Advocate writers and editors took a look back at another year filled with compelling community issues and tragedies to come up with the top 10 stories for 2015 for Baton Rouge and the state. The following is the list of top stories:
1. Voters elect John Bel Edwards as governor
Even by Louisiana standards, where political campaigns can turn into rough affairs, the 2015 race for governor will be recalled as particularly brutal.
The ultimate winner, Democratic state Rep. John Bel Edwards, of Amite, and his runoff opponent, Republican U.S. Sen. David Vitter, made pointed assessments of each other’s characters.
“You are a liar, a cheater and a stealer, and I don’t tolerate that,” Edwards told Vitter during a runoff debate. Vitter retorted with his own barbs. “You act holier than thou,” he said. “You have the most vicious negative ad up right now.”
During his concession speech, Vitter also announced that he would not seek re-election to his Senate seat, ending his more than two-decade Louisiana political career.
In an interesting post-election twist, Lt. Gov. Jay Dardenne — a onetime Republican contender for the governor’s seat and a frequent critic of Vitter — agreed to join Edwards’ administration as chief of staff.
The appointment was not discussed prior to Dardenne’s endorsement of Edwards in the runoff, both Dardenne and Edwards insist.
Edwards will begin his stint as Louisiana’s 56th governor on Jan. 11.
2. Gunman kills two women in Lafayette theater
Twenty minutes into the showing of “Trainwreck” at the Grand 16 Theatre in Lafayette, John “Rusty” Houser stood, pulled out a .40-caliber handgun and began firing slowly and methodically on the crowd that had come to take in the July 23 showing of the romantic comedy.
The popping noise and flashes from the barrel of the semi-automatic weapon created chaos as people dove to the floor, while others scrambled for the exits. Houser emptied the 10-round magazine as 300 people rushed out of the building.
The Phenix City, Alabama, killer gunned down two women and wounded nine other people. His final shot killed himself.
Jillian Johnson, a 33-year-old musician who owned Red Arrow Workshop with her husband, Jason Brown, and Mayci Breaux, a 21-year-old LSU-Eunice student from Franklin, were killed by the Alabama drifter. Breaux was at the movie with her fiancé, Matthew Rodriguez, who was wounded.
Police officers arrived at the scene of the mass shooting within a minute or two, drawing praise from city leaders and residents who believe the quick response saved lives. Houser killed himself as police officers entered the auditorium.
After the shooting, citizens rallied together, proclaiming the community to be “Lafayette strong.” The Johnston Street theater reopened almost four months after the incident with a ceremony to acknowledge heroic actions taken and to remember those who died or were wounded.
3. Child gunned down at end of police chase
Six-year-old Jeremy Mardis was in the passenger seat with his father at the wheel on Nov. 3 when the chase by local deputy marshals began. By the time the chase ended, two law enforcement officers were accused of firing their service weapons at the car.
Christopher Few, the father, had a gunshot wound to his head. Jeremy — an autistic first-grader — was dead.
Two Marksville deputy marshals, Norris Greenhouse Jr. and Derrick Stafford, have since been indicted on second-degree murder charges in Jeremy’s death. Marksville police Sgt. Kenneth Parnell, who showed up at the scene and has not been charged with any crime, told State Police investigators he didn’t fire a single shot because he didn’t fear for his life.
A 13-minute, 47-second video was taken by Parnell’s body camera. The video has not yet been released to the public.
State Police Superintendent Col. Mike Edmonson viewed the video and said, “It is one of the most disturbing scenes I have seen.”
A police report that described the video says it shows Few with his hands up before any gunfire can be heard.
Pretrial wrangling so far in the case has focused primarily on bail for the two accused officers, including whether Greenhouse’s family should be allowed to post the $1 million bond to have him released from custody in advance of a trial.
Louisiana has a law that prohibits lawyers — in this case Greenhouse’s father, an Avoyelles Parish assistant district attorney — from posting bail for any defendant.
“He’s simply a father who desires that his son be released pending trial,” state District Judge William Bennett decided, clearing the way for the deputy marshal’s release.
But Bennett later declined to lower bail for Stafford, who had asked for a reduction, saying his family couldn’t afford to come up with the cash or put up property. After the hearing, the officer’s family defended his actions, saying Stafford had fired his gun in self-defense. They also decried the pending charges as rooted in race, saying there wouldn’t have been swift arrests or indictments if the officers hadn’t been black and the victims white.
Greenhouse and Stafford are scheduled to be arraigned on Jan. 5.
4. Oil falls below $40 a barrel, deepening budget crisis for state
Plummeting oil prices are a boon for consumers at the gas pump, but in oil-dependent Louisiana, they come at a steep cost for local economies and the state budget.
