Ravell Call, Deseret News
SALT LAKE CITY — The most historic moments are often the tear-jerking or scandalous or upsetting events. Looking back through 2013, we covered controversies, failings, murders, unjustified shootings, disasters and losses.
But we also covered compelling triumphs, successes, charitable actions, post-disaster unity and lessons learned from mistakes.
Some stories, like the attorney general controversy, held our attention the entire year. Others captivated us briefly, but have had a lasting impact. And then there are those stories that we are still in the throes of, yet to find resolution.
According to our editors, these are the 10 most noteworthy and poignant local stories of 2013.
1. John Swallow
Certainly the most enduring story of the year, the controversy of former Utah Attorney General John Swallow merited coverage almost every week. Shortly after Swallow took office in January, he faced allegations of influence peddling.
Those and other allegations prompted multiple investigations, by the U.S. Attorney’s Office, Utah State Bar, state elections office, U.S. Department of Justice Public Integrity Section, and a special Utah House investigative committee.
While federal authorities declined to press charges against Swallow, he continues to be investigated by district attorneys in Salt Lake and Davis counties, the FBI, and the Utah Department of Public Safety.
The House committee, which has spent nearly $3 million so far, reported email and other data missing from Swallow’s electronic devices. Investigators say Swallow deliberately destroyed data, made up documents and asked for $120,000 from a jailed businessman.
The embattled Swallow announced his resignation on Nov. 21, on the same day the lieutenant governor’s office prepared to issue a report that Swallow violated state election law.
Gov. Gary Herbert announced on Dec. 23 that Sean Reyes, who lost to Swallow in the 2012 GOP primary election, will be the new attorney general. Reyes was sworn in Dec. 30.
2. Same-sex marriage
Federal judge Robert Shelby on Dec. 20 struck down the Utah Constitution's ban on same-sex marriage. Amendment 3, supported by 66 percent of Utah voters in 2004, defined marriage as the union of one man and one woman. Shelby ruled the amendment to be unconstitutional under the due process and equal protection clauses of the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.
That afternoon, same-sex couples rushed to the Salt Lake County Clerk’s Office, and about 150 marriage licenses were issued. Utah Democratic Party Chairman Jim Dabakis was married to his partner of 27 years, Stephen Justesen, by Salt Lake City Mayor Ralph Becker.
Whirlwind marriages continued the next week as couples hustled to get licenses before a possible stay on the ruling could be issued. The state requested a halt to the marriages, but Shelby refused.
The state then appealed to the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which rejected the state’s request for a stay on the ruling but granted an expedited review of an appeal of the ruling.
3. Federal shutdown
The federal government partially shut down in October during a 16-day congressional stalemate, the result of the inability to pass a budget and attempts by congressional Republicans led by Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, and other members of the tea party caucus to stop or stall the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare.
The shutdown included closure of national parks and monuments in Utah, as well as unpaid furloughs for Hill Air Force Base civilian employees, workers at the Ogden Internal Revenue Service center and most Utah National Guard employees. It also halted funding for programs like the Women, Infant and Children nutritional program.
Economic repercussions included dampened consumer attitudes. Tourism in the communities near the national parks in Utah suffered an estimated $30 million loss. Utah allocated $1.7 million near the end of the shutdown to open parks — money that officials hope will be reimbursed by the federal government.
4. West Valley police
The embattled West Valley City Police Department faced several public relations nightmares in 2013. Following the fatal officer-involved shooting of Danielle Willard in December 2012, West Valley police found themselves answering questions about the disbanded Neighborhood Narcotics Unit. Eventually, 124 cases linked to the former unit were thrown out because of credibility issues.
Those issues came from an investigation that revealed the former drug unit had improperly used evidence, confidential informants and GPS tracking. Nine officers were placed on administrative leave at one point.
In March, Police Chief Thayle "Buzz" Nielsen announced his retirement following surgery. Also in March, the Susan Powell missing person investigation became a cold case. Police say if new leads are presented to them they will investigate; but all active leads for finding the Utah mother’s body have been exhausted.
