EDITOR'S NOTE: The JG-TC staff chooses the Top 10 news stories each year based on a number of factors. The rankings are affected by things such as impact to the area, uniqueness, and level of interest among readers both in print and online.
MATTOON -- The Sept. 20 shooting at Mattoon High School has been chosen as the JG-TC's No. 1 story in the Coles County area for 2017.
On that day, a male student pulled a firearm out while in the cafeteria and started to aim the gun at a girl, but MHS teacher Angie McQueen grabbed him by the arm and the shot hit another student instead, according to authorities. More shots were fired into the cafeteria's ceiling before McQueen and Mattoon police school resource officer Kasey Alexander subdued the boy, according to accounts in court records.
The injured boy, reportedly not the actual target, who was shot during the incident before the shooter -- alleged to be Josiah Lyons, 14 -- was subdued, was hit in the upper chest, but accounts indicate that he is recovering from his wounds.
In the wake of the incident, high schoolers immediately were transported or walked to safety at Riddle Elementary School on the west side of town. Law enforcement authorities from numerous area agencies converged on the high school to handle the situation. School nurse Vicky Wright has been hailed for treating the injured student until EMTs arrived.
Area communities and schools rallied to support Mattoon. Students at other schools wore green in solidarity with MHS. A movement to create and sell #Mattoonstrong T-shirts raised a significant sum to go to the district for potential security needs.
In November, a hearing was held in Coles County Circuit Court to address subpoenas for records regarding the accused teenager. Psychiatrist Lawrence Jeckel had requested these records for his mental health evaluation of Lyons. The evaluation will address the possibility of insanity at the time of the incident, whether the boy is a risk to himself or others, and if he is able to understand and help with his case.
After these records were made available to Jeckel via court order, the hearing for Lyons was continued to Jan. 11 to give the psychiatrist time to complete his evaluation.
Some sources have indicated that bullying might have been the motivation for the shooting, but authorities have not released information regarding any possible motive. Authorities have not said how the boy was able to bring the gun inside the school.
The suspect is a juvenile, but the JG-TC has opted to use his name, as his identity has been widely disseminated and already made public.
Here are the other nine of the Top 10 stories of 2017.
2. The Airtight Bridge murder solved.
An unusual cold murder case was brought to a conclusion in 2017 after decades of mystery.
On Oct. 19, 1980, the body of a nude woman with her head, hands and feet missing was found in the Embarras River in Coles County near the Airtight Bridge. A dozen years later, with the advent of DNA testing and a sister's concern helping, the body was identified as that of a woman from Bradley in Kankakee County, Diane Marie Riordan Small.
But the case went cold. Then, it was reopened five years ago, when Illinois State Police agreed to do a crime scene investigation in the house where Diane Small had lived with her husband, Thomas. Blood was found, but ultimately not enough for conclusive tests.
Late last year, law enforcement officials in Coles County got the go-ahead from current Sheriff Jimmy Rankin to travel to Kankakee County and try to question Thomas Small, 70 years old by then. On March 1, they located Small at the apartment building where he lived.
After more than two days of talks with Thomas Small, he confessed to killing his wife and disposing of her body. He said he drove randomly until finally turning onto the dirt road to the bridge about four miles northeast of Charleston, one of the most remote areas in the county. He said he removed the body parts with an ax to hinder identification of the torso.
After the interview, Bradley police were notified and arrested Small. Eight months later, he pleaded guilty to a first-degree murder charge and was sentenced to 30 years in prison.
3. The status of Eastern Illinois University's budget.
The JG-TC did two story series this year regarding EIU's budget situation and the effects of the state's long budget impasse.
It was none too soon for the university when Illinois leaders enacted a budget for 2017-18 that included funding for public educational institutions. The budget agreement that was reached in July after a 736-day impasse.
In his annual State of the University address in September, EIU President David Glassman noted the relief that the budget brought to Eastern but also reminded the community that the university will have to continue to remain fiscally conservative in spending due to the toll that the state budget impasse took on the university and due to the state's continued fiscal uncertainty.
But Glassman noted that EIU has upward trending student enrollment projections for 2018-19.
