Top stories of 2017 in Northern Utah

Sunday , December 31, 2017 - 5:00 AM

ANNE CHRISTNOVICH, Standard-Examiner Staff

There was nary a dull moment in Northern Utah in 2017, from tragedy to joy.

In no particular order, here’s a handful of the year’s top stories according to our readers, journalists and records. 

PLANE CRASHES ON I-15, KILLING 4

Tragedy struck July 26 when a Beechcraft A36 Bonanza single-engine plane crashed onto Interstate 15. While it was miraculous that the aircraft didn’t hit any vehicles on the highway, all four occupants of the plane died — Perry Huffaker, 45, and Sarah Huffaker, 42, of West Haven, and Layne Clarke, 48, and Diana Clarke, 45, of Taylor.

The crash shocked the Northern Utah community. The cause is still unknown — a complete investigation usually takes 12-18 months — but mechanics and witnesses reported strange noises and the pilot, Layne Clarke, struggling to keep the machine at altitude, according to preliminary reports.

The Clarkes and the Huffakers each left behind four children.

RELATED: 4 dead after small plane crashes on I-15 near Riverdale Road

HUNTSVILLE MONASTERY CLOSES AFTER 70 YEARS

The last of the monks at the Abbey of Our Lady of the Holy Trinity left the Huntsville Monastery, ending a 70-year era. The main reason it closed: there aren’t enough people becoming monks to sustain they abbeys anymore.

The monks donated $400,000 to Lantern House homeless shelter in Ogden as their last act of kindness in Northern Utah.

The future of the land the now-vacant monastery sits on is still uncertain. Twenty-five of the 1,860 acres of property went to the Catholic Diocese of Utah for a future parish. Bill White, a Huntsville resident, bought the rest of the property in January 2016 for an undisclosed price. He indicated he wants the space to remain an open, rolling part of the beautiful Huntsville landscape, but didn’t say much more.

JAIL DEATHS

The issue of prisoners dying in county jails wasn’t specific to 2017, but it was definitely the year that the issue drew significant attention.

One of the highest-profile incidents was the death of Heather Ashton Miller, 28. She was in the Davis County Jail just 41 hours, where she suffered a medical issue. A medical examiner’s report says cause of Miller’s death was blunt-force trauma to the abdomen so severe her spleen nearly split in half.

RELATED: Weber detectives: Davis jail staff tainted crime scene after inmate's death

Utah has the highest per-capita rate of deaths in jail and/or prison, according to the U.S. Department of Justice. In 2016, many of those deaths occurred in Northern Utah.

More than half of the people dying in Utah jails are killing themselves. And many of them were held in jail on preliminary charges — they never lived to see a fair trial to determine guilt. A large number of them were also in jail for a few days, some lasting only a few hours.

The issue brought up questions about how medications are administered, training for jail staff, protocol after a deadly incident and secrecy when it comes to jail protocols and procedures.

More than 20 stories related to jail deaths were reported by the Standard-Examiner in 2017. To read them, visit our jails reporting archive

WEBER STATE UNIVERSITY FOOTBALL TEAM SEES BEST SEASON EVER

Using momentum from the first three seasons of Jay Hill’s tenure, Weber State football put together the best season in school history in 2017.

The Wildcats finished with an 11-3 record and won their first Big Sky title since 2008.

The team set records with 11 wins in a season and two playoff wins. WSU also hosted the first college football playoff game in Utah history.

Eight Wildcats were named All-Americans by national publications and at least two are on track for the NFL draft.

UINTAH WILDFIRE

What started as a few sparks from downed power line turned into a wildfire that burned three homes.

The blaze broke out early Sept. 5. Strong winds didn’t help matters much, with 30-mph gusts helping the blaze grow rapidly and unpredictably. It took five days to get it 100-percent under control, but not before it destroyed 619 acres and, in total, damaged 18 structures.

More than 100 homes were evacuated but luckily, no one was hurt. Damages were estimated to be at least $849,000.

CRIME DOWN OVERALL, VIOLENCE UP IN OGDEN

An unavoidable part of year-end lists is remembering certain crimes that took place. Murders are of particular heinous interest and, while this year was by no means record-setting for violence, the number of shootings was up from the 2016. Among some of the notable cases:

Maria Sanchez killed in her sleep

The 47-year-old woman died Aug. 14, allegedly killed by Ogden teens Trevon Jordan Zamora and Daniel G. Garcia. Both suspects were 16 years old at the time but are facing first-degree felony murder charges in adult court. Sanchez and her family were sleeping in their home on 28th Street when several shots were fired in the direction of the house, killing Sanchez.

Ogden police say the motive for the shooting is unknown and don’t believe the teens and Sanchez knew each other. The next hearing for both teens is in February 2018.

Former Ogden man still at-large after Idaho triple homicide

Gerald Michael “Mike” Bullinger disappeared sometime in June, shortly before three bodies were discovered on his recently-purchased property in Canyon County, Idaho.

Victims Cheryl Baker, 56; 48-year-old Nadja Medley and Medley’s daughter, Peyton, 14, were all found dead in a shed, all from a single gunshot wound to the head. Baker was Bullinger’s wife and reports from Idaho news media indicate he was also in a relationship with Nadja Medley.

Bullinger has been missing at least since the June 19 discovery and authorities have charged him with 3 counts of first-degree felony murder. Police say he is likely armed and dangerous.

Ogden couple could face death penalty after 3-year-old’s death

Miller Costello and Brenda Emile were each formally charged with first-degree aggravated murder in July after their 3-year-old daughter, Angelina Costello, was found dead.

