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Top 10 News Stories of 2005 

10. The Gas Storm

Hurricanes Katrina and Rita hit the Gulf Coast and Texas the hardest, but the repercussions were felt worldwide, as gas prices everywhere reached for the sky. Motorists clutched their left arms as prices crested $3 a gallon in Spokane (they were slightly less in Idaho, as usual). The media aired reports of vandals siphoning gas from cars waiting at the pumps. And for a few brief, beautiful moments, motorists muttered something about ditching their Blazers for Vespas.

Of course, then the prices fell back down, reaching around $2.19 per gallon in Spokane by year's end, and with them fell many of those utopian alternative transit dreams. But hope is not lost. Earlier this month, Gov. Christine Gregoire proposed that the state start pouring money into the production of biodiesel, a gas alternative made from vegetable oil. If the idea catches on, it could be good news for Eastern Washington farmers, who would most likely raise the necessary crops.

Also worth noting: In April, Washington became the eighth state to adopt California's tighter emission standards (but, thank God, not their erratic driving and sexual promiscuity). (JS)

9. The Wrecking Ball

Unquestionably, downtown Spokane is more alive than it was 15 years ago. The shops, theaters and restaurants in River Park Square are filled with people. The convention center expansion is nearly complete, the Davenport has been revitalized, Marshall Chesrown's riverfront development plans have everyone talking. First Friday art gallery tours have become vibrant social and mating occasions. Street parking vanishes after dark as people wander from Mootsy's to the Blue Spark to the Big Easy.

With all the bustle, it's possible to overlook the empty commercial spaces above street level, easy to forget the Merton Building is still a hole in the ground a year after it was demolished and that its neighbors - the Rookery and Mohawk - are facing the same fate. Historic preservation advocates, politicians and some business leaders are working feverishly to preserve the downtown skyline. City ordinances have been changed to make it harder to demolish buildings with historic significance and simply pave over the remains. Like gaps in a meth addict's smile, some "temporary" surface parking lots have created holes downtown for 20 or 30 years.

So downtown is alive, but no one's put the cardiac paddles away just yet. (KT)

8. Murder in North Idaho

One FBI agent called it "the lightning strike." With the suddenness of a devil's lightning bolt, a Coeur d'Alene family was nearly extinguished by a hammer-wielding man who had staked out their cinderblock house with night vision goggles and car surveillance, before attacking late on May 14 or early May 15. By the time police were called to the house May 16, three bound people had been bludgeoned to death with repeated, vicious blows to the head.

But even more disturbing than the fate of the people in the blood-soaked house was the fate of two who were not found: 8-year-old Shasta Groene and her brother Dylan, 9. A massive police and media hunt began, but for weeks there was nothing. Nothing, until Joseph Edward Duncan III, a Level III sex offender, slumped into a booth with Shasta Groene at the Denny's in Coeur d'Alene and calmly waited to be arrested.

Shasta has been reunited with her father. Dylan's charred remains were found two days later in Montana.

Duncan has been held in isolation in the Kootenai County Jail since his arrest. He is charged with three counts of murder, with more charges of kidnap and rape still pending. He's also been tied to the murder of a 10-year-old boy in Riverside, Calif. He goes on trial for his life in April. (KT)

7. Through the Roof

It was bound to happen eventually, but 2005 was the year that the Inland Northwest finally felt the housing boom that's been rolling across many parts of the country in recent years. Home prices jumped this year like they haven't in over 15 years, rising by as much as 15 percent on small residential units in Spokane County.

But the boom has hit hardest in North Idaho, where a steady influx of new people has been the key ingredient, according to John Beutler, who was the top Century 21 agent in the world in 2003. "This year, our office did about 2,900 transactions -- our best year ever," gloats Beutler. "You don't get those numbers if people aren't coming into this area." He says 40 percent of these immigrants are retirees, many of whom pay cash for their new homes and claim it's the mythical "quality of life" that drew them here. They love the natural beauty. "Lake property went nuts last year," says Beutler. "The $300,000 lake cabin is almost non-existent anymore."

Few real estate watchers expect this pace to continue, but few also foresee prices dropping much in 2006. "I think ... you're still gonna see another good year," enthuses Beutler. (TM)

6. The Vote-Happy Masses

We love the smell of democracy in the morning. Especially when it's as slow and bitter as it was in 2005. Spokane's year ended with a special election after seven months of petitioning and legal wrangling (see #2). The same day mail-in recall ballots came in, county commissioners voted to switch to all-mail elections for good. County voters had visited the polls for the last time, then, a month before, when they outlawed smoking in public places and narrowly defeated the repeal of a new gas tax. Of the latter, many voters told us they were willing to pony up tax money for the good of the state. Yet the same told us they voted yes on I-901 because they hated smelling like ashtrays after a night out - others' rights be damned.

