2012's top news stories impacting Pittsburghers
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The headlines dominating Western Pennsylvania's news coverage in 2012 reflected both issues that carried over from before the year began, such as the Penn State sex scandal, and those no one could have anticipated, including a shooting rampage in Oakland and the mauling of a toddler at the Pittsburgh Zoo. Those tragedies, along with major court cases and controversial legislation enacted in Harrisburg, were among the major stories of the year.
Here's a rundown of the region's top news stories of 2012, as voted by the Post-Gazette staff:
SANDUSKY SCANDAL FALLOUT
The sordid reports of former Penn State assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky's molestations of boys he was supposedly mentoring came out in late 2011, but the biggest repercussions arrived this year: Sandusky was convicted and sent to prison with what is effectively a life sentence; the football program was hit by unprecedented NCAA penalties; and former President Graham Spanier was added to the list of former university officials under indictment, apparently to face trial in 2013. Added to that, the Penn State community had to mourn the Jan. 22 death of Joe Paterno, who remains legendary for many career-long contributions despite being fired last year for how he handled the allegations against Sandusky.
SHICK SHOOTINGS AT WESTERN PSYCHIATRIC
Lone gunman John Shick caused death and mayhem when entering Western Psychiatric Institute & Clinic on March 8. The 30-year-old described as a schizophrenic entered the facility in Oakland loaded with ammunition, killing one staff member and wounding five other people before being shot and killed by police. It was never clear why he targeted the UPMC facility, though he had exhibited unstable behavior since moving to Pittsburgh in 2011 and had been committed to mental institutions elsewhere previously. The tragedy prompted new security precautions at Western Psych, a prominent treatment center, and debate over whether more safeguards are needed.
A long-running battle between UPMC and Highmark that threatened to disrupt health care services and payments throughout the region was settled, temporarily, by a truce that keeps the institutions' business relationship intact through 2014. Meanwhile, a partnership between Highmark and West Penn Allegheny Health System to counter UPMC's dominance was on shaky ground much of the year. The Highmark-WPAHS deal remained intact only because a judge ruled the health system couldn't back out of it, despite its concerns that Highmark was trying to force it into bankruptcy. At year's end, the insurer and region's No. 2 hospital system said it expected to finalize an acquisition agreement in January.
BOMB THREATS DISRUPT PITT'S SPRING
It is not unusual for any institution as big as the University of Pittsburgh to receive a bomb threat, but the 40 such hoaxes that forced repeated building evacuations at Pitt in the spring dwarfed anything ever seen in Pittsburgh. The number and their timing -- including during final exams -- wreaked havoc for students, faculty and university administrators. The mystery surrounding them continued even after a Pittsburgh grand jury brought charges in August against the alleged culprit, Adam Busby. The Scotsman, imprisoned in Dublin on separate charges at the time of his indictment, has physical disabilities and a history of terroristic threats but no ties to Pitt that have become public. It's unclear if he will ever be brought here for trial.
CORRUPTION CASES AND CONVICTIONS MULTIPLY
Political corruption investigations have been a running theme in recent years around Harrisburg and Pittsburgh, and 2012 was as busy as any. Greene County Democrat Bill DeWeese, one of the Capitol's most influential lawmakers for decades, was sentenced to at least 21/2 years in prison for illegal politicking. His former No. 2 in the state House, Beaver County's Mike Veon, suffered his second conviction in less than two years. And the GOP's politically formidable Orie family from the North Hills took multiple hits: Former state Sen. Jane Orie began serving a minimum 21/2-year sentence for corrupt campaigning, and sister Joan Orie Melvin was suspended as a state Supreme Court justice while facing her own trial next month on similar charges.
A TODDLER'S MAULING AT THE ZOO
Screams pierced the Pittsburgh Zoo & PPG Aquarium on Nov. 4 when 2-year-old Maddox Derkosh of Whitehall tumbled from an observation platform into the African painted dogs exhibit while on an outing with his mother. The aggressive pack mentality of the 11 dogs in the exhibit set in, and they converged fiercely upon the boy with bystanders and zoo personnel unable to do anything to save him. While no charges were brought against the boy's mother or zoo over the death, the incident led zoo officials to announce a month later that they would remove the observation deck from the popular exhibit.
AN ON-AGAIN, OFF-AGAIN VOTER ID LAW
Gov. Tom Corbett and the Republican-controlled Legislature approved new voter ID requirements in March that Democrats and some advocacy groups quickly criticized as discriminatory to those citizens less likely than the general population to have acceptable photo identification cards. GOP proponents of the measure said it was designed to discourage voter fraud, although they offered scant evidence of such problems having occurred. When the fight over the law reached the legal system, Commonwealth Court Judge Robert Simpson issued a temporary ruling that election workers in November could ask for identification but could not stop anyone without it from voting. The law's permanent status, however, is to be determined in 2013.
REASSESSMENT RESULTS ARRIVE (SORT OF)
Allegheny County officials for years resisted updating the property assessments of 2002, but a court order forced them to produce new values for 2013 for all residential and commercial properties.
While more than 100,000 property owners filed appeals amid continuing concerns about accuracy of the process, the results showed overall values across the county climbing 32 percent to $84.5 billion. The proponents of the reassessments complained that the new values remained unfair to residents of lower-income communities, but Judge R. Stanton Wettick Jr. refused to throw them out. Because municipalities and school districts have been allowed until Jan. 31 to set new tax millage rates, it's still unclear how everyone's bottom-line tax bills will be affected.
A GAS DRILLING BILL IS PASSED
As Marcellus Shale gas drilling continued expanding across the commonwealth, the Legislature approved a sweeping bill imposing new regulations and fees on the industry. Some municipal government officials found it too sweeping, however, as the law limited local zoning rules for oil and gas production. After municipal officials filed suit, Commonwealth Court struck down that portion of the law in a case that still awaited a final state Supreme Court determination at year's end. Though the law did not impose a general tax on gas production, as many states have done, it contained a per-well fee that raised $204 million in its first year, based on more than 4,300 Marcellus Shale wells drilled statewide.
JORDAN MILES' CASE REACHES COURT
Ever since Jan. 12, 2010, the injuries suffered by unarmed Homewood teenager Jordan Miles at the hands of three Pittsburgh police officers have been a flashpoint for difficult police-community relations. After District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala Jr. announced in May that he had insufficient evidence to charge the officers criminally, the hopes of Mr. Miles and his supporters rested on a civil court trial over the summer. He won no victory there either, however, with the jurors finding the officers innocent of one charge, and with their mixed votes concerning excessive force and false arrest causing a mistrial. Mr. Miles is hoping for a retrial on those charges in 2013.
First Published December 30, 2012 12:00 am