Merger, Gallant among area’s top 10 stories of 2017

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Try describing 2017 in a concise way. We dare you.

In Maine, as in the rest of the country, it was a year that started with a loud and often ugly political debate that never seemed to end. There were scandals of all kinds and tragedies almost too immense to bear.

Locally, the idea to combine Lewiston and Auburn into one city spurred vigorous debate that occasionally mutated into something darker than typical political discourse. News of a missing TV weatherman transformed into a suicide and allegations of rape that floored the community. A deeply respected county sheriff went down in the flames of scandal after lewd photographs were given to a television news station.

The Sun Journal published a story about one woman’s brutal ride in a prisoner transport van that would outrage many and change the way authorities in Maine move their inmates. The scourge of heroin and prescription drugs continued unabated while pot began moving into the mainstream — in a confusing fit of stops and starts.

Will the slopes of Saddleback ever be dotted with happy skiers again? Is there anyone left who ISN’T running for Maine governor? Will Lewiston’s mayoral run-off system continue to produce drawn-out — but close and entertaining — races?

In July, the Costello family announced that after four generations of ownership, it was selling the Sun Journal and 16 other publications to the owner of MaineToday Media, parent company of the Portland Press Herald. Around the same time, a popular marathon runner got into a foot race with bears.

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It is hard to describe the year that was and even more difficult to narrow down the selection of top news stories to just 10. We did our best, though, and what follows are the stories our news team has deemed the most interesting and impactful. Read them all and then come up with your own adjectives to describe the year that has come and gone.

• The Great Debate: The proposal to merge Lewiston and Auburn

It is difficult to imagine anything in recent years that galvanized the Twin Cities community like the proposed merger of Lewiston and Auburn.

Throughout the year, hearings and public debates were held on both sides of the Androscoggin River. Campaign signs were placed and T-shirts printed. Every time a public debate was held, the hall was full of supporters and opponents. Between the debates, the arguments still raged — in barrooms, around office water coolers and on social media pages created to further the discourse.

As the year wound down toward Election Day in November, the two sides polished their arguments like swords. Those for the merger, including the group One LA, insisted that a combined Lewiston-Auburn would be a political powerhouse with lower taxes, improved schools and a kind of community vibrancy that other cities covet. This group was represented by some of the communities’ most powerful people, Gene Geiger and Chip Morrison among them. Gov. Paul LePage and Lewiston Mayor Robert MacDonald also supported the merger.

On the other side were those passionately against the idea of marrying the two cities, in particular the Coalition Opposed to Lewiston-Auburn Consolidation led by active citizens that included Bob Stone and Robert Reed. Their vision of the combined cities portended an economically grim scene where seniors and struggling young families have to fork over $5 million in transition costs even before they are hit with $2 million in new costs related to the merger. Only a select few would benefit from the merger, they insisted. And it was those select few pushing the idea, they said.

The debate divided the people of both communities and exposed clear rifts among our public servants. And then, after months of airing the merits of the issue in debates, forums and often-over-the-top social media posts, the people of Lewiston and Auburn had the final say. They decided it emphatically: The proposed merger lost 6,540 to 3,315 in Lewiston and by 6,330 to 1,202 in Auburn.

“It is my hope that this vote will put an end to the idea of merger for at least another 100 years,” said attorney Jim Howaniec, chairman of COLAC.

Former Oxford County Sheriff Wayne Gallant stepped down in December amid a sex scandal. (Sun Journal file photo)

• Oxford County sheriff resigns amid sex scandal

It was the kind of news that left many thunderstruck. Respected Oxford County Sheriff Wayne Gallant was accused of taking lewd photos of himself and sending them to a local woman. Worse still, the allegations claimed the sheriff was in uniform and in his office when the photos were taken.

Those who knew Gallant well said they could not believe it. The allegations, though, were impossible to deny – when news station WGME reported the allegations against Gallant in late November, the station also presented a key piece of evidence: One of the photos in question showed Gallant exposing his genitals while wearing his sheriff’s uniform.

