Leaving out the presidential election and shockwaves from the war in Iraq, and the year that was 2004 was refreshingly free of major disaster (unlike 2003's Aspen Fire). But at the top of the list is something that may yet devolve into disaster -- one which was highly preventable had the people in the white collars simply done the right thing.
Before we begin, a note on how I came up with the list. It's purely subjective, not based on votes or measures of news coverage or any mathematical formula. In other words, the BCS computers didn't decide it. My criteria is simple: the stories that made the top five are based on the impact they made here in Tucson (and in some cases, around the country) and the impact they still yet may make. So here goes...
1) TUCSON CATHOLIC DIOCESE DECLARES BANKRUPTCY
We all knew it was going to happen. Bishop Gerald Kicanas telegraphed it for months, and the legal experts said it was the only way out for a diocese facing more claims of sexual abuse than it could afford to settle. So in September, the inevitable happened. The Tucson Diocese became only the second one in the nation to file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection.
Many people asked us at Channel 13 about why the Pope wouldn't pick up the tab. Others wondered how the heck the Diocese could claim individual parish funds were seperate and not subject to claims. While there is a spiritual alliance, we are told, there is not a financial one.
And if you buy that excuse, you've been drinking too much holy water.
Other alliances existed, the same ones that kept priest abuse on the Q.T. for decades. I don't believe for a minute the individual parishes should get a pass on this one. Neither should the Vatican, which was late to the party on dealing with it. It's time for the church to come clean and pay up.
But I also have a few words for the victims' rights groups who are complaining the church is trying to drum up sympathy for itself with the bankruptcy filing. I don't think any of them would like to see parishes closed and Catholic schools shut down because one single case resulted in a jackpot judgment of $20 million or more. That's what would have to happen, without a doubt, because insurance companies are dumping the church. It's already happened in Boston, home to Cardinal Bernard (Above The) Law. (This clerical coward is still performing masses in Vatican City, but that's another rant.) Going for the throat, while more than understandable given the abuse and its cover-up, will simply hurt parishoners. It's just not fair.
Hopefully, in 2005, we'll see a solution that dispenses something resembling a fair settlement. The clock is ticking for people to file claims. We shall see how many more victims come forward. But the Tucson Diocese will never be the same. And it's debt load will only be deeper, meaning I fear for what they'll have to slash to pay the bills.
2) EYE OF EVIL: THE MURDER OF DR. DAVID BRIAN STIDHAM
It's a murder case taylor made for a TV movie of the week... or Court TV. A vengeful eye doctor, we are told by police, seeks revenge on a former partner who squealed on him about his drug abuse and took patients away. That partner is a beloved, caring pediatric eye surgeon. A hitman is hired. The job goes down. The bloody body of Dr. David Brian Stidham turns up in his parking lot. It looks like a carjacking... almost.
The mystery unravels. The stolen car turns up. So do clues about the wrath of Dr. Bradley Schwartz and his past. Police arrest him and the suspected hitman, Ronald Bigger, whose hotel room was paid for with Schwartz's credit card. But it doesn't end there.
It seems a lot of people knew too much and didn't do enough. One is Tucson Police Lt. Wendall Hunt, who dated a girl who worked with Schwartz. And we learn about four prosecutors in the County Attorney's office who knew a woman connected to Schwartz -- but don't bother asking County Attorney Barbara "Brick Wall" LaWall about them. Or maybe you should, in court, to try to shed some light on the office's dirty little secrets, which is just what the media in Tucson are doing.
The Schwartz-Bigger case will turn out to be Pima County's biggest trial since the Pizza Hut murder trials in 2000 -- and that one didn't even take place in Pima County. I set the odds at 2 to 1 the trial gets moved to Phoenix, Yuma or (gulp) Prescott. Pinal County prosecutors have already had to take over the case for conflict of interest reasons. A change of venue isn't much more of a stretch.
