YEAR IN REVIEW: Top 10 stories

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1. School District scandal

First report: Saturday, Aug. 5

The scope and depth of what has engulfed the Okaloosa County School District is unlike anything to ever occur within the county’s main educational body. And it all began with a father’s discovery of a year-old investigation by the district that uncovered abuse of his non-verbal, autistic son at Kenwood Elementary School.

One problem: The father, Eddie Perillo, was never notified by school or district officials.

The complexities that followed the revelation — which led to three arrests of current or former school district employees — opened a Pandora’s Box of sorts which has been an embarrassment of investigations, complaints, allegations of cover-ups and mismanagement by district hierarchy, and confirmation that the State Attorney’s Office will convene a grand jury following the conclusion of its investigation early in 2018.

READ: The original story >>

2. Ferry Park tornado

Publication date: Thursday, June 22

As Tropical Storm Cindy churned toward landfall, storms downed trees, damaged homes and churned up the surf in Northwest Florida.

Santa Rosa and Walton counties, as well as northern Okaloosa County, received rain and strong winds, but missed the brunt of the storm. South Okaloosa County was not so lucky.

What was later confirmed as an EF-0 tornado struck in the Ferry Park area, damaging homes and the popular park where massive downed trees blocked walkways and parking lots. A dugout made of cinder blocks looked like it had exploded and aluminum bleachers were twisted. The roof of a new gazebo was torn off.

Homes on nearby Laurie Drive and Kepner Drive also reported sustaining serious damage. Substantial damage also was reported near Bob Sikes Boulevard and James Lee Road in Ocean City.

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3. Matt Gaetz takes office

Publication date: Wednesday, Jan. 4

The somber occasion of being sworn to serve in the 115th Congress of the United States didn’t lay too heavily on one of its newest, and youngest, members.

“I’ve been sworn in and now I can be sworn at,” freshman Republican Matt Gaetz said from Washington, D.C.

Gaetz, 34, of Fort Walton Beach, made an immediate impression during his first year in Congress.

On one hand, he opposed a proposal by President Donald Trump’s administration concerning expanded oil drilling in the Gulf of Mexico, and on another lobbied for the elimination of the Environmental Protection Agency.

“As conservatives, we must understand that states and local communities are best positioned to responsibly regulate the environmental assets within their jurisdictions,” Gaetz told the Daily News.

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4. Allegiant/VPS growth

Publication date: Wednesday, Jan. 11

Bouyed by expanded services from Allegiant Air, 2017 was one for the record books at Destin-Fort Walton Beach Airport (VPS).

In January, Allegiant expanded local flights to 11 new markets and named VPS a hub site for the airline. The announcement was the single largest expansion into Florida in the company’s history.

New non-stop flights included New York, Washington D.C./Baltimore, Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Louisville, Kentucky, Austin, Texas, Columbus, Ohio, Indianapolis, Kansas City, Peoria, Ill., and Springfield, Mo.

When the fiscal year ended for VPS on Sept. 30, the airport announced a record 1,134,209 passengers had made their way to the Emerald Coast, according to Okaloosa County Airports Director Tracy Stage.

Stage added that Destin-Fort Walton Beach Airport has become the fastest growing airport in Florida and places among the top 10 fastest growing nationwide.

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5. Hagwell/Wozniak murders

First report: Saturday, Nov. 11; Friday, Nov. 17

Nov. 10 proved a brutally deadly day in Okaloosa County with the suspects involved both charged with first-degree murder after indictments were returned by a grand jury.

One of the suspects, 29-year-old Cory Hagwell, faces the death penalty.

The investigation revealed that Hagwell had kicked 3-year-old Adelynn Merrell in the head and then confined her in a closet, where she was found dead several hours later. He dumped her body in a wooded area lined with garbage off rural Palmetto Avenue near the Walton County line.

Two other children in the home Hagwell shared with Adelynn’s mother, Destinee Merrell, were found severely malnourished.

Claiming self-defense, Barbara Wozniak, 69, shot to death her 72-year-old husband and then hid his body behind a fabricated brick wall inside a closet under the stairwell of their Shalimar home. The body was discovered by authorities late the evening of Nov. 15.

An autopsy revealed Alfred Wozniak had been shot in the left temple. His arms were duct taped at the wrists and placed across his midsection while his feet were taped together at the ankles.

READ: (Hagwell) The original story >>

READ: (Wozniak) The original story >>

6. Infant mortality

Publication date: Sunday, April 26

In an alarming investigative report by the Daily News, statistics revealed that in the last three years, 243 infants in Northwest Florida (from Escambia to Franklin counties) died before their first birthday.

That’s 243 babies who may not have taken their first step or uttered their first word. Collectively, that averages to a baby dying somewhere in Northwest Florida every 4.5 days.

