The top stories of 2009

2009-12-27T00:05:00Z The top stories of 2009By The Times staff nwitimes.com
December 27, 2009 12:05 am  • 

Rod Blagojevich impeached

Former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich was removed from office by lawmakers after being charged by federal prosecutors with trying to sell President Obama's former U.S. Senate seat. He also was accused of using his power as governor to leverage campaign contributions.

The accusations led the Illinois Senate to impeach Blagojevich in February, making him the first governor in more than 20 years to get kicked out of office.

Blagojevich was arrested in December 2008 after FBI wiretaps recorded a conversation about swapping Obama's Senate seat for a Cabinet position, a new job or campaign money. He has denied the allegations. His federal corruption trial is set to start in June.

McDermott becomes chair of county Dems

In March, Hammond Mayor Thomas McDermott Jr. took over Gary Mayor Rudy Clay's position as Lake County Democratic chairman after a convincing 408-288 caucus victory.

The 40-year-old McDermott was the first elected chairman younger than 65. Clay had held the position since 2005 before losing to McDermott.

The first order of business for the new Democratic chairman was to replace election board member John McCloud, of Gary, with Kevin Smith, a Hammond attorney and McDermott's campaign manager.

McDermott also favored making elected offices -- including those of sheriff, coroner, surveyor and the county's fiscal offices -- into merit-based appointments.

Most recently, McDermott engineered an endorsement by party leaders and election by precinct committeemen of Lake County Recorder Mike Brown as the replacement for county Clerk Thomas Philpot, who is expected to step down at the end of the year to become county coroner.

Popular Hammond couple murdered

The parents of CLTV talk show host Garrard McClendon -- Milton McClendon, 78, and his wife, Ruby McClendon, 76 -- were found dead in a Cook County forest preserve Oct. 19. Hammond residents Gregory Brooks Jr., 18, and Reo Jon'Ta Thompson, 17, pleaded not guilty to the double homicide and are currently being held in the Lake County Jail.

Brooks and Thompson are accused of forcing their way into the McClendons' home, stealing multiple items and beating them before fatally shooting the couple. Hammond police obtained security footage of the teenagers selling the McClendons' jewelry at a Cash For Gold store in Hammond, along with statements from witnesses who saw them in the McClendons' Cadillac in the days after the couple's death.

If convicted on all counts, they face as many as 130 years behind bars.

Munster police Officers Gabriel Isenblatter, Joseph Wells and Sgt. Jeffrey Huckaby were credited for finding the two suspects surveying a home of another elderly potential victim a day after the McClendons were found.

Bridge collapse sends 50 into Hidden Lake

A 90-foot wooden pedestrian bridge collapsed at Hidden Lake Park in Merrillville on July 4, just as a holiday fireworks show ended, sending about 50 people into the water.

Twenty-five people were injured; 16 of those were taken to area hospitals.

It's estimated more than 100 people were on the suspension bridge when it gave way. Ross Township Trustee John Rooda, who oversees Hidden Lake Park, said he was told the bridge was deemed unsafe if more than 40 people were on it at one time.

A structural engineer's assessment of the bridge showed overcrowding, not a structural defect, caused an I-beam anchoring the structure to break.

Numerous lawsuits were filed, including one seeking $5.5 million in damages from Ross Township and Rooda. The lawsuits remain pending. The bridge debris has been removed from the park. There are plans to replace the structure.

Michael Jackson dies

Music legend and Gary native Michael Jackson died of cardiac arrest in his Los Angeles home June 25.

The King of Pop had multiple memorial ceremonies, including a service at The Steel Yard in Gary on July 10 and a televised service held at the Staples Center in Los Angeles, which more than 20,000 people attended.

Shocked mourners visited Jackson's childhood home on the corner of 23rd Avenue and Jackson Street in Gary in the days and the weeks after his death.

The Los Angeles County coroner's office ruled the death of the 50-year-old a homicide because of a mixture of drugs in his system at the time of death. Conrad Murray, Jackson's personal doctor, administered the drug Propofol, a powerful anesthetic. He was under investigation but was not charged with a crime.

Since Jackson's death there have been highly publicized estate and custody battles, through which his mother, Katherine, gained custody of Jackson's three children and money from his estate.

Crown Point lands sports complex

A new sports complex named after the legendary Bo Jackson is scheduled to open in the first quarter of 2011.

