ST. LOUIS, MO- As 2019 draws to a close, it’s time to take stock of the last twelve months and the stories which made headlines across the St. Louis region. There were stories which brought us together and stories which broke our hearts. Here are 10 stories which had a big impact on the past year and will continue to bring attention in 2020.
GUN VIOLENCE STRIKES THE VERY YOUNGEST VICTIMS
Xavier Usanga. Jaylon McKenzie. Jurnee Thompson. Kayden Johnson. Kristina Curry. Jashon Johnson. Kennedi Powell. Eddie Hill IV. Jason Eberhart. Sentonio Cox. They are just some of the young lives lost in a year of gun violence which has impacted the greater St. Louis region.
“He was amazing. He was brilliant. He was smart. He was energetic,” said Rashida Chatman, Eddie Hill’s teacher said at a July vigil. “He’s going to be missed in our classroom. He was definitely a core piece at our school.” Eddie was 10 years old when he was shot and killed on his own front porch.
Jurnee Thompson was just 8 years old when she was shot and killed in August, not long after attending a St. Louis Public High School football preseason jamboree. “Jurnee cannot be replaced, so if you got any remorse, any respect for yourself turn yourself in,” her father told FOX2.
The young ages of so many of the victims of violent crime was one of the leading forces in the search for more solutions to crime problems in the St. Louis area and around the state.
Missouri Governor Mike Parson’s plan to send state personnel to St. Louis took effect in October, in an effort to patrol interstate highways in addition to supporting federal task forces aimed at getting the most violent criminals off the street. That’s on top of a stepped-up effort in court that has been in effect since January. According to Attorney General Eric Schmitt, at least 78 defendants have been charged under the Safer Streets Initiative, a partnership with the U.S. Attorney’s office. Through mid-December, the effort has resulted in the seizure of 98 weapons in St. Louis.
After meeting with mayors and police officials from several of Missouri’s biggest cities, Governor Parson backed the broad outlines of proposals which would keep minors, domestic abusers and violent offenders from owning guns. But as the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reports, that will require the backing of a GOP-controlled legislature which has spent much of the last few years easing access to guns, and lawmakers are already sounding alarm that they were not involved in the Governor’s discussions with local officials.
RECORD BREAKING FLOODING RETURNS TO ST. LOUIS REGION
“Not since the Great Flood of 1993 has St. Louis seen river levels as high as they got this summer. We had the second highest crest in St. Louis history, and the longest amount of time where downtown was above flood stage…more days than 1993, said FOX2 Chief Meteorologist Glenn Zimmerman.
“Many levee breeches up stream brought damage to agricultural interests. And backwater from the Mississippi brought major flooding to the River Des Peres. Even as December rolled in, the river levels remain at a “higher than average” ranking, which has already brought worry for the flood forecast into 2020.”
The Army Corps of Engineers’ Kansas City district called the flooding event, which started March 13 and technically lasted for 279 days, the longest in district history.
In Illinois, river city communities like Alton and Grafton were among those feeling flooding effects through most of the summer, when businesses that rely on tourism were crippled. To add insult to injury, FEMA announced it was upholding a decision to deny disaster relief claims by individuals and businesses in 22 Illinois counties, including several in the Metro East. In November, the Small Business Administration did issue a disaster declaration, triggering the availability of low-interest loans for individuals and business owners.
‘PAY TO PLAY’ CORRUPTION SCANDAL ROCKS ST. LOUIS COUNTY
In late March, St. Louis County government officials confirmed federal investigators had subpoenaed records focused on the administration of County Executive Steve Stenger. A little more than a month later, Stenger had resigned, under indictment, accused of abusing his office for personal gain and of steering county contracts to a donor. On May 3, he pleaded guilty to “pay to play” charges which would also ensnare businessman John Rallo and Sheila Sweeney, the onetime CEO of the St. Louis Economic Development Partnership.
None of the cases went to trial, but the evidence laid out by the government painted a picture of Stenger as someone who had “checked out” during 2018 as he raised money for his re-election campaigns, failed to show up for County Council meetings, and was eager to punish political enemies while in office as County Executive. Prosecutors said he was using his office to lay the groundwork to wield more power in the event of a St. Louis city- St. Louis County merger under the Better Together plan.
Stenger is now serving a federal prison sentence due to end on December 27, 2021. Sweeney was sentenced to probation. Rallo will not be sentenced until at least March 5, 2020, after delays.
Dr. Sam Page left the County Council to assume the County Executive’s office and is now seeking election in his own right in 2020, against current St. Louis County Assessor Jake Zimmerman in the Democratic party primary.
BETTER TOGETHER TORN APART
The Stenger scandal dealt a fatal blow to Better Together, a plan which, after a statewide vote and a constitutional amendment, would have merged the City of St. Louis, St. Louis County government and all municipalities within the county into a single government structure. Initially, that structure would have been governed by a Metro Mayor starting in 2023–the County Executive. Better Together backers changed their proposal to begin with co-Mayors, Stenger and St. Louis Mayor Lyda Krewson, in 2021, in a move that was announced after word got out that the Stenger administration was under investigation. Organizers denied there was any linkage between the change and the investigation.
