Duck Boat tragedy, political upheaval, pot, scooters among top stories of 2018

11 months 1 week 6 days ago Monday, December 31 2018 Dec 31, 2018 Monday, December 31, 2018 4:15:00 PM CST December 31, 2018 in News
By: Annie Hammock, KOMU 8 Interactive Director

COLUMBIA - This year was marked by tragedy in mid-Missouri, with the drowning of 17 people on Table Rock Lake, the death of a young boy whose disappearance led to days of futile searching, and a series of losses at Lincoln University.

2018 also brought considerable political change: a new governor; a new senator (thanks, in part, to repeated visits by the president); an exiting city manager and police chief in Columbia; and a new law that allows medical marijuana.

Other top stories ranged from the silly to the sublime: scooters, a famous turkey and one of the world's top honors.

Tragedy on Table Rock Lake

A day of sightseeing came to a horrific end near Branson, Missouri, on July 19. A duck boat carrying 31 people set out for a tour, even though thunderstorms were predicted.

When one did develop, it was very fast and very strong. Winds gusted up to 60 miles an hour, churning up sizable waves. Stretch Duck 7 started taking on water and got slammed by waves from all sides. It couldn't withstand the assault and capsized.

Seventeen people were killed. Tia Coleman's family accounted for nine of them, including her husband and three children.

Coleman sued the operators of the duck boat for wrongful death. She has also made it a mission to have all duck boats banned, saying the only thing that will make her feel better is ensuring other families don't go through what she's been through.

Her lawsuit is just one of a battery of lawsuits, criminal cases and civil investigations prompted by the tragedy.

The ship's captain was with charged with misconduct, negligence and inattention to duty causing or contributing to a death.

Eric Greitens' resignation

In his final days at the statehouse, former Gov. Eric Greitens was in full battle mode. He repeatedly denied blackmailing a woman he'd had an affair with and insisted he'd done nothing wrong in using a charity donor list in his political fundraising efforts.

He defiantly refused to step aside, despite a scathing, and sexually graphic, report from a special House committee after a 40-day investigation. As he awaited trial, and with his mug shot becoming his predominant media image, Greitens again and again called himself the victim of a witchhunt.

But on May 29, he stood before a throng of reporters and said it was time to "walk off the battlefield" with "head held high."

His voice broke as he said it was time to "tend to those who have been wounded," saying the scandals had been an ordeal for his family.

The blackmail scandal first surfaced when St. Louis television station KMOV reported the affair on Jan. 10. Its investigation largely centered on an audio recording made by the woman’s former husband.

On the recording, the woman can be heard crying, saying Greitens bound her hands with duct tape, blindfolded her and then took the nude picture without her consent and threatened to publish it if she went public.

Prosecutors accused Greitens of felony invasion of privacy, but later dropped the charges, saying time ran out on their investigation because of the statute of limitations.

They also accused Greitens of computer tampering related to the donor list, but that charge with the condition he would step down.

Greitens' final day in office was June 1. He was replaced by his Lieutenant Governor, Mike Parson.

The death of Darnell Gray

When 4-year-old Darnell Gray was reported missing on Oct. 24, a worried community swung into action.

Dozens of volunteers joined more than 100 police officers, deputies, firefighters and FBI agents in the search. Over the next several days, they combed wooded areas around the Jefferson City house where Darnell was last seen. Investigators sent up a helicopter and even drained a nearby pond.

Quatavia Givens, who at times called herself Darnell's mother or stepmother, told police the boy disappeared along with a black coat, Black Panther backpack, Spiderman shoes, two juice boxes and some cookies.

Givens went before the press pleading for the boy's safe return. At one point she said Darnell had been found. But police were suspicious and said people close to the investigation had made inconsistent statements.

Police, who described Givens as Darnell's unrelated caregiver, arrested her on Oct. 31. Investigators said she told them where they could find the boy's body – buried in a suitcase in an area that had previously been searched.

A coroner found Darnell had died from multiple wounds caused by blunt and sharp force. Police said Givens told them she "may have hit him wrong."

She was charged with one count of abuse or neglect of a child ending in serious injury or death. She is asking for a change of venue for her trial, a move generally used in cases with significant media coverage.

Givens will be arraigned Jan. 9.

The Senate race

Missouri's Senate race was one of the most closely watched – and most expensive – in the nation. Democrats put millions of dollars on incumbent Sen. Claire McCaskill, hoping to create a "blue wave" in Washington, to repudiate President Donald Trump's policies.

McCaskill outspent Missouri Attorney General Josh Hawley five fold. But Hawley held the Trump card. The president campaigned across Missouri, making multiple visits to inspire the base on Hawley's behalf.

It worked. Hawley defeated McCaskill by a 53-44 margin, perhaps a surprise given so many polls had shown the race to be dead even, or a least pretty close to it.

One of the highlights for Republicans was when Trump visited the Columbia Regional Airport for a last minute rally. Supporters – all 7,000 of them – took considerable parking issues in stride and welcomed the president with chants of "USA! USA!"

Trump told the crowd, “We’re going to tell Sen. Claire McCaskill ‘you're fired’ - let’s get this done.”

