SALT LAKE CITY — With topics spanning presidential proclamations and local politics, to sweeping action on the homeless crisis and a bubbling feud between the state's flagship university and a leading philanthropist, 2017 brought nationwide attention to the Beehive State in a year that news junkies won't soon forget.
News directors at the Deseret News voted on the top 10 news stories of the year, and this is what they decided:
1. Monumental change
State and local politicians hoped it would happen, while Native Americans in southeastern Utah and environmental groups lobbied against any changes to a pair of national monuments.
On Dec. 4, less than a year after the designation of Bears Ears National Monument, President Donald Trump came to Utah and sided with state leaders, breaking up and shrinking the footprint of not only Bears Ears, but also Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument.
The decision to remove millions of acres from monument status was immediately followed by a lawsuit backed by the local tribes demanding justice, saying Trump doesn't have the legal authority to shrink designated federal land. Several environmental groups and businesses followed with their own lawsuits.
The long and contentious debate over the need for the monuments yielded visits from multiple federal officials to the Beehive State, including Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, who under the direction of the president led a comprehensive review of all monuments declared throughout the country over the past 21 years.
Bears Ears had achieved relatively new distinction, having been officially declared by former President Barack Obama on Dec. 28, 2016. Obama set the boundary at 1.35 million acres of protected lands, which immediately drew criticism from people who believe it was too much.
Grand Staircase-Escalante, however, had retained its status, with minor adjustments of its boundaries due to granted energy contracts and ongoing lawsuits, since its September 1996 inception by the Clinton administration.
Changes to the monuments landmarks caused other problems for the state in early February when Gov. Gary Herbert and the Utah Legislature agreed with those in Congress who wanted to rescind monument status.
The Outdoor Retailer show, which had poured millions annually into Utah's economy over the past two decades, withdrew from hosting its twice-yearly expositions in Salt Lake City in part over the public lands issue. The show's owners said Utah's take on protecting public lands was "bad for business" after Herbert rejected their ultimatum.
The show ultimately moved to neighboring Colorado, eliminating Salt Lake City from its list of proposed cities.
And while many in the outdoor industry and recreationists viewed Trump's move negatively, there was celebrating from state and local leaders, as well as some business people and ranchers.
Officials in San Juan County, who had been petitioning for the changes to wilderness status in the area over the years, are hopeful that economic revitalization will come with increased access to land.
2. Homeless in Salt Lake City
Days away from the beginning of 2017, Salt Lake City leaders braced for a storm of controversy when they unveiled four sites for new resource centers meant to overhaul the city and county’s troubled service system for the homeless.
At the time, city leaders said the sites — chosen behind closed doors — would be final and not up for negotiation.
Yet not even two months into the new year, it became obvious that negotiations between city, county and state leaders, pushed along largely by House Speaker Greg Hughes, R-Draper, had been happening behind the scenes — and the four centers morphed into two, with a third to be located elsewhere in Salt Lake County.
Soon after, the Utah Legislature passed a bill to fund the second half of the state’s $20 million contributions for the construction of new homeless resource centers — and also set in stone a hard date to close down the downtown Road Home shelter on or before June 30, 2019.
Salt Lake County Mayor Ben McAdams then had just a little more than a month to select a third shelter site — a process that infuriated West Valley City, South Salt Lake and eventually Draper after Mayor Troy Walker volunteered two potential sites.
McAdams ultimately selected a site in South Salt Lake, which Mayor Cherie Wood called a "lethal blow" to a city already burdened with social services.
The new shelters are now in the design and planning phases, with construction slated to begin next spring.
But not long after the homeless site controversy winded down, new problems swirled to life in the city and county jurisdictions.
After a string of violent incidents over the summer in the Rio Grande neighborhood, Hughes again stepped in, calling for more control of the drug- and crime-riddled area. What resulted was Operation Rio Grande — a long-term, multiagency effort between the state, city and county to disperse crime and divert those needing help to services.
The operation prompted the Utah Legislature to enter into another special session in the fall, where lawmakers passed two bills to fund nearly $5 million in law enforcement efforts and facilitate a two-year closure of Rio Grande Street to create a "safe space" for people seeking services and create a physical barrier for drug traffickers.
The question remains whether Operation Rio Grande's hold on the neighborhood will last over the next year and a half — as well as what will happen when the Road Home’s downtown shelter closes in 2019 and the new homeless resource centers open their doors.
3. Chaffetz resigns
Republican Jason Chaffetz resigned from his position in the U.S. House of Representatives on June 30, setting in motion Utah's first congressional special election in 87 years. The five-term congressman had been serving as chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, otherwise known as the "ethics committee," and first announced he was leaving in mid-May.
