Full review of 2015 news stories

By Gary Scott on December 30, 2015 at 12:56pm



Note: links to stories included.

We start things off with number five: Jacksonville winning a national contest to get a new dog park.

In what was another case of the city and region coming together for a cause, Jacksonville won the grand prize in July- $100,000 in the PetSafe “Bark For Your Park” online voting competition.

Jacksonville has two years to build the park, which is slated to be built on city land east of Nichols Park. After a committee was formed to move forward on the project, it was decided the University of Illinois would provide student engineers to design the park.

Illinois got a new governor this year. Following Bruce Rauner’s swearing-in ceremony in Springfield, the Republican promised change, including some tough cuts. It seems like there’s been no end to the list of those who have felt the pain between funding issues and the still-ongoing budget impasse: daycare operators, city and county governments, lottery winners, riders of mass transit. It’s not expected that a new budget will be passed in the remaining portion of 2015.

Bruce Rauner might be better known this year, his first as Illinois’ governor, for his battle with Illinois Democrat leaders highlighted by the still-ongoing state budget impasse. But Rauner ended a long drought of sitting governors visiting Jacksonville, as he came here twice.

Rauner came to Jacksonville in June to speak as part of the ceremonies for “The Wall That Heals”, a Vietnam War Memorial replica.

Rauner, a proponent of charter school education, had previously visited 8 Points Charter School in February.

It wasn’t the last time we paid attention to 8 Points Charter this year. In October, District 117 board members authorized Superintendent Steve Ptacek to prepare a resolution of non-renewal for the charter.

Ptacek used test scores as his main argument for advocating for the separation, saying 8 Points wasn’t living up to the agreement it signed with the school.

The board again voted against renewing the contract on December 16th, a District 117 meeting that attracted the largest crowd in years.

In other District 117 highlights, progress was made on the Turner Jr. High School renovation project. An architect was selected in March. School board members approved the name change of Turner to Jacksonville Middle School when renovations are finished in 2017.

Because of leftover money from the bond sale the district issued from new sales tax revenue, Ptacek excitedly told an audience in August about his plans to renovate Lincoln Elementary.

Ptacek just this month added that the district might be able to soon renovate all the schools if it gets a federal grant.

Two new board members were sworn in to the District 117 school board this year, Corinne Wagner and Libby White.

At the college level, it was a big year for MacMurray College. In addition to having Tom Ricketts, the owner of the Chicago Cubs speak at the school’s commencement, MacMurray also inaugurated Dr. Mark Tierno as the new president, replacing Dr. Colleen Hester.

In what serves as a buildup to our top story of 2015, we reported on several public officials getting into some hot water, and then resigning.

One of them is a top story in and of itself. Top story number 4: the downfall of U.S. Congressman Aaron Schock. Trouble started for the 18th Distict representative in February when the Washington Post aired a story about his Capitol Hill office decoration, which had a “Downton Abbey” theme. The designer, interestingly enough, was from Jacksonville.

Schock resigned in March. He’s facing a federal investigation for misuse of campaign dollars.

Republican Darin LaHood, the son of former 18th District Congressman Ray LaHood, was elected to replace Schock, beating out Democrat Rob Mellon. Both candidates had contested primaries.

Already-cash-strapped counties in Central Illinois had to foot the bill for the special election, with the total running into six figures in larger counties.

Also, Jacksonville alderman Adonnis Shaw was arrested early this year after he allegedly stole over $6,000 from the bank he worked for in the city. Shaw resigned in March and was replaced by Jeff Hopkins in Ward 1.

Ben Tomhave was named as the replacement for alderwoman Jenny Geirnaeirt in Ward 4, who succeeded Morgan County Treasurer Gayla Hornbeek, following her retirement. Travis Richardson was voted in to replace Bruce McDaniel in the spring for Ward 3.

Jacksonville broke ground on a new water plant on Hardin Avenue, four years after flooding rendered the plant inoperable for almost a month.

The city and the county, as well as Passavant Area Hospital, also came to an agreement on a countywide dispatch center, which will form out of the consolidation of three current dispatch units in Morgan County.

As of several months ago, you can now text 911 in Morgan County and be connected to emergency personnel.

Our number 3 story was the biggest event to happen in what was a busy calendar year in the Morgan County Courthouse: the murder trial of Robert Heitbrink, convicted of first-degree murder in October.

