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2012 headlines dominated by partisan politics, tragedy

Sunday, Dec. 30, 2012, 11:42 p.m.
 

The biggest stories of 2012 brought calls for change and raised awareness of emotionally charged issues such as child-sex abuse and gun control. Convicted child molester Jerry Sandusky went to prison, a gunman killed 26 people in a Connecticut elementary school, and Superstorm Sandy ravaged the East Coast. In Western Pennsylvania, a 2-year-old boy died an unspeakable death at the zoo, UPMC and Highmark fought over access to health care, and a jury convicted a former state senator on corruption charges. Voters returned President Obama to the White House, but partisan politics reigned and threatened to send the nation over the so-called fiscal cliff. Not all the news was bad: Pittsburgh continued to gain prominence as a place to film movies when the “Dark Knight Rises,” “The Perks of Being a Wallflower,” and “Jack Reacher” appeared in widespread release.

Happy Valley stained

The June 22 conviction of serial child molester Jerry Sandusky, a longtime Penn State University assistant football coach, reverberated through the university community and the nation.

It shed light on the issue of child abuse and its warning signs, prompting discussion about how the actions of Sandusky — an adoptive father and the founder of a children's charity — went undetected and, possibly, unreported.

The child-sex abuse scandal ended the 46-year tenure of legendary coach Joe Paterno and resulted in the firing of university President Graham Spanier. A grand jury indicted him and two university officials, Gary Schultz and Tim Curley, on charges they concealed longtime concerns about Sandusky.

Two weeks after the university hired Bill O'Brien as coach, Paterno died at 85 of lung cancer on Jan. 22, without disclosing what he knew.

Jurors found Sandusky guilty in June of 45 counts of sexual abuse; he will spend the rest of his life in prison.

Hired to investigate the scandal, former FBI director Louis Freeh detailed in a controversial report a cover-up involving Paterno, Spanier, Curley and Schultz. It led to crippling NCAA punishment: a four-year bowl ban, $60 million fine, the loss of 40 scholarships and forfeiture of 111 wins, removing Paterno as the winningest coach in major-college football history.

A judge delayed hearings for Spanier, Curley and Schultz as he sorts out motions.

On the field, Penn State shook off losses in its first two games of the season to finish an unexpected 8-4, providing hope for the future.

Gunman storms way into Western Psych, kills one

On the afternoon of March 8, a former graduate student from California who was angry at doctors and not taking his medication for schizophrenia walked into Western Psychiatric Institute and Clinic and opened fire with two pistols.

John Shick, 30, who lived within walking distance of the building in Oakland, killed a therapist and injured five people before University of Pittsburgh police officers who responded fatally shot him. Police said Shick was angry about what he deemed non-treatment for medical ailments.

Michael Schaab, 25, a therapist and Greensburg native, died in the shooting. His family became outspoken critics of UPMC and its security measures.

Other safety issues came to light in June when former Western Psych receptionist Kathryn Leight, 65, of Shaler filed a civil lawsuit against Shick's estate and named the hospital as a co-defendant. Leight was shot in the chest and abdomen.

The shooting brought an extensive review of security at hospitals by Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala Jr. Upgrades and changes to safety protocols are under way.

Voters keep status quo

In politics today, $4.4 billion changes nothing.

Presidential, House and Senate candidates spent a combined $3.1 billion on campaigns, according to the Federal Election Commission. Super PACs threw in another $1.3 billion … and the political landscape hardly changed.

President Obama held on to the White House. The Senate remained under Democratic control. Republicans kept a majority in the House. And partisan politics reign, even as the country races toward a budget negotiations impasse that could cause the United States to fall off the so-called “fiscal cliff.”

Both parties face lingering questions. Ongoing controversy over the Benghazi attacks, in which a U.S. ambassador died, continued to dog Democrats. On Dec. 19, a State Department official resigned and three others went on leave following the release of a report about safety lapses at the consulate in Libya.

Republicans, meanwhile, face an identity crisis. In the days and weeks after the November election, many GOP officials suggested the party move away from the extremist Tea Party movement toward more moderate views on issues such as immigration reform and abortion rights.

