Last Modified: Wednesday, January 01, 2014 1:09 AM
Here are the Top 10 news stories for 2013 as voted on by the American Press news staff:
1. Pastor fatally shot during revival
Tabernacle of Praise Worship Center sits at the end of a nondescript cul-de-sac off Opelousas Street just east of Lake Charles. The evening of Sept. 27, the church on Deshotel Lane became the center of news in Southwest Louisiana.
Ronald J. Harris Sr., the 53-year-old pastor of the church, was shot while leading singing during a Friday night revival service.
Authorities said the alleged shooter, Woodrow Karey, 54, immediately called to turn himself in. Karey, who had no criminal history, told deputies “he raped my wife” several times, according to the initial complaint. He also reportedly told authorities where to find a shotgun and a .22-caliber pistol nearby.
Karey’s wife filed a rape complaint on Sept. 25. Authorities said there did appear to have been a sexual relationship between Harris and Karey’s wife, but did not say whether they believe it was consensual.
The story drew national attention from websites such as Huffington Post and news organizations such as CNN. Some national news organizations sent reporters to cover the story.
Karey was charged with second-degree murder and bond was set at $1 million. When the case was brought before a grand jury in mid-November, Karey was indicted for manslaughter, rather than second-degree murder, which carries a mandatory life sentence. Manslaughter carries a sentence of up to 40 years.
Karey found inappropriate text messages between his wife and Harris about a week before the shooting, Sheriff Tony Mancuso said.
In a court document filed in response to a lawsuit filed by Harris’ widow, Karey’s attorneys include a 165-word profanity-laced text message allegedly sent by Harris that called Karey’s wife “just a piece of meat.” The text message was meant for Karey’s wife, but was sent to Karey instead, the response says.
The lawsuit, filed by Harris’ widow, Frances Harris, seeks damages from Karey.
The lawsuit claims Karey shot Harris from a distance, then stalked the retreating Harris and shot him again.
The shooting reportedly happened in front of 67 people.
The response claims that Karey and Harris were once close friends. Karey was a former deacon at the church, members said.
Karey’s bond was reduced from $1 million to $500,000 on Dec. 16, although he remains jailed at Calcasieu Correctional Center.
— Johnathan Manning
2. Vail case reopened
A investigative article by a Mississippi journalist resurfaced questions into the death of a Eunice High homecoming queen on the Calcasieu River a half-century ago.
Mary Horton Vail and Felix Vail met while they were students at McNeese State University and married in Eunice on July 1, 1961. They had one son, Bill.
She was 22 when her body was pulled from the Calcasieu River in October 1962. Felix Vail said she drowned while they were running trotlines. The death was ruled accidental, although he spent three days in jail at the time.
Mississippi investigative reporter Jerry Mitchell wrote not just about the circumstances surrounding Mary Vail’s death, but also the disappearances of two other women who had relationships with Felix Vail. A girlfriend of Felix Vail’s, Sharon Hensley, disappeared in 1973, and a wife of his, Annette Craver Vail, disappeared in 1984.
The case was re-opened in Calcasieu Parish and coroner Terry Welke ruled her death a homicide.
Felix Vail was arrested at his home in Comal County, Texas, in May and charged with second-degree murder.
A preliminary examination in June drew a packed house. Welke testified that he used the original autopsy report and photos to rule the death a homicide. The autopsy reportedly said her scarf extended four inches into her throat. Welke said he believed Mary was dead before entering the water because of the “coffin-type“ position her body was in and because of a black substance on her forehead, shirt and toes — he said it appeared she had been laid face down or something had been laid on top of her.
Felix Vail said he and Mary Vail fell out of the boat, but he could not find her when he surfaced.
Mary Vail’s friends and family said his story didn’t add up — they said she was terrified of dark water and would not have gone on the boat.
When the couple’s son, Bill, was 8, he reportedly told authorities he overheard his father tell Sharon Hensley he had drowned
Mary. Bill told Livingston, Calif., police that “his father had once told him he had pushed his mother out of a boat into
a lake near Lake Charles while knowing she could not swim,” a news report in 1970 read. Bill later repeated that claim in
a video he made for his church before he died. — Johnathan Manning
Gov. Bobby Jindal’s efforts to privatize Louisiana’s charity hospitals included a public-private partnership that took effect in June between the Lake Charles Memorial Health System and W.O. Moss Regional Medial Center.
State lawmakers approved legislation during this year’s session that allowed the moving of inpatient beds from Moss to Memorial’s Oak Park Campus, along with the building of a $5 million outpatient clinic next to Moss’ existing facility. Emergency and surgery services offered at Moss were also transferred to Memorial.