In the local districts, state Sen. Dale Righter, R-Mattoon, and state Rep. Reggie Phillips, R-Charleston, supported the university via their votes to override the governor’s veto of the budget bills, "even against their own political interests," Glassman noted. Both representatives took heat from some constituents for agreeing to back the budget.
Discussion is continuing into the new year regarding possible budget cuts in the athletic department and the possibility of cutting any of the 21 sports programs of the university.
University leaders are still closely watching the movement in Springfield as the deadline for the next budget comes up. Some at the university are dubious of getting a budget this year.
4. Youth basketball program coach accused of sexually abusing former players.
Barry S. Wolfe, 53, of Martinsville is charged in Coles County with multiple offenses alleging sexual activity with two teenage girls on several occasions between March 2013 and September 2015.
He was a coach and developer of the Central Illinois Storm, an area American Athletic Union basketball program for girls age 17 and younger in Illinois and Indiana.
In court testimony, Lt. Sam Gaines of the Mattoon Police Department said the girls said Wolfe told them "I am your way to college" and the sexual conduct was part of showing their loyalty to him.
Gaines said one former player of Wolfe's came forward in October out of fear that Wolfe was going to visit her at the college she attended. She and others said Wolfe ignored repeated requests to not contact them, he said.
In late November, a judge said a high bond was needed for Wolfe, but a lack of a criminal record led the judge to agree to reduce his bond, though several restrictions are in place. Wolfe would have to post $200,000 to be released from jail. The judge lowered it from a level that meant $550,000 would have to be posted.
No-contact provisions are in place and Wolfe must be on electronically monitored home confinement if he does post bond, the judge ordered. He is due in court next on Feb. 5.
5. Coles County reassesses commercial property and continues to face opposition and lawsuit.
In mid-December the Coles County Board heard that an appeal is planned on the dismissal of a lawsuit against a county reassessment project, as the criticism of the effort reached the one-year mark.
James DiNaso of the Concerned Taxpayers of Coles County also told the board the group plans a second lawsuit covering the latest phase of the reassessment.
"The current lawsuit is far from being over," DiNaso also said, as the JG-TC reported previously. He also vowed "lawsuit after lawsuit" if the reassessment project continues.
The Concerned Taxpayers' federal lawsuit against the county was dismissed earlier in December, with a judge saying the legal action belonged in state court.
The case was a result of the dispute between the Concerned Taxpayers and the county that started with the reassessment of commercial and industrial property in Mattoon Township. The lawsuit's contention was the approach violated constitutional equal protection requirements.
With the project now in its next stage, DiNaso said the group has similar plans to oppose the recently completed reassessment of Charleston Township's business property.
The project started because the county's commercial and industrial property hadn't received new values for taxing purposes since 2001. The plan divided the county into four sections with one reassessed each year.
The complaints and criticism started in December 2016, shortly after Mattoon Township business owners received notices of their new property values. That since evolved into a more organized opposition that included the lawsuit.
Concerned Taxpayers member Robb Perry also said the group will appeal the lawsuit's dismissal and read a statement from the group's attorney that criticized the federal judge's decision.
It said state courts don't allow for the kind of legal remedy the group is seeking, namely an injunction halting the reassessment.
Before filing the lawsuit, the group thought there might be a way "to try to find a way to mend the fence" but now feels "the taxpayers don't mean anything to the board," Perry said.
"Is there any way of solving this?" he said. "If you're not willing to do that, you're not working for the taxpayers."
For the most part, board members didn't respond to the comments. However, two of them did say they questioned the new assessment figures for their own property in Charleston Township.
6. Rural King purchases the Cross County Mall in Mattoon.
Brian Hutchins, vice president of business development for Rural King, said in a press release that Rural King plans to move its Store Support Center home office into the old Sears building, at the east end of the mall. He said about 250 associates will work at the mall and this number will grow significantly over time. He said the move is expected to occur no sooner than the fall of 2018.
Rural King's home office is currently located in the same facility as the company's Mattoon Store No. 1 and its Mattoon Distribution Center at 4216 DeWitt Ave., on the west side of town, as the JG-TC previously reported. Hutchins said the store and distribution center will remain where they are now.
"We do not plan on operating a store in the mall or on the east side of town anytime soon," Hutchins said. "It is our hope that our Charleston and Mattoon stores serve the customers on the east side of Mattoon well already."
