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December 24, 2015

Year in Review: Top 10 local news stories in 2015

Year in Review Local
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Looking back at 2015: clockwise from top left: Pope Francis pays a visit; Bill Cosby started suing his alleged victims; Kathleen Kane hangs on to her job for now; a speeding Amtrak train crashes in Port Richmond; the city's in the midst of a construction boom; Officer Robert Wilson III was killed in the line of duty and remembered for his heroism; and U.S. Rep. Chaka Fattah is indicted.

Locally, a handful of big events in 2015 seemed to dominate the headlines for months at a time. From the pope to "Porngate" to politicians in crisis, the year's events offered reasons for inspiration, admiration, anticipation and frustration. Offered in no particular order, here are the stories that made 2015 memorable.

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POPE FRANCIS VISITS

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Pope Francis arrived in Philadelphia for two days in late September, a whirlwind event that brought hundreds of thousands of pilgrims to the Benjamin Franklin Parkway for a memorable papal Mass preceded by a thrilling parade. As Pope Francis looped around the Parkway on his popemobile, the exuberant crowd pressed against security barriers to cheer his mere presence. The papal Mass concluded a packed weekend in which Pope Francis also met privately with abuse victims, spoke on immigration at Independence Hall and greeted inmates at a maximum security prison. Before departing Philadelphia, Pope Francis left the crowd with a simple request - "I ask you to pray for me – don't forget."

The weekend capped months of local anticipation – but also skepticism – as event organizers rolled out a complex security plan that secluded Center City, closed major roadways and shuttered the Benjamin Franklin Bridge. As a result, many Philadelphians fled town for the Jersey shore or other destinations. But those who stayed enjoyed open streets, prompting a push to close some Center City streets to motor vehicles several times a year.

'PORNGATE' SCANDAL ROCKS PENNSYLVANIA

If 2015 gave anything to the lexicon in Pennsylvania, it was the word “Porngate.” The term has come to identify the scandal of state officials sending or receiving thousands of sexually explicit and racist emails that were discovered by state Attorney General Kathleen Kane. The controversy has swept up Supreme Court Justice Seamus McCaffery (resignation) and Justice Michael Eakin (suspension), several prosecutors in the Philadelphia District Attorney’s office and others. Kane said the scandal was indicative of an old boys network in state law enforcement and judicial circles. In mid-December, however, it was revealed that Kane allegedly had received some of the emails. Kane has said that her expose of the inappropriate emails was the reason she was charged with leaking grand jury information to embarrass a rival, Frank Fina, the chief prosecutor in the Jerry Sandusky trial. Fina, now working in Philadelphia District Attorney's Office, has been closely linked to the email scandal. The scandal continues with calls for Kane’s removal from office and a special prosecutor assigned to investigate the scandal in the year to come.

Rescue workers climb into the wreckage to search for victims of a Amtrak train derailment on May 12, 2015, at Frankford Junction in Port Richmond. Eight people died in the accident. (Bryan Woolston, File / REUTERS)

DERAILMENT OF AMTRAK TRAIN KILLS EIGHT

Eight people died and more than 200 others were injured when Amtrak Train No. 188 derailed along a sharp curve in Port Richmond on May 12. The National Transportation Safety Board launched an investigation into the crash as national news outlets spilled into the city, feverishly seeking details. Investigators have not yet issued a ruling on the cause of the crash, but said the train, controlled by engineer Brandon Bostian, was traveling at 106 mph on a stretch of tracks with a speed limit of 50 mph before it derailed. The derailment may have been prevented if technology designed to automatically slow speeding trains had been installed along the tracks, but that technology was not added until late this year. More than 60 personal injury and wrongful death lawsuits have been filed against Amtrak, all of which will be heard in Philadelphia.

JIM KENNEY ELECTED MAYOR

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This past year was a good one for former City Councilman Jim Kenney. The Democrat who had held an at-large council seat was elected to be the mayor of Philadelphia back in November. Since that election, Kenney’s kept in the public eye, announcing new members of his administration, a “community school” plan for the city’s public schools and recently attacking the Philadelphia Eagles for a plan to increase Temple University’s rent for using Lincoln Financial Field. And while there wasn't much campaign drama once he secured the nomination in the May primary, there is much more anticipation for the year ahead as he moves from council chambers to the mayor's office. He will be inaugurated Jan. 4.

