The Enid News and Eagle, Enid, OK

December 31, 2013

Devastating tornadoes top state stories

By Jill Bleed, Associated Press
Associated Press

— Even in a state accustomed to Mother’s Nature fury, 2013 was extraordinary.

In a two-week period in May, violent tornadoes and powerful flash flooding walloped the state, killing schoolchildren, storm chasers and Oklahomans who had huddled in convenience store coolers and underground storm drains to avoid the storms.

The one-two punch of tornadoes that struck Moore and El Reno in May — and the outpouring of support nationally and internationally — was overwhelmingly picked by Associated Press members as the story of 2013.

The full list, prepared by Oklahoma reporters who covered the state’s top stories in 2013, follows:



1. TORNADOES

One of the most powerful tornadoes to hit Oklahoma formed just southwest of Moore on May 20 and roared into the Oklahoma City suburb, killing 24 and leaving at least $2 billion in damage.

Seven pupils died when the EF-5 twister hit the Plaza Towers Elementary School. The storm hit another school, but no deaths were recorded there.

In the aftermath, a state legislator proposed a half-billion-dollar bond program to help schools build storm shelters or safe rooms. Backers fell short of the number of signatures necessary to place the issue on the state ballot but are continuing their attempts.

Less than two weeks later after the storm at Moore, a twister with the second-highest winds ever recorded near ground level hit south of El Reno, part of a thunderstorm complex that produced flash flooding and high winds that killed two dozen people in the Oklahoma City area. Three scientists who studied tornadoes were among those killed.

The El Reno storm formed on the prairie well west of Oklahoma City, giving residents advance notice of bad weather. When told to seek shelter, many ventured out and snarled roads already congested with rush hour traffic.

“They had no place to go, and that’s always a bad thing. They were essentially targets just waiting for a tornado to touch down,” state trooper Betsy Randolph said. “I’m not sure why people do that sort of stuff, but it is very dangerous.”

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2. AUSTRALIAN PLAYER-RANDOM SLAYING

A 22-year-old Australian who came to Oklahoma to play college baseball was gunned down while jogging in Duncan, creating an uproar on two continents.

Christopher Lane, 22, was shot in the back Aug. 16 while running down a tree-lined street in the southern Oklahoma town. Lane, a Melbourne native, was a catcher at East Central University in Ada and preparing to enter his senior year. Lane was visiting his girlfriend’s parents’ in Duncan when he was shot and killed.

Three teenagers were arrested. Two of them — Chancey Luna and James Edwards Jr., both 16 — were charged as adults with first-degree murder. A third teenager, Michael Jones, 18, was initially charged as a youthful offender with being an accessory and using a vehicle in discharge of a weapon, but those charges were later dismissed and prosecutors filed a new first-degree murder charge against the 18-year-old.

Prosecutors allege the shooting was a random act by teenagers who said they were “bored.”

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3. STATEHOUSE

CORRUPTION

Two former state legislators were convicted in 2013 for their roles in a felony bribery scheme.

Former Rep. Randy Terrill, R-Moore, was convicted by a jury of offering a bribe for withdrawal of candidacy and sentenced to a year in prison. He was accused of setting up former state Sen. Debbe Leftwich, D-Oklahoma City, in an $80,000-a-year job at the state Medical Examiner’s Office in exchange for her not seeking re-election in 2010 so a Republican colleague of Terrill’s could seek her open seat.

The witness list for Terrill’s trial read like a who’s who of Oklahoma politics and included testimony from former Democratic Gov. Brad Henry and several other elected officials.

Following Terrill’s conviction in October, Leftwich waived her right to a jury trial and was found guilty by a judge of accepting a thing of value to withdraw. She received a one-year suspended sentence and is appealing her conviction.

Terrill also remained free on bond while he pursues an appeal.

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4. INDIAN CHILD

WELFARE DISPUTE

An adoption case that went to the U.S. Supreme Court ultimately was resolved in Oklahoma during 2013.

Dusten Brown, a Cherokee Nation citizen, was charged in South Carolina with “custodial interference” after attempting to void the 2009 adoption of Baby Veronica by a Charleston couple — an adoption that had been set up by Veronica’s mother.

After the nation’s highest court said Brown couldn’t press claims under the Indian Child Welfare Act, Matt and Melanie Capobianco traveled to Oklahoma hoping to pick up the child, who had lived with Brown’s family since age 2.

Gov. Mary Fallin requested the Capobiancos and the Browns pursue mediation, but in early September she signed papers to send Brown to South Carolina to face charges, believing he wasn’t negotiating in good faith.

Brown surrendered, but the child remained at the Jack Brown House at the Cherokee Nation Tribal Complex.

On Sept. 23, at dusk, Veronica was transferred to her adoptive parents after the state Supreme Court removed a stay that had directed the girl remain with her father. In October, Brown announced he would no longer pursue further appeals but wanted to remain a part of her life.

“One day, you’ll read about all of this,” Brown said, addressing his daughter. “I hope you never, ever, forget that I love you. My home is always your home.”

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5. HOBBY LOBBY-BIRTH CONTROL

A legal battle waged by Oklahoma City-based Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc., against the federal health care law’s mandate that employee health insurance coverage include access to the morning-after pill and similar contraceptives reached the U.S. Supreme Court in 2013.

The nation’s highest court announced in November that it will hear a dispute over whether businesses can use religious objections to escape a requirement to cover emergency contraception that they consider abortifacients.