Crown Point Mayor David Uran partnered with Bo Jackson Elite Sports to create the new complex at the former site of the city's water plant.

Bo Jackson Elite Sports will provide $3.4 million toward the $16 million project. The rest of the money will come from user fees and from soliciting funds from sponsors, foundations and grant programs.

The Bo Jackson Legacy Athletic Center will be comprised of two buildings. The first building will house Crown Point parks offices, a community room, an athletic apparel store and a food court.

The second building will be a dome with enough space for two baseball and softball fields, four soccer fields, four youth football fields, four full-size basketball courts and eight full-size volleyball courts.

A second sports complex is planned for Hobart and will be attached to the existing 124-room Hilton Garden Inn, 7775 Mississippi St. It will consist of three inflatable structures covering 165,000 square feet, said Tony Czapla, managing director of Catalyst Sports Performance. Czapla, a partner in the new Sports Center, said the air-supported structures will accommodate 12 regulation basketball courts. The structures can be converted to accommodate baseball, cheer and dance, football, martial arts, soccer, softball, track and field, wresting and extreme sports, along with trade shows and large group convention gatherings.

Voters defeat school referenda

St. John Township residents in mid-June rejected a $95 million referendum proposal to expand and renovate Lake Central High School, the sixth-largest high school in Indiana.

Only 20 percent of registered voters turned out at the polls to decide an issue that was highly debated in the community.

Voters had the choice of voting yes or no. The ballot included no other options or alternatives.

Before the special election, Lake Central School Corp. Superintendent Gerald Chabot said if voters were to reject the plan, there was no backup. Modular classrooms will be used to help manage overcrowding at the high school.

The expansion and renovation plan would have included construction of classrooms, a new administration center, auditorium and a reconfigured football field, among other improvements.

Since then, however, the school corporation has hired a consultant to assess needs at all school buildings within the district.

Meanwhile, Porter Township Schools officials had hoped to add classrooms and facilities and move the middle school to the high school campus to alleviate overcrowding at several levels. The plan also included a track at the high school that would have eliminated the need to bus athletes to the track at the current middle school. Since the July referendum defeat, the School Board gave Superintendent Nick Brown the go-ahead to form a working committee to explore options at Porter Lakes Elementary School, where students have used portable classrooms the past 2 1/2 years. The committee is expected to create a proposal for Brown to present to the board at its March meeting. Community recommendations have been to keep a new project to less than $10 million.

Hobart family killed in I-65 accident

A summer vacation to Florida turned fatal June 26 when a Hobart family of five was killed in a fiery crash on Interstate 65.

Brian W. Workman, 33, his wife, Joanna L. Workman, 31, and their three children died when their pickup truck was smashed between two semitrailers.

Friends and relatives of the family said they were traveling to Florida to visit Brian's mother, who had never seen their 1-year-old child Ryan and to visit Disney World.

The family lived in the Nob Hill subdivision of Hobart. Daughter Ashley, 13, attended River Forest Jr./Sr. High School and son Tyler, 8, was in third grade at Meister Elementary.

Three escape from Michigan City prison 

The July escape of three men from the Indiana State Prison in Michigan City set off a manhunt that stretched into Michigan and led authorities to the vacation home of Chicago Mayor Richard Daley, where one of the convicts -- 48-year-old Charles Smith -- was captured next door.

Then Lance Battreal, 45, was found at his mother's home in the Ohio River town of Rockport, Ind. Nearly two weeks later, the last of the three escapees -- Mark Booher -- was captured on the northwest side of Indianapolis.

Booher, 46, and Smith, both convicted murderers from New Castle, Ind., and Batrreal, a convicted rapist from Rockport, escaped July 12 through a series of underground tunnels.

Numerous sightings were reported in and around Michigan City during the days after the escape, prompting a beefed up police presence in the area.

Tornado strikes Chesterton

An Aug. 19 tornado left a 60-yard-wide scar of snapped trees, downed power lines and damaged homes across 2 1/2 miles of Chesterton.

The F2 twister's 120-mph winds destroyed eight buildings and damaged about 200 others. Chesterton Middle School and an apartment building at Third and Brown streets were among the most heavily damaged buildings.

No significant injuries were reported from the tornado, which hit the town about 7:40 p.m., even though tornado sirens did not sound to alert residents of the approaching storm. The storm, however, prompted local officials to check and replace some of the equipment used to trigger the sirens.

