Variety marks top stories of 2012

People lined streets, flags, messages and the reflections of a large American flag hanging from the cross of firefighter’s ladders on Main Street envelop the car carrying First Lt. Mat Fazzari on his final journey home on June 19.  Fazzari was killed  by enemy fire in Afghanistan while flying a helicopter on his first tour of Bagram.

People lined streets, flags, messages and the reflections of a large American flag hanging from the cross of firefighter’s ladders on Main Street envelop the car carrying First Lt. Mat Fazzari on his final journey home on June 19. Fazzari was killed by enemy fire in Afghanistan while flying a helicopter on his first tour of Bagram.

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Protesters who believe Cesar Chavira was wrongfully killed by New York Store owner John Saul march past the New York Store on the East Isaacs Avenue sidewalks chanting and carrying signs on May 21.

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A woman carries a reader board for a going-out-of-business sale at the Sears store at the Blue Mountain Mall.

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A mother and her daughter step out of Inland Octopus beneath the store’s multi-story purple octopus mural on Main Street.

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The sale of liquor moved from the state to private businesses.

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Alaska Airlines put a stop to some flights into and out of Walla Walla two days a week for a period of time.

This last year will go in the books as a difficult time for the area, judging from the results of voting for the Top 10 stories.

Tragedies and disputes rose to the top while more positive news garnered less support. There were a few exceptions, such as Sears returning to downtown and College Place voting to rebuild Davis School and establish a high school.

A couple of the top finishers are continuing sagas, such as the nearly three-year investigation in the Sheriff’s Office and the battle over the Inland Octopus sign.

Every one of the 30 stories was named on at least three ballots. The top two stories were close, but they far outpaced the pack. The No. 1 story was named on 47 of the 61 ballots and included 33 votes as the top story. The No. 2 story was listed on 46 ballots with 15 first-place votes. The No. 3 story had a solid hold on its position, but after that the list could have been juggled quite a bit if there had been one or two more ballots received.

A complete list of point totals from the 61 valid ballots that arrived before the deadline can be found on Page A3. A first-place vote was worth 10 points, a second-place vote was worth nine points and so on down to one point for a 10th-place vote.

Here is a recap on the Top 10 stories of 2012.

1: Mathew Fazzari, a DeSales graduate, is killed while serving in Afghanistan. The community turns out to honor him. (409 points)

First Lt. Mathew Fazzari became the first known Walla Walla soldier killed in Afghanistan since the war began in 2001 when his helicopter was struck by enemy fire and went down June 6.

Fazzari, a 2005 DeSales Catholic High School graduate and 2010 graduate of Gonzaga University, had been flying in his first tour in Bagram.

Based out of Fort Bragg in Fayetteville, N.C., he’d been in Afghanistan for only about three weeks when he and his commander and co-pilot Scott Pace of Brawley, Calif., were killed in a helicopter crash in the Ghazni province. Their OH-58 Kiowa Warrior had been struck by a rocket-propelled grenade, for which the Taliban took credit, according to an Associated Press report.

The 25-year-old Fazzari was the husband of Tovah Fazzari and son of Greg and Susan Fazzari. He was known as a devoted husband and father to his two boys, Dominic and Samuel.

Family, friends and even strangers turned out in droves to honor Fazzari in ceremonies from Walla Walla to Bagram Air Field.

Just two days after his death, 200 soldiers in Task Force Pegasus assembled in an open-air hangar at Bagram Air Field to celebrate the lives of Fazzari and Pace.

On June 21 his body was returned to Walla Walla. Hundreds of local residents lined the procession course in a reverent and emotional path through downtown, where a giant flag hung from fire truck ladders, on the way to Herring Groseclose Funeral Home.

As the community said goodbye to its own fallen hero, local residents vowed never to forget Fazzari’s service and sacrifice.

2: New York Store owner John Saul shoots and kills Cesar Chavira, who broke into the business. A coroner’s inquest ruled the shooting as justifiable homicide. After the inquest, the prosecutor decides not to file charges in the case. (379 points)

On May 4, 2012, Cesar Chavira, 22, was shot to death by businessman John Saul, owner of the New York Store on Isaacs Avenue.

Police released few details about the shooting in the days and weeks following, and Chavira’s friends and family staged several protest marches calling for Saul’s arrest.

Three months after the shooting, following a lengthy investigation, Walla Walla County Coroner Richard Greenwood convened an inquest, only the second inquest in almost 20 years in Walla Walla County.

According to testimony from police officers and Sgt. Gary Bolster, detective for the Walla Walla County Sheriff’s Office, Chavira had burglarized the New York Store, breaking a window to gain entry just after 2 a.m.