Hutchins said Rural King will serve as the landlord for all mall tenants, as well as the Alamo, Taco Bell and the strip center just west of Taco Bell. He said all tenants and their leases will remain in place as per the terms and conditions of the respective leases. He said Rural King plans on continuing to host events that are scheduled at the mall while considering new events in the future.
"We look forward to being their neighbor. We anticipate our patronage on the east side of town will increase sales significantly for several businesses, including the tenants at the mall," Hutchins said. He added that, "We plan on having all vacancies filled as soon as possible, as interest in joining us at the mall has been high."
Rural King, which was founded in 1960 in Mattoon, reports that it currently has more than 100 stores in a 12-state area and is continuing to grow.
7. City of Mattoon to end its ambulance service.
The Mattoon City Council voted July 18 to eliminate the Mattoon Fire Department's ambulance service, effective May 1, 2018. Now, as the new year begins, the city is scheduled to start negotiating a new contract with Mattoon Firefighters Local 691 while going through arbitration for two grievances filed by this union related to the ambulance service.
One grievance was filed as a response to the council's July 18 vote, and the other was filed before this vote but is now connected to the ambulance measure, as well, as the JG-TC previously reported. The ambulance service is set to be eliminated on the day that the city's planned 2018-19 budget is required to take effect.
City Administrator Kyle Gill said the contract negotiations and the grievance processes could take months to complete, so the city staff will need to prepare budget scenarios that account for eliminating the ambulance service and for maintaining it.
On July 19, Local 691 filed a grievance with the Illinois Labor Relations Board alleging that the city has violated the union's contract by attempting to subcontract out the firefighters' work to private ambulance providers. This followed the union filing a grievance in May alleging that the city has violated the contract by having 26 firefighters on staff instead of the required 30.
The city has denied these allegations. Gill said the subcontracting grievance will go to an arbitrator in mid-January and the staffing level grievance is set for a Feb. 22 arbitration hearing. He said the findings of the arbitrators will be binding.
Gill said the city is trying reorganize the fire department to help keep the city budget in line. He said the national average for fire departments without ambulance services is one firefighter per 1,000 residents and the state average is 1.1 firefighters. Under these averages, Mattoon would have approximately 19 firefighters.
"(The ambulance service) does generate some revenue, but the expenses take away from revenue that is generated," Gill said, estimating that these expenses are more than $700,000 per year. He added, "We just cannot sustain the same city services we have been providing and the ambulance service is a service that is being done by the private sector."
Local 691 President Bart Owen said the fire department started offering its ambulance service, which was approved by the City Council, in 2010 without any increase in firefighter staffing. He said the department has continued to handle an ever increasing amount of ambulance calls even as staffing has been cut.
"Our salaries have not increased the budget in the last 10 years," Owen said.
The biggest drivers of rising costs for the fire department have been pension and health insurance increases that also have been issues for other city departments, Owen said. The firefighters' union helped the city with these costs by switching to a new pension plan three years ago that will save approximately $400,000 per newly hired firefighter over a 25-year career, he said.
Owen provided figures showing that the ambulance service generated $640,927 in billing net revenue in 2016 and is projected to generate nearly $700,000 in 2017. He said this service has the potential to generate even more revenue at a time when the city struggles to balance its budget.
"I think they would be hurting for more money now if they didn't have that revenue," Owen said.
Regarding the city's plans to eliminate the ambulance service, Owen said he is concerned that the only way that city might be able to save money is by cutting personnel by nine to 12 firefighters.
Gill said the city administration would like for fire department staffing to be in line with state and national averages. He said any staffing reductions would likely be done through attrition, not filling posts vacated by resignations or retirements.
Gill said the firefighters' current contract is set to expire on April 30, but could remain in place beyond this date if more time is needed to complete a new contract.
8. GE's Mattoon Lamp Plant closes.
The announcement of the impending closure of the GE Mattoon Lamp Plant last year made the 2016 roster of top stories for the JG-TC. The actual shuttering of the plant comes in at No. 8 on this year's Top 10 list.
Workers at this facility, 1501 S. 19th St., manufactured halogen bulbs and lamps until its Aug. 11 closure.
