MuskogeePhoenix.com, Muskogee, OK

December 31, 2013

Devastating tornadoes named state’s top story


Associated Press

— Even in a state accustomed to Mother’s Nature fury, 2013 was extraordinary.

In a two-week period in May, violent tornadoes and powerful flash flooding walloped the state, killing schoolchildren, storm chasers and Oklahomans who had huddled in convenience store coolers and underground storm drains to avoid the storms.

The one-two punch of tornadoes that struck Moore and El Reno in May — and the outpouring of support nationally and internationally — was overwhelmingly picked by Associated Press members as the story of 2013.

The full list, prepared by Oklahoma reporters who covered the state’s top stories in 2013, follows:



1. Tornadoes

One of the most powerful tornadoes to hit Oklahoma formed just southwest of Moore on May 20 and roared into the Oklahoma City suburb, killing 24 and leaving at least $2 billion in damages.

Seven pupils died when the EF-5 twister hit the Plaza Towers Elementary School. The storm hit another school, but no deaths were recorded there.

Less than two weeks later after the storm at Moore, a twister with the second-highest winds ever recorded near ground level hit south of El Reno, part of a thunderstorm complex that produced flash flooding and high winds that killed two dozen people in the Oklahoma City area. Three scientists who studied tornadoes were among those killed.

— Staff of the Norman Transcript and The Associated Press



2. Australian player-

random slaying

A 22-year-old Australian who came to Oklahoma to play college baseball was gunned down while jogging in Duncan, creating an uproar on two continents.

Christopher Lane, 22, was shot in the back Aug. 16 while running down a tree-lined street in the southern Oklahoma town. Lane, a Melbourne native, was a catcher at East Central University in Ada and preparing to enter his senior year. Lane was visiting his girlfriend’s parents’ in Duncan when he was shot and killed.

Three teenagers were arrested. Two of them were charged as adults with first-degree murder. A third teenager was initially charged as a youthful offender but later charged with first-degree murder. Prosecutors allege the shooting was a random act by teenagers who said they were “bored.”

—Kristi Eaton,

The Associated Press



3. Statehouse corruption

Two former state legislators were convicted in 2013 for their roles in a felony bribery scheme.

Former Rep. Randy Terrill, R-Moore, was convicted by a jury of offering a bribe for withdrawal of candidacy and sentenced to a year in prison. He was accused of setting up former state Sen. Debbe Leftwich, D-Oklahoma City, in an $80,000-a-year job at the state Medical Examiner’s Office in exchange for her not seeking re-election in 2010 so a Republican colleague of Terrill’s could seek her open seat.

Following Terrill’s conviction in October, Leftwich waived her right to a jury trial and was found guilty by a judge of accepting a thing of value to withdraw. She received a one-year suspended sentence and is appealing her conviction. Terrill also remained free on bond while he pursues an appeal.

— Sean Murphy, AP



4. Indian Child

Welfare dispute

An adoption case that went to the U.S. Supreme Court ultimately was resolved in Oklahoma during 2013.

Dusten Brown, a Cherokee Nation citizen, was charged in South Carolina with “custodial interference” after attempting to void the 2009 adoption of Baby Veronica by a Charleston couple — an adoption that had been set up by Veronica’s mother. After the nation’s highest court said Brown couldn’t press claims under the Indian Child Welfare Act, Matt and Melanie Capobianco traveled to Oklahoma hoping to pick up the child, who had lived with Brown’s family since age 2.

Brown gave up his fight for the child after Gov. Mary Fallin took steps to extradite him to South Carolina and the Oklahoma Supreme Court removed a stay that had directed that the girl remain with her father.

— Teddye Snell,

Tahlequah Daily Press



5. Hobby Lobby-

birth control

A legal battle waged by Oklahoma City-based Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc., against the federal health care law’s mandate that employee health insurance coverage include access to the morning-after pill and similar contraceptives reached the U.S. Supreme Court in 2013. The nation’s highest court announced in November that it will hear a dispute over whether businesses can use religious objections to escape a requirement to cover emergency contraception.

—Tim Talley, AP



6. Tort reform

Oklahoma lawmakers continued their push for changes in the state’s tort system — including meeting in a special session to address concerns raised by the state Supreme Court. The state Chamber of Commerce in 2014 will recommend more changes, including term limits for members of the state judiciary, a requirement that justices of the Oklahoma Supreme Court and the appellate courts be elected instead of appointed, and a plan to increase the required percentage of yes votes in judicial retention elections to 60 percent.

— M. Scott Carter,

The Journal Record



7. Income tax cut

After two years of political wrangling over a cut in the state’s income tax, Gov. Mary Fallin seemed to have finally accomplished a major political victory in 2013 — a broad agreement with Republican legislative leaders to cut the income tax and provide $120 million for repairs to the crumbling state Capitol. The bill would reduce the top personal income tax rate that most Oklahomans pay from 5.25 percent to 5 percent, beginning in 2015, with a second cut later if the state can afford it. The plan was tossed out by the Oklahoma Supreme Court, which said the bill improperly included multiple topics.(backslash)

— Sean Murphy, AP



8. Foss Lake bodies

A practice run for new sonar technology at the Foss Lake marina garnered worldwide attention after authorities found six bodies in two submerged cars on Sept. 17. Custer County Sheriff Bruce Peoples said the descriptions of the vehicles and their occupants “strongly leaned” in the direction of two local cold cases — one from 1969 and one from 1970.

—Larissa Graham,

Elk City Daily News



9. Tulsa dentist

At the end of March, health officials announced that unsanitary conditions at a Tulsa oral surgeon’s office may have exposed at least 7,000 of his patients to HIV, hepatitis B and hepatitis C. Dr. W. Scott Harrington, who had been practicing in the area for more than 30 years, voluntarily halted his practice and now faces a hearing before the Oklahoma Board of Dentistry in 2014.

Health officials said Harrington’s office used rusted, unclean equipment and poor infection-control procedures. One case of hepatitis C was linked to Harrington’s practice. It is the first known case of patient-to-patient transmission of the disease in a dental setting in the United States.

— Shannon Muchmore, Tulsa World



10. Earthquakes

Oklahoma is known more for its tornadoes than its earthquakes but a swarm of temblors continued in 2013 in the Sooner state, rattling nerves, and in some cases, doing minor damage.

The biggest of the year was a 4.5-magnitude quake that shook the Oklahoma City area on the afternoon of Dec. 7. It was one of the largest in the state’s history.

Since 2009, more than 200 magnitude-3.0 or greater earthquakes have hit the state’s midsection, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. Scientists are not sure why seismic activity has spiked.

— Rick Green,

The Oklahoman