NewsChannel 7's Top 10 Stories of 2012

What an incredible year for local news. We selected around 50 of the top stories of the year, and asked you to vote on the top 10 on our website. When the voting closed, there were quite a few surprises. So without any further delay, here's your top 10 stories of 2012.

10. We begin with the story you voted as the 10th Most Important of the year and it was an ugly episode for our local education system. It’s the story of a well-liked high school teacher who lived a double-life, sexually molesting some of his male students for a period of as long as 10 years.

Here is the story of William Crews.

Remaining quiet and keeping his head down, 59 year old William Crews listened as attorneys finalized the deal back in August that sent him to prison for what will most likely be the rest of his life.

"This is one of the more troubling cases that I've had to deal with," said 14th Judicial Circuit Judge Elijah Smiley.

Crews agreed to plead no contest to 14 counts, ranging from lewd and lascivious molestation to sexual acts with minors.

"There's an expectation that the children will be safe and that they will be nurtured and inspired to reach their maximum potential. The facts in this case indicate that something went terribly wrong."

Bay County Sheriff’s deputies arrested Crews earlier in the year, after 6 of his former Bozeman students claimed he sexually abused them. The crimes began in 2001.

Many of the sexual encounters taking place at a storage unit along Highway 77.

Crews initially pled not guilty but with trial looming and a number of his victims preparing to testify, Crews decided to take the plea deal.

"Teenage boys, young adults in their early 20s. Very private matter what happened. We really hope that they're going to be able to put this behind them now and lead successful and productive lives," said Assistant State Attorney Jennifer Hawkins.

All parties agreed to a plea deal, sparing the young mean of having to testify in open court. Crews will be 79 years old when he is released from prison in 2032.

9. The number 9 story has been with us for the last several years and it's impact will be with our area for many years to come. Nearly two years after the BP Oil Spill, lawmakers finally approved the restore act but the battle over the billions of dollars Florida and the other gulf coast states will receive, is far from over.

The Restore Act could be a huge windfall for the Panhandle. Passed in June, the legislation would keep billions in oil spill fines on the Gulf Coast.

An estimated 4.1 million barrels of oil spilled into the Gulf of Mexico. The fines could be between 5 and 21 billion dollars, even more if BP and the other companies involved are found to be grossly negligent.

80% of the money would go to Florida and the other gulf coast states.

The 8 panhandle coastal counties are slated to get 75% of Florida’s share. Bay County could receive more than 100 million dollars but the numbers could change if BP reaches a settlement with the federal government.

The feds are reportedly negotiating a deal with BP , which would reduce the clean water act fines.

It would also allow BP to write off the fines as a tax deduction. Members of Florida’s Congressional Delegation have lodged protests over the proposed settlement with the white house and the justice department.

If a settlement is not reached, the judge has scheduled a trial for February 25th in New Orleans. That trial will determine the amounts of the fines BP will pay.

8. Many times the stories you select for the countdown effect hundreds, if not thousands of people then there are those that actually effect very few, but touch us all.

The number-8 story you chose this year is one of those stories. It had tragic consequences for an Alabama family who was vacationing here this summer.

The Brown family from Chelsey, Alabama, was just like thousands of others from across the southeast, who come to Panama City Beach for their summer vacation.

"It was a family of four that was staying in a boat anchored off the bay side of Shell Island and had gone walking and swimming to the gulf side and the storm rolled through. The step father had his step son on his back because the young man had suffered a recent injury from gymnastics," Ruth Corley with the Bay County Sheriff’s Office.

42-year old James Keith Brown was trying to get his 14-year old stepson, Tristan Barger to shelter, when they were hit by lighting.

"The mother was on the scene and said she heard a very loud sound. Turned around and both of them were face down in the sand."

Crews from the Coast Guard and Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, along with paramedics, immediately headed to the scene, but the continued threat of lightning, forced them to turn back.

It took almost an hour before they could safely get to the father and son.

Once paramedics arrived, they say James Keith Brown was dead at the scene.

They rushed Barger back to shore at the Panama City Marina.

From there paramedics airlifted him to Sacred Heart Hospital in Pensacola.

Unfortunately he died 2-days later from his injuries.

