2017: Prison uprising dominated Delaware State News front pages

The name of slain correctional officer Lt. Steven R. Floyd Sr. was added to the Law Enforcement Memorial on Legislative Hall in Dover. Photo by Andrew West, Delaware State News

DOVER — The name and face we will remember most belong to Lt. Steven R. Floyd Sr.

He was the correctional officer killed in the inmate violence and hostage situation Feb. 1-2 at the James T. Vaughn Correctional Center.

The prison uprising tops this editor’s list of top stories for 2017. From Feb. 2 through the end of this year, stories related to the February prison incidents dominated the front pages of the Delaware State News.

The siege lasted 19 hours, finally ending about 5 a.m. Feb. 2 after a backhoe was used to break through a barricade of water-filled lockers in Building C of the prison. Once inside, tactical officers found Lt. Floyd dead from trauma.
Two other officers who had been severely beaten had been released by the inmates earlier.

The tactical team whisked away a Department of Correction counselor, Patricia May, who we later learned had been protected by some of the inmates during the hostage situation.

“After a torturous ordeal that went through the night, we learned of Sgt. Floyd’s demise,” Gov. John Carney told the media that day. “My prayers all day yesterday were that this event would end with a different result. But it didn’t. So today we mourn with the family of Sgt. Floyd.”

Lt. Floyd, a 16-year veteran of the department who was posthumously promoted, was called a hero for alerting other officers as he was taken hostage.

In reports of later investigations, we learned that Lt. Floyd had made specific requests that some inmates needed to be moved from Building C. Names of those inmates have not been made public.

We can only surmise that some of them may be among the 16 inmates who were indicted on murder charges in October — more than eight months after the incident. Those 16, along with two others, also face kidnapping charges.

Just a few weeks ago, we learned that the state had reached a $7.55 million legal settlement with the family and estate of Lt. Floyd, and six Department of Correction employees who had been trapped in the prison during the uprising.

“The whole (Correctional Officers Association of Delaware) wishes them well and hopes that the settlement brings them some measure of peace and closure,” said union president Geoff Klopp.

However, he said the state still has challenges ahead in solving problems in the prison system.

Chief among them is understaffing that strains correctional officers and costs the state millions in overtime annually. In early November, Mr. Klopp estimated the department had more than 265 vacancies.

In May, the state auditor’s office reported that the prison employees received $22 million in overtime pay in fiscal year 2016, and were on track to do so again in 2017.

In the aftermath of the uprising, state lawmakers and Gov. Carney authorized 50 new positions at Vaughn, and investments in $2 million in new cameras and $1.3 million in new equipment.

The state also agreed to raise starting pay to $40,000 this fiscal year, and to $43,000 in Fiscal Year 2019, to boost recruiting efforts.

The rest of the year’s top 10 stories:

Delaware’s budget madness

A cold, rainy inauguration day may have been an omen of things to come for Gov. Carney.

On the steps of Legislative Hall, a crowd huddled under umbrellas to watch him take the oath.

“Is it raining out? I feel the sun shining in my heart,” said Gov. Carney.

Even so, he talked about the challenges the state faced.

When the year started, we thought the biggest statewide story would be the $350 million budget shortfall. A week prior to Gov. Carney’s inauguration, outgoing Delaware Gov. Jack Markell recommended a budget that included $212 million in revenues from new fees and tax increases.

“The hardest truth may be that we can’t do anything else unless we get our state’s finances under control,” said Gov. Carney in his inauguration speech. “We have a revenue problem; but we also have a spending problem. … We are at the end of the road on this one. There’s nowhere else to kick the can.”

Gov. Carney spent much of the first half of the year at town halls, discussing the need for Delawareans to embrace a “shared sacrifice.”

Delaware lawmakers could not agree on what those “sacrifices” – cuts, and/or new taxes and fees should be.

In the final week of the session, it was announced that nonprofit grants would have to be axed. Political drama ensued late on June 29 when House Democrats rolled out a bill that would link income tax increases to the grant-in-aid bill for nonprofits.

House Minority Leader Danny Short, R-Seaford, called the action a “sham” and led a Republican walkout.

