Swallow, gay marriage, West Valley cops lead Utah's newsy 2013
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In the end, what the state's top prosecutor needed most was a defense lawyer. That helps explain why John Swallow didn't last even 11 months as Utah's attorney general. Four days after taking his oath, the first-term Republican landed smack in the middle of a doozy of scandal, full of allegations and investigations, special counsels and paper trails, lost emails and official findings, secret payments and secret recordings, talk of impeachment and talk of resignation. A Chicago political brouhaha may have uncovered liaisons in, say, a bar or a strip club. This made-in-Utah intrigue included encounters at a Krispy Kreme and a Mimi's Cafe. The saga started with a claim from indicted St. George businessman Jeremy Johnson and mushroomed into accusations of extortion, influence peddling, acceptance of improper gifts, election-law crimes and obstruction of justice. The feds, the state, county prosecutors, legislators and the bar all launched inquiries. The U.S. Justice Department declined to press charges and the bar dropped two of its known complaints. But the lieutenant governor's special counsel determined Swallow had committed five election-law violations. The day before that damning report came out, the embattled attorney general, who had proclaimed his innocence throughout, stepped up to the microphone and announced he was stepping down. His Dec. 3 exit giving him just enough service time to collect a state pension down the road removed Swallow from public life but hardly from the public spotlight. The next week, prosecutors slapped former Attorney General Mark Shurtleff's so-called "fixer," Tim Lawson, with six felonies the first criminal charges in the scandal. The Utah House committee's special counsel presented two days of jaw-dropping evidence, accusing Swallow of inappropriate ties to questionable donors, hiding campaign contributions and fabricating and destroying evidence. County prosecutors are still weighing whether to charge Swallow, Shurtleff and others with crimes. In the meantime, Sean Reyes, a victim of the Swallow campaign's alleged dirty tricks who lost to him in last year's GOP primary, is poised to take over the attorney general job. But the Swallow case is far from closed.
Soon after federal Judge Robert Shelby made legal history by voiding Utah's ban on gay marriage, same-sex couples flooded confused county clerks' offices to make legal families. Shelby's ruling, the first to strike down a statewide prohibition on gay marriage since the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the federal Defense of Marriage Act, stated that Utah's laws "deny its gay and lesbian citizens their fundamental right to marry and, in so doing, demean the dignity of these same-sex couples for no rational reason." The judge's decision not only knocked down two state laws that bar gay marriage but also rejected Amendment 3, which two-thirds of Utah voters approved in 2004. For Shelby, though, "exceptional circumstances" required an exceptional remedy. Within minutes of the court's edict, same-sex couples, including a pair of plaintiffs in the case, rushed to obtain marriage licenses, and state attorneys scurried to file appeals. Soon, wedding vows were being exchanged in government lobbies as Utah became the 18th state to legalize gay marriage hundreds of them in a matter of days.
Law and disorder
West Valley City is looking forward to a better year. Surely it couldn't get any worse. During 2013, the city's embattled Police Department scrapped its troubled neighborhood-narcotics unit, saw more than 110 cases tossed out, launched an audit of its sex-crimes team and planned a review of all criminal cases for the past year. It was pure hell to the chief. On top of it all, Salt Lake County's district attorney deemed that two detectives wrongly gunned down an unarmed Danielle Willard. A wrongful-death lawsuit is already in court; the two officers soon could be, as well, if criminal charges result from the shooting. Utah's second-largest city will be getting a new mayor, Ron Bigelow, a former legislator and state budget boss, and already has a new police chief, Lee Russo, from Kentucky. They have work to do.
Worth a dam
Need a bulwark against an environmental disaster? Leave it to beavers. Such was the case last spring when wildlife officials credited beaver dams with helping to protect Willard Bay State Park and the Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge from a 27,500-gallon diesel spill near the Great Salt Lake. Not that damage didn't take place. The fuel fouled water, scarred soils, marred marshes and claimed fishes and frogs. Even six hero beavers had to be rescued and rehabbed. Chevron agreed to pay $5.35 million in a draft settlement with the state. The disaster marked the third major Utah petroleum spill from a Chevron pipeline in three years.
Lee's 'lost' stand
Freshman Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, wanted to pull the plug on Obamacare. His prescribed poison pill: Tie it to Congress' budget battles. So Lee and his frontman, Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, set about to do the deed. Joining forces with tea party loyalists in the U.S. House, they succeeded not in killing the Affordable Care Act but in shutting down the government for the first time since the Bill Clinton-Newt Gingrich staredown of the mid-1990s. After 17 days, the government reopened. By then, Utah had unlocked popular national parks, Republican poll numbers had fallen, Lee's popularity had slipped (though not among his tea party fans) and the ACA remained the law of the land. Although federal services were up and running, the health exchange wasn't. The launch of healthcare.gov proved a bigger disaster than the new Coke. Utahns and millions of other Americans couldn't even get a taste of their new insurance options. They couldn't sign in to the website to sign up. High-tech troubleshooters raced for a cure (the site did improve), but the president saw his approval ratings plunge nonetheless.
