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Year’s biggest Headlines ranked

By The Herald Staff | 12/26/2012

Like most years, 2012 was not without its controversies, tragedies and jaw-dropping moments.

As part of The Herald’s “Twelve in 12/12” series, the newspaper’s news staff and editors culled through the year’s headlines to determine the top 12 stories of 2012. The selections were based on which events or stories had the biggest impact on the community or best-captured the attention of readers in Ottawa and Franklin County.

Like most years, 2012 was not without its controversies, tragedies and jaw-dropping moments.

As part of The Herald’s “Twelve in 12/12” series, the newspaper’s news staff and editors culled through the year’s headlines to determine the top 12 stories of 2012. The selections were based on which events or stories had the biggest impact on the community or best-captured the attention of readers in Ottawa and Franklin County.

No. 1: KBI probes

sheriff’s office

A Kansas Bureau of Investigation probe of the Franklin County Sheriff’s Office remains shrouded in mystery after The Herald’s repeated attempts to gain access to documents related to the case have been denied.

News that KBI agents had executed a search warrant Sept. 27 of Sheriff Jeff Curry’s office sent shock waves through the local community, fueled by speculation about the nature of the investigation. But as of Wednesday — nearly three months to the day after the search warrant was executed — the case remained under tight wraps.

The Herald learned Wednesday that the KBI had turned down its second open records request to obtain a copy of the search warrant and other documents related to the investigation.

“Particularly because the KBI’s investigation in the matter at hand is ongoing, we believe disclosure of any criminal investigation records regarding the matter would be completely inappropriate in that it could interfere with the investigation,” Laura Graham, KBI freedom of information officer, wrote in an email dated Wednesday. 

“Case law indicates that in order for disclosure of criminal investigation records to be ‘in the public interest,’ more than mere public curiosity is required. The records must pertain to a matter which affects the community at large.” Graham said, in citing the case of Harris Enterprises, Inc. v. Moore, 241 Kan. 59 (1987). 

“Even when that threshold can be met, rarely would disclosure of criminal investigation records not interfere with prospective law enforcement action, criminal investigation and/or prosecution,” Graham said in the email. “Therefore, as a general rule, open record requests for such records are declined.”

The KBI turned down The Herald’s first open records request Oct. 11.

Jerrod Fredricks, sheriff’s office master deputy, said Sept. 27 the sheriff’s office was confident no officer had done anything inappropriate and that the office would be cleared of any wrongdoing.

“The sheriff’s office is cooperating fully with the KBI’s investigation,” Fredricks said.

Fredricks, public resource officer for the sheriff’s office, called The Herald on the night of Sept. 27 to inform the newspaper about the KBI probe, but he said he could not divulge the nature of the investigation because it was ongoing. 

In the days following the execution of the search warrant, Curry was quick to quell rumors he had been suspended, pending the outcome of the investigation.

“I am still the sheriff, and I will continue to be the sheriff,” Curry said Oct. 2.

Curry declined to disclose the nature of the KBI investigation but said his office was cooperating with investigators.

“A complaint was filed, and the KBI has an obligation to investigate it,” Curry said. “The sheriff’s office is cooperating fully with their investigation.”

Curry said he had not been asked by the KBI to surrender his gun or badge, pending the outcome of the investigation.

“No one in the sheriff’s office has been suspended or placed on leave, pending the outcome of this investigation,” Curry said.

Just hours later, on Oct. 3, the Franklin County Board of Commissioners voted to deny The Herald’s open records request to obtain a copy of the KBI search warrant, as well as other documents related to the investigation.

The decision to deny The Herald’s request was based on provisions of Kansas state statutes that apply to “criminal investigation records in order to protect the integrity of an ongoing criminal investigation,” Lisa Johnson, county administrator and counselor, wrote in a letter to The Herald dated Oct. 3.

Sheriff’s officials have continued the past three months to decline comment regarding the investigation because of its ongoing nature. An attempt Wednesday to get an update from the sheriff’s office about the case proved unsuccessful.

KBI officials also have declined comment on the investigation, citing its ongoing nature. 

Lee McGowan, spokesman for the Shawnee County District Attorney’s Office in Topeka, which is handling the investigation at the request of Franklin County Attorney Stephen A. Hunting, also has declined to discuss the case — citing its pending nature.

McGowan could not be reached for comment Wednesday.

No. 2: Election 2012 

The year’s election cycle led to several new faces representing Franklin County in area and state government. 