It was a high-profile case, with Heitbrink, the former president of the Jacksonville realtor’s association, found guilty of stabbing his former father-in-law, William McElhaney, to death in his west-side Jacksonville house in 2013.   The trial drew many members of the Heitbrink and McElhaney families and featured heart-wrenching pieces of evidence, like the 911 call made the morning the stabbing took place.

Heitbrink was sentenced to 27 years in prison for the murder several weeks ago.

On September 11th, Jacksonville resident Andy Maul was shot to death in his pickup truck parked in the parking lot of the Jacksonville Police Department. Then, fire departments responded to a house fire in rural Chapin. We later learned it was the house of Maul’s mother.

Andy Maul’s ex-father-in-law, Robert Gill, was charged with murder and arson.

Maul was the owner of an ATV shop north of Jacksonville. On the day of his funeral, a procession of UTVs streamed passed his business to pay their respects.

Some of the top stories we had from 2014 continued to make headlines this year. Avery Berry, the Jacksonville man accused of murdering Marcus Jackson in October 2014, pleaded not guilty in January.

It was far from the last time we’d have to provide an update on what is now known as the Jackson-Berry feud. There were several shooting incidents that were reportedly connected. Two of Marcus Jackson’s brothers received prison sentences stemming from the incidents.

The case of the Jacksonville teen accused of abandoning her newborn baby in a dumpster in 2014 proceeded this year. Despite efforts by the state and the teen’s family to return the baby to their custody, the child remained in foster care thanks to Judge Jeffery Tobin’s ruling. Tobin also denied a request in July to suppress testimony from police detectives that indicated the girl admitted to placing the baby in the dumpster and walking away.

Police arrested the father of the child in April and charged 28-year-old Quincy Stone with aggravated criminal sexual abuse, since the mother was 16 at the time.

Clemency was denied in April for Shirley Skinner, the 80-year-old Ashland woman convicted of murdering her granddaughter’s estranged husband in 2010.

There were some other notable retirements in our area this year, including Jacksonville Police Deputy Chief Tim Shea, North Greene School District Superintendent Les Stevens, Jacksonville Parks and Lakes Superintendent Bruce Surratt, Lincoln Land Community College Jacksonville director Jan Terry, regional superintendent Debbie Niederhauser, and Jacksonville Regional Economic Development Corporation president Terry Dennison.

In addition, Illinois School for the Deaf superintendent Dr. Janice Smith-Warshaw left to take a university job in California in June.

Several notable deaths occurred this year, including Charles Roger Ezard, a member of the Jacksonville Sports Hall of Fame and father of Mayor Andy Ezard, Fred Osburn, a long-time District 117 assistant superintendent, and Robert Sanders Jr., the principal of A-C Central Middle and High Schools.

As usual, West Central Illinois weather contended for a spot in the top stories this year. Jacksonville saw much more snow than usual in February, as we received 13 inches. That’s eight inches above normal and nearly ties a record for most snow in the month of February.

Towards the end of May, a low-scale tornado did damage in Carrollton.

In June and July, another record was set for high levels on the Illinois River in Meredosia. Worrisome eyes were kept on the levees all along the river. They didn’t hold everywhere. The town of Hillview was evacuated after a levee breach.

Our number 2 story this year came in February, when the CEO of a project designed to store carbon dioxide generated from a power plant in Meredosia in an underground site elsewhere in Morgan County announced the project was dead.

The Department of Energy pulled funding for FutureGen, which was revived in 2009 after being shut down the year before. It brought the promise of 2,000 jobs. A characterization well had already been drilled at the site, and the project was receiving regulatory approval. Although officials at the time held out hope that the project would be revived, there’s been no hint that FutureGen will be starting things back up again this year.

Energy groups blamed President Obama’s lack of support for traditional fossil fuel energy sources.

Jacksonville history buffs were hit with bad news in January when it was announced the General Grierson Days Civil War reenactment was being canceled. However, the City of Jacksonville and Convention and Visitors’ Bureau teamed up to bring it back for a 20th year. The future of the event is unclear.

Rain forced the postponement of the Downtown Celebration in May by several days. It kept falling as they dedicated a new monument containing replicas of the Declaration of Independence, the U.S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights that weekend downtown.

