Year’s top stories carry themes of conflict, loss

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WBFD Captain Damian Lendacky checks supplies including Narcan before start of shift cv01narcanp2 Warren Ruda / The Citizens’ Voice

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MARK MORAN / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER A review of the Wilkes-Barre police department was approved this year after growing acrimony among the force.

Plenty of good things happened in Luzerne County in 2017. But newsroom staffers agreed that the most memorable events — those that dominated headlines, stirred emotions and especially affected readers this past year — carried themes of conflict, struggle, sadness and loss.

From a teacher strike to a fire bombing, the homicides of three young brothers and the ongoing opioid epidemic, area residents had many reasons to shake their heads and wish for better days.

But readers also were reminded of the indomitable spirit of community leaders, elected officials and ordinary citizens who continue working to find solutions to our problems and make right what is wrong.

Here’s a look at what we consider the top 10 stories of the year.

High school consolidation

The Wilkes-Barre Area School Board in January abandoned a plan to merge Coughlin and Meyers high schools in a new facility built on the Coughlin site in downtown Wilkes-Barre.

The decision was the result of the city zoning board rejecting the plan. The school board also abandoned a plan to lease space inside the Times Leader newspaper building by the Coughlin site even though the zoning board approved that plan.

In May, the board moved ahead with a plan to build a consolidated high school in Plains Twp. on the 80-acre Pagnotti Enterprises site between Maffett and Main streets. The district estimates spending between $101 million and $118 million building the new high school.

The district spent nearly $4.9 million on the abandoned plan to demolish Coughlin and build a new consolidated school on the downtown site. School board elections in 2017 should not affect the current consolidation plan because three incumbents who supported it were re-elected and only one consolidation critic won a seat on the board.


Snowstorm buries

Wyoming Valley

A crippling snowstorm dumped close to 2 feet of snow on the Wyoming Valley on March 14.

No deaths or serious injuries were reported from the storm, which set snowfall records including 22.1 inches at Wilkes-Barre/Scranton International Airport.

The storm, which arrived early on a Tuesday morning, essentially shut down Wilkes-Barre and surrounding communities for days. Most schools in the region were closed for the rest of the week, for a total of four days of missed classes.

An avalanche in Duryea briefly trapped a motorist in a vehicle on Coxton Road, but that driver was not injured, officials said.

Wyoming County, where up to 30 inches of snow fell, instituted a countywide travel ban. Wilkes-Barre city also banned traffic on city roads in the hours after the storm ended.

Wilkes-Barre hired private contractors to help the city plow and treat roads and remove snow. Cleaning up from the storm cost the city about $1 million, officials said. Efforts to obtain reimbursement from state and federal disaster relief funds proved unsuccessful.


Children and Youth firebombing

Also in March, someone threw three Molotov cocktails into the office of Luzerne County Children and Youth Services Executive Director Joanne Van Saun. The attack took place in the early morning hours and resulted in no injuries, but damaged the office before the building’s fire suppression system doused the blaze.

A federal grand jury indicted Plains Twp. resident Phillip Finn Jr., 47, in July on charges of stalking, making threatening interstate communications and causing malicious damage to government property by fire.

Prosecutors allege Finn — who was fighting to keep custody of his 8-year-old daughter and had been due to appear in court for a hearing the day of the fire — threatened caseworkers and threw the firebombs.

In an interview with The Citizens’ Voice prior to his arrest, Finn denied setting the fire but said he “can understand why somebody would do something like that.”


Local singer dies after crash

The local music community mourned when Janet Rains, who went by the stage name “Jane Train” as a singer in the popular ’80s cover band M80, died after a tractor-trailer crash in Florida.

Rains was the tour manager for the band Adrenaline Mob. A tractor-trailer struck a car and the band’s RV, which had pulled over with a flat tire, on Interstate 75 in July.

The crash killed David Zablidowsky, the band’s bassist, hospitalized Rains with severe burns and wounded Robert Dressler of Plains Twp. and Jason McCloe of Wilkes-Barre. Rains died after being removed from life support in August, a little more than five weeks after the crash.

Alan Stout, former organizer of Concert for a Cause, a fundraiser in which Train and M80 frequently performed, rallied the local music community to hold a benefit for Train in October. He recalled the many messages of support for her when news of the crash broke and an outpouring of love for the singer at her passing.

“We will all remember Janet in our own special ways, because it seemed everyone she met has warm stories about her,” he said.


Family out on walk maimed by car

An afternoon walk on a beautiful summer day turned tragic for a Rice Twp. family in their Mountain Top development.

A driver plowed into seven family members on normally quiet Aleksander Boulevard in the Polonia Estates in August.

The victims included Bryan and Nina Herbst, their four young children and a niece. Each suffered injuries, but all survived and were eventually released from the hospital.

Many credit Dr. Annette Mann, an emergency room doctor who lives in the neighborhood, with saving the life of the couple’s 10-month-old baby, who wasn’t breathing immediately after the crash.