Police say they were called to the couple’s home July 6, where they found the girl already dead, with burns, cuts, bruises and other injuries, and she showed signs of malnourishment. They also said makeup had been put over some of the wounds and noted rigor mortis — stage of death where the body’s limbs begin to stiffen — had already begun by the time authorities were called to the house.

Under Utah law, the death penalty can only be sought in conjunction with an aggravated murder charge. Both suspects have hearings in January, according to court records.

Police shootings

Three people were killed by police in Weber and Davis counties in 2017. Two of the shootings happened in one night, in Ogden and Roy respectively. Another happened in Centerville. In all cases, the officers’ actions were found to be justified.

Ogden police shot and killed Bartolo Justice Sambrano, 25, after a short pursuit inside a parking garage in the Junction in downtown Ogden. Sambrano is believed to have pointed a handgun at police before he was shot several times.

RELATED: Ogden officer-involved shooting victim had long, but nonviolent, rap sheet

Nicholas Sanchez, 38, was killed by Roy police outside a Texaco gas station after police said he went to draw a handgun from his waistband.

Cody Ray McCray, 32, of West Bountiful, was shot by police Tuesday, July 4, after he was connected to reports of a stolen vehicle. Police say someone who knew McCray reported him as suicidal and authorities grew concerned that the man would drive the stolen car into Fourth of July parade crowds. After a chase and a crash, McCray was shot by police.

Burst of violence plagues Ogden in last four months

Then, just after Thanksgiving, Ogden police responded to three calls for shootings in about 28 hours — one man died, another was injured and a third call was for shots fired on 25th Street, with no injuries. That was the height of a three-month window of frequent violence in the city, including the death of William Torrence, 36, killed on Halloween night in an apparent fight outside the Alano Club on 24th Street. Police have not made an arrest in the incident.

TWILIGHT MUSIC FESTIVAL

Often forgotten under the shadow of Salt Lake City, Junction City caught a break this year when it broke records with tickets sales and attendance for the Ogden Twilight summer concert series.

Headliners brought record crowds and the Ogden Amphitheater was sold out for the first time ever for The Shins concert.

Then, just last month, SLC announced it would be ending its Twilight concert series while Ogden’s event announced a headliner early — Grammy-award winning artist Sylvan Esso will perform at during the fourth year of the concert series.

All indications point to Ogden’s Twilight concert series, organized by co-owner of popular downtown bar Alleged, will continuing to grow, yet another feather in the cap of the rapidly-changing Historic Downtown District. The rest of the 2018 lineup has not yet been finalized.

RUTH HOUSE

Standard-Examiner photojournalist Benjamin Zack spent the better part of 2017 following the employees and women of Ruth House, a kind of a halfway house specifically for women who are coming out of prison and trying to recover from addiction and substance abuse issues.

There aren’t many such houses for women in Utah — a safe place to get clean.

About three-quarters of released prisoners are rearrested within five years, the Bureau of Justice Statistics reports. Eighty percent of all offenders abuse drugs or alcohol, according to the National Association of Drug Court Professionals.

The program was started a few years ago by Kyle Hill, executive pastor at The Genesis Project in Ogden and executive director of Golden Spike Outreach and his wife Holly.

The women have to be drug-free to live in The Ruth House. Regular, random drug tests are administered; anyone who tests positive for drugs has to leave — at least until they’re clean again. The sober-living residence houses five women at a time, who pay $250 or $350 a month.

To see the full project and hear the women tell their stories, go to visuals.standard.net and search “Ruth House.”

THE YEAR OF DEMONSTRATION AND PROTEST

The start of the year kicked off with thousands of Utans participating in various marches and demonstrations throughout Northern Utah and Washington D.C.

First came the Women’s March, the epicenter of which took place in Washington, D.C., but was accompanied by smaller demonstrations in Salt Lake City, Park City, Ogden and other cities across the country.

Next came A Day Without Immigrants. Participation in Ogden was especially strong from Latinos and Latino-owned businesses. All year, President Donald Trump’s White House has heightened deportations and promoted language that criminalizes Latino immigrants. Shortly after that, Northern Utah also had participants in A Day Without Women and a nationwide March for Science.

Amid the protests, a new Utah group formed — the Mormon Women for Ethical Government — with an aim of influencing elected officials against bigotry and discrimination.

As the year progressed, multiple protests were held in what turned out to be a futile effort to keep the Trump administration from shrinking the Obama-era designation of Bears Ears National Monument and the Clinton-era designation of Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument. The Outdoor Retail Show announced it would not host the event in Salt Lake City anymore and Patagonia, among others, have sued the Trump administration to block the decision.

And finally, a chapter of Black Lives Matter made its way to Ogden this fall, organized by Salt Lake City activist Lex Scott. Scott also brought together the first Ogden Community Activist Group, whose goal is to work with police to bring transparency and possible reform to certain practices that particularly hurt minority communities. A CAG in Salt Lake City has already seen some positive results, and Scott hopes to continue the work in Ogden.

NO JUSTICE FOR SAGE THE CAT

More than $61,000 was raised by donations to help find the person or people responsible for torturing a Clearfield family’s cat, Sage.

The grey-and-white feline was found in March shaved, with its eyes glued shut, among other signs of abuse. The cat died from its injuries.

It was a case that sparked significant outrage among neighbors and animal-lovers and the story got picked up across the country. For perspective, around the same time as Sage’s story was getting out, the FBI and U.S. Marshals office offered only $50,000 for help finding three escaped convicts from a New York prison.

Despite community efforts to bring justice for the cat and its family, no arrests have been made.

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