Presidential nominee Mitt Romney survived a GOP primary field thick with Tea Party favorites, including Newt Gingrich, Rick Perry, Michelle Bachmann and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum. In doing so, analysts said, he moved so far to the right that he lost votes among less socially conservative swing voters.

“I so wish that I had been able to fulfill your hopes to lead the nation in another direction,” Romney told supporters during his concession speech. “But the nation chose another leader.”

UPMC, Highmark dispute heightened

UPMC and Highmark continued a battle for supremacy in Western Pennsylvania's health care market.

They started the year in the same place they were during the previous six months: locked in a stalemate over UPMC's plan to cut access to its 19 hospitals and thousands of doctors for Highmark's 2 million health insurance members in the region.

In March, police arrested Highmark CEO Ken Melani for assault and trespassing when he got into a fistfight with the husband of his girlfriend, a Highmark employee. Highmark fired Melani, who was married, on April Fool's Day.

UPMC and Highmark temporarily settled their differences in May with a contract extension through Dec. 31, 2014, brokered by Gov. Tom Corbett. In exchange for 18 extra months of UPMC access, Highmark agreed to pay UPMC higher reimbursement rates.

In June, Highmark named William Winkenwerder as CEO.

Highmark's plan to acquire West Penn Allegheny Health System and create a health system to compete with UPMC unraveled in September.

West Penn Allegheny accused Highmark of trying to force it into bankruptcy and said it would seek another buyer. Highmark denied the accusation and won a court ruling requiring the nearly bankrupt West Penn Allegheny to stick it out with Highmark until May 1.

Their merger talks restarted in November.

Boy dies tragically at zoo

A visit to Pittsburgh Zoo & PPG Aquarium with his mother and other relatives on Nov. 4 ended in unspeakable horror as Maddox Derkosh, 2, of Whitehall fell from a railing into an exhibit of African painted dogs.

The dogs killed Maddox within minutes, before staff and police could lure them away. It was the first visitor death from an animal since the zoo opened in 1898. District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala Jr. said he would not bring charges against Maddox's mother, Elizabeth Derkosh, who said she put her son on the railing to give him a better view.

Zoo officials said they would remove the observation deck from which Maddox fell, though they have not said what they will do with the dog exhibit, an attraction since 2006. That part of the zoo remains closed, and its dogs in quarantine, as county and federal officials investigate.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture is investigating whether the zoo violated the Animal Welfare Act, which governs the treatment of animals in exhibits. Zappala is investigating whether the zoo was negligent.

4 die in Benghazi

On Sept. 11, U.S. Ambassador to Libya J. Christopher Stevens and three guards died in an attack on a government compound in Benghazi. President Obama the next day used the word “terror” when talking about the attack, but Susan Rick, ambassador to the United Nations, later blamed an anti-Muslim movie for the unrest.

Lawmakers in public hearings questioned the lack of military response, and behind closed doors have met with intelligence and defense officials to discuss what went wrong. Separately, a State Department investigative panel this month found “systemic failures and leadership and management deficiencies.”

In Syria, uprising turned to bloody civil war as supporters of President Bashar al-Assad and rebel groups opposed to his rule reached a brutal stalemate. Each side suffered heavy casualties, and fighting moving toward the capital.

In Egypt, bloody street battles followed an attempt by President Mohamed Morsy to claim near-dictatorial power as Islamists rushed ahead with a constitutional referendum, narrowly winning passage.

Secularists won out in Libya when the country held its first democratic election since the revolution. In the June vote, the National Forces Alliance, headed by University of Pittsburgh graduate Mahmoud Jibril, won the most seats in the General National Assembly.

Bomb threats disrupt life, become a way of life at Pitt

From February through April, more than 50 bomb threats barraged the University of Pittsburgh, forcing evacuations and cancelling classes on the Oakland campus.

Students in pajamas spilled into streets in the middle of the night when some threats targeted dormitories; others named classroom buildings during daytime. Professors at times resorted to teaching on steps and lawns. Some students returned home, and some programs held graduation ceremonies early.

