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Top stories of 2016

Goodbye, 2016: The Tribune-Herald’s top stories of the year

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Today we present the top local stories of 2016, as selected by the Waco Tribune-Herald news staff. Good or bad, 2016 had much to offer in the way of news, and the following is a rundown of the unfolding stories that matter in our lives.

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Baylor sexual assault scandal plagues university

Baylor University

Months after two Baylor University football players were convicted of sexual assault and multiple women had spoken publicly about how the university mishandled their reports of sexual assault, Baylor officials released a summary of an external investigation they commissioned.

Philadelphia law firm Pepper Hamilton LLP found a campuswide “fundamental failure” in Title IX implementation from 2012 to 2015, Baylor regents reported May 26. The same day, they announced the firing of Art Briles as head football coach and the removal of Ken Starr as president.

Pepper Hamilton also gave Baylor 105 recommendations to improve institutional responses to sexual violence reports. Regents say task forces and implementation teams have worked ever since to bolster Baylor’s responses to sexual assault on multiple levels.

Pepper Hamilton’s investigation was prompted by the criminal conviction of Sam Ukwuachu in September 2015. He was the second former Baylor football player convicted on a sexual assault charge since 2014.

By February, problems had become apparent, and more than 200 students, faculty, staff and alumni attended a candlelight vigil outside Starr’s on-campus home to support sexual assault survivors. Starr was not present.

Two more sexual assault arrests in the spring added fuel to the firestorm at Baylor. Shawn Oakman, a prominent member of the 2015 football team, and Jacob Anderson, a fraternity president, were arrested on sexual assault charges, and both were later indicted.

ESPN uncovered Waco police reports accusing several other Baylor football players of sexual or physical violence, along with a former tennis player, in the past several years.

Rami Hammad, a player set to start on the 2016 squad, was later arrested on stalking and trespassing charges.

Baylor faces four Title IX lawsuits with 13 plaintiffs. The school settled with two women last month who reported being gang-raped by football players in 2014. Those two did not file a lawsuit.

Baylor regents were largely silent in the months after announcing the Pepper Hamilton findings. Alumni, faculty and members of the media have called for Baylor to release the “full” Pepper Hamilton report.

Garland and regents have said there is no full report, only an oral presentation Pepper Hamilton made to the board. The presentation featured vignettes of the experiences of several women who reported sexual violence.

In an October change of course, regents told the Wall Street Journal that 17 women reported sexual violence against 19 football players — including four alleged gang rapes — in the last several years. Briles knew of at least one allegation and took no action, regents said.

The day they released the Pepper Hamilton summary and fired Briles and Starr, regents also sanctioned Athletics Director Ian McCaw and placed him on probation. McCaw resigned days later and now holds the same role at Liberty University. Former Wake Forest University head football coach Jim Grobe replaced Briles this season, and the assistant coaching staff remained.

Tom Hill, associate athletics director for community relations and special projects, and Colin Shillinglaw, assistant athletics director of football operations, were both fired after the investigation was finished.

Hill has said he had no involvement in the scandal or with any football players accused of sexual violence. This month, Hill filed suit against Pepper Hamilton and two of the firm’s attorneys, claiming negligence and defamation in the nine-month investigation at Baylor.

After his removal as president, Starr resigned as chancellor and as a law professor, cutting his final ties with the school. He and his wife, Alice, still live in Waco.

David Garland, former dean and professor at Baylor’s George W. Truett Seminary, was named interim president and continues to serve in the role as Baylor searches for new leadership.

Though Briles reached a financial settlement with the university this summer, he is now suing a senior administrator and three regents, alleging libel and slander in the Journal article and other outlets. Senior Vice President and Chief Operating Officer Reagan Ramsower, board Chairman Ron Murff and Regents J. Cary Gray and David Harper are listed as defendants in the suit.

Patty Crawford, the school’s Title IX coordinator, resigned in October. Crawford has accused Ramsower, her superior since the summer, of retaliating against her and the quest for Title IX compliance. She said administrators drove a discriminatory culture, and hundreds of students reported sexual assaults to her in her less than two years at Baylor.

Baylor has spent $4.3 million on services for sexual assault victims since November 2014, the university has said, including a $2.2 million Title IX office budget, which has increased in each of the last three years.

