News and Tribune

December 31, 2012

TOP 10: The biggest Southern Indiana news stories of 2012

Deadly tornado easily takes the No. 1 spot

NEWS AND TRIBUNE
newsroom@newsandtribune.com

1. March 2 tornadoes devastate Southern Indiana

The News and Tribune’s story of the year was an easy call, as the top news here also made national headlines for several days, as an EF-4 tornado destroyed parts of Northern Clark County and other areas of Southern Indiana on the afternoon of March 2.

The devastation was chilling. The stories of heroic acts and simple goodwill were inspiring. The fact that Henryville, Marysville and beyond are still recovering is humbling.

Hundreds of homes and other structures were destroyed or damaged and recovery costs stretched into the millions. The tornadoes killed 13 people in Indiana.

Henryville schools were severely damaged and students were forced to finish the school year at two facilities in New Albany and Scottsburg. Money poured in via donations from near and far, and country stars Lady Antebellum even played a special concert for students as well as raised funds.

A happy ending is beginning to form for residents, as students returned to a rebuilt school to begin the 2012 school year and residents have begun moving into the 100 or so homes that are being rebuilt.

There are huge news stories in Southern Indiana every year, but the E-F4 tornado that hit March 2 is sure to be a story of the decade and century.

2. William Clyde Gibson charged with three murders

William Clyde Gibson III, of New Albany, was charged in the murders of three area women in 2012.

He was first charged in April for the killings of 75-year-old Christine Whitis, of Clarksville, and 45-year-old Karen Hodella, of Jeffersonville.

Whitis was found strangled in Gibson’s home in the 800 block of Woodbourne Drive. Officials said her body was discovered in the garage of the home by a relative of Gibson’s.

Gibson was named as a person of interest early on in the investigation, was found driving Whitis’ van and was initially arrested in the Walmart parking lot along Grant Line Road for operating while intoxicated and resisting law enforcement.

During questioning, Gibson not only implicated himself in that crime, officials previously stated, but also in the murder of Hodella, who was reported missing in October 2002. Her body was  found in Clark County in January 2003.

Gibson was later charged in the murder of Stephanie Kirk, 35, of Charlestown. Kirk was found buried in Gibson’s backyard in the 800 block of Woodbourne Drive in New Albany on April 27.

Floyd County prosecutors have stated that they will seek the death penalty in the upcoming murder trials of Whitis and Kirk.

Gibson’s is scheduled to be tried first for the murder of Whitis in July in Dearborn County, located near Cincinnati.

3. Ground broken, contracts signed for east-end bridge

In August, officials broke ground on the first portion of the Ohio River Bridges Project in Jeffersonville. Federal, state and local officials, along with a crowd of several hundred people, gathered at Eagle Steel in the Port of Indiana-Jeffersonville to mark the occasion that signified the start of the $2.6 billion bistate project to construct an east-end bridge, a new downtown bridge and reconstruct Spaghetti Junction.

The groundbreaking didn’t mark the beginning of bridge construction or the construction of a direct approach to one of the new bridges, but the 3,000-foot extension of Old Salem Road, which will be the first exit on the Indiana side of the Ohio River at the east-end bridge. The road also will provide improved access to the River Ridge Commerce Center and the Port of Indiana-Jeffersonville. Once completed, the east-end bridge will connect Prospect, Ky., to Utica, just south of River Ridge. When the record-of-decision was returned earlier this spring, officials cited a number of business inquiries into development at the former Indiana Army Ammunition Plant.

 Also, Indiana officials have finalized an agreement with partnership group that will build a new Ohio River bridge for $763 million.

The Indiana Department of Transportation announced last week that a final decision had been made on the contract that a state panel preliminarily approved last month.

Indiana is overseeing construction of the east-end bridge that will complete an interstate loop around Louisville with a crossing between Utica and Prospect, Ky. Kentucky officials are handling construction of a second bridge for Interstate 65 at downtown Louisville. Indiana highway department spokesman Will Wingfield said construction on the East End bridge is expected to start next summer and be completed in 2016. The agency says the deal with WVB East End Partners is nearly 25 percent below previous cost estimates

4. New Albany and Floyd County split parks

In early November, the New Albany City Council approved a plan brought to the body by Mayor Jeff Gahan, by a narrow 5-4 vote, to split the New Albany-Floyd County Parks and Recreation Department.