A federal judge in July granted an injunction preventing enforcement of that part of the law on Hobby Lobby after the arts and crafts chain alleged in a lawsuit that the Christian family that owns the arts-and-crafts chain would be forced “to violate their deeply held religious beliefs under threat of heavy fines, penalties and lawsuits.”

The Green family, Hobby Lobby’s owners, also owns the Mardel Christian bookstore chain.

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6. TORT REFORM

Oklahoma lawmakers continued their push for changes in the state’s tort system — including meeting in a special session to address concerns raised by the state Supreme Court.

The changes enacted by Oklahoma lawmakers as way to reduce medical costs and keep physicians in the state may not do that much to actually reduce costs, a study of a similar law shows.  A study of Texas’ tort reforms of 2003, published in the Journal of Empirical Legal Studies last year, said there was no evidence that changes bent the cost curve downward.

The study also noted, though, that there was evidence of higher post-reform spending by Texas physicians who practice in high-risk areas.

The study comes as many business and industry groups call for more changes in the tort system. A memo from a senior vice president at the Oklahoma State Chamber of Commerce, sent to chamber officials in November, lists about a dozen recommendations that would fundamentally change the judicial and tort systems.

Those changes include term limits for members of the state judiciary, a requirement that justices of the Oklahoma Supreme Court and the appellate courts be elected instead of appointed, and a plan to increase the required percentage of yes votes in judicial retention elections to 60 percent.

The proposals were expected to become part of the Chamber’s legislative agenda for 2014.

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7. INCOME TAX CUT

After two years of political wrangling over a cut in the state’s income tax, Gov. Mary Fallin seemed to have finally accomplished a major political victory in 2013 — a broad agreement with Republican legislative leaders to cut the income tax and provide $120 million for repairs to the crumbling state Capitol.

The bill would reduce the top personal income tax rate that most Oklahomans pay from 5.25 percent to 5 percent, beginning in 2015, with a second cut to 4.85 percent set for 2016 if state revenues continue to rise. It also diverted $120 million — $60 million over two consecutive fiscal years — to pay for improvements to the nearly 100-year-old Capitol building.

But in December Fallin’s signature achievement was thrown out by the Oklahoma Supreme Court, which ruled unanimously that the bill violated a constitutional ban on including multiple subjects in a single bill.

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8. FOSS LAKE BODIES

A practice run for new sonar technology at the Foss Lake marina garnered worldwide attention after authorities found six bodies in two submerged cars on Sept. 17.

Custer County Sheriff Bruce Peoples said the descriptions of the vehicles and their occupants “strongly leaned” in the direction of two local cold cases - one from 1969 and one from 1970.

While positive identification rests on DNA testing from the medical examiner’s office, the remains found in one of the vehicles, a 1969 Chevrolet Camaro, are believed to belong to Jimmy Allen Williams, 16, Thomas Michael Rios, 18 and Leah Gail Johnson, 18. The three Sayre teens disappeared on Nov. 20, 1970 and were last seen in Williams’ Camaro.

The other vehicle, a 1952 Chevy sedan, matches the description of a missing persons case from 1969. John Alva Porter, Nora Marie Duncan and Cleburn Hammock were last seen heading to Foss Lake on April 8, 1969 and not heard from again.

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9. TULSA DENTIST

At the end of March, health officials announced that unsanitary conditions at a Tulsa oral surgeon’s office may have exposed at least 7,000 of his patients to HIV, hepatitis B and hepatitis C.

Dr. W. Scott Harrington, a Tulsa native who had been practicing in the area for more than 30 years, voluntarily halted his practice and now faces a hearing before the Oklahoma Board of Dentistry in 2014.

Health officials said Harrington’s office used rusted, unclean equipment and poor infection-control procedures. More than 4,200 patients were tested at local health departments. Of those, 90 tested positive for hepatitis C, six for hepatitis B and four for HIV.

One case of hepatitis C was linked to Harrington’s practice. It is the first known case of patient-to-patient transmission of the disease in a dental setting in the United States. Hepatitis B and HIV cases could not be linked to Harrington’s practice.

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10. EARTHQUAKES

Oklahoma is known more for its tornadoes than its earthquakes but a swarm of temblors continued in 2013 in the Sooner state, rattling nerves, and in some cases, doing minor damage.

The biggest of the year was a 4.5-magnitude quake that shook the Oklahoma City area on the afternoon of Dec. 7. It was one of the largest in the state’s history.

Since 2009, more than 200 magnitude-3.0 or greater earthquakes have hit the state’s midsection, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. Scientists are not sure why seismic activity has spiked, but multiple studies are underway.

The large quake was centered about four miles northwest of Jones, just east of Arcadia Lake. It was felt in Edmond, Guthrie, Norman and Oklahoma City.

Dan Barth, chief information officer for OPUBCO Communications Group, was watching the Bedlam football game on television at his home near Jones when the earthquake rumbled.

Barth said picture frames and Christmas decorations fell off the walls, bathroom cabinets came open, and cups fell out of kitchen cabinets.

“This is the first time we’ve ever had damage, so it was kind of shocking. It was a mess,” he said. “We were watching the Bedlam game, and we saw our Pistol Pete fall off the wall. I thought, ‘That’s not a good sign.”’

The strongest earthquake on record in Oklahoma was a magnitude-5.6 earthquake on Nov. 5, 2011, which injured two people, destroyed 14 homes and damaged other buildings in the Shawnee-Sparks area.