For Gallant and his supporters, the story would only get worse. A day after the story broke, a police union official announced Gallant had propositioned a male deputy and his girlfriend, threatening to fire the deputy after his advances were rejected.

Gallant denied those claims. He did, however, admit he sent the lewd photo to a woman. He shortly after resigned from the Maine Sheriffs’ Association, of which he had served as president, but stayed on as county sheriff.

“I bring discredit to myself, to my uniform, my badge and the Maine Sheriffs’ Association,” Gallant wrote in his statement.

Even as ugly details emerged about the alleged sexual misconduct, it wasn’t immediately clear whether Gallant would lose his job as county sheriff, a position he’d held since 2006. At a county budget meeting the day the photo surfaced, Gallant insisted he had done nothing illegal.

“It was an adult thing,” the sheriff said, “that happened two years ago.”

But the scandal continued to spiral into dark places. On Nov. 27, Oxford County Administrator Scott Cole confirmed that the county was investigating Gallant.

“The sheriff tolerated, engaged in and fostered inappropriate sexual conduct within the department and workplace in violation of law and county policy on sexual harassment, all of which it was the sworn duty of the sheriff to uphold and enforce,” according to the County Commission’s complaint against Gallant.

On Dec. 6, facing the prospect of being removed by Gov. Paul LePage, Gallant resigned his position, submitting a one-page letter to the County Commission and the Governor’s Office.

• Teen’s suicide spurs community discussion

On a Friday night in late May, more than 200 people jammed into the Green Ladle at the Lewiston High School to discuss some grim facts.

They talked about the many pressures teenagers face on a daily basis. Some sobbed as they wondered aloud whether their own children were unhappy. A few of them offered up potential solutions. Mostly they just talked and cried and then talked some more.

This outpouring of grief and sharing of ideas followed the death of 13-year-old Ani Graham, who committed suicide May 23.

Graham’s death stunned and saddened the Lewiston-Auburn community. It also served as a call to action.

In the days following her suicide, community conversations were held and mental health experts consulted. Protests were organized, grief counselors were consulted and school administrators examined and then re-examined their protocols for dealing with student deaths.

In the week following Graham’s death, hundreds of students saw in-school clinicians every day for nearly a week, according to one Lewiston school official. More than four dozen students were taken to hospitals for evaluation of self-harm, and many others were identified by school staff as at-risk for harm and referred for treatment.

A month after Graham’s death, officials at the middle school still wondered if they had done all they could for the kids in the hours and days that followed.

“We won’t know for years if we did it right, and we have to carry that,” said Principal Jake Langlais. “The real answer will come with time.”

Megan Quinn, in the Androscoggin County Jail, tells the story of her horrific transport last year, from Florida to Maine. (Sun Journal file photo)

• Rough ride: Sun Journal investigation reveals horrors of prisoner transport

A jail inmate’s letter to the Sun Journal at the start of the year was transformed into a harrowing tale of prisoner abuse that forced the District Attorney’s Office to reconsider the private company it uses to transport inmates.

En route to the Androscoggin County Jail from Florida, Meghan Quinn spent five days locked in a small cage in the back of a van, her hands cuffed to her belly, her ankles shackled together. Except for infrequent occasions, the van drivers refused to stop. When her menstrual cycle started, she was forced to sit in her blood-soaked pants for hours before one of the drivers finally tossed her a pad. She was told to pee in a plastic bag and, at one point, had to use the packaging from her $2 burger as a toilet in full view of strange men, who, like Quinn, were bound and locked in the back of the van but not caged.

In a dramatic interview with Sun Journal reporter Christopher Williams, Quinn provided these details and more as she described the hellish ride she endured in U.S. Prisoner Transport van No. 1304. The result was an award-winning news story that would appall many while changing the face of prisoner transport in Maine. In the days following the March 26 report and accompanying editorial, the newspaper heard from dozens of other people who had been transported by the same company and who had endured experiences similar to Quinn’s.

