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Tristyn, an insurrection and convictions: The most memorable local stories of 2021

They're some of the most-read stories on our website, stories of heartbreak and hope, disappointment and triumph.

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Every year in December, News4JAX takes a look back at some of the most memorable stories of the past 12 months.

Unfortunately for many in our area, 2021 was marked by tragedy — including the losses of Tristyn Bailey, Tommy Hazouri and Nassau County Deputy Joshua Moyers.

There was also the pandemic that never ends, the saga of former Jacksonville Jaguars coach Urban Meyer and justice for the families of Joleen Cummings and Ahmaud Arbery.

Let’s take a look back at those stories and more in our year in review.

‘A cold-blooded murder’: The death of 13-year-old Tristyn Bailey

Arguably, one of the most troubling discoveries in the Tristyn Bailey case was revealed by the state attorney, who said Bailey was stabbed 114 times.

Perhaps one of the most heart-wrenching and disturbing stories from 2021 involves the death of a 13-year-old St. Johns County girl, whose body was found on Mother’s Day.

The death of Tristyn Bailey, who was a cheerleader and student at Patriot Oaks Academy, was a “cold-blooded murder,” St. Johns County Sheriff Rob Hardwick said.

Aiden Fucci, 14, a schoolmate of Bailey’s at Patriot Oaks Academy, is behind bars accused in connection to Bailey’s death. Her body was found near a retention pond in a cul-de-sac in the Durbin Crossing subdivision, less than a half-mile from Fucci’s home, according to his arrest report. The discovery was made by a neighbor out for a walk around 6 p.m., roughly eight hours after Bailey’s family called 911 to report her missing.

Arguably, one of the most troubling discoveries in the case was revealed by the state attorney for Florida’s Seventh Judicial Circuit, who said Bailey was stabbed 114 times.

“To say that it was horrific could arguably be made as an understatement,” State Attorney R.J. Larizza said during a news conference.

Fucci, Larizza revealed at that news conference, is being tried as an adult for first-degree murder.

“The bottom line is that premeditation could be inferred certainly from just the sheer number of stab wounds that Tristyn Bailey had to suffer,” he said.

Additionally, Larizza said the decision came after information investigators gathered from witnesses and that Fucci made statements to several people “that he intended to kill someone,” though it was never specified who.

If you travel through the Durbin Crossing area into the Aberdeen neighborhood, chances are you’ll come across an aqua-colored bow.

After the news of Bailey’s death sent shockwaves throughout northwest St. Johns County, there was a push on social media for neighbors and people in the community to tie aqua ribbons around their mailboxes, as they heard it was Bailey’s favorite color.

There were numerous memorials and vigils during sporting events and other community gatherings. Approximately 150 cars were decorated for a parade in Durbin Crossing.

And hundreds of people dressed in aqua and white attended a celebration of life for Bailey at Celebration Church on the Southside -- a two-hour tribute that thousands of others watched online.

Bailey’s four older siblings spoke to the large crowd. They kept it cheerful and couldn’t help but laugh. Her teachers and friends also shared stories of the girl who lit up every room she stepped into.

Her cheer squad made a video of the fun times, calling her tenacious and supportive and someone who stood up for her team and what was right. Bailey’s fellow cheerleading teammates wore their uniforms to the service.

Forrest Bailey, her father, said: “When you give someone your thoughts and prayers, you are giving everything. There are no words. There are no words that will heal it. All of the messages that poured in, from people all over the place, they helped us.”

Outside, a plane flew over the church with a banner reading #TristynBaileyStrong, which has been a motto for many of her loved ones as they honor her life.

Capitol riot arrests connected to Northeast Florida

Insurrections loyal to President Donald Trump rally at the U.S. Capitol in Washington on Jan. 6, 2021. (AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana, File) (Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved)

Every four years, Congress’ certification of the presidential electoral vote is so routine it barely merits a footnote in the media. Not this year.

A crowd of angry demonstrators supporting soon-to-be former President Donald Trump demanded that the counting be stopped. They then surrounded the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 and broke into the building. Lawmakers scattered, police were beaten and a woman was shot as she tried to climb through a window that led to the House floor.

At least eight Northeast Florida residents faced charges when the dust settled.

