The Westclox fire was voted the NewsTribune’s top story in 2012.
The N-T staff voted on the Top 10 stories in 2012 and for only the second time in recent years reached a unanimous selection for No. 1. (The last unanimous No. 1: The Utica-Granville tornado in 2004).
Two young suspects, 17-year-old Steven Gallacher of La Salle and a 16-year-old Peru boy, were quickly apprehended and admitted to police they entered the historic building after growing bored with playing video games.
Gallacher further admitted to detaching a gas can from a boat found inside and using the can to light a small fire that quickly grew in size.
“Whose idea was it?” Peru police detective Matt Peters asked.
“Mine,” he admitted.
And it was Gallacher’s tough luck that he’d celebrated his 17th birthday seven weeks earlier. Had he still be 16, he would have joined the Peru boy in juvenile court and perhaps enjoyed the youth’s limited sentence: 5 years’ probation and 240 community service hours.
Instead, Gallacher stood for a bench trial before Chief Judge H. Chris Ryan Jr., who convicted him of aggravated arson. Gallacher, who recently turned 18, was sentenced to 10 years in prison.
2. Tragedy at Hall High
Tragedy struck the Hall Red Devils football team on Aug. 8 when defensive lineman Daniel Lule, 17, of Spring Valley collapsed on the practice field. Lule was rushed to St. Margaret’s Hospital in Spring Valley and died about one hour later.
Lule collapsed while running non-contact drills around 12:20 p.m. An athletic trainer immediately attended to the player and EMTs rushed to the scene.
Lule was later found to have died from an enlarged heart, weighing about 73 percent more than the youth’s body could bear. Coroner Janice Wamhoff noted the enlarged heart was not something that would necessarily be found in a routine health check-up.
“He was a very loving boy,” said Tina Rodriguez of Riverside, Calif., one of Daniel’s aunts. “Everybody’s going to miss him because he was always very happy.”
3. Seneca murderer gets life
It took nearly five years to bring Keith Mackowiak to trial, but the Seneca man finally answered for the double murder he committed in 2007.
Mackowiak, now 45, was found guilty of first-degree murder following a three-week trial ending Ash Wednesday. A jury deliberated two hours before finding him guilty of bludgeoning 87-year-old Kay Twardowski and 84-year-old Al Twardowski during a break-in of their home.
A police investigation quickly led to Mackowiak, who at first admitted to only limited involvement in the slayings. After five days in custody, however, he tearfully admitted to the killings.
“It was me. Acting alone. By myself,” he said.
Mackowiak, however, disavowed the confession and dragged the case out 55 months — the death penalty was abolished while the case was pending — before a jury could deliver justice.
4. L-P purges athletic staff
Even before reports surfaced that the football team’s playbook was leaked to opponents (also a Top 10 story this year), L-P’s athletic department was under siege.
Track-and-field coach Jake Burke, athletic director Greg Sarver, baseball coach Bill Booker and boys track and field coach Jake Burke were all fired amid controversy.
Sarver was reassigned to be a teacher on March 22. On May 16, Booker and Burke were voted out by a 6-1 vote of the L-P school board despite three days of protests and more than 70 people in attendance at the meeting in support of the coaches. Both Booker and Burke kept their teaching positions.
The dismissals may have resulted in retaliation, as well. On June 15, a brick was thrown through the bedroom window of La Salle-Peru Township High School board president Jim Quesse. Despite cash rewards totaling $2,750, a culprit never was caught.
To replace Sarver as AD, the L-P school board reached out to a former pro athlete. D’Wayne Bates, a former Northwestern University and Chicago Bears wide receiver, was hired as La Salle-Peru’s athletic director on May 9.
5. R.R. Donnelley, retailers shed hundreds of jobs
The U.S. economy may have improved in 2012, but the job losses mounted in the Illinois Valley due to several key closures.
The Jewel food store launched the wave, closing in early March. A few days before Jewel was shuttered, Kmart announced it would close in June.
Then R. R. Donnelley & Sons shuttered its Mendota facility, marking the end of an industry that endured for 120 years. Some 200 jobs were lost.
The printing plant on the city’s west side was originally formed as Our Hope Press in 1892 for Western Advent Christian Publishing’s religious literature before changing hands several times.