In response to the unsettling allegations, Androscoggin County District Attorney Andrew Robinson announced the county would stop using U.S. Prisoner Transport. He would later reach out to district attorneys across Maine to encourage them to cancel their contracts. As result, they all did.

By the end of the year, Quinn was free and engaged in a lawsuit against U.S. Prisoner Transport.

Tom Johnston

• Meteorologist Tom Johnston’s suicide and sex assault investigation

When popular TV meteorologist Thomas Johnston was reported missing April 3, that news was stunning enough by itself. In the days that followed, the story would develop into a drama full of intrigue and darkness, leaving Johnston’s viewers and fans reeling from the weight of it.

Johnston, 46, was reported missing April 3 by his family. Police across the region were on the lookout, but particularly in Auburn. Investigators had pinged Johnston’s cellphone, which showed that he was in the area of Danville Corner Road in Auburn.

On April 6, three days after Johnston had been reported missing, the Auburn Police Department received a call stating Johnston’s vehicle had been located on Cascade Road in Auburn, and that it had been there for several days. Police searched a wooded area nearby and found Johnston’s body, according to the report. Police discovered that Johnston had cut his wrists with a razor blade, causing him to lose a significant amount of blood.

Shortly after, the story grew into something almost surreal.

Nearly a month after his body was found, Johnston was identified by police in Oxford County as the sole suspect in a sexual assault in Newry. Rumors of that nature had been circulating, but now it was official.

Police said Johnston had been in Newry for Sunday River ski resort’s Springfest when the alleged sex assault occurred. The woman who reported the assault said she had awakened from a nap to find Johnston in bed with her. Johnston had removed her clothing as she slept, the woman told police. He then fled when confronted.

Following Johnston’s death, Oxford County Sheriff’s officials announced that, had he lived, he would have been charged with felony gross sexual assault. Instead, he was mourned quietly by his family and by the people of WCSH 6, where he had been employed.

• Marijuana legalization: To grow or not to grow?

If you tried to follow Maine’s marijuana laws and regulations throughout the year, you probably got a little dizzy.

Many people bought property with a pot business in mind, but then had to wait as the state struggled to implement an approved citizen initiative to legalize the recreational use of marijuana in Maine.

On Nov. 6, the Maine House voted to sustain Gov. Paul LePage’s veto of a bill that would create legal framework for the retail sale of recreational marijuana. The bill was the result of more than nine months of work by a special committee tasked with implementing the ballot box law, but LePage and others had concerned with the legislation.

The sale of recreational marijuana is set to become legal Feb. 1, even though lawmakers failed in 2017 to put a licensing and regulatory structure in place. They continue to work on the regulations.

In a related matter, it was announced in December that the state will start cracking down on the increasing number of labs and kitchens that specialize in turning cannabis into a product that does not have to be smoked – foods, tinctures, salves and vaporizer waxes.

The state Department of Health and Human Services said processors, labs and kitchens that turn caregiver cannabis into manufactured products, such as foods, oral tinctures, topical salves and vaporizer waxes for medical marijuana caregivers, are breaking state rules and will face harsh penalties, such as losing their caregiver licenses or referrals to law enforcement. Inspectors are warning caregivers that the crackdown is to begin Feb. 1.

Maine is scheduled to start legal retail sales of recreational marijuana on July 1, 2018, the same month that Massachusetts and Canada are scheduled to begin legal sales. Medical marijuana is already legal in Maine.

Lewiston oral surgeon Jan Kippax at a hearing Friday to determine what, if any, sanctions board members would impose on him for alleged violations of professional standards. The Maine Board of Dental Practice decided not to bring any sanctions against Kippax. (Steve Collins/Sun Journal)

• Lewiston dentist on the hot seat

The complaints against Lewiston dentist Jan Kippax were as horrible as they were numerous.