Authorities say unfortunately, this was a case of the family being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

“It doesn't sound like the family was doing anything wrong. They were out enjoying their vacation together. They're from Chelsea, Alabama. When the storm rolled through and they tried to get back to the boat so they could get into cover and unfortunately the accident occurred before they could do that."

On August 30, 1991, 10 members of the same family from Georgia, California and Hawaii were struck by lightning while boating on the bay side of Shell Island. 2 were killed, 3 were seriously injured.

7. Now to the number 7 story of 2012. Again, this one didn't affect too many people but the bizarre and grotesque nature of the incident has captivated our attention. It's the story of a local man, accused of committing a heinous crime up in the Northeastern US.
Here is the story of Tyree Smith, who's accused of murder and cannibalism in Connecticut.

On January 24th, the US Marshal arrest 35-year old Tyree Smith at his mother's Lynn Haven apartment on Illinois Avenue.

They said Smith was responsible for hacking homeless man Angel Gonzales to death, at a abandoned three story house in Bridgeport, then eating some of his body parts.

The victim was repeatedly smashed in the head with the axe.

Police say Smith boasted about the beating, saying he was able to pluck out Gonzalez’s eyeball and put it in a plastic bag along with some pieces of his brain.

They say he then went to the cemetery where his brother was buried and ate Gonzales' eyeball, claiming it tasted like an oyster.

Smith's cousin told police he was acting crazy, hours before the murder.

She claims he called her and told her he was heading to a nearby park to get-quote- blood on his hands, and then returned to her home with blood on his pants, hands and the small axe.

Authorities believe Smith then climbed aboard a Greyhound bus and headed for Bay County.

Witnesses say he showed-up at a relative's home, covered in blood and admitting to the murder.

When local investigators questioned Smith's mother, they say she told them her son had mental issues.

Smith had only lived a short period of time in Lynn Haven before allegedly confessing to the brutal murder and cannibalism of the Connecticut homeless man.

At last word Smith has been medicated and periodically placed on suicide watch at Garner Correctional Institute in Newtown, Connecticut since his arrest.

A judge is still evaluating his mental competency before he'll be allowed to stand trial.

6. Let's lighten things up a bit. There were all kinds of stories in 2012 that informed us, entertained us, shocked us, scared us, and even outraged us.

A few even managed to inspire us but the woman who you selected as the number 6 story on 2012, has been inspiring those in our community, and beyond, for many many years.

We tell you about the departure of perhaps one of the most successful athletics coaches in the nation, Roonie Scovel.

Simply put, Roonie Scovel is a winner. She led the Lady Commodores to 458 wins over 16 seasons.

Along the way her teams won with 13 conference, 8 state and 3 national champions.

With all that on her resume, following the 2011-2012 season, Coach Scovel decided it was time to walk away from the bench.
"Ii truly, truly enjoyed coaching these players this year. And I don't think coaches get to say that every year. And I think this was a very special team that I really liked coming to practice every day. I really enjoyed it. I think that I was just blessed to go out on a year where I just don't have any complaints. I'm just completely satisfied, I would have loved for the young ladies to be making that trip to Kansas because I thought they paid the price, I thought that they deserved to win. But you know everything's not made to be that way. And we gave it our best. I have no regrets on the effort that was given to try to win," said Coach Scovel.

In Roonie's wake, Gulf Coast hired one of her former players, Vernette Skeete who is already upholding the winning tradition there.

And after that business was taken care, there was this.... They named the gym floor after her so all future players and fans alike will know just how much Roonie Scovel means to Gulf Coast basketball.

Coach Scovel is still working at Gulf Coast as an Academic Counselor.

5. Tourism is big business here in Florida, in fact, the number 1 business, bringing in 10's of billions of dollars into the state each year. The stakes are high and beach communities like those here in the Panhandle spend millions of dollar to attract their fair share of visitors.

When there's that kind of money involved, there's a huge temptation for wrongdoing and it was probably inevitable something like this would have happen.

Your number 5 story of 2012, was the embezzlement and suicide of Okaloosa County Tourist Development Council Director Mark Bellinger.

On May 2nd, Okaloosa County Commissioners asked Tourist Development Council Director to explain why he bought a 719,000 dollar sport fishing yacht, without getting anyone's approval.