Saul, who sleeps on a cot in the store, woke and armed himself with a 12-gauge shotgun. Saul, who did not testify during the inquest, allegedly told police Chavira yelled at him and verbally threatened him during the break-in.

Chavira then left the store, and may have been riding a bicycle when Saul fired five rounds from his shotgun from the doorway of his store. Bolster, a weapons expert, told the inquest jury Saul likely hit Chavira with all five rounds at a distance between 120 feet and 150 feet.

Forensic Pathologist Dr. Daniel Selove told the jury he found approximately 49 pellets of No. 4 buckshot in Chavira’s body, all of which entered from the back.

After three day’s of testimony, followed by instructions from Presiding Coroner Dan Blasdel, the six-person jury found Saul had committed justifiable homicide when he shot Chavira.

Shortly after the inquest, Walla Walla County Prosecuting Attorney Jim Nagle announced his office would not file charges against Saul.

The verdict was met with frustration from Chavira’s family, however, who stated Chavira was in no position to pose a threat to Saul at the time of the shooting. Attorney’s for the family added a civil lawsuit against Saul was likely.

3: Walla Walla voters resoundingly reject a levy increase to build an aquatic center. (210 points)

The third time was not the charm for the proposed Walla Walla Aquatics Center bond, which was defeated in the Aug. 7 primary 57-43 percent.

Had it passed, the $8.1 million bond would have paid to build two water slides, a lazy river, a splash pad and a wave pool that would have seconded as a lap pool.

Opponents criticized the aquatics center for being too costly and lacking a dedicated lap pool.

The defeat of the bond was the third time a community aquatics center had failed to pass in the last decade.

4: The nearly three-year investigation of possible financial improprieties in the Walla Walla County Sheriff’s Office comes to an end with charges being filed against former Undersheriff Carole Lepiane for the theft of more than $67,000. (164 points)

For nearly three years, the news was always the same. “Investigation into possible financial improprieties at the Walla Walla County Sheriff’s Office remains unresolved.

That changed in September when federal authorities charged former Undersheriff Carole Lepiane with embezzling more than $67,000 in cash posted for inmates’ bail. At a hearing on Oct. 11 in Spokane, Lepiane pleaded guilty to one count of theft from a federally funded agency.

Scheduled for sentencing in January, she faces six months in a federal facility followed by four months in a halfway house. She must also repay the money she stole, a total of $67,145.63, plus another $14,126 paid by the county to the state Auditor’s Office as part of the investigation.

5: Alaska Airlines drops some flights out of Walla Walla. The flights resumed in the fall. The Port of Walla Walla slashes fees to help the airline cut expenses. (151 points)

It was a year of ups and downs for air travel.

Seattle-based carrier Alaska Airlines reduced its daily Walla Walla schedule to one inbound and outbound flight Tuesdays and Wednesdays over the summer. Airline officials told the Port of Walla Walla the cuts were due to the under-performing market that was reportedly operating at a loss for the publicly traded company.

In an effort to show the airline the community is serious about retaining air service, Port officials agreed to forgo $42,600 in aircraft rescue firefighting funds between July and December. They also reduced landing fees and terminal building rent by 50 percent for the last half of the year. The reductions were expected to save the airline $17,200 in landing fees and $10,830 in rent.

Reduction of the airline’s operating costs was one piece in a two-pronged approach to saving air service. The other — and the one considered most important to local officials — was a movement to build passenger traffic.

To help, the community landed a $250,000, two-year Small Community Air Service grant from the U.S. Department of Transportation for marketing.

Alaska restored its flight schedule at the end of August. The airline had reportedly achieved profitability through the altered schedule. By the end of November, despite the cutbacks, Walla Walla was on track to have its third highest passenger traffic on record. Officials will consider whether to continue to extend operating cost reductions to the airline. They will also concentrate 2013 on building passenger traffic.

6: (tie) Sears closes its store at the Blue Mountain Mall in the spring. In the summer, plans are announced for a Sears Hometown Store to open on Main Street in the fall. (147 points)

Walla Walla lost a major retailer, then gained it back in a different form all within a matter of months.

After more than 50 years in the community, the local Sears store was shuttered in April.

Officials with Sears Holding Corp. said the closure — one of 79 Sears and Kmart outlets — was part of a nationwide strategy to raise cash by eliminating “marginally performing” stores.

The closure was a double blow to the community through both the loss of 40-80 jobs, and also the elimination of a long relied upon source for electronics, appliances, tools, clothing and home goods.

However, in August came word that the national retail brand was not only returning to the community but to the downtown neighborhood of its local roots.

Scott Hester, the owner of two Sears Hometown Store branches in Oregon, announced plans for his third on Walla Walla’s Main Street in the former home of the Blue Mountain Humane Society Thrift Store, 207 E. Main St.