Larry Graham, Memorial president, told the American Press in June that the partnership will provide “dramatically improved care” for Moss patients in “more modern facilities.”
The partnership forced some longtime Moss employees to retire sooner than expected.
Gov. Bobby Jindal said the public-private partnerships have generated $140 million in savings with $20 million being reinvested in patient care at the hospitals. The partnerships also affected state-run hospitals in Houma, New Orleans and Lafayette.
Moss’ former emergency room clinic now functions as an urgent care clinic open 7 a.m.-10 p.m.
When Jindal visited Memorial in October, he said the urgent care clinic allows patients to build relationships with physicians and avoid costs associated with emergency room visits. The department sees about 137 patients daily.
Moss’ campus continues to offer services for asthma, gynecology, infectious diseases and minor procedures. It also offers chemotherapy, dermatology, ophthalmology, rheumatology and pharmacy services.
The partnership has led to additional
services being available locally, including specialized heart scans,
and kidney dialysis procedures. Moss physicians are treating 25
patients per day as opposed to five patients before the partnership. — John Guidroz
4. Golden Nugget buys casino
Golden Nugget Casinos announced in July it had entered into an agreement with Pinnacle Entertainment to buy the Lake Charles development under construction next to L’Auberge Casino Resort.
Tilman J. Fertitta, owner and CEO of Golden Nugget Casinos, announced the closing of the casino’s purchase in November. Major construction on the 242-acre facility — expected to be called the Golden Nugget Hotel and Casino — is ongoing, and it could open by late 2014.
The resort is expected to have 750 hotel rooms and suites, an 18-hole golf course, six restaurants and an 18,000-square-foot ballroom. There will be more than 3,000 parking spaces created to accommodate visitors.
“We are investing nearly $600 million in the project and plan to draw from our large south Texas and Louisiana customer base to drive business to our new resort,” Fertitta said. “Lake Charles is a growing market, a growing city, and to be able to team up with L’Auberge to have two major resorts to be right there next to each other, we feel it’s going to be a huge plus.”
Fertitta said the facility could employ up to 2,000 people. The casino will have 1,600 slot machines, a poker room and 60 table games.
Before Pinnacle sold the casino to Golden Nugget, it had acquired it through a buyout from rival Ameristar Casinos Inc. for $869 million. The Nevada Gaming Commission approved that deal in May.
Golden Nugget owns casinos in Las Vegas, Atlantic City, N.J., Laughlin, Nev., and Biloxi, Miss.
Fertitta, a native of Galveston, Texas,
owns more than 100 restaurants in the south Texas market, including
Morton’s Steakhouse and Landry’s Seafood House. He also owns the
Kemah Boardwalk, Galveston Historic Pleasure Pier and the
San Luis Resort Complex. — John Guidroz
After hearing six days of testimony, a jury in 14th Judicial District Court deliberated less than 11⁄2 hours before convicting 31-year-old Jaime Brooks Day of savagely abusing her 9-year-old stepson.
Brooks was convicted of second-degree cruelty to a juvenile in November and sentenced to 30 years in prison in December. She is now housed at Louisiana Correctional Institute for Women in St. Gabriel.
During the six days of trial testimony, investigators and the boy told shocking tales of abuse and starvation.
Judge Clayton Davis and prosecutors alike said a video Day took of the boy wailing on his knees showed that Day was capable of mental abuse. When the video was restarted after only a short portion had been shown, a juror asked Davis, “Do we have to watch this?” The video was reportedly more than 20 minutes long, but Davis ordered it stopped after only four minutes.
When the boy, now 13, took the stand through a video feed during the first day of testimony, he said Day forced him to eat only Ramen noodles, grits and rice, and his own feces.
He detailed several other stories of abuse: he said she hit him with a chipped dust pan; threw a screwdriver at him; burned his abdomen with a blow-dryer; kicked him in the back for doing jumping jacks incorrectly; burned his back with a sock of hot rice; Saran-wrapped him to the bed with the help of one of her biological children; and hung him upside down by his ankles while she bathed her younger boys.
“She would do any kind of thing to hurt me,” the boy told the court.
Photos of the boy at the hospital showed a frail, but smiling child, with hair growing all over his body — doctors said the hair was a sign of hypothermia. Doctors said he weighed 38 pounds.
Day’s attorneys argued that the boy had mental issues when he arrived in Day’s care and his bruises were self-inflicted.
“We’d go to bed at night and wake up and there would be new bruises,” Day said on the stand.