"I purchased the boat at the end of December of 2011 utilizing the authority that was given to me with the TDC ordinance and the contract that is with the advertising company that we have with Zimmerman,” said Mark Bellinger.

Stop….You were authorized to buy a boat?

Moments later Bellinger resigned, then disappeared.

Two days later Alabama authorities found his body in his car near Birmingham, dead from an apparent drug overdose.

"We are extremely saddened that Mr. Bellinger took his life. We're sadden for his family but we will not end this investigation here," Okaloosa County Sheriff Larry Ashley.

Within days, local, state and federal investigators began uncovering a series of illegal and questionable expenditures Bellinger made during his 2-years as TDC director, using TDC and BP settlement money.

They included an 800,000 dollar house in Kelly plantation, a brand new SUV, a 48,000 dollar Porche, 40,000 dollars worth of furniture and 2 custom chopper motorcycles.

He also committed the TDC to an expensive lease for office space in Destin.

All without TDC or county commission approval.

"Every expenditure during Mr. Bellinger's TDC bed tax dollars, TDC BP oil dollars. Every expenditure will be examined."

The scandal brought about operational change for the TDC.

County commissioners immediately instituted spending limits. They'll vote on anything over a certain dollar amount and new TDC Director Dan O'Byrne now reports directly to the county manager.

On December 18th, the Florida Auditor General's office release it's audit of TDC spending, finding 25 areas where the TDC, county commission and the county's clerk of courts did not properly oversee spending and allowed Bellinger to by-pass established purchasing policies.

The investigation is still underway.

4. Another story making a return to the top 10, homelessness. It became probably the biggest campaign issue of the 2011 Panama City Mayor's race.

This year, Greg Brudnicki followed thorough on his campaign promise to clean-up the homeless issue in downtown Panama City, with some successes and some set-backs.

Panama City Mayor Greg Brudnicki saw some progress in 2012, on his campaign to clean-up the homelessness and vagrancy issues in the downtown area.

"It was roaming around, people trespassing on property to people laying on our property to finding people passed out when we come to open our businesses in the morning," said Sgt. Chris Edmundson.

The first step was creating a more restrictive Panhandling Ordinance in May, making aggressive panhandling illegal.

Panama City police also added a substation to the downtown area.

The changes produced noticeable improvement, but not a solution to all of the problems.

“I hear from people all the time, 'oh, gosh, you're doing a great job, but when are we gonna finish the job,” said the Mayor.

In the fall, Burdnicki moved ahead with the next phase of his plan, to ultimately move the Panama City rescue mission out of the downtown area.

The commission tentatively approved a Community Resource Center, offering services and programs that will benefit the homeless.

Brudnicki was hoping the large campus, located near Highway 231 and Star Avenue, would entice the rescue mission to relocate, but the plan met opposition from nearby residents.

"I feel for the homeless, I really do, but I don't see where it would do Panama City any real good to just move them out into a neighborhood like this and then ferry them back and forth, I mean, who's gonna pay for that transportation?" said resident Ronald Cannon.

"If they have nowhere to go after they go to the homeless shelters, homeless centers, then they're gonna start coming out in these woods camping out," said resident Robin Sullivan.

And the rescue mission flatly rejected the proposal.

And local officials had questions and concerns about the safety of residents.

In December, Brudnicki backed away from the resource center plans.

"I have recommended to the bay area resource center people that we withdraw that 70 acre site," said Brudnicki.

But he says he's not backing away from a solution to the homeless issue.

Since Panama City passed the tougher panhandling measures, several other cities have followed suit, afraid the panhandlers would migrate to their towns.

3. Regardless of your feelings about animals in captivity, the opportunity to see them up close is fascinating for many people.

For many years, locals were able to go to Panama City Beach to see an animal that is normally found in zoos in bigger cities, or in the wilds of Africa.

That opportunity was lost earlier this year, when ZooWorld's Sidney the giraffe died.

Sindey joined the ZooWorld family in 1995 and, for 17 years, was a community favorite.

The average giraffe lives to between 20 and 25 years.

Sidney was in his early 20s in July when ZooWorld personnel noticed him laying down.

That restricts a giraffe's breathing, and veterinarians believe it's what led to Sidney's death.

“I think probably a couple of hours, and that in itself was probably enough to do an older giraffe in. But we felt like we wanted to try," said Dr. Margret Fowler.

