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2020: Looking back at an unforgettable year at the lake

Mitch Prentice/Joyce Miller Compiled
8) Lake Regional nurses come out to wave to parked cars shining their lights in the parking light during the Park and Praise event in November.

2020. In a lot of ways, this year was truly unique, but not always for the better. Around the lake, there were a number of outstanding events that shaped an already strange year. Here are our top 10 stories of the year. (Note: these stories are in no particular order.)

Bob Hodgson, Linn Creek

Though there were of course a handful of joyful moments sprinkled throughout 2020, the year will almost certainly be most remembered for the COVID pandemic that shook the entire world and changed day to day life for billions. As we close out the year, some light is being seen at the end of the tunnel as vaccines are making their way throughout the country and the world.

Locally, the lake saw its first confirmed case of COVID on March 22 in Camden County. Morgan County would follow close behind with its first case on March 28. Miller County would take the longest to see its first confirmed case, with it being reported on April 15. Face masks would become a norm in most local shopping areas and getting tested became a weekly challenge for many businesses.

Even so, the lake didn’t show any signs of slowing, as all three counties experienced an increase of sales tax with the area becoming a major vacation destination for those trying to get out of their homes in the summer.

As of Dec. 31, Camden County’s latest case total sat at 2,705 since March, with Miller County coming in at 2,109 and Morgan County at 1,487. 

Throughout the year, we saw a number of stories come from constant updates with the virus. This included stay at home orders in April, a detailed feature with Lake Regional Hospital detailing the early days, the summer months and the road ahead with their treatment of the virus, how COVID changed local education and more. 

Today, we are still unsure of when this pandemic will end and if normal daily life will return. COVID has certainly changed the world forever, but hope is within reach.

One of the cars on the PF Racing team sits on the Ozarks International Raceway track before a test run.

Ozarks International Raceway, First Watch bring growth to the lake

Though COVID slowed down some aspects of life, new businesses still came to the lake in a big way throughout 2020. First Watch restaurant opened its doors in June, bringing a brand new breakfast and lunch spot to Osage Beach. The Bagnell Dam strip saw the building and completion of the Malted Monkey rope course and restaurant. With bright neon colors, the course is sure to explode in popularity once COVID restrictions cease.

Towards the end of the year, Ozarks International Raceway announced its creation in November and has become one of the key new attractions for the lake as we look into 2021. The 3.87 mile track will be open to the public, hosting racing lessons and free racing for public vehicles. It will also host professional races all in Gravois Mills.

On the shopping end of things, Hobby Lobby announced it would be coming to the lake in 2022, bringing a new array of items for the craftier side of the lake. The City entered into a Tax Incremental Finance Agreement with TSG in September 2017. The redevelopment area located next to the Osage Beach Outlet Marketplace on Osage Beach Parkway will cover approximately 14 acres and in addition to the 50,000 square foot Hobby Lobby, Osage Beach Commons will add upwards of 45,000 square feet of new to market retailers and 3 outparcels along Osage Beach Parkway for exciting new restaurants and retail opportunities.

These are but a few of the highlights from a number of big business announcements seen at the lake in 2020. 

Major weather events were experienced, remembered

The lake saw both the anniversary of a major weather event and the consequence of another in 2020. 

In May, Eldon held a number of events in remembrance of the tornado that struck the city in 2019. Many of the locations within the city that were damaged in the storm have since been repaired. A group met in the city park on the anniversary to discuss how the city was able to come together and rebuild Eldon even stronger than before the event.

In November, the lake suffered another major storm, though the damage was less widespread. King's Plaza in Osage Beach was the sight of some significant damage from a microburst that passed through the area November 14. No injuries were reported, though a number of businesses housed in the plaza were severely damaged. The city was able to salvage the location and did not have to demolish the existing businesses.

What appears to be two separate layers of gravel, with a newer layer on top, sit near the entrance to the private property sign.

Camden County Commissioners deny wrongdoing in county road work done on private property

Concern over the use of county funds came to light in November as a group of residents raised an issue with what appeared to be county work done on a private road. A Facebook post to the Lake Area Happenings group showcased newly laid gravel on a road clearly marked as private property. The post also claimed that the property was connected in part to a resident who had donated $3,000 to the campaign of Camden County Associate Commissioner, 2nd District Don Williams. This raised the question of whether or not this gravel work was being done as a trade of favor for said donation.

Both Presiding Commissioner Greg Hasty and Commissioner Don Williams denied any wrongdoing, explaining that the road had seen county work done in the past without evidence to prove such work. However, Hasty said the work was done with approval by their attorney.

The situation has died down, though is not over yet. The owners of the property connected to the road have stated that they are working with an attorney on the issue, though to what degree is still unknown. 