Crawford filed a complaint with the U.S. Department for Education’s Office for Civil Rights when she resigned, prompting the agency to launch an investigation at Baylor. Almost 300 investigations remain open at colleges and universities around the country.

A group of powerful donors has expressed the most anger at regents regarding the scandal. Temple billionaire Drayton McLane, Houston lawyer John Eddie Williams, former regent and Baylor Alumni Association President Emily Tinsley, former Texas Gov. Mark White and former board chairman Gale Galloway have led the charge for “Bears for Leadership Reform.”

The group is calling for transparency and reform among regents and commissioned a report that estimates the sexual assault scandal is costing Baylor $223 million, including $101 million in lost private donations by 2019.

Williams, whose name adorns the football field and law school library, promised to make his prior financial commitments. However, he is considering postponing a December donation.

Prior to that estimated financial report, regent Mark McCollum said the university is in good shape financially. Faculty Senate Chairman Byron Newberry said McCollum told faculty and staff that a reserve for financial settlements and lawsuits is in place and it is being used.

An accrediting agency placed the school on a 1-year warning, but Garland said Baylor’s accreditation is not at risk, as long as compliance improvements are shown.

State taking over Marlin ISD operations

Marlin ISD

About a year after district officials landed an extension to keep Marlin ISD open, Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath announced in September the state would appoint a board of managers to take over the district and also dissolve the existing board of trustees.

The district received an unsatisfactory rating for the fifth consecutive year based on State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness scores, which led Morath’s decision.

This action sent the district into limbo for the rest of 2016 and the current board of trustees and Superintendent Michael Seabolt scrambling to fight the takeover.

Seabolt was brought in a little more than a year ago to put the district back on track.

Shortly after the announcement, the district became the first to join as a plaintiff in a case pending in the 98th Judicial District Court in Travis County that claims this year’s STAAR tests were illegal and no student or district should be held accountable for the results.

Then in October, the district also filed an appeal with the TEA about the 2016 state academic accountability ratings it failed. The appeal says this year’s state tests didn’t meet legal requirements, the district made significant progress despite its failure, and that a former TEA monitor misled district officials about state accountability requirements, impeding progress.

Morath is expected to appoint the board of managers by January, and Seabolt’s job remains up in the air because Morath also has the right to appoint a new superintendent during the takeover.

Waco ISD faces tough academic year in 2016

Waco ISD

From June through December, Waco ISD was marred by academic controversy.

The district faced everything from the questionable hire of a former teacher who was fired from another school district because of a racist social media post, to scrutiny by the Texas Education Agency for its low performing schools, and state-mandated governance training from the TEA tied to three of the district’s seven struggling campuses.

Nothing marked the year more, however, than an external investigation launched in June about the 100 percent graduation rate for 2015-2016 that University High School officials reported. The Tribune-Herald later learned and reported Superintendent Bonny Cain knew of possible administrative bullying and leadership issues at least six months before the investigation started.

Ultimately, the investigation found school officials awarding course credit to an unknown number of 2016 graduates who did not properly earn the credits. Administrators also failed to follow proper procedures for credit recovery programs and for state end-of-course retesting, according to findings released in October. And the investigation found the report of a 100 percent graduation rate was false.

Three University High administrators placed on paid leave during the investigation resigned in the wake of the findings. Each signed resignation settlement agreements denying any wrongdoing or allegations made in the case.

About a month later, Cain announced her retirement after leading Waco ISD for six years. None of the issues this year influenced her decision to leave, she said. She’ll stay on as superintendent through 2017 graduation as the Waco ISD school board searches for her replacement.

Disenfranchised voters

Disputed election

More than 600 McLennan County voters were disenfranchised during March’s primary elections, which prompted a lawsuit, a firing and a recount in the Precinct 1 county commissioner Republican primary race. Four of the county’s 32 polling centers handed out the wrong ballot to residents in Precincts 1 and 3. It was the county’s first primary election using vote centers, which can serve any voter in the county. The county had previously required primary voters to go to a polling place specific to their precinct.