A St. Augustine man was one of the first 68 people arrested by Capitol police during a day of chaos and destruction. The 61-year-old man died at Baptist Hospital South in September before he could go to trial.

The federal government is currently recommending a five-month prison sentence for a Nassau County man accused of leading a mob during the Capitol riot on Jan. 6. According to a detailed sentencing memorandum, Jeffrey Register of Fernandina Beach led a mob of insurrectionists to the Speaker’s lobby where Ashli Babbitt was shot and killed.

Rachael Pert and Dana Winn, a Middleburg couple who pleaded guilty to charges related to participating in the riot, were sentenced to probation and ordered to pay $500 in restitution.

An Orange Park man who was found with illegal guns and drugs in his home during the execution of a search warrant connected to his role in the Capitol riots was sentenced in October while a former Baker County Sheriff’s Office employee who filmed himself during the riot was arrested by the FBI in January outside a Waffle House restaurant in Macclenny.

A corrections officer from Raiford faces two misdemeanor charges of unlawful entry into a secure government building and disorderly conduct while making threats to impede government process.

Jacksonville fighter, mentor, friend: Tommy Hazouri dies at 76

Former Mayor Tommy Hazouri was born and raised in Jacksonville.

The City of Jacksonville lost a political giant in September when Tommy Hazouri died following complications from a lung transplant. He was 76.

Hazouri had become a household name in Jacksonville, having held four different state and local elective offices over five decades.

Winning his first election in 1974, Hazouri served 12 years in the state House of Representatives. He served one term as mayor of Jacksonville, eight years on the Duval County School Board and was in his second term on Jacksonville City Council, having just completed a year as its president.

Hazouri, of Lebanese descent, was born and raised in Jacksonville, attended Andrew Jackson High School and graduated from Jacksonville University in 1966. He was married to Carol Hazouri, who spent her career as a school teacher at Crown Point Elementary School in Mandarin, where the couple lived.

Trying to follow iconic Mayor Jake Godbold’s two terms, Hazouri defeated former state Rep. John Lewis in a bitter Democratic primary election and then easily beat Republican Henry Cook to become the third mayor of the consolidated city of Jacksonville in 1987.

Hazouri presided over the City Council during much of the COVID-19 pandemic, as the JEA leadership debacle was unraveling and during the Jaguars’ push to develop Lot J.

Jacksonville Mayor Lenny Curry called Hazouri a “true Jacksonville champion.”

Tornado rips through Jacksonville neighborhood, Georgia RV park

At 4:45 p.m. on a Wednesday in July, just north of Goodbys Creek in Jacksonville’s Brierwood neighborhood, an EF-1 tornado touched down.

Over the next six minutes, the 150-yard-wide twister snapped trees, flung fences and caused damage to homes along Old Kings Road South, Powers Avenue and beyond.

During a hurricane season that largely left Northeast Florida unscathed, the damage could be blamed on passing Tropical Storm Elsa.

The storm also claimed the life of an active-duty Navy airman stationed at Naval Air Station Jacksonville. He was killed by a falling tree branch as he drove during the storm.

INTERACTIVE TIMELINE: Videos, photos show the path of a destructive Jacksonville tornado

As Elsa moved across North Florida and into Southeast Georgia, the system brought with it heavy rains and wind gusts — enough to spawn another tornado that resulted in more than a dozen injuries at an RV park near Naval Submarine Base Kings Bay.

According to the National Weather Service, the tornado that touched down in Camden County was rated an EF-2, packing estimated peak wind speeds of 130 mph. The tornado had an overall path length of 3.65 miles and a width of 200 yards.

The NWS said it’s aware of 17 total injuries as a result of the storm, 11 of which resulted in hospitalizations.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks to supporters and members of the media after a bill signing on Nov. 18, 2021, in Brandon. (AP Photo/Chris O'Meara, File) (Copyright 2021 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.)

Legal fights, deaths as coronavirus pandemic continues

Many across the country thought the coronavirus pandemic that began in March 2020 would subside in 2021 and life would return mostly to normal. That didn’t happen. In fact, in many ways, it got worse.

