Impeachment, prison trials top 2019 headlines

DOVER — The Feb. 19 front page of the Delaware State News may be the year’s most memorable.

The headline: “Jury returns no convictions.”

After almost five days of deliberations, a jury returned two full acquittals and two partial acquittals of four inmates charged with perpetrating the February 2017 Vaughn prison riot and hostage situation that resulted in the violent death of corrections officer Lt. Steven Floyd and assaults on other prison staff.

With the mugshots of four inmates on trial and a courtroom sketch, it was the first of the big stories that led up to the state dropping charges and canceling subsequent trials.

This was the second of what was to be multiple trials for 18 inmates charged. Of those, 16 faced murder charges.

In March, the state announced it was dropping charges against six inmates.

In May, another story — headlined “Shankaras acquitted in Vaughn riot” — outlined another loss for the prosecution.

In June, the state said it would drop all remaining charges against the final three inmates who had been indicted.

When all was said and done, only one inmate, Dwayne Staats, was convicted of murder.

After the Shankaras acquittal, Correctional Officers Association of Delaware President Geoff Klopp said the verdict shocked him “beyond belief.”

“Our heart continues to go out to the Floyd family — we’re really starting to get frustrated with the fact that no one is being held accountable for the death of our brother,” he said. “I just don’t understand how this could go so wrong, the only conviction we got was on an inmate who confessed from the stand — that’s unbelievable.”

When the state opted not to go on with the cases in June, the Department of Justice released a statement about the decision.

“On the morning of February 2, 2017, a correctional officer was found dead — tragically and brutally murdered — in a prison building that had been set on fire, flooded, and under the control of inmates for 24 hours,” Department of Justice officials wrote.

“Obtaining a measure of justice for Lt. Steven Floyd meant spending almost two years trying to piece together what happened in the building with no physical, video or audio evidence, using only statements from more than a hundred inmates who were both suspects and witnesses. From the outset, it was always going to be one of the hardest cases for the Delaware State Police to investigate and for the Department of Justice to prove.”

The final chapter of the criminal charges came in September when three inmates, Staats, Jarreau Ayers and Royal Downs, were sentenced in New Castle County Courthouse.

Staats received two life terms for the murder of Lt. Floyd. He received another 153 years for assault, kidnapping and riot.

Ayers, who was acquitted in Lt. Floyd’s death, was sentenced to 123 years for assault, kidnapping and riot.

Downs, the prosecution’s star witness, was sentenced to three years for riot.

Staats, Ayers and Downs were already facing life sentences for earlier crimes.

“February 1, 2017 was the beginning of an unimaginable nightmare that we have yet to awaken from,” said Lt. Floyd’s widow, Saundra, at the sentencings.

To read more details on those cases, visit delawarestatenews.net/tag/vaughn-prison-riot/

The day after the Shankaras acquittal, Delaware Department of Correction Commissioner Perry Phelps announced he would step down, as of July 15. His successor is Claire DeMatteis, who led a special investigation for the governor in 2017.

The ongoing prison story was just one of several issues that kept the Delaware State News staff busy in 2019. In no particular order, here are other memorable stories:

Mystery in Smyrna

An unsettling mystery has been ongoing since the remains of a child were found near the Smyrna youth softball park in mid-September. Police have not been able to identify the child.

In November, the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children released an artist’s rendering of the young girl in hopes that it would produce more leads.

Smyrna Police said that the female child was believed to be Caucasian or Hispanic, likely between ages 2 and 5 and was dead for several weeks or possibly longer when located. The child had slightly wavy hair.

“Our detectives have been in touch with police agencies from across the country comparing active missing child cases to our case,” said Smyrna Police spokesman Brian Donner. “Unfortunately, once the initial work of scene processing etc. is done the case kind of slows down and the work becomes more behind the scenes and tedious and there really isn’t much to release that would be helpful to bringing this case to justice.”

Fire kills 3 children

A Long Neck house fire claimed the lives of three children in early August.