In a story that made national news, a New Berlin couple with the last names Burger and King were married in Jacksonville, and of course, the whole thing was paid for by the Burger King fast food chain.

In sports, no matter where you are on the Cardinals-Cubs rivalry, we should be able to agree on a few things: the rivalry is great, and it was great exposure for Jacksonville when a local resident’s “hands-helmet” creation was embraced by the Cubs and worn by the players. It actually led to Jacksonville getting mentioned on TBS during the National League Championship Series, which the Cubs lost to the New York Mets, 4-0.

West Central Illinois hockey fans also cheered on the Chicago Blackhawks to victory in the Stanley Cup versus Tampa Bay this year.

The top story of 2015 for WLDS-WEAI News was a no-brainer for us. Our news cycles this year were dominated by the aftermath of a special report detailing a state police investigation into theft and misconduct allegations at South Jacksonville’s Village Hall.

In March of this year, we aired the state police findings, based on their 2014 report. They included theft allegations against former village clerk Linda Douglass, official misconduct allegations against police chief Richard Evans, and complaints against village mayor Gordon Jumper.

It’s not known how much money exactly is unaccounted for, but by some estimates, it’s hundreds of thousands of dollars, missing from the village’s water-sewer ledgers. Douglass was the former water clerk, in addition to her role as village clerk.

Evans stepped down soon after the report aired, but not before releasing details of his own department’s investigation that focused on many of the whistleblowers in this case. Then, South Jacksonville trustees took action on the retirement-severance package for Evans after we released the details of the agreement. Board members, who had originally voted for it, then voted to rescind the agreement, followed up by a vote to overturn Gordon Jumper’s veto of their vote.

Evans was replaced by Sergeant Mike Broaddus, who himself resigned over the summer as a protest to a lack of cooperation as he attempted to find the internal investigation that had been conducted.

Turns out, it was in the office of village attorney Allen Yow. The village changed attorneys after watchdog groups raised questions about actions taken by the Yow and other members of the Rammelkamp-Bradney Law Firm during the 2014 ISP investigation.

Broaddus would eventually step down as police chief for good and be replaced by Josh Hallock.

Douglass was never seen at another meeting, although she did call the police on Tyson Manker, an attorney who would go on to file an official ethics complaint against the village, after he tried to use the village copier. Jumper announced her resignation and his own retirement at a subsequent meeting.

But Jumper stuck around. He said allegations were being made by “certain current and former village employees” who were “disgruntled”. Just days before he stepped down in June, he apparently ordered a backup of the computer systems in Village Hall, which led to a police officer and village trustee camping out at the building to make sure it was done properly.

The meetings that followed our March report throughout the spring and summer were at times tense, spirited, and… well…listen for yourself.

Tyson Manker and Mike Woodyard, who runs the Morgan County Watchdogs group, would wind up receiving an award for their work in the South Jacksonville aftermath.

Perhaps there was no more damning Freedom of Information Act document released by the watchdog group then a list of hundreds of deposits for new water service reportedly entered by Douglass, also the former water clerk, on one date in September 2012. It included residents who had either died, moved away or already been customers for years.

The controversy also cost Linda Douglass’ husband to lose his village trustee seat. Stacy Pinkerton won election to a seat as a result. Paula Belobrajdic-Stewart replaced Sonnie Smith after allegations of her catering service doing improper business with the Concert in the Cornfield surfaced.

Oh, and that concert was the focus of much scrutiny this year, too, mainly because many of the major players in the South Jacksonville ISP investigation also were involved in the event.

It certainly didn’t make anyone already angry with the village administration any calmer when Jumper casted the deciding vote on renewing concert contracts after the village board split on the issue.

With much debate over the merits of keeping the concert, trustees voted in September to bring it back for 2016.

The Illinois Attorney General declined to press charges late last year following the ISP investigation, but that hasn’t stopped local officials’ efforts to get state prosecutors to re-think their decision.

Now, all eyes are on the new Morgan County State’s Attorney to see if he’ll take action when he takes over in 2016.

Gray Noll, the former assistant state’s attorney in Sangamon County, will take over for Bobby Bonjean, who first filed to run for re-election for his second full term, and then, less than a week later, announced he was resigning. Noll will face competition in the form of Tyson Manker in the fall.