Mitt Romney may no longer be in the game, but the previous year's "Mormon moment" seemed to stretch into overtime as The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints continued to grab headlines in 2013. The Utah-based faith repudiated theological theories about its past ban on blacks entering the all-male priesthood, depicting the policy (started in 1852 by second Mormon prophet Brigham Young) as a product of man's mistakes, not God's will. LDS women made historic strides. Jean A. Stevens became the first female to offer a prayer from the pulpit at the church's General Conference. A group called Ordain Women launched a push to do just what its name demands ordain women. And the faith's twice-yearly all-male general priesthood meeting was broadcast live for the first time to women and men, members and nonmembers, anyone with a TV or an Internet connection. (Women tried to attend the session in person but were turned away.) Perhaps the biggest gains for Mormon women came on the mission front. "Sister" missionaries used to make up less than 20 percent of the faith's full-time proselytizers. Now, thanks to the lower age limits (19 for women, 18 for men), women account for nearly half the missionaries at the flagship Missionary Training Center. The Provo facility, a sort of boot camp for foot soldiers of the faith, unveiled plans for an expansion as the explosion of missionaries continued, leaping from 58,500 at the time of the age change to better than 82,000 and counting. That's a 40 percent jump.
The Catholic dynamo
Talk about mass appeal. Pope Francis is winning fans among the faithful and the faithless. After replacing Pope Benedict XVI, who became the first pontiff in nearly 600 years to resign, the new leader of the world's largest Christian faith wasted little time making headlines himself. The former Jorge Mario Bergoglio carries his own bag. He tools around the Vatican in a beat-up Renault. He shuns the ornate papal digs. He works a crowd like a glad-handing politician. And he laces his sermons and even formal papal pronouncements with down-home lingo. No, Francis hasn't changed the Catholic tune, but he sure has altered its tone. He wants church leaders to spend less time obsessing about hot-button issues such as gay marriage, abortion and birth control and more energy getting hot meals to the famished, the forgotten and the forsaken. Francis, the first Jesuit pope and Time magazine's Person of the Year, also took a swipe at consumer capitalism and the economic inequities it creates. "Such an economy kills," he writes. "How can it be that it is not news when an elderly homeless person dies of exposure, but it is news when the stock market loses two points?" Forget the big shots, he preaches, and remember the Tiny Tims. Utah's 300,000 Catholics along with the rest of the world will be watching and waiting for this dynamic leader's next moves.
A racist killer's final days
He shot the famous (Hustler magazine publisher Larry Flynt and civil-rights crusader Vernon Jordan) and gunned down a sickeningly long list of commoners (Alphonse Manning Jr., Toni Schwenn, Gerald C. Gordon, Johnny Brookeshire, William Bryant Tatum, Darrell Lane, Dante Evans Brown and others). Innocents all. On Aug. 20, 1980, he waited in a vacant Salt Lake City lot and ambushed Ted Fields and David Martin, two African-American joggers who were leaving Liberty Park with two white female friends. Joseph Paul Franklin's killing spree took him from east to west and north to south as he targeted Jews, African-Americans and interracial couples all, in his twisted mind, "enemies of the white race." He was convicted of eight murders and claimed responsibility for murdering or wounding at least a dozen more people. On Nov. 20, Missouri executed the 63-year-old serial killer. Franklin went to his death proclaiming himself a changed man, though he still viewed "race mixing" as a sin.
Like a rolling stone
Two former Boy Scout leaders now find themselves between a toppled rock and a hard place. David Hall and Glenn Taylor drew international outrage when they posted and boasted a video online of Taylor knocking down a "hoodoo" in Goblin Valley State Park. The Utahns say they pushed over the rock formation Oct. 11 for fear it would fall from its precarious perch and hurt someone, maybe even some of the Scouts they were shepherding that day. Scout higher-ups, land managers, land lovers, countless online commenters and at least one Utah lawmaker didn't see it that way. Scout brass kicked out the pair, a proposed bill would set in stone such actions as eco-felonies and prosecutors are weighing criminal charges against the rock rollers.
The beautiful game turns ugly
Referees know they have a thankless job, but a deadly one? It turned out that way for Ricardo Portillo. The 46-year-old volunteer, officiating a recreational soccer match at a Taylorsville school, yellow-carded a 17-year-old goalkeeper, who then punched the unsuspecting ref while he was recording the penalty in his notebook. Portillo collapsed. Later, his brain swelled, his condition worsened and he died May 4 after nearly a week in a coma. The case set off a nationwide debate about fan and player behavior from youth leagues all the way up to the professional ranks. As for the young attacker, he pleaded guilty to third-degree-felony homicide by assault and will remain in a juvenile lockup until possibly his 21st birthday. As part of his sentence, he must keep a photo of Portillo shown with his children and grandchildren on his wall and write the victim's family once a week.