The city and county merged parks operations in 1994. However, Gahan said the county hadn’t shown a firm financial commitment to the department  — as the city had paid about $4 million more toward its operation over the last decade — and that it was time for New Albany to move forward with its own parks system.

Several residents, most against the split, voiced their concerns over the proposal at the city council meeting in November. However, the council agreed with Gahan and voted in favor of the split.

In the final six weeks of the year, the city and county finalized plans for separation, dividing property, equipment and employees. Longtime parks employee Kathy Wilkerson was named interim director of the city parks department while current parks superintendent Roger Jeffers will head up the county parks.

The two also agreed in December on splitting property. The county will take control of seven parks, which equal 370 acres, 13 shelter houses and the Southern Indiana Sports Center along with Woodland Trails.

The city will continue to operate the Griffin Street Center, Cannon Acres and Anderson Park softball leagues.

Also as part of the split, the county agreed to lease land to the city where the North Annex currently sits along Grant Line Road for a possible aquatic center. The county will operate Sam Peden Community Park, but the city would be in charge of any pool that is built.

5. Amazon opens at River Ridge Commerce Center

In October, Amazon.com Inc. shipped its first package out of Jeffersonville’s distribution center. The package was a Halloween costume sent to a customer in Texas.

About 900 people were working at the center in October with more hires expected.

The center in River Ridge Commerce Center, off of Ind. 62, broke ground about six months before the first package shipped.

The building has 1 million square feet of floor space, four miles of conveyor belts and ships packages that range from apparel and shoes to watches and jewelry.

River Ridge Executive Director Jerry Acy said the year end results showed revenues from land sales at River Ridge totaled about $1.8 million, with another two sales pending.

“That will be another million [dollars] plus, and potentially one other land sale to add to that, hopefully in the early part of next year,” he said.

Along with the land sales, new tax assessments on lease property boosted revenues for River Ridge. Acy said the development authority is  looking at generating another $330,000 in Tax Increment Finance revenues associated with the new property tax assessments.

There has also been an uptick in interest at River Ridge Commerce Center that is likely to roll into next year. Acy said there are more businesses looking for sites with 15 distinct projects and six active projects. During the last board meeting of the year, he was granted approval to negotiate another deal to bring a new tenant to the commerce center.

6. New mayors take over in Jeffersonville, New Albany

Two new mayors took office Jan. 1 in the two largest municipalities in Floyd and Clark counties, as Jeff Gahan moved into office in New Albany and Mike Moore took the oath in Jeffersonville.

It has been an eventful year for both new mayors, and one not without controversy.

Gahan’s biggest decision so far was to devise a plan to separate the long-joined New Albany-Floyd County Parks Department (read more about that in story of the year No. 4). He also announced the city would retain operational management of the city’s sewer system, which had previously been privatized.

The city ended the year with a successful gun buyback program, which netted 249 weapons from New Albany residents.

Moore’s first big move was to announce — as promised during his campaign — the end of the downtown canal plan promoted by previous Mayor Tom Galligan. That was to be replaced by an underground pipe to combat combined sewer overflows and flooding, with a linear park on top.

Parks were often a topic of discussion in Jeffersonville, as work at Vissing Park neared a close and other new parks got started.

Late in the year, Moore squabbled with the city council about the communications position for the city, leading to the mayor suing the council on that and other matters.

In December, the mayor called a press conference to discuss a domestic incident which happened with his estranged wife at City Hall. Moore apologized to residents for the incident and not charges were sought.

In better news, Moore and the city celebrated the opening of a huge Amazon.com distribution center in the fall. (Read more about Amazon at No. 5 in this list).

7. Rash of murders in Clark County as year ends

Clark County saw a trio of murders late in the year, and area courts also handed down sentences in several murder cases. Here’s a rundown:

• James L. Washington, 35, and Dana R. Eisenback, 25, were charged in the murder of 55-year-old  Robert Eader in December. The murder took place in Eader’s Jeffersonville apartment on Spring St. during a cocaine deal. When the transaction occurred, officials reported, Washington attempted to steal the money Eader was holding, and a physical confrontation ensued. Eader was stabbed at least three times during the struggle, with wounds to his chest and throat.