Volunteer firefighters found three children deceased in the rear of the home where most of the fire was located.

A 2-year-old child was removed safely from the burning home by a parent, according to Delaware State Police. That child was taken to the Beebe Medical Center for a medical evaluation and was treated and released.

The gun debates

An April survey from Everytown for Gun Safety Action Fund and Moms Demand Action reported broad support for three controversial gun bills in the Delaware General Assembly. Gun rights advocates, however, put up a fight.

According to the poll, at least 70 percent of respondents supported measures to ban magazines capable of holding more than 15 rounds, create a permitting process to obtain a firearm and prohibit dozens of guns classified as “assault weapons.”

In April, gun control supporters scheduled a news conference to announce a package of three bills, following up on measures approved in 2018. In anticipation of the announcement, opponents planned a counter rally. Individuals, many of them members of the advocacy group Delaware Gun Rights, turned out in a big way.

Opponents outnumbered supporters by a ratio of at least 3-1.

Despite promising he would assign gun bills to a friendly committee, Senate President Pro Tempore David McBride, a New Castle Democrat, ended up playing a major role in the measures dying. Along with Majority Leader Nicole Poore, a New Castle Democrat, he joined the two Republicans on the Senate Executive Committee to block the bills.

“I got a sense that my caucus isn’t interested in doing this. I can tell you that straight up,” he explained in May. “You know, part of my job, I have to read tea leaves around there. And one of the things you do to be successful in this building — you have to learn how to count.”

New Bayhealth era

In February, the doors to the new Bayhealth Hospital, Sussex Campus were opened.

Staff and patients made the move from Milford Memorial Hospital to the $314 million, state-of-the-art medical facility on the just-as-new 169-acre Bayhealth Sussex Campus.

“The aging population in Sussex and Kent counties and the needs they have makes the new campus an investment in the community for generations to come,” he said. “The 169-acre site also provides us with the room to continue growing,” said Bayhealth CEO Terry Murphy.

The new Sussex campus includes a 440,000-square-foot facility with an inpatient tower and ambulatory care center.

April storm

A EF-2 tornado, with maximum wind speeds of 120 mph, ripped through a six-mile area of Western Sussex County during a severe storm in mid-April.

There were seven alarms during the storm, including a residential rescue resulting from a tree falling into a house. There was one injury reported, an adult male who was transported to Nanticoke Memorial Hospital in Seaford with minor injuries.

“We were very, very fortunate in that only one subject was reported injured and transported to Nanticoke Hospital with minor injuries,” said Mike Lowe, assistant chief of the Laurel Fire Department.
The same day, the storm wreaked havoc in Fox Hall, Dover. A huge tree feel on the Boris family home.

“In the middle of the night while we were sleeping it sounded basically like a big bomb went off in my house and I woke up to my son (Josh Jr.) screaming, ‘Dad, help me!’” Josh Boris said. “So, I went to his room to find out his whole wall and ceiling was collapsed in with a tree on it. Then I got everybody out of the house immediately.”

Biden in the news

In what was a long-awaited and not surprising announcement, former Vice President and Delaware U.S. Sen. Joe Biden announced that he was officially seeking the Democratic Party bid in 2020.

“I believe history will look back on four years of this president and all he embraces as an aberrant moment in time,” he said in his announcement video. “But if we give Donald Trump eight years in the White House, he will forever and fundamentally alter the character of this nation, who we are, and I cannot stand by and watch that happen. The core values of this nation, our standing in the world, our very democracy, everything that has made America America is at stake.”

The Trump and Biden names have been in the news frequently in 2019.

President Trump became the subject of impeachment consideration when it was revealed that he prodded Ukraine’s president to help him investigate any corruption related to Vice President Biden.

Trump’s private lawyer Rudy Giuliani has also publicly urged Ukrainian officials to investigate the Bidens, particularly son Hunter Biden’s role on the board of a Ukrainian gas company.

The Dec. 19 headline, “Trump Impeached,” will no doubt be consider the year’s top story across the nation. Certainly, it will continue to be big news in 2020.

