From volcanic outbursts to election uncertainties and courtroom drama, the Northwest encountered a range of triumphs, tragedies and challenges over the past year.
It was the governor’s race that wouldn’t end, and maybe hasn’t yet.
Democrat Christine Gregoire won the third — and supposedly final — recount Thursday by 130 votes over Republican Dino Rossi, who claimed victory in the first two counts.
The race is the closest statewide contest in Washington’s history — and possibly the nation’s.
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The race began a year and a half ago, when Gov. Gary Locke announced he would not seek a third term. Attorney General Gregoire entered the race almost immediately, and Rossi, a state Senate leader, jumped in a few months later.
After trouncing King County Executive Ron Sims in the primary, Gregoire had been expected to defeat the lesser-known Rossi somewhat handily in the Nov. 2 general election.
But Rossi won the initial ballot count by 261 votes, which triggered an automatic statewide recount. After that recount cut Rossi’s lead to 42 votes, the Democrats put up more than $700,000 for a second recount — this one by hand.
Throughout the recounts, the parties went to court repeatedly to fight about which ballots should be counted.
Although Secretary of State Sam Reed is scheduled to certify the results on Thursday, Republicans are considering returning to court to contest the election.
The new governor is to be sworn in Jan. 12.
— Ralph Thomas
Two Seattle teens who killed a Roosevelt High School classmate last year were sentenced to lengthy prison terms this year.
Jenson Hankins and Joshua Goldman were convicted of first-degree murder for John Jasmer’s Aug. 21, 2003, slaying. Once friends and teammates on Roosevelt High’s football team, Hankins and Goldman plotted Jasmer’s death because they believed Jasmer had raped Hankins’ girlfriend.
The girl told police that she had been raped in June 2003 but later recanted. Jasmer had told investigators that the sex had been consensual.
Hankins and Goldman lured Jasmer to the Tulalip Reservation by telling him they were going to a marijuana farm in Marysville. After arriving at the reservation, Goldman led them to a wooded spot, where Jasmer, 16, was killed.
Hankins, 17, was sentenced to 27½ years in prison earlier this month.
In November, Goldman, 18, was sentenced to 25 years.
— Jennifer Sullivan
In July, when the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Portland became the first diocese in the country to file for bankruptcy, citing poverty in the face of sexual-abuse lawsuits, it sent shock waves through the church.
But by the end of the year, two others had followed: the Diocese of Tucson, Ariz., in September and the Spokane Diocese in December.
Now, the church and the courts are wading into new territory as civil courts try to determine issues such as whether parish assets belong to dioceses and how to fairly treat creditors who are not business entities but sexual-abuse victims.
— Janet Tu
Mount St. Helens took everybody by surprise when it started rumbling in late September.
For seven days, the volcano shook with increasing frequency and intensity. Shortly before the mountain unleashed the first of three steam eruptions, the seismograph at the University of Washington recorded so many earthquakes that the printouts were nearly all black.
Against a backdrop of brilliant fall skies, media from around the world camped as close to the volcano as they could get, waiting for the big event. But nothing resembling 1980’s cataclysm ever happened.
After the steam bursts, the volcano began quietly pouring out taffylike magma. The new lava dome that has built up over the past three months on the crater floor is about as tall as the 55-story Washington Mutual Tower in downtown Seattle.
Lava continues to ooze, and larger earthquakes have intermittently rattled the volcano.
— Sandy Doughton
The scars have faded, the swelling has gone down and Brenna Johnston’s surgically constructed profile becomes her. That’s true on two levels. Her new cheeks, straight nose and aligned jaws certainly have their cosmetic appeal. But they’ve also become the way the world sees Brenna and she sees herself.
“It doesn’t stop me up so much anymore,” Brenna says of her reflection. “It’s like, I dunno, like it’s just normal.”
This summer, the 8-year-old from Veneta, Ore., came to Seattle for radical surgery to wrench her underdeveloped facial bones forward nearly 2 inches. A random genetic error had stunted the growth of her skull and face. She spent most of the summer with her facial bones bolted to a titanium halo and emerged with an unfamiliar profile and an expanded airway. That has meant plenty of oxygen, and energy.