University, city and federal law enforcement officers worked 14-hour shifts as the threats reached a two-week, daily crescendo in April and Pitt officials increased a reward from $10,00 to $50,000. They rescinded the reward when those behind the threats promised to stop.

In August, federal authorities charged a self-proclaimed Scottish separatist and two Ohio men in connection to the threats. A federal grand jury indicted Adam Stuart Busby, 64, of Dublin with sending threats via email. No court activity involving Busby, who was in custody in Ireland on unrelated charges, has followed since authorities issued an arrest warrant Aug. 15.

Brett Hudson of Hillsboro, Ohio, pleaded guilty in October to conspiring with at least one other person to threaten Pitt officials over the Internet. He is scheduled to be sentenced Feb. 8. Alexander Waterland of Loveland, Ohio, pleaded guilty in November. He is set to be sentenced March 15.

Former Sen. Orie sent to prison; sisters charged

Public corruption charges and legal troubles continued to bedevil former Republican state Sen. Jane Orie and her sister, Supreme Court Justice Joan Orie Melvin, in 2012.

Once the highest-ranking woman in state government, Orie, 51, resigned her Senate seat May 21, days before an Allegheny County judge sentenced her to 2½ to 10 years in prison on 14 criminal charges. A jury in March convicted her of using state resources for political work.

She remains an inmate at the State Correctional Institution at Cambridge Springs in Crawford County, a minimum-security prison for women. Republican Randy Vulakovich, a former Shaler police officer, won a special election Aug. 7 to replace Orie.

Prosecutors charged Melvin, 56, of Marshall on May 18 with nine counts of using state staff to do political work. Her fellow justices barred her from hearing cases afterward.

A judicial disciplinary panel on Aug. 30 took away her $195,000 salary while she awaits trial. She's the first sitting Supreme Court justice to face criminal charges in 18 years.

Melvin denies the allegations, calling them part of a political vendetta against her family by Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala Jr., a Democrat, who counters that no such vendetta exists.

Melvin and another sister, Janine Orie, 58, of McCandless, who was Melvin's court assistant, are to be tried on public corruption charges Jan. 23.

Superstorm slams East Coast

A superstorm that started out as Hurricane Sandy slammed into the East Coast in late October, morphing into a huge and problematic system, killing at least 125 people in the United States.

The damage estimate topped $60 billion, the second-costliest storm in U.S. history after Hurricane Katrina in 2005. New York and New Jersey were hit hardest, with several hundred thousand homes and businesses damaged or destroyed. A blizzard crippled parts of West Virginia.

Power outages peaked at 8.5 million, and hundreds of thousands of people waited for crews to restore electricity a week-and-a-half after the storm.

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo joined calls for an investigation, ripping utility companies as unprepared and badly managed.

“Privately, I have used language my daughters couldn‘t hear,” he fumed. “It‘s unacceptable the longer it goes on, because the longer it goes on, people's suffering is worse.”

Western Pennsylvania residents were among those who responded to the need for help, collecting money, food and clothing for the victims. Others donated time and labor.

“They were grateful that people came from so far away to help,” said Lower Kiski EMS Chief Pete Frejkowski, who spent six days in New Jersey.

Pittsburgh finds big place on big screen

It seems every year is bigger than the last for movies in Pittsburgh, but 2012 will be hard to top.

“The Dark Knight Rises,” part of which was filmed in Pittsburgh, opened in July and took in more than a billion dollars worldwide. In any other year, the Tom Cruise action thriller “Jack Reacher” would probably dominate a list of movies filmed in Pittsburgh. Set to be the city's first major movie premiere in decades, the studio cancelled a red carpet gala at SouthSide Works because it fell a day after the fatal shootings of 26 people in a Connecticut elementary school.

“The Perks of Being a Wallflower” received some mid-sized hoopla, bringing “Harry Potter” star Emma Watson to town for a coming-of-age teen angst drama. The Pittsburgh content was particularly strong — not only are many of its locations recognizable, but the movie was directed by Stephen Chbhosky, an Upper St. Clair native who wrote the cult young adult novel on which it's based.

According to the Pittsburgh Film Office, a number of productions opted not to come to Pittsburgh in 2012 because $60 million in state film tax credits was used up.