In August, Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill found the shooting of Willard was not legally justified. He is expected to rule in early 2014 whether officers Shaun Cowley and Kevin Salmon will be criminally charged.
Cowley, who was fired from the department in September, is appealing with the West Valley Civil Service Commission to be reinstated so he can get a job with another department. Cowley's attorneys have filed scathing motions, alleging West Valley police administration have made Cowley their scapegoat to salvage their reputation.
West Valley City named Lee Russo its new chief in August. In December, Russo announced the results of an audit of the former sex crimes unit that revealed problems with 15 cases mishandled possibly because of poor communication or intentional deceit. An audit of all cases handled by the department in 2012 was expected to be released in early 2014.
Firearms laws came to the forefront, locally and nationally, after the tragic elementary school shooting in Newton, Conn., in December 2012.
Salt Lake City Police Chief Chris Burbank and other police chiefs met with President Barack Obama and others at the White House in January to discuss the divisive issues of gun control. The president called for a reinstatement of the 1994 assault weapons ban, a limit on high-capacity magazines and a requirement for universal background checks.
Gun legislation crumbled in Congress as opponents of the president’s gun control proposal rallied around the country and in Utah. Among the leaders of the opposition was Utah’s senator Lee.
Utah lawmakers approved a “constitutional carry” bill, HB76, but it was vetoed by Gov. Gary Herbert. The Legislature also discussed several other gun-related bills, including HB114, intended to bar federal gun laws from being enforced in Utah.
While HB114 failed to pass, lawmakers did approve HB317, which prohibits the sharing of concealed-firearms permit information with the federal government.
6. Martin MacNeill trial
After a four-week trial, former Pleasant Grove doctor Martin MacNeill was found guilty in November of murdering his wife, Michele, more than 6 1/2 years earlier. He also was convicted of obstructing justice, for making the death look like an accident.
The case caught the attention of national media, partly because his own children were convinced he killed their mother after discovering that nearly everything they knew about their father was based on lies. But Michele MacNeill’s death had not been classified as a homicide, and some worried he may have gotten away with committing the perfect murder because the case against him was largely circumstantial. Jurors, however, said his “erratic” and sometimes “heartless” behavior before and after his wife’s death, as well as his changing explanations, helped convince them of his guilt.
After his wife had a facelift, MacNeill asked the surgeon to prescribe an unusual combination of drugs for her. Prosecutors believe he then overdosed his wife on the cocktail of drugs and drowned her in the bathtub.
Investigators believe that throughout his life, MacNeill used his position as a doctor to have access to women and used his title as an attorney to get around the law. He was involved in multiple affairs and had a history of forgery, theft, fraud and other complaints. MacNeill will be sentenced on Jan. 7. In early December, he attempted suicide by cutting himself with a disposable razor. He is also scheduled to stand trial in February for an unrelated sex abuse case.
7. Kennecott landslide
A massive slide at Kennecott Utah Copper's Bingham Canyon Mine on April 10 forced employee layoffs, reduced production by a bit less than 50 percent and led to a restructuring of top management.
About 2,500 people were employed at the mine at the time of the slide, and 2,100 employees were asked to take vacation or unpaid time off. No workers were injured, but about 165 million tons of material slipped and buried containers of oil, coolant, grease, diesel fuel and explosives. The slide damaged roads, buildings and vehicles in the copper pit.
The landslide was expected, but the magnitude wasn’t. The University of Utah measured the shake to have a magnitude of 2.4, which brought mining to a halt. The mine is the largest man-made excavation in the world, and Kennecott supplies about 25 percent of the country’s copper.
Besides having to dig out of the landslide, Kennecott also faced safety and financial concerns. Some analysts estimate getting the mine fully operational could take at least $1 billion.
8. Draper Sgt. Derek Johnson
Draper Police Sgt. Derek Johnson was shot and killed in the line of duty on Sept. 1, at the age of 32. It was a Sunday morning and he was driving back to the police station at the end of his shift, just before 6 a.m.
