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2012


February 20. 2013 12:07AM
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Violent crime, a rash of teen suicides and politics were among the top news stories of 2012 in Luzerne County.


Public corruption also continued to make headlines, as one former ranking state senator was sentenced to prison, another awaits trial and a well-known area attorney faces charges he bilked investors out of $6 million in a Ponzi scheme.


While much of Northeastern Pennsylvania was spared the worst of Superstorm Sandy's wrath, the late October hurricane still made generators a hot commodity and led to an outpouring of assistance and goodwill from area residents for those hardest hit in New Jersey and New York.


Redistricting Pennsylvania's congressional districts made two incumbents' jobs safer and likely cost the dean of the state's delegation his seat. When it came to state legislators, all local officeholders went unopposed or held off their challengers.


Here's a recap of those and other notable events.


Law and order

Call it trial by fire for Luzerne County's freshman District Attorney Stefanie Salavantis. Twelve months into her new job and her office so far has handled 21 new homicide cases.


Plymouth was the location of two of the county's bloodiest shooting incidents this year. Three people were shot and killed and a fourth person critically injured during an alleged drug deal in an apartment building on First and Orchard streets on July 7. Two months later, on Sept. 9, a disagreement inside Bonnie's Bar on East Main Street spilled on to the street and led to multiple people firing guns. One man died, another was critically injured and the alleged initial shooter was shot as well.


The April 5 death of 14-year-old Tyler Winstead on Hill Street in Wilkes-Barre was first reported as a drive-by shooting and caused the community to band together. Led by the Rev. Shawn Walker and the Rev. Michael Brewster, a community initiative called Building Bridges was formed to identify issues contributing to youth violence and build local partnerships to curb the problem.


Court papers, however, allege it wasn't a drive-by shooting that killed Winstead, but rather a weapon discharged by the boy's friend, Elijah Yusiff, 14. Court documents filed against Yusiff's mother, Angelina DeAbreu, allege Yusiff accidentally shot Winstead with a handgun stowed in DeAbreu's bedroom.


Court papers say DeAbreu hid a gun while her son hid shell casings in a pile of scrap metal behind a 119 Hill St. home – evidence in the shooting death of Winstead. Investigators say Tyler was shot on April 5 inside DeAbreu's 117 Hill St. home when Yusiff took a .22-caliber revolver from a book-shaped case.


Two hit-and-run deaths also captured the public's attention this year. After months of investigating, the first has led to charges being filed against Daniel Loughnane. Prosecutors say he drove away after fatally striking 19-year-old Rebecca McCallick in front of 199 Hazle Ave., Wilkes-Barre, at about 2:23 a.m. July 24.


On Dec. 21, city police said a 5-year-old boy, identified by Luzerne County Assistant Chief Deputy Coroner Tom Moran as 5-year-old Kevin Miller, of Dallas, was struck by a vehicle at the corner of West North Street and North Franklin Street, Wilkes-Barre, at about 10:55 p.m. The driver fled the scene. The vehicle and driver are still being sought.


Corruption issues

Another elected official is expected to head to prison in January on corruption-related charges. State Sen. Robert J. Mellow, 70, has been sentenced to spend 16 months in federal prison and three years of supervised release after pleading guilty to one charge of conspiracy to commit mail fraud – for using Senate staff to do political work for himself and his friends – and one count of underreporting his income on his 2008 tax return.


Mellow, of Peckville, becomes the latest in a long line of former politicos to be charged as part of an ongoing federal corruption investigation. It has snagged county commissioners, county judges, school district officials and others.


Among those still waiting for his day in court is former state Sen. Raphael Musto, who served alongside fellow Democrat Mellow in Harrisburg for three decades.


The Pittston Township resident retired from the Senate in 2010, along with Mellow, and was charged that same year. Federal authorities allege Musto abused his position as a senator by accepting $35,000 and other gifts from a developer, identified by Musto's attorneys as area businessman Robert Mericle. Musto's case has been delayed due to court filings that state he is too ill to stand trial.


Area attorney Anthony Lupas, 78, was indicted in July on 29 counts of mail fraud and two counts of conspiracy in connection with an alleged Ponzi scheme. Federal prosecutors say he swindled eight people out of more than $6 million by falsely portraying he had invested their money in trust funds. In reality, they say, the trust funds did not exist and Lupas used the money for his personal gain.