In August’s GOP primary election, incumbent Franklin County Sheriff Jeff Curry, R-Ottawa, bested two challengers — Rick Croucher and Rick Geist, both Ottawa Republicans — to earn a spot on the November ballot. In the general election, Curry easily defeated two write-in candidates — Philip Brown and Byron Goracke — to claim the county’s top-ranking law enforcement post, to which he was appointed in 2010. 

In the race for Franklin County clerk, a political newcomer ousted an experienced 16-year-incumbent in Kansas’ primary elections. Janet Paddock, R-Ottawa, defeated Shari Perry, R-Ottawa, in August’s election by claiming more than 70 percent of the county’s more than 4,300 votes. 

In Franklin County’s closest race, Rick Howard, D-Williamsburg, unseated incumbent county commissioner Ed Taylor in the November election by only 69 votes to represent Franklin County District 2.  

In total, seven Franklin County residents ran for state and federal offices, though only two candidates — Blaine Finch, R-Ottawa, and Kevin Jones, R-Wellsville — succeeded in earning a seat in the Kansas Legislature. 

Finch, a local attorney, defeated former state Rep. TerriLois Gregory, R-Ottawa, in the August primary after she quickly moved from Baldwin City to Ottawa in June following a federal ruling on Kansas’ new political boundaries. Finch then moved on to the general election where he comfortably cruised to victory against the county’s top Democratic leader, Caleb Correll, D-Ottawa, to represent Kansas House District 59, which includes all of Ottawa, northern Franklin and parts of Osage counties. 

Jones ran unopposed in the August primary election, and then defeated 18-year incumbent Bill Feuerborn, D-Garnett, in the general election to represent Kansas House District 5, which includes eastern Franklin, most of Anderson and western parts of Linn and Miami counties.

No. 3: Redistricting fallout 

In early June, three federal judges ruled on Kansas’ new Senate and House political maps, which eliminated all but two legislators’ potential to be elected to represent parts of Franklin County. 

The remap news displaced nearly all local lawmakers, including state Sens. Pat Apple, R-Louisburg, and Jeff King, R-Independence, as well as state Reps. TerriLois Gregory, R-Baldwin City, Bill Otto, R-LeRoy, and Willie Prescott, R-Osage City. In addition to eliminating many of the county’s incumbent lawmakers, the ruling gave veteran legislators and new candidates across the state only 1 1/2 business days to determine if and where they wanted to run for office. 

The quick turnaround led several area residents to run for state and federal offices, including Scott Barnhart, D-Ottawa, John Coen, R-Wellsville, Caleb Correll, D-Ottawa, Stanley Wiles, D-Ottawa, Blaine Finch, R-Ottawa, TerriLois Gregory, R-Ottawa, and Kevin Jones, R-Wellsville. All but two of the aforementioned candidates — Finch and Jones — failed in their bids to represent all or parts of Franklin County. 

No. 4: Economic leadership developments 

In late March, Ottawa and Franklin County learned that one of its longtime economic leaders was leaving the area. Tom Weigand, who was president/CEO of the Ottawa Area Chamber of Commerce for 10 years, announced in March he would leave the post to act as president/CEO of the Junction City Area Chamber of Commerce. The City of Ottawa later named April 24 as “Tom Weigand Day.”

In Weigand’s stead, the Ottawa Area Chamber of Commerce announced in late August that John Coen, who was assistant vice president of Kansas State Bank, would act as its new president and chief executive officer. Coen, a former dairyman, ran for state office on several occasions, and also previously wrote a Herald column, “An Udder Point of View.”

Weigand’s departure also led to the first full-time economic development director for Franklin County. In September, the Ottawa Area Chamber of Commerce and the Franklin County Development Council, which previously was named Ottawa/Franklin County Economic Development or O/FCED, hired Jeff Seymour, 27, Blackwell, Okla., as the first full-time economic director of the council. Seymour’s primary duties consist of attracting new businesses and jobs to Franklin County, as well as broadening the area’s tax base.

No. 5: Record Mega Millions ticket sold in Ottawa 

Is there a millionaire in Ottawans’ midst?

Two days after the record-setting March 30 $656 million Mega Millions jackpot drawing, lottery officials announced one of the three winning tickets was sold in a northeast Kansas county. In an April 2 headline, The Herald asked “Who could keep a $213M secret?” not knowing the big news to come just a few days later. 

Residents, along with the nation, found out April 6 that a winning ticket was sold at an Ottawa Casey’s General Store. 

“I think it’s great it happened in Ottawa,” Tina Henricks, the store’s manager, said at the time. “We were encouraging people to buy tickets [before the Friday drawing].”