Throughout the year, a multitude of former patients came forward to detail their experiences in Kippax’s chair. Among those experiences, more than a dozen former patients claimed the dentist removed the wrong teeth, failed to provide pain medication, sliced a nerve, broke a jaw and displayed a cavalier attitude toward the difficulties that plague the often low-income people seeking treatment from him.

In February, the Maine Board of Dental Practice took action against the 57-year-old Kippax, suspending his license to practice and ordering a hearing to determine what, if any, discipline it should impose on him. That action followed nearly 200 complaints from 18 patients about the care they received from Kippax between December 2014 and the summer of 2016.

When the suspension was announced, it seemed possible the board might strip Kippax of his right to practice dentistry in Maine.

But by the time the panel got around to holding a formal hearing on Kippax’s alleged misconduct, the state had streamlined the accusations to include 64 charges involving his treatment of five patients. By the end of the year, the state had dropped 32 of the charges and the board wiped out 28 more, and part of one other. The moves left 3 1/2 charges intact, involving two patients. Those charges were the focus when Kippax’s hearing resumed Dec. 29. 

James Belleau, the lawyer for Kippax, said he was convinced that once the panel heard his side of the case, the remaining charges would be tossed out. It turns out he was right. On Dec. 29, Maine’s dental overseers threw out the remaining charges against Kippax, bringing the sensational case to an end.

• Opioid epidemic continues in Maine

It was another year marked by a scourge of problems associated with the use of prescription painkillers, heroin and the synthetic opioid fentanyl. The opioid crisis continued across the country, and Maine experienced its share.

By the year’s midpoint, it was announced that 185 people in the state had already died of drug overdoses in 2017. Maine was on track to equal its grim number from 2016, when 376 died due to opiates.

In June, a woman checking on a pair of friends at an apartment on Mill Street in Auburn made a grim discovery: The man and woman living there had died from an overdose of a heroin mix. Deidre Hall, 49, was dead by the time police arrived. Her friend, 50-year-old Kevin Cooper, hung on for another day before he died, too.

For drug officials here, it was a variation on the same old story. With heroin varying from batch to batch, users have no way of knowing what they are getting.

“You don’t know what the drug is or what the cut is,” Maine Drug Enforcement Agency Supervisor Matt Cashman said at the time. “Whether it’s fentanyl, whether it’s pure fentanyl, whether it’s heroin, whether it’s a mixture. . . . You don’t know what the concoction is.”

In December, a special legislative task force assembled to address the problem of opioid addiction released a 27-page report. Among other findings, the report called for an expansion of treatment options and better education for youth on the topic of addiction.

“Every day we hesitate, (it) literally means the death of another Mainer,” said Rep. Jay McCreight of Harpswell, chairman of the task force.

Maine Attorney General Janet Mills put it in even more stark terms: “The opioid epidemic continues to devastate our communities, both rural and urban, all across Maine. It is the greatest challenge of our time.”

A slope of Saddleback Mountain ski resort can be seen covered in natural snow. The ongoing silence about the fate of the resort has prompted concern and rumors among the residents and business owners in Rangeley. (Sun Journal file photo)

• Saddleback sold? We’ll see

What will become of Saddleback Maine?

Since 2015, Maine’s third-largest ski resort has been waiting for the right owner to swoop in and make it operational again. But the popular resort has remained closed for two seasons as the Berry family pursues prospective buyers.

For a time, it seemed that 2017 would be the year. Saddleback owners Bill and Irene Berry of Farmington announced June 28 that they would sell the Rangeley ski area to the Australia-based Majella Group. Majella CEO Sebastian Monsour said at that time the company would buy Saddleback by the end of the summer and turn it into the “premier ski area in North America.”

In the ski community, there was great excitement about the prospect. However, great excitement is not enough to get chairlifts working and skiers onto the slopes.

As has happened in recent years, months passed without a finalized deal. Random posts would appear on the Saddleback Facebook page, where vague details about the pending sale were offered. There was one such post in September and another in October.

In November, a post on the Saddleback Facebook page offered nothing but confusion. Monsour, who signed the post, said the Majella Group is “continuing to work to successfully finalize this sale. I am wholeheartedly committed to this deal.”