The pair fled to Missouri after the incident, but later returned to turn themselves in. The two are scheduled to return in court in February for an pretrial conference.

• Antonio Walker, of Louisville, was charged in November for the murder of Paris Hamilton, 25.

Hamilton was shot to death in French Quarter Apartments in Jeffersonville Nov. 13. Police reported the two men were involved in an altercation in an apartment that lead to Hamilton’s death.

Walker was located by police walking on nearby Cardinal Lane minutes after shots were fired.

Following his arrest, Walker admitted firing five shots at Hamilton during the altercation. Walker is slated to return to court for a pretrial conference Jan. 14.

• Billy Ray Chambers, 39, was killed at his Clarksville home Nov. 27. No arrests have been made in the killing.

Chambers was found in the afternoon shot to death near the front of his home by his 12-year-old daughter. The shooter is believed to have left the home in Chambers’ Ford Mustang, which was later located by police in the Green Tree Mall area.

• Joseph Mayes, 48, of Jeffersonville, received a 50-year prison sentence after pleading guilty to shooting a man in October 2011.

Mayes plead guilty to killing Anthony Redd, also of Jeffersonville, in late November. Redd was shot in his face and head while seated in his pick up truck with Mayes’ niece, Katrina Baker.

During his conviction, Mayes stated that he acted out of sudden heat when he repeatedly pulled the trigger. He said the sight of his nice, Katrina Baker performing oral sex on Redd sent him into rage. Baker told police she had a sexual relationship with Redd who would supply her with drugs.

• In July, 75-year-old Nettie M. Luckett was sentenced to 30 years in prison for killing her son-in-law Douglas Randolph in August 2011. She pleaded guilty to voluntary manslaughter. An autopsy showed Randolph was shot in the back of the head at Luckett’s home. No motive was listed in the case.

• In October, Ivan Chambers, 27, of New Albany, pleaded guilty to murdering his girlfriend Amanda Rose “Mandy” McAnelly, in July. He was sentenced to 50 years in prison in December.

• In August, Christopher Baxter, 54, of New Albany, received 55 years in prison for the 1990 murder of his wife Robin. He was arrested in February after an informant told police that Baxter confessed to the murder. He was convicted in July.

• In March, Freddie Love, 45, was sentenced to 55 years in prison after pleading guilty in the death of 48-year-old Christopher Trowell in the parking lot of Pillsbury in New Albany.

• In January, Joseph L. Roche, 44, was sentenced to 68 years in prison for murdering his estranged wife and assaulting three people who tried to help her. Roche committed suicide in prison in July at the Wabash Valley Correctional Facility.

• In November, Jennifer Hack, 28, of Floyds Knobs, was charged in Louisville with the murder of Mikel Kimbley.

• David Camm’s third murder trial was set for 2013 in Boone County. Special prosecutor Stan Levco was appointed to the case after Floyd County Prosecutor Keith Henderson was removed after he agreed to write a book about Camm. The book has never been published.

8. Republicans make gains in County government

For the first time in memory, Republicans will take control of the Floyd County Council beginning Jan. 1.

After Steve Burks and Jim Wathen won two of the three at-large seats in the November general election, Republicans will have five of the seven seats on the council.

Four-term Democratic Councilman Ted Heavrin was ousted in the May primary.

Floyd County also found a new home for its youth services bureau in 2012.

The youth shelter  — now known as Open Door Youth Services — is housed in the Pine View Government Center. Besides youth services, several county offices were moved to Pine View — a former elementary school — in the spring of 2012. The North Annex along Grant Line Road was also shuttered late in the year after youth services and solid waste were moved out of the building. There has been talk of building a aquatic center at the site.

In Clark County, the Republican party won control of the Clark County Commissioners in the November election, as the GOP’s Rick Stevenson and Jack Coffman beat incumbents Ed Meyer and Les Young, respectively.

Coffman said on election night, it will be the first time in history the GOP will control the commissioners when the two join Democrat John Perkins on the board Jan. 1.