The store, at 940 N. Main St., Ottawa, received a $10,000 check for selling the winning ticket, which amounted to a $110.5 million payout after taxes. The winner, who might or might not have been an Ottawa resident, chose the lump sum payout option. The other two winning tickets were sold in Illinois and Maryland, with the $656 million jackpot split evenly among the winners. 

The lucky lottery player who bought his or her winning ticket in Franklin County chose to remain anonymous, which is an option in Kansas.

No. 6: I-35 wreck leaves 5 family members dead

A sunny April Fools’ Day turned into a nightmare for a family returning home from vacation. Five members of a Minnesota family were killed and several more were injured in a single-vehicle wreck April 1 on I-35, near the Franklin/Osage County line, about three miles southwest of the Williamsburg exit. 

Jessica Kerber, 10, James Kerber, 12, and Joy Kerber, 14, all of Jordan, Minn., as well as Melissa Kerber, 24, and Tom Kerber, 25, both of New Prague, Minn., were killed when the vehicle they were riding in went over a bridge near mile marker 167 and plunged into a ravine about 20 to 30 feet below, according to a Kansas Highway Patrol report.

Eighteen people — Minnesota residents ranging in age from 2 to 46 — were in the vehicle at the time of the wreck, according to the highway patrol report. The 13 surviving occupants were taken to area hospitals and later released. 

The Sunday morning crash occurred at about 9 a.m. as the family returned from an annual motocross vacation in Texas. The vehicle was traveling northbound on the interstate and pulling a trailer loaded with ATVs and motorcycles.

It appeared the vehicle rode along the guard rail before the trailer’s weight pulled the vehicle over the rail and into the ravine, Jeff Curry, Franklin County sheriff, said at the time. 

“It is always difficult when you work a scene with younger kids,” Curry said.

Only two people reportedly were wearing seatbelts at the time of the wreck. 

After an investigation by the Kansas Highway Patrol, the wreck, which garnered national media attention, appeared to have been caused by driver error. The vehicle’s driver, Adam Kerber, 17, Jordan, who was among the wreck’s survivors, was not licensed to drive the semi pulling a box trailer converted into a recreational vehicle, according to Kansas law. The 57,000-pound vehicle was classified as a commercial vehicle because of its weight and because it was carrying more than 15 people. But neither of the restrictions applied to Kerber because of a loophole in Minnesota state law regarding private RVs, according to news reports.

Brandon Jones, Osage County attorney, did not file any charges in the accident.

No. 7: YMCA dropped

The Ottawa Community Partnership Inc., announced in late April that Ottawa would be without a YMCA recreation center. Residents had been waiting to hear news of the effort’s fate since the group passed a Dec. 31, 2011, fundraising deadline. The OCPI group needed to raise $4 million by the end of 2011 to build its proposed $8.7-million YMCA facility, but pledges and donations fell short. American Eagle Outfitters was one of the effort’s top donors, John Coen, OCPI president, said. 

It wasn’t all bad news though, as the funds collected for the effort were reallocated as grants to several local businesses and agencies to bolster economic and workforce development in the area through various programs. The Elizabeth Layton Center for Hope and Guidance, East Central Kansas Economic Opportunity Corp., Franklin County Development Council, Communities in Schools, Neosho County Community College, the Ottawa Police Department Foundation, The Ottawa Herald and the City of Ottawa received portions of the funds.

No. 8: 124 S. Main St. comes down

One address — 124 S. Main St. — captured more attention that any other lot in Ottawa’s historic downtown in 2012.

The address rose to the forefront of the public’s eye Jan. 4 when the city put up barricades on the front sidewalk and in the alley to keep the public a safe distance from the 130-year-old historic building after the three-story structure was deemed to be a safety hazard. The tenant, Hometown Computers, was told to vacate that same day, and the utilities were shut off Jan. 5.

The building’s owner, CrossFirst Bank of Leawood, filed an application for demolition with the state after receiving an engineering report Jan. 4 indicating the probability of catastrophic structural failure made the circa 1882 building a potentially life-threatening situation and unsafe to occupy.

The Ottawa City Commission voted 5-0 in mid-February to approve total demolition of the buckling building after receiving additional engineering reports and hearing the testimony of expert witnesses during a second public hearing on the matter. 

The city commission’s action was required because the Kansas Historical Society’s Preservation Office determined demolition of the structure “will damage or destroy the environs” of Ottawa’s historic downtown.