Hawley stood beside the president for part of the speech and said career politicians like McCaskill "don't get it."

After final election results came in, Hawley said his victory was about "the heartland way of life."

In her concession speech, McCaskill said, "I look forward to helping you nurture the next generation of leaders for the values that we care about. And for now it is good night, but not goodbye."

Shake up in Columbia

Frustrations over community policing in Columbia contributed to the downfall of City Manager Mike Matthes and Police Chief Ken Burton.

Critics said the two repeatedly mishandled relations between people of color and Columbia's officers. The group Race Matters, Friends, appeared at numerous council meetings to protest various actions by one man or the other.

A turning point came when Matthes proposed reducing the Community Outreach Unit (COU) from 14 people to eight. Burton concurred with the decision. But, an email leaked from the Columbia Police Department showed there were inconsistencies in how the two described reaching the decision.

Matthes resigned Nov. 29. Traci Wilson-Kleekamp, of Race Matters, Friends, said it was a great opportunity for the city to reimage itself.

"I believe that this change is an opportunity to have a conversation about where we're at and where we'd like to be and how we can get there together," she said.

Wilson-Kleekamp said she was hopeful Burton would take a close look at his own future.

"He has, I think has caused considerable damage to his own organization by throwing his COU officers under the bus. That was just unacceptable. He's like Mr. Matthes and has built a lot of mistrust within the organization; petty malice, arrogance, all of those kind of things wear on people after a while."

With opposition to Burton mounting, the city placed him on paid administrative leave Dec. 20 and he annouced his resignation eight days later.

Wilson-Kleekamp's reaction: "Hallelujah."

The Columbia Police Officers' Association was also happy to see Burton go. Executive Director Dale Roberts said officers at the department were facing problems with morale, as well as turnover, recruitment and retention.

Roberts called Burton's resignation the "light at the end of tunnel."

Loses in the Lincoln University community

Three times in 2018, students and faculty at Lincoln University found themselves holding candles and sharing memories of students who died – one in a car crash, the others murdered.

On Aug. 27, Charon Session, 23, was shot multiple times. Police say Alfred Chism, Jr. admitted doing it. Investigators say Chism laid out the following sequence: Session was harassing him and texing, Session came to his home, Chism opened the door holding a gun, told Session to leave and then opened fire.

Chism is charged with first-degree murder and armed criminal action.

Friends said Session and Chism grew up together.

The university said Session was an involved student, participating in the school's dance troupe, cheer squad and royal court.

"Charon should be remembered that he was not aggressive, he wasn't a harasser, he wasn't what he's being made out to be," said Tilly Watson, one of Session's friends.

Just 13 days later after Session's murder, 21-year-old Ariel Perkins died in a Kingdom City car crash.

Perkins, from Washington Park, Illinois, was using an emergency turn-around to go from the westboud lanes to eastbound traffic. That's when another car hit hers.

The student had just transferred to Lincoln University.

On Dec. 11, student government leader D'Angelo Bratton-Bland died of a gunshot wound.

Police said they saw a car going down East McClarty Street, and when they stopped it there were four males inside. Only Bratton-Bland had been shot.

Bratton-Bland was from Chicago and was studying elementary and special education at Lincoln. He was the school’s Student Government Association president.

"We’re losing a lot of great people, honestly due to pure violence," senior Brandon Fleming said. 

A tweet from the Lincoln Blue Tigers called Bratton-Bland an "amazing man."

The marijuana movement

Early in the year, supporters of medical marijuana blanketed the city, seeking signatures to get medical marijuana onto the November ballot. Hundreds of thousands of people signed initiatives to put three different measures in front of voters.

It was Amendment 2 that prevailed, with 66 percent of the vote. It will impose a four percent retail tax on medical marijuana sales, but no wholesale tax.

It's expected to generate about $24 million annually and cost $7 million. The funds will go toward health care and other services for military veterans in Missouri. Tax generated funds would also go to administering a program to license and regulate marijuana and marijuana facilities. 

Advocates of the new law said it will be a tremendous boost for the state's economy. Jack Cardetti, spokesperson for New Approach Missouri, said some people may be surprised by how much of an impact it will have.

“Right in front of their eyes, they are going to see an industry take off from the ground up and it’s going to be really exciting and it’s going to be extremely beneficial to Missouri patients,” he said.

Cardetti points out everything from cultivation to the end sale at dispensaries will happen within Missouri's borders.

“That means the hundreds of millions of dollars of economic activity will stay right here in Missouri,” he said.

While the law takes effect Jan. 1, it will be more than a year before medical marijuana becomes available to purchase legally. The following is a list of key dates in the legalization process.

  • June 4, 2019 - All application forms will open based on finalized regulations
  • July 5, 2019 - DHSS will begin accepting patient and caregiver applications
  • August 3, 2019 - DHSS will accept business license applications
  • December 31, 2019 - Deadline to approve the business license applications
A flock of Birds
Hundreds of Bird scooters seemed to show up overnight in Columbia in late August.
Rentals were done through an app and cost a one dollar base fee and then 15 cents per minute.  Many users were enthusiastic about having an alternative means of transportation that was relatively inexpensive and easy to access.
Columbia resident Jaylen James said she used the scooters every day; that it's a quick and fun way to get around, and cheaper than Uber.

