The biggest stories of 2012

2012-12-30T03:30:00Z 2012-12-30T03:31:15Z The biggest stories of 2012The Citizen staff Auburn Citizen
December 30, 2012 3:30 am  • 

It was 12 months filled with controversial politics, high-profile court trials, the launch of a major tourism initiative, excitement at the ballpark and inspiring demonstrations of community spirit and generosity. These are the stories of 2012 that The Citizen's staff viewed as the year's biggest:

1. A Weedsport baby's battle generates outpouring of support

Baby Easton.

For many people in central New York, the name is instantly recognizable. Easton Friedel's battle against a rare skin disease, epidermolysis bullosa, captured the hearts of tens of thousands of people within days of his Aug. 23 birth at Auburn Community Hospital. Easton, the son of Danielle and Jared Friedel, spent most of the first three months of his life in a Cincinnati children's hospital, with mom, dad and several other family members by his side.

Throughout his time in hospitals, Easton's story was moving thousands of people to make donations to help him and his family, which has been dealing with extremely expensive medical costs since Easton's birth. One online fundraising effort raised pledges of more than $180,000. Several community events over the past few months drew thousands of people who wanted to help the cause. A family-run Easton Facebook page has almost 75,000 followers from around the world.

Easton came home from Cincinnati the day after Thanksgiving to a large contingent of community residents eager to show their support. His fight against EB continues to be a challenge - he's had to spend some time at University Hospital in Syracuse since coming home. But he still has a legion of people following his story, saying prayers for him and his family, and still looking for ways to help the cause.


2. Emotional murder trial ends with guilty verdict

In the Cayuga County Court trial of Auburn resident  Ryan Brahney, there was never a dispute that the defendant killed Bridge Bell, the mother of his toddler son, in 2011. But Brahney claimed innocence based on extreme emotional distress.

The weeklong trial in early October was filled with drama, from the first day when Brahney waived his right to a jury trial to closing statements, when he was excused from the courtroom because he was unable to keep his temper in check. Throughout the trial, testimony portrayed a defendant with severe anger issues.

Brahney was found guilty of two counts of second-degree murder, two counts of first-degree burglary, two counts of first-degree criminal contempt, all felonies, and one count of fourth-degree criminal possession of a weapon, a misdemeanor.

Several weeks after the verdict, Brahney refused to leave his jail cell to come to his sentencing, threatening to make a major scene if he were forced to sit in the courtroom. Judge Thomas Leone went ahead with the sentencing without the defendant present, and gave him 54 years to life in prison.


3. Disgraced ex-police officer guilty again

Former Auburn Police Department office Brian Hutchings had already been through one trial in which a jury found him guilty of coercion and burglary charges in 2011. While serving his prison sentence for that conviction, he went to trial again in June 2012 on unrelated charges that he stole tens of thousands of dollars from the Auburn Police Benevolent Association while he was treasurer of that organization.

Following a weeklong bench trial in which Hutchings himself took the stand to claim his innocence, and in which former and current members of the PBA, a forensic accountant and a retired IRS agent all testified, Judge Mark Fandrich found the former officer guilty on all charges.

Hutchings was sentenced on July 31 seven years in prison and was ordered to pay the PBA $59,055.45 to make up for the money he stole, along with the interest the PBA lost and the money spent auditing the association's accounts.


4. Redistricting brings changes to county representation

In a process that was filled with litigation and plenty of political fighting, new lines for state Legislature and U.S. Congress districts were finalized in 2012, and the results led to some new faces for Cayuga County residents and the departure of some familiar names.

The new lines for state Senate resulted in Cayuga County being divided into three districts. Gone was incumbent David Valesky, R-Oneida. Staying was incumbent Michael Nozzolio, R-Fayette. Joining Nozzolio were two longtime Republican incumbents, Sen. John DeFrancisco, R-Syracuse, and James Seward, R-Milford. State Assembly districts went from three to two in Cayuga County, with Assemblyman Gary Finch, R-Springport, and Robert Oaks, R-Macedon, staying in the county, while Assembly Minority Brian Kolb, R-Canandaigua, was no longer part of the county's delegation.

On the congressional side of redistricting, Cayuga County became part of one district. Incumbent Richard Hanna, R-Barneveld, was no longer part of the county's representation. The battle to represent Cayuga County as part of a new central New York district was won by Democrat Dan Maffei, in a rematch over incumbent Ann Marie Buerkle.


