From staff reports
A historic flood, tragic explosion and local ties to the U.S.
war in Iraq ranked as the top stories of 2003 in The Daily Standard.
Those issues dominated the headlines for significant portions
of the year and were chosen as the most important stories of
the year by newspaper staff members.
School levy troubles, some high-profile crimes and a local crackdown
on drugs also made the Standard’s annual top 10 listing.
The entire list, is as follows:
1. Independence Day flood wreaks havoc
The weather turned sour on Independence Day, just as many evening
celebrations were getting underway. Several days later, it was
a summer the Grand Lake St. Marys area would never forget. Persistent
thunderstorms — bringing torrential rain and wind —
pounded the area for days. Rivers and creeks spilled their banks
to record levels and many residential basements filled with
water. The flood was at its worst in Rockford along the St.
Marys River, where a trailer court had to be evacuated, and
in and around Celina, where floodwater closed the Community
Medical Center and BreakAway RecPlex fitness center for months.
Elsewhere many city streets and county roads were under water
and county officials declared an emergency, making it a crime
to travel through high water.
President George W. Bush and Ohio Gov. Bob Taft declared the
area a disaster area, qualifying flood victims for state and
federal assistance. Taft toured the area while standing water
still covered many roads.
Local weather forecaster Dennis Howick recorded nearly 15 inches
of rain in July and by the end of that month, had measured 33.06
inches of rain for the year, not far off the average mark for
rainfall for an entire year. National Weather Service radar
indicated that at least 15 inches — possibly more —
fell over parts of Mercer County during a three-day period at
the height of the storm.
2. Two New Bremen firefighters die
The tragic deaths of two New Bremen volunteer firefighters shocked
and saddened area communities in October.
Firefighters Ken Jutte, 44, and John Garman, 40, died after
an oxygen-limiting silo exploded at Hoge Lumber in New Knoxville
on the morning of Oct. 1.
New Knoxville firefighters, who were summoned to the silo fire
about 7 a.m., immediately called neighboring New Bremen-German
Township Department for additional manpower and use of an aerial
truck — something the New Knoxville crew didn’t
About two hours later, the unthinkable occurred.
As Jutte and a third New Bremen firefighter, Scott Albers, were
spraying water into the 71-foot concrete structure from above,
the wood chip-filled silo exploded. The three men were tossed
to the ground along with cement debris from the silo’s
Albers landed in a trash dumpster, which cushioned his fall
and likely saved his life. Jutte, a father of three, was pronounced
dead at the scene.
Garman, who had been nearby in the bucket of the aerial truck,
also fell to his death following the explosion. Nine others
were injured by falling debris.
State Fire Marshal’s officials determined the fire was
accidental, caused by a combination of backdraft and ignition
of gaseous byproducts and dust particles.
3. Local residents react to war in Iraq
When the United States launched war in mid-March to topple Iraqi
dictator Saddam Hussein’s regime, stories about local
military men and women serving abroad, local residents’
reactions to the conflict and analysis of what the war could
mean locally followed in the weeks ahead.
As U.S. tanks rolled toward Baghdad in a military campaign that
played out on our television sets, complete with “embedded
reporters” and graphic video of the so-called “shock
and awe” campaign, local veterans told The Daily Standard
their stories about their time serving in the first Gulf War.
The reality of war came home to the local area just two weeks
into the conflict when Christian Gurtner, a U.S. Marine from
Ohio City, became the first Ohioan to die in the war. Gurtner
apparently was killed in an accidental shooting.
Also in April, President Bush spoke about the war in a speech
to workers at the Lima Army Tank Plant. There Bush found a military-friendly
crowd who supported the war effort. Many local politicians and
government officials attended the speech.
Just before Christmas, word came that Ryan Uhlenhake, a U.S.
Army soldier from Celina, was among the 600-strong contingent
that ultimately found Hussein hiding in a spider hole.
4. Budget crunch hurts area schools
Area schools suffered financial setbacks this year that led
to many headlines — from closing a school to a proposal
to convert a public school to a charter school.
Celina City Schools board of education cut their budget by closing
Franklin Elementary School in Montezuma in January 2003, causing
unrest in the community. To prevent further budget cuts, voters
passed two levies in May, which was the board’s eighth
attempt at the polls.
However, one of the levies passed in Celina was gobbled up by
state budget cuts that, coupled with declining student enrollment,
will bring the district back to taxpayers with a new levy attempt
in March 2004.
State budget cuts also hit hard in St. Henry, St. Marys and
New Bremen, where school officials are forecasting million dollar
deficits and possible cuts in staff or programming. Voters nixed
operating levies at each of those districts in November and
again will see issues on the ballot in the new year. St. Marys
voters also rejected a levy to build a new school and renovate
Officials in Minster have been attempting to jump through a
loophole in state law by becoming a charter school — a
move they believe will give the district more state funding
and grants. School officials still are working on the move,
but are facing some roadblocks at the state level.
5. Celina voters reject lakefront revitalization
Voters in Celina narrowly defeated a city council ordinance
that endorsed the Celina Downtown/Lakefront Revitalization Master
The plan, which took $83,000 and months of public meetings to
create, laid out a long-range plan for Celina’s lakefront
and downtown areas. It included uniform facades on downtown
buildings, new residential use in vacant areas, more businesses
near the lake, a reshaped shoreline to add land, a pavilion,
a boardwalk and countless other ideas. In drawings, the plan
showed every idea put in place and the costs.