In September, Florida surpassed 50,000 coronavirus deaths since the pandemic began, with more than one-fourth of those succumbing this summer as the state battled a fierce surge in infections fueled by the delta variant. As of this week, more than 62,000 Florida residents have died due to COVID-19, according to the Florida Department of Health.

The “Officer Down Memorial Page” and “National Law Enforcement Officer’s Memorial Fund” both listed more than 100 first responder deaths related to coronavirus through September — more than gun violence, crashes and all other causes combined.

This summer’s coronavirus resurgence was labeled a “pandemic of the unvaccinated” by government officials from President Joe Biden on down because many who were hospitalized were not vaccinated, though some have questioned the phrase. Despite the vaccine being widely available since March, some have decided against getting the shot for various reasons.

This year was also marked by the fight over coronavirus safety measures, especially masks in schools.

In a rebuke of the Biden administration, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis vowed to fight mask mandates in schools and even went as far as withholding salaries of school boards who implemented districtwide mask mandates.

Now, as the year comes to a close, there is a new wave of coronavirus infections caused by the omicron variant and no end in sight for the pandemic in 2022.

Urban Meyer’s short tenure in Jacksonville filled with disasters

In this Sunday, Aug. 29, 2021, file photo, Jacksonville Jaguars head coach Urban Meyer works the sideline during the tema's preseason game against the Dallas Cowboys. (AP Photo/Michael Ainsworth, File) (Copyright 2021 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.)

Urban Meyer’s time as the head coach of the Jacksonville Jaguars didn’t even last a year, yet there was no shortage of drama.

It was a big deal last January when the Jaguars landed the ultra-decorated college coach. But the controversy began early on. In February, Meyer announced his coaching staff, which included Chris Doyle, the ex-Iowa strength and conditioning coach who was put on paid administrative leave on June 6, 2020, amidst allegations of racism and mistreatment of former players. Doyle resigned after one day on the job.

In May, the Jaguars announced that they signed former Nease High and Florida football icon Tim Tebow to play tight end. Tebow won a Heisman Trophy at quarterback in 2007 when he played for Meyer in Gainesville. But he hadn’t played in a regular-season game since 2012. The experiment ended with Tebow looking lost in the preseason opener against the Cleveland Browns.

Then there were the fines for violations in organized team activities. Jacksonville was fined $200,000 and Meyer was docked $100,000 on July 1, a punishment that stemmed from an early June practice in which the NFL deemed receivers and defensive backs had too much contact during 11-on-11 drills.

Things didn’t get any better for Meyer once the season started. Jacksonville’s Week 1 opponent, Houston, was supposed to be the worst team in the league. But the Jaguars looked ill-prepared in the 37-21 loss on Sept. 12.

INTERACTIVE TIMELINE: Urban Meyer’s short tenure in Jacksonville

Meyer’s biggest issues came off the field, where he tried to handle a professional team like he was on a college campus. He splashed slogans and catchphrases around the facility, instilled gimmicks in practice and repeated his misguided belief that coaches coach for players and players play for coaches. He brought in motivational speakers and kept blaming assistants for the team’s mounting losses instead of the guys actually on the field.

One of Meyer’s most damning decisions came following a Thursday night game at the Cincinnati Bengals in late September. He chose to stay behind with family instead of flying home with his team and then got caught on video the following night behaving inappropriately with a woman at a bar in Columbus, Ohio. The video went viral, viewed more than half a million times in just hours.

Meyer’s tumultuous tenure eventually came to an end in December after just 13 games, including only two victories. Owner Shad Khan made the move to fire Meyer hours after former Jaguars player Josh Lambo told a Florida newspaper Meyer kicked him during practice in August.

St. Johns County altered yearbook photos

A Bartram Trail High School yearbook photo before and after being digitally edited due to dress code violation. (Copyright 2021 by WJXT News4Jax - All rights reserved.)

Parents and female students at Bartram Trail High School became outraged in May when they got their yearbooks and found out portraits deemed in violation of the student code of conduct had been edited without their knowledge.

According to the school district, a yearbook coordinator made the decision to (poorly) digitally alter 80 photos of female students that appeared in the school’s yearbook to make them appear more modest. The school was forced to give refunds and reprint yearbooks.

