Indiana, PA - Indiana County

Readers, newsroom weigh in on top stories of 2013

by JASON L. LEVAN jlevan@indianagazette.net on December 31, 2013 11:00 AM

The planned foundation of a Challenger Learning Center and the recovery of Creps United Publications topped voting for the biggest local stories of 2013.

The public, in voting earlier this month, overwhelmingly chose the news that a center to host a science and space education program is to be built at the Indiana County Technology Center in White Township as the top story.

Called the Central Allegheny Challenger Learning Center, it would exclusively serve students and school districts in 22 counties in western and central Pennsylvania.

Challenger Learning Centers have been sanctioned since 1986 through the Challenger Foundation, an organization established by families of the astronauts killed in the explosion of the Challenger space shuttle, to promote and advance science education in the context of space exploration.

Recently, the state pledged $1,365,000 toward the cost of the project.

That story ranked fifth on the list as voted on by reporters, photographers and editors in the Gazette’s newsroom.

For its part, the Gazette newsroom selected the recovery of Creps from a devastating fire in 2012 as its top story.

The business’ massive printing plant off Philadelphia Street in White Township was destroyed by fire on Oct. 23, 2012, and the loss was set at $75 million, the costliest in the history of Indiana County. About 180 people were out of work.

In the intervening 14 months, managing partner Jake Creps worked closely with county and local officials and the company broke ground for a new, more modern facility in March in the Windy Ridge Industrial Park in White Township. Some of the presses began rolling again earlier this month.

That story came in second in the public’s voting.

There were plenty of other similarities on the lists.

The success of Zach Beeken, of Indiana, on Fox’s national singing competition “The X Factor” came in third on our readers’ list and fourth on the newsroom’s list.

Beeken, 17, who graduated in May from Indiana Area High School, is part of a country trio called “Restless Road,” which formed specifically for the TV show. After catching the attention of often-critical judge Simon Cowell, the group made it through 10 weeks of national voting. They were eliminated from the show during the semifinal round.

A large crowd hosted a welcome-home party for him just before Christmas.

Beeken, the son of Ryan and Jennifer Beeken, said he is hoping the group gets a recording contract.

The retirement of Dave Frick after a decade as county commissioner also made both lists in the voting.

Frick, 78, announced in September that he would be stepping down today, prompting the county Republican Party to select a replacement earlier this month from among 13 candidates. Mike Baker, the former county coroner for eight years, will take over the rest of Frick’s term, through the end of 2015.

That story ranked fourth on the readers’ list and seventh on the newsroom’s list.

Others that landed on both lists:

• The conviction and death sentence for Kevin Murphy — who killed his mother, sister and aunt in 2009. A jury found Murphy, of Conemaugh Township, guilty of first-degree murder in May of shooting the women in a glass shop in Loyalhanna Township and subsequently sentenced him to death. A Westmoreland County judge upheld the conviction in early December. (Readers: No. 8, newsroom: No. 3)

• The vote by the Indiana Area school board in October to put a referendum question on the ballot in the primary election next year to gauge the public’s appetite for an 11.5 percent increase in real estate taxes to pay for additional teachers to maintain optimal class sizes. The board is exploring an alternative, if the referendum fails, to realign the grade levels at the district’s elementary schools, possibly moving students from one school to another in 2014-15. (No. 9, No. 10)

• The conviction in September of Indiana doctor Tahir Mir, who will spend seven to 15 years in prison for trading prescriptions and money in exchange for sex with two female patients addicted to painkillers at his former medical office along South Fifth Street. (No. 10, No. 9)

Readers also voted for:

• The deaths of three Kittanning-area men May 5 who drowned when their pickup truck rolled over into a pond northeast of Plumville. Police say the men had been drinking before the accident. Charges of serving alcohol to minors have been filed against the manager of the Final Score Sports Saloon, Larry Pompelia, of Rural Valley. Another bar employee, also of Rural Valley, has also been charged. (No. 5)

• The guilty plea and sentencing of Indiana County businessman Daniel Pikel, who will serve 27 months in prison for conspiracy connected to a money laundering scheme at Falcon Drilling LLC, of Indiana. Pikel, 57, of Home, owner of Pikel’s Universal Auto Service and the BP Inn, both in Rayne Township, admitted to laundering through his accounts almost $3 million. Falcon’s former chief operating officer, Larry Winckler, faces federal prosecution for his role in the scheme. (No. 6, tie)

• The resignation of two Green Township supervisors who stand accused of stealing scrap metal owned by the township. James Crawford Sr., 74, and Allen Shirley, 62, were charged in April with sharing in almost $14,200 that they collected by cashing in the remnants of a steel bridge, an old truck and various other pieces of metal at an area scrap dealer. They reached agreements to each pay restitution and were placed on ARD, with the chance to have the charges erased from their record in one year. Township road crew workers Dale Laney, 61, and Gary Putt, 60, have also been charged in the case. (No. 6, tie)

The newsroom also voted for:

• The expansion of the runway at the Indiana County/Jimmy Stewart Airport. Planning began for the extension, in fits and starts, about 50 years ago, but this spring, work was completed on a new 5,500-foot runway adjacent to the old 4,000-foot runway. County officials hope the $18.5 million project will accommodate corporate-size planes and make the area more attractive to companies looking for new business locations. And the new runway may literally pave the way for the return of charter and commuter air services at the airport. The old runway is being used as a taxiway. (No. 2)

• The shooting death of an Ernest man on a remote walking trail in Clymer. Two Glen Campbell men have been charged with killing James “Porky” Alexander during a narcotics transaction. Christopher Salsgiver, 22, and Gregory Patterson, 33, face charges of criminal homicide, accused in connection with the June slaying near Penn and Sage streets. (No. 6)

• The accusation that a shop teacher had sex with a female student in a classroom at Saltsburg Middle/High School. Todd D. McCullough, 28, of Apollo, faces charges of sexual assault, institutional sexual assault, aggravated indecent assault, indecent exposure and corruption of minors. A judge in November dismissed charges of rape, aggravated indecent assault, indecent assault and involuntary deviate sexual intercourse. He has maintained his innocence. (No. 8)

There were some big stories, to be sure, that developed late this year, including three damaging fires in and around the Homer City area within 10 days in mid- and late December.

An apartment complex near the Smith Concrete plant along Old Route 119 in Center Township was declared a total loss after a fire on Dec. 14.

The office and warehouse building of Accent Fuels Co. along West Indiana Street in Homer City was destroyed in the early-morning hours of Dec. 19. Investigators said it may take weeks or months to determine the cause. Firefighters were called from every corner of Indiana County to fight the blaze. Then, early on Dec. 24, fire gutted a building owned by Northeast Energy Drilling along South Sixth Street in White Township. That fire has been ruled accidental by the Indiana Fire Association.

Voting was conducted before those events occurred.

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