On Election Day vote counts showed Precinct 1 incumbent Kelly Snell beating challenger Cory Priest by 29 votes, and the recount later narrowed that margin of victory for Snell to 25 votes. In the Precinct 3 race, incumbent Will Jones defeated challenger Ben Matus by 821 votes. A judge denied Priest’s request for a new election.

The McLennan County Elections Commission met for the first time in more than three years to discuss the situation with Elections Administrator Kathy Van Wolfe and ultimately provided the commissioners court a report placing blame for the voter disenfranchisement on Hart InterCivic, the company that sold the county its election equipment 10 years ago.

However, in the months to follow, blame ran rampant as county leaders worked to discover how so many voters ended up with the wrong ballot. Hart InterCivic officials told county leaders the elections department had long had the necessary documentation to conduct this type of election, which has been used in Texas for nearly a decade.

On March 28, Van Wolfe fired assistant elections administrator Karen Hall, writing in a termination letter that Hall had run test ballots for early voting but not for Election Day. Ultimately, commissioners decided the problem wouldn’t happen again and that they had received enough information to understand what happened.

Riverfront deal follows downtown boom

Downtown riverfront development

A boom year for downtown Waco culminated with the city inking a deal for a $100 million public-private development that is expected to reshape the Brazos riverfront.

Catalyst Urban Development will develop the city’s 16-acre riverfront area with signature restaurants, shopping, structured parking and 264 units of housing, along with new public spaces and a refurbished farmers market.

The city has promised to contribute up to $24 million to the project, starting with a multimillion-dollar cleanup of the site in early 2017.

Catalyst officials say the growing momentum in downtown Waco, especially from Magnolia Market at the Silos, McLane Stadium and Baylor-related development, got them interested in the Waco riverfront. New or relocated businesses, including The Backyard, Balcones Distilling and Interior Glow benefited from a tide of tourists Magnolia brought into town, and several blocks along Interstate 35 were quickly transformed from old housing to quick-service restaurants, retail and student housing, with further redevelopment planned.

Shelter reboot

Animal shelter

The turnaround of the once-troubled Waco Animal Shelter passed important milestones this fall as it earned “no-kill” status and completed a $3.5 million rebuild of its facilities.

In October, city officials announced that the shelter had maintained an average live exit rate of more than 90 percent for 12 months, qualifying it for no-kill status.

The shelter met the target under challenging conditions while the new shelter facilities were under construction, with dogs kept in a tent set up on the parking lot.

The city also hired its first shelter director, Delfi Messinger, since taking over operations at the shelter in late 2012. The Humane Society of Central Texas, which formerly ran the shelter, now focuses on running the onsite adoption center.

Cultural District status

Cultural District

Years of discussion and planning by Waco arts advocates, the Greater Waco Chamber of Commerce, city officials and state representatives came to a successful conclusion in September when the Texas Commission on the Arts formally approved the Waco Downtown Cultural District.

The downtown Waco district, the 35th such district in Texas, encompasses a concentration of historic buildings, arts venues, restaurants, shops and the like. Cultural district status can stimulate arts-related development through tax breaks, grants and other economic incentives.

Texas Commission on the Arts evaluators ranked the Waco application the highest out of the dozen applications received for 2016. Waco’s application was organized under the umbrella of the nonprofit Creative Waco.

West rebuilds

West ISD

West residents continued to celebrate recovery milestones in 2016, while legal efforts to assess blame for the fertilizer plant explosion that devastated the town in April 2013 are still playing out in and out of court.

In early December, West residents, elected officials and others met in the middle of North Davis Street to mark the completion of a $5.8 million project to repair and rebuild streets and water and sewer lines on the city’s north side.

“The folks of West are just an incredibly hardy people,” U.S. Rep. Bill Flores said at the ceremony. “Think about this. What if every community in the United States were like West? We would have a much better world than we have today.”

In August, West notched another red-letter day among a flurry of emotions when the new West High School and Middle School was opened at 1008 Jerry Mashek Drive.

Kim Woodard, a high school teacher who lost friends and her home in the explosion, described her feelings while moving into the new $52 million school.

“There’s a very big high of joy, but you’re bringing back a lot of the things we’ve gone through over the years that we made it through, and we’ve made it through stronger,” Woodard said. “You balance those with faith. That’s all there is to it.”

