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Slain Big Stone Gap officer honored at funeral service

WISE — First responders from all corners of Virginia came to pay final respects to slain Big Stone Gap Police Officer Michael Chandler on Wednesday.

About 750 people — many from law enforcement agencies, fire departments and emergency medical services all across Southwest Virginia and officers from as far away as Tidewater, the Richmond area and Northern Virginia — attended the funeral service at UVA Wise’s David J. Prior Convoca- tion Center.

Another 1,250 people filed through the center during a four-hour viewing before the funeral, according to college officials.

Chandler died Saturday on his 29th birthday, 15 hours after he was shot responding to a welfare check request just outside the Big Stone Gap town limits.

Color guards from the Virginia State Police, Henrico County and Roanoke County sheriff’s departments and other state agencies lined the center’s concourse as members of Chandler’s family stood in grief by his casket, which was draped with the state flag.

Knots of officers gathered on the main floor, hugging and sharing moments before and after filing by the casket, which was flanked by wreaths, photos of Chandler and his family, gifts, and Chandler’s police uniform and fire department turnout gear.

“It’s hard at times like this,” said Wise Police Chief Danny French said during the viewing. “You meet with people you’ve known and worked with under circumstances like this, and you appreciate what they mean to you.”

Virginia Lt. Gov.-elect Winsome Sears and Attorney General-elect Jason Miyares joined incoming House of Delegates Majority Leader Terry Kilgore, R-Gate City, Wise County Commonwealth’s Attorney Chuck Slemp III, and Virginia Congressman Morgan Griffith, R-9th, to speak at the service.

Pastor Wayne Bagley — also Chandler’s cousin — told how Chandler asked him less than a month ago to officiate at his wedding to Wise County Deputy Natasha Smith.

“I’m going to miss Michael,” said Bagley. “I miss him dearly.”

Sears related how she, as a General Assembly delegate two decades ago, rode along with a police officer to see what law enforcement experiences.

Saying that, as a Marine, she was used to fighting with a helmet, armor, rifle and other military equipment, she added, “He didn’t have any of that.”

“Your husband was supposed to come home that night,” Sears said to Chandler’s widow. “Instead, he went home to be with the Lord.”

“The bedrock of our society are heroes like Michael,” Miyares said, calling his sacrifice the “burden of the badge.”

“The reality is that Michael Chandler was one of the most noble men Virginia has produced, a son of Virginia,” Miyares added.

Kilgore called the public display of concern for Chandler and his family “a testament to a job well done.”

Slemp, who is also part of the investigation into Chandler’s shooting, told how Chandler was devoted to his family, to his job, and to helping prosecutors.

“When officers come to court, often they’ve stayed up all night before,” Slemp said, pointing to his frequent willingness to work with prosecutors in testimony and evidence discovery. “He was called to serve this community and he did it with a smile on his face.

“The person responsible for this tragedy will not escape justice,” Slemp said.

“He was an excellent husband, father and friend that we couldn’t replace,” Big Stone Gap Town Manager Steve Lawson said of Chandler.

Big Stone Gap Police Chief Steve Hamm recalled how Chandler’s cousin, town Fire Chief Billy Chandler, told him there was “a squared-away kid” wanting to work for the police department.

“There are no words I can say to make it better, but Michael was a blessing to the department,” said Hamm. “Tasha, Kam (Chandler’s daughter), he loved you with all his heart.”

A private graveside service will be held Thursday at Powell Valley Memorial Gardens, with a procession assembling at Bullitt Park in Big Stone Gap starting at 9 a.m. and leaving for the cemetery at 11. People wanting to show their respects are asked to line sidewalks to Wood Avenue and to the procession route along Powell Valley Road.

Norton city workers got into the early Christmas spirit Tuesday, assembling the city Christmas tree along Park Avenue.

Norton street maintenance foreman Jerry Miller, left, and Tra Nixon do what many people dread during the holidays - straightening out power cords for Christmas tree lights. Workers started assembling the city Christmas tree Tuesday along Park Avenue.

City removes ‘offensive’ billboard message

KINGSPORT — A City of Kingsport billboard has been taken down due to its “offensive” arrangement of graphics.

The city issued a statement via social media on Monday regarding the billboard, which was set to draw attention to the city’s promotional website for This is Kingsport.

“The City of Kingsport regrets the offensive arrangement of the graphics on a recent billboard promoting its leisure website, This is Kingsport, which is intended to be an uplifting and positive representation and resource for our city’s residents and visitors,” the statement on the This is Kingsport Facebook page said. “The billboard has been removed. Going forward, the city’s communications department will use a more stringent review process for such materials.

“The city apologizes for the error. The unintentional presentation of the site’s logo does not reflect the views of city government.”

The city declined further comment on the billboard.

The billboard included three This is Kingsport “K” logos. The three-K graphic on the electronic billboard sparked discussion on the city’s Facebook page from citizens.

“You really think that a city government would intentionally post a racist billboard to just stir the pot?” one comment read. “Why would they want all this negativity on purpose? Oh yeah, they wouldn’t, because it wasn’t on purpose. I know there is racism in this town and this country, but this isn’t an intentional example of that.”