3) LION IN WAIT
Kill them or move them. That was the choice state wildlife workers had when they determined cougars in Sabino Canyon were threatening visitors. The park was closed. The plan was to kill them.
Not so fast, friends of wildlife countered. Don't hurt the lions, they pleaded. If anything, we're to blame because we're intruding on their habitat. If they're a threat, just dart them and take them somewhere else and rehabilitate them (as if mountain lions can be taken to Maneaters Anonymous).
The state would have nothing of it, especially after the high liability cost of a bear attack on Mt. Lemmon several years ago. But the complaints grew louder. Finally the state relented after a lion hunt turned up no lions. The operation to capture and move would be more expensive, but maybe people would just shut the hell up.
Finally one lion was caught and taken away after being trapped. Sabino Canyon reopened, albeit with more restrictions and more warnings. Nobody was attacked, no lions were killed -- except for later, when one got out of line in Ventana Canyon after coming too close to visitors.
But the lessons were learned: Tucsonans will not allow Game and Fish to run the animal kingdom like its own personal fiefdom. And for crying out loud, if you're going to shoot lions, you might as well do it when you can catch them in the act.
4) GO WITH GOD, CARLOS VALENCIA
News 13's Paul Cicala introduced us to a remarkable boy in 2000 -- one determined to beat leukemia, no matter how much it made him suffer. He badly needed a bone marrow transplant, but the odds were doubly against him. He needed an exact match from a registry that wasn't exactly brimming with Hispanic donors.
Had this story aired in any other city, it probably would have sparked a huge outpouring, and then Carlos and his struggle would have faded away. But Carlos' determination touched us all, along with a realizaton that he was facing a problem bigger than himself. If hispanics were underrepresented as bone marrow donors, many more in Carlos' situation would not survive.
The first plea for help produced a record turnout in 2000. Carlos didn't find a match, but other children with leukemia did through his efforts. More marrow drives were held with no matches. Finally, doctors tried a risky treatment using stem cells in umbilical cord blood.
It looked like it was going to work. Carlos improved. His immune system strengthened and it seemed Carlos would fade away eventually into someone different -- a ravenous Arizona Wildcat Basketball fan who would be tearing up the court under Lute Olsen one day.
But then the leukemia came back.
Other cord transplants failed. A last-ditch attempt was made using disesed stem cells Carlos had stored for years. An infection set in and the boy slipped into a coma-like state. Doctors warned it was the beginning of the end. And then Carlos was gone.
The grief reverberated through Tucson. Bishop Gerald Kicanas led his funeral mass, one covered on live television on a Saturday morning. A boy who had touched so many lives while trying to save his own had left a legacy, a lesson, a cause for others to follow.
5) GUARDS HELD HOSTAGE
Nearly a year after it happened, we're still looking into why. In January, two corrections officers were held hostage by two inmates inside a guard tower at the Lewis State prison in Buckeye. A two-week standoff followed, ending on Super Bowl Sunday. One guard was freed about a week before the other, but not before she was sexually assaulted, among other things.
The stalemate frustrated those who wanted SWAT teams to storm the tower and kill anything that moved. The resolution frustrated those who claimed the state caved into the inmates' demands to transfer them to other prisons. But the bottom line -- two officers came out alive. However, state prisons still have security issues to address. Stay tuned.
HONORABLE MENTION: MT. GRAHAM BURNING
When wildfire season comes around, everybody girds for the "big one" in the newsroom. Last year, it was the Aspen Fire. The year before, Rodeo-Chediski. Two devastating fires in two years, and this looked like it would be number three.
Lightning started the fire on Mt. Graham, home to millions of dollars worth of telescopes -- one owned by the Vatican. (Funny how the Church keeps coming up in the top stories of the year, eh?) Native Americans hinted it was bad karma -- my term, not theirs -- for building on sacred tribal ground.
The fire smouldered, then raged, and got close. And we all waited for the overrun on the telescopes that never happened. Finally, after two years of bad luck, bad winds and bad timing, the firefighters got a victory.