A very bad weekend at the lake

During the weekend of August 16, the lake saw a number of major incidents that resulted in injuries and a pair of deaths. 

First, a boat explosion was confirmed near Horseshoe Bend. The incident saw multiple injuries and major damage to both a boat and dock involved. 

Within hours of the explosion, the lake also witnessed a plane crash in the area. On August 16, Osage Beach Police Department received calls of a plane crash at the Grand Glaize Airport. Officers responded to the area and located the crash site in the area of Sleepy Hollow Road. Two people were on board the plane when it crashed and were reported as deceased. The couple was from Mt Pleasant, Iowa.

The following Monday, just two days later, a second plane crashed into the lake. The pilot of an ultralight plane escaped serious injuries when the plane crashed and sank in the lake. The pilot told troopers he heard the plane's engine cutting out before it stopped working and the plane crashed near the 3.5 mile marker of the Little Niangua Arm, patrol Sgt. Scott White said.

All of this in the span of less than 72 hours. 

The end of an era 

One door closes and another opens.

Dick and Kym Ebling watched with mixed emotion as property they owned on Osage Beach Parkway for more than 43 years is beginning a new chapter. Dirt work has begun.

The Poop Deck and Topsider that entertained and fed tens of thousands of patrons for more than four decades is now giving way to another venture under new ownership – condos first and a restaurant and hotel later.

Trees are being bulldozed now on vacant property adjacent to the popular entertainment complex that closed three years ago after the Ebling family – including daughters Susan and Katie – decided the run was over. It was time to step aside.

In 1979, there was no place on the water to drink or eat, so the popularity of The Clown and The Poop Deck skyrocketed as interest in the lake began to blossom. Always with an eye to the future, Dick had another idea – to sell drinks and beer in a bar. The Topsider was conceived in an effort to have a business on shore with a season longer than 100 days. The off-season could be brutal in those days.

The original bar was a cozy, little place with a fireplace built to accommodate 50 people. The Eblings wondered that first winter if the advice they got was correct. But, in retrospect, their decision was the right decision. It was the first such facility at the lake and quickly surged in popularity.

As the bulldozers moved in late this fall, it was the end of an era not only for the Ebling’s but for the Lake of the Ozarks community, a sign of how times have changed and progress marches forward. 

Elections brought changes 

The elections brought major changes to politics in the lake area. Two longtime state area representatives who were at the end of term limits were replaced with 2 newcomers. David Wood and Rocky Miller ended their legislative careers. In their place, lake area voters elected Willard Haley to fill the seat vacated by Wood. Haley, of Eldon, is an educator with a strong background in agriculture. Miller’s seat was won by Dr. Lisa Thomas, a Lake Ozark  psychiatrist. Haley nor Thomas have had any previous experience serving in an elected public office. Haley and Thomas will join Rep. Suzie Pollock from Lebanon in representing counties surrounding Lake of the Ozarks. All three state representatives are conservative Republicans. Pollock is beginning her second term in office. 

Despite the change on the state level, the most significant change brought about by the election was in Camden County where an unknown candidate, James Gohagen, came from behind and unseated Beverly Thomas, a  16-year veteran on the Camden County Commission. Thomas represented the first district which includes Horseshoe Bend. 

Gohagen ran on a promise of transparency in the county commission office. 

Despite COVID-19, Lake area voters turned out in record numbers voting by mail in person in November to cast their ballots. Outgoing President Donald Trump received overwhelming support in Camden, Miller and Morgan counties. 

The map shows the expansive watershed above Truman Lake that reaches into Kansas. The area above Truman is dominated by the Plains ecoregion. Regarding the map, first, most people do not realize just how expansive the watershed is above Truman dam. It’s very large and reaches far into Kansas. The watershed for Lake of the Ozarks is over 60% percent of the Plains ecoregion, not the more rocky Ozark landscape found directly around the Lake of the Ozarks. The state nutrient criteria is higher than the more restrictive levels for the Ozarks Highland ecoregion than it is for the Ozark Highland ecoregion. Missouri DNR has placed Lake of the Ozarks into the Ozarks Highland ecoregion, while Truman is in the Plains.

EPA action expected to be challenged

As 2020 came to an end, lake area residents were filing comments with the Environmental Protection Agency, against the federal agencies recommendation to list Lake of the Ozarks and Truman Lake on their list of impaired waterways. EPA made the recommendation after the Missouri Department of Natural Resources submitted the annual two-year study to EPA listing the impaired waterways on the state. EPA added Lake of the Ozarks and Truman Lake to their list of recommendations, along with 38 other bodies of water across the state. EPA’s action was based on their assessment of the levels of chlorophyll-a (algae) concentrations in the lake and Truman. EPA lists concerns of aquatic habitat as the reason for the recommendation. 