Others said the billboard proved the “micro-aggressive, racist attitudes of non-people of color in Kingsport.” Another commented, “Great, you fixed the aesthetics. Now fix the system.”

Other Facebook users argued that the city’s workforce should be more diverse.

“I would like to see more diversity and inclusivity in these departments!” one comment said. “It will greatly reduce the chance that these things can slip by and diversity should be commonplace anyways.

“Maybe there should be more diversity in the building to help with this process. Just a thought.” The commenter continued, “... A panel of all different races that could be as simple as an email chain.”

The This is Kingsport Campaign is designed to support Kingsport as a whole, including the resources regarding arts, entertainment, education, events, businesses and more.

For more information, go to http://www.thisiskingsport.com/.

US overdose deaths topped 100,000 in one year, officials say

NEW YORK — An estimated 100,000 Americans died of drug overdoses in one year, a never-before-seen milestone that health officials say is tied to the COVID-19 pandemic and a more dangerous drug supply.

Overdose deaths have been rising for more than two decades, accelerated in the past two years and, according to new data posted on Wednesday, jumped nearly 30% in the latest year.

President Joe Biden called it “a tragic milestone” in a statement, as administration officials pressed Congress to devote billions of dollars more to address the problem.

“This is unacceptable and it requires an unprecedented response,” said Dr. Rahul Gupta, director of National Drug Control Policy.

Experts believe the top drivers of overdose deaths are the growing prevalence of deadly fentanyl in the illicit drug supply and the COVID-19 pandemic, which left many drug users socially isolated and unable to get treatment or other support.

The number is “devastating,” said Katherine Keyes, a Columbia University expert on drug abuse issues. “It’s a magnitude of overdose death that we haven’t seen in this country.”

Drug overdoses now surpass deaths from car crashes, guns and even flu and pneumonia. The total is close to that for diabetes, the nation’s No. 7 cause of death.

Drawing from the latest available death certificate data, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated that 100,300 Americans died of drug overdoses from May 2020 to April 2021. It’s not an official count. It can take many months for death investigations involving drug fatalities to become final, so the agency made the estimate based on 98,000 reports it has received so far.

The CDC previously reported there were about 93,000 overdose deaths in 2020, the highest number recorded in a calendar year. Robert Anderson, the CDC’s chief of mortality statistics, said the 2021 tally is likely to surpass 100,000.

“2021 is going to be terrible,” agreed Dr. Daniel Ciccarone, a drug policy expert at the University of California, San Francisco.

The new data shows many of the deaths involve illicit fentanyl, a highly lethal opioid that five years ago surpassed heroin as the type of drug involved in the most overdose deaths. Dealers have mixed fentanyl with other drugs — one reason that deaths from methamphetamines and cocaine also are rising.

Drug cartels in Mexico are using chemicals from China to mass produce and distribute fentanyl and meth across America, said Anne Milgram, administrator of the Drug Enforcement Administra- tion.

This year, the DEA has seized 12,000 pounds of fentanyl, a record amount, Milgram said. But public health experts and even police officials say that law enforcement measures will not stop the epidemic, and more needs to be done to dampen demand and prevent deaths.

The CDC has not yet calculated racial and ethnic breakdowns of the overdose victims.

It found the estimated death toll rose in all but four states — Delaware, New Hampshire, New Jersey and South Dakota — compared with the same period a year earlier. The states with largest increases were Vermont (70%), West Virginia (62%) and Kentucky (55%).

Minnesota saw an increase of about 39%, with estimated overdose deaths rising to 1,188 in May 2020 through April 2021 from 858 in the previous 12-month period.

The area around the city of Mankato has seen its count of overdose deaths rise from two in 2019, to six last year to 16 so far this year, said police Lt. Jeff Wersal, who leads a regional drug task force.

“I honestly don’t see it getting better, not soon,” he said.

Among the year’s victims was Travis Gustavson, who died in February at the age of 21 in Mankato. His blood was found to show signs of fentanyl, heroin, marijuana and the sedative Xanax, Wersal said.

Gustavson was close to his mother, two brothers and the rest of his family, said his grandmother, Nancy Sack.

He was known for his easy smile, she said. “He could be crying when he was a little guy, but if someone smiled at him, he immediately stopped crying and smiled back,” she recalled.

Gustavson first tried drugs as kid and had been to drug treatment as a teenager, Sack said. He struggled with anxiety and depression, but mainly used marijuana and different of pills, she said.

The morning of the day he died, Travis had a tooth pulled, but he wasn’t prescribed strong painkillers because of his drug history, Sack said. He told his mother he would just stay home and ride out the pain with ibuprofen. He was expecting a visit from his girlfriend that night to watch a movie, she said.

But Gustavson contacted Max Leo Miller, also 21, who provided him a bag containing heroin and fentanyl, according to police.

Some details of what happened are in dispute, but all accounts suggest Gustavson was new to heroin and fentanyl.

Police say Gustavson and Miller exchanged messages on social media. At one point, Gustavson sent a photo of a line of a white substance on a brown table and asked if he was taking the right amount and then wrote “Or bigger?”

According to a police report, Miller responded: “Smaller bro” and “Be careful plz!”

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The Blountville Middle/Elementary schools campus is among up to 11 pieces of property that may be sold or disposed of by the Sullivan County public school system.