MYSTERIOUS DEATH OF BRENDAN CREATO

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The close of 2015 ends with an unanswered mystery: How did Brendan Creato, a 3-year-old South Jersey toddler, die? The child’s father, DJ Creato, reported his son missing around 6 a.m. on Oct. 13 in a 911 call to Haddon Township police. Three hours later, the boy’s body was discovered a half a mile away from his dad's apartment building by a police dog in the woods of Cooper River Park.

Authorities have had little to say since, only that that there was no break-in at the apartment, the boy was not molested, and an autopsy and a review by two more pathologists could not definitively identify a cause of death. PhillyVoice reported in mid-November that a grand jury was taking testimony in the case. The unexplained death remains under investigation by local police and homicide detectives assigned to the Camden County Prosecutor’s Office.

PENNSYLVANIA BUDGET STANDOFF

The people responsible for making sure that Pennsylvania had a budget in place by its July 1 deadline, well, let's just say they are still trying – and failing miserably – nearly six months later. Gov. Tom Wolf has had no success breaking the impasse with a legislature run by Republicans, with disagreements persisting over mechanisms to increase education spending by Wolf, and how to reduce pension benefits to state workers, a Republican priority.

Meanwhile, the Capitol Catfight continues to cause more and more pain for state schools and non-profit organizations, with many having to borrow funds to keep operating. Last week, the superintendent of Philadelphia schools, William Hite Jr., announced the district can continue operations without state funding until Jan. 29. After that date, Hite said, the district's ability to pay teachers and bills is uncertain.

INDICTMENT OF U.S. REP. CHAKA FATTAH

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It was a year of mounting legal problems for the men of the Fattah family. Beginning in July, when U.S. Rep Chaka Fattah Sr. was named in a federal racketeering indictment that alleges the Democrat and four associates were involved in several schemes to misappropriate hundreds of thousands of dollars in federal, charitable and campaign funds.

Included in the feds' investigation were allegations that Fattah, 59, who represents Pennsylvania's 2nd District, and the others borrowed $1 million from a wealthy supporter and disguised the funds as a loan to a consulting company during Fattah's failed mayoral bid in 2007. It also was alleged that to get his mayoral campaign's finance chairman an ambassadorship or appointment to the U.S. Trade Commission, Fattah accepted a bribe disguised as a payment for a sham sale of his wife's Porsche. Fattah's wife is Renee Chenault-Fattah, an NBC 10 anchor.

This all has some in Fattah's party smelling blood in the water. Four Democracts have announced their intentions to challenge the incumbent in next year's primary – State Rep. Brian Sims, State Rep. Dwight Evans, Ninth Ward Leader Dan Muroff and Lower Merion Township Commissioner Brian Gordon.

In November, a federal jury found Chaka Fattah Jr. guilty of 22 counts of defrauding the Internal Revenue Service and the Philadelphia School District of hundreds of thousands of dollars. Fattah Jr. had made false statements to multiple banks in order to obtain loans and lines of credit. These funds were used on personal expenses ranging from car loans and gambling debts to utilities, clothing, electronics, jewelry, and a luxury condominium among other expenses.

Fattah Jr. served as his own attorney during the trial.

OFFICER ROBERT WILSON III KILLED IN LINE OF DUTY

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Philadelphia police Officer Robert Wilson III stopped into a North Philadelphia store in early March to buy his son a video game for good grades. He never had the chance to make that reward. Two armed men entered the store, declared a hold-up and started firing when they realized Wilson was in the shop. Wilson shot back, and kept shooting, to protect the other customers in the store, even after he was struck nine times, including once in the head. When the shooting stopped 30 seconds later, more than 50 rounds had been fired. Wilson, 30, an eight-year veteran of the force assigned to the 22nd Police District, was rushed to Temple University Hospital. He died a short time later.

Wilson was one of the "best police officers this city had to offer," Commissioner Charles Ramsey said later. "[He was] a very, very brave, heroic individual. Even though he was struck multiple times, he was able to [return] fire."