The driver of the car was identified as Jigna Kyada, 51, who also lives in the neighborhood. No charges or citations have been filed.

Nearly $60,000 was raised online to assist the family on the fundraising site, eclipsing the goal of $25,000.


Dallas teachers go on strike

Negotiators for the Dallas School District and the teachers union continued to meet in 2017 and couldn’t end the ongoing contract dispute.

Teachers went on strike in 2016 from Nov. 14 to Dec. 19 and this year from Sept. 22 to Oct. 3. The last labor agreement with the teachers union expired in September 2015 and they are planning another strike on Jan. 22.

After three new directors joined the school board in December, the nine-member board voted to stand by the district offer to the union from Oct. 30. The union rejected that offer, which was for five years and would cover 2015-16 and 2016-17 but would not include retroactive pay increases for those years.

The average salary for union members would increase from $62,392 last year to $73,840 this year, $76,207 in 2018-19 and $78,567 in 2019-20, according to the district offer. Other sticking points include changes to health benefits and early retirement incentives.


Laflin arson and homicide

Three brothers — Erik Dupree, 16, Devon Major, 12, and Ezekiel Major, 7 — perished in a deliberately set fire at their Laflin home the evening of Oct. 25.

Police have charged their mother’s ex-boyfriend, Preston Daquen Bonnett, 27, with criminal homicide and arson, alleging he set the fire because of an ongoing dispute he had with their mother, Susan Major, 48.

Court records show that over the summer Major kicked Bonnett and another woman out of her home at 60 Oakwood Drive, leading to a heated eviction effort and criminal charges against Bonnett and the woman, who police say were found in possession of materials used to commit credit-card fraud.

Prosecutors say that the family was afraid of Bonnett, who had thrown a beer bottle through a window of the home less than two weeks before the deadly fire.


Melissa Scholl trial

Wilkes-Barre Twp. mother Melissa Ann Scholl, 34, was sentenced in November to serve 10 to 30 years in prison after a jury convicted her of attempted murder for trying to gas her children in a murder-suicide attempt.

Prosecutors say Scholl strapped her children into her car on Dec. 9, 2015, drove to a secluded lot along Blackman Street and then ran a garden hose from the car exhaust into a window. A bus driver who happened upon the scene intervened and called the police.

Prosecutors argued that Scholl’s actions — combined with text messages in which Scholl explicitly said she intended to kill herself — showed she planned to kill her children too.

The defense countered that Scholl was crying out for help and had no intention of harming her children, but the jury sided with the prosecution and convicted her after less than three hours of deliberations.


Wilkes-Barre police assessment

After nearly two years of growing acrimony between Wilkes-Barre’s police union officials and police Chief Marcella Lendacky, city council in November voted to have an independent agency review department operations and management.

Two officials with the Pennsylvania Chiefs of Police Association began interviewing city employees and reviewing records in early December.

Union officers have criticized Lendacky and her leadership since before Mayor Tony George appointed her chief in March 2016. And the city’s costs for police union arbitration have topped $125,000 over the past two years.

Council sought an agency to investigate in September after revelations that the city’s top two police union officials were disciplined for social media posts critical of directives from Lendacky’s second-in-command, Cmdr. Ron Foy.

Since then, five other officers received disciplinary notices and union vice president Dan Duffy was fired. The union has alleged the disciplinary measures were “union-busting” tactics – a claim George denies.

The assessment, which is expected to last about 10 weeks from kickoff to submission of a report with recommendations, is costing the city $26,212.


Record year of drug overdoses

This year was the deadliest ever for drug overdoses in Luzerne County.

A year after a record number of 140 people died of drug overdoses, there were at least 144 overdose deaths in Luzerne County as of the final week of December.

The record number of overdoses was attributed to the continued distribution and use of ultra-lethal fentanyl, a synthetic opioid much more powerful than heroin.

The rise in deaths continues despite public awareness campaigns and the widespread distribution of the opioid-reversal drug naloxone, commonly called by the brand name Narcan.

Citizens, physicians, judges, lawmakers and law enforcement officials have been working to address the problem throughout the year, bringing it to the forefront with awareness events, holding panel discussions and seeking solutions.

In October, U.S. Rep. Tom Marino of Lycoming Twp., President Donald Trump’s nominee for drug czar, withdrew his name for consideration in the wake of an investigative report detailing how he helped pass legislation weakening the Drug Enforcement Administration’s ability to go after drug distributors, even as opioid-related deaths continued to rise.

Also in October, Luzerne County hired a Texas-based law firm to represent the county in litigation against opioid manufacturers and distributors to recover costs the county incurred due to the opioid epidemic.

And this year, for the first time ever, Luzerne County prosecutors started charging drug dealers in connection with overdose deaths. The pursuit of criminal charges in drug deaths is new because of a state Superior Court ruling that said prosecutors no longer have to prove a drug dealer acted with malice and intended to kill the user.

The felony charge of drug delivery resulting in death carries a maximum punishment of 40 years in prison, making it equivalent to the penalty for third-degree murder.


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