Top 10 stories of 2014

The Advocate

Advocate writers and editors took a look back at another year filled with compelling community issues and tragedies to come up with the top 10 stories for 2014 for Baton Rouge and the state. The following is the list of top stories:


Proposed St. George city.

For organizers of the St. George movement, 2014 marked the end of one long and arduous process to gather the more-than 18,000 signatures on a petition needed to get an up or down vote on the creation of another new city in East Baton Rouge Parish.

That first step was completed in October. It took months of petition drives, neighborhood canvassing, direct-to-home mailings and supporters waving signs on the side of the road. It’s now up to the parish Registrar of Voters staff to check name by name to verify there are enough valid signatures to call an election.

But, still, there are questions. Even if verified, the date of that election could be this spring or, perhaps, later in the year. No one will know until the weeks-long verification process is complete.

It is known that many high-revenue enterprises will not be included in the St. George effort because they’ve requested, and received, permission to be annexed into the city of Baton Rouge. The list includes Mall of Louisiana, Costco, Celtic Studios, Our Lady of the Lake Regional Medical Center and others.

Those annexations removed large chunks of property from within the boundaries of the proposed city and siphoned off millions in potential revenue.

In December, a report released by the Baton Rouge Area Foundation and Baton Rouge Area Chamber concluded the new city would have to pass 20.5 mills in new taxes to cover the operations of St. George school board and city government.

“On one hand, they say we’re going to have so much money that we’re going to bankrupt the entire city-parish,” St. George spokesman Lionel Rainey said, referring to an earlier study that concluded the new city would sap 40 percent of Baton Rouge’s operational revenue. “On the other hand, they say we’re so dirt poor that we have to raise taxes to exist. You can’t have it both ways.”

And even beyond the petition drive, signature verifications, annexations, and money questions, most expect the fight will eventually end up before a state judge.

“I understand people think the hardest part is getting people to sign up and wearing T-shirts and having yard signs and all that. But in the end, if it’s not legal, then none of that matters,” said Mary Olive Pierson, the attorney leading the city of Baton Rouge’s efforts to stop St. George.

Louisiana voters choose Bill Cassidy over Mary Landrieu.

Fall elections in much of the United States, including Louisiana, will be remembered as a time when power in the U.S. Senate returned to the control of the Republican Party.

In Louisiana, Republican U.S. Rep. Bill Cassidy used the policies of President Barack Obama, unpopular with many Louisianians, against incumbent Sen. Mary Landrieu, a Democrat.

Cassidy repeated over and again that Landrieu was more aligned with Obama’s policies, most critically the 2010 Affordable Care Act, while neglecting the wishes of Louisiana residents.

It was a strategy that worked well. In the Dec. 6 runoff, Cassidy scored an easy win over the three-term senator, 56 percent to 44 percent.

Cassidy said voters made it clear they wanted the nation to go in a more conservative direction. “Where we the people have the power and not the federal government,” the newly-elected U.S. senator said at his victory party.

Cassidy’s win also marks the first time since 1883 that Louisiana will not have a Democrat in the U.S. Senate.

Landrieu, in a farewell speech to her colleagues, said she was experiencing “extraordinary peace.”

“It’s just been a joy,” Landrieu said on the Senate floor, “but I know that God is calling me to a different place. I’m not the least bit sad, and I’m not the least bit afraid. It’s just been a remarkable opportunity to serve with all of you.”

Landrieu said she plans to work as a private citizen for causes important to her before she and her husband return to Louisiana to retire.

TV personality Scott Rogers killed.

The tragic murder-suicide that ended the lives of Baton Rouge television personality Scott Rogers and his friend, Mathew Hodgkinson, captured the attention of many, particularly those who for years had worked with the gregarious man on a variety of charitable causes.

As the days passed, though, more details came to light about events that likely led up to the two fatal gunshot wounds, as well as the life Rogers and Hodgkinson had lived.

Hodgkinson, according to a former classmate in Suffolk County in England, was one of several boys allegedly molested by Rogers two decades ago in that country. In fact, Rogers was unsuccessfully prosecuted for child molestation. He later moved to the U.S., and eventually Baton Rouge, with Hodgkinson and another young man he is alleged to have abused.

At the time of the shootings, the other man was in federal protective custody and was scheduled to testify at a grand jury looking at Rogers.