Advocates for the lake point to the booming fishing industry as proof that the waters are healthy and not posing a danger. 

Lawsuits embroiled the Camdenton School District and the Tri-County Lodging Association in 2020.

Camdenton School District 

Two separate lawsuits were filed in the U. S. District Court Western Division against the Camdenton School District.

The suits were filed on behalf of a mother and her child and a father and his child, identified in court filings as John Doe and Jane Doe.

The lawsuits stem from alleged incidents involving a former janitor who is accused of exposing himself to students three different times.

The lawsuits name Superintendent Tim Hadfield, Assistant Superintendent Ryan Neal, Jesse DeVore, the former janitor and Warren Devore, the janitor's father and an employee of the district (it is not known if Warren Devore is still employed by the district).

The district is accused of negligence and not investigating and terminating the janitor who was accused of exposing himself until after the third incident. The suit also alleges Jesse Devore had a criminal background.

In an unusual move, the Camdenton School District issued a statement saying they planned to fight the allegations and stood behind their handling of the alleged incidents. The former janitor’s case has not been resolved in the court system. 

Tri-County Lodging Association 

Business as usual may come to a halt for the TCLA and CVB next spring after a judge issued a preliminary injunction against two of the taxing entities that fund the organizations.

Camden County Circuit Court Senior Judge Deborah Daniels issued the injunction in favor of plaintiffs Laura Salamun and Pointe View Management, LLC., who filed in Camden County, and in favor of Gail Griswold, et al, who filed a similar request for injunction in Miller County.

The injunctions order that before the Lake of the Ozarks Area Business Districts of Camden County and Miller County can spend any money after June 30, 2021, or adopt a budget for 2022, they must meet certain requirements.

Salamun and Pointe View Management are among the lodging establishments that comprise the Business District of Camden County and that collect lodging tax that supports the Tri-County Lodging Association and Lake of the Ozarks Convention and Visitor Bureau. Griswold is similarly representing lodging establishments in Miller County that are part of that Business District.

The Business District of Morgan County and Morgan County Collector are not included. In theory, according to Judge Daniels’ order, the Business District of Morgan County could continue to do business with the TCLA and CVB.

High profile court cases made headlines 

Decades old case solved in Miller County 

Martin Priest was charged in 2016 with the murder of Tammy Rothganger’s murder  in 1984 by Miller County Prosecuting Attorney Ben Winfrey while he was serving a life sentence in Kansas.Priest was convicted of killing the  the Eldon teenager 34 years ago. He will spend the rest of his life behind bars.

Priest was chargedwith Rothganger’s murder by Miller County Prosecuting Attorney Ben Winfrey while he was serving a life sentence in Kansas for the death of a man killed on Christmas Day in 1984, just months after the teenager’s disappearance.

Rothganger disappeared while on her way to Eldon High School where she was a sophomore. Rothganger and her mom lived across the street from the school. Priest was involved in a relationship with Rothganger’s mother. Rothganger’s body was never located. 

There were startling similarities between a case in Nevada, Mo., in June of 1980 and that of Rothganger who disappeared 4 years later. Priest is believed to have preyed on the daughters of women he took up with. He was linked to the murder of a young girl in Kansas the same year Rothganger disappeared.

The prosecution and law enforcement believed Priest was a serial killer. 

Another Miller County cold case made headlines early in the year when an arrest was made in the 19-year-old murder of  Jerry Jeffries, of Brumley. 

Jeffries' body was found in the parking lot of the Mill Creek Lounge in Brumley on July 23, 2001. Jefferies had been shot. 

On January 27, 2020, the Miller County Sheriff’s Department announced Tabatha Carter, 53, had been taken into custody and charged with Jeffries murder.   Carter was transferred into Miller County Custody after being arrested in Oklahoma on outstanding Morgan County warrants. Carter was taken into custody without incident. Carter is being held without bond in the Miller County Jail on charges of accessory to first-degree murder and accessory armed criminal action.

In a case that drew emotional response, a former School of the Osage Middle School teacher was convicted and turned over to the Missouri Department of Corrections to serve 20 years in prison. 

Mark Edwards, former School of the Osage Middle School teacher was sentenced in Miller County Circuit Court to 20 years in prison with credit for time served while in jail. Edwards was charged with Deviant Sexual Behavior with a child under the age of 13. Edwards was first charged in 2017.

Edwards pleaded guilty to one count of statutory sodomy. In exchange for the guilty plea, one charge of child molestation was dropped and two counts of sexual contact were sent back to the associate court. 

The incident that led to the charges and subsequent guilty plea involved a 13-year-old student while riding on a bus during a field trip from Linn to School of the Osage. The incident was documented on video.