2015’s top stories in Delaware State News

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See video of day-by-day look at 2015 front pages of the Delaware State News.

DOVER — It seems next to impossible to identify a theme for today’s year-in-review column.

One day, Delawareans were laughing or cheering.

The next, grieving or shaking heads in disbelief.

Who could forget the dancing, lip-syncing Dover Police officer whose “Shake It Off” performance was a YouTube sensation?

Or this “unprecedented” year of violence in the state capital?

Sir Paul McCartney came to Delaware for the first time, entertaining aging hippies and engaging young hipsters.

In politics, Delawareans mourned the loss of Beau Biden and wondered whether his father, Joe, would make a run for president.

As the final days of the year tick down, the trial of a police officer dominated headlines.

We read about the horrors of terrorism in Paris. Then we found out how divided our state and nation was over the issue of refugees.

And, as has always been the case in Delaware, we talked a lot about the weather.

How wonderful and warm it has been in recent weeks. Have we already forgotten how cold it was back in February and how we had a good laugh with a headline — “Will-brrrr” — above a photograph of a horse at snow-covered farm?

At Dover Air Force Base, the year ended on a somber note with the mortuary receiving six fallen heroes.

So how will you remember 2015?

Not ranked, here are 15 of the most memorable headlines and storylines in the Delaware State News:

Violence in Dover

Lt. Jason Pires, at the scene of a May 15 shooting in Capital Green, described the amount of violent crime in the city as “unprecedented.” That day’s shooting marked the third homicides in 18 days.

fatal by . City police have investigated a record seven homicides, and state police responded to a reported home invasion that left two people shot to death and another wounded in a development just outside the city limits.

On Nov. 10, city police said arrests had been made in five of seven homicides investigated.

Chief of Police Paul Bernat said the drug trade was a significant factor.
On May 18, Dover Police re-activated its Street Crimes Unit designed to take a proactive approach to all infractions within city limits.

In late August, tensions ran high in a downtown Dover community after a young man fleeing from police was shot by an officer. Terrance B. Fletcher Jr., who sustained gunshot wounds, pleaded guilty earlier this month to a charge of carrying a concealed deadly weapon.

Officer on trial

December’s front pages were dominated by the trial of Cpl. Thomas Webster, a Dover police officer facing charges of assault.

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The story started in the summer of 2013 when Cpl. Webster was responding to a fight at a U.S. 13 gas station. In the course of apprehending a man running from the scene, he kicked the man in the jaw and knocked him unconscious.
Charges against the man, Lateef Dickerson, were dropped. But the matter wasn’t.

On his behalf, the American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit. The ACLU obtained dash-mounted camera footage of the incident.

After a second grand jury review, this time under new attorney general Matt Denn, Cpl. Webster was indicted on assault charges. The video, meanwhile, was released by Dover Police for the public to review after a federal judge said it was not confidential.

Cpl. Webster turned down a plea offer and went to trial in early December. He testified he intended to kick Dickerson in the upper body, not the head.

On Dec. 9, the jury returned a verdict of not guilty.

The week of the trial, the Delaware State News learned the lawsuit had been settled. A full accounting of the settlement has not been shared, but the city has acknowledged $15,000 in costs not covered by its insurer.

Cpl. Webster’s return to active duty currently is being reviewed. He will receive back pay for the time he missed since his suspension in May.

Dickerson never was called to the trial. Middletown Police have issued warrants against him for burglaries and failure to re-register as sex offender. In February, he is scheduled to be tried on gun-related burglary and theft charges in Maryland.

In memory of Beau

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Vice President Joe Biden embraces President Barack Obama at the funeral mass for Beau Biden in Wilmington. Associated Press photo.

“It is­ with broken hearts that Hallie, Hunter, Ashley, Jill and I announce the passing of our husband, brother and son, Beau, after he battled brain cancer with the same integrity, courage and strength he demonstrated every day of his life,” Vice President Joe Biden said in a statement on May 30.Mr. Biden, a Democrat who had planned to pursue the governor’s office in 2016, died at the age of 46.

In an unprecedented event, there was a public viewing for Mr. Biden at Legislative Hall in Dover. Hundreds of people waited in lines that wrapped around Legislative Hall for a chance to pay their respects.

Col. Ed Brandt, a chaplain with the Delaware National Guard, offered a prayer. “As we walk through the valley darkened by the shadows of death, comfort us. And during this time of grief, while there is the temptation to focus on the bookends of tragedy in Beau’s life, help us instead read the volumes of victories and the tales of triumph of a life well lived,” he said.
The bookends referenced were Mr. Biden ’s death and the 1972 car crash that killed his mother and sister.

President Barack Obama delivered the eulogy at a memorial Mass celebrated in Wilmington.

Mr. Biden’s decision not to return as attorney general prompted Mr. Denn to run for the open seat in 2014, leaving the lieutenant governor’s office vacant.

Congressman John Carney, D-Delaware, announced in September he would run for governor.