Crews worked for days clearing downed trees and other debris. The town incurred tens of thousands of dollars in expenses, but fell short of what was needed to qualify for federal assistance.

Porter County withdraws from RDA

In April, the Porter County Council voted 4-3 to exit the Northwest Indiana Regional Development Authority and rescind its appointment to the seven-member RDA board. The council also filed a lawsuit against the RDA seeking to have a court certify its withdrawal, along with the withholding of its $3.5 million yearly contribution to the RDA.

Regionalism became a bad word this year among some elected officials and voters in Porter County, who claimed the RDA had lost sight of its original goal of using shared resources to accomplish large projects such as improving the Gary airport and extending South Shore train lines to Valparaiso and Lowell.

The RDA is fighting the move, and the two sides are scheduled to face off in court Jan. 25. Voters in Porter and St. Joseph counties also overwhelmingly shot down the creation of a proposed Regional Transportation District in November.

The outcome was interpreted in part as opposition to the proposed new county income tax to fund the district, which also might have included Lake and LaPorte counties. Those counties did not comply with a state order to host a referendum.

Deadly year in Porter County

Porter County generally averages three homicides a year, but five occurred during 2009.

In January, Andrew Katzelis, 82, of South Haven, was shot in his home. Police charged his girlfriend, Jennifer Cook, 35, of Portage, with killing him, stealing from him and attempting to make his death look like a suicide.

In May, Jeremiah Higgins, 27, was shot to death inside his Portage apartment by an unknown man who was looking to collect money from someone who didn't even live in the apartment.

In August, Aaron Blum, 32, of Morgan Township, was shot to death while in a truck with his father. Police said the father, James Blum, 67, shot himself, but survived. Police said no one else was involved in the shooting, but James Blum has not been charged.

Also in August, Maria Rodriguez, 50, of Ogden Dunes, was stabbed to death by her husband, Jaime, 53, in a murder-suicide.

In October, police said Juan Garcia, 33, of Valparaiso, was shot to death by his fiancee's son, Edward Ibarra, 21, of Valparaiso.

The coroner's office also saw a spike in suicides, and accidental overdoses remained high.

Racial incidents continue to plague Porter County

Racial crimes -- including numerous acts of vandalism and a death threat -- continued to be a problem in Porter County during 2009.

In September, a black employee of Target in Valparaiso reported someone wrote a racial slur on his car and called in a racially motivated death threat.

Other incidents included the writing of a racial term on a black Valparaiso High School student's locker in March; the discovery in April of a note threatening to kill the "Arabs" at Speedmart on Ind. 130, west of Valparaiso; and racial graffiti and arson at Valparaiso University's Martin Luther King Jr. Cultural Center in April.

Arrest made in payday loan robberies

Police in August arrested the man whom they say robbed 16 payday loan stores in Indiana and Illinois.

Police said Lewis Gilbert III, 45, of Schererville, was planning to commit his 17th robbery when officers nabbed him.

Gilbert told police he began his robbery spree in April because of money problems. Police said he used the $30,000 he obtained from the robberies to pay bills and vacation in the Dominican Republic. During the spree, he often used disguises, and he struck in several cities, including Michigan City, Crown Point, Hammond and Valparaiso, police said.

State's finances lead to big budget cuts

School corporations, state agencies and colleges and universities across Indiana began to feel the pain of state budget cuts this year.

A state revenue forecast released in December found that Indiana was on track to spend $1.8 billion more than it will take in through June 2011.

That led Gov. Mitch Daniels to cut 10 percent from state agency budgets, 6 percent from higher education and 3 percent from K-12 education. As the end of the year approached, schools began to decide exactly what was going to be cut.

Earlier in the year, failure to reach a budget compromise in the General Assembly led to a special session that cost about $150,000.

Education reform was a second focus of the June budget-writing special session. The Legislature removed limits on establishing new charter schools, as well as repealed a law that prohibited using student achievement to evaluate teacher performance.

Gary and East Chicago schools took the hardest hit in terms of school funding, mostly due to declining enrollment. Gary Community School Corp. was already on track to lost $12.4 million in state funding even before the governor's budget cuts.

Swine flu continued to cause concern

The swine flu, renamed the H1N1 virus because the U.S. Department of Agriculture found people couldn't get the virus from eating pork products, dominated the world's attention, especially during the cold and flu season.