The district also won state titles in baseball and softball, and softball coach Guyla Smith was named Trib Sportsperson of the Year.

The next trial over the West Fertilizer Plant explosion had been set for January but this week was reset for April 3. Defendants in the lawsuits include Adair Grain Co., the local owners of the plant that exploded; CF Industries; El Dorado Chemical Co.; Thermaclime; and International Chemical Co. The defendants either manufactured or sold fertilizer to West Fertilizer Co.

Plaintiffs for the next trial group include Jaquelina Rivera and her family; Michelle Wells, who represents the estate of Joshua Zarecor, who was killed from injuries sustained while he was in a nearby apartment complex; Misty Lambert; Sonja and Lance Moorman; Irma Cruz; Emanuel Mitchell; and Scott and Mary Burgess and Tom Burgess.

Other plaintiffs include West Rest Haven, the nursing home destroyed in the blast; J&B Realty, owners of the apartment complex; and 10 insurance companies who have filed subrogation claims seeking to recoup funds they have paid out.

Twin Peaks in court

Twin Peaks

As the year closed, judges, prosecutors and defense attorneys met in late December to map out a tentative plan for trying the first few Twin Peaks defendants.

The first biker to stand trial in the May 2015 shootout that left nine dead and two dozen wounded likely will be Christopher Jacob Carrizal, his father, Christopher Julian Carrizal, or Jerry Edward Pierson, all Bandidos from Dallas.

Judge Ralph Strother of Waco’s 19th State District Court will preside over the trial of one of those three bikers starting April 17, 23 months after the Twin Peaks shootout between rival biker groups.

The trials have been delayed because of the complexity of the cases, the number of defendants and the massive amount of evidence recovered from the scene that took time to analyze, including DNA, ballistics, cellphone records, social media and more.

Defendants who have sued McLennan County District Attorney Abel Reyna and others in an Austin federal court, claiming civil rights violations connected to their arrests, failed in a bid to have Reyna disqualified from trying their criminal cases.

“Fixer Upper” empire expands

Magnolia Market

The home design and renovating fiefdom of Waco’s Chip and Joanna Gaines mushroomed toward empire in 2016. The Gaineses’ Magnolia Market at the Silos in downtown Waco became the city’s biggest tourist magnet with roughly 1.2 million visitors last year — about four times the attendance of second-place Cameron Park Zoo. Two events, the Silobration in October and a new Christmas at the Silos in December, hosted evening concerts that drew about 3,000 attendees, some of the biggest concerts of the year in Waco.

The Gaineses’ “Fixer Upper” television series started its fourth season on the HGTV cable channel in November, ending the year with a Tuesday night viewing audience averaging 3 million people. That was enough to bump HGTV between TBS and TNT in viewership for the year.

“Fixer Upper” fans flocked to the Gaineses’ vacation rental Magnolia House in McGregor when it opened reservations in February, booking it for much of 2016 within hours. The Magnolia brand expanded into food service with the opening of the Silos Baking Co. on the Magnolia Market grounds in June and the acquisition of the Elite Cafe in May. The couple plans to reopen the Waco eatery as a breakfast and brunch restaurant sometime in 2017. There were new print ventures as well: the book “The Magnolia Story,” published in October, and a quarterly magazine, “The Magnolia Journal,” debuted this fall.

The year also brought some online controversies for the Waco couple. A Tribune-Herald story on several “Fixer Upper” clients who turned their renovated homes into VRBO and Airbnb rentals found a national audience with some “Fixer Upper” fans irritated the homebuyers had repurposed their properties. The Gaineses didn’t criticize the rentals but made changes in contracts for future “Fixer Upper” buyers.

The Gaineses also found themselves in another online hubbub in late November when social news and entertainment site Buzzfeed.com sought to connect the Waco couple to their pastor’s sermons criticizing homosexuality.

Live Oak incident prompts protests

Live Oak protest

An outcry from community members swept through Waco after a black 12-year-old Live Oak Classical School student suffered rope burns around her neck in an alleged racially-motivated attack during a school field trip to Blanco County in late April.

No criminal charges were filed in the incident after Blanco County investigators found no evidence to support the assertion that the student’s injuries were intentional or arose from racially motivated bullying, a claim the family’s attorney maintains.