The fallout led to national headlines in The Today Show, The Washington Post and The New York Times.

The controversy sparked a conversation about the dress code in the district, specifically involving female students, and the district did make some changes.

The issue also led to the U.S. Department of Education launching an investigation into a complaint that the St. Johns County School District discriminated against female students through its enforcement of the dress code.

Kimberly Kessler convicted in Joleen Cummings’ death

Kimberly Kessler

Kimberly Kessler was found guilty in December of first-degree murder in the death of her Nassau County salon co-worker Joleen Cummings, a mother of three who disappeared in 2018.

Kessler was also found guilty of theft because she was seen on surveillance dumping Cummings’ vehicle in a parking lot the night she was last seen alive.

The verdict was reached after just over an hour of deliberations.

For Cummings’ mother, Ann Johnson, it was the justice she had been praying for in the three and a half years following her 34-year-old daughter’s disappearance.

“We praise God, praise God, that we got the verdict and that it gives us some type of closure,” Johnson said shortly after the verdict was announced.

Cummings’ remains have never been found, and her mother pleaded with Kessler to reveal where they are so she can lay her daughter to rest.

Joleen Cummings and her family (Provided by family)

Johnson and Cummings’ ex-husband were among those who testified, explaining how unusual it was for her to disappear, especially on a day she was supposed to pick up her children.

The state presented evidence that included blood found throughout Tangles Hair Salon, where Cummings and Kessler worked together; the video footage of Kessler shopping for supplies and driving and parking Cummings’ car; and Kessler’s internet searches, which included “Joleen Cummings no body no crime.” Prosecutors also discussed the fact that the women did not get along, and they pointed to a tense interaction between the two women the day before Cummings disappeared. During closing arguments, prosecutors told the jury that evidence showed Kessler used scissors to kill Cummings before disposing of her body.

During the defense closing arguments, they again pointed to how the internet searches are out of context and how the purchasing of zip-ties are not consequential to the case. The defense attorney also pointed to bruising on Kessler’s legs, up her arm and shoulders. The defense said all of this shows that there was a violent conflict.

The case faced years of legal delays, including Kessler being found not competent for trial before that decision was reversed. Kessler also has a history of disrupting court with outbursts. News4JAX has also reported on her history of using fake names — 17 different names, in fact.

Kessler is facing mandatory life in prison, and sentencing is set for January.

Nassau County Deputy Joshua Moyers killed in line of duty

Deputy Joshua Moyers

Nassau County Deputy Joshua Moyers, 29, was fatally shot during a traffic stop Sept. 24.

His accused killer, Patrick McDowell, was arrested four days later following a manhunt.

Nassau County Sheriff Bill Leeper said Moyers was shot twice — once in the face and once in the back — during the traffic stop. Leeper said that as Moyers asked McDowell to get out of the car, a handgun appeared.

“The driver’s arm came out of the vehicle with a handgun, shot the deputy one time,” Leeper explained. “As the deputy fell down, he reached out and shot him in the back.”

A search for McDowell ensued. As law enforcement officers from around Northeast Florida joined the manhunt, Moyers was clinging to life at UF Health Jacksonville.

The day after the shooting, Leeper said Moyers was “not going to survive” his injuries. He said the family, including Moyers’ fiancée, had decided to donate his organs and that he was being kept alive until matches could be found.

On Sept. 26, it was announced that Moyers died from his injuries. A procession escorted Moyers from the hospital to the medical examiner’s office. A second procession the next day carried Moyers from the medical examiner’s office in Jacksonville to a funeral home in Nassau County. The route was approximately 50 miles. Hundreds of people lined the streets along the route that stretched from Duval to Nassau County.

TIMELINE: Events following shooting of Deputy Joshua Moyers, leading to arrest of Patrick McDowell

McDowell was then taken into custody on Sept. 28. According to authorities, he was found hiding in a bathroom at the Kirsten Higginbotham Sports Complex and eventually came out and surrendered. Leeper noted that Moyers’ handcuffs were used to arrest McDowell. McDowell was treated at UF Health Jacksonville for gunshot wounds and dog bites that he sustained during the manhunt and capture before he was booked into the Nassau County jail.