In Indiana, there were 34 confirmed H1N1 deaths between June 1 and Dec. 12. State health officials saw a decline in flu-related visits to doctors offices and hospitals in late November.

The strand of influenza was treated with antiviral drugs. However, there were reports out of North Carolina of a group of people who had contracted a strand of swine flu that was resistant to the antiviral Tamiflu.

Questions also lingered about the safety, necessity and availability of the H1N1 vaccine. Indiana received more than 800,000 doses of the vaccine, and the state expected to receive 4.5 million doses through early 2010. The vaccine was not experimental, as some may have heard, health officials said. It was prepared in the same manner as the seasonal flu vaccine.

The search for Jada Justice 

Armed with water bottles and fliers, family members and supporters spent days spreading the word about Jada Justice, a 3-year-old Portage toddler who was reported missing by her cousin Engelica Castillo.

But fears were confirmed in late June when Jada was found dead in a remote field near Otis, after a nine-day, nationally publicized search.

Castillo, and her boyfriend, Timothy Tkachik, ultimately were charged with Jada's murder. The couple are accused of dumping the girl's body, encased in concrete, June 15 into a LaPorte County swamp, only after a failed attempt at burning her body to destroy evidence.

Region residents view historic inauguration  

The inauguration of the 44th president of the United States, Barack Obama, had plenty of witnesses from Northwest Indiana. Obama made history Jan. 20, becoming the first black president.

Locals, including Wheeler High School freshman Abby Zeitler, Gary's Quentin Smith, a Tuskegee Airman, and groups such as the Culver Girls Academy equestrian team and the Morton High School band saw the historic moment in person.

Zeitler, along with other high school students, attended the inauguration in Washington, D.C., as a part of the Presidential Youth Inaugural Conference. Smith was invited by the National Urban League and by Tuskegee Airman associations. Members of the Culver Girls Academy equestrian team were invited to ride in the inaugural parade. The Morton band collected enough donations to perform at the Heritage Presidential Inauguration Festival at George Mason University.

Cantrell sentenced; Allen convicted  

A pair of Lake County power brokers found the federal court cases against them at or near an end in 2009.

For county politico Robert Cantrell, years of political drama and courtroom theatrics culminated March 31 when Hammond federal Senior Judge Rudy Lozano issued a 6 1/2-year prison sentence.

Cantrell's sentencing was postponed repeatedly after he was convicted in June 2008 of four counts of depriving the public of honest services, three counts of insurance fraud using the U.S. mail and four counts of filing false tax returns between 2000 and 2003.

The indictment accused him of taking cash kickbacks from a contract between his then-employer, the North Township trustee's office, and a political ally's company.

Cantrell's appeal is pending.

Meanwhile, former Calumet Township Trustee Dozier Allen Jr. joined a long list of public officials convicted in federal corruption cases.

After a seven-day jury trial and nine hours of deliberations in Hammond federal court, jurors found Allen and deputies Wanda Joshua and Ann Marie Karras guilty in April of two fraud counts each for taking checks from a federal contract between 2000 and 2002.

The three await sentencing. Co-defendant Albert Young Jr. pleaded guilty to two counts of mail fraud.

Cline Avenue bridge closed for defects 

In mid-November, the Indiana Department of Transportation closed a four-mile stretch of Cline Avenue between Calumet Avenue in Hammond and Michigan Avenue in East Chicago because of significant structural damage.

INDOT spokeswoman Angie Fegaras said a detailed inspection raised several questions about the structure's ability to handle the traffic load. Inspectors found the most severe damage between Riley Road and the Indiana Harbor and Ship Canal.

A $90.6 million plan to restructure the area of Cline Avenue over the Indiana Harbor and Ship Canal in 2012 is now up in the air after the closure.

With the current plan, bridge renovations wouldn't be complete until 2012, and it would cause a 1.25-mile stretch -- which carries steel shipments in and out of local steel mills and casino patrons to gaming boats -- to be closed until then.

Now there is a decision as to whether the bridge should be repaired or rebuilt. If the bridge is rebuilt, it lends to the possibility of being lowered and changing the number of lanes.

Bodies found at Gary funeral home   

Four abandoned bodies, along with seven urns with cremated remains, were found at the defunct Serenity Garden Funeral Home in Gary over the Memorial Day weekend.