But he also deemed the pending sale a “complex and challenging deal. It has posed numerous challenges to our investors.”

Come December, as skiers at other resorts were celebrating early snow, the slopes at Saddleback remained unused, and hopes for a sale remained murky. Fans of the resort have become accustomed to dashed hopes instead of good times on the Saddleback trails.

“I’m not holding my breath given the way things have gone over the past two years,” said Tracy Sesselberg of Cape Elizabeth. “I hate to say it, but we’ve heard this all before. It’s a little like the boy who cried wolf.”

Jon Pitman casts his ballot at the Lewiston Memorial Armory. The merger vote was on the ballot. (Sun Journal file photo)

• Plenty of politics

In Auburn, Jason Levesque became mayor in November by a scant 12 votes. It was a close race that required a recount, but it turns out that in the Twin Cities, that was the easy recount.

In Lewiston on Election Night, progressive Ben Chin led the pack with 42 percent of the vote in a five-way race for the mayor’s office. His opponent Shane Bouchard grabbed 29 percent, enough to put him ahead of fellow City Council veteran Mark Cayer, who earned 24 percent of the vote.

Cayer was out. Bouchard and Ben Chin were slated for a runoff vote, as called for under Lewiston regulations, and most political insiders agreed it would be a close one. Turns out it was. A month after Election Day, Bouchard overcame Chin by a mere 145 votes, securing the mayor’s office and sending Chin to his second straight runoff defeat.

It seemed like all of politics in 2017 had to have some drama. Maine will next elect a new governor and, by the end of the year, the cast of candidates has already gotten crowded.

When U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, a Republican, announced in October she would not run, the battle to be the GOP’s candidate was on. By the end of the year, five candidates had officially declared they would run, including State House Minority Leader Ken Frechette and Senate Majority Leader Garrett Mason. U.S. Rep Bruce Poliquin is still considered a strong potential candidate, as are former Secretary of State Charlie Summers and two others.

On the Democratic side, the field is even thicker. By late December, 10 candidates had declared their intentions to run for governor, including Maine Attorney General Janet Mills and former Speaker of the Maine House Mark Eves. Another four, including former U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud and former Gov. John Baldacci, have said they might run.

The numbers of candidates were smaller in the Green and Libertarian parties, although five independent candidates had declared by the end of the year, including former state Senator and Lewiston Mayor John Jenkins.

Maine’s two U.S. senators were also in the thick of the Republican tax reform bill that was narrowly approved at the end of the year. Collins threw her support to the reform package after consulting with several economists who convinced her it would create growth without adding to the deficit. Meanwhile, Sen. Angus King expressed concern that few lawmakers actually knew what was included within the tax bill, predicting that it would be found to contain “some pretty stinky stuff.”

Marube Moninda points to the house on Spring Road in Auburn where he sought refuge after a pair of bears chased him earlier this year when he was out for a run. (Sun Journal file photo)

BONUS: Bearing down on Moninda Marube

Moninda Marube usually runs for fun and sport. In July, the professional marathon runner said he had to step it up a bit in order to outpace a pair of black bears who charged him on the Whitman Spring Road Trail, near Lake Auburn.

Marube, an Auburn resident born in Kenya, said he considered several options when the bears ran at him during his July 5 morning run.

Climb a tree? No good. Bears can climb trees, too.

Jump in the lake? Also out, Marube said, because he cannot swim.

Stand still and hope for the best? Come on! Who does that?

In the end, Marube did what he does best. He ran, adding a scream of fright to his morning routine as he dashed for an abandoned house, where he took refuge on a screened-in porch.

Marube survived the harrowing chase, which would ultimately make national headlines. In the days that followed, wildlife experts were quick to point out that when confronting an aggressive black bear or two, running is not advisable for most people.

Of course, this was not most people. It was Moninda Marube. If you want to give him advice on how to deal with wildlife, you will have to catch him first.

 

 

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