Advocate writers and editors took a look at another year filled with compelling community issues and tragedies to come up with the top 10 stories for 2015 for Acadiana and the state. The following is the list of top stories:
1. 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 “Lafayette strong.” The theater reopened almost four months after the shooting with a ceremony to acknowledge the heroic actions taken and to remember those who died or were wounded.
2. 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.
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, as did his department’s investigators, saying, “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 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, 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.
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.
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.
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 that 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 it involves timesheets 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. New parish president, sheriff
In the waning days of the race to replace Mayor-President Joey Durel, his ultimate successor called for an administration that would be a break from the past 12 years.
“People want to see a council and administration that work together and have the kind of relationship that moves the community forward,” Mayor-President-elect Joel Robideaux said, calling for stronger relationships with the council and leaders of the five smaller municipalities. “There is a stark contrast between the current administration’s leadership style and my style in that regard.”
Durel, who was easily re-elected twice, served three terms and faced term limits. His chief administrative officer, Dee Stanley, was Robideaux’s opponent in the race.
Robideaux, a state lawmaker, has served as chairman of House Ways and Means Committee and chairman of the Joint Legislative Committee on Capital Outlay.
Voters also chose a new sheriff for Lafayette Parish, replacing Mike Neustrom, who has held the office since 2000 and chose not to seek re-election.
Mark Garber, a 45-year-old worker’s compensation attorney in Lafayette, easily defeated Scott’s police chief, Chad Leger, to become the parish’s new sheriff. Garber also worked as a civilian U.S. Air Force interrogator in Iraq, spent a year with the U.S. Secret Service, was a police sergeant in Texas and served as a prosecutor in the 15th Judicial District.
Garber said a top priority of his administration would be to address staffing problems, with the possible relocating of some deputies to establish more street patrols .
8. Jindal gets no traction
On June 24, 44-year-old Gov. Bobby Jindal announced that 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 front-runner, 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. Sunset shooting
Harrison Riley Jr. is being held without bail following a rampage in which he is accused of attacking his wife and killing two cousins — a Sunset police officer and a 41-year-old woman.
According to statements given to State Police, Riley’s attacks began after his wife confronted him about his drug use — smoking PCP mixed with embalming fluid.
Riley then went to a house on Anna Street, where he attacked two sisters — both his cousins — and their 66-year-old mother.
One of the sisters and the mother survived, but Shameka Johnson died from her stab wounds.
When his wife, Courtney Jolivette, arrived at the house, she became the focus of the attack, according to her statement.
“He said, ‘Everybody gon’ die,’?” said Jolivette, who suffered five gunshot wounds in addition to being stabbed.
Sunset Cpl. Henry Nelson, who was a relative of the family, then responded to the call for help. Police say Riley shot him dead with the officer’s gun.
“He said, ‘I’ma kill me a cop.’ Then grabbed the gun, shot him and started unloading the clip on me,” Jolivette told State Police.
Riley is then accused of taking his wife’s car and crashing it into the Sunset Mini Mart on Napoleon Avenue, where he was apprehended but only after St. Landry Parish authorities fired two tear gas canisters and three flash-bang grenades into the store.
Riley is being held at Elayn Hunt Correctional Center in St. Gabriel on two counts of first-degree murder. A conviction as charged on either count would result in a sentence of life in prison or death by lethal injection.
10. NCAA probes UL-Lafayette
The University of Louisiana at Lafayette is under NCAA scrutiny, a probe centered around a former assistant coach accused of helping prospective football players stay academically eligible by having their ACT tests modified.
Assistant coach David Saunders is long gone from the university’s football team, resigning during the middle of the 2014 season. But before leaving, a notice of allegations from the NCAA claims he orchestrated fraudulent ACT exam scores for at least six prospective Cajuns football players. Sanders is accused of instructing the players to take the ACT exam at Wayne County High School in Mississippi. In one instance, 108 out of 215 answers were changed, the notice alleges.
In addition to the alleged ACT violations, Saunders is also accused of paying for a recruit’s living and educational expenses and providing misleading and/or false information to the NCAA enforcement staff, as well as refusing to provide information relevant to the NCAA investigation.
UL-Lafayette’s response to the notice says the pattern of impropriety went “undetected” even before Saunders was employed at UL-Lafayette but added, “nevertheless … recognizes the significance of this matter and acknowledges that it bears ultimate responsibility for the regrettable and reprehensible actions of a lone member of its football coaching staff.”
While waiting for NCAA sanctions, the university has self-imposed several penalties, including two years of probation; a reduction of 11 scholarships between now and the 2017-18 season; a reduction in off-campus recruiting opportunities, official visits and recruiting communications; and vacated contests in which an ineligible student-athlete participated during the 2011 season.