"I didn't feel like getting a ride to work, so I'm like let me just take the scooter, and the scooter got me there in the same amount of time," he said.

But the city council wasn't so sure. Bird showed up without an agreement in hand. There were concerns the scooters were dangerous and people with disabilities said the scooters often got in the way of their wheelchairs or other assistive devices.

Jamie Leonard, who uses a wheelchair called it frustrating.

"Kids park them whenever, wherever they want," Leonard said. "They're not worried about me or how I'll get around it."

Bird and city reached a working agreement in October. It required the company to pay a regulatory fee of $10,000 a month, as well as a ridership fee of $1.00 for every scooter in operation each day.

The deal required the company ensure scooters were parked upright, on sidewalks and out of the way of pedestrians. There were also rules requiring scooters operate safely.

Bird violated that agreement during a winter storm in late November, because people were using scooters despite the icy and slushy conditions. 

"Weather can be unpredictable — so we are working closely with Columbia city officials to ensure that we are cooperating with all local rules and have clear lines of communication to monitor and address any sudden changes in weather," a company statement said.

Bird riders can use the scooters, but the city council said it will reconsider that if company violates its agreement again.

The world's highest honor

University of Missouri Professor Emeritus George Smith said there's a prank that goes around in scientific circles.
"It's a standard joke that someone with a Swedish accent calls and says you won," he said, referring to the Nobel Prize based in Stockholm.
But when he got such a call, Smith said, he knew it wasn't a trick.
"There was so much static on the line, I knew it wasn't any of my friends," he said.
Smith was awarded the 2018 Nobel Prize for Chemistry for his development of bacteriophage display, which allows a virus that infects bacteria to create new proteins. The method was used in research to develop many pharmaceuticals, including some related to osteoporosis. He shared the prize with two other scientists.
Shortly after the announcement came on Oct. 2, Smith talked about the academic environment at MU.
"Someone like me can flourish at Mizzou and that's something Mizzou should be proud of for nurturing that kind of intellectual community," he said.
Smith's work has the opportunity to attract many new students to the university, MU spokesperson Christian Basi said. 

“It’s a great recruiting tool for us. It tells students that they can come here and be taught by the best in the world," Basi said. "They can be taught by those who are making breakthroughs that affect people across the globe."

MU honored Smith, in part, by giving him a dedicated place for his bike, rather than the offered car parking space.

"I agreed to it because it's also a shout out to the other people that support alternative transportation in our city," Smith said.

When he's not focused on science, Smith likes to sing. He's a founding member of the Columbia Chorale.

"I'm a not very skillful tenor, but nevertheless, persistent second tenor," he said.

Smith's legacy goes far beyond winning a prize – even the world's most prestigious prize. It is also measured in the impact he has had on his former students.

After hearing about the award, one of those former students, Michelle Williams, had a message for Smith. 

"Thank you for always being an awesome human being and mentoring us and congratulations because you absolutely deserve it," she said.

The turkey named Tina

In February, Robyn McCullem's son pointed out something unusual, a turkey wandering around their neighborhood, not far from the intersection of Chapel Hill Road and Forum Boulevard.
Other people had taken notice too, aiming their phones and cameras as the turkey stopped traffic, perched on parked cars and haunted local businesses.
Workers at Veterans United named the turkey Tina. McCullem used the name when she created a Facebook page to collect all of those pictures and videos. When people finally learned the turkey was a he and not a she, the name Tina had stuck.
The bird continued to attract fans, like Janice Downes, who worked in the area and saw him almost every morning.
“I love when he gobbles and then you open the window and he’s right there,” she said. “It’s something to look forward to. You just don’t know when he’s going to show up.”
The number of Facebook likes grew, eventually reaching nearly 4,000 people.
“Everybody loves Tina. It’s an amazing thing that a turkey can bring the community so close together,” Lacy Priesmeyer said.
She and McCullem decided to put Tina's popularity to use. They sold t-shirts with his image to benefit the food bank. The final haul: $510.
But, the two women were worried about Tina's safety. He was often walking in front of cars – or chasing them. His penchant for playing in traffic eventually took it's toll.
The following message was posted to the Facebook page: 
"It is with broken hearts that we announce the passing of Tina the Turkey. Tina was hit and killed by a vehicle along Chapel Hill this morning and this was confirmed by a personal phone call from the Missouri Department of Conservation. Tina, you brought a lot of joy to those that got to witness your daily antics and silly personality. We are so sorry your environment turned out to be too urban for you. The Department of Conservation and us so badly wish you could have lived your life out in peace outside of the city limits. You will be missed and our drives down Chapel Hill and Forum won’t quite be the same. RIP Tina!"
Dozens of people showed up at the intersection of Forum Boulevard and Chapel Hill for a candlelight vigil. They shared their own personal stories about Tina; talked about what they loved most and what they’re going to miss the most about him. 
Audrey Cantu said Tina had been a positive mascot for the community. 

"I think it's really important that we pay our respects to that and just the positivity and happiness and joy he brought to everyone," she said. 

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