It was a year like all others, with both good news and bad. There was joy and tragedy, despair and hope. We celebrated when a local cheerleading squad won it all and then grieved when other teens perished on highways.
New businesses moved in; old ones moved out. Our leaders made us proud and then made us cringe. Young people stunned us in schools and on football fields while others were sent to prison.
It was a year of constant change, for better and for worse.
Sears announced it was leaving Lewiston while plans raced forward to build up Riverfront Island and to rejuvenate the downtown. U.S. Sen. Olympia Snowe retired after a lifetime of public service, and the state began to play with legal fireworks. A casino opened, killers were brought to justice and the weather did everything but what we expected it to do.
The year was both dazzling and dreadful, marvelous and mundane. Tomorrow it will be over, and a new one will begin. Here's hoping that 2013 will bring us more of the good news and less of the bad. Happy New Year to all.
In Jay on March 14, drama unfolded at the Verso Mill when an unhappy former employee burst into a plant office with a gun and took hostages.
The tense police standoff began when 51-year-old Frances Smith III of Norridgewock drove his car through a security gate, entered the mill and forced a human resources employee to walk in front of him while he held a shotgun on her.
The horror of the ordeal intensified as Smith held the plant manager and two others hostage, forcing the evacuation of the mill and leading to a standoff that involved several police agencies.
The standoff began at about 9:30 a.m. By early afternoon, the mill was a bizarre scene, with dozens of police cars, waiting delivery trucks and media vans from all over the state.
Smith, who was unhappy because he had been fired and because there was a blemish on his record, ultimately gave up without firing a shot. But for nine hours, his hostages feared for their lives, and one of them made a desperate bid to bring an end to the situation. That happened early into the ordeal when mill Manager Marc Connor grabbed Smith's shotgun from a desk, allowing two of the hostages to flee to safety. But Smith then loaded a handgun, held it to the manager's head and pushed him into a chair.
The standoff continued until 6:30 p.m., when Smith agreed to surrender. He did so peacefully. He was taken to jail and in November was sentenced to serve five years in prison on a variety of charges including kidnapping and criminal threatening.
Nobody was hurt in the ordeal, but things haven't been the same at the mill since it went down. At Smith's sentencing, Verso Paper attorney David Berry said the employees still are suffering from the incident, and it has affected their sense of safety and well-being.
In June, 19-year-old Kristina Lowe went into a Paris courthouse and denied a slew of charges against her, including manslaughter, two counts of drunken driving and a charge of aggravated leaving the scene of a crash.
The not-guilty plea set the stage for a trial in which the teenager will be accused of causing the deaths of two friends who died in a horrific January crash.
Lowe is charged in the deaths of Rebecca Mason, 16, of West Paris and Logan Dam, 19, of Norway. According to police, Lowe and her friends were returning to an underage drinking party in West Paris when the crash occurred around midnight Jan. 6. Another passenger, Jacob Skaff of Paris, also was injured.
Police say Lowe was drunk, speeding and sending a text message when she crashed. They say she left the scene of the crash on foot and walked to the party.
Lowe's lawyer has said a patch of ice caused the crash, not drinking or inattention. But while many mourned the deaths of the teenagers, the wreck also renewed focus on the matter of teenage texting while driving.
In mid-December, active retired Justice Robert W. Clifford partially granted a motion to suppress statements made by Lowe to Maine State Police while she was in the hospital recovering from crash-related injuries. Investigators have said Lowe admitted that she was sending a text message when she crashed.
After all the hoopla of previous years, the Oxford Casino opened in June with very little fanfare. Its beginnings were humble by design — casino managers didn't give much notice in announcing the opening date, spokesman Scott Smith said, because they didn't want the opening to be overwhelmed.
A ribbon-cutting, a reception and that was that. The much-ballyhooed casino was open for business. When the doors opened, the parking lot was about half-full. Gamers got inside without much waiting. Inside were 500 slot machines, a restaurant, a lounge and a dozen table games including blackjack, poker, craps and roulette. A tent next to the side entrance allowed customers to sign up for the casino's loyalty club before entering the building.
Opponents of the casino are still waiting for the onslaught of crime and seediness they feared. Proponents, meanwhile, point out that 95 percent of casino employees are from Maine, and most live in the region. The casino is employing about 420 full-time workers, with another 20 openings for full-time positions.
The casino is open 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and it's getting bigger. In September, the Gambling Control Board unanimously approved security for the expansion, which will add hundreds more slot machines and 10 more table games.
In December, six months after opening its doors, the Oxford Casino reported it had taken in more than $30 million in net revenues from slot machines and table games.