The wrangling in the final month centered on two things, the Democrats’ desire to pass an income tax increase and the Republicans’ call for reform of the prevailing wage law.

The legislators failed, for the first time, to pass a budget by July 1. They had to come back in on Sunday, July 2, to work out a compromise.

A deal was reached to finalize a $4.11 billion budget. It included $37.2 million for grants to nonprofits, 80 percent of what was in the year prior’s spending. And legislators agreed to raise taxes on alcohol, tobacco and home sales that were projected to net $66 million in new revenues.

Trooper killed

Delaware State Police Cpl. Stephen J. Ballard, 32, of Milford, was shot multiple times and killed April 26 in the parking lot of a Wawa on Pulaski Highway in Bear.

The trooper was approaching a suspicious vehicle in the lot when the gunfire started.

“The actions exemplified the dedication that he brought … on a daily basis,” said Delaware State Police Superintendent Col. Nathaniel McQueen. “He was doing what he’s asked to do every day.”

The shooter, Burgon Sealy Jr., fled the convenience store and holed up inside his Middletown home. He repeatedly fired at police in a 20-hour standoff. Sealy was shot and killed as he exited his home and engaged police.

Death penalty back on table

Discussion of reinstating the death penalty became a hot topic in the legislature following the deaths of Lt. Floyd and Cpl. Ballard.

Two weeks after Cpl. Ballard’s death, the House of Representatives voted 24-16 to reinstate the death penalty.

House Bill 125 would restore capital punishment after the Delaware Supreme Court struck down the state’s death penalty statute in August 2016. Because the provision allowed a judge to make the final decision as to whether the convicted individual would be sentenced to death or not, the court concluded it violated the Sixth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which guarantees a trial by jury.

The new bill uses many of the same procedures as the old statute but requires unanimous jury agreement for a sentence of death.

The Senate did not act on the legislation in the spring, but the bill awaits action in a Senate committee when lawmakers return to work in January.

Coastal Zone Act

With economic development in mind, lawmakers agreed to Gov. Carney’s recommendation to alter former Delaware Gov. Russell Peterson’s landmark Coastal Zone Act.

The 1971 act prohibited industrial development along the Delaware River.

Despite objections from environmentalists, legislators voted to grant some exemptions for the 14 sites in the coastal zone, and allow the Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control to issue permits for other industries and bulk transfer facilities at the locations.

“It’s been a long 50 years, and the activists who originally fought for the act, many still active in the ‘90s, have now mostly retired or passed on,” said Alan Muller of Green Delaware. “To most living Delawareans, the act is history, its benefits perhaps taken for granted, and the need to fight for it less than obvious.”

West Dover Connector

The need for a West Dover bypass has been discussed for nearly 50 years.

In September 2017, it finally became a reality.

Now known as the POW-MIA Parkway, it will ease the commute of people passing from U.S. 13 in Camden to Eden Hill in West Dover.

In September, antique military vehicles led a parade of cars down the newly-opened $68 million roadway.

“This is years and years in the making,” Secretary of Transportation Jennifer Cohan said.

“It’s pretty rare that, from a transportation standpoint, that you open up a new road and new alignment.”

DE Turf kickoff

Athletes from across the region have been enjoying competitive soccer, lacrosse and field hockey action this year at DE Turf, a $24 million sports complex south of Frederica.

The facility — which grew out of 2008 brainstorming between tourism officials, leaders of the Greater Kent Committee and Kent County Levy Court — is a sports tourism initiative designed to fill local hotels and boost the economy.

DE Turf hosted its first tournament, the Shooting Star Easter Tournament with 84 field hockey teams, in April.

“When we put out the feasibility study before we started construction on DE Turf, all of the information we received estimated that in our first year we would have around 10 tournaments and generate about $18 million in economic impact,” said Chris Giacomucci, executive director for DE Turf, in November. “They also mentioned it would be a challenge to fill up our 2018 events calendar.

“Well, we have hosted 20 events this year and have about 25 already scheduled for 2018, when we’re planning for 30 events.”

Schwartz closing

“Curtain falls on Schwartz Center” was the lead headline in the June 9 edition.

Tracey Miller, president of the nonprofit board that operated the theater, announced the historic Dover venue would close.