He came across a broken-down car with two people in it near 13200 S. Fort St. (850 East) and was shot multiple times without warning while still in his patrol car. Johnson never drew his weapon; he was pronounced dead at the hospital.
Timothy Troy Walker, 35, the alleged shooter, and Traci Lee Vaillancourt, 34, had been living out of the car. Officials believe Walker shot the woman before shooting himself. Both were in critical condition but survived. Vaillancourt was charged with two counts of obstruction of justice. Walker was charged with aggravated murder, and his hearing is to be scheduled sometime after January.
Johnson left behind his wife and middle school sweetheart, Shante Johnson, and his son, Bensen Ray, now 7. Several thousand community members, family members and officers attended services for Johnson and a funeral procession from the Maverik Center to Larkin Sunset Gardens in Sandy, where he was buried.
Leaks about National Security Agency surveillance was No. 5 on The Associated Press' top 10 national and international stories of the year. Two Utah elements were part of 2013 media reports about the NSA.
There were reports the FBI and NSA collected text messages and email in the Salt Lake area during a six-month period surrounding the 2002 Olympic Games. A number of top Olympic officials say they didn’t know anything about the surveillance activity. That revelation came out in August 2013, on the same day the NSA declassified three secret court opinions revealing that an NSA program had collected 56,000 emails and other communications of Americans over three years.
The NSA in late 2013 was completing a massive data-storage center in Bluffdale, which experienced electrical failures during testing in October. According to the NSA, the problems were mitigated. The $1.5 million, 1 million-square-foot Utah Data Center will be an operational hub for efforts to collect, process and store huge amounts of digital information.
10. Boy Scouts
The Boy Scouts of America changed its policy regarding Scouts’ sexual orientation and lifted its ban on the participation of gay youth members. BSA did not lift its ban on openly gay adult leaders.
Thirty-eight percent of all BSA units are affiliated with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and the church said it was satisfied with the new national policy: “Sexual orientation has not previously been — and is not now — a disqualifying factor for boys who want to join Latter-day Saint Scout troops.”
The church celebrated its 100-year-old partnership with Scouting on Oct. 29 with a broadcast from the Conference Center.
See the list of Utah's top 16 most noteworthy and poignant stories of 2013.
Fire and floods: At one point during summer 2013 the Utah-Idaho area was the nation's No. 1 wildfire-fighting priority. Several places around the state also experienced flooding, some of the worst because of burn scars from 2012 fires.
Real Salt Lake: Soccer team owner Dave Checketts sold his controlling interest to local businessman and part-owner Dell Loy Hansen in January. After losing the U.S. Open Cup Final in October, the consistently good MLS team went to the league championship game but lost in a dramatic shootout to Sporting KC. RSL lost its longtime head coach, Jason Kreis, to New York City FC. He was replaced by assistant coach Jeff Cassar in December.
Referee assault: Ricardo Portillo was officiating a soccer match in April when an angry player punched him in the jaw area. He died a week later from his injuries, at the age of 46. The 17-year-old goalkeeper who punched Portillo pleaded guilty in juvenile court to homicide by assault. A judge recommended he be held until age 21.
Count My Vote: An initiative petition drive was launched in September to replace the state's current caucus and convention system with a direct primary election. Former Gov. Mike Leavitt and other supporters need to collect nearly 102,000 signatures by April 15, to get the issue on the ballot in 2014.
UTA: The new Airport TRAX extension opened in April, taking travelers between downtown and the Salt Lake City International Airport. The Sandy TRAX line received a 3.8-mile extension to Draper in August. The streetcar S-Line opened in December and runs two miles to Sugar House.
Vidinhar slaying: Alex Vidinhar, 10, and Benjie Vidinhar, 4, were found dead with wounds consistent with a stabbing in their West Point home on May 22. Their older brother, 15, is suspected of killing them. The case is still pending in court.
Contributing: Lisa Riley Roche and Pat Reavy
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