Obama, Phillies top '08 headlines

December 28, 2008 State voters solidly supported the history-making presidential candidacy of Democratic Sen. Barack Obama, potentially making 2008 the year Pennsylvania officially changed from swing state to blue state on the electoral map.

The spontaneous joy that spilled onto the streets of Philadelphia after Obama's election Nov. 4 was rivaled only by the thousands who clogged those same roads less than a week earlier to celebrate the Phillies' World Series victory.

It was a respite of joy for the city, which in the next couple of weeks learned of severe budget cuts and buried another police officer - the fifth slain in the line of duty in just over a year.

Pennsylvanians and others around the world also mourned the death of Randy Pausch, the Carnegie Mellon University professor whose inspirational "Last Lecture" became a YouTube sensation and best-selling book.

And the state lost two longtime public servants: Lt. Gov. Catherine Baker Knoll and state Sen. James Rhoades.

Knoll, who died of cancer in November, was replaced by Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati. A special election will be held to replace Rhoades, who died of injuries from a car accident.


The Capitol was rocked by a July indictment alleging 12 people connected to the House Democratic caucus - including a sitting lawmaker - diverted state dollars and employees for electioneering.

Two other legislators faced trial in 2008.

In western Pennsylvania, state Sen. Robert Regola III was acquitted in July of charges that he lied about where he stored a gun used in the 2006 death of his teenage neighbor, Louis Farrell. And despite a coroner's ruling that Farrell had committed suicide, the teen's father filed a civil suit in December alleging that Regola's son, Bobby, handled the gun recklessly, resulting in Farrell's death.

Regola didn't run for re-election this year.

Powerful Philadelphia Sen. Vincent Fumo, still recovering from a heart attack, announced in March that he also would not seek re-election, citing the "cloud hanging over my head." It was a reference to the criminal charges that he defrauded the state Senate, a charity and a maritime museum out of $3.5 million. His federal trial began in the fall and is expected to continue through February.

Then there was the spectacular crash-and-burn of the evening news anchor team at KYW-TV in Philadelphia. The real-life soap opera started in January when Alycia Lane was fired following a scuffle with police in New York. It ended in November when her co-anchor, Larry Mendte, was sentenced to house arrest after admitting he obsessively hacked into Lane's e-mail, leaking gossip that contributed to her downfall.

Janet Jackson's "wardrobe malfunction" was back in the news. A federal appeals court in Philadelphia threw out a $550,000 indecency fine against CBS for the breast-baring during the 2004 Super Bowl halftime show. The court said the FCC "acted arbitrarily and capriciously" by fining the fleeting nudity.

Broadcasters might want to keep that in mind after several stations aired a live expletive from Phillies second baseman Chase Utley following the World Series parade. The infamous quote Oct. 31 capped the city's first sports championship celebration in 25 years. The Phillies beat the Tampa Bay Rays after a bizarre Game 5 that ended two days after being suspended by rain.


The worldwide economic downturn hit home hard.

Philadelphia announced the closing of libraries and swimming pools to close its revenue gap, while Gov. Ed Rendell planned to offset an estimated $1.6 billion budget deficit with spending cuts, reserve funds, federal aid and gas-drilling leases in state forests.

Still, slot machines continued to cha-ching as Pennsylvania's seventh gambling parlor opened near Harrisburg in February.

Gaming officials, though, had to appoint a trustee to run the Mount Airy Casino Resort in the Poconos after its owner, Louis DeNaples, was indicted in January.

Authorities say DeNaples, in his bid to win a casino license, lied to regulators about his alleged ties to organized crime - including his friendship with reputed northeastern Pennsylvania mobster William D'Elia.

The plot thickened in March after D'Elia pleaded guilty to witness tampering and conspiracy to launder drug money in an unrelated case. He was later revealed to be helping prosecutors with their case against DeNaples, making D'Elia the latest alleged American Mafia leader to turn government informant.

