Over the years he earned the following accreditations, among others: NAPA-Certificate of Achievement for Enhanced Ignition and Advanced Fuel Diagnostics, BG Products Service Consultant Training-Award for Professional Service Consultant, Automotive Management Institute Certificate of Completion, Certificate for Course Completion for Business Management, Master Series for the Service Advisor, Georgia Clean Air Force For Certified Emissions Inspector.
A recent arrest and the confiscation of over 1,000 pills by the Rome-Floyd Metro Task Force illustrates the local problem with opioids and the underground sales of prescription drugs.
The assistant commander of the task force, Rome Police Sgt. Joel Stroupe, said they’ve been seeing a rise of opioids but recently have also noticed other types of prescription drugs flooding the illegal market.
Stroupe said the task force has seen a rise of people in possession of gabapentin in the past six months to a year. The drug is often prescribed to treat the pain associated with Shingles or to calm nerves.
On the street, people on harder drugs — such as meth or heroin — use gabapentin to ease the pain or after-effects when they can’t find those drugs, Stroupe said.
A recent investigation, beginning in July, took a chunk of pills off the streets Thursday.
Stroupe said the task force launched an investigation into 52-year-old Ricky Lamar McCullough around late July after they obtained evidence he was dealing pills.
According to Floyd County Jail records, the Aragon man was pulled over Thursday morning on an arrest warrant for an August drug sale. During the stop police found a fentanyl patch and a bottle of 71 oxycodone pills.
When they searched McCullough’s house later in the day, police found 16 tramadol tablets, 14 fentanyl patches, 77 valium tablets and 1,040 gabapentin tablets inside.
McCullough is facing multiple-drug related felony charges and he remained in jail without bond Friday.
While McCullough is not directly related to any opioid death, Stroupe said the type of drugs he sold are contributing to an ongoing local problem involving the abuse of prescribed medication.
“Floyd County is currently experiencing an opioid crisis,” Stroupe said.
Many first responders — including police, firefighters and EMS — were equipped with Naloxone spray, commonly known by the brand name Narcan, in 2017. The nasal-spray is used for emergency treatment of a known or suspected opioid overdose.
In the first year, it was used infrequently but since then they’ve run into more cases. The spray only counters the effects of an overdose from narcotics, not other drugs.
Since the spray was issued, Floyd County Police officers have used 19 doses of the spray — three were this year, according to FCPD Sgt. Chris Fincher.
In the first year of use, Rome police officers rarely administered the spray. But in this year alone, Rome police have administered 24 doses of the spray, RPD Assistant Chief Debbie Burnett said.
Floyd Medical Center EMS have already administered 140 doses of the spray in 2019, according to FMC spokesperson Dan Bevels. Redmond Regional Medical Center EMS have administered 31 doses of the spray in 2019, said Andrea Pitts, marketing and communications director at hospital.
The Walmart bag of socks in the laundry room that never found a match? HOPE Alliance has found a way to finally get rid of them while also helping someone locally.
“We all have those lonely socks without a mate and hope we will find their match,” Carrie Edge, executive director of Elevation House, said. “You never ever do, you just hang on to it.”
In conjunction with a sock drive, the local nonprofit dedicated to helping adults with mental health issues will be accepting clean single socks to be re-purposed. The idea hit Edge when she was helping on The Farm Bus run by the William S. Davies Homeless Shelters Inc.
“A man told me his sleeping bag had been stolen and it is beginning to get cold,” she said.
With the help of volunteers, Edge said the organization can make the socks into blankets, leg warmers, arm warmers and more. Single socks can be dropped off at the Elevation House, Living Proof Recovery, The Salvation Army and The Shelter. Packs of clean white socks are also needed, Edge said.
Elevation House, along with other organizations, form the Homeless Outreach and Partner Engagement and connect with the local homeless and gain their trust in order to serve them better. Since 45% of homeless live with a mental illness, the alliance falls right under the umbrella of Elevation House, Edge said.
The organization has two upcoming events Edge said she would like the community to know about. The first is the Elevating Minds Art Show and Auction on Saturday from 5-8 p.m. The event showcases local and international artists with various styles for sale. The event will be at Heritage First Bank with all proceeds going to Elevation House.
The second event is the Elevating Minds concert on Nov. 3 featuring Josh Allen with tickets already on sale. Tickets can be purchased before hand on eventbrite at $20, or for $25 at the door.