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 City of Mattoon's decision to discontinue operating its own ambulance service has been chosen as the JG-TC's No. 1 story in the Coles County area for 2018.
The issue not only was controversial and drew significant reaction and talk in the community, but it also remains a topic of discussion and was a top story on the newspaper's website for the year.
As the JG-TC previously reported, the city ended the Mattoon Fire Department's ambulance service on July 25, 2018. City officials set that end date after the council voted on July 18, 2017, to eliminate the fire department's ambulance service as a cost-cutting measure.
City officials said that the fire department's ambulance service lost money and duplicated the work of private providers. The firefighters union countered that the department's service generated needed revenue for the city and provided essential ambulance coverage for Mattoon.
After the end of the MFD ambulance service, the two private ambulance providers operating in Mattoon added to their staff and fleets to adjust to handling all of the calls for emergency medical services. The private providers have been assisted at times by the Mattoon Fire Department, which has retained its advanced life support equipment, and by the Charleston Fire Department's ambulance service.
As the city's ambulance service ended, the Mattoon City Council heard concerns from multiple residents. When the service was terminated initially, numerous calls were made for assistance from other cities' ambulances due to a shortage in Mattoon.
The number of calls for emergency medical services in Mattoon totals well more than 300 per month on average, according to fire department records. Fire Chief Tony Nichols said there were 13 times between July 25 and Aug. 18 that the Coles County 911 system needed to dispatch other ambulance services to help while the two private providers, Dunn's Ambulance and Mitchell-Jerdan Ambulance Service, were busy with other calls.
"I know it's new to everybody, but I hope it gets better," Nichols said in late summer of the change in ambulance call coverage in Mattoon.
Here are the other nine of the Top 10 stories of 2018.
2. Mother's Bar destroyed by fire.
On Feb. 16, Mother's Bar, located on the square in Charleston, was gutted by a fire, an incident later determined to be arson. The building was taken down in late March, and its owners said "Mom's" will not be rebuilt.
The establishment contained a lot of memories for locals and Eastern Illinois University alumni. Husbands met their wives there. People made friendships that continue today in the bar. A brick wall inside the bar cataloged the many people who made their way to Mother's over its tenure.
All of the tenants of upstairs apartments in the building made it out safely and have since found shelter at homes both in and outside of Charleston. The fire was contained to the Mother's building.
Police arrested Brian Griffin in relation to the fire weeks after, alleging that he set the building ablaze in an attempt to harm or kill a tenant. Griffin, 29, pleaded not guilty to arson and attempted murder charges in April. He was identified by police as the suspect about a week after the fire at 506 Monroe Ave.
Police have said the likely motive of the fire was because of an argument between Griffin and his wife and two men the day before the fire.
3. Rural King makes changes at the Cross County Mall, and plans to move its Mattoon store to the mall.
2018 brought major changes to the Cross County Mall on the east side of Mattoon.
It was announced in April that popular department store Carson's would shut its doors after its parent company announced a series of closings. Throughout the year, new stores and a new restaurant, Scotty's Brewhouse, have opened in the mall. A 11 for $10 discount store opened in the former Hallmark space and a Heavenly Scents, Crafts & More store opened near the mall's central entrance.
In July, Rural King, which has its corporate offices in Mattoon, where the company originated, and purchased the mall property in fall 2017, announced it would move its Mattoon store to the former Sears store space on the east end of the mall.
The Mattoon store is currently located at 4216 Dewitt Ave., a site that is home to Rural King's headquarters and distribution center. Rural King announced that it intends to expand its headquarters into the retail space at the Dewitt Avenue building after the store relocates to the mall, while retaining the distribution center there. Rural King originally had planned to move its headquarters into the former Sears space.
“Rural King believes its future success is tied to the future success of the Mattoon community. The acquisition of the mall was a strategic commitment to this community, and we plan to continue to invest here in this area that has given us so much," said Rural King Chief Executive Officer Alex Melvin in a press release.
The company expects to open the store in the mall in mid January 2019.
4. Man charged with drug-induced homicide.
In a story that garnered intense interest from online readers in particular, a man accused of supplying the drugs that led to another man's death in August was charged with drug-induced homicide.
Thomas Cord Eich, 27, pleaded not guilty; he's accused of selling a combination of heroin and Fentanyl to Kody R. Matheny on Aug. 8.
Matheny, who was 23, was found dead at his Mattoon residence the following day. Eich was first charged Aug. 10 with delivery of a controlled substance for allegedly selling heroin to Matheny and had been jailed since his arrest on the day Matheny died.