A group of Celina residents circulated referendum petitions
shorty after Celina City Council passed an ordinance that stated
the city adopted the plan. The referendum put the issue on the
November ballot, and voters rejected supporting the master plan.
Now the plan sits on bookcases and bewildered city officials
have not decided how to react to the defeat. Work on bringing
a boardwalk to West Bank Road began before the vote’s
outcome, using a $250,000 grant from the state’s capital
budget as matching funds in an attempt to attract more than
$600,000 in other grants to fund the project.
Work also has continued on the private development between West
Bank Road and U.S. 127, which now includes condos, rental units
and the new Romer’s Entertainment Facility.
6. Water problems plague Celina
Celina city officials spent 2003 investigating an alternative
drinking water source, after the Ohio Environmental Protection
Agency (EPA) fined the city $10,000 and ordered Celina officials
to find a permanent fix to its water troubles. Those troubles
involve a group of cancerous chemicals named trihalomethanes
(THM). Celina consistently has violated Ohio law regulating
THM levels in finished drinking water during the last decade,
continuing through every quarter this year. THMs are believed
to cause stomach and bladder cancers, and a list of other intestinal
Celina draws its drinking water from Grand Lake St. Marys, to
the tune of 1.5 million gallons per day. The city has spent
more than $100,000 in 2003 investigating an alternative to the
lake source. Water wells have been dug and tested out in a field
north of Celina and thousands of dollars were sunk in tests
on new technology to better treat the lake water. Celina is
on a timeline provided by the EPA to fix the water problem,
and final decisions should be made in 2004.
7. Local pharmacy, bank robbed
Armed robberies — especially those involving pharmacies
and banks — are not common in Mercer County.
However, lightning struck twice in 2003 as a robber demanded
drugs from the Celina CVS Pharmacy on July 11 and a thief fled
with $2,000 in cash from Chickasaw branch of the Osgood State
Bank on Oct. 20.
Steven R. Mayer of Fort Wayne, Ind., brandished a gun at the
Celina pharmacy twice, first in November 2002 and then again
in July 2003, and demanded the drug Oxycontin. Witnesses descriptions
helped police locate the car along U.S. 127, north of Celina,
less than an hour after the second incident. Mayer was found
hiding beneath a blanket in the backseat as his wife, Amber,
Two days prior to his sentencing, Mayer briefly escaped from
the county jail. His short-lived flight to freedom sparked discussion
on replacing the aging facility.
Observant citizens and dedicated detectives were credited with
the arrest of Matthew C. Baker, 36, of Greenville, in connection
with the armed robbery of Osgood State Bank in Chickasaw. Residents
described a pickup truck later linked to Baker, who reportedly
confessed to detectives Pat Elking and Kip Wright during the
investigation. Court proceedings in the bank robbery were continuing
at year’s end.
8. Celina doctor pleads not guilty
Celina physician Dr. Thomas Santanello made front page news
several times in 2003 when his attorneys sought to have the
two indictments against him dismissed.
Santanello, 51, of Southmoor Shores, St. Marys, pleaded not
guilty in September 2002, to 214 felony charges lodged against
him in the two indictments by a Mercer County Grand Jury. The
charges include 210 violations of drug laws and four theft offenses,
including one count of Ohio Bureau of Worker’s Compensation
fraud, one count of theft by deception and two counts of falsification.
Santanello’s attorneys have claimed the four affidavits
that Mercer County Municipal Court Judge James Scheer used to
authorize the April 2001 search warrant of Santanello’s
1107 N. Main Street office are defective. A three-day evidence
hearing was held in November and no ruling has been made yet
on what evidence will be allowed at the trial.
Santanello, 51, is a doctor of osteopathic medicine, specializing
in pain management, sports medicine, neurological and spinal
disorders. He is licensed to practice medicine in Ohio until
2004, but has not practiced since closure of his Celina office
in early 2001.
9. Law enforcement cracks down on drugs in county
A continuing crackdown on illegal drug activity in Mercer County
took drugs valued at more than $175,000 off the streets during
Statistics from the Mercer County Sheriff’s Office and
the Grand Lake Task Force indicate there were 25 arrests on
various drug offenses and a total of 26 firearms were seized
during a number of raids. Methamphetamine, marijuana and cocaine
top the list of common drugs while favored pharmaceuticals include
Oxycontin, Hydrocodone and Ecstasy.
Law enforcement conducted a series of raids; the largest coming
in October with nine indictments handed down by a Mercer County
Authorities found a meth lab on Nov. 6, when deputies visited
a home in the 6700 block of Wabash Road.
On Aug. 22, 62 marijuana plants, valued at $62,000 to $93,000,
were seized during aerial surveillance in Union, Blackcreek
and Dublin townships in northern Mercer County.
Concerned citizens also contacted the sheriff’s office
after seeing suspicious plants in a Union County farm field
and home. Authorities later found marijuana growing there.
10. Local women enter political arena
A year of women in power rounds out our top 10 list.
Mary Pat Zitter became Mercer County’s first female county
judge and Sharon LaRue was elected Celina’s first female
mayor in 2003. Zitter, the Mercer County juvenile/probate judge,
won the office over county prosecuting attorney Andrew Hinders
in a race that also marked the highest campaign spending levels
the county has seen. LaRue, also a Republican, defeated Celina
Mayor Paul Arnold in the primary election and Ron Hammons in
the general election.