Live Oak administrators took sixth-graders on an end-of-year overnight field trip in April at Germer Ranch, which is owned by Lawrence Germer, an attorney and the father of Live Oak Dean Allison Buras, the investigation revealed. The group, of 14 boys and eight girls spent the night at the ranch after the group traveled from Waco to Fredericksburg, then to the ranch.

Levi McCathern, a Dallas-based attorney representing the girl’s family, claimed three white boys with a history of bullying the girl and had wrapped the rope from the swing at the ranch around her neck and pulled, causing rope burns.

More than 100 demonstrators staged a civil protest outside Live Oak. In June, McCathern filed a civil rights lawsuit against the school and Germer. The suit claims negligence, gross negligence and intentional infliction of emotional distress against the school and premises liability against Germer.

Blanco County Sheriff’s Office Capt. Ben Ablon said he closed the case with no criminal charges after he found no evidence the boys intentionally injured the girl or that their actions were racially-motivated.

“Under these circumstances, I can understand why some people jumped to the conclusions that they did, but my job was to look into only the facts of the case,” Ablon said. “I broke one of my own rules and I looked at social media postings and news articles and when I did, I could see the delicate yet volatile situation that it was in Waco. That is what led me to reach out to some of the community leaders to help reassure the community that we looked into every aspect of this case.”

Despite no criminal charges being filed in the case, county leaders and residents say the community cannot stop in pushing forward with discussions about racial equality.

Jubilee Food Market opens

Jubille Market

Residents living near North 15th Street and Colcord Avenue found themselves in a “food desert,” but Mission Waco vowed to provide more than a mirage. Fundraising campaigns generated nearly $1 million in monetary donations and contributions of material and labor, and a long-abandoned Safeway building became a nonprofit grocery store called Jubilee Food Market.

Mission Waco, whose headquarters is right across Colcord Avenue from the new store, shepherded efforts to create the new venture, with executive director Jimmy Dorrell serving as the driving force in securing a contractor for the project, overseeing the money-raising efforts and keeping the neighborhood informed of progress. Finally, on Dec. 1, a grand opening celebration attracted a crowd of about 150, including local dignitaries and folks from the area, whom Dorrell wanted to recognize.

Store manager Darrell Wickert predicts the store will generate about $17,000 a week in sales, though others have said that figure may be low.

Business has been steady if not spectacular since the opening, and Wickert says it should increase when the store receives authority to accept food stamps.

Dorrell has said he does not expect Jubilee to compete with H-E-B, Wal-Mart or other big-box stores, but he believes it serves a need for residents who live in an area 2.2 miles from the nearest full-service grocery, the H-E-B at North 19th Street and Park Lake Drive.

H-E-B, the dominant grocery chain in Greater Waco, has acknowledged the need for neighborhood stores that meet needs beyond the reach of an H-E-B.

Leslie Sweet, a public relations staffer for the H-E-B Grocery chain, attended the grand opening to voice her support of Jubilee Food Market.

“We would love to serve all of you, all the time, but we know we can’t,” Sweet said after Dorrell summoned her to the microphone during ribbon-cutting ceremonies.

6-0, 1-6

Baylor football

Dogged by the loss of their head coach and a constant barrage of attention for everything but football, Baylor University’s football team still managed to start the season with strong performances and six straight wins.

Jim Grobe stepped out of retirement to lead the team on an interim basis after Art Briles was fired amid a sexual assault scandal that continues to shake the university.

An independent investigation found the football program was operating above the rules and that football staffers had not taken appropriate action when they knew of reports of sexual violence by players. Regents later said 17 women reported sexual violence against 19 football players and that Briles took no action after receiving a report on at least one occasion.

The momentum the team held onto early in the season turned quickly in a 35-34 loss to the University of Texas on Oct. 29 in Austin.

After winning six straight, the team lost its next six games. The pressure started to show with lackluster performances and a protest of Briles’ firing on Twitter that the assistant coaching staff coordinated the day before the game against Texas Christian University. Baylor lost 62-22.

After the regular season ended, Baylor announced Temple University head coach Matt Rhule would move to Baylor next year. The team was also able to end the season on a positive note with a strong performance to beat Boise State 31-12 in the Cactus Bowl on Dec 27.

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