The child sex abuse scandal involving former Penn State University assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky, a Washington native, continued to unfold in 2012, culminating in his conviction on criminal charges. Meanwhile, at California University of Pennsylvania, the longtime president was fired after an audit of the school’s finances and its lavish spending on a Convocation Center.
Those two stories led the ballot for the top 10 local stories of 2012, which were chosen by the editorial staff of the Observer-Reporter. Close behind were two homicides in two weeks in Washington, with a Washington & Jefferson College student the victim in one, and the continuing legal wrangling and legislative machinations surrounding the growing Marcellus Shale industry. Here are the Top 10 stories:
1. Washington native Jerry Sandusky, a former Penn State University defensive coach and one-time heir apparent to Joe Paterno, was convicted in June of sexually abusing 10 boys, some on campus, and sentenced to serve 30 to 60 years at the maximum security State Correctional Institution at Greene. He essentially will spend the rest of his life behind bars.
Sandusky’s trial dominated television and newspaper headlines and rocked Penn State, leading to the ouster of President Graham Spanier, the firing of Paterno, and the NCAA’s unprecedented sanctions against Penn State’s football program. Criminal charges are pending against former athletic director Tim Curley and retired vice president Gary Schultz await trial for failing to properly report Sandusky’s suspected child abuse and lying to the grand jury that investigated the case, but both men claim they are innocent.
Local residents who knew Sandusky, 68, when he lived above the Brownson House and attended Washington High School, where he was an outstanding athlete, initially stood behind the hometown hero, but support crumbled as evidence against him mounted. In the end, he was convicted of 45 of 48 criminal counts. Sandusky did not testify at his trial, but has maintained his innocence. He will live out his sentence in protective custody at SCI-Greene, which houses many of Pennsylvania’s death row inmates.
2. After two decades at the helm of California University of Pennsylvania, President Angelo Armenti Jr. was fired in May by the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education.
The day after his firing the state system released a report based on a special investigative audit of Cal U.’s finances, which found the school may have violated state law by using university employees to raise money for its private foundation and also improperly diverted millions in housing profits into an account for endowed scholarships. The report also criticized the school for overspending on the sprawling 6,000-seat Convocation Center.
Far from going quietly into the night, Armenti fired back, publicly calling the audit “baseless” and “unfounded.” He released a series of letters demanding to know the reason for his firing and accusing the state system of violating his contract. In late May, a 20-page complaint Armenti sent to the state system less than two months before his firing surfaced. The document claims the chancellor conspired with state system employees and newspaper reporters to denigrate his achievements, damage his reputation and ultimately dethrone him.
Shortly thereafter, the state system announced that Armenti had been fired “for cause,” but remained tight-lipped on the specifics. In August, Armenti filed a lawsuit in Commonwealth Court claiming the state system and its board of governors violated the Sunshine Act in the handling his firing. Two months later, he filed a separate suit in federal court claiming state system leaders conspired to deprive him of his civil rights and to defame him in order to drum up support for his firing.
3. Washington police investigated two homicides within as many weeks, crimes that occurred with about two blocks from the center of downtown.
The first involving the death of a popular Washington & Jefferson College football player left police with few clues in a mysterious assault about 2 a.m. Oct. 4. near the corner of South College and East Maiden streets.
Tim McNerney, 21, a starting tailback for the football team, died of a blow to the back of the head he suffered either by being punched or in a fall after being pushed while he and another teammate walked back to campus after a night of drinking in two Washington bars.
Initial reports indicated he and Zach DeCicco, 21, had been attacked by group of men wanting to steal their cell phones before DeCicco managed to flee and seek help to search for McNerney. The victim was eventually found in the parking lot of an auto repair garage near where the robbery took place. Surveillance video provided few clues and police are seeking help from the public in solving the crime.
In the second homicide, a decorated war veteran from Upper St. Clair shot and killed a man Oct. 18 in a supermarket parking lot, and then reported the slaying and waited for police to arrive to confess, claiming it was carried out in self-defense.
Brandon D. Thomas, 30, who received two Purple Hearts while serving in Iraq and Afghanistan, told police he killed Vaughn Simonelli, 55, of Washington, outside a Shop ’n’ Save at West Beau Street and Jefferson Avenue after the man attacked him following an apparent road rage incident.
Prosecutors cast doubt on the story during Thomas’ Nov. 6 preliminary hearing by presenting evidence Simonelli, who had been shot twice, was killed by a bullet fired into his neck from behind. Police also added a charge of possession of drug paraphernalia against Thomas, claiming he had several empty heroin stamp bags stuffed into one of his socks at the time of the homicide.
Thomas is awaiting trial while lodged in the Washington County jail without bond.
4. In February, longtime state Rep. Bill DeWeese was found guilty by a Dauphin County jury of using taxpayers’ money for political purposes. His conviction came more than two years after he was indicted in December 2009 by Attorney General Tom Corbett on four counts of theft and one count each of conspiracy and conflict of interest.
The former House speaker from Waynesburg resigned from the state House prior to being sentenced to a 2 1/2-to-5-year prison term on April 24, the day of the spring primary in which he won the Democratic nomination.
However, once he was sentenced he became a convicted felon, banning him from serving in the Legislature.
DeWeese began serving his sentence May 14. However, he was released four days later when the state Superior Court found Judge Todd Hoover, who presided at trial, had failed to rule on DeWeese’s motion to grant bail while he appealed his conviction.
Hoover ruled on the motion May 22, denying bail pending appeal and sending DeWeese back to prison.
