(Undated) – As the countdown to the new year begins, Eagle 99.3 News is counting down the top ten southeast Indiana news stories of 2012.
Eagle 99.3 made the list based of each story’s impact, its longevity, and how popular it was on our website, www.EagleCountryOnline.com.
Share your thoughts on our top local news stories of 2012 on Eagle 99.3’s Facebook page.
1. Deadly EF3 Tornado Strikes Holton – March
Holton residents sift through what remains of their home following an EF3 tornado March 2, 2012.
What had been a rainy, gloomy Friday afternoon turned quickly into one of the worst natural disasters ever seen in southeast Indiana on March 2. A deadly tornado struck the Ripley County town of Holton.
A line of storms spawned several tornadoes as it blew across southern Indiana. Touchdowns were also recorded in Jefferson, Washington, Clark, and Scott counties. Twelve people in the region died as a result of the storms.
Two of the deaths occurred in Holton. The EF3 tornado packing winds up to 140 MPH swept through the heart of town along U.S. 50 claiming the lives of Holton resident Ron Picket and Armando Hernandez, a Mexican national visiting friends in town. Six other people were injured.
Property damage in Ripley County due to the weather events that day was estimated at $6 million. Months later, some aspects of the town and residents are still rebuilding.
2. The Leigh Jennings Murder – March-May
Charles "Robert" Stephenson
Aurora resident Leigh Jennings is remembered by friends and family as a nice, caring woman. She worked at a barber shop in Florence where she became friends with Charles “Robert” Stephenson.
Jennings invited Stephenson over to her apartment on Aspen Ridge Road on March 29. Dearborn County authorities believe during that visit, which included pizza for dinner, Stephenson used a pepper grinder and metal skillet to beat the 67-year-old woman to death.
Stephenson then allegedly took $1,000 in cash from Jennings’ safe in order to pay off a court-ordered debt to another relative. On May 10, prosecutors announced that Stephenson had been charged with Murder.
Stephenson remains in jail in Dearborn County awaiting his trial currently scheduled for May 6, 2013. If convicted of the murder, Stephenson could face the death penalty.
3. Acapulco Mexican Restaurants Raided, Owners Charged - September
Employees at Acapulco Mexican Restaurant in Lawrenceburg are arrested by Indiana State Excise Police September 24, 2012.
The reigning business of the year in Dearborn County, Acapulco Mexican Restaurants suffered a fall from grace that surprised many of its former customers.
Indiana Excise Police performed a surprise raid of the restaurant’s locations in Dearborn, Ohio, and Ripley counties September 24. The owners of the restaurants were allegedly not reporting $4.4 million in cash sales and dodging taxes.
More than $3 million dollars was seized during the raids.
During later court proceedings, it was revealed that Adolfo Lopez – owner or part-owner of many of the restaurants – was using almost exclusively illegal immigrants to staff the restaurants.
Lopez, of Greendale, remains in jail on a high bond at the Dearborn County Law Enforcement Center as his case has yet to go to trial. His wife, Maria, was also arrested, but she continues to operate the Lawrenceburg Acapulco location.
4. Rising Sun Man Accused Of Murdering Baby - July
Rising Sun resident Brian Woeste and his family maintain that he is innocent, but investigators say they have evidence proving otherwise.
Woeste, 26, was the live-in boyfriend of Michelle Helfrich. One afternoon, the baby was taken to the hospital while Michelle was attending class at Ivy Tech in Lawrenceburg and Woeste was babysitting Nolan.
The child died at the hospital a couple days later. An autopsy determined the cause of death was blunt force trauma to the head, neck, and torso.
In July, charges were filed in Ohio County against Woeste. They include Murder, Battery Resulting in Death of a Person Less than Fourteen Years of Age (Class A Felony), two counts of Neglect of a Dependent Resulting in Death (both Class A Felonies).
Woeste remains held in the Switzerland County Jail as he awaits his trial in Ohio Circuit Court.
Nolan Helfrich didn’t live happily for much of his one year of life. He had been confiscated by the Indiana Department of Child Services in early 2011 following the discovery of a broken femur and ribs. He was in foster care for eight of his twelve months.
5. Shootout In Downtown Lawrenceburg - June
William C. Hoffman, Jr.
A shootout between police and a gunman rocked downtown Lawrenceburg the night of June 7.
Lawrenceburg Police responded to a domestic situation at a home on East Williams Street. The suspect, William C. Hoffman, Jr., barrickaded himself in the home.
Towards the end of the six-hour standoff, Hoffman began shooting at officers outside, who returned fire. Hoffman was hit and taken into custody.
Hoffman, 31, remains in jail on Attempted Murder charges. He is scheduled to go to jury trial on June 3, 2013 and could be sentenced to up to 92 years if convicted.
6. Facing Declines, SEI Casinos Invest In Themselves – Various Dates
Early construction began at the site of the Lawrenceburg Hotel and Event Center at the corner of High and Walnut Streets in October.