Four days after Stenger entered his guilty plea in federal court, Better Together announced it was withdrawing its plan on May 7.
What has followed since is a process known as the Board of Freeholders, where a group of members appointed by Krewson, Page and Governor Mike Parson can meet and potentially come up with any number of merger options, or nothing at all. The city’s representatives have not yet been seated, as the Board of Aldermen has yet to approve a slate of members.
THE 2018-19 ST. LOUIS BLUES: “HISTORY MADE”
Let’s be clear…no recap here will do this justice. Everyone will have their own memories from the St. Louis Blues’ historic run to capturing the franchise’s first Stanley Cup.
On January 3, 2019 the St. Louis Blues had the worst record in the National Hockey League. Weeks earlier, head coach Mike Yeo had been fired, replaced by assistant Craig Berube. Pat Maroon, the South County native who signed to play for his hometown team, was reportedly close to being released. The team’s recently adopted dog, Barclay, was probably more popular than most players at that point.
On January 6, 2019, a group of players in a New York City bar on a road trip hear the song “Gloria” and decide that’s what they want to hear in the locker room after wins. The next night, Jordan Binnington makes his first career start in goal and shuts out the Flyers 3-0 despite facing 25 shots.
The club went on an 11-game winning streak. Ryan O’Reilly, the offseason import from Buffalo, began showing St. Louis what he was capable of doing, Binnington went from former prospect to shutdown force.
Team management could have sold off veterans and spare parts ahead of the trade deadline in February but didn’t. By the end of the regular season, the Blues were second in the division and a team nobody wanted to play in the postseason.
Jaden Schwartz, who endured a rough regular season, came alive in the playoffs. His first playoff hat trick clinched the first round series against Winnipeg.
The series win propelled St. Louis to a matchup with Dallas in the second round. Will you ever forget where you were the night in May when Pat Maroon, the man who was nearly cut months earlier, beat fellow-hometowner Ben Bishop for the series clincher in double overtime of a do or die game 7? Neither will we.
The Blues followed that up by dispatching San Jose in six games to win the Western Conference Championship and advance to the Stanley Cup Final for the first time since 1970.
Could a franchise that couldn’t get a Stanley Cup with Hull & Oates, Shanny, MacInnis, the Plager brothers and Bernie Federko in more than fifty years of play finally get it done?
With the entire city on pins and needles for every playoff game, with a little girl named Laila cheering on her boys, with Yadi and Waino putting on Blue Note sweaters, the answer was yes, in seven games over the Boston Bruins.
The celebrations which followed, from O.B. Clark’s to the parade downtown, from the individual days with the Cup to the White House Rose Garden ceremony, will live in the memories of Blues fans forever.
FALLEN FIRST RESPONDERS
Five families in our area are remembering loved ones who made the ultimate sacrifice in the line of duty during 2019.
- Godfrey Fire Captain Jake Ringering died fighting a house fire in Fosterburg on March 5. “He would always tell all of the guys that, ‘Your family comes first,’ and ‘No matter what’s going on at the fire department, if you need to take care of your family, they’re your number one priority,'” his wife Allison told FOX2. “I’ve had a lot of the guys just tell me that that’s their favorite memory of Jake. That you always put your family first.”
- Maryland Heights Fire Protection District Firefighter-Paramedic Chris Moore suffered a medical emergency on June 7 and was found at his home the following day. His kids remember their dad as a “silly” guy who loved his job. When he
wasn’t working, he loved the rodeo, hunting, fishing, and listening to classic country music. Tori wants to become a veterinarian and open her own clinic. CJ plans to follow in his dad’s boot steps. “I’ve wanted to be a firefighter since I was like five, and I’ve wanted to work at Maryland Heights, but I want to start at Metro West where he started, then I want to go to Eureka for a little bit.”
- North County Police Cooperative Officer Michael Langsdorf was shot and killed June 23 responding to a call at a market
in Wellston for a disturbance over a suspect trying to pass a bad check. “He was a great son. He was a good father. A wonderful friend. And a great fiancée. We just hope, in the years to come, that people remember him, also,” Langsdorf’s mother Bess told FOX2.
- Illinois State Police Trooper Nick Hopkins was shot and killed August 23 while he and other law enforcement officers attempted to serve an arrest warrant in East St. Louis. “He did everything he could to be there for (our children), and to
make sure that they knew that he was there,” Whitney Hopkins said of her husband. “He would say, ‘Doesn’t matter where I am, call me anytime, call me anytime, and if I can’t pick up, I`ll call you right back,’ Hopkins was killed just days before his daughter Emma’s first birthday.
- St. Louis County Police Officer James “Mitch” Ellis Jr. died following an October 10 head-on crash on his way home from
work. “He went every day to work, and every day he left, and we knew that there was a chance he wouldn’t come home, 17 year-old Ethan Ellis said of his father. “And that’s something we dealt with, and that’s something he himself dealt with. He went to work today knowing, ‘I could go to work today, and be killed.’ And he wanted to. Because that was a job he was passionate about and cared for,” he said.