“While ticket sales have increased significantly, overall revenue has not been enough to sustain the business,” she said. “With looming cuts to art and education funding within the state and the overwhelming cost of overhead on the building we are forced to close the theater.

“The theater has done well this last year but has run out of money and time.”

Its final act was the June 11 premiere of “Jason’s Letter” which was filmed in Dover. Actress Vivica A. Fox was among the stars on the red carpet.

Discussions on how to revive the 550-seat Schwartz Center for the Arts will continue in 2018.

The theater is owned by Wesley College and Delaware State University.

Transgenders in schools

In early November, controversy erupted after draft regulations dealing with transgender students in Delaware’s schools were released.

In particular, many parents were outraged by language in the proposed regulations that would allow a student to identify as a different gender or race, possibly without parental consent.

Also, it would allow any student in a public school to go by a preferred name, and require schools to accommodate all students in regard to bathroom and locker room use.

“Let me be clear no one should be so open-minded that you willingly give your parental rights to government. Where would it end?” parent Sharon Chrzanowski told the Indian River School District board of education. “This is not a hate or a gay and lesbian issue.

“How can a school employee decide if a parent is supportive enough if a child is cross-dressing? This sets a very dangerous precedent for more rights to be taken from parents.”

Delaware Secretary of Education Susan Bunting will weigh public feedback before deciding on the regulations.

All shook up

Delaware shook up the East Coast from North Carolina to New York on Nov. 30.

An earthquake, centered just north of Little Creek, had a magnitude of 4.1. It was Kent County’s first quake since 1879.

The mayor of Little Creek, Glenn Gauvry, said it knocked him from his couch.

“My parrot fell off his perch,” he said.


More 2017 newsmakers

Other big stories from 2017 in the Delaware State News:

•South of Milford, the Bayhealth Sussex Campus continues to take shape.
The $300 million project features a six-story hospital on the 169-acre campus to open in 2019. In July, a “topping off” ceremony celebrated the placement of the final beam for the six-story hospital.

In March, Bayhealth announced it already had a buyer, Nationwide Healthcare Services, for the grounds that currently house Bayhealth Milford Memorial on Clarke Avenue.

•The most viewed story of the year at www.delawarestatenews.net was the report on skeletal remains found by a Firefly Music Festival fan in a wooded area near the festival site in June. The body was later identified as Linda C. Moore, formerly of Charlotte, N.C. The cause and date of her death have not been revealed.

•The list of notable deaths in 2017 included David P. Buckson, a former governor, lieutenant governor and governor, and founder of Dover Downs; Tom Draper, owner of WBOC; Roger Martin, a longtime state senator and historian; L.D. Shank, a Dover entrepreneur; Lenny Knight, former Dover High band director; Harry Farrow, former mayor of Harrington and owner of the Harrington Journal; and Tubby Raymond, legendary University of Delaware football coach.

•In May, Marvin Mailey was named chief of the Dover Police Department, making him the first African American to hold the position.

•In February, Dover Police patrolman Robert E. DaFonte, 23, and Dover Police cadet James D. Watts were killed in a single-vehicle car crash on Hazlettville Road. The two were not on duty at the time.

•“Thunder Over Dover” brought the U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds back to Dover for their first performances since 2009. More than 60,000 people attended the open house at Dover Air Force Base.

•In January, Isaiah W. McCoy, 29, was found not guilty in the shooting death of James J. Munford during a reported drug deal turned robbery in a Rodney Village area bowling alley in 2010. Mr. McCoy had served over 6 1/2 years in prison and spent time on death row before his original conviction was overturned.

•Legislation to allow a possible private-public partnership to build an access road from Del. 1 to the Dover Mall was approved. The idea, said backers, might draw more shoppers and brighten the future of the shopping center.

•In July, the historic Thomas England House, once a restaurant and formerly known as Candy Manor, was demolished.

•Facing a lawsuit from a television producer injured in a 2016 accident, organizers of Punkin Chunkin canceled the 2017 event.

•In April, “Phil” – a wayward seal that had made an unusual inland trek up the Mispillion River – was rescued from a muddy bog at Killens Pond State Park.

•In sports, Smyrna High School won its third consecutive high school football championship.

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