The state removed Rogers’ 10-year-old adopted son and a 2-year-old boy he was attempting to adopt from his St. Gabriel home Aug. 15 — a dozen days before Hodgkinson shot Rogers then turned the gun on himself, Iberville authorities suspect.

Seth Dornier, Rogers’ attorney, said federal investigators were attempting to determine whether Rogers lied on naturalization and adoption records. The probe into Rogers, host of the television show “Around Town,” ended because of the Aug. 27 murder-suicide.

“They broke our happy, loving home,” Iberville Sheriff Brett Stassi quoted Hodgkinson from what the sheriff said was a suicide note found at the St. Gabriel residence. “They do not get to take Scott too.”

Common Core fight continues.

After months of debate on the benefits or faults of Common Core, Louisiana students continued to be taught under the controversial educational standards for math, writing and reading during the 2014-15 school year.

Leading the charge to get Common Core thrown out of Louisiana schools was Gov. Bobby Jindal — pitting the governor against his former ally, State Superintendent of Education John White, a staunch supporter of the educational standards.

“It is time for the Department of Education to come up with a plan B,” Jindal said.

But efforts in the Legislature to bounce Common Core out of Louisiana failed.

“I think the Legislature has spoken fairly definitively that they want to stay the course with Common Core and continue with meaningful testing,” said Barry Erwin, president of the Council for a Better Louisiana.

Jindal ended up trying to take action on his own, issuing an executive order that suspended two state contracts related to implementing the standards.

That action was later lifted by state District Judge Todd Hernandez, paving the way for students to be tested on the standards in the spring.

The movement to kill Common Core in Louisiana got a substantial lift in early December when Republican U.S. Sen. David Vitter changed his stance on the educational standards — now opposing them.

Garret Graves beats Edwin Edwards in runoff.

First-time candidate Garret Graves, who stepped down from his post as coastal adviser in the Jindal administration in the spring, easily defeated four-term former Gov. Edwin Edwards to become Louisiana’s 6th District representative in Congress.

Graves will replace U.S. Rep. Bill Cassidy, who himself ran a successful campaign for the U.S. Senate.

Graves, a Republican, collected nearly 60 percent of the vote in East Baton Rouge Parish, 72 percent in Ascension Parish and 76 percent in Livingston Parish. He carried all but Iberville and Pointe Coupee parishes in the 13-parish district, which reaches as far south as Terrebonne Parish. In total, Graves gathered 62 percent of the vote on Dec. 6, while Edwards got 38 percent.

While being a newcomer to elected public office, Graves said he still has enough governmental experience — most notably as director of the state’s Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority — to get things done in Washington, D.C.

And while Graves is launching his political career, the election loss could be the end of Edwards’ six-decade long stint in politics. But maybe not.

“It’s not the end of the world for me,” Edwards said to his supporters, adding that he would never say “never” about another possible run for office.

Eight-part series into Louisiana’s tax credit programs.

At a time when state officials are searching for dollars to make up the gigantic gap in revenue caused by the slump in oil prices, an eight-part series by The Advocate detailed how the state is not collecting more than $1 billion in tax incentives.

In some instances, the incentives are heading to the less-than-needy. The world’s largest retailer, Wal-Mart, benefits from one program. So does Valero, the largest independent refiner in the United States, and Duck Dynasty, the most popular show in the history of the A&E network.

Information provided by state economic departments show the six incentive programs examined by The Advocate jumped from $208 million in 2004 to $1.08 billion in 2014.

Over the course of a week, Advocate writers provided an in-depth look at how tax incentives are provided to the film industry, business inventory, solar power, industry in the fracking business, the Louisiana Enterprise Zone program and others.

Town of Sorrento has a rough year.

Residents in the town of Sorrento, obviously tiring of the mess that had become of the police department, decided to get rid of the thing this fall. But it hasn’t been that easy.

The town couldn’t find insurance to cover liability for its officers and former Police Chief Earl Theriot Jr. was given probation in Baton Rouge federal court for lying to the FBI about his admitted “inappropriate sexual contact” with a heavily intoxicated Ascension Parish woman.

Police work in the town was turned over to the Ascension Parish Sheriff’s Office.

