WILKES-BARRE — A record snowstorm, a horrific triple homicide, and the death of an icon topped the news in Northeastern Pennsylvania in 2017.
From hand shovels at the federal courthouse to big payloaders near King’s College to plows and snow blowers everywhere, the region grappled with a massive cleanup in mid-March.
A storm named Stella walloped the region, making travel treacherous and disrupting school and work schedules as 22.1 inches — more was registered in other areas — fell in Wilkes-Barre in less than 24 hours. The unbudgeted expense of digging out sent municipalities in search of disaster aid from FEMA.
Three months later, on June 8, shortly before he allegedly opened fire and killed three people inside the Weis Market near Tunkhannock, Randy Stair left a chilling final tweet.
“Goodbye humans…I’ll miss you….” Stair wrote under the Twitter handle Andrew Blaze.
After his “pre-planned” rampage, officials say Stair killed himself inside the Wyoming County store, which was closed to customers at the time.
Stair, 24, lived on Ransom Road near Dallas in Franklin Township, authorities report. The victims were co-workers Victoria Todd Brong, 25, of Factoryville; Brian Hayes, 47, of Springville; and Terry Lee Sterling, 63, of South Montrose. Another person inside Weis was able to escape and call 911.
The other big story of 2017 occurred Feb. 10, when Al Boscov died at age 87 from pancreatic cancer. Throughout seven states, Boscov owned 45 department stores, including the one that has anchored Wilkes-Barre’s downtown for 37 years.
But it was Boscov’s impact beyond his stores that most people remember. The F.M. Kirby Center for the Performing Arts is a shining example of Boscov’s dedication to the Wilkes-Barre area community.
As Wilkes-Barre Mayor Tony George said, “He kept the downtown alive.”
Here are more of the year’s most significant news stories:
• Luzerne County is projected to end 2017 with 139 overdose deaths, or in the ballpark of last year’s record 142.
County Coroner William Lisman reported there were 113 confirmed overdose deaths this year as of Nov. 1 in addition to eight pending cases.
• In November, Luzerne County filed a lawsuit in federal court against a string of opioid manufacturers and wholesale distributors. The civil suit — proposed by county Manager C. David Pedri and approved by county council — was initiated to eliminate the public health and safety hazard caused by the opioid epidemic; to abate the resulting problems; and to recoup funds spent because of the defendants’ “false, deceptive and unfair marketing and/or unlawful diversion of prescription opioids,” according to the filing.
• Spared by a lone juror who refused to opt for the death penalty, prison-guard killer Jessie Con-ui, 40, will never live to see a day as a free man, as he was sentenced to two life terms in prison without the possibility of parole.
Con-ui was found guilty in June of both first-degree murder and first-degree murder of a U.S. corrections officer in the 2013 death of Eric Williams, 34, of Nanticoke, a guard at U.S. Penitentiary Canaan in Wayne County.
Con-ui stabbed Williams more than 200 times with a shank and stomped on his head. He was also found guilty on a charge of possession of prison contraband.
• Melissa Scholl, the Wilkes-Barre Township mother convicted of trying to kill her two children, has filed an appeal for a new trial due to alleged errors by the judge. If her appeal is upheld, it would lead to Scholl’s third trial for the same case.
Scholl, 34, was found guilty in September of attempting to asphyxiate her children in the back seat of her car along Blackman Street in December 2015. Investigators found a garden hose running from the exhaust pipe of the car to one of the windows.
Scholl was sentenced by Luzerne County Judge David W. Lupas to 10 to 30 years in prison.
• Mount Zion Baptist Church, of Wilkes-Barre, hosted a memorial service Nov. 25 for the three brothers who died after a house fire in Laflin in October — Erik DuPree, Devon Major, and Ezekiel Major.
Police believe the fire was intentionally set. Preston Daquon Bonnett, 26, of Wilkes-Barre, has been charged with three counts each of criminal homicide and arson.