6. Relentless drought
A massive drought engulfed the United States, and North Central Illinois was not spared.
Meteorologists confirmed in June that the north half of La Salle County was in a “moderate” drought, while the southern half of the county ranks abnormally dry. The region at that time showed a year-to-date rainfall deficit of 25 percent to 50 percent.
“We need rain bad,” Larry Hiester, a farmer near Tonica, reported at the time. But the rain didn’t come as often or as fully as growers hoped.
As recently as November, meteorologists reported the drought had not ended.
“We’re still being classified as severe drought right now,” said Kevin Birk, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service office in Romeoville.
7. Sand mines stir debate
A pair of frac sand mines will bring jobs and revenue to rural Utica and rural Ottawa, but both were approved over strong objections.
In January, the Utica Village Board voted 5-1 to annex Illinois Sand Co. into the village so the company can mine 562 acres near the Osage curves for frac sand. The vote was reached at the end of a 15-hour public hearing, spread over three nights, in which a crowd of about 125 opposed the project and persuaded the Utica Planning Commission to vote against recommending the project.
“Nothing here is taking care of the people, and I think you have to take care of the people and their homes,” planning commissioner Gene Drzewiecki said.
But the village board disregarded that recommendation, swayed by the promise of 70 full-time jobs (plus 160 indirect jobs) some $5.5 million brought into the local economy and a cash donation of $400,000 to Utica in lieu of impact fees.
Days later, the La Salle County Board voted 20-6 with one abstention in favor of granting a special use permit to Mississippi Sand LLC, based near St. Louis, Mo., to build a 314-acre sand mine near the east entrance to Starved Rock State Park.
8. L-P playbook, player info leaked to opponents
La Salle-Peru Township High School was rocked by an inside scandal on Aug. 24 when packets containing the Cavalier’s football playbook, as well as personal data about the players, were mailed to L-P’s opponents.
L-P officials contacted all opponents on the schedule and each acknowledged receiving the information and each agreed to send it back or destroy it. The leak was made public Aug. 31 just hours before L-P’s home opener against United Township, which the Cavs won 41-21.
“People may joke to themselves this is the (New Orleans) Saints right now, but in comparison it’s not that far off because this put kids in danger and gives out personal information,” L-P athletic director D’Wayne Bates said. “You never want to hurt kids by putting out personal information.”
The identity of the person responsible for mailing the packets never was divulged, but superintendent Steve Wrobleski announced Sept. 4 that L-P teacher Jake Burke was placed on paid administrative leave in connection with the ongoing investigation into the leak.
9. Catholic churches in Ladd, Mt. Palatine razed
Catholics in Ladd endured a sad week in January when a demolition crew began tearing down St. Benedict Church. The bell tower came down Jan. 27.
The Catholic Diocese of Peoria announced its plans in July 2010 to raze the church, more than a year after services were suspended in May 2009.
Days after St. Benedict came down a crew arrived in Mt. Palatine, northeast of McNabb, to raze Immaculate Conception Church.
“I don’t feel that bad because the church wasn’t in use anymore,” said Ed Schorn, a Mount Palatine resident who’d been baptized in the church in 1938. “It’s going to look different here; but times change.”
10. Leepertown School annexed to Ladd
Amid financial troubles, the Leepertown school board made the difficult decision to dissolve the school district and send children to another school where they will have more opportunities.
Most of Leepertown’s district annexed into the Ladd Community Consolidated School District on July 1, with a small portion of the territory being annexed into the Princeton Elementary School District.
For Amber Harper, superintendent since 2003, the process of closing the school where she attended and later began her teaching career was an emotional one. She said she almost made it through the graduation ceremony without tearing up.
“I think my best memories were that we were all like a family,” said Harper, who got her first teaching job as a reading specialist at Leepertown in 1977.
Other stories receiving votes:
* The Ottawa and Marquette football teams went undefeated and claimed conference championships.
* Streator murderer James Alvarado was re-tried, re-convicted and again sentenced to 45 years
* Intruder shot and killed in Earlville home invasion
* Utica completes the Route 178 realignment
* IVCC launches $30 million construction program
* L-P ignites controversy with plans for athletic facility
* Bank robber holds up Eureka Savings in Peru, leads police on manhunt
Tom Collins can be reached at (815) 220-6930 or email@example.com.