Corruption, Giants among top NJ stories in 2008

December 25, 2008 1:46:20 PM PST
Whether it was the arrest and conviction of prominent politicians, the economic meltdown, the election of Barack Obama or the New York Giants' stunning Super Bowl win over the New England Patriots, New Jerseyans had a lot to talk about in 2008. Overall, it was a year that reinforced much of what we already knew about living in the Garden State: It's expensive and crowded, often strange, but rarely dull.

Here's a month-by-month look at the year that was:

JANUARY: - Gov. Jon S. Corzine unveils plans for steep toll increases on some of the nation's busiest highways to solve state fiscal woes. He soon has to rework his proposal when it becomes clear that the plan lacks legislative and public support.

- State election law officials reject state Sen. Wayne Bryant's bid to use campaign cash to pay legal bills stemming from his indictment on federal corruption charges.

- Rutgers University's governing board approves spending $102 million to expand its football stadium by 14,000 seats in a move that university leaders hope will further improve Rutgers' national profile.

- A judge ignores a request for leniency by the notorious "Hat Bandit" and sentences him to 10 years in federal prison for a 10-month bank robbery spree. James G. Madison, who also was known as the "Mad Hatter," earned the nicknames for the wide assortment of headgear he wore during the robberies.

FEBRUARY:

- In one of the biggest upsets in Super Bowl history, the Giants' Eli Manning hits Plaxico Burress on a 13-yard touchdown pass with 35 seconds left to give Big Blue a 17-14 Super Bowl win, shattering the New England Patriots' bid for a perfect season.

- New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton pushes past Illinois Sen. Barack Obama to capture the New Jersey Democratic primary, while Arizona Sen. John McCain scores an easy win in the Republican contest. It's the first time New Jersey has held a presidential primary so early in the year; traditionally it was held in June.

- Corzine unveils a $33 billion state budget plan that proposes major cuts to key programs, including property tax rebates and aid for towns and hospitals. He calls it "cold turkey therapy for our troubled spending addiction."

- Former state Sen. Joseph Coniglio is indicted on influence-peddling charges, accused of funneling millions of state dollars to a hospital in return for a $5,000-a-month consulting fee. Coniglio has pleaded not guilty and is awaiting trial.

- Rutgers coach C. Vivian Stringer becomes the third women's basketball coach to win 800 games when her team scores a 60-46 victory over DePaul.

MARCH

- The married lover of a Hightstown woman who went missing in the summer of 2007 is accused of killing her, even though her body has not been found. Rosario DiGirolamo is charged with murder in the death of 27-year-old Amy Giordano. A few weeks later, Giordano's skeletal remains are found in a Staten Island pond.

- Two of New Jersey's most infamous murderers die in prison. Richard Biegenwald, 67, was known as the "Thrill Killer" and was convicted of killing five people. John E. List, 82, a former Sunday school teacher, was on the run for more than 17 years after killing his family in 1971.

APRIL

- A federal jury convicts former Newark Mayor Sharpe James and his ex-mistress in a corruption case stemming from the cut-rate sale of city land. James was later sentenced to 27 months in federal prison, and began serving his term in September.

- As gas prices start to soar, New Jersey Transit reports it has reached record ridership levels. The transit agency posts a record second quarter, with 65.1 million passenger trips.

- Grammy-nominated violinist Philippe Quint is reunited with his $4 million violin - an irreplaceable 1723 Antonio Stradivari "Ex-Keisewetter" - thanks to the efforts of an honest Newark cabbie.

- A Super Bowl championship isn't the only big event in 2008 for Eli Manning. The Giants quarterback marries college sweetheart Abby McGrew in sunset ceremony at a resort in Mexico.

MAY

- The divorce trial of New Jersey's former first couple gets under way. Dina Matos McGreevey claims she was duped into marriage by former Gov. Jim McGreevey, who resigned from office in 2004 and proclaimed himself "a gay American." A judge eventually grants them a divorce and rejects her requests for alimony, which he said he couldn't afford to pay.

- A judge rules that Gov. Corzine must publicly release hundreds of pages of e-mails he and his staff exchanged with a state worker union leader he once dated. The judge says the e-mails exchanged with ex-girlfriend Carla Katz during state worker contract talks are public record. Corzine appeals, and by year's end the case has still not been resolved.

- A $740,000 severance package for the Keansburg school superintendent spurs lawmakers to seek new state rules aimed at curtailing lavish contracts for school administrators.

JUNE

- A group of 15 bottlenose dolphins is spotted in New Jersey's Shrewsbury and Navesink rivers, feeding on bait fish and delighting spectators, who line the riverbanks to watch them swim and splash. Six months later, the dolphins are still there, worrying some who fear the dolphins may not survive the winter cold.

- Gov. Corzine signs a law allowing Atlantic City's 11 gambling halls to remain open if there is another state government shutdown. The gambling industry pushed for the law after a state government shutdown in 2006 closed the casinos for three days.