Dr. Karen Chapman, the director of the Florida Department of Health in Okaloosa County, thinks that number is unacceptable.

“I believe you can judge a community by how it cares for its babies,” she said. “I think we can do better.”

A startling note was that the Ocean City-Wright area recorded 44 infant deaths between 2005 and 2014, surpassing every other area in Okaloosa County.

Overall, recent figures continue to show a disparity between the races, regardless of the cause of death.

Between 2012 and 2014, nearly 11 of every 1,000 black babies born in Okaloosa County failed to make it to their first birthday, while 4.2 of every 1,000 white babies failed to survive their first year.

READ: The original story >>

7. Wanless sentenced to prison

Publication date: Thursday, Jan. 26

Aaron Wanless, a troubled 35-year-old veteran, was sentenced to 48 years in prison for felonies involving the use of a firearm during an altercation with Okaloosa County Sheriff’s Office deputies in 2015.

Circuit Court Judge William Stone said the law compelled him to impose the mandatory minimum sentence on the Air Force veteran, who already had spent 21 months in jail awaiting trial.

Wanless was under treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder and other mental illnesses at the local Department of Veterans Affairs clinic when he fired a gun in the direction of deputies during the confrontation that led to his arrest.

In December 2016, he was found guilty of five felonies in connection with the incident.

The attorney for Wanless asked the judge to consider sentencing him to 48 months in prison, followed by probation and inpatient treatment for mental illness.

The State Attorney’s Office argued that Wanless should be punished to the full extent of the law as prescribed by Florida’s 10-20-Life statute, which at the time Wanless was arrested applied to felonies that involve the use of a firearm.

8. Explosion at Eglin

Publication date: Thursday, July 6

An explosion at Eglin Air Force Base sent a large plume of potentially toxic smoke in the air. The smoke could be seen for miles, and people as far away as Destin reported hearing what sounded like cannons.

The explosion just before 10 a.m. July 5 was originally reported to be at the McKinley Climatic Laboratory. Base officials later clarified that it was in a support chamber building near the laboratory.

Shortly after the explosion, officials set up a 1,000-foot cordon around the building and ordered base personnel within a large perimeter to shelter in place and turn off their air conditioning units.

The smoke may have contained a toxic chemical called methyl chloride, which can have serious effects on the nervous system if ingested. Officials acknowledged the explosion occurred near the chemical.

The plume dissipated about two hours after the explosion, and base officials lifted the shelter in place at about 12:20 p.m.

Local hospitals were prepped to help victims, but by late afternoon no one had been brought in, according to spokespersons for Twin Cities Hospital in Niceville and Fort Walton Beach Medical Center.

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9. Destin Departure

Publication date: Sunday, Feb. 19

Frustrated by providing the bulk of Okaloosa County’s revenue from property taxes, tourist development taxes and other sources without seeing nearly enough benefit in return, Destin City Council looked to explore the legal processes of being annexed into Walton County and starting a Destin Tourist Development Department.

The council’s talk of possibly leaving Okaloosa came after city officials expressed anger about the county not budgeting any non-TDD funds to help pay for Sheriff’s Office law enforcement efforts during Spring Break.

A Daily News investigative report into Destin leaving Okaloosa County revealed it was more talk than action, but it was borne out of real issues.

In 2016, the city of Destin contributed nearly $59.5 million, or 27 percent, to Okaloosa County’s current $220 million property tax roll. The unincorporated area of Destin — a nearly 8-mile-long section of the peninsula that Destin stands on — contributed over $11 million, or more than 5 percent of the overall tax roll.

There was a huge gap in the amount of bed taxes collected in fiscal 2015-16: Destin, $12,380,239.88; Okaloosa Island, $5,087,888.03; Fort Walton Beach/Mary Esther, $614,100.08.

READ: The original story >>

10. Water & Sewer scandal

First report: Wednesday, May 17

Okaloosa County Water and Sewer Department Lead Customer Service Representative Kathy J. Nelson enjoyed a career in public water systems for close to 40 years before being terminated “effective immediately” May 4.

Her personnel file indicates that Nelson had been disciplined at least three times since joining the county team in 1990 for actions she’d taken, or failed to take, involving money.

It was this year’s failure to collect $12,000 from a builder that ultimately cost Nelson her job.

In October, the 57-year-old Nelson was charged with grand theft and aggravated white collar crime in connection with a scheme to exchange water taps for cash.

Investigators say Nelson deprived the county of more than $223,000 over a nine-year period and in return for her deception, she is believed to have received cash kickbacks from at least one builder.

An audit revealed Nelson entered fictitious information, invalid receipts, and altered documents in the customer service database to make it appear the proper charges were paid by three construction companies when in fact they were not.

Her arrest report did not identify the contractors.

READ: The original story >>

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