In August, a Commonwealth Court judge ruled that DeWeese was ineligible to run for re-election, opening the door for the State Democratic Committee to select a candidate to run in the general election.
Greene County Commissioner Pam Snyder was selected and she went on to defeat Republican Mark Fischer in November.
5. Former Washington County Judge Paul Pozonsky’s troubles began early in the year when District Attorney Eugene Vittone questioned the judge’s May 1 order to destroy “any and all evidence” related to 17 closed cases spanning 1998 to 2011. Most of the cases were drug-related, while a few were violent crimes involving a firearm and knife.
Pozonsky’s order did not specify who requested the destruction of the evidence, nor did it indicate who was to destroy it. The evidence was destroyed two days after the order was issued and prior to Vittone’s request that the judge vacate his destruction order. Soon afterward, amid reports that Pozonsky was the subject of an investigation by the state attorney general’s office, he was removed from handling criminal cases and suspended from presiding over the county’s drug treatment court.
Although Pozonsky had not announced plans to leave office, he submitted his retirement effective June 30 and moved to Alaska, where his wife is originally from and still has family.
Pozonsky again made headlines when his appointment in September as a hearing officer for the state’s Department of Labor and Workforce Development Workers’ Compensation Board in Anchorage was questioned. Amid controversy, Pozonsky suddenly issued his resignation, leaving two jobs in one year.
6. Rarely has a fire at a business sent so many shudders through so many people.
But when word quickly spread on the morning of Feb. 3 that there was a fire at the beloved Canonsburg chocolatier Sarris Candies, there was genuine, urgent concern – what would happen to the chocolate-covered pretzels that have become fixtures of fundraisers and grocery stores throughout the region?
It soon become apparent, to sighs of relief all around, that the damage was limited. It closed the gift shop at Sarris Candies for about a month and left the ice cream shop shuddered until early summer.
The company was also forced to shuffle some of its production facilities around, and it lost some one-of-a-kind molds used to create its chocolate confections. It still managed, though, to get its supply of candy in stores in time for Easter.
7. When Act 13 was signed into law in February by Gov. Tom Corbett, it was the start of a multi-act legal drama whose ending remains up in the air.
The law set statewide standards for oil and gas drilling, but some municipalities chafed under its zoning provisions, which they said took away their land-use planning rights. So four townships in Washington County – Cecil, Peters, Robinson and Mt. Pleasant – joined forces with South Fayette Township in Allegheny County, two communities in Bucks County, a Monroeville doctor and the Delaware Riverkeeper Network to sue the state, arguing that the zoning provisions were unconstitutional.
At the end of July, Commonwealth Court ruled in the township’s favor. However, the state promptly appealed to Pennsylvania’s Supreme Court, which heard arguments in October. At year’s end, no ruling had yet been rendered.
Aside from the legal ramifications of the suit, it strained already fragile relations between Range Resources, the premier energy company in the region, and the townships. In December, Cecil had a meeting with Range Resources officials to try to mend fences.
8. A 23-year-old Pittsburgh man is awaiting trial after he allegedly murdered his estranged girlfriend and then dumped her body in a wooded area of Mt. Pleasant Township.
Jordan Alexander Clemons, formerly of Mt. Pleasant, is accused of killing Karissa Kunco, 21, of Baldwin, and dumping her naked body on Jan. 12. Kunco had a protection-from-abuse order against Clemons. In May, Washington County District Attorney Gene Vittone announced he was seeking the death penalty against Clemons.
Investigators believe that Clemons drove around with Kunco in her car before killing her. Her car was found abandoned in Cecil Township, several miles from where her body was discovered.
9. As the natural gas drilling industry continues to grow in Western Pennsylvania so, too, does its critics, often in the form of a lawsuit. Among the legal proceedings is whether a settlement between former Mt. Pleasant Township residents Chris and Stephanie Hallowich and several gas drilling companies should be unsealed. The settlement, reached in 2011 and sealed by former Washington County Court Judge Paul Pozonsky was appealed by the Observer-Reporter and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. A hearing date has been set for Jan. 18.
Another lawsuit was filed by three Amwell Township families who claim to have suffered health effects from a nearby impoundment and contamination of their water supplies. Range Resources says the lawsuit on behalf of Beth and John Voyles, Stacey Haney and her two children and Loren and Grace Kiskadden fails to offer any proof that their health has been compromised.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency also fined Atlas Resources $84,500 for a 2010 fire stemming from improperly stored condensate at a drilling site near Avella. The company had been fined a year before by the state Department of Environmental Protection in the same incident that injured three workers.
And state Rep. Jesse White, D-Cecil, interjected himself into the mix this year by criticizing the DEP on a number of occasions related to its oversight of gas drilling. White also faced off against Range Resources in Facebook posts that were critical of the company. In response Range released an e-mail from White asking a company executive if he could hitch a ride on the company jet to the Super Bowl in Texas.
10. Ringgold School Board’s decision to reopen closed elementary schools in Donora and Monongahela to serve as middle schools to replace a building with structural problems in Finleyville was met with outcry from residents and a minority on the board favored a plan to build a new middle school The board eventually reached a stalemate on how to proceed until Washington County Court stepped in to appoint Maureen Ott of Nottingham Township to a vacant seat on the board. She created a new majority on the board, which put a stop to the plan when she attended her first meeting in October.
By November, most directors agreed to hire a professional to guide the board toward making a rational decision on a building project after director Mariann Bulko was appointed board president.