GE Lighting has reported that the lighting industry in the last decade has seen a "major technology pivot" away from traditional lighting products such as incandescent, halogen, and specialty linear fluorescent lamps. The company has reported that consumer demand for traditional lighting is at an all-time low.
"Volume was down dramatically at the Mattoon Lamp Plant, with the facility operating at 60 percent below capacity As a result, we made the very difficult decision to close our plant," GE Lighting has reported.
The Mattoon Lamp Plant opened in 1946. Assembly lines that produced countless lighting components employed four generations of workers. At its closure, 133 employees remained on the job at the Mattoon plant. The facility once was staffed by approximately 1,800 employees.
9. Charleston mother accused in 2-year-old-son's death.
A woman first told police she left her son in others' care but later admitted leaving him alone for part of three days while she spent time with friends. Conditions at Savannah M. Weiss' home were "a mixture of trash, spoiled food and animal feces" when the boy was found dead there in early December.
That was the account from police testimony during a mid-December hearing at which the 22-year-old woman was ordered to stand trial on first-degree murder charges. Weiss' attorney entered a not-guilty plea on her behalf.
Charleston police Detective Joel Shute testified about the investigation that followed after Weiss' 2-year-old son was found dead at her residence at 1052 First St. on the morning of Dec. 4.
The boy, referred to during the hearing and in court records only by the initials "MJE," was found inside a portable playpen that was also "caked and layered" with old food, the detective said.
On the day the child's death was discovered, Weiss told police she left him in the care of others while she was at work and at Sarah Bush Lincoln Health Center for her own health issue on Dec. 1 and 2, Shute said.
However, he continued, Weiss was questioned again after an autopsy showed the boy's cause of death as dehydration, starvation or a combination of the two.
Shute said the investigation also revealed that Weiss did go to work and to the hospital but was also away from home other times during those days.
During the second interview, Weiss said she was gone from the home from about 10 a.m. on Dec. 1 and returned about 6 p.m. Dec. 3, admitting that she left the boy unattended in the playpen.
Weiss said she spent the nights of Dec. 1 and 2 plus all day on Dec. 2 with friends, Shute testified. She said during that time she bought food for her and the others at Jimmy John's, about six blocks from her home, he said.
Circuit Judge Brien O'Brien ruled that Shute's testimony indicated that a crime likely took place and ordered the case to continue. Public Defender Anthony Ortega then entered the not-guilty plea.
O'Brien scheduled a hearing for Jan. 8 to check the status of the case. Weiss remains jailed with her bond set at a level that would require $150,000 to be posted for release.
The charges against her accuse her of failing to provide food, water and sanitary conditions for the boy, leading to his death by dehydration or starvation. The charges allege that Weiss knew or should have known that created a "strong possibility" of death or great harm to the boy. She could receive life in prison if convicted.
10. Eastern Illinois University student shot to death, and the case remains unsolved.
An Eastern Illinois University student who was killed in late April was shot after attempting to break up the fight that led up to the shooting, police said witnesses report. As of the end of the year, the case remains unsolved.
Tony West, Charleston Police Department detective, said Byron Edingburg, 23, of Chicago, who also had a local address, was shot in the moments after he was attempting to break up a fight at the party where the shooting took place, based on witness reports of the incident, the JG-TC reported previously.
West said it is still unclear at this point whether the shot or shots that were fired were intended for Edingburg or Akeem Williams, 20, who was injured. West said the motive for the shooting is still being investigated.
As previously reported, the incident occurred after a fight broke out on the property at 1061 Seventh St. and resulted in at least one shot being fired. West said it is possible that both men who were hit were struck by the same bullet. West noted that witnesses stated different accounts of how many shots were fired.
West described from witness reports that the fight leading up to the shooting was started when a former Eastern Illinois University student was “jumped” by one or more people. The reason for the fight is still being investigated, West noted.
Edingburg was trying to break up the fight and later was shot along with Williams, who was standing several feet away, West continued. The shooter then fled the scene, West said.
The suspect has not been identified. Police are still urging anyone with any information related to the incident to contact the CPD at 217-345- 8402, Coles County Crime Stoppers toll free at 866-345- 8488, text any leads to 274637 or message them through the CPD Facebook page and Twitter account.