HANCOCK COUNTY — As 2016 draws to a close, the Daily Reporter looks back on the most memorable moments of the past year.
1. Murder cases cause money problems
Hancock County saw more murder cases in 2016 than any other year in recent memory.
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Four men faced the accusation this year following three homicide investigations, each of which consumed the attention of local law enforcement and had officials scrambling to find funding to pay for lengthy litigation.
In March, Shawn Hammons, 40, of Pendleton and Damian Coleman, 40, of Indianapolis, were each charged with two counts of murder after Shannon Kitchens, 55, of McCordsville, was found shot dead on a rural county road.
A month later Joseph Baker, 28, of Greenwood was charged with the murder of Duane Begley, 23, of New Palestine, after striking the man with his vehicle.
In October, Spencer Spielman, 20, of Greenfield, became the fourth man charged with murder, reportedly admitting to police he’d strangled 52-year-old Patty Dresser of Greenfield.
The cases led prosecutors and representatives from county’s public defender board to go before the Hancock County Council seeking more funding to cover the cases, all of which are still pending with the court.
2. Parents sent to prison
Judges sent three local parents to prison this year following the deaths of their young children.
The homicide deaths of 1-year-old Zoey Wagoner and 3-month-old Brayden Jenkins shocked residents in 2015, especially as their own parents were charged in the deaths.
Nine months after Zoey Wagoner died of blunt-force trauma injuries, her father, Matthew Wagoner, was found guilty of murder. Wagoner was sentenced to serve 67½ years in an Indiana Department of Corrections facility; he won’t be eligible for parole until 2064 when he is 79, officials said.
Zoey’s mother, Jessica Merriman (formerly Jessica Wagoner; she divorced Matthew Wagoner from jail shortly after their arrest), also was sent to prison for 25 years after admitting she neglected Zoey and her two siblings.
Charles Jenkins, in July, pleaded guilty to neglect causing death, admitting he fatally injured his young son, Brayden, who police say died after being shaken. Jenkins was ordered to serve 20 years in an Indiana Department of Correction facility followed by another decade on probation
Brayden’s mother, Lauren Hontz, was placed on probation after she admitted to neglecting the little boy.
3. Mt. Vernon administrator charged
A Mt. Vernon Middle School principal was accused this year of not reporting rumors a student had been sexually assaulted by a teacher’s aide.
Scott Shipley was charged with a class B misdemeanor of failure to report after a police investigation suggested he waited 17 days to tell police teacher’s aide Kisha Nuckols sent nude photos of herself to a student.
Investigators found Nuckols, in addition to sending lude pictures, had sexual relationship with two students away from school grounds. She has since pleaded guilty to the accusations.
Shipley knew about the accusations weeks before it was reported to police by another school administrator, investigators said. Shipley later told police he was heading out on a two-week spring break and didn’t believe any children were in imminent danger, court documents state. His case is pending.
4. Kohl’s opens after years of delays
Kohl’s finally opened its doors in Greenfield in September – years after initially purchasing a plot of land. Though the department store is 20,000 square feet smaller than officials originally anticipated, its opening led other retailers to Greenfield, giving local shoppers more options than ever before.
A PetSmart opened its doors immediately adjacent the 35,000-square-foot Kohl’s store, in addition to clothing stores Maurice’s and Rue 21 and footwear retailer Shoe Department.
5. Teen driver sent to prison
A judge sent a New Palestine teenage to prison for nearly a decade after he admitted to he was drunk behind the wheel when he struck two bicyclists, killing one.
Timothy Hughes was 17 years old and had a blood-alcohol level of 0.28 percent when he crashed into cousins Carla McCloud and Amanda Wheeler. McCloud died as a result of injuries suffered in the accident; she was 22.
Hughes pleaded guilty in February six felony counts, including reckless homicide. A judge ordered he serve the maximum nine and a half-year prison sentence.
6. Election glitches delay results
Software issues during the primary election in May caused ballots to print with errors.
More than a dozen local races were left in limbo after election workers learned late in the day that entire races were left off voters’ ballots at several polling places. Candidates and their supporters left the Hancock County Courthouse annex on election night not knowing the results of local races; a hand count of the ballots had to be completed before results were finalized late the next day.
7. Fairgrounds plan chugs on
An effort to build a new local fairgrounds pushed forward this year with the Hancock County 4-H Agricultural Association entering into an agreement with county officials to lease county-owned farmland to the association for 50 years.
The agreement between the county and the association hinges on the association’s ability to raise $18 million to build the project by April 1, 2020.
8. Manufacturer fails to meet goals
The Hancock County Council in June revoked a $30 million tax break it had given to lithium battery manufacturing compan, EnerDel.
Six years earlier, the company boasted it would bring 1,000 jobs to the area, but EnerDel CEO Michael Canada told county council members no one is working in the Mt. Comfort area facility after years of setbacks to the company.
Council members agreed ending the tax abatement might encourage the company to find a new tenant for the facility more quickly.
9. Seeing Red
Unstoppable. Chad (C.J) Red was nothing less in his final season, and he proved it in the biggest match of his high school wrestling career early this year.
The New Palestine senior captured his fourth-consecutive state championship at Bankers Life Fieldhouse in February.
The University of Nebraska recruit, ranked first in the nation at 132 pounds in 2015-16, finished his prep career flawless at 183-0, only the third wrestler in state history (joining Cathedral’s Lance Ellis and Griffith’s Alex Tsirtsis) to achieve the feat.
Red’s title secured his place in the record books as the ninth four-time state champ in Indiana and the second to reach the accomplishment in four different weight classes.
10. Band inspires Cougar pride
The Greenfield-Central High School’s Cougar Pride Marching Band earned a second-place finish at the Indiana State School Music Association state finals at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis in October – the best showing the school has ever received.
The band earned ninth place in 2014 and eighth place in 2005.
For more happenings that made local headlines, see our year in review, page AX