“I had intended to support Beau Biden as our state’s next governor and continue my work in Congress,” said Rep. Carney.

“Beau knew there are big challenges facing our state — and he would have been the man to meet them. Like so many across our state, I wish he’d had that chance.”

VP Biden’s window closes

For months after Beau’s death, the nation wondered if Vice President Biden would run for president as he worked through the grieving process.

biden out by . As summer waned, Vice President Biden’s advisers were said to be seriously weighing the campaign. Finally, in late October, the indecision came to an end with an announcement in the White House Rose Garden with President Obama and his wife, Jill Biden, at his side.

“As my family and I have worked through the grieving process, I’ve said all along what I’ve said time and again to others, that it may very well be that the process, by the time we get through it, closes the window on mounting a realistic campaign for president — that it might close,” the vice president said. “I’ve concluded it has closed.”

In his remarks, he said he and President Obama would press for cancer research and finding a cure.

“If I could be anything, I would want it to be the president that ended cancer, because it’s possible,” Vice President Biden said.

The decision means his political career, which started at the age of 29, is coming to an end.

Vice President Biden is now 72.

Refugees welcome here?

In the days following the acts of terrorism that killed 129 people in Paris, a national debate ensued over the acceptance of Syrian refugees.

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Governors, all but one Republicans, from several states called on President Obama to no longer allow Syrian refugees to enter the country. One suspect in the Paris attacks was believed to be a Syrian refugee who entered France through Greece under a fake name.

It is a debate over America’s “duty” to provide asylum vs. America’s responsibility to protect its own people.

Delaware Gov. Jack Markell agreed with President Obama.

“The United States has always been a welcoming nation,” Gov. Markell said. “We have always been compassionate and kind to those facing danger and injustice, and in our diversity we have found great strength.”

His comments were made in a social media post that immediately drew strong reactions. There were about 1,200 shares, 1,700 likes and 2,500 comments in the first 14 hours on Facebook.

Sir Paul plays to 90,000

Sir Paul McCartney, visiting Delaware for the first time, played before 90,000 fans at the four-day Firefly Music Festival in Dover in June.

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Opening his show with the song, “Birthday,” he had celebrated his 73rd the night before. “Hello, Firefly. We’re going to have a bit of a party tonight.”

The next night, a severe storm swept through Kent County, shutting down the concerts and forcing campers to evacuate from the Woodlands at Dover International Speedway.

A few days after Firefly ended, about 30,000 country music fans took over those same Woodlands for the Big Barrel Festival. Stars included Merle Haggard, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Loretta Lynn, Carrie Underwood and Miranda Lambert.

In August, the Delaware Junction country music festival attracted 20,000 fans to the Delaware State Fairgrounds in Harrington. Headliners included Jason Aldean, Toby Keith and Florida-Georgia Line.

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Ben Knapp with his father, Chip, at the graduation practice at Dover High. Photo by Gary Emeigh

Never give up

Ben Knapp got a rousing applause from the packed house as he crossed the stage in a wheelchair at Dover High’s first graduation ceremony in its new school gymnasium in June.

Asked how it felt to get his diploma, Mr. Knapp — through a series of hand squeezes and mouth movements — said, “Freakin’ amazing.”

In October 2011, Mr. Knapp suffered a traumatic brain injury that left him blind and unable to speak.

He and his family and friends adopted a mantra, “Never give up five minutes before the miracle.”

Coach’s arrest

In January, Richard L. “Dickie” Howell II — a Caesar Rodney teacher and wrestling coach who led the Riders to eight state championships — was arrested on charges he had sexual contact with a 17-year-old female student at school and his home.

Mr. Howell, 51, has pleaded not guilty to first-degree sexual abuse of a child in a position of trust, authority or supervision (43 counts) and sexual solicitation of a child (seven counts), and now has a final case review scheduled for Jan. 12 and a trial to begin a week later.

In an analysis of the issue of teacher-student sex, the Delaware State News interviewed Terry Abbott, a former United States Department of Education chief of staff. Mr. Abbott said he had reviewed national media reports and found 781 reported cases of school employees accused/charged or convicted/sentenced for inappropriate relationships with students in 2014.

Delaware was ranked No. 14 per capita with three 2014 arrests.

“I knew there was a problem, but was stunned by the extent of the problem,” he said. “That was the same reaction of educators I’ve talked to. When we learn that we have an average of 15 cases a week we know we have a crisis on our hands and have to deal with it.

“All school leaders I know realize that it happens from time to time, but don’t typically look around to see how much it’s happening around the nation.”

Cold, miserable winter

The year’s first snow storm offered merely an inch on Jan. 7. The last was on March 5 when winter’s final fury dumped about five inches of snow in the Dover area.

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Overall, Kent County’s total snowfall amounted to about 18 to 20 inches.

But my, oh, my, was it cold at times. It was so cold the tugboats had to bust up ice in the Delaware Bay. The ocean was slushy and the beaches littered with large chunks of ice.