ZooWorld officials almost immediately launched a campaign to not only replace Sidney, but to make sure they could keep giraffe's around for a long time.

They set a fundraising goal of 50,000 dollars to buy a young male and female giraffe.

In November, they too possession of the first giraffe, a young male they've temporarily named baby g.

Baby g was just 22 days old and 6 feet tall when he arrived.

The same Virginia zoo that bred baby-g is expecting two new babies.

If either is a girl, ZooWorld is hoping to get her.

ZooWorld is allowing the public to submit suggested names for baby g until January 11th.

There are currently 75 suggestions on the website.

Submissions cost 1-dollar.

2. Every decent city in the world has a number of common qualities. Good jobs, good schools, adequate transportation, culture, quality of life.....And access to good healthcare.

Our area has always had good medical facilities, but the leaders of one of the hospitals were concerned about nit's financial health.

So in 2011 they suggested leasing it to another company.

The long and sometimes contentious process came to a conclusion this year, with sacred heart taking over Bay Medical Center.

Citing debt from the rising costs of indigent care and the new towers project, Bay Medical Center officials first mentioned a possible merger or lease agreement in late 2010.

The talk got serious in mid-2011.

By the beginning of 2012, all sides were finalizing a lease agreement with Sacred Heart Health System and IHP group.

"This will become integrating into the sacred heart network so you're going to see a lot of relationships from electronic records that will be accessible between the facilities and physicians that will be shared between hospitals and so forth," said James Shannon.

The issue sharply divided the community and the Bay County commission.

"This hospital belongs to all of the people of Bay County and they need to make the decision either through this commission or through a series of public hearings where everybody can be comfortable with this decision or at least the majority," said Commissioner George Gainer.

"Oour role in this is to vote up or down in a contract made by somebody else. It's not a very good role to have, but we're going to take input on it," said Mike Thomas.

Commissioners ultimately voted 4-to-1 on the 40-year lease, giving the go ahead to approve the joint venture lease.

Sacred Heart now operates the hospital.

Bay Medicals board was able to pay off the hospital’s debt with the 150 million dollar lease payment.

All say patients are receiving the same level of care, or better, due to the shared resources of the much larger sacred heart system.

"Our staff and our patients should see nothing. The person who will be most affected by this change will be me," said CEO Steve Johnson.

The only immediate noticeable change was the inability of patients to receive contraceptive procedures, like vasectomies, at Bay Medical, since Sacred Heart is a Catholic-owned hospital.

1. Many people believe local military presence to be one of our area's greatest assets, and the F-22 Raptor is a big part of that presence. The F-22 Raptor is one of the US Air Force's most high tech aircraft.

At the same time it's one of the most controversial.

The fleet has faced fierce criticism for apparent oxygen problems in the cockpit. A federal spending freeze has also affected the fighter jet.

The last thing the F-22 and its supporters needed was another crash.

"I kind of heard this boom, and then I saw flames and fire and I thought 'oh my gosh I think a plane just crashed," said eyewitness Wendy Pennak.

The November 22nd crash of an F-22 at Tyndall Air Force Base was almost a reflection of the type year 2012 was for the world's most advanced jet fighter.

The raptor went down about a mile from the base's drone runway.

The pilot ejected safely, just moments before the jet crashed and burned.

"We have both hazmat, biohazard, we have folks out there making the area is secured properly," said 325th Fighter Wing Comm. Col. David Graff.

Immediately after the crash Air Force officials once again found themselves defending the F-22's safety record.

"The F-22 is a phenomenal aircraft."

Ironically, the crash happened the same day the Air Force released the findings on an F-22 hard landing incident at Tyndall in May.

Investigators say pilot error was responsible for the 35 million dollars in damages and there are still questions about the jet's oxygen system, blamed for at last one fatal crash and a series of pilot black-outs with hypoxia-like symptoms.

It’s politics, not safety issue that may delay Tyndall getting an additional operational squadron of F-22's.

A defense spending freeze has potentially delayed the squadron's transfer to Tyndall by 18 months.

Despise the set-backs and criticism, proponents stand by the raptor.

"The best aircraft, fighter aircraft we have in the United States. I have full confidence in its capability and its flight worthiness."

The cause of the November crush is still under investigation.

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