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2016 Stories of the Year

  • The memorial to fallen Chester police officer and volunteer firefighter James Brockmeyer is shown in October alongside Palestine Road in Chester. Brockmeyer's death, and the community reaction to his memory, is one of the Herald Tribune's 2016 Stories of the Year.

    The memorial to fallen Chester police officer and volunteer firefighter James Brockmeyer is shown in October alongside Palestine Road in Chester. Brockmeyer's death, and the community reaction to his memory, is one of the Herald Tribune's 2016 Stories of the Year.
    Herald Tribune File Photo

By Pete Spitler
Posted on 1/1/2017, 12:36 PM

EDITOR"S NOTE: Stories of the Year are chosen by the newspaper"s editorial board. To see our photos of the year, look inside the Dec. 30 print edition of the Herald Tribune.

Baby New Year has arrived and as 2016 made its exit, the Herald Tribune is looking back at some of the top stories that made Randolph County headlines in the past year. There were several other stories that earned honorable mentions in our consideration of the list.

10. New Year"s Flood

The year began with a challenge for county and municipal officials, as what has come to be called the "New Year"s Flood" impacted the region in the first days of 2016.

Once predicted to be the largest flood on record on the Mississippi River, the final crest was far less than the 49.9 first anticipated by the National Weather Service.

Still the second-largest flood in recorded history at 45.99 feet at the U.S. Geological Survey"s Chester gauge, the river crested on Jan. 2 and caused the closure of the Chester Bridge due to flooding for only the second time in its then 74-year-old history and first since the Great Flood of 1993.

9. Steeleville 150th

Steeleville celebrated the 150th anniversary of its 4th of July Celebration this year, observing a public festival that was original conceived by the town"s churches as a way of honoring the returning veterans of the Civil War.

While rain dampened much of the festivities, the four-day event - with the theme of "Steeleville: Through the Years" - still drew thousands in attendance for the 4th of July parade, which had a reported 80 entries.

8. Public Safety Tax

The Randolph County Board of Commissioners" answer to declining coal sales tax revenue, the Public Safety Tax would have added 75 cents to every $100 of tangible goods purchased, with the exception of food purchased to be prepared at home (I.E. groceries), vehicles with titles and medicines such as diabetic supplies and prescriptions.

Revenue generated from the tax would have gone toward alleviating a $1 million budget hole in fiscal year 2016 and helped stave off layoffs to make up the difference.

County officials spent months speaking out in favor of the referendum, while sounding warnings about what could happen if it did not pass.

The referendum was voted down by more than 5,200 votes in the Nov. 8 general election and since then, four layoffs at the Randolph County Courthouse were announced.

Commissioner Ronnie White announced last week that the layoffs are now on hold after sales tax revenue has shown an increase in recent months and several retirements and transitional agreements (full-time to part-time) have been accepted by the commissioners.

7. Chester Bridge replacement

After being rumored for years, 2016 brought about the first confirmed details of a plan to replace the Chester Bridge, the only Mississippi River crossing between the Jackson Barracks Bridge in south St. Louis and the Bill Emerson Memorial Bridge in Cape Girardeau.

Declared "functionally obsolete" in inspection reports, the bridge is deemed to narrow for today"s traffic standards and the Missouri Department of Transportation has been negotiating a contract with St. Louis-based CH2M to perform the required environmental study.

The contract process is expected to be complete by mid-to-late January, meaning 2017 could be a significant year for progress on the process of replacing the bridge.

6. Drew Peterson trial

After a long period of court proceedings, the Drew Peterson murder-for-hire trial finally took place in May, bringing a significant representation of Chicago media with it.

Peterson, an inmate at Menard Correctional Center in Chester and a former Bolingbrook police sergeant, was convicted in June by a Randolph County jury of attempting to arrange the killing of Will County State"s Attorney Jim Glasgow - who prosecuted Peterson"s 2012 trial for killing third wife Kathleen Savio.

Peterson - who will turn 63 on Jan. 5 - was sentenced in July to 40 years in prison by Circuit Court Judge Richard A. Brown, to be served after Peterson serves his 38-year sentence for the Savio murder.

Peterson"s appeal to his original murder sentence is pending before the Illinois Supreme Court and Peterson also plans to appeal his murder-for-hire conviction.

Peterson"s name has largely been out of the headlines since his sentencing, but the 66-year-old Glasgow took the oath of office earlier this month for his sixth term as state"s attorney.

5. T.J. Michael murder

The June 22 stabbing at Bernasek"s Bar and Grill gave Chester its first homicide investigation, outside of Menard Correctional Center, in a dozen years.

Rockwood resident London S. Williams stands accused of first-degree murder in the death of Timothy J. "T.J." Michael, who was from Chester.