McDowell, 34, is charged with first-degree murder. He also faces a charge of injuring a police dog and eight counts of aggravated assault on a law enforcement officer. State Attorney Melissa Nelson said the state intends to seek the death penalty if he is convicted.

Breiana Tole, 27, who is accused of driving to the sports complex where law enforcement located McDowell in an attempt to get him out of the area and escape arrest, faces a felony accessory after the fact charge.

3 men found guilty of murder in Ahmaud Arbery’s death

From left, Travis McMichael, William "Roddie" Bryan, and Gregory McMichael during their trial at the Glynn County Courthouse in Brunswick. (AP Pool, File)

After deliberating for about 10 hours over two days, the jury in the case of three men charged in the death of Ahmaud Arbery returned with a verdict in November, finding the men guilty of murder and other crimes.

Travis McMichael, 35, was convicted of all nine charges — one count of malice murder, four counts of felony murder, two counts of aggravated assault, one count of false imprisonment and one count of criminal attempt to commit false imprisonment.

His 65-year-old father, Greg McMichael, was convicted of all charges except malice murder. Their 52-year-old neighbor, William “Roddie” Bryan, was convicted of three counts of felony murder and one count of aggravated assault, as well as false imprisonment and criminal attempt to commit false imprisonment.

On Feb. 23, 2020, the McMichaels armed themselves and pursued Arbery in a pickup truck after seeing him running in their neighborhood just outside the Georgia port city of Brunswick. Bryan hopped in his own truck and recorded video on his cellphone as he joined the pursuit, capturing the moments when Travis McMichael blasted Arbery with a shotgun.

Arbery’s killing became part of a larger national reckoning on racial injustice after the graphic video of his death leaked online two months later and the Georgia Bureau of Investigation took over the case, quickly arresting the three men.

During the multi-week trial in Glynn County with a disproportionately white jury, defense attorneys contended the McMichaels were attempting a legal citizen’s arrest when they set off after Arbery, seeking to detain and question him as a suspected burglar after he was seen running from a nearby home under construction.

Travis McMichael testified that Arbery attacked him and grabbed his shotgun before he fired the fatal shots, calling it a “life-or-death situation.” Then under cross-examination the following day, as prosecutors replayed the cellphone video of Arbery’s death and went over it in detail with Travis McMichael, he testified that Arbery did not speak, show a weapon or threaten him in any way before he raised his shotgun and pointed it at Arbery.

Travis McMichael was one of seven witness defense attorneys called to the stand. The other two defendants did not testify.

Before prosecutors rested their case, they called the medical examiner to testify and showed graphic autopsy photos of Arbery to the jury. They also made sure the jury saw disturbing, close-up evidence photos of Arbery bleeding in the road and that they heard from Glynn County investigators, including one who testified that one of the defendants said they had Arbery “trapped like a rat” before he was fatally shot.

Two other police officers testified that the man who initiated the chase that ended in Arbery’s death quickly changed his story about why he suspected the man running in his neighborhood was a criminal.

Prosecutors said there was no evidence Arbery had committed crimes in the defendants’ neighborhood. He had enrolled at a technical college and was preparing at the time to study to become an electrician like his uncles.

Ahmaud Arbery (Photo family shared with WJXT)

Both inside and outside the courthouse tensions flared during the trial over the presence of high-profile faith leaders in the courtroom, sitting with Arbery’s parents.

Attorney Kevin Gough, who represents Bryan, had to apologize in court after he made comments about not wanting “any more Black pastors” in the courtroom because he claimed they were an intimidating influence on the jury. Those comments became a flashpoint leading to demonstrations, including a march and rally outside the courthouse as attorneys repeated calls for the pastors to not be permitted in the gallery.

The McMichaels and Bryan are set to be sentenced in January. Malice and felony murder convictions both carry a minimum penalty of life in prison. The judge decides whether that comes with or without the possibility of parole.

Meanwhile, federal authorities have charged the three men with hate crimes, alleging that they chased and killed Arbery because he was Black. That case is scheduled to go to trial in February.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.


About the Authors:

Digital reporter who has lived in Jacksonville for more than 25 years and focuses on important local issues like education and the environment.

Jacksonville native and proud University of Florida graduate who joined News4Jax in March 2016.