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The news staff at The Southern Illinoisan voted on what stood out as the biggest stories of 2014 for Southern Illinois.

1. Pravin Varughese: On the morning of Feb. 18, the body of SIU student Pravin Varughese was found in a wooded area near Buffalo Wild Wings and Kohl’s, in Carbondale.

He had been missing for about five days.

The rest remains a mystery. No charges have been filed in connection with the Morton Grove native’s death.

Lovely Varughese, Pravin’s mother, has since filed wrongful death lawsuits against the City of Carbondale, Gauge Bethune, Jody O’Guinn and Trooper Chris Martin.

Bethune was the driver who reportedly picked up Varughese along Illinois 13 on the night of Feb. 12. The two allegedly got into a fight, and Varguhese reportedly ran into the woods.

O’Guinn is the former chief of police, and Martin is the state trooper who made the roadside check of Bethune’s vehicle on the night of the incident.

2. Bost Goes to Washington: Coming in January, one of Southern Illinois’ own will be sworn in to the U.S. House of Representatives.

In the November election, Mike Bost, R-Murphysboro, defeated incumbent Democrat Bill Enyart and Green Party candidate Paula Bradshaw for the seat.

Bost, Enyart and Bradshaw traded jabs in advertisements most of the year, raising the profile of the race throughout the state.

“It is my hope that it is a clear message from the 12th District of the state of Illinois from Alton to Cairo and Cairo back up to Mount Vernon that we need change in the station,” Bost said in November.

In the gubernatorial race, Bruce Rauner won over incumbent Pat Quinn. The Winnetka businessman will take over in January.

In Southern Illinois, Terri Bryant will take over Bost’s state seat after her win over Bill Kilquist, while Judge Lloyd Karmeier narrowly retained his seat in a controversial vote.

3. James Watts: On the evening of May 15, two women were fatally stabbed and a third was critically wounded in a botched robbery attempt at the First National Bank in Cairo.

James Watts, 30, of Cairo, pleaded not guilty to charges of attempted armed bank robbery resulting in death and one count of being a felon in possession of a firearm. A trial date has been set for Jan. 12.

Killed in the attack were Anita J. Grace, 52, of Olive Branch, and Nita J. Smith, 52, of Wickliffe, Kentucky.

"I think if you wanted a better soul, you'd have to go a long way to find a better soul than those two people," Cairo resident Joe Griggs told The Southern Illinoisan in May.

Watts could face the death penalty if convicted on the count of attempted armed bank robbery resulting in death. Prosecutors said a decision on whether to seek the death penalty would come only after a comprehensive review and could not give an estimated date for the decision.

4. Changes at SIU: 2014 was a year of major change at SIU.

In February, Randy Dunn was chosen to take over as President for Glenn Poshard, who retired in May.

Then, in June, Chancellor Rita Cheng left for a post at Northern Arizona University.

A couple of weeks later, Paul Sarvela, a 28-year veteran of the university, took the reins as interim chancellor.

Sarvela’s run would be short — he died in November, less than a month after informing colleagues he had a rare, but treatable form of cancer.

“Everybody’s impacted by this loss on our campus,” Student Trustee Adrian Miller told The Southern in November. “That speaks to his role as interim chancellor. It was just a few months, but just a tremendous impact on this campus.”

SIU will have a search for a new chancellor, but for the time being, Dunn has assumed the chancellor role.

Lastly, Athletic Director Mario Moccia announced late in November he was leaving for the same post at New Mexico State.

Harold Bardo will serve as interim athletic director until a successor is named.

5. Carbondale Police issues: On the surface, it was a rough year for the Carbondale Police Department.

It came to a head when City Manager Kevin Baity dismissed Police Chief Jody O’Guinn in August. O’Guinn had been the police chief since June 2009.

Baity said it was not related to past history or ongoing litigation. That past history includes the Pravin Varughese case, the Molly Young case and the case of his stolen pistol.

Jeff Grubbs was named interim chief.

There’s also been an air of distrust hovering around the department for some time.

“The only time I feel like I see the police is when something bad happens,” Jacoby Wallace, 26, of Carbondale, told The Southern in July. “It might be easier to get along with the police if it didn’t seem like they were always suspicious of you.”

6. Fracking: Hydraulic fracturing, a process of removing oil and natural gas from shale, also known as fracking, was in the news all year in Southern Illinois.

The Illinois house and senate passed a bill that was touted by legislators and industry spokespersons as the toughest set of regulations in the nation. The bill was signed into law by Gov. Pat Quinn.

However, before actual fracking could begin, the public had the opportunity to comment on the regulations. The Illinois Department of Natural Resources was inundated by 30,000 comments, resulting in a review period that lasted months.