Lupas, of Plains Township, used his position of trust within the community to prey upon unsuspecting investors, bilking them over an 18-year period, the federal prosecutors allege.



Violent weather

NASCAR fan Brian Zimmerman, 41, of Moosic, was killed by an apparent lightning strike at Pocono Raceway just after a heavy thunderstorm system caused officials to prematurely end the Pennsylvania 400 early on Aug. 11. Nine other people were injured at the Long Pond racetrack.


While Superstorm Sandy didn't pack the punch in these parts that Tropical Storm Lee and Hurricane Irene had in 2011, Sandy still had an impact in Northeastern Pennsylvania when it made landfall Oct. 29 along the New Jersey shore. More than 37,000 customers lost power locally and some, in the Poconos and Lehigh Valley, went without power for a week.


The Susquehanna River didn't come close to rising to its flood stage, but the scene played out much differently along the Jersey shore and New York boroughs including Long Island, Staten Island and Manhattan. Some residents of those communities went without power for longer than a month, while others lost their homes to the storm.


The Wyoming Valley banded together with storm-relief fundraisers and collections of food, cleaning supplies, clothing and even stuffed animals; they delivered truckloads of goods to those impacted.


Wilkes-Barre fuel

Superstorm Sandy caused gasoline shortages in New Jersey and New York, but Wilkes-Barre had its own gas problems, namely lack of accurate record keeping when it came to which city workers were using how much from city-owned pumps.


A Times Leader investigation revealed the city could not account for nearly 18,000 gallons of fuel dispensed from its tanks between Dec. 1, 2011 and June 22. The state Department of Environmental Protection got involved and cited the city for poor record keeping.


The state Department of Revenue also entered the fray and conducted its own investigation, which resulted in the department slapping the city with a nearly $26,000 bill in October; saying investigators could not account for more than 67,000 gallons of fuel dispensed over a two-year period. The Luzerne County District Attorney's Office also launched a criminal investigation, which is continuing.


The pain at the pump for other motorists was brutally felt in 2012, which will go down as the most expensive year on record for gas prices. The Wilkes-Barre region saw prices peak at $3.97 on Sept. 13.


In natural gas news, the metering station built by Chief Gathering and operated by PVR Partners in Monroe Township, Wyoming County, just over the Dallas Township border, has made loud noises and vented gas twice since it went online in late September. The noise has startled residents and animals, prompting opponents to question the facility's safety and upsetting emergency response officials, who were dissatisfied with the company's initial efforts to notify them in a timely fashion.


Education changes

The area's ever-changing college landscape saw the hiring of Patrick Leahy as president of Wilkes University and Thomas Botzman to the same position at Misericordia University.


Leahy came to the Wilkes-Barre campus as a $35-million, 72,500-square-foot science building project was getting under way. The building will be dubbed the Lawrence and Sally Cohen Science Center after Benco Dental chairman Lawrence Cohen and his wife. The Cohen family donated $2.5 million toward construction.


That family also donated $150,000 to support Luzerne County Community College's new dental clinic in Nanticoke. That facility is now called the Benco Dental Clinic.


A new building at Misericordia University near Dallas is named for that school's outgoing President Michael MacDowell and his wife, Tina, in recognition of the dramatic improvements to the Back Mountain campus since they arrived in 1998.


The Mike and Tina MacDowell Hall is a 37,000-square-foot, three-story structure near the North Gate of campus and across the parking lot from the Anderson Sports and Health Center. The $6.2 million building adds 118 beds for student housing and three academic classrooms to the campus.


A probe into potential cheating on state math and reading tests, which began in 2010 and included Hazleton Area and Wilkes-Barre Area School districts, expanded to Wyoming Valley West. Tighter testing procedures were introduced. By year's end, however, most districts were cleared of any cheating, though the investigation of Hazleton Area was ongoing.


Two superintendents retired and were replaced. Pittston Area School Board hired Michael Garzella as successor to retiring superintendent Charles Cosgrove. Wilkes-Barre Area School Board members appointed longtime Deputy Superintendent Bernard Prevuznak to replace Jeff Namey.


Two-thirds of Luzerne County public schools missed the state math and reading test goals required to make Adequate Yearly Progress toward 100 percent proficiency by 2014. It is the worst showing by county schools since AYP was introduced 10 years ago. State Secretary of Education Ron Tomalis claimed declines in test results statewide are the result of the cheating investigation and tighter test procedures; but area school administrators argue the real culprit is that the goals have climbed unrealistically high.