9. Teenager missing for month, body found

In mid-December, officials discovered the body of Ethan Bennett, 19, of Sellersburg, who had been missing since Sept. 11. The car and body were found off Skyline Drive in Floyd County in a ravine that drops more than 750 feet from the roadway.

Due to the deteriorated condition of the car, Floyd County Prosecutor Keith Henderson estimated it had likely been in the wreckage spot for several weeks.

Bennett was last seen by a family member on the night of Sept. 11, and the Clark County Sheriff’s Department had stated they didn’t feel the case was a criminal matter. A witness did report they saw Bennett driving the 2001 silver Jaguar he was seen leaving the family’s home in Sept. 14 on Veterans Parkway in Clarksville.

Henderson didn’t confirm whether or not the officials suspected foul play, suicide or just a loss of control in the wreck, only that local investigators would stick to their normal process for determining the cause of death.

10. TIE: Greater Clark gets new superintendent; Clarksville approves New Tech school

Andrew Melin, who was the superintendent of Valparaiso Community Schools, was hired as Greater Clark County Schools’ new chief administrator on June 11, but not without some opposition.

The board of trustees voted him in 5-2, with Becka Christensen and Nancy Kraft voting against bringing him to the district.

On Dec. 6, 2011, the board voted to allow the contract of the previous superintendent, Stephen Daeschner, to expire. A news release from the district cited fundamental philosophical differences between Daeschner and the board as one of the reasons for not renewing his contract.

A superintendent search committee was formed and met March 19 after the position the top spot was advertised.

Melin said he hopes to continue Greater Clark’s success in improving academic achievement with some new techniques of his own, including a system that would put interventions for students on a tiered scale.

He also helped form a strategic planning committee with more then 90 members, to develop a long-term set of goals for the district. In a guest column, he said he hopes the committee will complete the plan by the end of March.

NEW TECH SCHOOL

After years of researching, negotiating and working with the town, Clarksville Community Schools’ board of trustees unanimously voted to bring a New Tech school to their district in 2014.

The board had visited New Tech schools in Columbus and other Indiana cities to see how students and teachers interacted and what benefits the model could bring to the district. New Tech, a project-based learning model that focuses on student engagement, will cost the district a one-time fee of $463,500 to start up. The fee will likely be paid either through the district’s rainy-day or capital projects funds.

The old Value City building will house the new facility. For the first year, the district will allow about 100 students in the freshman class and five to seven teachers to staff the building.

Board president Bill Wilson said should the New Tech high school prove successful, the district might consider expanding to elementary and middle school as well.

The board had wrestled with bringing the model in. Concerns, including ensuring the quality education of students at Clarksville High School was on par with the New Tech facility, were debated with board members.

HONORABLE MENTION

• The city of Jeffersonville sent a letter in early December notifying the Clark County Wellness Center it had to close after the Indiana Medical Licensing Board suspended the license of Dr. Lea Marlow, the prescribing doctor there. Marlow wrote more than 8,000 prescriptions for nearly 3,500 patients this year, according to the attorney general. Neighborhood residents had opposed the so-called “pill mill” since its opening.

• Work continued on the Big Four Bridge, a pedestrian and bicycle connection between the downtowns of Louisville and Jeffersonville. The city of Jeffersonville finalized plans on its park at the end of the ramp to the bridge, called Big Four Station. Pedestrians should be able to cross the bridge by the middle of next year.

• Ground was broken on the new Star Hill Road, which will provide a safer and more direct route to Borden.

• The Clark County Commissioners removed three air board members and the new board voted to authorize the county attorney to pursue a legal malpractice suit against the former air board attorney, Jack Vissing.

• A Louisville Yellow Cab driver was charged with four counts of reckless homicide after officials say he crossed the center line on Ind. 111 on Oct. 28 and struck an oncoming vehicle. Charles M. Barlow, 32, has been charged in the deaths of his passengers, Michael Roby, Tara Hirsekorn and Laura Weigand and the driver of the other car, Thomas Stinson. Barlow was not on duty for the cab company at the time of the crash.

• St. Mary of Knobs, the oldest Catholic parish in the area established in 1823, moved into new church building in 2012. The new church and activity center sit on 94 acres near the old church which was built in 1909.