As 2012 draws to a close, perhaps the biggest story of the year in St. Clair is the fact that the local airport closure issue is not the biggest story of the year.
In fact, that continuing saga barely made the top five.
Again in 2012, The St. Clair Missourian came up with its top 10 stories of the year as compiled by staff members. Despite appearing more often again in 2012 than any other story — as the issue did in both 2010 and 2011 when it was named the top story of the year — the request by city officials to the Federal Aviation Administration to close the facility on St. Clair’s north side finished in the No. 5 position.
Two horrific tragedies top St. Clair’s 2012 list. The three teenage suicides that occurred in about a seven-week period ending in mid-November that shocked and concerned the R-XIII school district and the entire community was voted the story of the year, while the late-April murder of Stephanie Tauchert in Lake St. Clair came in as the runner-up.
Third on the list is the alleged misappropriation of funds within the St. Clair Fire Protection District.
Next are the three road improvement projects that took place in St. Clair this year.
After the airport closure story, the feel-good story of the year checks in at No. 6. On April 1, local motorcyclist Brian Keller, traveling separately, stopped and helped a fellow biker who was in an accident. Keller’s actions undoubtedly saved Brian Butera from suffering further complications from his injuries.
At No. 7, is the closing of the community swimming pool in Evergreen Park and the city’s pursuit of replacing it with a spray park.
Checking in eighth is the incident involving St. Clair-area resident Jeffrey Weinhaus and the continuing developments that followed him being shot by Missouri Highway Patrol troopers on Sept. 11.
Ninth on the list is Paul and Elaine Swofford retiring as St. Clair R-XIII School District band instructors and teachers after 30 years on the job. Paul Swofford was replaced by one of his former students, Andrew Jackson.
Finally, No. 10 is the rental occupancy permit plan adopted by the city late in the year after the planning and zoning board discussed it for almost a year. The board of aldermen passed the measure in November.
10. Rental Occupancy
During the Nov. 5 board of aldermen meeting, the rental occupancy permit program ordinance was passed. It established new rules and regulations regarding the inspection of rental properties within the city limits.
The issue first was brought to the city’s planning and zoning board in the fall of 2011. After the planners spent about nine months getting the recommended language of the program in place, it then was volleyed back and forth between the planners and aldermen before finally being approved.
The ordinance focuses on minimum housing and life-safety standards for rental units within the city limits. It targets those units in an effort to upgrade the standards and follows several already established city ordinances.
Planning board members as well as City Inspector Jeremy Crowe said the main idea behind revising the program is making sure residences are safe for each occupant while providing a way for the city to enforce that safety.
9. Swoffords Retire
In March, Paul and Elaine Swofford announced they will be leaving the only jobs they’ve ever had during their adult lives when they retire at the end of the 2011-2012 academic year. They turned in their resignations to the board of education earlier that month.
The Swoffords, both 52 years old when they announced their retirement, came to St. Clair at the start of the 1982-1983 school year. They ended up being hired as a pair to take over the instrumental music program in the St. Clair district.
The accomplishments of the Swoffords and the SCHS bands have been numerous during their 30-year tenure. In 29 of those years, the high school band earned a “1” rating, the highest possible score, in the annual state music competition. The junior high band earned 28 consecutive “1” ratings at the music festival. The SCHS jazz band earned more than 200 marching and jazz trophies during the same time frame.
The last band concerts under their direction were in May.
In April, Jackson, a 2001 SCHS graduate and former band member, was named as Paul Swofford’s replacement. Kelly Walker was picked to replace Elaine Swofford. Those two took over the program at the start of the current academic year.
8. Jeffrey Weinhaus
On Sept. 11, Jeffrey Weinhaus, 45, was shot multiple times during an armed confrontation with Missouri Highway Patrol troopers outside the MFA Oil service station on Highway K south of Highway 30 near St. Clair. Troopers reported that Weinhaus allegedly pulled a pistol from a holster after failing to comply with a patrol order to get down on the ground.
Weinhaus, a well-known anti-government Internet blogger whose rants often were directed at law enforcement officers and judicial officials, had been charged in a Franklin County felony warrant with possession of a controlled substance and tampering with a judicial officer, both felonies, and misdemeanor possession of marijuana.
He was flown by air ambulance from the scene to Mercy Hospital St. Louis and initially was reported to be in severe condition.