The IDNR released the revised rules in November and the revisions were subsequently approved by a joint committee of representatives and senators.

Environmentalists are still filing court documents to stop the process.

In the meantime, the state is accepting applications for prospective drillers.

7. Sentencings: This year saw some heavy punishments doled out for convictions.

• Derrick Twardoski, 34, was sentenced to 53 years in prison for the May 2013 Percy house fire that killed four children.

He pleaded guilty in August 2013 to one count of first-degree murder related to the fire, which took the lives of Ethan, 12, Kailey, 9, and 5-year-old-twins Brandan and Landon Owen.

• Cindy Stearns, 55, was sentenced to 75 years in prison for the murder of her father, Charles R. James.

She was convicted of two counts of first-degree murder and aggravated assault with a firearm for plotting to kill her father.

• Darrell Delong, 49, was sentenced to 20 years for a Hamilton County crash that killed five of his family members.

• Donald Lee, 40, was sentenced to 105 years in prison for the May 2013 shooting death of Brittany Andrews of Bonnie.

Lee was convicted March 20 on two counts of first-degree murder in the death of Andrews, his on-again, off-again girlfriend.

• Dakota Wall was sentenced to 26 years in prison for her role in the death of her 15-year-old half-sister, Sidnee Stephens.

• Kely Arbuckle, 26, was sentenced to 100 years for the murder of Toren Stanley.

Arbuckle was convicted in March 2013 for the incident near East Grand Avenue and South Giant City Road, in Carbondale.

• Christopher Rollins, 30, was sentenced to 30 years in prison for throwing a flammable liquid on his girlfriend and lighting it in August 2012.

8. A-J bullying: Three Anna-Jonesboro students were expelled in November for their role in a Sept. 19 bullying incident at Anna-Jonesboro Community High School.

During the incident, a sophomore student on the football team was held down, tied up, carried to locker room showers and doused with water by his teammates, according to a cell phone video taken of the event and parents of students involved.

An independent investigation, undertaken by the school board and headed by retired Judge James Radcliffe of St. Clair County, concluded neither Principal Brett Detering nor Superintendent Rob Wright violated “any laws, regulations or policies” in their handling of the situation.

“This has been a difficult and challenging time for our school and community,” John Housman, president of A-J district 81’s board, told The Southern in November. “There were a lot of allegations leveled at our administrators for the way in which they handled the student athlete misconduct and we wanted to address those allegations.”

The report, nearly two pages in length, outlines definitions of bullying and cyber-bullying, while calling on Wright or a designee to “develop and maintain a bullying prevention and response plan that advances the District’s goal of providing all students with a safe learning environment free of bullying and harassment,” according to the policy.

9. Ken Gray: Southern Illinois lost one of its most colorful characters July 12 with the death of retired U.S. Congressman Ken Gray.

Gray, 89, earned the title “Prince of Pork” for his aptitude for pork barrel politics — appropriating federal money for projects and programs that benefited the constituents in his district.

During his 24 years in Congress, Gray delivered $7 billion for regional projects like Interstates 57, 24 and 64, which prompted millions of dollars of development in the region; a canalization project for the Kaskaskia River that opened up the region for barge traffic, and the creation of the man-made Rend Lake, which provides drinking water for dozens of communities and is one of the region's top tourist destinations.

In 1954, at age 30, he became one of the youngest members ever elected to Congress. His questionable fashion choices, including brocade and shocking pink jackets, were a conscious choice made after he arrived in Washington, he said.

Gray’s time in office saw him mingle and maneuver with names from the golden era of U.S. politics, names such as Kennedy, Nixon, Reagan, Wright and Rayburn.

“He knew that Southern Illinois needed help and he knew that he had to have the right kind of stuff in Washington, D.C., to get it here, and he did it,” Glenn Poshard told The Southern. “I loved Kenny.”

10. Carbondale panhandling: The nuisance that is panhandlers in Carbondale came to a head this past year.

Those who solicit money in Carbondale have been encouraged by city leaders to get out of town.

These panhandlers, long considered a nuisance by some area business owners and patrons, have been the focus of what appears to be a city crackdown in recent months aimed at cleaning up the city’s front door.

Meanwhile, the Carbondale Chamber of Commerce is urging City Council members to take action on what it calls a “growing and ongoing problem” with panhandlers in the city’s retail areas, particularly on the town’s east side.

Losing one of our own. We'd be remiss if we didn't mention the passing of our own Becky Malkovich this year.

Becky died in September at age 53. Becky was our colleague. Becky was our friend. She was a friend to a lot of people. We all think of her and miss her every day.

tom.english@thesouthern.com

618-351-5070 / On Twitter: @tfenglish23

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Executive editor

Tom English is the executive editor of The Southern.

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