With oil prices well below $40 a barrel, the latest unemployment figures show Louisiana’s energy sector losing jobs at a steady clip, with the Lafayette and Houma-Thibodaux areas hardest hit.
The Legislature this spring grappled with the impact of less money coming in, as falling oil prices played a role in the state’s persistent budget problems.
Eventually, in deals worked out with Gov. Bobby Jindal and legislators, state government staved off steep cuts to health care and higher education largely by rolling back tax breaks for businesses.
But over the year, as oil prices continued their swoon, legislators needed to meet to look for new places to cut.
The latest budget action came in November, days after Jindal exited the race for president. The governor proposed a $500 million bridge to cover the expected budget gap. The plan relies on about $150 million in reductions, $28.2 million from the state’s rainy day fund and an infusion of new money from different sources, including lawsuit settlements.
The plan was approved by legislators who feared more cuts to higher education but criticized by Gov.-elect John Bel Edwards, who soon will have a stronger say on the state’s fiscal matters. Just weeks from taking office, Edwards’ incoming budget guru, current Lt. Gov. Jay Dardenne, announced that the state’s fiscal status is even more dire than expected.
The shortfall next year is likely to be about $2 billion, he said.
5. Gay marriage becomes law of the land
Even after the U.S. Supreme Court on June 26 ruled that marriage licenses should be issued to same-sex couples, Louisiana’s clerks of court refused to comply.
The clerks, taking the lead from Louisiana Attorney General Buddy Caldwell and others, decided to wait for a rehearing period to expire before deeming the ruling final and agreeing to act on the high court’s mandate.
Jefferson Parish eventually broke the logjam by issuing same-sex marriage licenses, and other parishes followed … on June 29.
The delay tactics gave Louisiana the distinction of being the last state in the country to issue a same-sex marriage license.
Scott Kirkland, 47, and Kenneth Parker, 43, both Baton Rouge natives, were the first couple to get their marriage license in East Baton Rouge Parish.
“We didn’t know if we would face protesters,” Kirkland said.
On the same day in Acadiana parishes, nine couples — six in Lafayette, two in Iberia and one in St. Martin — successfully applied for marriage licenses.
“I can’t believe we’re actually holding it. It’s awesome,” 24-year-old Melissa Beckham said as she posed with her partner of five years, 27-year-old Chelsea Hughes, outside the Lafayette Parish Courthouse with their marriage certificate.
6. Burl Cain steps down
Starting Jan. 1, and for the first time in more than two decades, the state Department of Public Safety and Corrections will have a warden at the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola who is not named Burl Cain.
The famous warden’s decision to step down came a month after The Advocate published an article outlining private real estate deals Cain entered into with relatives and friends of favored inmates. It also will mark the second time Cain has retired as Angola’s warden. The first time came in 2002 as part of a now defunct retire-rehire maneuver that has allowed Cain to collect $5,144 in monthly retirement payments at the same time he’s receiving his annual salary — $167,211.
Cain’s tenure also has been dogged by controversy over the years by his deals with private companies, many seeking to use inmate labor. Though the subject of federal investigations, Cain has never been charged.
In early December, Louisiana’s legislative auditor opened an investigation into the real estate transactions, and the Corrections Department also said it would do a review of the apparent violation of departmental policy.
By the middle of December, officials with the Inspector General’s Office, State Police and the Corrections Department conducted a hastily called news conference to announce a joint criminal investigation into Cain. Officials would not disclose the nature of the probe other than to say that it involves time sheets at Angola and is unrelated to land deals outlined by The Advocate.
Dixon Correctional Institute Warden Darrel Vannoy will take Cain’s place at Angola — a 6,200-bed maximum-security prison — on a temporary basis.
7. St. George falls short twice
Those pushing for the creation of the new city of St. George in East Baton Rouge Parish had their dreams dashed by a scant 71 signatures.
A petition circulated for 21 months, and the parish Registrar’s Office could verify 17,788 signatures of voters in the area proposed to become St. George. To have an election called on whether there should be a new city, St. George organizers needed 17,859 valid signatures.
It was a devastating loss to organizers, who first turned in their initial petition in fall 2014 only to find out in March they were short because more than 3,000 signatures were tossed as invalid by the registrar. They then spent two months gathering more signatures. But they faced competition, with the anti-incorporation group Better Together working to both discredit some signatures and persuade people to take their names off the petition.
Organizers were defiant at first.
“We still believe we have enough signatures, and every option is on the table right now,” said Lionel Rainey, St. George spokesman.
A lawsuit was filed, claiming the Registrar’s Office disqualified the signatures of people who should have been allowed to sign the petition.
State District Judge Wilson Fields ultimately dismissed the lawsuit because state law does not provide a legal remedy available to force the registrar to take another look at the petition.