Troopers had arranged to meet Weinhaus at the MFA Oil location under the pretext of returning computers and video equipment seized at his home through a search warrant. In October, Weinhaus was released from a St. Louis hospital. In early November, he was arrested on an outstanding warrant when he appeared for a hearing in associate circuit court.
Later in November, a Franklin County grand jury issued an indictment against Weinhaus.
Finally, as the year drew to a close, a motion by Franklin County Prosecutor Bob Parks for a change of judge in the Weinhaus case was granted.
7. Pool Closes
The St. Clair community swimming pool had been in operation for decades, but 2012 was its last.
Originally, the facility in Evergreen Park was not going to open this year after it was determined it would be too expensive to update it to bring it into compliance with the Americans With Disabilities Act. However, a delay in implementing new rules about handicap access allowed the pool to open.
At about the same time the facility opened, the city started to get serious about getting details on a proposed spray park that would be located in the same place. In August, days before the pool closed for good, plans were made to demolish the facility before the end of the year. That happened in the fall.
In October, a committee put together a list of spray park “musts,” and companies that specialize in the aquatic centers submitted proposals. In December, the committee met, picked Westport Pools of Maryland Heights and received approval from the board of aldermen to get the ball rolling. A budget of just under $300,000 tentatively was set.
It is hoped the spray park will be open for business next year.
6. Motorcyclist Helped
Quick action by a fellow St. Clair American Legion Riders member probably prevented a motorcycle crash injury from being worse.
During the afternoon on Sunday, April 1, Brian Butera, 56, of St. Clair, was involved in a two-vehicle crash on the Interstate 44 North Service Road just west of Tag-A-Long Road. The crash ejected Butera off his Harley-Davidson motorcycle and, according to law enforcement and other emergency responders at the scene, left him bleeding badly while he was lying on the ground.
Brian Keller, who happened to be riding his own cycle westbound on parallel I-44, stopped when he saw the accident scene. He applied a tourniquet to Butera’s profusely bleeding leg and helped until emergency crews arrived.
Butera’s injuries were described as serious. Sometime after the accident, Butera had to have his left leg amputated.
St. Clair Police officer Dallas Virkler was the first emergency responder to arrive and said Keller’s “quick action could have prevented his condition from being even worse.”
While Butera was being loaded into the helicopter, Keller knelt on the road nearby and bowed his head.
During the St. Clair American Legion’s Memorial Day ceremony in May, Butera thanked Keller for helping to save his life.
5. St. Clair Airport
There was not much movement as far as possible closure of the St. Clair Regional Airport in 2012, but plenty of activity surrounded it as city officials wait for word from the FAA on the future of the facility.
The year started with city officials coming up with a prioritized funds distribution plan, which could come to fruition if the airport closes. The year ended with an increase in hangar rental rates for tenants and complaints by at least a couple of those tenants about the price increase.
In between were numerous events centering on the airport, the biggest of which was Mayor Ron Blum traveling to Washington, D.C., in March to meet with FAA officials. After the meeting, Blum said he remains optimistic about being able to close the facility.
At about that same time, one of the tenants filed a complaint against the local administration, accusing the city of “stealing money from the airport.”
In July, a third appraisal of the value of the airport property, mandated by the FAA as part of the closure plan, put a price tag of $520,000 on the land and deemed that the best use of the property would be for commercial use.
In September, the final airport narrative analysis was sent by city officials to the FAA and asked that a final decision regarding the facility’s closure be made by about Thanksgiving. As the year ends, the city still was waiting for word from the federal agency.
4. Road Projects
The year was the year of the construction barrel in and around St. Clair as three major road projects are improving the city’s infrastructure on three sides.
The Missouri Department of Transportation relocated the I-44 North Outer Road at Highway 47 about 1,300 feet to the north. The realignment basically followed Peterson Road and intersected with Highway 47 just south of Angels Crossing Drive. Access modifications were made to Highway 47, and traffic signals are scheduled to be installed at the interstate ramps as well as at Angels Crossing early in 2013. Water and sewer lines also were extended to that location.
The work opens 33 acres of prime city land for development.
The Highway 30-Bardot Street project included the traffic signal at 30 and Bardot and a center turn lane from Highway PP to Forest Hill Drive to help with traffic flow around the St. Clair High School campus.
A sidewalk was added in front of the campus along Highway 30 as was a crosswalk at the traffic signal as part of a project funded by the R-XIII school district with help from Safe Routes to School grant funds.