DeNaples maintains his innocence and accused D'Elia of lying to authorities in a bid for a shorter prison term. D'Elia received a nine-year sentence in November.

In suburban Pittsburgh, an FBI agent was killed in the line of duty while trying to serve a warrant. Authorities say Christina Korbe fatally shot Special Agent Sam Hicks as he entered her family's home, but Korbe maintains she thought Hicks was an intruder.

And a mistrial was declared in the case of celebrity pathologist Cyril Wecht. The former Allegheny County coroner, who has consulted on autopsies including Elvis Presley and JonBenet Ramsey, was accused of using county staff to do work for his private practice. He may be retried in 2009.


The arrival of a mysterious woman and newborn at a western Pennsylvania hospital eventually led police to a gruesome discovery: the eviscerated body of a once-pregnant Kia Johnson.

Authorities in Wilkinsburg say Andrea Curry-Demus killed Johnson, 18, of McKeesport, and cut her infant from her womb. Curry-Demus is awaiting trial; the baby boy is with Johnson's family.

There was more macabre news in Philadelphia: Five people pleaded guilty to a scheme to carve up corpses and sell their sometimes-diseased tissue. At least 244 bodies were plundered for parts, which were sold to biomedical companies for use in transplants.

And authorities in Erie got their first conviction in the five-year-old collar-bomb case. Kenneth Barnes admitted in September that he helped plot a bizarre bank robbery that ended when a bomb strapped around a pizza deliveryman's neck exploded and killed him.

A few old cases resurfaced in 2008. In Susquehanna County, a doctor was convicted of murdering his best friend more than 30 years ago so he could marry the friend's wife. Stephen Scher, 67, had also been found guilty in 1997 of killing Martin Dillon, but an appeals court ordered a new trial.

In Schuylkill County, Joseph Geiger was arrested in August and charged in the 1985 slaying of 13-year-old David Reed. Authorities allege Geiger was a small-time drug dealer at the time who suspected the Schuylkill Haven boy was stealing his marijuana plants. Geiger has denied the charges and says he barely knew Reed.

In Philadelphia, the city's Department of Human Services was sent reeling by a scathing grand jury report alleging that a 14-year-old disabled girl starved to death while under the agency's care in 2006.

And an appeals court ruled in March that death-row inmate Mumia Abu-Jamal must be given a new sentencing hearing. Abu-Jamal was convicted of killing Philadelphia police officer Daniel Faulkner in 1981.


Two "vice" laws made headlines in 2008: The much-maligned 10 percent tax on poured alcoholic drinks in Allegheny County - which is going down to 7 percent in 2009 - and the statewide smoking ban, which forbids lighting up in most public places and work spaces, including restaurants.

In religion news, the theologically conservative Pittsburgh diocese seceded from the more liberal Episcopal Church and formed a new North American province with other breakaway parishes.

Meanwhile, Episcopal bishop Charles Bennison was defrocked in Philadelphia after a church panel found him guilty of covering up his brother's sexual assaults of a teenage girl in the 1970s.

Immigrant tensions increased in the hardscrabble coal region of eastern Pennsylvania after three white teens in Shenandoah were charged in the fatal beating of an illegal Mexican immigrant. Luis Ramirez, 25, left a fiancee and two children.

In April, Tamaqua resident Nathan Bowman survived a 500-foot fall into a strip mine in Coaldale, astounding rescuers who spent hours on a risky descent into the abyss to bring him back out. A few days later, his friend was charged with pushing him over the edge.

Though mining is not the industry it once was in Pennsylvania, the state may yet offer another fossil-fuel bonanza. Companies increasingly flocked here in 2008 to stake claims to portions of the Marcellus shale, an underground rock formation that could become the nation's most prolific natural gas reservoir.

Pennsylvanians can look forward to being even better informed in 2009.

The new Right-to-Know Law takes effect Jan. 1. It is built on the presumption that most government records are open, and is expected to dramatically expand what people can find out about what goes on behind the scenes of the state and local governments.

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