JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – It was yet another amazing year of unforgettable stories for News4Jax, yet I want to begin by giving thanks for three things that didn’t happen: 1) Miami Air Flight 293 did not crash into the St Johns River with heavy loss of life. 2) Hurricane Dorian missed us, having spent its fury on the Bahamas. 3) The disappearance of Braxton and Bri’ya did not end in tragedy, as so many other missing children stories have over the years.
That wonderful confirmation that the young siblings were safe, when the newsroom erupted in cheers, was the moment the city needed, especially after the way the disappearance of Taylor Williams played out, in October.
There is another group who needed that miracle that didn’t happen: the Jacksonville Fire and Rescue Department, where hearts are still heavy at the loss of Brian McCluney and Justin Walker. The two friends headed out to sea on a fishing trip one day in August and weren’t heard from again. A massive search led by the Coast Guard that included scores of volunteers only turned up a tackle bag, leaving a haunting mystery for the firefighters’ families.
The year started off with a bang, literally, as the old City Hall was imploded. Soon, the old riverfront Duval County Courthouse was gone, too. As 2019 ends, the demolition of Jacksonville Landing is almost complete. And on those three choice riverfront properties will someday be -- who knows?
We know it won’t be JEA, as the city’s utility has settled on a plan for a new headquarters near the new Courthouse. That in a year of many unsettling revelations of the somewhat secretive process in which bids were sought for the possible privatization of JEA. Lawyers invoked “the Cone of Silence” (Maxwell Smart fans get it) and even told City Council to butt out. The Council, lead by several first-term members, instead called a series of public meetings and the troubling lack of transparency was exposed. Mayor Lenny Curry was forced to pull the plug, heads have rolled and there could be a criminal investigation into the whole process in the new year.
Speaking of crime, we can all agree there was too much to cover in 2019. There were 159 homicides in the city of Jacksonville alone -- the most in decades, perhaps ever -- and too few were solved. Nearly 400 people were shot in Jacksonville -- more than one each day. Cure Violence was brought in mid-year to try to make an impact, and here’s hoping those people do make a difference.
The criminal justice system does not move quickly, but in 2019, several high-profile cases produced trials. The trial of Michael Haim in the cold case murder of his wife Bonnie was riveting. Against his lawyer’s advice, Haim testified in his own defense -- and was quickly convicted. He was then sentenced to life in prison.
Former City Council members Katrina Brown and Reggie Brown were tried on federal fraud charges. A jury handed down dozens of guilty verdicts and they face sentencing in 2020.
Former Kingsland Police Officer Zechariah Presley was acquitted in the shooting death of Tony Green, although found guilty of violating his oath of office and sentenced to one year in prison. Green’s family and friends were angered by the verdict and a civil suit has been filed.
Covering trials gavel-to-gavel takes a lot of effort and resources, but the viewers want to see how cases we’ve reported on for months and years turn out. Coming up in 2020: Russell Tillis, accused of killing, dismembering and burying a young woman at his Southside home, and Kimberly Kessler, charged with murder in an apparent violent death of Nassau County co-worker Joleen Cummings, whose body was never found.
The year provided some strange and rare sights. Again, three come to mind: 1) The Miami Air Boeing 737 on a barge passing under the Buchman Bridge as it was towed up the river to Green Cove Springs, where the NTSB removed sections as part of its investigation; 2) the capsized hull of the cargo ship Golden Ray with muddy currents flowing around it in the St Simons Sound, where it will likely remain for months until it’s taken apart and removed; and 3) The legendary Rolling Stones in concert at TIAA Bank Field, 44 years after their first performance at Jacksonville’s Gator Bowl.
The Jaguars gave us drama of all kinds, including the signing of free-agent quarterback Nick Foles, who promptly went down with a busted shoulder in the first game, and didn’t win a single start. That paved the way for the emergence of Gardner Minshew, who became an overnight sensation to his mustachioed minions. The rookie QB went 6-6, got national attention and was the saving grace in a season that once again disappointed. Jalen Ramsey got his wish to be traded. Doug Marrone got his wish to keep his job, possibly because of the support of his players. Tom Coughlin, though, could not weather the storm that broke over millions of dollars in player fines he handed out that a mediator ruled violated the NFL’s collective bargaining agreement.
While Hurricane Dorian was the only tropical system we had to deal with, 2019 gave us a long hot summer. A really l-o-o-o-ng hot summer. It hit 100 degrees on Memorial Day and we recorded the hottest May ever in Jacksonville. It was the hottest Halloween ever in the city. Yes, summer lasted from mid-May through the end of October. Have you noticed your lawn is still growing?
Like most years, 2019 presented us with the challenges to tell stories of unfathomable tragedies and the opportunities to tell stories of inspiring courage. A behind-the-scenes member of the News4jax team who has done that for decades -- Sharon Siegel-Cohen -- needs special mention as the year ends. She may not be working with us day-to-day anymore, but she is always watching and helping give us direction, inspiration to get through undecipherable loss and inspiring courage. We are her family and we will keep her in our hearts.