The changes seen in the southeast Indiana casino gaming market doesn’t come as much of a surprise to the companies who own the three riverboats. Revenues at the local riverboats have been declining through the year as new competition opens up in the form of four new voter-approved casinos in Ohio.
However, the riverboats are still making investments in themselves in hopes of keeping attendance and revenue figures up. Hollywood Casino is partnering with Lawrenceburg to build a new $49 million event center and hotel downtown. About a year after the agreement between the city and Penn National Gaming was signed, work finally began at the site along the downtown Ohio River levee in October. The facility is expected to open in early 2014.
A new hotel planned at Rising Star Casino in Rising Sun has experienced a similar delay thanks to a zoning battle. Work began on the 104-room hotel in early December. Rising Star Casino executives say the hotel will aid in protecting the future revenue stream of the city and regional foundation from an increasingly competitive marketplace.
The hotel is being paid for and developed by Rising Sun-Ohio County First and the Rising Sun Regional Foundation.
Belterra Casino in Switzerland County recently announced $11 million in improvements over the next few years.
Uncertainty remains ahead for southeast Indiana’s riverboats in 2013. The closest competition yet – the $400 million Horseshoe Casino in downtown Cincinnati – will open to the public on March 4, 2013.
7. Aurora Casket Company Sold – July
Aurora Casket Company had been privately owned by five generations by the Backman and Barrott families since it opened in 1890. That changed in July.
The local employer was sold to New York-based private equity firm Kohlberg & Company, LLC. According to a company news release, the merger is expected to accelerate Aurora Casket’s growth both organically and through acquisition, backed by the strength of Kohlberg’s private equity funds.
Both before and after the sale, rumors of layoffs swirled around the company and the Aurora community.
8. Vehicle Crashes Claim Young Lives – Various Dates
East Central High School junior Jacob Amberger died in a car crash on his way to catch the team bus for a soccer game October 6.
A series of vehicle accidents which claimed the lives of local high school students throughout the course of 2012. Jac-Cen-Del High School senior Emily Huntington died in a texting-while-driving accident in Ripley County last December 30. Classmates honored the Lady Eagle basketball star’s memory by creating a video PSA denouncing texting at the wheel.
East Central’s Jacob Amberger, 17, was one of two people who died in an October 6th crash on State Road 46. The junior was driving to catch the bus to join his soccer teammates in a state tournament match.
The soccer team’s game that was supposed to be played that night was postponed. When it was played on October 9, the team pulled off an emotional 2-0 sectional championship victory. The win was dedicated to Amberger.
South Ripley’s Emily Mathes was fatally injured when an off-road vehicle she was driving overturned on Woods Road in southern Ripley County. Emily, a freshman, participated in South Ripley’s volleyball and softball programs. She was a member of the school’s French Club and Students Against Drunk Driving chapter.
Switzerland County middle schooler Brianna Hite, 13, died in a crash on State Road 250 near East Enterprise on September 1. Brianna, a twin sister, is remembered for her love of playing volleyball, basketball, watching TV, singing, drawing and dancing.
9. Infighting Among Lawrenceburg City Council – Various Dates
Folk seeking a display of cooperation may want to avoid Lawrenceburg City Council meetings. A division among council members has caused disagreement on everything from the city budget to city grants.
Council members Mike Lawrence, Doug Taylor, and Jane Pope – each elected in November 2011 – began their terms by outvoting fellow councilmen Bill-Bill Bruner and Aaron Cook on hiring an attorney to counsel city council. In past years, the council had simply deferred that responsibility to the city attorney.
The council majority submitted a 2013 budget which eliminated funding for a number of key city positions, and slashed spending for the Dearborn Adult Center and Lawrenceburg Main Street. That budget was quickly vetoed by Mayor Dennis Carr, resulting in the budget reverting to 2012’s spending plan.
The three council members also voted to approve a state investigation into the city.
The antics could continue for the remainder of the council’s four-year term.
10. 2012 Elections – May and November
Indiana Gubernatorial candidates John Gregg (left) and Mike Pence both campaigned in Dearborn County on November 1, just days ahead of the general election.
The November elections saw a number of changes brought to county offices in the region. Two new county commissioners were elected in Dearborn County. A judge’s race in Franklin County prompted one candidate receiving disciplinary action from a state judicial committee.
Republican Congressman Mike Pence won for years in the Indiana governor’s office by besting Democrat candidate John Gregg.
-The gruesome neglect and death of former longtime Dearborn County employee Priscilla “Pody” Frieberger.
-A large fire at JTS Plaza in Lawrenceburg that shut down U.S. 50 for several hours.
-A father and son duo who robbed the Tandy’s IGA in Aurora received long prison sentences.
-Disabled Bright teenager Sonya Balsley went missing from her home for nearly 24-hours, telling police she was taken by two men. No arrests have been made.
-Plane crashes in Greensburg and Versailles claimed a total of six lives.