“Much more energy than I know what to do with,” her mother, Robyn Johnston, says. “I think she’s still making up for her summer of confinement. She’s testing her limits — and mine.”
Since surgery, stretched skin has caused Brenna’s left eyelid to droop and partly obscure her vision. It’s starting to bother her, but she says no more operations. Robyn thinks a minor tuck may be needed next year.
— Julia Sommerfeld
A tugboat motoring across south Puget Sound in the middle of the night encountered thick, black oil in the water and alerted the U.S. Coast Guard and the state Department of Ecology.
By the time agencies got on the water more than six hours later on Oct. 14, the 1,000-gallon mystery spill had spread, eventually soiling 21 miles of Puget Sound shoreline and requiring a nearly $2 million cleanup.
Just this past week, the Coast Guard and Gov. Gary Locke announced that a ConocoPhillips ship was responsible for the spill, based on laboratory tests that showed the source of the oil was the company’s tanker Polar Texas.
The company said in a statement Thursday that it doesn’t believe it is responsible for the spill, based on information it has gathered to date.
Delays in the response to the spill triggered an outcry, led the Ecology Department to admit a misjudgment in not acting sooner, and prompted Locke and U.S. Coast Guard Rear Adm. Jeffrey Garrett to launch a task force to reform the way agencies respond to initial signs of an oil spill.
Meanwhile, in Alaska, a Malaysian-flagged freighter hauling soybeans lost power in the Bering Sea and broke in half Dec. 8 near Unalaska Island in the Aleutians, gushing more than 40,000 gallons of oil and raising fears it could lose nearly 450,000 gallons.
Six crewmen were killed when a Coast Guard helicopter lifting them from the ship’s deck crashed into the ocean. An additional 20 crewmen were safely rescued.
Harsh winter weather has hampered cleanup efforts in bays that are home to a bounty of wildlife, including salmon, sea otters, sea lions and sea birds. The two halves of the ship remain grounded near the mouth of one bay as salvagers look for a way to get the rest of the oil out of the ship before it spills.
— Warren Cornwall
It was a scene that chilled even veteran police officers: Two babies starved to death while their mother lay passed out, surrounded by 307 empty beer cans. A month later, the mother, Marie G. Robinson, is in the King County Jail awaiting trial on murder and child-maltreatment charges.
In death, Raiden and Justice Robinson, ages 6 weeks and 16 months, are catalysts for reform. Child Protective Services, which admitted mishandling some of the 10 complaints it received about Robinson, is investigating its own staff in Bremerton and is checking if other cases statewide may also be languishing. The assigned caseworker has been reassigned to desk duty.
And lawmakers are drafting new laws — named in honor of the Robinson boys — to ensure child-neglect complaints get more thorough attention from CPS. Those laws, however, can’t answer another disturbing question: How could two boys starve to death amid a sprawling Kent apartment complex?
— Jonathan Martin
More than 10 years after a Bellevue family was bludgeoned to death, a King County Superior Court judge sentenced Atif Rafay, 28, and Glen Sebastian Burns, 29, in October to three consecutive life sentences in prison.
The July 1994 slayings of Tariq, Sultana and Basma Rafay initially baffled police. But in spring 1995, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police in Vancouver, B.C., launched an undercover investigation that ultimately led to the arrests of Burns and Rafay, both Canadian citizens.
It took almost six years and an international debate on the death penalty before the two were extradited to King County. The Canadian government didn’t want to release the two if they faced the possibility of being put to death. The death penalty was not sought.
Other delays ensued: First Rafay fired his attorneys, and then Burns was caught having sex with his public defender in the King County Jail, forcing the judge to assign new counsel.
The men’s trial began in November 2003, and six months later, the jury found them each guilty of three counts of aggravated first-degree murder.
The men have maintained that they’re innocent, fired their trial attorneys and are expected to appeal their convictions.
— Sara Jean Green
This year saw the collapse of the government’s espionage case against Fort Lewis Muslim Chaplain James Yee, but the case continues to be shrouded in mystery.
Neither the government nor Yee, who is under an Army gag order, has discussed the investigation.
Yee was arrested in late 2003 while stationed at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. But after 76 days in solitary confinement, the most the Army could produce were minor charges of mishandling classified information.