Student deaths

The Pittston Area School District community was shaken as it dealt with the deaths of two high school students: a 16-year-old boy and 15-year-old girl. The two ended their own lives less than a week apart, on Sept. 21 and Sept. 24, respectively. Days before their deaths, a 13-year-old boy from Nanticoke fatally shot himself.


A fourth teen, from Hazleton, took his life on Sept. 25.


In August, a 17-year-old boy also committed suicide, making five suicides in the county this year among youth. That compares to three teen suicides in 2011, two in 2010 and none in 2009, according to data from the Luzerne County Coroner's Office.


The deaths spurred community meetings about bullying and suicide, although officials did not link all the deaths to bullying.


Public budget issues

Issues with tax collection agency Centax/Don Wilkinson Agency caused headaches for municipalities and taxpayers alike. The mess caused some municipalities to take out tax anticipation loans much earlier that typical to make budget; for others, the debacle has led to tax increases.


Wilkes-Barre Township will raise real estate taxes for the first time in 35 years, and its administrator blamed Centax/Don Wilkinson Agency's failure to release more than $500,000 in earned income and other tax revenue it owes the municipality for the hike.


Individual taxpayers who are owed refunds from the agency for the 2011 tax year likely will not see their money for another six to 12 months, as new tax collector Berkheimer & Associates hashes out the mess.


Meanwhile, municipalities and the county made cuts to balance their budgets.


Facing a $2 million budget crunch, Wilkes-Barre laid off 11 firefighters and four DPW workers, though Mayor Thomas Leighton says he hopes to bring some of them back in 2013. The city also decided to end the longstanding tradition of offering free meter parking downtown for the holidays.


Luzerne County Council members adopted a $122.25 million general fund budget that will keep property taxes the same but eliminates 50 vacant and filled positions, resulting in 27 layoffs. It was the first year of the new home rule form of government that county voters approved a year earlier.


Ghost riders?

Allegations of ghost riders being counted by Luzerne County Transportation Authority were made. But the state Department of Transportation investigated and found no wrongdoing. The issue was raised by Luzerne County Councilman Edward Brominski in July and ridership figures fluctuated greatly following those allegations.


LCTA board member Patrick Conway also made similar allegations. He noted senior citizen ridership was at 68,065 trips in May, rose to 71,754 in June and then dropped to 55,584 in July after he made the allegations of number padding. Senior ridership dropped further to 36,253 in August and 32,856 in September.


Attorney billing

A Times Leader investigation in February uncovered that Kingston attorney Angela Stevens apparently had double billed Luzerne County for delivering invoices related to her work representing parents in Children and Youth cases. The report prompted an investigation into the attorney by the Disciplinary Board of the State Supreme Court. The Luzerne County District Attorney's Office is awaiting a review of an audit by the state Office of Auditor General to determine if a criminal investigation will be initiated.


Political arena

Incumbent U.S. Reps. Lou Barletta, R-Hazleton, and Tom Marino, R-Lycoming Township, took heat for voting to approve a 2013 Department of Defense appropriations bill that could have meant cuts at the Tobyhanna Army Depot.


It didn't cost either Republican his House seat, as they went on to defeat Democratic challengers Gene Stilp and Phil Scollo handily in November.


The upset of the year locally was the primary election loss handed to the longest-serving member in the state's congressional delegation, Tim Holden. He was knocked off by fellow Democrat Matt Cartwright, an attorney from Moosic who used name recognition in the Wyoming Valley and beyond – and fundraising from fellow attorneys – to unseat the incumbent from St. Clair, Schuylkill County.


More than anything, the newly drawn 17th Congressional District that moved the district geographically northward and incorporated Lackawanna County was likely Holden's undoing. No longer was Holden's base of Schuylkill County the most populous part of the district. Cartwright was able to carry his home county of Lackawanna and other parts of the district en route to victory. He then defeated Old Forge nurse Laureen Cummings in the general election.


In the state General Assembly, all area incumbents who sought re-election earned another term. So, too, did U.S. Sen. Bob Casey, D-Scranton, who held off self-funded Republican challenger and millionaire Tom Smith. Casey carried Luzerne County.


So, too, did President Barack Obama, who earned a second term in the Oval Office. With Obama comfortably ahead in the polls in Pennsylvania, neither he nor GOP nominee Mitt Romney visited Luzerne County during the campaign.