• Teachers in the Dallas School District have worked without a new contract since August 2015. Since then, they have gone on strike twice, and the union has set a new strike date for Jan. 22.
At a recent Dallas School Board meeting, the board voted 8-1, confirming its position on the Oct. 30 contract offer to teachers and supporting the rejection of the union’s counter-offer Nov. 14.
• The purchase of the downtown Wilkes-Barre Center office building and adjoining properties accounted for half of the more than $10 million project to bring the corporate headquarters of Berkshire Hathaway GUARD Insurance to Public Square.
The office building had been one of the sites the insurance firm was looking at to locate its headquarters. GUARD’s annual sales grew six-fold to approximately $1.2 billion since 2007, and the insurer had run out of space for its more than 675 employees, most of them working in five different spots in the downtown.
The move means an additional 170 or so jobs will be coming to Wilkes-Barre over the next two years.
• Chewy.com, an online pet-supply retailer, has filled more than 1,000 jobs with local people at its fifth fulfillment center in Hanover Township.
The 808,000 square-foot building opened in June. It is Chewy’s largest facility and will serve the Northeast U.S., said Gregg Walsh, vice president of human resource operations. The company is based out of Florida.
• Political observers believe the potential Barletta-Casey showdown for U.S. Senate in 2018 will be mean, nasty, and very expensive.
U.S. Rep. Lou Barletta, R-Hazleton, is seeking the Republican nomination to run against two-term Democratic incumbent Sen. Bob Casey, of Scranton.
Jeff Brauer, political science professor at Keystone College, said the race could possibly become the most watched and important race in the country. Brauer said the race could likely determine the balance in the Senate — whether Republicans keep the majority or the Democrats take over.
• While students, faculty and staff gathered at Wilkes University to sneak a peek at the solar eclipse, downtown workers lined city streets — some wearing eclipse glasses, others trying to take photos of the historic event with their phones.
At Wilkes, Dr. Brian Redmond said “until fairly recently” — about 1,000 years ago — nobody really knew why a solar eclipse happened. He said scientists eventually figured out that the moon would move between the paths of the Earth and the sun, causing the skies to darken and temperatures to drop.
“It doesn’t last too long, but it is spectacular,” said Redmond, a professor of environmental engineering, earth science and geology. “And it happens so infrequently.”
• The Northeastern Pennsylvania Air Show returned to the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton International Airport in August. Despite losing an estimated $70,000, airport board members praised the effort and vowed to hold another as soon as possible.
The board couldn’t say when the next air show would be held, but Chairman Tim McGinley said it won’t take 17 years to schedule, referring to the last air show held at the airport before 2017. All that said, he doubts a show will be scheduled for 2018.
Carl Beardsley, the airport’s executive director, noted: “The good news is 25,000 people attended the air show. We had 10,000 people on Saturday (Aug. 12) and 15,000 on Sunday (Aug. 13). And the event was affordable to allow families to have an enjoyable day.”
Lackawanna County Commissioner Patrick O’Malley, a member of the airport board, said the economic impact on the region was immense. Beardsley said area hotels were fully booked, restaurants were crowded and other businesses benefited as well.
• Travelers headed for Pittsburgh will be able to get there in one hour by air instead of driving for five when the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton International Airport begins offering round-trip service to the Steel City next spring.
Following the airport board’s December meeting, it was announced Regional Sky will offer two non-stop flights Monday through Friday.
Beardsley said the top priority remaining on his to-do list is to find a replacement airline for the soon-departing Allegiant Air, which will end service to Florida the first week of January.
• Scott Sargent’s centuries-long prison term was only part of the story as prosecutors made a shocking revelation about a jailhouse tattoo the defendant now bears on his forearm.
The tattoo features a skull hovering over five tombstones — tombstones marked with the names of the officers Sargent tried to kill outside the Walmart in Wilkes-Barre Township.
Luzerne County Judge David W. Lupas ordered Sargent to serve a staggering 179 to 358 years in prison for the shooting rampage in October 2015.