Killer sent to prison
In November, accused killer Juan Contreras changed his plea from innocent to guilty, admitting that he killed 81-year-old Grace Burton at her home in 2011. After entering his plea, the 28-year-old Contreras, a Guatemala native, was ordered to spend the next 50 years in prison.
The sentence ended the legal phase of the murder investigation. However, the killing of Burton has left a sense of despair among her friends and family and many questions remain.
Contreras was charged with stabbing Burton 35 times in her home at Margaret Chase Smith Apartments at 195 Fairbanks Road in Farmington June 21, 2011. For five months, the killing remained unsolved. Nobody knew who had done it or why.
Contreras was arrested in Massachusetts in November 2011. His capture was due in part to information Burton provided herself before she died and to Farmington police Sgt. Michael Adcock, who had a hunch that led him to the killer.
The arrest of Contreras settled the matter of who, but the question of why has remained a mystery.
Robbery was considered a likely motive, although it was never completely established. At his sentencing, Burton's family expressed relief that Contreras was sent away for five decades, but the fact did little to assuage the grief over their loss.
"He took my mother," said Julie Shaw, "my best friend."
Police Chief Jack Peck had wished for the day someone would be held responsible for Burton's death. When it happened and the killer was sent away, Peck acknowledged that the sentence would not take away the family's grief or the sense of fear and wonder in her neighborhood.
“The senseless murder robbed this quiet, safe community,” he told the court. “We may never know why, but now the community can start healing.”
Injured soldier comes home
In November, a strange sight as several police cars from numerous agencies escorted a limousine through Auburn and Turner and into Livermore Falls. It wasn't a rock star, exactly, but it was close. The escort was for Army policewoman Sgt. Helaina Lake who was seriously injured five months earlier in a suicide bombing in Afghanistan.
A 23-year-old graduate of Livermore Falls High School, Lake had been stationed at Camp Salerno, a forward operating base in eastern Afghanistan, when the attack by Taliban insurgents occurred, according to news reports. Some of her fellow soldiers died in the June 20 bombing. Lake, who has a young son, suffered a multitude of injuries in the blast.
She spent months in and out of Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Maryland. She underwent numerous surgeries. Among her injuries were burns, damage to an arm and a shattered leg, family members said. By November, she had undergone more than 18 surgeries and intensive physical therapy, and her treatment was not over.
When she finally returned home Nov. 20, it was to a hero's welcome. Along the route to her childhood home, many stood on the sides of roads, waving flags, saluting or simply hollering their support and appreciation. People holding flags and balloons started lining the Livermore Falls Memorial Bridge well before the motorcade went through Auburn. Firetrucks from four towns raised their ladders to create an arch with a flag flown between them. One was at the bridge, the other at Chisholm Square in Jay.
“I think it is wonderful,” Pat Knowlton of Livermore Falls said as she passed out flags at the bridge. “We’re proud of her, and we thank her for everything she has done.”
"Leave your culture at the door"
For some, it was a cringe-worthy sense of deja vu: The Lewiston mayor making an offhand comment about the city's immigrant population.
In September, Mayor Robert Macdonald drew sharp criticism for urging new immigrants, in a BBC documentary, to "... leave your culture at the door" when they come to the U.S.
The uproar was predictable. Many accused the mayor of antagonizing Lewiston's Somali community and of insulting their heritage. For some, the unpleasantness was reminiscent of former Mayor Larry Raymond's letter in 2002, in which he urged local Somalis to help slow the influx of immigrants to the city.
Embroiled in a fresh controversy, Macdonald didn't apologize for his statements, insisting his words were taken out of context. But he did offer to meet with Somali leaders and talk the matter over. By the end of the year, those talks were ongoing.
On Dec. 9, the mayor met with eight Somali men in a meeting room next door to Lisbon Street's Blue Nile Cafe. Topics of discussion ranged from American culture, housing, jobs and education, to being a soccer booster. Macdonald's point throughout the conversation was that members of Lewiston's Somali community need to step up and take their place in the city.
You'd think we'd have the weather figured out by now, but we don't. Not even close.
In the early part of 2012, the most notable thing about the weather in Maine was what wasn't there — mainly, snow. It was cold and there were flurries, but for most of the season it looked nothing like a typical Maine winter. While other parts of the nation got pummeled by storms, the ground here remained bare almost until spring.
And what a spring it turned out to be. The spring and early summer of 2012 was a time of weather extremes. In March, the region experienced record-breaking heat, with several days of temperatures in the 70s and 80s. April and May brought rainy weather and erratic temperature swings, while June dumped heavy amounts of rain on the state. By the end of June, the National Weather Service in Gray had recorded 11.03 inches of rain for the month, nearly 7 inches above average.