New charges filed in September included the drug-induced homicide offense along with an amended charge of delivery of a controlled substance. The allegations in both those charges are that Eich sold Matheny a combination of heroin and Fentanyl.
5. Pair found guilty in woman's shooting death.
In court in July, Shawn Adamson maintained that he was "in no way, shape or form" responsible for Ciara Faires' death. But after hearing arguments that he "set the scene," a judge sentenced him to 53 years in prison.
As the JG-TC previously reported, during a trial in March, Adamson, 35, was convicted of first-degree murder and other offenses in connection with the June 18, 2016, shooting death of the 23-year-old woman in Mattoon. Evidence at the trial, as well as during the trial of another suspect, James Todd Shafer, indicated that Adamson started the confrontation that led Shafer to fire the shots that actually hit and killed Faires.
Adamson and two others, Kevin Johnson and Matthew Cook, tried to confront Shafer about a gun Shafer received for a robbery but didn't return, the evidence showed.
After finding Shafer and Faires, who was Shafer's girlfriend, at the apartment of a friend at 313 S. 21st St., Mattoon, Adamson is accused of firing a gun from outside.
Shafer, who was inside, returned fire and two shots hit Faires, who was just outside the apartment, causing fatal injuries, the evidence indicated.
Shafer, 26, was also charged with first-degree murder and was found guilty at a trial in February. In April, he was sentenced to 53 years in prison.
6. Eastern Illinois University's enrollment goes up for fall 2018.
After years of declining numbers, Charleston's EIU found good news in student enrollment figures for fall 2018.
The fall marked a first in a decade for Eastern: Enrollment numbers were up from the previous year.
Tenth day enrollment numbers, the nationally accepted standard for tracking university and college enrollments, showed 7,526 students were enrolled at EIU in the fall, an increase of 7.1 percent from fall 2017.
Undergraduate student totals were up from 5,568 last year to 6,012 students, and graduate numbers slightly up from 1,462 last year to 1,514 students.
The freshman class saw some of the biggest strides. According to EIU officials, the university's fall-to-fall first-time freshmen enrollment has increased by 24.5 percent, an addition of 155 students.
This number, more than others, plays a key role in equalizing the outbound to inbound student ratio at the university.
“Such a considerable increase to EIU’s freshmen enrollment speaks to EIU’s excellent reputation, as well as to the profound talent and collaboration of our entire EIU team in realizing this remarkable achievement,” EIU President David Glassman said in a statement on the 10th-day numbers.
The university president has set a goal for 9,000 students on campus since he took the position a few years ago. At the time he took the position, the university took a big hit, largely as a result of external forces like the state budget impasse.
“(The impasse) was an unprecedented situation, and one our state must never face again,” Glassman said.
7. Former coach pleads guilty, then withdraws plea, to sexual abuse of multiple players.
Former girls' youth basketball coach Barry Wolfe, now 54, pleaded guilty and was sentenced Aug. 10 for his conviction for sex acts with his former players, but he withdrew his plea after being sentenced to 60 years in prison.
Circuit Judge Brien O'Brien said he "very liberally construed" a letter Wolfe composed after he was sentenced as a motion to withdraw his guilty plea. Wolfe was assigned a new attorney, and status hearings will follow.
In the letter, Wolfe claimed his attorney at the time, Ed Piraino, misled him on the sentence that was possible following his guilty plea in June.
At a hearing on Aug. 29, O'Brien granted Piraino's motion to withdraw from the case and appointed public defender Anthony Ortega to represent Wolfe in preparing the post-conviction motions.
Wolfe, who lived in Martinsville, was the founder of an area American Athletic Union basketball program for girls ages 17 and younger in Illinois and Indiana.
He was arrested in October and was formally charged with committing digital penetration with two of his former players and forcing them to perform oral sex on him while they were in the program. There were indications of sex acts involving other players, though Wolfe was never charged with offenses naming other victims.
Both the named victims and a third former player testified at his sentencing hearing, however. They told of forced sex acts, intimidation and more, between 2013 and 2015 when they were in their mid-teens.
One former player came forward about Wolfe's conduct, leading to his arrest, according to case evidence. She first notified campus police at the university she attended because she feared for her safety after Wolfe informed her he planned to visit her there, the evidence indicated.
The matter was then reported to Mattoon police because that was where the player lived, the evidence showed.
8. Charleston substitute teacher arrested.
A former Charleston school substitute teacher arrested on school property Feb. 9 indicated in court later in February that he'd voluntarily return to Texas to face a child indecency case.
