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Year’s top 10 headlines

Readers selected memorable events, local tragedies as the year’s top stories

When we reflect on the Fredericksburg area’s biggest events of 2012, violent weather comes to mind. The July 8 microburst that destroyed Cheer Fusion gym and injured people inside topped the list for the few-hundred people who voted in our poll. The June 29 “derecho” that left 100,000 of us in the dark was No. 3.

Tragic accidents and shootings also dominate the list, but there was a bright spot. Work has finally begun on the perennially congested Falmouth intersection in southern Stafford.

1. Twenty-six kids and adults were in the Cheer Fusion All-Stars gym near Lafayette Boulevard when a microburst destroyed the 6,868-square-foot facility in July.

Nobody died, but two parents were seriously injured.

Parent Heath Mullins, who received a Civilian Lifesaving Award for his actions, suffered two broken vertebrae, a shattered knee and a broken ankle, among other injuries. Mullins was in a wheelchair until October.

Cheer Fusion owner Connie Allen said Mullens has kept his sense of humor and has even dubbed himself the “coach of awesomeness.”

In addition to Mullins, Allen and Cheer Fusion parents Bill Johnson and Michelle Smith—who broke her ankle and suffered a neck injury—received Civilian Lifesaving Awards from the Spotsylvania Sheriff’s Office. Sheriff’s deputies who responded to the incident were also recognized at a ceremony in August.

Cheer Fusion moved into a new gym in Stafford County more than a month after the microburst. Its members have since won several championships, and the senior hip–hop team earned the right to compete in a world competition in April at Disney World, Allen said.

—Jeff Branscome

2.  Brian Strobel was fighting cancer—and he was winning. He was just about to conclude months of chemotherapy. He’d come through one of the most difficult operations his surgeon had ever performed. He’d gotten good reports from his oncologist. Then, on March 7, the beloved radio icon was hit by a vehicle and killed while dog-walking in Spotsylvania. We lost the man who coaxed WFLS listeners from sleep for 30 years with his “Dooby Doo” ditty. The man who helped raise an estimated $1 million for the Salvation Army’s shoe fund. A husband and father. A friend. Brian launched his radio career at 8 and continued in the industry after retiring from WFLS in 2007. We’ll close with his farewell to his WFLS fans: “You listeners are the best in the world. You’ve been just like family to me. I love all of you. Thanks for listening.”

—Katherine Shapleigh

3. Weather experts introduced the word “derecho” to our lexicon after a violent storm system swept through Virginia the night of June 29.

AccuWeather defines a derecho as a widespread and long-lived wind storm that accompanies rapidly moving showers or thunderstorms.

The derecho knocked out power to more than 100,000 homes and businesses in the Fredericksburg area, and more than 1 million statewide. Gov. Bob McDonnell declared a state of emergency and said Virginia had experienced the largest non-hurricane power outage in the state’s history—and the fifth largest overall.

Thousands remained without power for several days as temperatures climbed into the 90s. A few-hundred unlucky customers in our area did not get their power back for a week.

—Staff report

4. At about 9:45 on the morning of Feb. 9, 54-year-old Patricia Cook was sitting in her Jeep Wrangler in a Catholic school parking lot when she was approached by Culpeper police Officer Dan Harmon–Wright.

Harmon–Wright, who had been dispatched to the scene following a suspicious persons report, engaged Cook in conversation and then, according to an eyewitness, pulled his service weapon.

The witness stated that when Cook rolled up her window and began to drive off, Harmon Wright fired once through the glass and then stepped into the street and shot several more times as Cook’s vehicle rolled slowly up North East Street and struck a utility pole.

Cook, who was not armed and had no criminal record, was reportedly shot five times and was pronounced dead at the scene. An initial Virginia State Police press release stated that Cook rolled her window up on Harmon–Wright’s arm, putting the officer in danger. It was later noted that Cook’s Wrangler did not have power windows.

In May a special investigative grand jury indicted the 32-year-old Harmon–Wright on charges of murder, malicious shooting into an occupied vehicle, malicious shooting into an occupied vehicle resulting in a death, and use of a firearm in the commission of a felony.

In addition, the grand jury also indicted Harmon–Wright’s mother, Bethany Sullivan, on charges of falsifying her son’s records when he was hired in 2006. Sullivan worked as police Chief Dan Boring’s secretary at the time.

In another odd twist in an already bizarre case, Cook’s husband, Gary, was found dead in his home in early September. The 62-year-old Cook, who had filed a $3.2 million wrongful death suit in the case, apparently died of natural causes.

Harmon–Wright’s trial is scheduled to begin on Jan. 22 in Culpeper County Circuit Court.

—Donnie Johnston

5. The Battle of Fredericksburg is a familiar story here. But December’s full-bore commemoration of the Confederate victory’s sesquicentennial has people from near and far looking at it in new ways. Events kicked into high gear in Fredericksburg on Dec. 8 with “Fire on the Rappahannock” river crossings, house-to-house fighting and the Battle of Marye’s Heights. More than 1,400 re-enactors took part.

The next day, the city’s Irish Brigade monument was rededicated. Thousands joined a procession from the Rappahannock River to Sunken Road, retracing Union footsteps. At the Stone Wall, there was music, a fireworks fusillade, U.S. military units, 21-volley howitzer salute and more.