Jay Shadwick, an Overland Park attorney representing CrossFirst Bank, said if the demolition were approved, the bank would leave the vacant lot in pristine condition. The bank would still own that vacant piece of property until it could be sold.

“We wish we wouldn’t have foreclosed on the building now, but we take full responsibility for the building. We have a reputation to maintain and we want to be a good citizen. I can assure you it would be the best looking vacant lot in the county,” Shadwick said, drawing chuckles from the crowd at an Ottawa City Commission meeting.

After months of negotiations between bank representatives with the city and the adjacent property owners, the lot remained ungraded and in a state of flux.

But the 12-month saga entered a new chapter Friday when Richard Wright, owner of the building to the south at 128 S. Main St., said he had acquired the lot from CrossFirst Bank.

“Depending on how finances work out, I’d like to put a wrought-iron fence along the front of the property where that false storefront barricade is sitting now,” Wright, who has a real estate office in Overbrook, said. “The building [128 S. Main St.] and the lot are for sale. But if that doesn’t work out, my plan is to put in a garden and patio area on the lot where people could have receptions.”

No. 9: OHS names new principal

Ryan Cobbs said he has made education his life’s mission. A product of the Ottawa school system, Cobbs marked the next milestone in his life’s work when he became principal of Ottawa High School July 1 with the start of the new 2012-2013 school year.

The Ottawa school board voted 6-0 in mid-February to offer 34-year-old Cobbs a two-year contract through the 2013-2014 school year. 

Cobbs had served as the high school’s assistant principal for the past six years and has worked in the district for 11 years — the first five as a mathematics teacher at OHS. He succeeded Principal Rick Johnson, who had announced his retirement earlier in the 2011-2012 school year.

Cobbs said he moved to Ottawa at the end of his kindergarten year and began in the Ottawa school system as a first-grader at the former Eisenhower Elementary School. Cobbs said in February he was looking forward to the challenges of his new role.

“We [OHS staff] will be having discussions about increasing the school’s graduation rate and lowering the number of dropouts,” Cobbs said of his initial focus as principal. “I want to make sure students are on grade level as they move up through the years, and we’re not promoting kids who are lacking the foundation skills.”

Cobbs has made improving the school’s graduation rate a focus of his first semester at the helm. Having grown up in Ottawa, Cobbs said, he has a strong affinity to the community and wants to see every Ottawa student succeed.

After graduating from OHS, Cobbs obtained his bachelor’s degree in mathematics from Ottawa University in 2000 and his teaching certificate from OU in 2001. He obtained a master’s degree in building level administration from Emporia State University in 2004 and his doctorate degree in educational leadership policy studies from the University of Kansas in January.

A baseball pitcher, Cobbs played professionally in Europe for two seasons with Antwerp, Belgium.

“I loved the opportunity to play in Europe. It was awesome,” he said. “But it also made me realize how much I missed my family and this community. I realized then that I wanted to come back and teach in Ottawa. I’m very grateful to have been given this opportunity to teach in a community that means so much to me.”

No. 10: DNA cold case conviction

Ralph E. Corey, a 53-year-old former Arizona truck driver, was found guilty twice in 2012 in a 12-year-old sexual assault cold case.

On Oct. 22, a jury convicted Corey of sexually assaulting a 16-year-old Walmart Supercenter cashier on the night of Feb. 19, 2000, as she prepared to leave the employee parking lot on the north side of the building at 2101 S. Princeton St., Ottawa. Corey was convicted of two counts of aggravated sexual assault, one count of aggravated kidnapping, one count of attempted rape and one count of making a criminal threat in connection with the incident.

The sexual assault case had gone cold until DNA collected at the crime scene was matched with Corey’s DNA in the national Combined DNA Index System [CODIS] of solved and unsolved cases Nov. 8, 2010, as Corey was about to be released from an Arizona penitentiary on counterfeiting charges. Corey was arrested June 17, 2011, by Ottawa police officers on a Franklin County warrant and transferred to the Franklin County Adult Detention Center, 305 S. Main St., Ottawa, where he has remained the past 18 months.

A jury in June convicted Corey on all five counts as well, but Judge Godderz declared a mistrial in July when he learned one of the jurors had used a smartphone to look up information about the case during deliberations.

Corey is scheduled to be sentenced at 10 a.m. Feb. 5, 2013, in Franklin County District Court.

No. 11: County clerk threatens lawsuit against county, later censured 

Several months of investigations and resolutions surrounding the actions of Shari Perry, Franklin County clerk, kept county officials busy.

