Tuesday, December 30, 2008

2008's biggest local stories mixed hopeful news with sad

By Jennifer Portman and Gerald Ensley

In 2008, they became household names. Rachel. Buster. Fay. Ronshay.

Tallahassee Democrat staffers — with the help of readers — looked back on this year that was marred by tragedies and lifted by personal triumphs. Here is our list of the top 10 local news stories of 2008.

Death of Rachel Hoffman

On May 9 the body of police informant Rachel Hoffman, a 23-year-old FSU graduate, was found in Taylor County. Two days earlier she had been shot to death when a police-led drug bust went bad.

Hoffman's death rocked the community. A grand jury found the Tallahassee Police Department negligent for sending the first-time informant out alone with $13,000 to buy drugs and a gun.

As the department works to rebuild credibility, Hoffman's family attorney stands ready to sue the city, and Andrea Green and Deneilo Bradshaw await trial in connection with her murder.

Hilton's indictment

On Jan. 9 drifter Gary Michael Hilton, 61, was pegged as the prime suspect in Cheryl Dunlap's December 2007 murder. Dunlap, 46, was a nurse and Sunday-school teacher from Wakulla County.

Hilton had been arrested days earlier in DeKalb County, Ga., after he was found cleaning blood out of his van. He later led police to the body of hiker Meredith Emerson, 24, and pleaded guilty to her murder. Quickly sentenced to life without parole, Hilton faces the death penalty in connection with Dunlap's killing.

Deaths of children

The high-profile deaths of four children in a four-month stretch were heartbreaking.

On May 6, third-grader Kyle Jones fell into a pool of water in the sand mine near his home while looking for tadpoles. The mine, at State Road 20 and Maige Road in western Leon County, was operated by Jimmie Crowder Excavating & Land Clearing.

Leon County commissioners have since passed an ordinance requiring sand mines to be fenced and marked with "no trespassing" signs.

On July 11, 4-year-old Grace Chen was sleeping during nap time at The Stepping Stones day care on Weems Road when a bathroom fan caught fire. She was overlooked during the panicky evacuation.

The center is now closed. The complete investigative report by the state Fire Marshal's Office has not yet been released.

On Aug. 23, 12-year-old Thomas McClane Crutchfield drowned after he fell into an overflowing lake dam by his home in Cairo, Ga. He was known as "Mac" to his friends and his Area Tallahassee Aquatic Club teammates.

And on Sept. 5, 8-year-old Ronshay Dugans was killed when a bus carrying 27 kids to a Boys and Girls Club was hit by a concrete truck on Capital Circle Southeast. Twenty kids had minor injuries; six went to the hospital and were later released.

A week later the truck driver, Marchaun Tremayne Andrews, 24, was charged with vehicular manslaughter and multiple counts of reckless driving. He's awaiting trial.

Two plane crashes

At 8:40 p.m. Feb. 8, a single-engine plane crashed at Ocala Road and Tennessee Street. Power went out to 7,200 utility customers, and traffic was massively snarled. Miraculously, pilot Hal McCord Jr. suffered only a broken leg and bruises in the nose-first crash — in part because power lines broke his fall — and no one at the busy corner on that Friday night was hurt.

On Nov. 13 another small plane crashed. This one came down in the Ridge Road neighborhood in southwest Tallahassee, about a mile from the airport. It killed Donald and Victoria Hess of New York, the only two in the plane. Two people on the ground were injured, but not seriously.

FSU role models

Amid all the bad news, FSU student-athletes Buster Posey, Walter Dix and Myron Rolle provided welcome relief. Their accomplishments — in class and in sports — made us all proud.

Posey won the Golden Spikes, Dick Howser Trophy, ACC triple crown and nearly every award there was to win as he took FSU back to the College World Series. He was later drafted by the San Francisco Giants in the first round.

Dix ran his way into the Olympics, becoming the only U.S. male athlete to qualify for two track events, and came home with two bronze medals. He also powered FSU to its third consecutive NCAA track-and-field championship.

And in the fall, FSU football player Rolle became the fourth Rhodes Scholar in FSU history. After receiving the award, he flew to Maryland and helped secure a Seminoles victory.

Tropical Storm Fay

On Aug. 23 Fay finally hit Tallahassee after spending a soaking week in the state, making four separate landfalls. At its worst, it officially dropped 9.33 inches of rain. But in parts of eastern Leon County, Jefferson County and other eastern areas, it dumped 15 to more than 20 inches, causing severe flooding.

Panic at the pump

As Hurricane Ike approached the Galveston-Houston area Sept. 12, gas-buying panic gripped Tallahassee on a Friday afternoon. Fears that the hurricane would limit supplies of gasoline created a rush on service stations throughout the city, causing traffic jams and sucking nearly every pump dry.

Prices peaked at $5.49, hovered around $4 for weeks and finally began to drop as the economy faltered. By Nov. 13, prices dipped below $2. The downward slide continues.

Signs of hope at FAMU

Florida A&M University, beleaguered by financial problems in 2007 and earlier, learned June 26 that its accreditation was to be restored by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools.

Also this year, a task force created by the Legislature to help the school with its bookkeeping issues also declared FAMU had addressed the majority of its financial problems and had proper procedures and controls in place.

FAMU's pharmacy department also got its accreditation restored through 2010. Its law school, however, was slammed by the American Bar Association. The school must make major improvements by next year to keep its accreditation.

Red Hills tragedy

On March 15 longtime competitor Darren Chiacchia suffered serious head and internal injuries in a fall during Red Hills Horse Trials cross-country competition. His horse was OK, but two other horses died during the same competition — the second and third horses ever to die during the event.

By fall, Chiacchia had defied the odds. He had overcome his injuries and was back in the saddle.

First Film Festival

Over three days in May, the first Tallahassee Film Festival screened more than 65 movies for free. The event, which exceeded all expectations, promises to be even bigger in 2009.

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