But before voters in November overwhelmingly cast ballots to scrap the department, a 71-year-old former employee with no law enforcement was elected as the new chief by acclimation. Police Chief Fern Barnett is a one-woman police department in Sorrento who can’t patrol and soon will have no equipment to fight crime. The Town Council voted recently to declare all remaining Police Department items, from guns to cruisers, as surplus.

The Sorrento Town Council has twice decided not to Barnett a salary, prompting a lawsuit from the chief at the end of December to force the town to cut her a paycheck.

And if the ordeal with the city’s policing problems wasn’t enough, residents of the small Ascension Parish town also learned in October that the home of their former mayor, Wilson Longanecker Jr., had been raided by state authorities who said they found child pornography videos in a locked safe. Charges against Longanecker are still pending and he’s in jail in lieu of a $1.025 million bail.

In late December, investigators with the Attorney General’s Office also claim to have discovered photographs and videos of animal cruelty on evidence seized from the former mayor’s house.

Louisiana’s gay marriage ban.

Louisiana’s prohibition on allowing gay couples to marry got different treatments from two judges — one state and one federal — sending the issue on to the higher courts.

In a 23-page ruling in September, state District Judge Edward Rubin in Lafayette ruled that Louisiana’s ban on same-sex marriage is unconstitutional.

Rubin’s ruling conflicts with a decision handed down by U.S. District Judge Martin Feldman, of New Orleans, who a month earlier declared the state’s ban constitutional. Feldman is the only federal district judge to uphold a state ban on same-sex marriage since the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision last year in U.S. v. Windsor struck down part of the federal Defense of Marriage Act.

Feldman’s ruling is expected to get taken up relatively quickly by the federal appellate courts. The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals agreed to expedite the case, while the U.S. Supreme Court next month will consider a request to grab it for themselves.

Attorney Kyle Duncan, hired by the state to handle challenges to the same-sex marriage ban, has appealed Rubin’s ruling to the Louisiana Supreme Court. Louisiana Supreme Court has said it will hear the state Attorney General’s Office appeal of Rubin’s ruling. Until that time, the ruling will have no impact on the status of same-sex marriages in Louisiana.

Rubin’s ruling was made in an adoption case involving two women in Lafayette. Angela Costanza and Chasity Brewer were legally married in California in 2008 and now live in Lafayette. The Lafayette judge likened the same-sex marriage ban to segregation-era prohibitions on interracial couples.

Sons of Guns personality charged with rape.

Will Hayden, a former “Sons of Guns” reality TV star, was indicted on rape charges in Livingston and East Baton Rouge Parishes.

In East Baton Rouge, the grand jury charged him in the sexual assault of two preteen girls, one recently and the other more than 20 years ago. In Livingston Parish, Hayden was charged in the sexual assault of the same two girls — one of whom is now an adult.

Stephanie Hayden Ford, Hayden’s oldest daughter and also a co-star on the cancelled program, appeared on the “Dr. Phil” show to talk about her father allegedly groping her about 20 years ago.

Prior to his arrests, Hayden owned Red Jacket Firearms, a Baton Rouge custom gun shop just north of Florida Boulevard on Mammoth Avenue. The shop and the people who worked there, most notably Hayden, were the center of “Sons of Guns,” a Discovery Channel show that spanned several seasons. Discovery canceled the show.

Hayden faces three counts of aggravated rape — two in East Baton Rouge and the other in Livingston parish — which carries a mandatory sentence of life in prison.

Heroin re-emerges as drug of choice.

East Baton Rouge Parish and other places in Louisiana witnessed a sharp increase in overdose deaths attributable to heroin in 2013 and the trend continued into 2014.

Thirty-four of the 300 overdose deaths attributable to heroin in the state in 2013 happened in East Baton Rouge Parish. By the middle of October in 2014, there were already 19 heroin overdose deaths in the parish.

Those tallies represented a significant increase from the five heroin overdose deaths in the parish in 2012.

Parish Coroner Dr. Beau Clark led the charge against the resurgence of the drug in Baton Rouge, raising the alarm about the deaths.

In response to the resurgence of heroin use in the state, the Louisiana Legislature in May approved a tougher prison term for heroin dealers. The Legislature hiked the maximum penalty on repeat offenders to 99 years in prison.

“I hope it discourages folks from engaging in the distribution of heroin,” said state Sen. Dan Claitor, the sponsor of the legislation to toughen the sentences.

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