In mid-February, we were faced with record-low temperatures dipping below zero.

The National Weather Service said Georgetown was 7.2 degrees below normal for the first 17 days of February.

In late February, Delawareans grew weary.

“It seems like every other week it’s snowing,” said Merle Murrain, of Dover. “I can’t wait until it warms up. I’m tired of my car slipping in the snow and worrying about black ice as I drive to work in the morning.”

Road to progress

Delaware lawmakers, on the final night of the General Assembly, made moves to send another $55 million annually for six years to the state’s Transportation Trust Fund. Before the new revenue was approved, DelDOT risked watching $780 million in projects over its six-year plan go unfunded, said Secretary Jennifer Cohan.

Much of the new revenue comes from House Bill 140, which increased 14 Division of Motor Vehicles fees.

Ground was broken for the long-awaited West Dover Connector in February. The 3.6-mile road, expected to open in May 2017, will connect Eden Hill to U.S. 13 in the Rodney Village area.

In November, ground was broken on the $40 million Del. 1 project at Little Heaven.

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The dignified transfer ceremony in New Castle. Photo by Gary Emeigh

Reminder of war

Just days before Christmas, the Dover area was given another reminder of the cost of war when a Dover-based C-17 returned the remains of six airmen killed in a terrorist attack in Afghanistan.

With potential for bad weather in Dover, the C-17 landed at the Delaware Air National Guard runway in New Castle where dignified transfer ceremonies were observed by U.S. Secretary of the Air Force Deborah Lee James and U.S. Defense Secretary Ashton Carter.

Dover is home to the country’s only military mortuary.

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‘Shake It Off’

Master Cpl. Jeff Davis of the Dover Police Department hit the big time with his dance moves and lip-syncing of Taylor Swift’s “Shake It Off” in a YouTube video that went viral.

It racked up more than 19 million views in just four days.

His moves, captured by a dashcam in the police cruiser, earned him a spot among the top 15 videos of the year on YouTube.

On Twitter, Ms. Swift tweeted, “LOLOLOLOL THE SASS.”

 

 

Eagles flying high

The Smyrna Eagles became just the eighth Henlopen Conference team to win the Division I high school football championship, knocking off Salesianum 32-26 in overtime.

Salesianum, the highly regarded private upstate powerhouse, was seeking its eighth state championship.

“There isn’t a word to describe it in the world,” said Smyrna senior Jeff Campbell. “I can’t even begin to explain how proud I am of these guys. It probably won’t sink in until 10 years from now — how amazing this was.”

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Horse of year

The best standardbred race horse in the country was trained right here in Kent County.

Harrington-based 3-year-old gelding Wiggle It Jiggleit, a winner of more than $2.1 million in 2015, was named the Dan Patch Award Horse of the Year by the U.S. Harness Writers Association.

Among the pacer’s 22 wins was the Little Brown Jug in Delaware, Ohio, which requires two demanding back-to-back wins.

“He’s just been an incredible horse,” said owner George Teague Jr. “I don’t know of too many horses that can start racing in January when there’s snow on the ground and go almost to December and still be this good and competitive. He’s a rarity.”

One of Wiggle It Jiggleit’s few losses was to Wakizashi Hanover in Canada’s million-dollar North America Cup. Wakizashi Hanover was trained by Joann Looney-King in Harrington.

Economic progress

Fall ribbon-cuttings exemplified another year of economic progress in Kent County.

On Sept. 25, German flooring manufacturer Uzin Utz toasted the opening of its plant in the Garrison Oak Technology Park in Dover.

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That same day, a laser was used to uniquely cut the ribbon at Delaware State University’s Optical Science Center for Applied Research. The OSCAR building, recognizable from U.S. 13 for its prism shape and reflective sides, already is home to research for NASA, the military and others.

On Oct. 1, the Garrison Energy Center was dedicated in Dover by the Calpine company. The natural gas-fired electricity producer was up and running in June.

At Dover Air Force Base, 436th Airlift Wing Commander Col. Michael W. Grismer Jr. announced in January it would replace its 75-year-old Runway 01-19 — a takeoff and landing strip for C-5 cargo planes for decades. The new runway, still under construction, has a price tag of $98.3 million.

In February, Bayhealth cut the ribbon on a 32-private-room Progressive Care Unit at Kent General Hospital.

On the retail side, the former Wal-Mart property in North Dover is under renovation. Stores will include Ross Dress for Less, Petco, Ulta Beauty and more.

The long-awaited Kent County Regional Sports Complex plans were finalized this year. Now dubbed “DE Turf,” the multi-field complex near Frederica will be built in 2016 with a goal of first events for soccer, lacrosse and field hockey in spring 2017.

Work is nearing completion on the new Kent County Recreation Center on New Burton Road south of Dover. The center, which will share a roof with the Boys and Girls Club, is expected to open in February.

Read more notable Delaware State News headlines from 2015.

Reach editor Andrew West at awest@newszap.com

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