The former owner Darryl Cammack surrendered to authorities in late September after being charged with two felony counts of theft and one misdemeanor count of failing to dispose of human remains in a timely manner.

Cammack also faced civil charges in July by the family of Rosa Villarreal, of East Chicago, who was identified as one of the four abandoned bodies. The family claimed they paid Cammack for her funeral service and cremation when she died three years ago, yet her remains were among those discovered by the building's new owners.

Cammack has yet to go to trial. If convicted, he faces a maximum sentence of six years and six months in prison.

The curious tale of Marcus Schrenker

His current cinder block jail cell in Hamilton County is a far cry from where Marcus Schrenker used to sleep, in his former waterfront mansion in Geist, a tony suburb of Indianapolis.

In January, facing suspicion over his business dealings, millionaire money manager Schrenker downed his plane into a Florida swamp, launching a manhunt and mystery into what had happened.

Schrenker, a Merrillville native, first spilled the details of his bizarre, near-death jump into infamy to The Times in a jailhouse interview. He told of treating erratic bouts of bipolar disorder for years with prescription drugs, and of the guilt of conducting an extramarital affair.

"I was worth millions, had a beautiful wife," he said. "I'm in hell right now."

He said everything from a flight plan to Florida, to a motorcycle stored in Alabama, were part of an elaborate plan to kill himself and reward his betrayed family with insurance benefits. Reports that he had faked his death to escape his legal troubles were wrong, he said.

"The scary thing about Jan. 11 is I told a lot of people I was going to kill myself, and nobody believed me," Schrenker told The Times.

Prosecutors and former acquaintances have painted Schrenker as a skilled con artist. He is awaiting trial in Noblesville, Ind., for allegedly bilking investors out of more than $1 million.

Indiana prosecutors say Schrenker sold clients a nonexistent foreign currency fund, created false account information and used their money for personal expenses.

"It's a hornets' nest," Schrenker of the case against him. "I'm taking it very seriously."

He said his lavish lifestyle drew unintended scrutiny and skepticism of his business dealings.

But, he added, "I'm no Bernie Madoff."

Visclosky comes under scrutiny

Rep. Pete Visclosky's powerful, quiet leadership in the U.S. House took a public beating this year. A federal investigation into his fundraising and lobbying ties spread from the offices of former lobbying firm PMA Group to Visclosky's influential seat on the House Appropriations Committee.

The Merrillville Democrat admitted in the spring that his office and some staff had been subpoenaed in the investigation into whether donations funneled through PMA to Visclosky were illegal. Soon after, his longtime chief of staff resigned.

Visclosky then ceded his control over an energy and water spending bill, saying he wanted to avert clouding the process with the case, which is ongoing.

"The bill involves approximately $30 billion in federal spending, touching upon everything from flood control projects like the Little Cal to nuclear arms," Visclosky said at the time. "And the meticulous consideration of this bill is vitally important."

He remained chairman of the House Energy and Water Subcommittee.

With the approval of the Federal Election Commission, Visclosky last summer spent $100,000 in campaign funds on legal fees tied to the federal PMA inquiry.

Since the start of the probe, Visclosky's campaign donations have slipped, blamed by some experts on not only the lagging economy, but also the investigation.

In December, the Office of Congressional Ethics recommended dropping the investigation into three House Democrats' relationships with PMA. Visclosky was not one of them, and reports say the office continues to examine his ties.

Nose doctor nabbed in Italy

Former doctor Mark Weinberger was captured Dec. 15 in Italy, more than five years after he disappeared from his Merrillville surgery clinic amid mounting charges of fraud and malpractice.

The 46-year-old sinus specialist, who earned the moniker "The Nose Doctor," was found hiding in a tent at the foot of Mont Blanc in the Italian Alps. He stabbed himself in the neck while in police custody, but his injuries weren't life-threatening.

Local prosecutor are working with the U.S. Department of Justice's Office of International Affairs, which will coordinate Weinberger's extradition with Italian authorities.

The mystery surrounding Weinberger began in 2004 when he disappeared while traveling with his wife in Greece. He was the subject of an international dragnet, and his case was featured on "America's Most Wanted."

Weinberger was indicted by a federal grand jury in Hammond in 2006 on 22 counts of fraud for allegedly scheming to overbill insurance companies for procedures that either were not needed or never performed.

In addition, Weinberger faces about 300 civil claims filed by patients of his Merrillville Center for Advanced Surgery LLC.

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