2012: A look back; local stories that shaped the year
Published: Sunday, December 30, 2012 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, December 29, 2012 at 7:26 p.m.
Editor's note: This is the first in a series of three stories, the first two looking back at 2012 and then, on New Year's Day, a third story looking ahead to 2013.
2011 was a year of powerful news stories:
In January, 11 people perished in a series of accidents that turned Interstate 75 over Paynes Prairie into an inferno when fog and smoke combined to reduce visibility to near zero.
In June, Tropical Storm Debby turned major drought conditions across North Central Florida into flooding all over the region, especially along the Suwannee River and in Live Oak.
In November, while Alachua County voted solidly to re-elect President Obama, voters locally elected three Democrats to the Alachua County Commission, while Gainesville Republican Ted Yoho unseated longtime Congressman Cliff Stearns.
Here's a closer look at the news of 2012:
University of Florida
The University of Florida started the process of hiring a new leader in 2012, along with making another round of budget cuts and suffering other setbacks with the state.
UF President Bernie Machen's retirement follows a year in which new university facilities were opened and efforts to expand online courses continued. The year also saw controversies over issues such as computer science cuts and fraternity hazing.
These stories helped define 2012 at UF:
THE PRESIDENTIAL SEARCH: Machen announced in June that he was retiring by the end of 2013. A search committee worked through the rest of the year on details such as the qualifications sought in candidates. Interviews and the selection of a new president were delayed until January.
TUITION DEBATE CONTINUES: Gov. Rick Scott vetoed a bill that would have let UF and Florida State University seek higher tuition increases for meeting certain benchmarks. Scott subsequently created a task force that recommended freezing tuition for degrees that are highly sought by employers. Machen and other state university presidents pledged that they wouldn't seek tuition increases next year if they received an equivalent amount in performance-based funding.
GATORCARE FOR ALL IS VETOED: Scott also vetoed legislation that would have let UF opt out of the state health care plan and self-insure all of its employees through GatorCare. UF still is moving forward with GatorCare for about 20,000 employees of its affiliates and others already outside the state plan.
BUDGET CUTS STIR PROTEST: UF made $38.2 million in budget cuts as protesters called for the university to tap reserves. A plan for cuts to the computer and information science and engineering department led to an Internet-driven outcry, leading the plan to be reversed.
TWO FRATS ACCUSED OF HAZING: Members of two UF fraternities, Alpha Phi Alpha and Kappa Alpha Psi, were charged with misdemeanors in separate hazing cases involving paddling or striking pledges. UF suspended both chapters for three years, took other action against members and is considering measures to discourage hazing.
UF's PRESENCE AT LAKE NONA: UF held the grand opening of its research and academic center at Lake Nona. The $53 million, 106,000-square-foot building includes the Orlando campus of the UF pharmacy college and centers that house research into aging and new drug treatments. It is part of a Medical City development that includes new children's and veterans hospitals, research institutes and the University of Central Florida's health sciences campus.
REITZ UNION TO BE EXPANDED: UF trustees approved a $2-per-credit-hour building fee increase to help fund the J. Wayne Reitz Union's renovation and expansion. The $75 million project includes a 100,000-square-foot expansion at the site of the union's colonnade and a 75,000-square-foot renovation to the existing union. It is expected to be completed by summer 2015.
UF EXPANDS ONLINE: UF announced that it was partnering with the online education company Coursera to provide free online courses. UF also is expanding paid online programs as the state considers whether to establish an online-only university or take other steps to expand online offerings.
FACULTY RAISES: UF increased faculty salaries by 3 percent to offset the state's new requirement that public employees contribute the same amount toward their retirement plans. The university also is ending the practice of paying departing employees for unused sick leave.
LABORATORY SAFETY: A laboratory explosion caused chemical burns on a graduate student's face and other injuries. Work was suspended in the lab, which also was the site of an explosion the previous year that injured another grad student.
ASIAN ART WING: The Harn Museum of Art dedicated its new Cofrin Asian Art Wing. The 26,000-square-foot addition tripled the amount of space the museum dedicates to Asian art.
4 AT UF AMONG TOP BUILDINGS: The American Institute of Architects' Florida chapter announced that UF's Baughman Center placed third in online voting for the top buildings in the state. Three other UF buildings made the top 100: The Florida State Museum, Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity house and University Auditorium.
With a high-intensity presidential race and hotly contested local races, the November election season this year was hectic and high-stakes.
The Alachua County Commission solidified a progressive majority in the election, while a Gainesville veterinarian pulled off a surprising upset in his Republican primary against experienced elected officials.
Here are the top election stories from 2012.