- Congo, a dog who sparked a debate on immigration after biting a Honduran landscaper, is euthanized after attacking his owner's 75-year-old mother in Princeton Township. Congo was spared a similar fate following the attack on the landscaper a year earlier when thousands of animal lovers pleaded that he not be put down.

JULY

- Assemblyman Neil Cohen resigns from the Legislature four days after it is reported that he is under investigation for possession of child pornography. The case begins when colleagues who share his Union County legislative office tell authorities that a staffer found a printout of a nude adolescent girl. Cohen is indicted in December.

- A federal judge orders former Atlantic City Mayor Robert Levy to serve three years probation and pay a $5,000 fine for lying about his Vietnam War service to pad his veterans benefits. Levy became known as the "missing mayor" when he dropped out of sight for two weeks in the fall of 2007 after the allegations came to light.

- A fat cat from New Jersey becomes a star. The 44-pound cat is found wandering the southern Jersey community of Voorhees, and the tabby's near-record weight puts him in the national spotlight on television talk shows and tabloid newspaper covers.

AUGUST

- Two young girls from Howell are stranded in the Republic of Georgia as Russian troops invade. Seven-year-old Ashley Evans and her 3-year-old sister, Sophia, who were visiting their grandparents, are eventually are returned safely to New Jersey after U.S. Rep. Chris Smith and the French ambassador intervene.

- Several southern New Jersey towns are forced to close parts of their beaches ahead of the busy Labor Day weekend after needles and other medical waste wash ashore. A Pennsylvania dentist is charged with illegally disposing of the items.

- Media mogul Oprah Winfrey pledges $1 million to an educational scholarship fund for students in the rural New Jersey hometown of her longtime boyfriend. Winfrey makes the announcement during a visit to an annual community festival in Whitesboro, a tiny community founded in 1901 as a settlement for blacks leaving the South.

SEPTEMBER

- A federal immigration judge rules that Imam Mohammad Qatanani and his family can remain in the U.S. The government claimed the Muslim leader had ties to the terrorist organization Hamas, and sought to deport him. Supporters say Qatanani - who has headed the Islamic Center of Passaic County since 1996 - was instrumental in building relationships with state and federal law enforcement agencies after Sept. 11.

- Atlantic City's 11 casinos experience their biggest monthly drop in revenue ever. The amount of money won from gamblers plunges 15.1 percent from September 2007 - the biggest one-month decline in the 30-year history of legalized gambling here.

OCTOBER

- Gamblers in Atlantic City are barred from lighting up as a total smoking ban goes into effect over the objections of the casino industry. But it lasts just one month before the City Council sets it aside for at least a year, citing the worsening economy and stiff competition from slots parlors in Pennsylvania and New York.

NOVEMBER

- Barack Obama carries New Jersey by more than half a million votes as the Illinois Democrat sweeps to the presidency over Republican John McCain. Democrat Frank Lautenberg becomes the first New Jerseyan ever elected to a fifth term in the U.S. Senate.

- Super Bowl hero Plaxico Burress shoots himself in the leg at a Manhattan nightclub when he fumbles an unlicensed handgun tucked into the waistband of his sweat pants. The Giants suspend him for the rest of the season. The receiver is charged with two felony gun-possession counts and could faces up to 3½ years in prison on each one.

- Former Atlantic City Council President Craig Callaway, who has already pleaded guilty in a bribery case, gets another three years in prison for trying to force rival politician Eugene Robinson to resign from the Council by secretly videotaping him in a motel room with a prostitute.

- Gunfire erupts inside a Passaic County church. Authorities say a California man drove across the country and fatally shot his estranged wife and a bystander inside a church attended by Indian immigrants in Clifton. The gunman flees to Georgia, where he is arrested on murder charges.

- Former state Sen. Wayne Bryant is convicted of bribery and pension fraud. He is the latest and one of the most powerful in a string of 132 New Jersey public officials found guilty of federal corruption charges over the last seven years.

- Robert Zarinsky, the first person in New Jersey convicted of murder without a body for evidence and a suspect in several other unsolved murders in the state dies in prison at age 68. He had been jailed since 1975 for killing 17-year-old Rosemary Calandriello of Atlantic Highlands in 1969.

DECEMBER

- Five Muslim immigrants from the Cherry Hill area accused of plotting to massacre U.S. soldiers at Fort Dix in 2007 are convicted of conspiracy to kill military personnel. The verdict follows an eight-week trial. The men could face life in prison when they are sentenced in April.

- Rutgers University fires athletic director Robert E. Mulcahy, widely recognized as the architect of Rutgers' renaissance as an athletic power, after a review committee sharply criticizes him for failing to exercise proper oversight of the athletic program. The university says it will continue with a scaled-back expansion of the football stadium, a project championed by Mulcahy.

- Corruption-fighting U.S. Attorney Christopher Christie steps down after six years on the job. It is widely speculated that Christie will mount a run for governor next year on the Republican ticket.

- There's controversy over a birthday cake. Three-year-old Adolf Hitler Campbell is at the center of a dispute between his parents and a Hunterdon County supermarket that refuses to spell out his name on a birthday cake.

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