Fight Like Four

Troy Haynes, an all-state quarterback who led Woodbridge High to two football championships as a junior and senior, died of cancer in October. The slogan, “Fight Like Four,” became an inspiration to his team and community.

The Blue Raiders carried the 2019 graduate’s spirit into the state championship game, but lost 16-15 to Howard.

Prior to the game, Woodbridge lineman V.J. Singh said, “If it’s a big time moment I’ll call on him like, ‘Troy I need you, our team needs you.’ I always try to hold up a No. 4 after a big play. We know he’s with us on this journey.”

Reminders of war

President Donald Trump visited Dover Air Force Base twice for dignified transfer ceremonies, most recently in late November for two Army officers killed in a helicopter crash in Afghanistan. In January, he observed a U.S. Navy carry team transferring the remains of Scott A. Wirtz, a Defense Intelligence Agency operations support specialist who was one of four Americans killed in Syria in a terror attack.

Opioid crisis

According to Delaware’s Department of Health, there were 279 opioid-suspected overdose deaths, as of Dec. 16.

The state continues to wrestle with the issue of addiction.

In September, the Delaware State News presented some statistics from the Drug Enforcement Agency and Washington Post that shed some light on prescription pain killers.

During a six-year period from 2006-2012, Delawareans were prescribed 39.5 million pills annually.

Opioid prescribing rates decreased 25 percent from 2013 to 2017 in Delaware. The report said Delaware is still ranked 18th nationally.

Other headlines

• At the end of the legislative session, Delaware Democratic Gov. John Carney signed a $4.51 billion operating budget bill and an $863 million bond bill. Both are record highs.

• In Sussex County, Delawareans are concerned coastal views and environmental issues related to proposed Skipjack Wind Farm that will generate power offshore in federal waters. The Danish company said it would build a facility in Fenwick Island to supply power to the PJM regional grid. In return, the company would fund $18 million in improvements to the state park there.

• In mid-August, DelDOT leaders and state officials celebrated the completion of the Del. 1 Little Heaven Grade Separated Intersection project. The evolving 16-year vision that took 18 months and $44 million to construct eliminated all area traffic signals in Kent County on Del. 1. In May, the state opened a new Del. 1 overpass in Milford.

• The Delaware State Fair celebrated its 100th year and, wow, was it hot. Heat indices reached 108 in the early going of the 10-day fair. Even so, the fair set a record for overall attendance – 328,000.

• Dover International Speedway celebrated its 50th anniversary. In the spring, Jack Whitby, the original driver of the pace car, took a few laps in the Oldsmobile 442 he originally drove in 1969.

• In November, 23-year-old Clay Conaway was sentenced to five years in prison on a rape conviction. He has been accused of sexually assaulting six women.

• Landmark Frenchie’s Bait & Tackle collapsed into the water in Bowers Beach in late July. Slowly eroding wooden pilings were blamed as the culprits.

•In late July, Gov. Carney signed a bill that will ban non-compostable plastic bags in large retail stores and chains, starting in 2021.

• In November, Rodney West was found not guilty of murder for a shooting at Towne Point Elementary School, Dover, in August 2018. After a confrontation about 10 p.m. at the school, four shots were fired, killing Derrick Combs.

• Closing out the year, the town of Georgetown was in the news after a decision to prohibit unattended structures and displays on The Circle. That nixed plans for the Georgetown Wesleyan Church’s annual nativity display. The Good Ole Boy Foundation opted to fill the void by creating a live nativity.

• Delaware State University President Wilma Mishoe, the first woman to lead DSU when she was named the interim president in November 2017, will retire at the end of the year. Provost Dr. Tony Allen will be elevated to president on the first day of 2020. Dr. Mishoe’s father, the late Dr. Luna Mishoe, guided then-Delaware State College from 1960-1987, becoming the school’s longest tenured chief executive.

Reach Executive Editor Andrew West at awest@newszap.com