COLD CASES NO MORE
Angie Housman was 9 years old when she was kidnapped from a St. Ann bus stop not far from her home on November 18, 1993. Her body was discovered nine days later in the Busch Wildlife Conservation area tied to a tree.
In February 2019, authorities say they discovered DNA on a piece of evidence in the case, and it came back to match two people–Housman, and Earl Cox.
Cox has prior convictions for child sex abuse and for running an online internet child porn ring. Prosecutors say he was out of prison in 1993 and living in St. Louis County, and that his sister’s home is less than a mile from where Housman was last seen alive.
Cox, who was in a federal prison in North Carolina at the time he was charged in June with first degree murder, first degree kidnapping and sodomy in St. Charles County.
He has pleaded not guilty to the charges.
Christian Ferguson was 9 years old when he was last seen leaving his St. Louis County house on June 11, 2003.
Just after 6 a.m. on June 11, 2003, Dawan Ferguson called 911 from a payphone at Page and Skinker to report someone had carjacked his SUV with his son Christian inside. The SUV was found later that day but Christian was never found.
On October 3, 2019, the St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office charged Dawan Ferguson with first degree murder, saying that he failed to provide his son with proper nutrition and medication, and that Christian Ferguson would have died within two to three days without the medication he needed to treat a genetic disorder.
Prosecutors have not revealed the discovery of Christian Ferguson’s body or disclosed what new evidence prompted the charge. An attorney who represented Dawan Ferguson earlier in the investigation said he maintains his innocence.
LAW ENFORCEMENT UNDER THE MICROSCOPE
The St. Louis Metropolitan Police and the St. Louis County Police departments found themselves in the headlines for difficult reasons in 2019.
- On January 24, SLMPD officer Katylin Alix was shot and killed. A fellow officer, Nathaniel Hendren is accused of involuntary
manslaughter in an incident that happened while Hendren was on duty. Hendren is scheduled to stand trial in March.
- In October, a St. Louis County Police Sergeant squared off against his employer in a county courtroom, accusing the department of discriminating against him because of his sexual orientation, and won a $19 million judgment. Keith Wildhaber argued that he had been passed over for promotions more than 20 times and told to “tone down your gayness”. The
verdict prompted changes to the civilian oversight board in charge of the department. Four members on the panel were replaced. While the jury award award is now in mediation, the county did announce a new diversity unit, headed by a newly-promoted Lt. Wildhaber. Both parties say the diversity unit is unrelated to settlement negotiations.
- In November, now-former SLMPD Officer Lori Wozniak was found guilty of assault after she was accused of giving suspects a “rough ride” in a police van after they were taken into custody in 2018. She was sentenced to probation.
- In December, a fifth SLMPD officer was indicted by a federal grand jury for actions related to the police response to protests following the Jason Stockley trial in 2017, when an undercover officer was severely beaten. Officer Steve Korte, was charged with civil rights violations and providing false statements to the FBI. Two others, Officers Dustin Boone and Christopher Myers are also charged with civil rights violations. Additionally, Myers faces a charge for destroying cell phone video evidence of the beating. In September, Officer Bailey Colletta pleaded guilty to making false statements before a grand jury and will be sentenced in April. Officer Randy Hays pleaded guilty to a civil rights violation and will be sentenced in March.
ST. LOUIS AWARDED MLS FRANCHISE
The rebooted bid for a St. Louis Major League Soccer franchise backed by the Taylor family matriculated down the field and found the back of the net in August, with the official announcement that a team would begin play in 2022. The team, as yet unnamed, revealed a revised stadium plan in October that included a larger footprint in the area of Market Street west of Union Station. The team also announced it will own the stadium instead of leasing it from the city. While it has long been a goal for MLS to have a franchise in a city with such a storied soccer history, the decision to award an expansion franchise did come without two important benchmarks still yet not announced publicly–a jersey sponsor, and a stadium naming rights agreement.
A late 2019 wrinkle presented itself in December when state economic development officials said they would not be ready to approve $30 million in tax credits for the stadium project. A smaller amount could be examined in 2020.
GM MAKES BILLION DOLLAR BET ON WENTZVILLE PLANT
In May, with just about two weeks left in the 2019 session of the Missouri General Assembly in May, state officials confirmed they were up against other states in negotiations for General Motors to make an investment of at least $1 billion in Missouri at the company’s Wentzville plant. To be competitive, state officials said they needed a tax incentive plan to bring to the table. After a filibuster in the State Senate of more than 24 hours just days before the session ended, lawmakers ultimately passed a package of tax credit incentives worth up to $50 million. It came despite concerns, even from lawmakers in St. Charles County, where the plant is located, who questioned the use of taxpayer dollars.
On December 13, company executives, state and federal lawmakers came to the plant to announce the investment to make GM’s next generation of mid-sized pickup trucks. $1 billion will go to the plant itself, while the rest will go toward upgrades at suppliers who support the operation in Wentzville. The deal retains roughly 4,000 jobs at the plant. The state incentives require GM to keep 90 percent of its current full-time jobs at the plant to receive full benefits. The agreement would be in default if less than 80 percent of the full time employees are retained or if a product line is discontinued and not replaced.