Yee’s career, however, was further sullied when the Army also accused him of committing adultery and downloading pornography on a government computer. All of the charges eventually were dismissed.
Yee, who lives in Olympia with his wife and 5-year-old daughter, offered his resignation earlier this year. In September the Army agreed to give him an honorable discharge. He will leave the military Jan. 7.
The Pentagon’s inspector general has agreed to look into Yee’s treatment while he was imprisoned.
— Ray Rivera
A single, broken-down dairy cow focused the world’s attention on Washington state last December.
Word came on Dec. 23 that a Holstein slaughtered in Moses Lake was the first animal in the country to test positive for mad-cow disease — the fatal, brain-wasting ailment that devastated Britain’s beef industry a decade before.
Staff at the Washington Department of Agriculture along with dozens of federal officials worked nearly nonstop for weeks, eventually tracing the animal back to the dairy in Canada where it was born. Hundreds of cattle that might have been part of that original herd were destroyed, though none had the disease.
The sick cow had already been butchered, ground into hamburger and distributed across six states before a recall was launched.
To calm the public and the more than 50 nations that banned imports of U.S. beef, the federal government quickly implemented new rules to reduce the risk that people could get the disease from eating beef. Among them: a ban on the slaughter of “downer” cattle for human consumption, and a ban on brains and spinal cords from older animals in the human food chain.
Nearly 100 times more animals are now being tested for the disease than in previous years — with no other positives so far.
— Sandi Doughton
Troubles continue for the woebegone and oft-evicted ferry Kalakala, the rusting art-deco boat that on Sept. 25 found a home at Tacoma’s Hylebos Waterway where the vessel was to undergo refurbishing.
But on Sept. 29, the state Department of Ecology sent a certified letter to Steve Rodrigues, owner of the ferry, saying it “unfortunately must deny approval” for proposed sandblasting, painting and other exterior work that could cause pollution. Such repairs had to be done at a shipyard with the proper permits.
Basic repairs at a shipyard have been estimated to begin at $1 million.
Karl Anderson, the Tacoma businessman who allowed the ferry to be moored at a family-owned industrial site for $1 a month for six months, and $2,000 a month for the next six months, said he had hoped Rodrigues had a specific plan for revamping the Kalakala.
“I’m beginning to realize he’s not an organization guy … his plan is more of a vision,” he said about Rodrigues, who bought the boat at a bankruptcy auction in October 2003, dreaming of restoring it to its glory days from the 1930s to the mid-1960s, when it sailed Puget Sound on some summer nights with a live orchestra.
The Kalakala’s journey has taken it from abandonment at a Kodiak, Alaska, mudflat where it had been used as a seafood-processing plant; to being towed and moored at Lake Union for five years; to finding sympathetic mooring in March at Neah Bay from the Makah Tribe, which finally tired and sued to get the boat out.
— Erik Lacitis
Nearly two years after back-to-back gastric-bypass operations, Leo and Jessica Loos still have their new, slim physiques.
The Redmond couple weighed more than 700 pounds combined before their stomach-reduction surgeries in January 2003. Leo, at 6 feet 1 inch, now weighs 179 pounds, and Jessica, 5 feet 9 inches, weighs 165 pounds. Both now have lower blood pressure and improved health.
Jessica said that shedding weight has given her more energy and has helped her thrive at a new job at T-Mobile USA in May. Leo, who works at Microsoft, walks their dogs more often.
The surgery sparked some severe but short-term medical complications as well as permanent lifestyle changes that helped strengthen the couple’s emotional bond. Nonetheless, the couple have been through some relationship ups and downs recently; they are due to begin couples counseling next month.
They have been paying down bills in hopes they soon can afford plastic surgery to remove the excess skin that sags from their bodies.
— Nick Perry
In July, The Seattle Times reported systemic problems in airport security nationwide, created in part by understaffing and other workplace problems at the Transportation Security Administration, the federal agency created after the 2001 terrorist attacks.
In some internal memos, airport-security directors warned the top administrator that the agency faced a crisis of short-staffing and employee morale that jeopardized the security of the traveling public.