YOHO WINS SEAT IN CONGRESS: U.S. Rep.-elect Ted Yoho bested longtime U.S. Rep. Cliff Stearns and former state Sen. Steve Oelrich in the Republican primary election for the congressional seat this year. Yoho beat Stearns by 831 votes. This was the veterinarian's first time running for an elected office.
THREE DEMOCRATS ELECTED: With three Alachua County Commission seats up for grabs this November, some Republicans saw a chance to elect a conservative majority to the traditionally progressive board. But a trio of Democrats — Commissioners Mike Byerly, Charles "Chuck" Chestnut IV and Robert "Hutch" Hutchinson — won their respective races. The Alachua County School Board's District 4 seat was also up for election. Voters elected Leanetta McNealy to the position over incumbent Barbara Sharpe.
NO TO ‘FIX OUR ROADS:' While voters resoundingly approved a continuation of the current one-mill school tax, they defeated the "Fix Our Roads" referendum, which would have levied a 15-year, three-quarters-cent sales surtax to pay for road repairs throughout Alachua County. The Gainesville City Commission opposed the initiative. Joining the roads tax in defeat was a Gainesville annexation referendum, which voters of the unincorporated portion of Precinct 40 rejected with about 90 percent opposition.
FIRST LADY PAYS A VISIT: Michelle Obama visited Gainesville in September during the campaign season. She gave a speech at the University of Florida's O'Connell Center to a crowd of about 10,750 and also visited Girls Place, which offers programs for economically disadvantaged girls. Ann Romney, wife of Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney, also visited the area. She stopped by David's Real Pit BBQ's east Gainesville location in October. A crowd of between 175 and 200 waited outside for the chance to see Romney.
LEGISLATIVE RACES: The 32-year streak of having an Alachua County resident in the Florida Senate ended. Under newly drawn district maps, Clay County Republican Rob Bradley was elected to District 7.
In the House, Gainesville Republican Keith Perry won a second term. Perry defeated Democrat Andrew Morey in a race for the newly redrawn District 21. Former Alachua City Manager Clovis Watson Jr. won the District 20 race.
TURMOIL IN MARION SHERIFF'S RACE: The controversy and dispute over the Marion County sheriff's race stretched to Gainesville.
Bill Cervone took over the investigation into the sheriff's race between Republicans Dan Kuhn and Sheriff-elect Chris Blair after Brad King, the state attorney in Ocala, recused himself. King said he sought to avoid a conflict of interest because of his professional relationship with Kuhn and Blair when the candidates were higher-ups at the Sheriff's Office.
HINSON-RAWLS, POE ELECTED: In the spring 2012 election, Lauren Poe and Yvonne Hinson-Rawls were elected to the City Commission. For Poe, this was the second time around. He had previously served from 2008 to 2011 before losing a re-election bid. For Hinson-Rawls, this was her first time holding elected office.
They succeeded Jeanna Mastrodicasa and Scherwin Henry, who had both hit term limits.
CARNAGE ON INTERSTATE 75: Eleven people died in a string of fiery crashes on Jan. 29 involving about 20 vehicles on Interstate 75 near Gainesville, after smoke from a brush fire on Paynes Prairie combined with fog to reduce visibility to near zero.
Some witnesses described hitting a wall of smoke so thick they could not see the car in front of them, and then hearing collisions and the screams of the trapped and dying.
After the accidents, a Florida Department of Law Enforcement investigation faulted FHP actions and policies in the decision to close and then reopen I-75 before the Jan. 29 crashes, and made several recommendations.
In its own report, the FHP blamed the drivers for the crashes and not its own actions.
In August, 11 notices of lawsuits were sent out from attorneys based in Gainesville, other Florida cities and Georgia who are representing people injured in the crashes and relatives of those killed.
In October, the Florida Department of Transportation said it would spend $3 million to erect on I-75's stretch across the prairie Intelligent Transportation System devices with message signs and full camera coverage, as well as infrared type cameras.
BIKER DIES IN HIT AND RUN: Rebecca Harris, 20, died on July 11 at Shands at the University of Florida, succumbing to injuries from a June 23 hit-and-run accident in which she was struck while crossing Southwest 16th Avenue on her bicycle.
Jessica Paige Becerra, a 22-year-old UF alumna, was arrested in connection with the accident, and the State Attorney's Office upgraded the charges against her as a result of Harris' death.
Becerra is accused of striking Harris just before 1 a.m. on June 23 as Harris was in the crosswalk on a bicycle on Southwest 16th Avenue near Archer Road, according to police. Harris was crossing Southwest 16th Avenue going north in the crosswalk when she was struck by a "white sedan-type vehicle," which didn't stop, police reported.