Shooting stuns nation

This time, it was different.

Americans witnessed several mass shootings in recent years — at Virginia Tech, Aurora, Col., Tucson, Ariz., Columbine High School in Colorado — but none shocked the country as did the Dec. 14 massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn.

This time, the killer gunned down 20 small children, shooting each multiple times as they huddled in classroom corners. Six school officials, lauded as heroes for placing themselves between the kids and gunman, also died.

In all, Adam Lanza, 20, killed 27 people, including his mother at their home, before killing himself.

Within days, it became clear that this tragedy was different in that Americans seemed ready to discuss gun-control laws. On Dec. 19, President Obama pledged to use “whatever power this office holds” to enact controls.

Mental health advocates called for an end to a decades-long trend of funding cuts to programs to treat the mentally ill. The Associated Press reported a divorce mediator who oversaw Lanza's parents' divorce said the boy had Asperger's syndrome, a form of autism that can lead to difficulty interacting socially.

“When I hear people say evil has visited our community, I have to disagree,” said Laurie Barnett Levine, executive director of Mental Health America of Westmoreland County. “Illness visited your community, not evil. An untreated illness did this.”

NHL lockout leaves Penguins fans out in the cold

Penguins fans enjoyed few great days for hockey in 2012.

Sure, there was that two-week summer run when Evgeni Malkin won the Hart Trophy as the NHL's Most Valuable Player and Sidney Crosby signed a 12-year extension that should keep him in a Penguins jersey for his career.

Yet those events were sandwiched by the trade of Jordan Staal — the third of the Big 3 centers that fueled the 2009 Stanley Cup run — to Carolina. The trade happened on Day 1 of the NHL draft held at Consol Energy Center.

That draft remains the last NHL action at “Sid's house,” as Malkin described the Uptown arena.

Another owners' lockout of players, the second in eight years, canceled NHL games through Dec. 30. The lockout claimed the annual Winter Classic outdoor game and the All-Star Game, and more than 100 players, including Malkin, headed to Europe to play.

Unlike the labor war that wiped out the 2004-05 season, this dispute is not about instituting a salary-cap system. In fact, neither side stood firm publicly on what the dispute is about.

As of late December, owners and players went from arguing over how to define and split revenue to disagreeing on the length of veteran contracts.

Western Pennsylvania loses $2.1 million for every unplayed Penguins home game, VisitPittsburgh reported. The team should have played 17 before Dec. 30.

Financial trouble at Cal U. leads to dismissal of president

Morale at California University of Pennsylvania was tested as the university dealt with a special audit examining spending, the firing of its longtime president and subsequent legal wrangling.

In April, the university's faculty union wrote to the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education to sound the alarm about spending at the Washington County campus.

The following month, university president Angelo Armenti Jr., 72, was fired, and the system released its audit.

Among its findings, the audit revealed the university raised only $4,000 of $12 million it promised for its $59 million convocation center.

Armenti sued the system in October, about five months after he was called to Harrisburg and given an ultimatum — retire or be fired from his $227,000-a-year position, according to the lawsuit. State officials responded in mid-December by asking a judge to dismiss the lawsuit.

Armenti accused the system of using the audit as a pretext to fire him. He noted the audit's release came a day after his firing, to “further defame (his) reputation.” He said the audit was retaliation for his comments about state funding cuts and his complaint that Chancellor John Cavanaugh interfered with his management of Cal U.

Community rises as monument at school spawns legal battle

New Kensington-Arnold School District's Ten Commandments monument embroiled the district in a federal lawsuit in September after the Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation and two families in the district objected to the Decalogue's placement at Valley High School.

The foundation, which advocates for the separation of church and state, requested removal of the monument in March, arguing its presence at a public school violates the First Amendment's prohibition on government establishing a religion. The district countered that the monument, donated by a Fraternal Order of the Eagles branch at least 50 years ago, is a secular and historical touchstone that does not endorse religion.

The conflict prompted a show of support from community members who want the monument to remain. They circulated petitions, held a rally and prayer vigil, and created a “Keep the Ten Commandments at Valley High School” Facebook page that drew nearly 1,300 “likes.”

 

 
 


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