Prosecutors said the boy’s father, Murry Day, was often away working. He pleaded no contest to accessory after the fact to
second-degree cruelty to a juvenile in November and is to be sentenced to March 26. — Johnathan Manning
6. Kinder wins state championship
For the first time in 14 years, Southwest Louisiana became home to a high school state football champion.
The championship was 35 years in the making for the town of Kinder. The town’s collective dream came true in New Orleans as the Yellow Jackets worked their magic one final time for a 34-20 victory over the Many Tigers to cap off a 14-1 season.
In the game the Yellow Jackets jumped out to an early advantage, leading 18-7 at halftime thanks to a trio of huge defensive plays — the biggest coming in the form of a 61-yard interception return for a touchdown by senior Khalil Leblanc.
Once the second half began the Tigers jumped into the driver’s seat behind the stellar play of quarterback/safety Xavier Dias. At one point at the end of the third quarter, trailing 20-18, the Yellow Jackets were backpedaling a rapid pace and it looked as though nothing was going to stop their collapse. That was until Leblanc came through again, intercepting another pass, this time deep in Kinder territory.
The 16-play, 89-yard offensive drive that ensued will forever be ingrained into Kinder folklore as it eventually allowed them to retake the lead and every ounce of momentum that was left in the Superdome.
Many’s comeback attempt was cut short by a Bryce Baker interception that all but handed head coach Bret Fuselier the championship trophy. The Yellow Jackets would go on to score one last touchdown for good measure to ice the game.
Junior running back Jordan Vickers was named the game’s Most Valuable Player after a 192-yard, three-touchdown performance.
“These guys never wavered. They just knew it was going to happen. They just stared right in the face and made it happen,” said Fuselier, who would go on to be honored as the Southwest Louisiana Coach of the Year and the Class 2A state Coach of the Year.
“It’s the best feeling in the world,” said senior quarterback Austin Pickle after the game. “I know a lot of people outside
of Southwest Louisiana didn’t believe in us. We proved those people wrong. It just feels great to go out like this.” — Troy LaFleur
7. (tie) Three shot in park
On the night of March 21, a dice game at McMillan Park ended in tragedy.
Jeminskian J. Arvie, 20, David Jermaine Galmore, 22, and Fitzgerald Tremayne Guillory, 20, were “minding their own business, playing dice” when they were attacked by robbers, leaving all three men dead, Lake Charles Police Chief Don Dixon said.
Dixon said at a news conference the following day that a total of four men were shot.
A man who lived nearby described the 9:30 p.m. scene as a chaos of gunfire and silhouettes running and falling in the dark.
Dixon announced a suspect, Armonta Dquon Hadnot, 19, although he said police were also searching for another unidentified shooter. Hadnot was already wanted on a 2012 charge of attempted second-degree murder.
Hadnot was also a suspect in a shooting incident earlier in the evening of March 21, police said. After a disagreement about a parking spot, Hadnot hung out the window of a green Buick driven by Lon Allen Porter, 24, and fired shots at the other vehicle as it drove away, Deputy Chief Mark Kraus said.
Porter was arrested that night, but police continued to search for Hadnot, whom they said was driving the green Buick with an angel wings hood ornament.
Hadnot stayed on the lam for a day before the green Buick was spotted by deputies. The car was crashed during a chase and Hadnot escaped on foot before finally surrendering to a police dog, Barry, around midnight March 22, police said.
Hadnot was charged with three counts of first-degree murder, three counts of attempted first-degree murder, six counts of armed robbery and six counts of armed robbery with a firearm.
Two women — Jasmine Jere Hales and Rava Aaron — were arrested and charged with being accessories after the fact. — Johnathan Manning
7. (tie) Aeroframe out, AAR in
Aeroframe’s lease with Chennault International Airport was terminated and turned over to Illinois-based AAR Corp. in early August — a new partnership that would reportedly create 500 jobs.
AAR did not buy out Aeroframe, but will do aircraft maintenance. Gov. Bobby Jindal was in town for the economic development announcement in August. Chennault Executive Director Randy Robb dubbed it “one of the biggest things to ever happen to Chennault.”
Danny Martinez, a spokesman for AAR, said Monday that the company only has 120 local employees with plans to hire more as additional customers sign on.
“There are several baited hooks in the water,” Martinez said. “We haven’t been awarded or denied the contracts we’re hoping for, but we’re more behind than we hoped to be. It has been silent.”
He said he expects to see some more activity soon. By 2017, the company hopes to have a 750-person workforce.
In October, AAR Corp. received a sales tax credit from the Calcasieu Parish School Board — a request that was denied to Aeroframe in May, three months before the company ceased operations.
In an open letter to board members, Troy T. Jonas of AAR noted that neither their current operations nor their competitors are burdened with any type of tax on airframe maintenance services. AAR also has operations in Indiana, Oklahoma, Florida, Arkansas and Minnesota.