“It will stand as one of the most deeply poignant experiences of my life,” one participant said.

C–SPAN, the Smithsonian, the National Park Service and media outlets filmed events, which concluded Dec. 15, the anniversary of the Yankees’ nighttime retreat into Stafford.

—Clint Schemmer

6. John Morton loved flying. His 13-year-old son, Kyle, loved spending time with his father.

On Saturday, Sept. 29, the two went to Shannon Airport to spend time together in the air, but something went terribly wrong. The Cessna 150M they were in crashed, killing them both.

“It’s a pilot’s wife’s worst nightmare,” Kristy Morton said in an interview two days after the crash from the family’s home in Stafford County’s White Oak area.

The crash happened after the plane took off at about 5:15 p.m. Witnesses said the Cessna went up sharply and then plummeted to the ground. It landed in the River Heights mobile home park near the airport. John, 48, and Kyle died at the scene.

The National Transportation Safety Board released its preliminary report about the crash in November, and said the plane nose-dived “following an in-flight loss of control during initial climb from Shannon Airport.”

What that loss of control was and what caused it remain unclear. The full investigation will take 12 to 18 months and will focus on the specific cause.

—Sott Shenk

 7. Laurence Alan Stewart II, who is suspected of trying to kill his former girlfriend and two Stafford deputies by bombing their homes early Oct. 30, was apprehended three days later some 2,000 miles away—in Montana, following a high-speed chase involving numerous officers. During the chase, police said, pipe bombs similar to the ones that exploded at homes here were thrown from the fleeing vehicle.

No one was seriously injured in any of the incidents here or in Montana, though significant property damage occurred at the two homes in Stafford and one in Fredericksburg.

Stewart, 25, is charged with multiple offenses locally, including two counts of attempted capital murder of a law enforcement officer.

He remains in custody near Great Falls, Mont., and faces charges as the result of the wild chase that started out as a routine traffic stop.

—Staff report

8. Call it a Christmas miracle.

After decades of debate, work has finally begun on the perennially congested Falmouth intersection, where U.S. 1 crosses U.S. 17/Butler Road in south Stafford.

Demolition of nearby buildings began on Dec. 17, and utility lines are slated to be moved underground between February and October 2013.

Actual construction on the intersection, which includes the addition of eight lanes, is expected to start in the spring of 2014. It could take two years to complete the $25 million project, which includes landscaping.

And just in time, too. By 2016, if nothing were done at the intersection, the average wait at the four-way light was projected to be nearly four minutes. With the improvements, VDOT says, the average wait will be 56 seconds.

—Edie Gross

9. Commonwealth’s attorneys in two counties ruled that the fatal shooting of a Fauquier County teen shot multiple times by two Stafford County deputies in his home on Nov. 2 was a justifiable homicide.

Evan Newsom, 17, was killed at his Tacketts Mill Road residence in Fauquier right on the Stafford line. Deputies from both jurisdictions responded there after Newsom reportedly abandoned a car and assaulted a neighbor.

A joint statement by the prosecutors indicated that the Liberty High School senior committed “suicide by police.” They wrote that an intoxicated Newsom attacked a Stafford deputy with a knife, cutting his sleeve and his arm. That deputy and another Stafford deputy responded to the “clear, direct and imminent attempt to kill or do grave bodily harm” by opening fire. Prior to that, Newsom had reportedly assaulted his mother and a neighbor.

Newsom’s mother, Angela, said before the ruling that she does not believe the shooting was justified and there was no good reason for police to go into the home to confront her son.

—Staff report

10. In November, a year and a half after a fatal bus crash in Caroline County that killed four passengers, Sky Express bus driver Kin Yiu Cheung was found guilty of four counts of involuntary manslaughter.

Cheung, 38, faces up to 40 years in prison when he is sentenced in Caroline Circuit Court on Jan. 23.

Cheung did not take the stand during his trial, but his attorneys admitted that he fell asleep while driving.

The prosecution put on 16 witnesses, mostly crash survivors, who described in detail the horrifying events that took place before the low-fare tour bus flipped over on Interstate 95 just south of the Carmel Church exit.

They described how the bus was swerving in and out of the lanes and how irritated Cheung was during a majority of the trip, where he was seen buying large quantities of coffee and Red Bull energy drink.

A front-seat passenger, who is fluent in Mandarin Chinese, said Cheung spent a lot of time on his cellphone, and she overheard him complaining that he didn’t get enough rest.

At the end of the nearly four- hour trial, Judge Joseph J. Ellis told Cheung he found his conduct “to be so gross and wanton” that he had to find him guilty of all four counts.

—Portsia Smith


The Free Lance–Star news staff also voted on the top 10 stories of 2012. Here are the results of that poll:

1. Derecho

2. Brian Strobel’s death

3. (tie) Patricia Cook case and Battle of Fredericksburg

5. Pipe bombing case

6. Microburst destroys Cheer Fusion

7. (tie) Michael Hash freed after 12 years in prison after judge dismisses 2000 murder charge. Special prosecutor later declares Hash “totally free.” And Evan Newsom case

9. (tie) Mary Katherine Greenlaw elected as Fredericksburg’s first female mayor; U.S. National Slavery Museum bankruptcy debacle; voting machine problems in Spotsylvania County on Election Day