St. George backers chose not to appeal Fields’ decision but were far short of declaring defeat.
“We are as committed as ever to accomplish our goal of providing excellent public education for all the children of St. George and to create a city that serves the needs of all of its citizens,” Rainey said.
8. Jindal gets no traction
On June 24, 44-year-old Gov. Bobby Jindal announced he would be a candidate for the Republican Party nomination in the race for the next president of the United States — an announcement that had been preceded by months and months of travel across the country to boost his national reputation.
The governor campaigned hard in Iowa in 2015, seemingly making campaign speeches in every gymnasium and VFW hall where Republican voters would gather to hear what he had to say.
But despite his aggressive stumping — during which he called for fiscal responsibility in Washington, D.C., and stronger efforts to destroy the Islamic State and even took swipes at GOP frontrunner, billionaire businessman Donald Trump — Jindal never showed strong enough in polls to earn a spot on the main debate stages.
Instead, Louisiana’s governor was relegated to the “kiddie table” or “happy hour” or “undercard” debates, which preceded the prime-time slots in the Republican Party’s huge presidential field.
By Nov. 27, the youngest candidate for the party’s nomination decided to exit the race.
“This is not my time. I’ve come to the realization that it’s just not my time,” Jindal said on Fox News.
The governor returned to Louisiana, a place where his popularity has plummeted and the state continues to struggle with budget shortfalls.
But in his farewell speeches since his presidential exit, Jindal has defended his eight years at Louisiana’s helm, saying there have been a lot of accomplishments, including reducing the size of government. “I’m proud of the work we’ve done every single day here for the people of Louisiana,” he said. “We’ve continued every day that I’ve been governor to work hard to continue to move our state forward, and I’m proud of the results.”
9. LSU head football coach Les Miles here to stay for now
Despite averaging 10 wins per season during his career at LSU and his team even reaching No. 2 in national polls in 2015, LSU head football coach Les Miles found his job in jeopardy after a three-game losing streak.
And while football coaches often hear their names as being on the “hot seat” whenever games or seasons don’t turn out as planned — particularly coaches with a fan base accustomed to success —the rumors of Miles’ demise continued to grow, as the university’s administration remained quiet.
The chatter was loudest in the week leading up to LSU’s game against Texas A&M on Nov. 28. Sources have said the university already was in discussions with Florida State head coach Jimbo Fisher. But even as those talks were going on, LSU President F. King Alexander expressed concern that a multimillion-dollar buyout of Miles’ contract would be a public relations disaster as legislators discuss budget cuts in 2016. The discussion also got the attention of Gov. Bobby Jindal, who lobbied for his friend to keep his job.
For his part, Miles talked about preparing for the Aggies.
“I’m not going to look to defend or make a case (for myself),” said Miles, 62. “That’s really not what I’m going to do. I love the place. Going to work hard. I’m not going to get into what is my view. I’m fortunate to be the head coach here. I’ve always felt that way.”
Fans who attended the Texas A&M game made sure the university’s administration understood their fondness for the grass-eating, sometimes quirky head coach. Signs in the crowd read, “Keep Les,” “We love you, Les” and “Les 4-ever.”
Players also expressed their fondness for their leader. Some LSU Board of Supervisors members learned the coach’s fate during a meeting at halftime.
“I want to make it very clear that Les Miles is our football coach, and he’ll continue to be our football coach,” Athletic Director Joe Alleva said as LSU topped Texas A&M 19-7.
10. Changes at Baton Rouge General
Staff at Baton Rouge General’s Mid City campus had planned an April 1 event to mark the 7 a.m. closing of the emergency room, but as fate would have it, the workers got one final call to duty when an ambulance arrived, lights flashing, to deliver a cardiac arrest patient for treatment.
Workers already were in the process of taping signs to the door that read, “No ER services on this campus,” when the ambulance arrived.
Baton Rouge General officials cited a loss of $2 million a month due to uninsured patients entering its doors for its decision to close the emergency room in Mid City. The emergency room closure was the second for Baton Rouge within a two-year period, the first coming with the closure of LSU’s Earl K. Long Medical Center on Airline Highway.
Months later, hospital officials said plans are in the works to move its Regional Burn Center from its Mid City campus to the Bluebonnet Boulevard medical center. Officials explained the unit has treated more than 10,000 patients over the past decade, and the move is needed because patients now must be moved to its emergency room on Bluebonnet when necessary.
The changes have created concern that the Mid City community might be witnessing the piece-by-piece dismantling of a vital health care facility. In November, hospital executives unveiled plans for the campus, pledging to keep it open. The facility will offer expanded mental health care and a center to treat people with chronic diseases.