The case is currently scheduled for a Jan. 23 trial date and it is a rare occurrence where the base facts - all parties agree Williams killed Michael - are not in dispute, but the method is.

Whether it was an act of aggression or self-defense is one of the key questions anticipated to be answered during the trial.

4. PDR levee fight

The ongoing battle to recertify Prairie du Rocher"s levees to satisfy FEMA requirements drew a significant amount of attention this year, with a variety of fundraising efforts undertaken to raise the remaining $62,000 needed to perform the engineering study.

If the village"s levees aren"t certified, flood insurance costs will skyrocket and could result in the economic collapse of a town set to celebrate its 300th birthday in 2022.

In early September, FEMA notified Prairie du Rocher officials that the deadline to recertify the levee had been bumped up from December 2017 to March 2017, initially causing local panic.

Later that month, FEMA officials held a meeting at the Prairie du Rocher American Legion to further explain the status of the accreditation.

FEMA is looking at starting their hazard analysis and floodplain mapping in March 2017, but this is not a "drop dead" date, just a start date for the mapping process.

The preliminary maps will be issued in November 2017, allowing FEMA to assess the risk and make further revisions. The map would be finalized in early 2019.

The Prairie du Rocher community still has time to get the requested data to FEMA, even once the mapping process has started.

Data could be submitted during the process up to late 2018, but Prairie du Rocher officials would need to give FEMA a heads-up of their intent.

3. Baldwin power plant shutdowns

On May 3, Dynegy Midwest Generation, which owns the Baldwin power plant, announced in a news release that it was mothballing two generating units at the plant, with the potential loss of 120 jobs.

According to Dynegy, the two coal-fired units were being shut down due to the facility"s inability to recover basic operating costs in a then-recent capacity auction.

The situation got a slightly better outlook on Oct. 4, when employees at the Baldwin plant were notified that Baldwin Unit 1 - originally scheduled to go offline on March 31, 2017 - would remain in operation through September 2018.

The other unit scheduled for shutdown, Baldwin Unit 3, went offline on Oct. 17, resulting in the loss of 60 jobs.

2. State budget impasse

It"s weird to talk about the budget impasse because technically, it"s still going.

The "stopgap" budget that was approved in June only delayed the inevitable, and legislators in Springfield remain without agreement on a complete state budget since July 2015.

The stopgap budget expires Sunday and the new General Assembly won"t be sworn in until Jan. 11.

Prior to the passage of the stopgap budget, the budget impasse caused area senior centers to be closed for two weeks in August, the closure of the World Shooting and Recreational Complex in October, the eventual loss of the Scholastic Clay Target Program Nationals (the WSRC"s second-largest event), the City of Chester to dish out more than $1.7 million in unfunded utility payments to state facilities and critical damage to both public and higher education, as well as social services programs.

With another potential impasse looming on the horizon, the entities that survived the first go-round and wondering how they can do so again.

1. CPD officer dies in line of duty

The Oct. 28 death of Chester police officer and volunteer firefighter James Brockmeyer shook the city to its core.

Only 22, Brockmeyer had been with the Chester Police Department just 10 months when he was fatally injured in a rollover accident while pursuing suspect Jason Michael Stoker - who allegedly repeatedly failed to stop for the officer - in a car chase on Palestine Road north of the city.

Stoker has been charged with two counts of fleeing or attempting to elude a police officer and one count each of reckless homicide and first-degree murder in alleged connection to the accident.

He has pleaded not guilty to all charges and has a case management hearing scheduled for Jan. 5 at 10 a.m.

During Stoker"s preliminary hearing, held earlier this month in Randolph County court, Illinois State Police Special Agent Farrin Melton testified that Brockmeyer was traveling 114 mph at the time of the crash.

In the days and weeks after the incident, the Chester community bonded together in support of the fallen officer. More than 85 emergency services agencies from around the region paid their respects, and Gov. Bruce Rauner also briefly attended Brockmeyer"s visitation.

Honorable Mentions

• Crystal Steinheimer sentenced to six years in prison in July for aggravated DUI in the deaths of Abby Liefer and Hannah Porter.

• The May passing of Barb Brown - former Randolph County Democratic Central Committee chairwoman, two-time Illinois Senate District 58 candidate, president of Southern Illinois Democratic Women and wife to Circuit Court Judge Richard A. Brown - at Memorial Hospital of Chester.

• Chester District 139 Board of Education's violations of the Open Meetings Act.

• The industrial fire at Falcon Foam in Perryville, the largest fire in Perryville Fire Department history with 20 fire departments responding. No injuries were reported in the fire, although minor bumps and bruises were reported by firefighters slipping and falling on the freezing water.

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