Police were unable to locate Jessica Paige Becerra in Gainesville and eventually obtained an arrest warrant, and Becerra turned herself in.
ARREST IN HAILE RAPE: Authorities cracked one of the most notorious unsolved crimes in recent memory with the arrest of a man they say committed a vicious sexual attack on a female jogger in Haile Plantation in 2008.
Andrew Payne Jr., 38, was arrested in Willacoochee, Ga., east of Tifton, around 10 a.m. on July 17 by a posse of law enforcement officers.
On May 21, 2008, a woman jogging on a trail near the intersection of Southwest 46th Boulevard and 94th Street, near the entrance to the Indigo Square neighborhood in Haile Plantation, was surprised by an armed man at about 6:30 a.m.
Investigators say the man grabbed and beat her, sexually battered her and escaped before another person heard her screams for help.
Alachua County Sheriff Sadie Darnell said the big break in the case came when the FDLE crime lab sent a report on DNA evidence obtained at the crime scene. The case was helped by advances in DNA technology over the past four years.
UF STUDENT KILLED, FRIEND CHARGED: The search for missing UF student Christian Aguilar started small, on the side of a rural road in Gainesville, north of U.S. 441. His family trudged through dirt paths and called his name.
Then it got bigger. Friends of Aguilar's came from South Florida on buses, and media trucks came with them.
A onetime friend turned rival, Pedro Bravo, was charged with murder.
According to a police report, he changed his story three times. He told police he beat Aguilar for 15 minutes and left him on the side of the road in the final version. Information trickled out, and the search continued.
Eventually, police announced Bravo's murder charge even though no body had been found. The rescue turned to a recovery. Two hunters found Aguilar's body on Oct. 12 in the woods of Levy County. Bravo pleaded not guilty to the charges.
AFTER 20 YEARS, COLD CASE SOLVED: A DNA match between a hair and a mouth swab led authorities to believe they solved the 20-year-old murder case of Elizabeth Foster, whose body was found in the woods near a former U.S. 441 restaurant in south Gainesville in 1992.
The Sheriff's Office has said that Paul Eugene Rowles, 64, who is imprisoned in Miami, sexually battered and killed Foster.
Lt. Todd Kelly said a swab of evidence taken from Foster was resubmitted for DNA analysis, and it was found to match a hair that had been taken from Rowles in a different case.
CONVICTION IN JEARICKA'S DEATH: On Oct. 5, a jury found Dontavious Copeland guilty of first-degree murder in the shooting death of Jearicka Mack after deliberating for a little more than an hour.
A judge sent the 18-year-old to prison for life with a mandatory sentence of 25 years.
Jearicka was shot in May 2011 outside a birthday party at the Lion's Club on North Main Terrace in Gainesville. The Gainesville Police Department said Jearicka was an innocent bystander outside the club after the party ended when fights broke out between rival gang members.
MOTOCROSS DEATH AT GATORBACK: One racer died and many were injured at the Thor Winter Olympics, an annual motocross event held at Gatorback Cycle Park in Alachua.
This year, the amateur motocross event — also known as the Mini Olympics, or Mini O's — was marred by tragedy when 16-year-old racer Jantz Grodzicki, of San Diego, was taken off life support at Shands after he suffered a severed spine and head injuries in a Nov. 23 crash at the competition.
Although Grodzicki was the only participant who died, many other riders were taken to the hospital with severe injuries.
Dr. Mark Scarborough, a 21-year veteran with Shands, said 26 people between the ages of 8 and 25 were treated at local hospitals for injuries they suffered at the Winter Olympics. Twenty-three of those patients were 20 years old or younger, Scarborough said.
The issue of water
Water — the lack of it, too much of it, the use of it, the cleanness of it — was much on the minds of residents of North Central Florida in 2012.
A DROUGHT TO START 2012: The year began with an ongoing scarcity of water. Aquifer levels were low throughout much of the region in part because of drought dating to 2011 and in part because more water is being pumped out for drinking, cooking, bathing, watering lawns and watering crops.
Groundwater levels also were declining.
Megan Wetherington, a senior engineer with the Suwannee River Water Management District, said in April that the annual flow along the Santa Fe River was the lowest of any year-long span since data first were collected in 1927.
Lakes in the Interlachen and Keystone Heights areas, once popular recreation spots, had little, if any, water.
Both the Suwannee River and St. Johns River water management districts had watering restrictions in place.