Wilson was given a hero's funeral, complete with a horse-drawn caisson. At the ceremony, he was posthumously promoted to the rank of sergeant by Ramsey, who announced the department's Medal of Valor had been renamed for the latest officer to die in the line of duty.

BILL COSBY SCANDAL BLOWS UP

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Bill Cosby had a terrible year. More than 50 women have now come forward to accuse the actor, best known for his role in the 1980s television hit "The Cosby Show," of sexually assaulting them after plying them with drugs or alcohol. More academic institutions, such as Lehigh, Franklin & Marshall, Drexel, and Swarthmore, have cut ties. Shows got canceled. He even quit the board of Temple University, a Philly institution once synonymous with its most famous graduate. Cosby has repeatedly denied wrongdoing and has never been criminally charged. And the once-beloved entertainer has begun to strike back, suing or countersuing eight of his alleged victims.

The viral video skewering the disconnection between the Philly-born comedian’s affable public personae and a private life filled with accusations as a sexual predator began in late 2014, right here in his hometown. The fallout from that comedy riff labeling Cosby, 78, a “rapist” blew up last year, but it promises to keep reverberating through 2016.

DEVELOPMENT GOES BOOM

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It’s been a banner year for development in Philly. Long-dormant projects like the Bridge, the Divine Lorraine redevelopment and 1213 Walnut finally put shovels in the ground. In terms of shopping and entertainment, Market East will gain 1.8 million square feet of retail space by 2017 and South Philly is getting a casino. Even Love Park is getting a makeover.

“The city has two office towers under construction (at the same time), which is the first time that that's happened in probably eight years,” pointed out Brian Cohen, an executive at Liberty Property Trust.

He’s referring to the sky-scraping FMC Tower and the Comcast Technology and Innovation Center, which will be the eighth-tallest building in the United States. Developers are dreaming big with plans for giant, gleaming towers made of glass.

“There’s clearly a paradigm shift in architecture and design,” said Jeff DeVuono, an executive at Brandywine Realty Trust, which is developing FMC. Real estate, he argues, is being used as “a tool to attract talent.”

“Philadelphia has become an extremely attractive place for companies to locate and to grow,” said Cohen.

Across the river, the ongoing transformation of Camden shifted into higher gear with the announcement of a $1 billion redevelopment project on the waterfront, pictured above. Meanwhile, companies like Holtec and Subaru broke ground as the city enjoys a swell of positive energy that included a visit by President Obama to praise community policing efforts.

HONORABLE MENTION

• The Black Lives Matter movement was heard in Philadelphia, perhaps most significantly in April when hundreds of demonstrators went on a mostly-peaceful march throughout Center City for hours after a rally at City Hall to protest police brutality.

• The much anticipated gay-bashing trial of Kathryn Knott of Bucks County was heard in December by a Court of Common Pleas jury, which acquitted her of the more serious charges she faced, but found her guilty of simple assault and reckless endangerment in the Sept. 11, 2014, confrontation in Center City. Her sentencing is scheduled for Feb. 8.

• The effort to put Narcan/naloxone in the hands of family and friends, and law enforcement, to combat rising numbers of overdoses in the country-wide epidemic. At the same time, there was a growing trend of law enforcement and legislatures dealing with heroin/opioid addicts by recommending therapy over incarceration.

• The announcement by Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey that he will retire in January. He had led the department since 2008 and had a high-profile role this year in President Obama's efforts to promote effective community policing. Deputy Commissioner Richard Ross will succeed him.

• A number of nude photo scandals erupted this year at area schools, including North Penn High School in Montgomery County, Owen J. Roberts High School in Chester County and Lower Cape May Regional High School at the Jersey Shore, and two Chester County middle schools, Valley Forge and Tredyffrin Easttown.

• The body of Shane Montgomery was found in January in the Schuylkill River, five weeks after his disappearance upon leaving a Manayunk bar and prompting a huge search effort.

Disclosure: PhillyVoice Executive Director Lexie Norcross' father, George E. Norcross III, is an investor in the Camden Waterfront project.