AAR held several job fairs immediately after Aeroframe ceased operations and AAR revved up. The company’s strategy centered around hiring the incumbent workforce, who had not been paid for their last two weeks of work at Aeroframe.
As of Monday, a former Aeroframe employee told the American Press he is yet to receive his final paycheck from Aeroframe. Several Aeroframe employees have filed lawsuits against the company.
Roger Porter, former CEO of Aeroframe,
said in August employees would be paid “as soon as funds were
available.” The Chennault
International Airport Authority had the option to seek legal
action against Aeroframe for past due rent but opted not to.
The Chennault board entered into executive session at its regular
meeting in August to discuss the possibility of litigation
but did not take any action. Board President Larry Avery said the
board has up to three years to pursue any legal action against
Aeroframe. — Lance Traweek
9. (tie) Sasol offers to buy homes
Sasol officials this year embarked on an ambitious program to give residents in Mossville and Brentwood a chance to sell their properties and move away from the company’s proposed plant expansions.
Launched in August, Sasol’s Voluntary Property Purchase Program sought to buy properties from Mossville and Brentwood residents for what company officials described as “better than fair market value.” Sasol hired the Georgia-based Community Interaction Consulting to administer the program, which ran from Aug. 12 to Dec. 4.
Residents who signed up for the program were given the option to sell their homes to Sasol for a price based on their property’s average appraised value. While the program did not commit residents to selling their homes to Sasol, it did require them to get their homes appraised from appraisers listed on the Louisiana Real Estate Commission’s website.
Under the program, residents would sell their property to Sasol for a nonnegotiable price that was based on an average of two to three appraisals. CIC, which paid for all appraisals conducted under the program, received the first two appraisals from each resident. If the amounts were within 10 percentage points of each other, an average of the two was taken to calculate Sasol’s offer. If the difference in the appraisals was greater than 10 percentage points, CIC ordered a third appraisal and averaged the two highest amounts.
“I’ll admit to you straight up this is probably one of the most generous, most comprehensive property purchase programs we have ever administered,” said John C. Mitchell, president of CIC, to a group of more than 20 Mossville residents, who gathered at the former Mossville Elementary School in August to learn about the program.
The program had a $1,000 early sign-up bonus for residents who agreed to participate before Oct. 4, a date that was extended to Nov. 4 after CIC struggled with phone problems shortly before the October deadline. Renters were also eligible for the sign-up bonus, as well as a $4,000 moving allowance to help them find a new place to live.
The program also had a minimum appraised price of $100,000 for all owner-occupied homes. Rental property owners were given a minimum appraised price of $75,000 and owners of unimproved properties received a minimal appraisal of $5,000.
Residents also got a $500 professional advice allowance that they do not have to return to CIC if they rejected Sasol’s offer.
The program, however, was not without issues. Many residents voiced concern that Sasol’s offer was nonnegotiable.
“Right is right and wrong is wrong,” said Edward Julia Gordwin, a 76-year-old woman who was named after her father and life-long Mossville resident. “Everything you have should be negotiable. God gave us that right, and state and federal law gives you that right.”
In the days that preceded the program’s end, Sasol officials estimated that more than 75 percent of Mossville and Brentwood property owners had signed up for the program.— Frank DiCesare
9. (tie) City OKs deal for lakefront facility
In February, the Lake Charles City Council gave unanimous approval to sell nine acres of land to a private company that planned to build a $45-million residential and entertainment facility along the lakeshore.
Mardi Gras Boardwalk purchased the land from the city of Lake Charles for $4.4 million. The deal culminated three years of discussion between the city and the company.
In addition to the entertainment facility, Mardi Gras Boardwalk officials proposed building a five-story, 100-room condo/hotel, a 35,000-square-foot sports bar and grill and a 25,000-square-foot family entertainment center. The venue would also host restaurants, music venues and other service businesses.
Company officials said the facility would also host six restaurants, three music venues, four limited-service businesses, three quick-service businesses and kiosks.
Mardi Gras Boardwalk officials said at the time of the sale the project would take two years to complete, but as of the end of 2013 no construction was underway.
The project is expected to bring in more than 150 construction jobs and more than 1,300 jobs once the facility is finished. The completed facility is expected to generate $520 million in revenue and $11.7 million in sales taxes over 10 years.
Prior to the agreement, City Council members expressed concerns about sound levels emanating from the facility disturbing homeowners. A sound test conducted in January drew complaints from residents living along River Road.
Company officials agreed to limit sound levels to 85 decibels. — Bobby Dower