During a court hearing for Adrian Rivas, his attorney said he'd travel to Texas after a bond hearing there took place. Rivas was in court on a Coles County fugitive from justice case but action on formal extradition wasn't needed based on the indication that he would go to Texas on his own.
Rivas was jailed following his arrest on Feb. 9 until he posted bond. The 39-year-old was arrested outside Jefferson Elementary School in Charleston when U.S. Marshals served him with the fugitive from justice warrant.
The arrest took place "outside the view of children," according to Charleston police.
Charleston's school superintendent said the arrest "was not associated" with the school district and there have been no reports of any inappropriate conduct concerning Rivas in Charleston.
The incident that led to Rivas' arrest took place when he was living in Texas in December 2016, when a 14-year-old girl claimed he "touched her in inappropriate areas" while babysitting his children, according to a report in the Houston Chronicle newspaper.
When the Texas county's sheriff's deputies tried to contact Rivas about the incident in July of last year, they were told he no longer lived there, according to the report on the newspaper's website.
The Coles County fugitive from justice case against Rivas alleges that he's charged in Texas with indecency with a child and he "fled to avoid prosecution."
When asked about the matter, Charleston school Superintendent Todd Vilardo said there's "no indication" of any inappropriate conduct by Rivas while he was substitute teaching.
Vilardo said the school district posted information on its website about Rivas' arrest after it took place.
Vilardo said Rivas went through the required employment background check "well before" the Texas warrant was issued in January. Rivas had been a substitute teacher in the school district since Oct. 18, 2017, according to information the district released about his arrest last week.
9. Woman dies in accident at old Illinois Route 316 and Loxa Road.
April Fisher, 38, died Dec. 11 in a two-vehicle collision at Illinois Route 316 and Loxa Road northeast of Mattoon and west of Charleston.
Coles County Coroner Ed Schniers said Fisher, who lived on Lake Paradise Road in rural Mattoon, died when another vehicle hit her auto in the driver's side.
In the wake of the accident, James W. Miller, 56, of Terre Haute, Ind., was jailed on a charge of aggravated driving under the influence of alcohol. He is accused of driving while intoxicated at the time of the accident that killed Fisher.
Miller's pickup truck was southbound on Loxa Road and he failed to stop at the sign there, then hit the driver's side of Fisher's sport utility vehicle, which was eastbound on Route 316, according to police. Fisher died at the scene.
According to a Coles County's Sheriff's Office report, Miller had a blood alcohol content of 0.147 percent, nearly twice the legal limit, when examined later at Carle Foundation Hospital, Urbana.
The sheriff's office indicated that Miller might have also been using a cellphone at the time of the accident, as citations he was issued included improper use of an electronic communications device.
He was also cited for disobeying a stop sign and failure to reduce speed to avoid an accident. The aggravated DUI charge against Miller is a felony offense that can result in a prison sentence of three to 14 years when there's a conviction.
For a DUI charge when a fatality takes place, state law calls for a "presumption" of prison time over probation with a conviction.
10. Controversy continues over Coles County's commercial property tax assessments.
Throughout 2018, the group Concerned Tax Payers of Coles County continued action against the county regarding commercial property reassessments.
In December, a hearing in a lawsuit against the reassessment project was postponed due to the transition in the Coles County State's Attorney's office. State's Attorney Brian Bower said he and attorney Todd Reardon, who represents the group that filed the lawsuit, agreed to the delay. Bower was recently appointed to a county judge's position and begins those duties Jan. 2, 2019.
No new hearing date for the lawsuit has yet been scheduled. The December hearing had been set for argument on the county's motion to dismiss the case.
Reardon filed the lawsuit on behalf of the Concerned Tax Payers of Coles County and two of its members, Mattoon business owners Rex Dukeman and Robby Perry, are the named plaintiffs.
The opponents have been criticizing the property reassessment nearly since it began about two years ago.
The lawsuit is partly based on one of the group's chief contentions, that it was illegal for the county to hire someone to conduct the reassessment, which is actually the duties of the county Supervisor of Assessment's Office.
It asks that the county's contract with the person doing the reassessment be voided and that the county be prevented from using property values calculated during the project.
The motion to dismiss contends that the county did have the legal authority to do the reassessment and the group opposition is actually a tax objection that shouldn't be decided by a lawsuit.
The county hired appraiser Bob Becker to reassess the county's commercial and industrial property after those property categories hadn't received new values for taxing purposes in about 15 years.