Chaffetz and his team had investigated ethical issues pertaining to Hillary Clinton and her time in then-President Barack Obama's Cabinet, as well as her run for president. He scrutinized the Obama administration but drew criticism for not looking into things regarding Trump and his Cabinet.
After pledging to sleep on a cot in his office when he began his tenure, Chaffetz vowed to "make changes" in the way things are done, specifically decreasing the national debt.
He left six months into his fifth term, citing difficulty being away from his family, whom he did not relocate to Washington, D.C. Chaffetz now works as a contributor for Fox News.
His vacancy prompted a special election battle between three candidates, including one from a new political party — its first time on a Utah ballot — Jim Bennett, of United Utah.
Former Provo Mayor John Curtis won the 3rd District race and was quickly sworn in, with more than 59 percent of the nearly 152,000 votes cast throughout Utah, Salt Lake, Wasatch, Grand, San Juan and Emery counties in early November.
Curtis will be up for re-election in 2018.
4. Cancer center CEO fired, rehired
Students, staff, administrators and members of the university community were shocked in April when Huntsman Cancer Institute CEO Mary Beckerle was unexpectedly fired via an email sent by University of Utah Health chief Dr. Vivian Lee.
The action spurred a lively feud between the two camps, including full-page advertisements in the two local papers, and ultimately ended in a swift reversal of the decision and a new line drawn in the sand.
U. President David Pershing and Lee, a professor of radiology and former CEO of University of Utah Health and dean of the School of Medicine, had acted together, inciting protests from faculty and university researchers, as well as threats from Utah billionaire and cancer hospital founder Jon Huntsman Sr. to withhold a $250 million donation.
The quarrel was largely regarding funding mechanisms for research at the comprehensive cancer hospital.
Beckerle was quickly reinstated and Lee resigned. In a parting email to faculty, Lee expressed sadness over the public divide between the U. and the Huntsman Cancer Institute that followed Beckerle's firing.
Pershing also moved up the timetable of his planned retirement as university president, but has said he will remain in the position until the Utah State Board of Regents hires his successor.
A newly clarified memorandum of understanding was developed and approved by the school's board of trustees in October, after months of negotiations and closed-door meetings between university and Huntsman-hired counsel. It addressed the governance and finances of the cancer hospital going forward, clearly detailing misconceptions contained in previous iterations.
Pershing penned an apology to Huntsman, vowing to work cooperatively in the future and to consult together on "major decisions."
Putting some wild and insulting jabs behind them, Huntsman and Pershing agreed to again put patients first, and continue the Huntsman facility's mission to "eradicate cancer from the Earth."
5. U. nurse stands up to police
A University Hospital nurse who denied a blood draw from an unconscious patient for Salt Lake police on July 26 amassed worldwide support for her actions to defend the hospital policy and patient rights.
Her subsequent arrest was caught on video and shared via social media, garnering hundreds of thousands of views and thousands of comments on multiple platforms where it was shared.
According to the video footage, U. nurse Alex Wubbels stood her ground and was handcuffed, arrested and placed into a police car when Salt Lake police detective Jeff Payne and his watch commander, Lt. James Tracy, disagreed with her stance.
The patient she had been protecting, 46-year-old William Gray, had been involved in an explosive car accident in Cache County earlier that day and was not under arrest. Wubbels contested that Payne did not have a warrant to test the man's blood and that Gray couldn't consent to it due to his condition.
Gray, who was hit by a man fleeing police earlier that day, died Sept. 25 from burns sustained in the accident.
Public outcry resulted in no charges filed against Wubbels, who alleged she was assaulted by the officer. She and her attorneys settled out of court, receiving $500,000 from Salt Lake City and the university, a portion of which, Wubbels said, would be used to provide legal services to people needing to obtain body camera footage, as well as support to the American Nurses Association.
Payne was subsequently fired and Tracy demoted on grounds that they failed to treat all citizens "equally with courtesy, consideration and dignity," also violating multiple department policies, according to a notice containing the administrative decision.
Both appealed the decision in October, saying they hadn't been trained on proper policy regarding blood draws.
The hospital has since worked out a new arrangement with police agencies that bring in detained patients, requiring permission from an on-duty supervisor before any action is taken.
6. Gary Ott saga
The troubling story of Salt Lake County Recorder Gary Ott came to a sad conclusion with his death Oct. 19 following a two-day trial in which his siblings sought guardianship from his girlfriend and caretaker, former employee Karmen Sanone.