In February, Perry sent a letter to the Franklin County Board of Commissioners indicating her intent to sue the people of Franklin County for $175,000. Perry’s attorney, Richard Dvorak, said certain individuals in certain county departments denied Perry her civil rights by violating the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA). He said the letter requested the county address the violations and compensate Perry for them.

Kevin Case, a Kansas City, Mo. attorney, later was asked by the board to conduct an investigation into the allegations made in the demand letter, but the results of that investigation were not made public. County commissioners were largely dismissive of the threat of litigation. No further action has been taken by Perry or her attorney regarding the letter, Lisa Johnson, county administrator and counselor, said this week.

“Haven’t heard a word since we got it last February,” she said Wednesday.

Perry also received the attention of the state’s top prosecutor when an unrelated investigation into her conduct came under fire. Details of the investigation were not fully released but did indicate that Perry was among the subjects of a confidential human resources investigation.

While the investigation yielded no action by the Kansas Attorney General’s office, that didn’t stop the board from voicing its disapproval of the clerk by passing a censure resolution at its March 28 meeting. 

“The document speaks for itself,” Commissioner Colton Waymire said of the censure resolution after joining with commissioners Ed Taylor, Steve Harris and Don Stottlemire to pass the measure. David Hood, commission chairman, cast the lone dissenting vote. 

Case was asked by commissioners to prepare the censure resolution, which stated “the Board has received multiple complaints addressing the conduct of the Franklin County Clerk.” The resolution warned against retaliation of any kind by the clerk against any county employee, and stated her conduct was “unbecoming of the Office of the County Clerk and a distraction from the legitimate business of the County and County taxpayers.”

Since Perry is an elected official, commissioners have no supervisory authority over her. Therefore, a censure resolution was among their limited options for expressing displeasure with the clerk. Perry, who contends she was voice for the people, said the resolution was an attempt to silence her. 

“I figured there was a resolution coming,” she said after the March meeting. “I figured the resolution was going to ask me to resign, just because they don’t like me because I’m a voice for the people.”

After 16 years in office, Perry lost her bid for re-election in the August primary to Republican opponent Janet Paddock. Paddock is set to take office in January.

No. 12: Jones fined for email ethics violation 

The year’s election season elicited strong reactions across the country. But when a former Franklin County prosecutor jumped into the campaign fray of a local race, she along with the community got a lesson in election-year ethics.

Days before the Aug. 7 primary, Heather Jones, former Franklin County attorney, sent an email advocating the election bid of Jeff Curry, Franklin County sheriff, from a government email account — a move that violated the state’s Campaign Finance Act. After a hearing with the Kansas Government Ethics Commission, Jones, who left her Franklin County post to become head of the child abuse and sex crimes unit for the Johnson County District Attorney’s Office, was fined $500.  

The email was sent July 31 from Jones’ Johnson County work email to 13 people advocating ways they could help Curry get elected to the sheriff’s office — a position to which he was appointed in 2010. A copy of the email was sent to The Herald from two anonymous sources. 

“[D]o not just read this and do nothing — help Jeff finish this campaign strong. He needs all of you right now and you need him too!” the email read. 

When facing the commission, Jones’ main defense was that she didn’t know she violated campaign finance laws, Andy Taylor, a member of the nine-person commission, said. Her lack of knowledge of the law did not deter the commission from levying the fine against her, Taylor said, given her status as an attorney. “[T]he fact that she had also mentioned she had spent eight years previously as the county attorney in Franklin County, she should have had some knowledge or understanding of the law,” Taylor said previously. “So that was kind of the commission’s desire to send a message out that elected officials or government officials should be aware of the laws pertaining to the use of government equipment to expressly advocate for a candidate.”

Curry said he did not receive a copy of the email. 

The sheriff said he and his campaign had no knowledge of the email until he was contacted the next afternoon by Lisa Johnson, Franklin County administrator and counselor.

“I wasn’t in my office at the time, but I immediately sent an email from my phone to all my staff letting them know that although they cannot control what email is sent to their in-boxes, it would be highly inappropriate to forward that email to anyone, to copy it or to respond to it,” Curry said. 

It was unclear whether the subject of the email, Curry’s sheriff campaign, was helped or hindered by Jones’ email. Curry defeated his two competitors in the Republican primary, winning more than 50 percent of the vote. Curry declined to comment on the commission’s decision to fine the former county attorney.

The Johnson County District Attorney’s Office also declined to comment about whether Jones would face any disciplinary action related to the violation. Christina Freeman, a spokesperson for Johnson County District Attorney Steve Howe’s office, said it was a personnel matter and would not be discussed with the public.

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