Security screeners and managers detailed many problems. In Houston, screeners wrote congressmen asking for an investigation into lax security, saying they were forced to let bags go onto planes unscreened. In Portland, screeners recounted an instance in which a supervisor allowed guns to be taken onto a plane. In Seattle, internal reports detailed instances where airline employees tried to load unscreened luggage onto planes.
Since the Times report was published, the TSA suspended one top manager whose memos were quoted but said the suspension was unrelated.
In Seattle, screeners say management of the work force has improved. Elsewhere, screeners continue to complain about a lack of training and arbitrary management decisions.
A December Inspector General’s report on the Department of Homeland Security revealed that TSA still needs improvements to ensure that “dangerous prohibited items” don’t make it through airports.
— Cheryl Phillips
Look for Seattle’s so-called “Strippergate” scandal to drag into 2005, as King County prosecutors look into whether campaign contributions from associates of strip-club operator Frank Colacurcio Jr. violated any laws.
Dozens of people connected to Colacurcio gave at least $39,000 to the re-election campaigns of three City Council incumbents in 2003 at a time when the council was considering a rezone favorable to a Colacurcio-owned strip club. Evidence has emerged that some of the donors may have been illegally reimbursed for their donations.
Although there is no evidence that the three council members who received the contributions broke any laws, prosecutors plan to look at whether Colacurcio or others participated in a scheme to improperly influence them. Two of the council members, Judy Nicastro and Heidi Wills, were defeated in the 2003 elections. Councilman Jim Compton was re-elected.
Prosecutors picked up the case after a city ethics probe stalled earlier this year without producing any formal charges.
— Jim Brunner
The Seattle Police Department tightened its policy this month regarding off-duty work, amid a criminal investigation into the off-duty activities of officers who provide security for nightclubs in Belltown and Pioneer Square.
The King County prosecutor’s office and the FBI’s Public Integrity Task Force have been looking into allegations that officers who hold lucrative off-duty jobs overlooked illegal drug and alcohol use or, in some cases, participated in criminal activities including drug dealing and promoting prostitution.
No charges have been filed, but one Seattle officer who is a target of the investigation was placed on administrative leave with pay Nov. 24.
Under the new off-duty policy, officers must provide on department forms more information about their employers and the nature of their duties. The department also has increased its oversight of the work.
The department hopes to gain more control over officers who have circumvented a policy that prohibits them from working for establishments that sell liquor.
— Steve Miletich
A short-lived proposal to build a NASCAR racetrack in Snohomish County fell apart when the track developer and local government officials couldn’t agree on who should pick up the check.
Florida-based International Speedway Corp. is still looking for a site for a 7/8-mile track somewhere in the Northwest, the only corner of the country without a NASCAR track.
The corporation chose 850 acres of fallow farmland between Marysville and Arlington in late September, ruling out competing locations near Portland and in Thurston and Kitsap counties.
A study funded by track proponents said a racetrack would generate between $87.3 million and $121.8 million annually in new spending and tax revenue and create more than 1,300 jobs.
Meanwhile, neighborhood groups organized to oppose a track, while local business leaders and race fans rallied to support it.
An impasse over funding stopped the project. The company had agreed to put $50 million toward the $300 million track. As projected costs climbed past $350 million, the corporation wouldn’t pledge more money, and state legislators, who would have had to pass a financing package, were wary.
— Emily Heffter
Jack Slater and his new liver cleared a major hurdle last week: their three-month anniversary together. The survival rate for liver-transplant patients tends to improve from here on out.
“I see myself standing on the calendar doing a little tap dance,” Slater, 58, says.
Slater, whose liver was ravaged by the blood-borne infection hepatitis C, chronicled his wait for a liver transplant in The Seattle Times. The virus has already homed in on his new liver. Still, Slater is optimistic; it took nearly 20 years for the infection to seriously damage his own liver.
Last week, doctors removed a stent in the organ that apparently wasn’t working properly. But tests show there are no signs of rejection.
Recent losses have sobered his trademark gallows humor. His sister and a close friend died of cancer a week apart.
These days, when Slater has the energy, he goes on walks around Ballard and on dates with his wife and caregiver, Deborah Swets.
— Julia Sommerfeld