A DELUGE FROM DEBBY: In midyear, Tropical Storms Beryl and Debby paid a visit. Debby, in particular, stayed a while and deluged the region with relentless rain, leaving much of downtown Live Oak under water.
30-FOOT RISE IN TWO DAYS: The Suwannee River at White Springs rose an astonishing 30 feet in about two days because of Debby. Widespread flooding swamped low-lying homes and land in parts of Suwannee and Columbia counties, including an area along the Santa Fe River floodplain near High Springs.
Some residents were stranded for weeks, unable to get to their homes or forced to use canoes and kayaks. Water damage to homes required interior walls and floors to be gutted.
For those not flooded, the water was welcome in that it replenished rivers, lakes and — in some areas — the aquifer. But experts said that it might not have a lasting impact if another drought occurs.
Experts also have said increased consumption, including municipal pumping in Jacksonville, is sucking water out of the aquifer in North Central Florida and causing some springs to dry up. The two districts are now jointly working to study the issue.
CUT IN FUNDING: But the water management districts have had their budgets slashed by the Florida Legislature, which could in turn mean less money for research.
Districts have been examining ways to cope with the cuts, including the possible sale of some of the land they purchased for conservation of water quality and flood control.
ADENA RANCH: In Marion County, the debate over water use by a proposed cattle operation, Adena Ranch, spurred a major controversy when it initially sought a permit to use as much as 13.3 million gallons of water daily for its irrigation operation. It later cut that request to 5.3 million gallons a day.
Environmentalists and residents near the farm said the withdrawal of so much water would hurt the flow of nearby Silver Springs, which already was suffering from low flow from the drought and existing water use.
A decision on the permit has not been made.
In Gainesville's medical community, expansion was the theme of several of the biggest stories of 2012:
NORTH FLORIDA REGIONAL EXPANDS: North Florida Regional Medical Center is scheduled to wrap up the $62 million expansion of a new wing that began in 2009 next summer. The four-story addition will include a new neonatal intensive care unit, a neuroscience wing and an expansion of cardiovascular services, and add 92 patient beds.
ADDICTION RECOVERY CENTER OPENS: The UF&Shands Florida Recovery Center opened a new addiction recovery center in July in the former Marriott Residence Inn on Southwest 13th Street. The center houses accommodations for 120 people, family and group therapy sessions, and 12-step education and outpatient services for recovering individuals enrolled in programs for addiction and eating disorders.
WORK TOWARD CHILDREN'S HOSPITAL: University of Florida officials announced that the new entrance and lobby to the Shands Hospital for Children will feature a two-story atrium. The project will cost $8 million to $9 million and is the latest step in the transformation of the east end of Shands into a pediatric center. Shands plans to spend about $100 million over the next several years to more fully develop the children's hospital.
SEVEN SHANDS SPECIALTIES CITED: Shands Hospital for Children received high marks in a number of specialties from U.S. News & World Report magazine. Shands ranked 13th in diabetes and endocrinology, 24th in cardiology and heart surgery, 26th in gastroenterology, 27th in nephrology, 31st in pulmonology, 33rd in neonatology, and 49th in neurology and neurosurgery.
SHANDS FAMILY MEDICINE AT MAIN STREET OPENS: A new, $8.2 million UF&Shands Family Medicine at Main medical facility opened in June, giving residents in east Gainesville an option for primary care and many other services. The facility provides services in adult and pediatric comprehensive care, orthopedics and sports medicine, dermatology, podiatry, OB/GYN services, prenatal care and ultrasounds, social services, lab tests, stress tests and X-rays.
TRANSPLANT PROGRAM REINSTATED: The pancreas transplant program at Shands at the University of Florida reopened in October, after a 14-month closure that was prompted in August 2011 by three surgeons leaving unexpectedly. Two new surgeons joined the faculty this summer, and the United Network for Organ Sharing approved the program's reactivation on Oct. 22.
MENINGITIS IN MARION COUNTY: Twenty-two patients in Florida contracted fungal meningitis from tainted drugs from the New England Compounding Center in Massachusetts, in a nationwide contamination scandal involving 308 patients in 17 states. Fifteen of Florida's patients were in Marion County, three of whom died.
The Florida Department of Health advised all 1,038 Florida patients who received shots of tainted methylprednisolone acetate to get a checkup six weeks after injection.
FAMILY MEDICINE AT JONESVILLE OPENS: Shands at the University of Florida opened a new primary medicine clinic in Jonesville on Nov. 1. It offers comprehensive care for patients ages 5 and older, health maintenance checkups, preventive health care counseling, immunizations, sports physicals and women's care. The team also can perform minor surgical procedures such as skin biopsies and lesion removals.
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