5. Auburn IDA's busy year stirs debate

The Auburn Industrial Development Authority found itself at the center of controversy on several occasions in 2012. AIDA was approached several times by developers seeking tax breaks for multi-million dollar business projects including a downtown mixed-use, multi-property renovation project, a new senior housing facility, a new downtown retail/office building and the expansion of a manufacturing operation. Although the senior housing project was defeated on its first try, AIDA ultimately approved deals for all of those projects.

The tax breaks granted by AIDA had some detractors, including the majority of the Auburn City Council, which has expressed concern that taxpayers are shouldering too much of the burden for these projects. AIDA supporters say the deals all bring long-term economic gain for the city.

AIDA's controversies extended beyond the financial assistance packages awarded. One board member, Monika Salvage, resigned after it was discovered that her lack of U.S. citizenship made her ineligible for service. The process to replace her has led to a standoff between Mayor Mike Quill, who makes AIDA nominations, and the city council, which has not been happy with his choices.


6. Theater festival's first full season completed

An effort several years and millions of dollars in the making, the Fingerlakes Musical Theatre Festival came to life for its first full season in 2012.

The festival brought live performances to three Auburn-area venues over a 12-week period starting in late May. Curtains came up 270 times during the festival's run -- that included six productions at the Merry-Go-Round Playhouse, three at Auburn Public Theater and 10 weeks of The Pitch, a cabaret-style series held at the new Theater Mack on the grounds of the Cayuga Museum of History & Art, where sound-on-film pioneer Theodore Case once worked.

The festival started this year without what organizers believe will be the flagship venue, the future Schwartz Performing Arts Center in downtown Auburn. That project was delayed by litigation.

But for the shows that did go on in 2012, the impact was real. The festival sold some 58,525 tickets and generated gross receipts of $2,072,388.


7. Welfare fraud sweep leads to dozens of arrests

In an effort of coordinated law enforcement that resembled some of the major illegal drug network busts seen through the years, more than 40 police officers and officials from multiple agencies executed a sweep of arrests of Cayuga County residents on various welfare and public assistance fraud charges on Sept. 12.

Nearly three dozen defendants were rounded up and brought into courtrooms for processing on that day. In the months that followed, many of the defendants reached plea deals that resulted in them making restitution to the agencies affected.

"By holding those accountable who are fraudulently obtaining those benefits, we are freeing up those benefits for those who are actually in need of public assistance," Cayuga County District Attorney Jon Budelmann said. "This is a big wake-up call and a priority for this count and we will continue to support that only eligible people get these benefits."


8. Local veterans take trip of a lifetime

For many veterans of the armed forces, the monuments built in Washington, D.C., to honor the sacrifices of the nation's military are something to see on television, magazines or perhaps websites. The chance to see those sites in person has never materialized.

That changed for a group of more than four dozen veterans from central New York with a trip organized by the Auburn Knights of Columbus chapter. Operation Enduring Gratitude was a September weekend bus trip to the nation's capital paid for by fundraising efforts of the Knights.

The veterans were joined by a large contingent of volunteers who rode along to help make their trip safe and comfortable. While in D.C., the veterans found themselves being treated like the heroes they are, from gourmet meals to first-class accommodations to random strangers asking for pictures on the national mall.

"It's probably one of the best experiences I've had in many years," World War II veteran Benedict Vitale said the day they returned to Auburn. "I've enjoyed every bit of it."


9. Auburn City Council approves controversial budget

Concluding a process that played out over several weeks of dramatic meetings, the Auburn City Council in late June approved a $34,548,269 budget for 2012-13 that cut 6.5 city staff positions and raised the property tax levy by 1.5 percent.

In a sign of how much attention the budget process was getting, 19 speakers addressed the council the night the budget was adopted, with most of the speakers opposed to staff cuts that were ultimately approved. The final budget cut about $2 million beyond the proposed spending measures advocated by city hall leadership.


10. Doubledays win another division crown

For the Auburn Doubledays baseball team, the new relationship with the Washington Nationals continued to result in some high-quality professional baseball at Falcon Park.

The Doubledays, in their second year as a Nationals affiliate after a long run with the Toronto Blue Jays, won the Pinckney Division championship for the second straight year. This year's Doubledays squad also found a way to make many of the games exciting for their fans - the team recorded six walk-off wins.

The team's season came to an end in the first round of the New York-Penn. League playoffs.

Copyright 2015 Auburn Citizen. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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