Even as they stood at the polls in November, though, voters told The Inlander they still had another election on their minds. For almost half the year, Washingtonians weren't sure who their governor really was. The previous year's bungled gubernatorial election, which wasn't resolved until this May, left many voters with lingering questions and, some suggested, a shaken faith in democracy.

But it sure makes good news. (JS)

5. Something in the Water

Area residents may never have been more aware of the Spokane River and the Rathdrum Prairie aquifer than they were in 2005.

After a supposedly state-of-the-art facility in Hauser was found leaking fuel-tinged wastewater into the aquifer last December, it raised the ire of locals (who fought to keep the station off the aquifer in the first place) and one Idaho district court judge, who shut it down in February. (It reopened in May after the rail company promised it had fixed the problems.) Meanwhile, scientists from Washington and Idaho continued to measure the aquifer's every nook and cranny, and a passel of enviros and river dischargers worked all year on a plan to eliminate phosphorus in the river. The plan, which includes a proposal to ban phosphate-rich dish soaps, appeared to get the green light from Ecology a few weeks ago. At the same time, pols in Idaho are talking about an aquifer protection district.

The loudest voice in this year's debates, though, may have also been the quietest. Barely a gurgle even in April, the Spokane River reached perilously low flows over the summer, igniting fears of exponential pollution and finite water supplies. (JS)

4. Budget Crisis, Part II

Did anyone else get the feeling of being in one of those time-travel movies when the Spokane city budget was discussed last fall? You know how it is: You're some brilliant mathematician in horn-rimmed glasses (and tousled hair, to show you really are rebel-cool underneath your lab coat) and you're doing your cool movie smart-guy thing when a random sentence stops you cold: "And again we are facing a $6.2-million shortfall in the general fund ..."

You've heard this before, haven't you? Suddenly your brain wave patterns (which are being secretly monitored by an evil cabal) spike off the charts. Alarms and klaxons begin to pop off all over the lab. "Warning. Warning," a female robotic voice says, "Unregulated mental activity in sector Spokane ..." You run, you know you have to run, to tell people that city salaries and expenses are outpacing tax revenues 4.5 percent to 2.5 percent. "We keep taking short-term fixes," you scream. Quickly! Run, or we are doomed to repeat this mistake year after year.

Did anyone else get the feeling of being in one of those time-travel movies when the Spokane city budget was discussed last fall? (KT)

3. Moral Bankruptcy

Kids knew something was wrong. Then mothers knew. But the fact that it's taken decades for the Catholic Church to acknowledge children in its care were molested or raped by its own clergy is an astonishing error in the larger sex abuse scandal.

Spokane is on the sad, leading edge of the national issue: Last December, it became the third diocese in the country to seek bankruptcy protection from people seeking reparation -- though not before its bishop, William Skylstad, became the leader of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

Battling in court in 2005, the diocese insisted bankruptcy was needed to clarify the number of people with valid claims of sexual abuse as well as what assets are available for settlements. They contend church law shows individual parishes and schools are not properties a central diocese can liquidate, thus limiting assets. But in August, Spokane federal bankruptcy court judge Patricia Williams made a landmark ruling that the diocese does own its parishes - and that civil law applies to property ownership with no violation of the First Amendment. The ruling has been appealed, but the bankruptcy continues. Parish properties have been recently appraised and a settlement fund far larger than the diocese first offered appears to be on the table.

Whether this is enough to satisfy past injustice remains to be seen. (KT)

2. The Mayor Who Wouldn't Quit

What else can we say about the scandal that embroiled the city of Spokane and now-former mayor Jim West? It was the media's pi & ntilde;ata for seven months this year, since the Spokesman-Review's May 5 publication of a package of stories accusing the mayor of everything from indecent proposals to serious sexual abuse. Though the newspaper's methodologies took some hits for the unorthodox methodology of its investigation, and while it never quite delivered the one-two knockout many expected after those first stories, its accusations were enough to spur Spokanites to pry West from office on Dec. 16.