Health care

While portions of the Affordable Care Act, dubbed Obamacare by critics, have taken effect, area insurers spent much of the year keeping one eye on the U.S. Supreme Court and the other on making sure the next steps of the federal law were ready to be implemented.


The diligence paid off, as the court ruled the law was constitutional and insurers such as Blue Cross of Northeastern Pennsylvania and Geisinger continued moving forward with meeting the law's mandates.


While health insurers had a busy year, the regional facilities that treat the sick and injured also were evolving.


In July, Wilkes-Barre General Hospital unveiled its new facilities during an open house. Hospital officials said the $53 million, 60,000-square-foot expansion, which houses a new emergency department and a state-of-the-art Heart and Vascular Institute, will allow doctors and nurses to provide care more efficiently in a more comfortable, private environment for patients.


Wilkes-Barre General, along with seven other hospitals and a handful of other health care facilities throughout the region, became part of a new regional health care system in February. The new Commonwealth Health stretches through three counties and encompasses eight hospitals, two physician groups and five home health and hospice agencies. Cornelio Catena, chief executive officer of Wyoming Valley Health Care System, serves as CEO of the new system.


The eight hospitals are owned by Tennessee-based Community Health Systems. Catena promised an infusion of about $250 million for upgrades and improvement in the hospitals during the next five years. Three hospitals are in Luzerne County: Wilkes-Barre General, Special Care Hospital in Nanticoke and First Hospital in Kingston; one is in Berwick; another in Tunkhannock and three are in Greater Scranton.


The eight hospitals, coupled with a retirement village in Berwick, have 1,449 beds. The new Commonwealth Health umbrella will cover 1,600 physicians and 6,500 employees who help care for more than 50,000 inpatients, 32,000 surgeries and 136,000 emergency room patients each year, Catena said.


Commonwealth Health also signed a lease in December for approximately 43,000 square feet inside the Waterfront office complex on North River Street in Plains Township. The owner of the complex, Ross Spengler, said he believes the plan is to eventually convert both buildings in the complex completely into Commonwealth Health space.


Commonwealth Health's chief competitor in the region, Geisinger Health System, made news itself in 2012. Geisinger approved $125.7 million in capital funding to enhance patient care in Lackawanna County. Included in the improvements are an $80 million facility expansion of Geisinger-Community Medical Center; $25.7 million to construct a new physician office building in Scranton, and a $20 million project that already is under way to upgrade the health system's information technology unit.


In June, Geisinger took a step toward assuring a reliable supply of blood, plasma and platelets for patients, opening the new 6,400-square-foot Geisinger Blood Center, a partnership with The Institute for Transfusion Medicine, inside the CenterPoint Commerce & Trade Park in Pittston Township.


In August, Geisinger officials cut the ribbon on a new off-campus, 25,000-square-foot center dedicated solely to orthopedics.


The $3.1 million building, at the intersection of East Mountain Drive and Baltimore Drive just a half-mile south of Geisinger Wyoming Valley Medical Center, will house 33 exam rooms, a 2,000-square-foot physical therapy suite with two treatment rooms and a hydrotherapy room, and a 2,500-square-foot fitness center where post-rehab patients can continue unsupervised therapy.


Hotel Sterling

The more things in the county change, in the case of the Hotel Sterling, the more things stay the same.


The once grand hotel along the east bank of the Susquehanna River in Wilkes-Barre has become an eyesore. While some people have lobbied to save the crumbling structure, others, including officials with the city of Wilkes-Barre and Luzerne County government, want it razed.


County Manager Robert Lawton said the county is working with Wilkes-Barre on a plan to demolish the Hotel Sterling without the involvement of the building's nonprofit owner, CityVest. Lawton said discussions between the county and city were prompted by CityVest's lack of response to a three-party demolition agreement. CityVest and the county have an unresolved disagreement over liability issues in the three-party agreement.


Lawton said he's willing to consider a new arrangement with the city, which condemned the structure, if it will bring down the downtown Wilkes-Barre building, limit the county's demolition contribution to $232,729 and ensure the county remains first in line to receive any revenue from sale of the cleared lot.


While the behind-the-scenes struggles played out, the building became a target of vandals and its condition caused the city to close half of Market Street and a lane of River Street due to concerns the building could collapse.







MONDAY: A look at what visitors to The Times Leader's website, www.timesleader.com, thought were the important stories in the nation and world during 2012, plus odd events that piqued public interest.




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