Unbeknownst to nearly everyone in the office and revealed following a Deseret News investigation, Ott — who served as recorder from 2001 until Aug. 1, 2017 — had been battling health issues that altered his memory for years. Ott had remained in office despite a diagnosis of rapidly progressing Alzheimer's disease, according to testimony from Mary Corporon, an attorney representing Ott's siblings.
Allegations swarmed that Ott's top staff — chief deputy recorder Julie Dole and Sanone, his governmental affairs liaison — had been doing his job for him, perhaps covering for him and downplaying his condition. An internal audit found the two had been answering questions for him, as well as were routinely and exclusively delegated to perform tasks typically meant for the recorder himself.
Ott stayed in his position and collected a salary until a judge approved his August resignation, as there is no mechanism in place for elected officials to be evaluated, other than by voters in election years.
But in the wake of Ott's story, lawmakers aim to change that.
Rep. Rebecca Chavez-Houck, D-Salt Lake City, attempted to achieve a way that concerned citizens could petition for review of an elected official, though her bill fell flat in a mid-session legislative committee meeting.
In another crack at the same issue, Sen. Daniel Thatcher, R-West Valley City, seeks to create a law that would allow for the removal of mentally incapacitated elected officials and address troubling situations such as what happened with Ott.
Thatcher's bill would not include a voter petition — which lawmakers fear could be used to attack a person's political career — but would require a unanimous vote of the elected body (excluding the elected official in question) and would only be applicable to counties that have at least five elected officials on their council or commission.
The provision would apply in Salt Lake, Summit, Grand, Cache, Morgan and Wasatch counties, but only if they choose to adopt the measure, he said.
Ott's death signaled the end of the trial initiated by his siblings, who sought to care for him after it was believed Dole and Sanone were inappropriately controlling him. The court declared estate matters a different beast and closed the case.
Later, county Republicans called for the resignation of Democrat District Attorney Sim Gill, whom they believe should have handled the matter differently. Gill said an investigation into "elder abuse" concerning Ott is ongoing.
Dole, who lost her bid to replace Ott after he resigned, was removed from leadership positions in the Salt Lake County Republican Party and was banned from seeking political office as a Republican in the county.
7. Toughest DUI standard
The state will be the first in the country to lower the blood alcohol standard for impaired drivers from .08 percent to .05 percent, which will take effect Dec. 30, 2018.
Rep. Norm Thurston, R-Provo, who introduced the idea to lawmakers in February, said reducing the legal limit isn't intended to discourage drinking, but make Utahns think more seriously about drinking and driving.
The .05 percent limit could be reached, he said, with consumption of two-thirds of a bottle of wine, three shots or six beers. Thurston also said the National Traffic Safety Board has recommended lowering blood alcohol driving limits to .05 percent or lower since 2013.
Utah restaurant and bar owners, as well as the Washington-based National Beverage Institute, fought against the tightened restriction, but made little headway with the state's conservative Legislature. Critics believe the new law will result in more arrests and not focus on repeat offenders or those driving with dangerously higher alcohol levels. The trade organization took out full-page ads in national and local newspapers to express its distaste with the Utah lawmakers' decision.
Gov. Gary Herbert has said the law needs to be tweaked to reflect unintended consequences on how it is applied, and while lawmakers tackled the issue during the interim, Thurston plans to reconsider it in the upcoming session.
"The role of government is, in fact, to make sure that we have safety — in our neighborhoods, on the streets and the things we do in life," Herbert said, adding that the new .05 percent limit, which matches that of many European and Asian countries, is "good policy."
The Utah Highway Patrol has already reported a decrease in DUI arrests, as some believe the law has already taken effect and are opting to use a designated driver after drinking.
According to a 2016 DUI report compiled by the Utah Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice before the law was enacted, Utah law enforcement made 10,755 DUI-related arrests in 2015, including 339 for drivers with a blood alcohol content of between .00 percent and .07 percent,
Alcohol-related fatal car crashes were down, while drug-related fatalities were up, the 2016 report showed.
Crashes involving drugs — marijuana, methamphetamine and hydrocodone being the most common — ballooned 119 percent, going from 320 in 2014 to 701 in 2015. Fatalities involving alcohol dropped 18 percent, from 45 to 37.
8. John Swallow acquitted
Years of federal, state and legislative investigations culminated in a four-week trial of former Utah Attorney General John Swallow in which a jury found him not guilty of public corruption.
Prosecutors alleged Swallow, his predecessor Mark Shurtleff and the late Tim Lawson were part of a conspiracy to extort money and favors from a wealthy businessman the attorney general’s office had once prosecuted.
Swallow illegally accepted the use of a houseboat, lied in a deposition and an FBI interview, omitted financial information from a candidate declaration form and had the state pay for a broken screen on his personal laptop, according to the charges.