For most of us, it was a nuisance, as we waited to mow our lawns or roll motorcycles out of the garage. For others, the wild weather was something dreadful. After a topsy-turvy spring that scorched, froze and deluged the Maine landscape, local farmers struggled to salvage the rest of the growing season.
Autumn was no walk in the park, either, as abnormally heavy rains dampened plans and washed bright foliage from the trees. Then a new winter was upon us and again, snow seemed reluctant to come. Two days after Christmas, however, the region got walloped by a snowstorm and, with a fresh foot of the stuff on the ground, things started to look normal again.
Turnpike toll hike
Politicians pleaded and cajoled. Commuters begged, hollered and moaned. In the end, none of it mattered as a Maine Turnpike toll hike went into effect late in the year, with cash increases of 50 cents to a dollar at three toll plazas.
In the Twin Cities area, severely affected by the hikes, it was hard to not feel picked on: "The inequity of urban interstate access in Maine seems destined to plague Lewiston-Auburn forever," the Sun Journal wrote in an editorial bemoaning the structure of the toll hike.
Local politicians, such as state Rep. Peggy Rotundo, complained to turnpike officials that the toll hikes would disproportionately fall on the backs of residents of the Lewiston-Auburn area and Western Maine. Rotundo and others called for reviews of the proposed hike.
Over the summer, hundreds wrote letters or gathered at meetings to express their dissatisfaction with the plan. Workers complained that they would not be able to afford to drive to and from their jobs each day. Others pointed out that it would become too expensive just to visit relatives on a regular basis.
Turnpike authorities nodded, expressed sympathies and then went ahead with the hike, anyway. It went into effect just after midnight Nov. 1, when cash tolls increased at the York, New Gloucester and West Gardiner plazas. At the New Gloucester booth, people driving to or from the Lewiston area now pay $2.25 to pass through instead of $1.75.
Buddy Robinson sentenced
For more than a year, friends, loved ones and strangers wondered what happened to 22-year-old Christiana Fesmire, who vanished in July 2011.
In November, some of their questions were answered when 31-year-old college dropout Buddy Robinson was convicted of killing Fesmire. Prosecutors convinced a jury that Robinson killed Fesmire in a rage at a Lewiston home and then dumped her body in a wooded area.
Robinson was convicted Nov. 16 and was returned to jail to await sentencing. Just over two weeks later, acting on a tip, Lewiston police went to a section of woods off Ferry Road in Lisbon. There, next to a trail popular with ATV riders and snowmobilers, they found Fesmire's body. Police and court officials did not say whether it was Robinson who directed them to it.
By the end of December, he was still waiting to be sentenced.
Route 4 remains a perilous place
In August, a car carrying 5-year-old Danika DeMayo and her mother, Amy Liberman, was hit by a speeding truck while waiting to turn left off Route 4 . Liberman would later say it felt like her Scion was hit by a comet. When she turned to check on her daughter, the little girl was hanging from her safety seat, bloody and unconscious. The left side of her skull had been fractured in three places.
Just another crash on Route 4? Hardly. The wreck caused an uproar as residents and commuters claimed that Route 4 was poorly designed to the point of being deadly.
In October, dozens attended a meeting in Auburn to discuss the Route 4 corridor, especially the stretch between Auburn's downtown and Turner. They told horror stories of deadly wrecks and near-misses. Auburn Mayor Jonathan LaBonte, leading the meeting, said the goal was not to come up with short-term solutions, but to begin coming up with ideas and listing solutions. Those could range from changing traffic patterns to traffic controls such as medians, lights and rotaries.
Web pages were set up where residents can track crashes or report their Route 4 experiences. On the stretch near Lake Shore Drive, the scene of many crashes and near-crashes, the Maine Department of Transportation installed a sign with flashing lights to alert northbound drivers to watch for left-turning traffic. By the end of the year, dialogue was continuing as city leaders and transportation officials sought to make Route 4 safer.
Danika spent several days in a coma and more time at various rehabilitation facilities. By September, she was home with her mother, a seemingly happy child. However, doctors have advised that it will take 12 to 18 months for Danika's brain to heal from the injury, and long-term effects won't be seen right away.
Also of note
A double ice rink was approved in Auburn.
Canadian David Morse died after ski accident at Sugarloaf Mountain and calls were made for an investigation into NorthStar Ambulance service.
The west wing of Great Falls School came down in Auburn, along with a slew of old tenements in Lewiston.
Sex offender Zachary Tomaselli was sentenced to jail after making allegations of abuse against Syracuse coach Bernie Fine.
Hometown Energy in Dixfield received more than $100,000 in donations to help Mainers heat their homes.
Some RSU sending towns begin filing for divorce.
The Lewiston High School cheerleading squad won the New England championship while, in Farmington, the Mount Blue the football team took the championship after 32 years of trying.