• Phil Rudy, the affable owner of Circles on the Square for 32 years, died March 1 after being stricken in the store. He was 68.
Rudy, of Mountain Top, was known for his Rudy’s daily menus that featured sandwiches with names reflective of Rudy’s sense of humor. Specials included “Mom’s Meatloaf,” made with his mother’s recipe; “Mom’s Thinking Spring,” “Mom’s Winter Buster,” and “Mom Does Bacon.” On the day after Ash Wednesday, he offered “Re-Lent-Less,” an egg salad sandwich for those still fasting at the start of Lent.
This was Phil Rudy, the man who featured numerous items that had Wilkes-Barre themes — T-shirts, hats, books, sweatshirts and more. With 32 years in business on Public Square, Rudy loved the downtown and its people.
• Luzerne County Controller Michelle Bednar blocked Walter Griffith’s attempt to reclaim the office.
Bednar highlighted her orderly approach, conducting in-house audits that recouped $250,000 for the county since she took over in 2014.
Griffith, a 63-year-old auto repair business owner and Republican from Kingston Township, had argued the county would benefit from his outspoken style and willingness to exercise the controller’s authority to conduct a wide range of reviews of any county department, authority, board or commission.
Bednar received 24,458 votes, or 54 percent of ballots cast, compared to Griffith’s 20,609, or about 46 percent, according to unofficial results.
• A father who accused Luzerne County Children and Youth of wanting to take his daughter away was indicted in July for allegedly stalking and threatening two employees before fire-bombing the agency’s offices.
Philip Finn Jr., 47, of Plains Township, was indicted by a federal grand jury for stalking, making threats and causing malicious damage to federal property by fire, prosecutors announced.
According to the indictment, Finn used his phone to look up the employees’ addresses — at one point driving to one’s home — and Googled “best way to threaten someone,” “clever threats” and “how to threaten someone effectively” before damaging the building with three Molotov cocktails March 6. The alleged attack took place at about 5:30 a.m.
The fire that resulted was quickly extinguished by a sprinkler system, officials said.
• Luzerne County government has received a credit rating upgrade as officials are exploring a major debt restructuring proposal, according to records released in August.
Standard & Poor’s announced it had increased the county’s rating from BB+ to BBB-, lifting the county out of speculative pool into an investment-grade position.
S&P cited the county’s improved budgeting practices and structural reforms since the agency downgraded the county rating in November 2015. It also pointed to the hiring of C. David Pedri as county manager, council’s repeal of a homestead tax break that reduced the county’s real estate tax receipts, and the adoption of a structurally-balanced 2017 budget.
• The new Luzerne County central court building opened next to the prison on Water Street in October. The court, which has been in the works for more than year, was established so it would be more efficient to process magisterial-level criminal cases, Luzerne County President Judge Richard Hughes said.
Police will escort inmates on foot to the central court for proceedings, which is expected to reduce periodic traffic jams at the prison sally port dock area. Central court will also eliminate the need for police to make two trips back and forth to their local district court office for hearings.
• Wilkes-Barre City Police union vice president Dan Duffy was fired by Mayor Tony George in October, as the long-running feud between the union and administration reached a new low point.
The mayor declined to say if any other firings within the police force were possible. The termination of Duffy, a former Scranton police chief, came on the heels of six officers being disciplined, according to the union.
• The region was in the spotlight throughout 2017 with many big-name acts performing in venues, especially the F.M. Kirby Center for the Performing Arts and the Mohegan Sun Arena at Casey Plaza.
Just a few of the acts to perform here include: Donny & Marie Osmond, Johnny Mathis, Brad Paisley, Alan Jackson, Martina McBride, Brian Wilson, Jeff Foxworthy, Frankie Valli & The Four Seasons, Vince Gill, Bryan Adams, John Cleese, Garrison Keillor, the Oak Ridge Boys, the Harlem Globetrotters and Jeff Dunham.