He also was accused of taking a bribe through a campaign fundraiser held by a couple who had filed a mortgage foreclosure lawsuit against Bank of America in which the attorney general's office intervened.
Much of the state’s case unraveled when its key witness, imprisoned businessman Jeremy Johnson, refused to testify, forcing prosecutors to drop some of the charges mid-trial.
Swallow’s attorneys argued that the case was politically motivated and the result of a shoddy investigation. They contended that the conspiracy theory was built on a house of cards and much of the testimony was about Shurtleff and Lawson, not Swallow.
A five-man, three-woman jury acquitted Swallow of the remaining eight felonies and one misdemeanor after 13 hours of deliberation. Jurors afterward said there wasn’t enough evidence to convict him beyond a reasonable doubt.
The verdict ended perhaps the most unprecedented criminal case involving a Utah politician in state history.
9. LDS Church drops Varsity Scouting
The LDS Church, the oldest and largest charter organization of the Boy Scouts of America, in May dropped Scouting from its Young Men's program for boys ages 14 through 17.
Beginning Jan. 1, young men from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in the United States and Canada will no longer participate in the Varsity (age 14 and 15) and Venturing (age 16 to 18) programs offered by the Boy Scouts, according to a church news release detailing changes to the program. Church-related activities for the boys, instead, will focus on spiritual, social, physical and intellectual goals.
The move, though upsetting to some, intends to provide opportunities for personal growth and development for around 180,000 Mormon boys.
Anyone wanting to pursue the rank of Eagle Scout, however, can continue at their own will, but need to register with the Boy Scouts of America to do so.
Boys ages 8 to 10 will continue with Cub Scouts and those ages 11 to 13 will still participate in the Boy Scouts program, since, as the church public affairs office said, "these programs currently meet the development program needs of boys from ages 8 through 13."
The LDS Church will also continue its relationships with Friends of Scouting for the younger age groups.
Scouting programs for older boys, the church statement said, have been difficult to implement and the changes make way for a more simplified system "to meet the spiritual, physical, emotional and intellectual needs of young men around the world."
Officials said the decision was not related to Scouting policy changes made in the last five years to allow gay and transgender youths and leaders to participate, as church-sponsored Scout units have always had the right to exclusion for religious reasons.
The LDS Church accepts gay Scouts in its troops, also allowing Latter-day Saints who are gay to serve in Scout leadership as they live the faith’s standards, which proscribe same-sex marriage or involvement in same-sex relations. Non-LDS volunteers with the same values and standards can serve in Scout leadership positions in LDS-sponsored units.
In January, the Boy Scouts announced that transgender youths are only permitted in boys-only units, which led to the latest push from the National Organization for Women in February to allow girls to join.
The national organization made a decision in October to include girls in its Boy Scouts and Cub Scouts programs, though, the church did not adhere to those changes and stuck with the decision to leave Varsity and Venture Scouts made earlier in the year.
The church said it would continue with Activity Days and Personal Progress programs for its young women members.
10. 'Tougher than a bullet'
It was a cold February night in rural northeastern Utah.
Having grown tired of Deserae Turner's frequent Snapchat messages, two teen boys lured her to a dried up Cache County canal under the guise of buying a knife, and shot her in the back of the head, later admitting in court that it was an attempt to kill her.
Colter Peterson, 16, pulled the trigger, and 17-year-old Jayzon Decker helped to plot what prosecutors called a "premeditated murder." Both were charged as juveniles but ultimately faced adult charges.
In separate deals with prosecutors, the boys each pleaded guilty to aggravated murder, a first-degree felony, and one other charge. They originally each faced three charges. The deal relieved Deserae and her family from reliving the details of the shooting during a full trial.
Decker and Peterson will face significant jail time, but have not been sentenced yet.
Deserae was found hours after the shooting by friends who were searching for her. She spent some time in a medically induced coma, and after waking up, she spoke to police about what little she remembers from that day, including naming the two boys she said she met at the canal.
She spent two months at Primary Children's Hospital, and, as a result of the attack, suffers from partial paralysis and daily headaches from the bullet tha remains lodged in her skull.
Deserae's parents have said the events that transpired changed the dynamics of their small town, but much kindness has been shown to their family.
Other news topping the News' news director charts this year include Utah looking to host another winter Olympics run in 2026 or 2030; terrorism strikes close to home as Kurt Cochran of West Bountiful dies in a London terror attack; Utah's opidemic — experiencing the record loss of lives to opioid addiction; Utah women march in opposition of Trump's inauguration; campus locks down after man shot at the University of Utah; and, a massive wildfire forces evacuation of the town of Brian Head.
Contributing: Katie McKellar and Dennis Romboy