It wasn't the chat transcripts or the council battles or the hired investigators that stuck in our minds the most, though. It was the light that the allegations cast on the inner workings of Jim West. The "anti-gay, gay mayor," in Al Franken's words. The self-righteous senator who never backed down from a fight, but who found God when cancer found him. The romantic, who proposed publicly from the senate floor, but who's spent much of his life alone. The stodgy, lonely, white, middle-aged, conservative Christian politician who logged on for some dirty talk and found himself chatting up the last person he wanted to chat with. Oh, the humanity. (JS)

1. Shannon Sullivan

Maybe you're a dyed-in-the-wool Republican. Maybe you think Jim West was the best mayor Spokane ever had. Or you've hated his guts since you heard the allegations of sexual abuse, but you hesitated before checking "yes" on the mayoral recall ballot because he has done a good job fixing the streets.

Politics aside, the media aside - construction and name-calling and the future of the city aside - you've gotta admit that what Shannon Sullivan did was pretty damn impressive.

On May 9, the long-time Spokanite and former small-business owner, who had virtually no legal or political experience, dropped her kid off at school, then popped by the county auditor's office, expecting simply to add her name to a long list of people who wanted Jim West recalled from office for abusing the mayor's office. Told there was no list, she figured she'd start one.

Within days, the media attacked, digging into her past and peppering her with questions. On May 16, she was fired from her position at a local flower shop, with the owners fearing bad publicity.

Sullivan's recall petition was dismissed on a technicality, the product of not having a clue what she was doing. She re-filed on May 18. It was then, she says now, that she realized that the weight of an unprecedented mayoral recall would have to rest on her shoulders alone. She started visiting Gonzaga's law library.

"I was too stubborn to ever be scared," she says. "Every time I felt like giving up, [West] pulled some crap that made me want to keep it up."

On June 13, she took the fight to Superior Court, squaring off against West's top-flight lawyers, including the then-president of the Spokane Bar Association. She stuttered, she scrambled, but she won. Visiting judge Craig Matheson agreed with the legal novice, shooting down two of her allegations but allowing a third - that West improperly used his office to "solicit internships to young men for his own personal uses."

It was at this Superior Court date that Sullivan met attorney Jerry Davis. Sullivan says she felt an immediate connection with him and that over the next few weeks she repeatedly hit him up for legal help. Six weeks later, she and Davis argued what was now their case before eight members of the Supreme Court in Olympia. Within hours, the court ruled that their charges were "factually and legally sufficient."

Davis, Sullivan and her son Dylan spent the next 30 days living in an RV parked on a lot on North Division, gathering the 12,000 signatures necessary to put the recall petition on the ballot. When The Inlander dropped by in late August, she'd been on her feet so long they were bleeding. She had $22 in her pocket. Her cell phone had been shut off. Davis was faring no better. With the recall fight raging, he had precious little time to handle any other cases. He'd already donated tens of thousands of dollars in free legal aid. Sullivan was on the verge of quitting.

A few weeks later she did, after she and Davis delivered 17,121 signatures to the county auditor's office in a laundry basket.

Davis says that Sullivan had a skewed view of the law, having won every court case she ever faced. But he hired her to be his legal secretary anyway.

The two opened a new office above the Rocket Bakery on First Avenue at the beginning of November. Their desks sit across the small, high-ceilinged, windowless room from each other. On the wall are clippings from the Spokesman-Review's coverage of the recall, from the Advocate. There's an old-timey Western portrait of the two of them and young Dylan behind Sullivan's desk.

Davis, a former Marine and graduate of the Thomas Jefferson School of Law in San Diego, spent two years working on a product liability case in Minnesota before moving to Spokane in 2002 and opening a firm with lawyer Brant Stevens. He focuses on criminal defense and the same-sex civil area -- gay marriage, adoption, etc.

That might sound like an odd combination. A young, inexperienced, openly gay lawyer in a new, conservative city, paired with an upstart legal novice, whose entire career thus far has been lit up by controversy. And yet something seems to be working. Sullivan says that in-bound calls were few before the Dec. 6 recall, but - she counts - they've gotten 17 new cases in the three weeks since then. The phone's ringing off the hook. Davis just won a case in Everett. Sullivan holds the office together, files briefs, does a lot of the legal footwork. Now the "unemployed, uneducated single mother from the North Side" can talk case law until she turns blue.

Say what you will about Goliath. Maybe he was a good guy. Maybe he fixed the streets of Gath. Maybe you belong to the Philistine party. But you gotta admit that shepherd kid sure could sling a rock.

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