The new store, which opened in November, is a smaller, independently owned version of a Sears, primarily featuring appliances, tools, home and garden equipment and mattresses.

The Sears Hometown Store model is increasingly common in communities on the outskirts of population centers. The stores are locally owned and operated businesses that sell Sears products essentially on consignment for the company. More than 900 such stores operate across the country with slightly more autonomy but with Sears inventory and backed by its warranties and service.

6: (tie) College Place voters agree to rebuild Davis Elementary School and establish a high school. (147 points)

College Place residents made history this year by approving a bond to rebuild Davis Elementary and establish the city’s first public high school.

In the coming years, College Place Public Schools will begin construction of the new Davis Elementary into a pre-K through fifth-grade school, and demolish the old Davis building. On the College Avenue campus, the district will then remodel Meadow Brook Intermediate and Sager Middle School into the district’s new Sager Middle School and College Place High School.

Nearly 400 students who currently attend ninth through twelfth grades at neighboring Walla Walla High School are expected to begin a transition into the new high school a year at a time starting in 2015.

The $38 million initiative included about $10.88 million in state matching funds, for a total project cost of about $49.4 million.

8: The state Supreme Court rejects Inland Octopus’ appeal over its sign. (144 points)

Inland Octopus toy store owner Bob Catsiff really wants to keep the giant mural above the entrance to his town store on Main Street.

Despite multiple legal setbacks, he continues to press his two-year-long court battle against the city of Walla Walla. The city ordered the painting of the purple octopus to come down soon after it was created in 2010 because it is larger than allowed under the city’s sign code.

In 2011, Superior Court Judge Donald W. Schacht rejected Catsiff’s arguments that the city’s sign code is an unconstitutional infringements on his free-speech rights.

Last April, a three-judge panel of the state Court of Appeals in Spokane affirmed Schacht’s ruling.

Then the state Supreme Court in October declined to review the appeals-court decision.

So, in November, Catsiff’s attorney, Michael de Grasse, announced Catsiff will ask the U.S. Supreme Court to consider the matter.

Meanwhile, fines against Catsiff continue accruing at the rate of $100 a day.

They now total about $80,000.

9: The Rural Library District and the Walla Walla Public Library announce they can’t reach an agreement. The rural district announces plans to build its own library. The Library User Coalition asks for a vote on annexation and recommends the replacing the board. (131 points)

The Walla Walla Library and the Walla Walla County Rural Library District ended nearly three decades of working together to provide services to county residents.

As a result of the split between the two agencies, the Walla Walla Library will cut hours and reduce staff next year to make up for lost revenue. The split has also forced county residents to purchase library cards if they want to keep checkout privileges at the Walla Walla Library. The Rural Library District has agreed to reimburse one $68 card fee per family.

There is still no word from the district if it will continue the reimbursement after the district builds a new suburban Walla Walla branch and headquarters.

The controversy was exacerbated when the group known as the Library Users Coalition asked Walla Walla County commissioners to completely replace the district’s governing board. The coalition made the request because it felt the library district had inappropriately denied a proposed resolution that would have allowed Walla Walla residents to join the library taxing district through a public vote.

County commissioners denied the coalition’s request.

10: Private businesses take over liquor sales in the state. (113 points)

The privatization of alcohol sales under voter-approved Initiative 1183 started with a trickle in March.

That’s when bars and restaurants across the state could officially purchase liquor direct from distilleries, marking the start of the changeover to the dismantling of the state-run liquor system.

The changeover signified the start of the major transformation that took place in June. Until then the state had operated liquor stores since the end of Prohibition.

Challenges to the initiative came as expected but did nothing to stop the transition of alcohol sales from state-run or contracted stores to retailers, including grocery stores, with 10,000 square feet of space.

By summer, alcohol was on the shelves at major retailers all over the Valley, including Walmart, Albertsons, Safeway, Super 1, Walla Walla’s Harvest Foods, Bi-Mart and more.

According to the latest figures from the state Department of Revenue, sales of hard liquor had increased in the four months after the state privatized liquor sales compared to the same period in 2011.

The agency reported that sales by volume were 2.9 percent higher for the period from June 1 through Sept. 30. Nearly 13.6 million liters were sold in that four-month period, compared with 13.2 million liters during the same four months in 2011.

One change that also came with the transition was higher prices. The initiative imposed additional fees on spirits to reimburse the state for millions of dollars in lost revenue, resulting in higher prices for consumers at many outlets.

According to a report from The Columbian newspaper, individual consumers bought 7.9 percent more booze from June 1 to Sept. 30. The dollar value of those sales also increased to $263 million, up 23 percent from $214 million.

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