MacNeill found guilty after all these years
The case had all the markers of a made-for-TV movie or a best-selling whodunit. A former beauty queen. A successful physician. A younger mistress. A suspicious death. Suspecting siblings. Probing police. A determined medical examiner. It was the stuff schemes are made of. In 2007, Michele MacNeill, 50, had been found unconscious in her bathtub, her death initially ruled the result of heart inflammation and high blood pressure. But her sisters, daughters and a niece suspected her husband, Martin MacNeill. Four years of further investigation led to charges against him. After 13 days of testimony and 11 hours of deliberation, a jury convicted the 57-year-old Pleasant Grove doctor of giving his wife a fatal cocktail of prescription drugs and then drowning her to continue his affair with a 37-year-old woman, whom he had hired as a nanny just two weeks after Michele's death. Martin MacNeill later attempted suicide in jail, where he is awaiting his sentencing early next year and planning his appeal.
Spies like us
The National Security Agency opened its billion-dollar-plus Utah Data Center in the fall to begin stockpiling massive amounts of intelligence information. Or did it? There's the rub with the super-secret NSA: No one seems to know, or at least say, what the agency is doing, when it's doing it, how it's doing it and why it's doing it. We do know where it's doing something. Bluffdale is now home to big, heavily guarded buildings, where the agency supposedly is storing yottabytes of data. One yottabyte, The Associated Press notes, would fill 200 trillion DVDs. The Utah facility, based at Camp Williams, is the largest NSA computing center in the world with a million square feet, a tenth of that housing computer servers. The federal government's increased intelligence presence in the Beehive State seen as an economic coup by Utah leaders comes at a time of increased criticism of NSA operations around the world.
Blue Dog bows out
He was a seven-term wonder. Seven times this Utah Democrat went up against Republican rivals in increasingly gerrymandered GOP districts and seven times he prevailed sometimes by a lot, sometimes by a little. He frustrated the right. He disappointed the left. But he wooed and won the center. Earlier this month, Rep. Jim Matheson stunned Utah's political establishment by announcing that eight isn't enough it's too much. He opted against seeking an eighth term in the U.S. House. Matheson's pending exit makes Saratoga Springs Mayor Mia Love the early favorite to succeed him in the 4th District and possibly become the first black GOP woman in Congress, though more Republicans are likely to dive into the 2014 race with the incumbent on the sidelines. It also increases the likelihood that Utah's federal delegation will be black (with Love) and white (with the five other Anglo officeholders) and red all over (with Republicans holding every seat). Of course, it's unlikely that Matheson is through with politics. Utah's political miracle worker already is hinting at a future run for Senate (against Mike Lee) or governor (against Gary Herbert), perhaps in 2016.
Polygamists prevail for now
More than a century ago, the feds turned to laws against unlawful cohabitation to nail and jail Mormon polygamists. Fast-forward to December 2013, when a U.S. judge slapped down Utah's cohabitation laws as a key tool in its fight against plural marriage, handing an immediate victory to Kody Brown and his spouses of "Sister Wives" TV fame. That triumph may be short-lived, depending on how higher courts rule. For now, though, modern-day polygamists are quietly cheering, anti-polygamy advocates are publicly sneering and the Utah-based LDS Church, which banned plural marriage more than 100 years ago, is reaffirming that Mormons "do not practice polygamy, regardless of its legal or cultural acceptance."
Alleged cop-killer kills himself
The horrific Ogden gunbattle of Jan. 4, 2012, that killed a police officer and wounded five others claimed another life 16 months later. Matthew David Stewart, the alleged shooter, hanged himself in his Weber County Jail cell on May 23, the day after a courtroom setback in which a judge refused to hear defense claims that police had lied to obtain a warrant to search the inmate's home. "He just couldn't bear it anymore," said Stewart's sister-in-law. The 39-year-old defendant was awaiting a capital trial in the slaying of Officer Jared Francom during a bungled pot bust at Stewart's home. An Army veteran, Stewart had argued all along that he thought his home was being invaded by thugs, not stormed by cops. With his death, there would be no trial and no answers to many questions surrounding the lethal raid.
Medals of honor
Park City golden boy Ted Ligety continued to dominate the global ski scene. The triple world champion and four-time World Cup giant slalom king won six of eight GS races in 2013. At the World Championships, he took the Super G, Super Combined and defended his GS crown, becoming the first man to pull off a trifecta since the legendary Jean-Claude Killy in 1968. Earlier this month, he racked up his fourth straight World Cup GS victory. All American eyes will be on Ligety in February at the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi, Russia, as he shoots for more Olympic hardware (he won gold in Torino, Italy, in 2006).
A mountain of charges
For years, he slipped into Utah cabins and slipped past law enforcement. Surveillance cameras managed to capture his image, but officers struggled to capture the culprit. He raided and ransacked remote retreats across six counties. He swiped guns and supplies before vanishing time and again back into the woods. Finally, in April, authorities caught up with the suspect they say is the notorious "Mountain Man" burglar. Troy James Knapp now faces dozens of felonies and misdemeanors for the break-ins along with federal charges for allegedly shooting at officers who snared him in Sanpete County.
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