The Springfield Road project is overhauling the street on both sides of Highway 30.
The east part of the road was resurfaced from Main Street to Highway 30 while the sidewalks on both sides were upgraded and new water and relined sewer lines installed. From the city limits to Highway 30 on the west side, resurfacing soon will take place and a new sidewalk with new water and relined sewer lines running the entire length are going in.
3. Fire Investigation
In January, The Missourian reported that the St. Clair Police Department and the Internal Revenue Service were working together on an investigation into some “irregularities in financials” within the St. Clair Fire Protection District. Police Chief Bill Hammack and fire board Treasurer Dave Berkel confirmed the investigation to The Missourian but could not provide details.
In August, Eric Hinson resigned as chief of the Ladue Fire Department after only about a year on the job. Prior to that, in September 2011, Hinson resigned as St. Clair’s chief, saying basically his plate was too full. His St. Clair resignation came during the same meeting when the board first voted to “investigate the financials for the St. Clair Fire Protection District as necessary.”
Not much else was disclosed about the case until September when during a regular meeting, the fire board of directors released a statement that linked Hinson, the former chief, with the ongoing investigation. The statement also said it appears no one else was being investigated in relation to the case.
As the year draws to a close, the St. Clair Fire Protection District is awaiting word from the U.S. District Attorney’s Office in St. Louis about any possible indictments against Hinson. An in-depth report into the case has been compiled but has not been released.
2. Tauchert Murder
On April 25, 40-year-old Stephanie Tauchert was found dead in her home at 1405 Oakwood Drive in the Lake St. Clair development. Her boyfriend, 58-year-old Michael C. Murphy, was charged by Franklin County Prosecuting Attorney Bob Parks with first-degree murder and armed criminal action after a massive manhunt involving more than 100 armed personnel resulted in finding Murphy behind a log near where the shooting had occurred two days before.
Murphy’s bond was set at $2 million. A gag order later was issued.
The shooting occurred in the southern end of the subdivision located just south and west of the St. Clair city limits. A probable cause statement filed in court stated the victim was shot “multiple times.”
Within minutes after the shooting, law enforcement set up an armed perimeter around the subdivision, and no one was allowed to enter or leave the development for several hours as the manhunt for Murphy began.
He was seen leaving the residence with a rifle after gunshots were heard. Murphy was on the run for about 41 hours and said he thought he traveled about 8 miles during that time.
Murphy also said he ditched the rifle somewhere in the woods. One week after the murder, authorities believed they found the rifle used in the killing in the woods near the development.
1. Teen Deaths
On Sept. 28, Nov. 2 and Nov. 12, three St. Clair High School students committed suicide. Authorities believed the incidents were not related or caused by a common circumstance.
But, the three deaths shocked the school district and the community, and some adults said bullying was part of the cause. Former and current students interviewed by The Missourian disagreed.
Superintendent Murphy said his greatest concern following the deaths is the other students who continue to walk the hallways and sit in the classrooms at the four district schools.
Murphy led a community forum on Nov. 13 in the SCHS gym one day after the third teenager, identified as 16-year-old freshman Destiny Pearson, was found dead in her home.
The series of tragic events began on Sept. 28 when Jordan Halmich, who was a 16-year-old junior, was found dead. On Nov. 2, Donna Jo Cooley, a 15-year-old sophomore, also was found deceased. Both were ruled suicides.
Several hundred area residents filled the lower level of the St. Clair High School gymnasium to attend the initial forum. It focused more on education and prevention even though several upset residents showed up to point fingers at the school district and its personnel.
After the third death, about 30 trained adults were on hand at the high school as resources for students and staff. They included counselors from other area school districts as well as St. Clair and professional personnel from service agencies.
Murphy said in all his years as an educator and administrator, “I’ve never dealt with anything like this.”
However, the superintendent said the district and community must come together and concentrate on ways to get through the situation and strive to do “everything we can to hopefully prevent it from happening again.”
Within the district’s four schools and especially at the high school, counselors continued to meet with students, and adults worked hard to bring a calm back to the education setting.
District administrators conducted three additional community forums before and after Thanksgiving as a way to encourage two-way communication between the school district and the community.
As the calendar year ended, the district re-established its parent advisory groups and will continue to meet with interested adults on a monthly basis in 2013.